Friday, May 8, 2009

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: A Turning Point for British Cinema

The British New Wave of the late 50’s and early 60’s was short-lived, but its impact on the direction of British Cinema and cinema today is doubtless. Karel Reisz’s 1960 film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, marked a change in kind of film being produced in Britain. Its style and themes deviated greatly from British post-war film and they shook up the scene. Countless scenes of people simply talking, talking to each other instead of a camera, in places where people actually talked instead of a back lot, made it all seem real. The lives and conditions of the working class were on display and an openness about sexuality and sexual relationships was being developed. The film also thoroughly examines the trap of the commoner; to become the man his father was before him. This was a bleak assessment, but it put it out there for everyone to see and to acknowledge the fact that it was indeed bleak. The film’s impact reflects Albert Finney’s sentiments from within it, “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not”. To the angry young men, life in Britain and life on film where something completely different from what people said they were. A cultural change had been slowly crawling across Britain for a decade. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning brings this fact into national awareness and in the process it enhances as well as intensifies the change for film and for Britain.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning concerns the story of one Arthur Seaton. Arthur is a brash youth who spends his days in a factory and his nights in the pub. He sneaks around with the wife of a fellow worker, gets falling-down drunk and shoots pellets at the backside of a nosy neighbor. All the silly laws of society are simply for blokes like him to break. His married girlfriend gets pregnant and just in time for him to find new love interest. He feigns sincerity with her and makes halfhearted attempts at providing her with an abortion. A serious beating awaits Arthur for his lecherous misdeeds, but he merely shrugs it off. Even while lying in bed convalescing, he’s still smug. When he recovers, things pick up between him and his new girlfriend, Doreen. The idea of marriage eventually comes up and surprisingly Arthur is resigned to it. He still has fight in him though, or so he claims. He may end up like his parents, but at least he has a bad attitude about it. In the end, he’s throwing stones at a line of houses when Doreen remarks, “Maybe one of those houses will be for us…you shouldn’t throw things like that.” To which Arthur replies, “It won’t be the last one I throw.” The film received an X Certificate rating by the British Board of Censors (meaning that it was suitable for those aged 16 or over) for its depictions of sex, alcohol consumption, bad language, and violence (Marwick 149).
To contemporary audiences, this film might not seem all that explicit. A film like this might not even carry an R rating in the U.S. today. However, to understand the severity of the films impact, one must understand what was being produced in Britain prior to its release. In his article about the cultural revolution in Britain, Arthur Marwick describes the British Film Industry as being “…never far from terminal crisis” (128). Most of the films coming out of Britain in the mid-fifties were B-quality crime dramas and intended comedies. English literary adaptations and war films were also popular in this period. The overflow of these genres of film post-WWII was to be expected. They all either took audiences’ minds off the seriousness of the period or injected more national pride in either their war efforts or literary accomplishments. Also, television had actually surpassed film as the most popular entertainment medium of the era.
What was seriously lacking in this time were films that had any relevance to the social changes occurring in Britain. In the last years of the decade, writers known as Angry Young Men published plays and books illustrating the contemporary social climate. The rights to these works were quickly snatched up by companies made eager by their success. The rights to Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were purchased by Woodfall Films, a company started primarily with the purpose of allowing angry voices of the working class to express themselves. The ability of the working class to tell their stories had increased in this period due to an increase in their wages. Factory pay in the mid-fifties nearly doubled. This new, expendable income gave independent filmmakers of these areas the proper funding to make themselves known. Woodfall films selected one such individual to helm the adaptation of Sillitoe’s novel, Karel Reisz (Marwick 127-129, 141). Reisz had garnered a great deal of respect for his documentaries We Are the Lambeth Boys and Momma Don’t Allow. “They were best remembered for their handling of England’s lower-class moods and faces…” (Sutherland 58). He brought his abilities and documentary style to the production of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, creating something yet unseen in British Cinema and changing it forever.
A great deal of praise for the film came from it’s use of dialogue. Instead of having the actors speak to the camera and creating the illusion of conversation through editing, they are shown speaking to each other. This is an example of Reisz’s documentary style filmmaking coming into play. People talk to each other in real life, they don’t pretend to. Arthur and Brenda lay in Brenda’s husband’s bed talking about sex and their relationship, without any shame or mollification. Depictions of their affair and the dialogue concerning it are not restrained, they are done as if a camera wasn’t even present. The focus is reality.
There isn’t a whole lot to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning except the people. There’s nothing distracting us from the focus of the reality. It’s about a man and the people who cohabitate Nottingham, working in factories, having children, and growing old. This black and white feature includes a great deal of existing places, as a great deal of it was filmed on location in Nottingham (wikipedia). People could watch this film and say, “hey, I live ‘round the corner from that factory…or that pub!” They could also say, “Hey, I’m a person too! And I reside in Nottingham!” The film reflected a part of working class England.
The character of Arthur Seaton reflects the youth of the area. We get an in depth look into the mind and issues of the laborer with inner monologues in which Arthur sums up his feeling on the conditions around him. Such mottos as “Don’t let the Bastards grind you down” and “I’m out for a good time, all the rest is propaganda” spew forth from the angry voice inside his head. He seems to think that he’s not a part of this society, he believes that there’s a lot more to life than what his parents got.
These sentiments resonated with the youth of the times as well as the old. All old men were young men once with the foolish minds of young men, but such brash talk is futile. Arthur gets caught up in the trap of the working class just as almost everyone does. He isn’t even done in by any particular event. His wild ways aren’t curtailed by the fact that he got a married woman pregnant. He laughs the whole situation off as it’s not his problem. A cliché could have formed from the beating he took courtesy of the betrayed husband. Surely, this would set Arthur straight. Not so, Arthur is accepting the beating he took as one in a future of potential beatings. As soon as he can stand, he’s up and boozing at the pub. He spends a bit more time with his girl Doreen and he’s open, but not overly enthusiastic to the idea of marriage. His demeanor seems to say, “why not?” In the end, there are some rumblings from Arthur about throwing more stones in the future as if he wasn’t giving in to a life not unlike his parents’. Just because he’s going down grudgingly doesn’t mean he’s not going down.
Pauline Kael posed a question of the films ending after its release, “…what kind of future can the hero have when the movie is over but to fall into the stinking stupor of his parents, get drunk, quarrel with his wife, and resign himself to bringing up little working-class brats?” (11). I agree with Ms. Kael in that this is a fairly bleak ending for Arthur Seaton. However, this is a step forward in the fact that film is acknowledging this pessimistic trend of the working class. Kael points out again the sorry state of our hero in with the observation that which Arthur has no real economic or intellectual push to escape his environment (12). To me, this adds to the final moral of the story: you can gripe, fight and sneer all you like, but that’s not going to alter your destiny. If you belonged to the working class of the 50’s and 60’s, you had to make some attempt at elevating yourself, or be stuck where you are. Karel Reisz worked his way out of it to the point where he was able to make a film about it, Arthur Seaton just worked.
The brand of social realism apparent in this film would go on to create the British New Wave. A characteristic of these films was the X certificate rating they earned. Such certificates were rare in the 50’s. No film was worthy of one in the first years of the decade and only 3 pushed the limit in ’56, but by 1961, 16 films contained material characteristic of the wave. Never before had such explicit material, all reflecting the truths about the changing society, been a part of British Cinema. Previously, overt sexuality and violence were only staples of international (primarily French) cinema. This break from conservative storytelling sparked a whole decade of films that gave priority to realism instead of simple substance (Billy Liar (1963), The Knack (1965), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)), initiating change in British Society along the way (Marwick 127, 148-149).

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