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  • Charles Drazin

Wisdom is the principal thing.

Last month’s season of Lindsay Anderson films at the BFI Southbank was a welcome sign that a new generation appreciates his films, but it would have benefited from a much more thoughtful curation to help them understand those films.  In its introduction to the season, the programme describes Lindsay as a “totemic figure in British filmmaking, often associated with cinema truth and realism” and speaks of the “scarifying grotesqueries and satirical state-of-the-nation addresses” that “punch out from the screen”, but such vaguenesses offer precious little clue to what his work is  actually about. Nor does the chosen title for the season, “O Dreamland! Lindsay Anderson’s Dark Cinema”,  offer much insight.  “O Dreamland” was a great title for one film, but it does not offer a meaningful key to the season as a whole, while “dark” seems entirely the wrong word when one thinks of the humanism and poetry of Thursday’s Children and The Singing Lesson, or the moral indignation of O Dreamland and O Lucky Man!, or the words that Lindsay spoke when he was directing Britannia Hospital, which his close collaborator David Sherwin said he would carry  to his grave: “Only three things are real: God, human folly and laughter…”

Although O Dreamland was one of the three films shown at the NFT in the first Free Cinema programme of 1956, the first time the British Film Institute put on a season of Lindsay’s films was in the late 1950s. By then he had made a considerable collection of highly respected non-fiction films but had yet to direct his first feature.  Writing his own notes for the programme, Lindsay commented that he had always tried “to make films in terms of the people involved in them – to see the people as individual”.  In particular, he acknowledged the documentary film-maker Humphrey Jennings as an important  influence and inspiration. Mentioning an article that he wrote about Jennings, which he had titled after E.M. Forster’s evocative, humanistic injunction, “Only Connect . . . ”, he commented, “I suppose that this idea of relationship is one that has concerned me in all the films I have made. It is one that I think is enormously important today, when society is becoming more and more compartmentalized, technical, dehumanized and materialistic. I don't think that films about ‘social problems’ can be made purely in the old, factual way.”

Unfortunately, the next time the NFT put on a season of his films, in 1977, Lindsay fell out with the British Film Institute. His combination of uncompromising intelligence, rare forthrightness and exacting temperament meant this was always a risk. He pulled out of a proposed public seminar, complaining: “It is not particularly pleasurable for me to discuss my work with a lot of people I don’t know and have no reason to respect – or to listen to criticisms which I generally find idiotic.’ In a letter to a close friend he called the curator of the season a philistine: “In every word he says or writes there is a profound misunderstanding as to what an artist tries to do.”  In such an absence of forbearance and grace, Lindsay could often be his own worst enemy. But even so, his  own suggested titles for three key themes in the 1977 season offered some helpful clues as to how he felt about his work. They were: “Free Cinema”, “The Northern Connection” and “Wisdom is the principal thing”. He made it obvious enough that it was the last category which mattered to him most, but it’s worth devoting a few words to the other two.

The Free Cinema manifesto was signed by the four film-makers whose films were exhibited in the first Free Cinema programme in February 1956:  Lorenza Mazzetti (whose name Lindsay must have put first with a sense of chivalry that predated the rise of feminism), Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. But it is clear from the testimony of the people who were involved in both the making and exhibition of the films that it was Lindsay who was the chief architect. He came up with an inspired, stirring banner to rally around:  “Free Cinema”;  he masterminded the campaign to publicize it; and he drafted the words of the manifesto that the others signed. To make “free” films, as opposed to films that were a response to a commercial imperative, was an aim that Lindsay stayed faithful to throughout his career. It was why the films that he made were finally so few: his attachment to the notion of a free cinema meant that he could never fully transition from being a personal film-maker into the kind of professional film-maker who could command consistent support from the film industry.

 “The Northern Connection” recalls the words of E.M. Forster:  “Only Connect…” It spoke to Lindsay’s personal pride – in his feature film collaborations with David Storey, This Sporting Life and In Celebration, but also his early documentaries – at having made a connection with a more genuine England than the British cinema usually represented: a cinema that he considered to be, on the whole,  “snobbish, anti-intelligent, emotionally inhibited”,  actually a  “Southern English” cinema that was  “metropolitan in attitude, and entirely middle-class”.

But wisdom was the principal thing.  Lindsay had noticed the words, from Proverbs 4:7,  in the Manchester Central Library when he was filming  The White Bus. They were inscribed around the rim of the great dome that loomed over the reading-room. He liked them so much that he used them again as the epigraph to If…. “Wisdom is the principal thing: therefore get wisdom: and with all they getting, get understanding.” Lindsay’s mission was as much – if not more – moral than it was aesthetic. The great question for the wartime generation to which he belonged was the one that Humphrey Jennings – in a commentary written by E.M. Forster  – had left hanging at the end of that poetic meditation on the last months of the war, A Diary for Timothy: “Are you going to have greed for money or power ousting decency from the world as they have in the past? Or are you going to make the world a different place?” Lindsay wanted to use the cinema to make the world a different, better place, but, in his own words, “the dream of the New Left faded, and we moved on towards the opportunistic Seventies” when “it became clear that Britain had decided against change”. He felt that subsequent generations were not interested in moral judgements, and that the intellectuals among them preferred “a cinema of aesthetic escapism”. I wish that last month's BFI Southbank season had made more effort to bring out the moral dimension of Lindsay’s work because it is why it seems so powerfully relevant to our own dark – sad to say truly “dark” – times. Rarely has the world been so much in need of wisdom and understanding.


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