Saturday, August 2, 2014

Billy Liar: Kitchen Sink Surrealism

It was in 1959 that Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar was published. The novel was a seriocomic look at the life of Billy Fisher, a young clerk for an undertaker who was living in his parents in the fictional Stradhoughton, Yorkshire. Billy spices up his rather dull life with often preposterous fantasies, fantasies that he sometimes tries to pass off as reality. The novel Billy Liar proved to be extremely successful. A play based on the novel and written by Keith Waterhouse made its debut on the West End in 1960. The play also proved to be a success. It was quite natural, then, that the novel Billy Liar would be adapted as a feature film. The film Billy Liar premiered in the United Kingdom in June 1963 and proved to be a hit like the novel and the play before it.

Billy Liar has generally been considered part of two interrelated movements that overtook British cinema in the late Fifties and early Sixties. The older of the two movements was kitchen sink realism, a particularly British form of social realism. The term "kitchen sink" originated in an article by David Sylvester in the December 1954 of Encounter, who coined it after seeing a piece of art by painterJohn Bratby that included a kitchen sink. Mr. Sylvester applied the term "kitchen sink" to a trend among young British painters towards portraying domestic banality. It would not be long before the term was applied to literature, the stage, and film as well. With regards to the stage and film the term refers to works that deal realistically with the lives of the working class in Britain. A good number of the kitchen sink dramas were set in the North of England, although examples can be found in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. While the late Fifties and early Sixties would prove to be the height of kitchen sink realism, the genre can be traced back even before David Sylvester coined the term "kitchen sink". It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) is an early example of kitchen sink drama.

The younger of the two movements was the British New Wave. The British New Wave was a trend among filmmakers that took its name from La Nouvelle Vague (literally "the New Wave") that took place in France in the Fifties and consisted of such directors as François Truffaut,  Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and so on. Not surprisingly, the British New Wave has a good deal in common with La Nouvelle Vague. The films of the British New Wave were often shot in black and white and often in the style of documentaries. The films of the British New Wave generally dealt with everyday people in realistic situations and were generally shot on location. The British New Wave also had a good deal in common with the Angry Young Men of the era, a group of young playwrights and novelists who had become disillusioned with British society. In fact, the beginning of the British New Wave is considered to be the release of Look Back in Anger in 1959. Look Back in Anger was an adaptation of the 1956 play of the same name by John Osborne. Of course, John Osborne was one of the Angry Young Men.

Kitchen sink realism and the British New Wave are often treated as synonymous, although there is good reason to consider them separate, but very closely related phenomena. Quite simply, not all British New Wave films are kitchen sink dramas and vice versa. Shot in black and white in a style similar to documentaries, The Entertainer (1960) identifiably belongs to the British New Wave. That having been said, given that it centres around a British music hall performer whose career is in decline, it is debatable whether it can be considered a kitchen sink drama. Shot in vivid colour (although still possessing the look of a documentary), Kes (1969) probably should not be considered part of the British New Wave, although it is most certainly a kitchen sink drama. While many British New Wave films are also kitchen sink dramas, then, this is not always the case.

In the case of Billy Liar, it is perhaps questionable whether it can be considered either a British New Wave film or a kitchen sink drama. Certainly Billy Liar has much in common with the kitchen sink dramas that preceded it. Like many kitchen sink dramas it is set in Yorkshire and like many kitchen sink dramas it centres on a working class family. Billy Liar was even largely shot on location in Yorkshire. Like the British New Wave films that came before it, Billy Liar is shot in black and white and in a cinema vérité style. Adding yet more realism to the film is the fact that at times the Yorkshire dialect is used in the film. All of this would seem to place Billy Liar firmly in the genre of kitchen sink realism and as part of the British New Wave. That having been said, Billy Liar differs in many ways from many of its contemporaries that were part of the kitchen sink movement and the British New Wave.

Indeed, perhaps the most notable difference between Billy Liar and the films of both the British New Wave and the kitchen sink movement is that it is not nearly as sombre or serious as those films. Billy is not so much an "angry young man" as he is a very frustrated one, trying to cope with his dreary life through daydreaming and many times glossing over the truth. The end result of Billy lying to everyone (most of all himself) is generally not drama, but instead humour of a very tragic sort. Quite simply, in defiance of the oft said phrase, "It's grim up north," Billy Liar is at its heart a comedy and at times a very funny one at that.

Given the fact that Billy Liar centres on a young man with a very active imagination, it should come as no surprise that the film is punctuated by fantasy sequences illustrating Billy's daydreams. Many of these are set in a fantasy kingdom of which he is its ruler. In reality Billy might only be a lowly clerk at a funeral home. In his fantasies he is an all conquering hero. As might be expected the contrast between Billy's glorious fantasies and his rather drab reality is a source of much of the film's humour. The fantasy sequences of Billy Liar add a dose of surrealism to the film that further sets it apart from its compatriots in the British New Wave and the kitchen sink movement. Despite being set in Yorkshire, at times the film it seems to have more in common with the surreal British comedies of the Sixties that would follow it, including A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), and Smashing Time (1967).

Of course, while Billy Liar is most definitely a comedy with surrealistic tendencies, it is still very much grounded in reality. Much of this is due to John Schlesinger's direction. Mr. Schlesinger deftly blends realism of the sort seen in the kitchen sink dramas with the fantasy often found in later "Swinging London" films so that the end result is a very consistent and cogent whole. Aiding  John Schlesinger's direction are the performances of the cast, all of whom are very convincing in their roles.  A Northerner himself, Sir Tom Courtenay brings Billy so much to life that it hardly feels as if he was playing a role--he is Billy Fisher (here it must be pointed out that he earlier played the role on stage). In her film debut Julie Christie gives an impressive performance as Billy's dream girl, Liz. Like Billy, she too wishes to escape the dullness of Northern England for the bright lights of London.

Ultimately the question of whether Billy Liar can be considered a part of the British New Wave and a kitchen sink drama can perhaps only be answered by asking whether a comedy can be considered a part of either movement. Regardless, Billy Liar would certainly seem to be representative of the transition from the British New Wave and kitchen sink dramas of the early Sixties to the more light hearted British films of the mid to late Sixties, with characteristics of all of them. Ultimately Billy Liar would also have a lasting impact, inspiring a song of the same title by The Decemberists, a West End musical (simply titled Billy), and much more. For a young clerk at a funeral home with trouble telling the truth, Billy Fisher would seem to have found lasting success.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The British Invaders Blogathon

The British Invaders Blogathon has arrived! For those who did not see the initial announcement regarding the blogathon, the British Invaders Blogathon is meant to celebrate the best in British classic films. While many think of Hollywood when they think of movies, the fact is that many classic films originated in the United Kingdom. From the Gainsborough melodramas to the Ealing comedies to Alfred Hitchcock to Tony Richardson, the United Kingdom has made many contributions to classic film. The British Invaders Blogathon will last from today (1 August 2014) to Sunday (3 August 2014).

I am glad to say we have a wide range of posts lined up that span the history of British film from the Silent Era to the Eighties. For those participating in the blogathon, simply let me know in a comment here, a message on Twitter, or an email and I will add it to the list. And please remember to link to this page using one of the images from the introductory post! I want to thank everyone who is participating!

Anyhow, without further ado, here are the posts:

Barry Bradford Blog: Local Hero (1983)

Hitchcock's World: The Lion in Winter (1968)

Classic Movie Hub: To Sir, With Love (1967)
filmscreed:  Catch Us If You Can (1965)

Silver Scenes: The Admirable Crichton ( 1957 )

portraitsbyjenni: Kes (1969)

LMdC: if.... (1968)

Hitchcock's World: Zulu (1964)

The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog: The Four Feathers (1939)

Paula's Cinema Club: The Secret History of MI6 is a movie waiting to happen…

The Vintage Cameo: Summer Holiday (1963)

A Shroud of Thoughts: Billy Liar (1963)

Crítica Retrô: The Magic Box (1951)

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: Went the Day Well? (1942)

Speakeasy: Hell Drivers (1957)

Movies Silently: A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Girls Do Film: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Cary Grant Won't Eat You: The Red Shoes (1948)

Sister Celluloid: The Astonished Heart (1950)

Prowler Needs A Jump: Victim (1961)

Citizen Screen: Frenzy (1972)

The Movie Rat: Time Bandits (1981)

Not Always Movie Reviews from James Anymore: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

 Moon in Gemini: The 1960s Royal Costume Dramas

Random Pictures: Peeping Tom (1960)

Silver Scenes: The Chalk Garden (1964)

Margaret Perry: The Era of the Ealing Comedy

The Girl with the White Parasol: The Queen of Spades (1949)

The Rosebud Cinema: The Gold Diggers (1983)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The 20 Novels by Women That Influenced Me

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction recently asked the public to vote for the most influential fiction books by women. The result was a list of 20 books considered the most influential, at least by those who voted (you can see it here). I noticed that while the list included many of my favourites, it still differed a good deal from the novels by women that I would say have had an influence on me. I then thought I would go ahead and create my own list of the 20 novels by women that have influenced me the most. I have to admit I did fudge a bit in including entire series as "one book".  I must also point out that I did not include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (even though it is included on the list compiled by the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction). Quite simply, it is an autobiography and not fiction and so does not meet the requirements to be on the list in my mind. It would make my list of my top twenty non-fiction books by women that have influenced me the most if I ever made one!

Here, then, without any further comment, is my list of 20 novels by women that have influenced me the most. 

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
2. Emma by Jane Austen
3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
4. Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie
5. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
7. Jane Eyre by Charlote Bronte
8. Gone with the Wind by Margret Mitchell
9. The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
10. O Pioneers by Willa Cather
11. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
12. Middlemarch by George Eliot
13. The "Harry Potter" series by J. K. Rowling
14. "Mabinogion" tetralogy by Evangeline Walton
15, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
17. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
18. The "Merlin" series by Mary, Lady Stewart
19. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
20. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Three Kate Bush Songs

Today is the birthday of one of my favourite singers and songwriters, Kate Bush. I had an enormous crush on her when I was young (all right, I still do) and I have always loved her songs. Here are three of my all time favourite Kate Bush songs.

First up is "Cloudbusting". The song itself is about the relationship between psychologist Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter. As to the video, it was directed by Julian Doyle (who edited the Monty Python films Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, as well as Time Bandits), and conceived by Terry Gilliam. It features Donald Sutherland in the role of Wilhelm Reich and Kate Bush as his son Peter.

Next is what may be Kate Bush's best known song (at least in the United States), "Running Up That Hill". The concept behind the song is rather hard to describe, although Wikipedia has a good quote from Miss Bush on idea behind the song.

Last is my all time favourite song by Kate Bush, which also happened to be her debut single. As its title indicates, "Wuthering Heights" is based on Emily Brontë's novel of the same name and sung from the point of view of Cathy Earnshaw.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

James Shigeta Passes On

Actor James Shigeta, who appeared in such films as Flower Drum Song (1961) and Die Hard (1988) and appeared frequently on television from the Fifties to the Naughts, died yesterday at the age of 81.

James Shigeta was born in Honolulu, Hawaii (then a United States territory) on 17 June 1933. He studied acting at New York City University before enlisting in the United States Marines during the Korean War.  During his two and a half years service he entertained the troops and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Following the war he won first prize on the talent TV show The Original Amateur Hour. He then launched a singing career under the name "Guy Brion", performing in clubs throughout the United States.

James Shigeta was then signed a contract with Toho Studios in Japan, despite the fact that he knew no Japanese. There he developed a very successful singing career that included appearing in Tokyo's Nichigeki Theatre's Cherry Blossom Show. James Shigeta performed with The Cherry Blossom Show when it was staged at the Empire Theatre in Australia. It was a huge success there. James Shigeta returned to the United States where he appeared in various stage productions and sang on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.

James Shigeta made his film debut in The Crimson Kimono in 1959, playing Detective Joe Kojaku. The following year he appeared in Walk Like a Dragon (1960). His most notable role in the Sixties was probably that of Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song (1961). During the Sixties he also appeared in such films as Cry for Happy (1961), Bridge to the Sun (1961), 3 pistole contro Cesare (1966), Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (1967), Manila, Open City (1968), and Nobody's Perfect (1968). He made his television debut as an actor on an episode of Alcoa Premiere. Throughout the Sixties he appeared on such shows as Naked City, Dr. Kildare, Burke's Law, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, Ben Casey, I Spy, Hawaii Five-O, Ironside, and Mission: Impossible. He had a recurring role on the show Medical Centre.

In the Seventies Mr. Shigeta appeared on such TV shows as Emergency!, Kung Fu, Matt Helm, Ellery Queen, S.W.A.T., The Streets of San Francisco, Little House on the Prairie, Police Woman, The Rockford Files, and Fantasy Island. He appeared in the films Lost Horizon (1973), The Yakuza (1974), and Midway (1976).

In the Eighties James Shigeta appeared as Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi in Die Hard. He also appeared in the film Cage (1989). He appeared on such TV shows as The Greatest American Hero, T. J. Hooker, The Love Boat, Airwolf, Magnum P. I., Jake and the Fatman, and Murder She Wrote. In the Nineties he appeared on such shows as SeaQuest 2032, Babylon 5, Cybill, and Beverly Hills, 90210. He appeared in the films Cage II (1994), Midnight Man (1995), Space Marines (1996), Drive (1997), and Brother (2000). He provided the voice of General Li in Mulan (1998). In the Naughts he appeared in the films A Ribbon of Dreams (2002) and The People I've Slept With (2009). He appeared on the TV show Threat Matrix and provided a voice in one episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

With the looks of a matinee idol and considerable talent as both an actor and a singer, James Shigeta might well have been a major star had he been born in a later era. Unfortunately, in the Sixties and Seventies roles for Japanese Americans were even rarer than they are now. Regardless, Mr. Shigeta had a very impressive career. He appeared in such major motion pictures as The Crimson Kimono, Flower Drum Song, and Die Hard, and he appeared frequently on television. What is more he played a wide variety of roles, everything from master criminals to military officers to medical doctors to corporate executives. And he played all of them well. In a career that spanned nearly five decades. James Shigeta left behind a most impressive list of credits.