Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Sunday Matinee: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, UK, 1962, dir. Tony Richardson, starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave

Story: Colin has been sent up for robbing a bakery, but to his surprise he finds himself being handed advantages and privileges at the reform school. As it turns out, he’s a talented runner and the school director hopes he will help defeat a prestigious public school in an upcoming race.

First things first, the timing of this entry is no accident. This morning the New York Marathon kicks off – so good luck to all the runners, particularly my friends Patrick and Morgan. Secondly, tributes aside, it should be noted that this is in many respects an anti-sports film, both in the sense that it thumbs its nose at “sports film” conventions, and because it views competitive athleticism itself with severe antipathy. But more on that by the by. When we are introduced to Colin, he’s pulling double duty, running and narrating just like Fabrizio at the start of last week’s entry, Before the Revolution. There the similarities more or less end. Whereas Fabrizio was politicized in theory but distanced from any sense of class struggle, Colin – without necessarily articulating it in explicitly political terms (save for a few somewhat clumsy “consciousness-raising” lines of dialogue) – views his entire life as one long struggle against authorities and class constrictions. “Running’s always been a big thing in our family,” he tells us in the opening narration (during which, unlike Fabrizio, he runs away from the camera rather than towards it). “Especially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run. Run without knowing why, through fields and woods, and the winning post’s no end even though barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of the long distance runner feels like.”

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It probably has something to do with the timing – long enough after World War II for the exhaustion and consequent clinging to security to fade away, close enough for the energies released and the massive changes incurred in that conflagration to still be in the air. But for whatever reason, across every category and around the world, there was “something” in the air in the 60s. It manifested itself in politics, fashion, lifestyles, philosophy, art – and in all forms of art, up to and especially including the seventh, cinema. Across the European continent there were commonalities to the onrush of invention and imagination – a looser approach to filmmaking, at once more documentary-driven and stylistically more playful; a pushing of boundaries and breaking of taboos, particularly sexual, in terms of content; and an almost universal focus on youth as the locus point of the new feeling. But there were differences too – each national manifestation of the zeitgeist took on its own character.

In France, global center of cinephilia, the New Wave exploded conventional styles and narratives; in Italy neorealism was updated for a more prosperous but ever-more-alienated era; in Czechoslovakia a Prague spring blew its liberalizing breeze through the land, resulting in some of the warmest, liveliest pictures of the epoch. In Britain, the new cinema took on a harder edge, earning it the term “kitchen sink” realism. It bears mentioning that all these national rejuvenations were not exactly concurrent – the French and British movements peaked before the Czech New Wave was even born, while the Italian developments proceeded in phases – older directors like Antonioni, Fellini, and Pasolini shifting the scene away from neorealism in the early sixties, with young Turks like Bertolucci and Bellochio moving towards a greater focus on youth and accepting the influence of the French and the Brits. The movements – along with those not mentioned here (like the Japanese New Wave or the pre-Third Cinema rumblings of Latin America) influenced each other and helped shape what could have been disparate adventures into something approaching a common cause.

Which brings us back to Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – a crucial link in this chain. Like earlier “kitchen sink” films, it focused on a working-class milieu and cultivated a tough, sparse aesthetic, facilitated by a raw performance from its lead (in this case an intense, bony Tom Courteney, who pretty much carries the film). There is a definite running link to the “Angry Young Man” plays of the 50s, from which the first British New Wave films were fashioned. However, unlike Look Back in Anger (1959) or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), both of which were still somewhat classical in their execution and conventional in their narrative structure, Loneliness is adventurous in form as well as content. Writer Alan Sillitoe employs an impressionistic flashback structure, while director Tony Richardson employs a handheld camera (hearkening back to the “Free Cinema” documentary movement which gave many young Brit filmmakers their start), a rough shot structure and editing scheme, and even playful touches like sped-up action and flashing icons borrowed from the silent cinema by way of the French New Wave. (Richardson’s next film, Tom Jones, would throw off the formal constraints altogether and in the process turn the British cinema in a whole new direction; but for now there was a kind of balance achieved between the demands of realism and the liberation of the French style.)

This was one of the key films produced by Woodfall Film, a company established by Richardson, writer John Osborne, and producer Harry Saltzman in the late 50s. The Woodfall movies have in common that previously mentioned roughhewn quality - and that quality is not for everyone. While the French and Czech New Wavers still charm wide audiences, the British realists can appear a bit clunky in comparison. Even at the time, many of the more hip reviewers had issues with the soberness and occasional awkwardness of the Brits: Andrew Sarris filed Richardson under “Strained Seriousness” in The American Cinema, and called Loneliness and A Taste of Honey “clusters of bits and pieces.” Manny Farber featured the film unflatteringly in his famed “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” piece, praising Richardson’s scenes of strained domesticity but bemoaning “the need of director and writer to overfamiliarize the audience with the picture it’s watching: to blow up every situation and character like an affable inner tube with recognizable details and smarmy compassion.” While reserving most of her spleen for This Sporting Life, Pauline Kael caught Loneliness in the crossfire of “Are Movies Going to Pieces,” writing “…people who should know better will tell you how ‘cinematic’ The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or This Sporting Life is – as if fiddling with the time sequence was good in itself – proof that the medium is really being used.”

Ok, these films are not perfect – Loneliness is sometimes clumsy, occasionally forced, and certainly not as sharp or pointed stylistically as anything the French were doing. But it’s just right in its imperfection; what Kael and others miss is that the frisson of a raw aesthetic is not just intellectual, it’s visceral too (then again, maybe Kael did get it eventually, she’s quoted elsewhere praising Richardson and bemoaning his slight reputation). Watching the film sets us on edge – the imbalanced, restless camera, the aggressively unstable cutting, and the tight compositions and rapid dialogue (occasionally impenetrable to American ears) create the perfect complement to Courtenay’s angular features and seething performance. The story is also quite gripping – every time I watch it, I’m surprised to find out how much of the film occurs in flashback; yet even knowing what’s to come, we are involved in this portion of the story; even more so, I find, than in the reform school scenes. And it’s all to a purpose – thematic as well as narrative. By running Colin’s pre-arrest and post-arrest lives parallel to one another, we see how the outside world is a prison to him as well, and how running either “away” (from family, authorities, work, poverty) or “towards” (respectability, obedience, the applause of “barmy crowds”) doesn’t actually get one anywhere. As Colin tells a girlfriend, in one of the film’s few wholly pleasant excursions, “I used to want to get lost…but now I know you can’t get lost.”

So, finally, Colin stops running. The climax of the film is a fantastically perverse letdown – all the more subversive given the half-century of sports formula films following this one, in which underdogs win a game and see their lives turned around. Colin is going to win the race against the prestigious public schoolers, he’s just feet away the finish line and then he just…stops. The director, writer, and editor build up to this moment by flashing amongst the images we’ve seen and dialogue we’ve heard throughout the film, all of which add up to the impression that Colin is trapped and tricked into playing a role, the criminal-made-good, due to the benevolence of authorities (although there is a hint that he’s also under pressure on the other end, with his peers guilt-tripping him about his athletic prowess). At any rate, what can he do? He can’t run away – they’ll catch him and beat him as they did another boy earlier in the film. He can’t keep running forward – they’ll applaud him but it will be condescending and self-serving applause. The power of the film is that, if we think about, we’re not sure what options Colin’s refusal will leave him, yet watching his decision we fully understand and even applaud when he “drops out” of the governor’s game (at the same time we instinctively want to see him win – this complex reaction only adds to the film’s power). That smirk on Colin’s face as he stands still, letting the baffled competitor race past, is victory enough for him – though of course it won’t last. The film could end there, but instead it shows us Colin back in the assembly line of his peers, harassed by overseers, cleaning out gas masks – perhaps a bit heavyhanded, yet appropriately grim.

That grim mood would begin to dissipate from the cinema within a years’ time, when Richardson turned Tom Jones into a modernist Technicolor romp. With that film and the powerful emergence of the British rock scene, kitchen sink realism was quickly replaced by the image of “Swingin’ London,” in which the British youth was no longer portrayed as harassed rebels and loners, but as liberated members of a narcissistic, hedonistic community. Even so, an air of cutting irreverence and defiant individualism remained, finding its place within the new, more upbeat scene – indeed, it’s hard to imagine the working-class nonchalance of the Beatles or the badass attitude of the Rolling Stones without the hard-edged heroes of the British playwrights and filmmakers paving the way. The Angry Young Man has made his stand, and bollocks to the governor – he's here to stay.

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