Monday, April 30, 2012

One Hand is Tied To the Tight-Rope Walker, the Other is in His Pants

I confess that I am, or was until yesterday, completely free of any experience when it comes to the once cultishly popular genre of "sociological" exploitation documentary. I've never seen any of the Mondo films, or anything else that would fall under that general umbrella. I have my reasons, which needn't be explored here, but I did just test the waters very slightly by hosting for myself a double feature of two such films by British director Arnold L. Miller: London in the Raw and Primitive London. This double feature was made possible by the fact that both movies have just been released on one disc by Kino Lorber, through their Jezebel line. Filmed, respectively, in 1964 and 1965, London in the Raw and Primitive London could easily be mistaken for the same movie, and watching them back to back as I did has made me vaguely uncertain about which is which. But I do know that London in the Raw is the one where the narrator of both films (David Gell) makes fun of people, and Primitive London is the one that opens with a graphic depiction of the hideous miracle of childbirth.

Both films are quite strange, or are probably very much on track with other films of this type, but were quite strange to me. In London in the Raw, as I've said, Miller, who wrote both films, takes a mocking tone towards his subjects, at least for a while. The idea seems to be that London, you see, is changing, and not for the better. It opens in a nightclub where a singer performs a satirical number about Britain's drift towards Liberalism, and I assumed, and in fact had probably assumed even before I started watching, that if anyone was going to be sent up in these films, both of which are blatant and unashamed about staging certain events, it would be the Squares, because those guys are such squares. But not so. A nostalgia-themed London restaurant, which as far as I know never even existed, is depicted as the hangout for young folks who don't really know or care what the restaurant is being nostalgiac about, and also, what do they know of love? Real love, I mean. Similarly, a bunch of Beatniks are shown lazing about in an apartment, sketching one of their female friends, who is nude, and then later wind down from their creative efforts by eating cat food. I will own up to not having a great deal of love for Beatniks, at least as a general group -- I suppose one or two of them might have been okay -- but did they really prefer to eat cat food over (I'm assuming this was the point) getting jobs that might enable them to afford, say, bread? I know Max ate dog food in The Road Warrior, but he was living in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, where the only thing cheaper than dog food is one's dignity. In any case, my Google search for "beatniks cat food" was, at best, inconclusive.

And needless to say, that whole bit was staged (it also segues into a scene of a non-Beatnik woman feeding her cat roast turkey, the object of Miller's derision in this case being cats who don't know their place, I guess). As are many other bits, such as one set in a high-class eatery where diners are treated to nude models who they are allowed to sketch or paint before, during, and after their meals. I twigged to this being a set-up when Miller cut to one of the patrons holding a painter's pallette and a paintbrush and wearing a beret. So it's hard to know what to make of it. I'm in the same spot I was in with the Beatniks eating cat food. Were there ever establishments such as this? Because it's a pretty dumb idea. Real or not, we're not spared Miller's judgment, or "judgment", as the scripted voice-over of one of the models reminds us of the discomfort and subtle dehumanization of it all (though she's gotten used to the latter, which of course makes it all the more horrible. But at least, whatever the hell that scene was, it had something Miller could hang his sneer on. Elsewhere, he offers snide remarks to balding men who seek some relief from that condition, and people who exercise at gyms. Both are nothing more than symbols of our collective -- and apparently newfound, in the 1960s -- vanity. There is no other reason anyone might go to the gym, or exercise at all, other than to look good. All is vanity, and I kept expecting the focus to shift over to those sadsacks who can't bear to defecate in the middle of the road like all those who are unencumbered by ego, and therefore retreat to the shameful privacy of a bathroom.

Eventually, the staged events ease up, as does the mockery, as Miller takes on various ethnic enclaves within London as his subjects. A Jewish theater group is shown performing, we're taken inside a Greek restaurant, as well as a German nightclub whose patrons are all looking for an excuse to return home. The German section is interesting in that the voice-over here -- which I'm also guessing was scripted -- makes some mention of the new generation of Germans struggling with their country's recent, horrible past. It made me wonder if a documentary, one contemporaneous with London in the Raw and Primitive London had ever been made that focused on whatever ther German equivalent of the Baby Boomer generation is. That would be fascinating, in a way that Miller never tries to be, or, in fairness, wants to be.

But it's these scenes, where there is some clear hint of real life being captured on film, that is the real source of any genuine interest in either of Miller's films. (See also Cockney singer Tommy Pudding and his extraordinary teeth.) There's much more of this sort of thing in Primitive London. The conceit of that one is that the baby we see being born at the beginning will have a lot of hurdles to leap as he makes his way in this crazy new world we've created for ourselves. This idea is abandoned until the end, when we see the baby again and narrator Gell wishes him a hearty "Good luck!" (paraphrased), but in between, when we're not seeing nude dancers perform their entire acts while we're being told that this is no kind of life, there are occasional scenes where Miller takes his camera out among actual people. The angle is to let teenagers look stupid, which is both welcome, to me, and easy, and, of course, again he starts with the Beatniks. Nothing much of insight is captured on film, but real people in the mid-1960s are, and that in itself is impossible to be indifferent to. The teenagers at the Beatnik bar almost all claim they're not Beatniks (Miller really has that shit on the brain), but just hearing a stupid 1960s teenager say stupid 1960s teenager things is sort of riveting, as this sort of thing is as close to a time machine as we'll ever get. Miller moves on from Beatniks to the Mods (who he only pauses on long enough to make fun of their clothes, which, fair enough) and then to the Rockers, who wear leather and make-out and don't read books, all to the tune of that notorious proto-punk anthem "Can't Buy Me Love." But as absurd as Miller is, it's all, in a way he likely didn't anticipate, good stuff.

And anyway, the moralizing becomes pretty funny very early. For one thing, it's all a pose, a fact so self-evident that I can only assume it's a pose he had to strike in order to legally distribute his nudity-packed films. But even when you think he might be trying to make a sincere point, he falls on his ass. When the subject of drug addiction is raised, Miller's attitude towards addiction, if not towards drugs themselves, is more liberal than I would have guessed, he nevertheless seems willing to believe, or at least earnestly repeat, a statistic claiming that, at the time of filming, Britain housed within its borders a mere 600 drug addicts, as opposed to America, which house however many thousand he says. I don't know that I believe there is a country on Earth at any time during human history that only had 600 drug addicts among its population. Then again, Miller isn't counting alcoholics, which feels to me like cheating.

In any case, it's all a ruse, to some degree. By the end it's clear that the true sociological importance of London in the Raw and Primitive London comes from the things themselves, and the man who made them. And perhaps even for their impact on documentary filmmaking as a whole, where staged events, reenactments, and made up restaurants where naked ladies let you paint them, are now the building blocks of the form.


Will Errickson said...

Dammit I thought I was the only one making blog posts with sly Dylan references.

bill r. said...

Sssh! I'm trying to do a secret thing here!