A voyage round my father

To mark the 10th anniversary of the film-maker Karel Reisz’s death, his son, Times Higher Education staff writer Matthew Reisz, examines academics’ appraisals of his father’s work, and reflects on how it feels to view your parent through scholars’ eyes

November 22, 2012

Until my stepmother died in 2009, a room in the family home was largely devoted to the photographs, scripts, business and fan letters of my father - the film director Karel Reisz - who died 10 years ago this week.

They spanned his documentaries, nine feature films, a few plays and dozens of abortive projects. All this had been gathering dust for years, but my brothers, stepsister and I decided it should be given to the British Film Institute to be sorted, catalogued - and made available to academics.

It was sad to think about the many fascinating projects that never came to fruition and strange to see private papers transformed into public property, awaiting scholars to come and discover new patterns and insights. Five have apparently consulted the archive since the middle of last year.

Some of my father’s films (see below) turn up regularly on television or are re-released on DVD, and there are still occasions when he gets wider public recognition. His home town of Ostrava in the Czech Republic, which he left at the age of 12, recently put up a plaque on the apartment block where he grew up - part of an attempt to establish its meagre cultural credentials in an unsuccessful bid to become the 2015 European Capital of Culture.

Last year, Melvyn Bragg’s television series Reel History of Britain featured my father’s documentary about a youth club, We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958), in an episode entitled Britain’s First Teenagers. I was invited to take part and got a chance to meet some of the former “Lambeth boys”, now almost Lambeth geriatrics. I was always sceptical about whether I, as the director’s son, would have much to say about a film shot when I was three - and when ageing rocker Wee Willie Harris turned up wearing a scorpion pendant round his neck, I knew for sure that I would be left on the cutting-room floor.

Despite all this, it is clear that my father’s work is now most intensively analysed and discussed within universities.

A Czech Jew by birth who lived in London for more than 50 years except when away on location, he never made a film that dealt in any obvious way with the events of his own life. His protagonists include an angry northern factory worker, a country-and-western singer, a Victorian fossil-hunter and Vietnam vets. His only film located in London, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), tells the story of a disturbed, if not deranged, artist who ends up crashing his former wife’s second wedding reception in a gorilla suit, catching fire and escaping on a motorbike. (It proved very difficult to get reaction shots from passers-by, with the blasé crowds on Park Lane hardly batting an eyelid.)

I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on my father’s life and career, and the kind of legacy he handed on to me. While there are obviously personal questions I must sort out for myself, perhaps academics could tell me something about his public achievement, his historical significance and whether they teach his films?

Yet it can prove a disconcerting experience to read academic commentary on material that is deeply familiar to me in both senses of the word. Some of the analysis seems overly elaborate or to miss the point. Even stranger is the stuff I simply can’t understand. While there are vast amounts of academic writing in technical or specialist areas I obviously can’t follow, it seems peculiar not to be able to decipher what someone is saying about my own father and his films.

I soon came across some of these problems when I turned to the full-length book in the Manchester University Press British Film Makers series, called simply Karel Reisz (2006), by Colin Gardner, professor of critical theory and integrative studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although often acute, it gets my father’s political development quite wrong and soon becomes bogged down in a theoretical vocabulary utterly remote from the concerns of directors, never mind cameramen or set dressers working within mainstream commercial cinema.

When Arthur Seaton, hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), checks himself out in a mirror before going on a date, we are told that “in Lacanian terms, this is the equivalent of the over-determination of omnipotent self-identity associated with the Imaginary Mirror Stage”. Gardner enlists postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s concept of “mimicry”, which he describes as “a double-edged sword - one of reform, regulation and discipline which appropriates the ‘other’ into its representational economy (almost the same but not quite) - but also one of transgression and difference that refuses to cohere into the dominant episteme of orthodox power (a case, in racial terms, of almost the same but not white)”.

He also seeks to argue that “all of Reisz’s films are Althusserian by their very nature”, because the characters are “vicariously harnessed to a series of cultural constellations, so that their apparent will-to-identity is already interpellated (in [French Marxist philosopher] Louis Althusser’s terms) by larger social forces”. If this seems pretty opaque, Gardner explains that Seaton “channels his desire through already constructed formulas… that make him ripe for his eventual assimilation into a soulless suburban marriage and the responsibilities of fatherhood”.

Although the end of the film certainly leaves it open as to whether domesticity is going to mean fulfilment or entrapment, this seems a bleak and partial reading - and neither as father nor as son do I accept the notion that “the responsibilities of fatherhood” are some sort of sell-out. But perhaps one should expect a strange view of family life from an author who gives his golden retriever equal billing with his wife in the acknowledgements to his book.

Other scholars manage to be as enthusiastically generous as Gardner but far clearer. Most of the discussion concerns three key areas. The first is about my father’s only book which, against all the odds, remains influential after close to 60 years.

In the early 1950s, the British Film Academy, as it was then known, commissioned him - although he had no practical cutting-room experience - to compile a pioneering study of film editing, covering the silent era and “the first two decades of the sound cinema”. The plan was for him to bring together the insights of leading figures in the industry but, since most of them predictably proved too busy, he ended up writing it largely himself.

First published in 1953, The Technique of Film Editing was reprinted in 1968, with an additional section by the director and critic Gavin Millar on the avant-garde cinema of the 1960s, and a rather grumpy new introduction by Thorold Dickinson, pointing out where the original edition was now out of date. This strange composite text was reissued unaltered by Focal Press in 2010.

For people who like their books coherent and up to date, it is pretty confusing. Yet the book is something of a classic, with exceptionally lucid analyses of action, comedy, dialogue and montage sequences showing how the selection and juxtaposition of different camera angles, shots and sounds form the essential “grammar” of film-making.

“People might think that a book on the technique of film editing first published in 1953 would be only of historical interest nowadays,” explains the documentary film-maker Michael Chanan, now professor of film and video studies at the University of Roehampton.

“Not so. First, it isn’t just about technique but also the aesthetics of the thing, and very astute in this regard. Second, I remember it was one of the first books on film technique that I read, when I was just starting to make films, and then I forgot about it. I remembered it later when I started teaching film and asked myself where I’d learnt all that stuff to begin with. It is now a book that stays at the top of the reading list on editing for all my students, both theory and practice.”

My father’s film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman has also attracted a good deal of academic attention, both within adaptation studies and the newer field of neo-Victorian studies. John Fowles’ novel, published in 1969, was a huge critical and popular success. But it was also widely seen as “unfilmable”, since it has three alternative endings and incorporates an intrusive and opinionated narrator who offers a constant commentary on the 19th-century love story, interweaving the England of 1867 with the England of a century later. How could this external voice be recreated in the cinema?

Harold Pinter’s script turned the central narrative into a film within a film, alternating scenes of the past romance with an account of an affair between the actors playing the hero and heroine. Although most of the Victorian dialogue is reproduced almost verbatim from the book, the whole structure is radically different and, unusually in a cinematic version of a novel, introduces major additional characters.

All this makes it a powerful example of how adaptations achieve their goals, often by roundabout means, helping students to get beyond simplistic questions of “fidelity” to the novel. Furthermore, like many works that yoke together two stories, the film gives critics endless scope to argue whether they parallel, parody, support or undermine each other.

R. Barton Palmer, Calhoun Lemon professor of literature at Clemson University in South Carolina, gives The French Lieutenant’s Woman pride of place in his course about recent adaptations of British novels, seeing it as “an interesting case of how peculiarly novelistic a device can be and still find its cinematic equivalent. Adaptation becomes art when it does something unexpected in the transposition to the cinema. The film is a kind of commentary on the book, expanding on the themes and ideas in very effective ways.”

Neil Sinyard, emeritus professor of film studies at the University of Hull, calls it “one of my favourite examples of screen adaptations of literature: intelligent, imaginative, both a critically astute reading of, and creative visual response to, its source material … I remember being bowled over by the intelligence, boldness and ingenuity of what Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter had done … It’s still a favourite of mine and, although I always tell my students that they must not express a preference when comparing book with film - you’re not comparing like with like, they’re made for different media with different audiences in mind etc, etc - I still secretly prefer the film to the book!”

Yet it is my father’s first feature film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - which he regarded as “primitive” in later life - that is most often screened to students and at the heart of debate about his work. Even the right-wing press saw it as a breath of fresh air at the time in its determination to get out of the barracks, the castle and the drawing room, and to put very different areas of British life on screen. And, if the northern, working-class, industrial milieu was new, so was the tone of voice. The machinist hero’s memorable catchphrases included: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”, “I’m out for a good time - all the rest is propaganda!” and “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” (the last of these was adopted by the Arctic Monkeys as the title of their first album).

Sinyard has “taught Saturday Night and Sunday Morning several times over the years and students have always responded to the film’s social engagement and the challenge of its anti-hero hero”.

Matthew Melia, lecturer in film and television studies at Kingston University, sees it as “the text that most fully engages with the changing face of Britain in the 1960s”, “the defining film of the British New Wave” and “the film that most authentically depicted the movement out of post-war austerity”.

Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer in stage and film studies at Sheffield Hallam University, describes it as “one of the films we’ve shown most frequently in the more than 15 years I’ve been [here] … It is still probably the most highly regarded and frequently revived film of that era and the social-realist cinema it spawned.”

The historical significance of the film is hardly in dispute but has it stood the test of time now that the world it illuminated no longer exists? This is strikingly symbolised by the fate of the main location. Like much of the surrounding industrial scenery, the Raleigh bicycle factory - where several key scenes were shot - was swept away to create the University of Nottingham’s glitzy postmodern Jubilee Campus.

Yet hidden history always resurfaces. The university’s Djanogly Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The “Authentic Moment” in British Photography (until 10 February 2013), which uses 33 stills from the film as part of a broader look at how the photographers of the time captured the end to austerity and emerging youth culture in the North of England.

Tracy Hargreaves, senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Leeds, is delivering a tie-in lecture. She offers a warm tribute to a film that “pre-dates me, but I can see in it where my parents and grandparents came from and were coming from. The sense of transition it conveys, of tradition and aspiration, the architecture, people’s clothes, the pubs are very much part of the landscape of my own childhood and adolescence across the Seventies and Eighties - and I think we carry those landscapes with us, they shape us even if we move away from them. It’s a great film, a really wonderful legacy.”

A more general overview comes from Hull’s Sinyard, who puts my father within a “maverick” tradition of British directors who were “humane, intelligent, serious without being pretentious, and making films of integrity that enlarged an audience’s sympathies and compassion for the human race in all its diversity and complexity”. “Althusserian” or not, that is good enough for me.


Karel Reisz, 1926-2002

Karel Reisz was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1926 and came to England as a child refugee in 1938. After studying at Cambridge, he joined the loose-knit Free Cinema movement, wrote The Technique of Film Editing (1953), co-directed a documentary about a jazz club, Momma Don’t Allow (1955), and followed this up with We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958).

He shot to fame with his first feature film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), based on Alan Sillitoe’s celebrated novel. This came 14th in a British Film Institute poll of the greatest British films of the 20th century.

Reisz went on to direct eight more feature films, ranging from a comedy of the Swinging Sixties, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), to a dark portrait of America in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), as well as biopics of the dancer Isadora Duncan - Isadora (1968) - and the country-and-western singer Patsy Cline - Sweet Dreams (1985). He also adapted another iconic bestselling novel, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in 1981.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Tef, results, gold, silver, bronze, teaching excellence framework

The results of the 2017 teaching excellence framework in full. Find out which universities were awarded gold, silver or bronze