Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 5. 1967.
"Morgan" — wild and wonderful
"Morgan" — wild and wonderful
Karel Reisz, the director of the new British film, Morgan, is a member of a group of (comparatively) young film-makers who, over the last 10 years, have been making feature films with a committed political and sociological viewpoint. The names of Reisz, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson are associated with this group, and Jack Clayton the ball rolling to some extent with Room At The Top. These directors have drawn much of their material from contemporary British theatre and literature, from the work of Osborne, Sillitoe, Braine, Mankowitz and others.
Anderson and Reisz had earlier launched the British documentary movement known as "free cinema," and were later joined in this venture by Richardson and the director of photography. Walter Lassally (Electra, Zorba The Greek, Tom Jones, etc.). The aims of the group, as set out in its manifesto of 1956, were to make films "which share an attitude: a belief in freedom, in the importance of the individual, and in the significance of the everyday." Very commendable. I'm sure. The "everyday" is undoubtedly often significant, but is it always interesting? The group apparently thought so, and the result of its activities was a series of short documentaries (short, although some of them seem to drag on for an eternity), which might be covered by the general title "life among the proles." If there's one thing the proletariat needs protection from, it's do-gooders like Anderson and company, who think they are doing the workers a favour by depicting them in their natural habitat These films, which look rather like biological studies of ant colonies, merely reveal the condescending "liberalism" of their makers.
Some may have seen the two free cinema shorts screened here last year by the Vic film society: Momma Don't Allow and We Are The Lambeth Boys. I found these films excrutiatingly boring, and I suspect that the ennui may have been general. Not even Richardson's arty shots of London statuary could disguise the shoddy way in which the films were put together. Compared with other documentaries I have seen (e.g., Pare Lorentz's The Riven), these seemed to have nothing whatsoever to recommend them. I must admit prejudice, in that the general neo-realistic attitude towards the cinema gives me a pain. It is obvious that most people go to the movies to escape from the kind of existence that is so avidly depicted by these films. This may be deprecated as "escapism," but I find an artist's imagination run riot on the screen more exciting than candid camera views of reality, especially when the reality belongs to someone else, and a not very interesting someone at that.
Tony Richardson has been more consistently lauded than the others in this group, a fact which I find somewhat surprising. His method is to obtain promising material (A Taste Of Honey. The Entertainer) and then wreck it by heavy-handed direction and the spelling out of the obvious. The results have been picturesquely described by Pauline Kael as "a high-school girl's idea of cinema art." In The Loneliness Of The Longdistance Runner the nihilistic thief of Sillitoe's book has been turned into a darling of the liberals, a young hero 'whom I thoroughly disliked) who looks as if at any moment he is about to drop his tools and join the Junior Socialists. Richardson's commitment strangled the film at birth. In The Loved One, his most recent film to be shown here, Richardson's touch is more assured, but the treatment of the subject Is so sick that the film gives up all pretence and simply lapses into the blatant voyeurism of Anderson's O Dreamland and Joseph Strick's The Savage Eye.
The point is that while critical attention has been focussed on the offerings of this group, other directors have suffered. Thus, while Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life was being hailed as an extraordinary achievement, films like The Man With The Green Carnation (Ken Hughes). Nothing But The Best (Clive Donner), and The L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes) were quietly doing the rounds. Yet all these films are better in one way or another than This Sporting Life, surely the most abysmal film to come from the free cinema circle. Anderson takes all the familiar ingredients the bruised, loutish (but sensitive hero, a few displays of tormented anguish, bits and pieces of passion and protest, and the customary specious pleading for the proletariat. He fragments the whole (flashbacks, etc) into a formless structure to give the impression that something significant is going on, adds a dash of spotty symbolism and serves up—a mess.
"Morgan" the best
Shortly after Anderson's film was screened here, I saw Schlesinger's bittersweet fantasy, Billy Liar, The free cinema group and its fringe members were not entirely beyond redemption after all. Now we have Morgan which. I am pleased to say, is the best film yet made by one of these directors, and easily the most interesting film to have come from Britain in the last year. On reflection, this last status is not as impressive as it looks, but this does not detract from Reisz'a considerable achievement Morgan is everything that the dregs of the kitchen-sink dramas are not—witty, sad, fast-moving and possessed of a wild and wonderful anarchic spirit
Not mentally ill
A reviewer in The Listener describes Reisz as directing in the "Lester idiom." I was not aware of such an "idiom," and, in any case, I think the comparison is somewhat unfair to Reisz. Morgan is not nearly as frantic as The Knack, nor is it as desperate in its search for effects. The reviewer goes on to assert that the film left him with a "taste of bitterness," presumably because "mental illness" is not a fit subject for comedy, But is this what the film is about? Is Morgan mentally ill? Is this a comedy with tragic overtones, or is it a horrendous tragedy embroidered with farce? Any "interpretation" of the film (and also whether one is moved ultimately to tears or laughter) will depend on a number of personal factors, including whatever mood one happens to be in at the time. I would suggest tentatively, as my own opinion, that Morgan is not mentally ill (in the Szaszian sense), that he merely opts out of an intolerable situation by becoming more and more part of his fantasies until a state of comfortable accommodation is reached. One might almost say that Morgan has the last laugh—but perhaps not. Leonie's final revelations concerning her pregnancy, and Morgan's placid acceptance of them, are horribly cutting. This is all very vague. I am usually wary of the Rorschach approach to a film, but in the case of Morgan the conclusions as to what it is really all about mast be left to the individual viewer. It would be presumptuous to be more objective.
One can, however, be objective about some things. Reisz has put the film together beautifully, producing along the way some memorable images. I liked especially the shot of Morgan in a smoking gorilla suit, speeding away in the distance on the motorcycle, and the bit where the enraged suitor drags away the door of Morgan's control-room to be met by an implacable stare and an unwavering flick-knife. There are many such delicious moments throughout the film. The character of Morgan is one of the most attractive (and sometimes pathetic) in British films—a shambling, ungainly figure, doing incredibly zany things (including a reconstruction of Trotsky's assassination, and a constant look-out for Stalinist henchmen) and mouthing little political speeches, all the more convincing because they are so platitudinous, David Warner plays Morgan to perfection, Indeed, it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the part. There is nothing fantastic about Vanessa Redgrave, despite all the acclaim. She is simply competent in doing what is expected of her.
The fantasy sequences enable us to see, among other things, excerpts from the classic King Kong. These are quite tremendous, although most film buffs were probably hoping to see the famous shot of the monster straddling the skyscraper. These pieces of nostalgia, together with excerpts from one (or more) of the Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O'Sullivan movies, combine well with Morgan's own simian assumptions. But this is only part of the story. Morgan is constructed with such style and verve that for the first time from Britain we have a film which approaches anywhere near Truffaut's Jules Et Jim or some of the American black comedies like The Manchurian Candidate. These films are all less rarefied, less abstract, les concerned with metaphysical and social problems than some more highly praised articles, but they make a greater contribution to the cinema and our appreciation of life. They are better films, and I wish there were more of them.