Lost in the Movies: Tom Jones

Tom Jones

My original introduction to this entry contained a long aside stating that I should've posted this earlier (along with several other entries for the coming days, when I'll be out of town but will have automated postings - so keep tuning in); however, political news on the TV and Internet kept distracting me. Then my computer froze, deleting the original, I thought rather charming entry and forcing me to start again several hours later. Maybe it was trying to tell me something (though apparently without success, as I've launched into a fresh aside). At any rate, politics is a bitch and quite distracting. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, Tom Jones...

Given its pedigree (literary adaptation, expensive period detail, excellent cast and crew), you might be forgiven for assuming Tom Jones would be a stuffy, self-important white elephant. Yet as we all know, it's a breathless romp, part Swingin' London, part French New Wave, part Goon-style comedic subversion. Much closer to A Hard Day's Night than "Masterpiece Theater." But at the same time, it does have lavish sets and costumes, it does contain great performances, it is adapted from an 18th century British novel. That it can juggle highbrow and lowbrow so effortlessly is one of its immense charms and a testament to its place in cinematic history.

Recalling the life of a bastard country squire through rapid edits, silent introductions (complete with intertitles), comic narrator, self-referential glances and addresses towards the camera, dissolves and irises and wipes, sped-up action, and various other trickery, the effect of Tom Jones' fusion of classical antecedent with a very modern (or even Mod) carefree spirit is liberating. Even a conventional tool like the shot-reverse shot is given a sharp edge when we cut between Tom and an older woman he will soon take to bed as they eat a nearly grotesque pre-coital meal. Continuity be damned, the cutting, punctuated by the lewd crunching and chewing (no bombastic musical cues) escalates rhythmically as they leer at one another over drumsticks and lobster claws. Every technique, no matter how tried and true, is put through the grinder and comes out with a fresh spin.

Now, obviously a great deal of preparation went into the movie but within this structured framework, director Tony Richardson unleashes a manic, almost haphazard free spirited style: it's hard to imagine a contemporary filmmaker taking so casual yet assured an approach to his storytelling (one exceptional example is Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, not as successful - artistically, financially, critically - as Tom Jones nor as formally ambitious and/or subversive, but a fascinatingly personal and idiosyncratic dive into period conventions nonetheless).

What Tom Jones said, and why it turns out to be a shockingly subversive Best Picture, is that the playful spirit of the New Wave could be applied to anything - the costume picture, and by extension other "serious" genres - in the way it had already been applied to "entertainment" genres like the gangster picture (by Godard) or personal, autobiographical stories (as with Truffaut). My knowledge of pre-Dickens Brit lit is severely limited to say the least, but I recall a suggestion that Fielding's original prose may have supported this freewheeling, ironic approach. So I don't mean to argue that the film's fusion of aristocratic sheen and anarchic disregard for conventions was necessarily an immense departure from the source material. Nonetheless, it was a highly unusual departure from the conventions of adaptation and "big" filmmaking.

That this was a Tony Richardson film adds to the fascination. Richardson's earlier work featured Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger and Tom Courteney in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner as the classic "Angry Young Men" - guys from working-class backgrounds with a chip on their shoulder. Albert Finney's droll and lackadaisical Tom is not working-class (though his illegitimacy gives him an outsider status among the rural gentry) and is too busy chasing skirts to have much of a chip on his shoulder. More importantly, the look of those early films, black-and-white, drab, raw, would seem to differ from Tom Jones.

But there's an impulsive quality to the movies, particularly Long Distance Runner, that complements Jones nicely. The handheld work, the stream of consciousness in the storytelling, the focus on the moment -- these may be hallmarks of a different New Wave than Jones' winking references, reflexivity towards the medium, and joyous, whirling style (often as drunk as Hugh Griffith - meaning both the character he plays and, apparently, the actor himself). But both New Waves stand in stark opposition to the dominant but doomed staid conventions of the time - like the bastard on horseback, thumbing his nose at the supposedly well-mannered, overdressed boobs.

Even the most overtly stylized movies of today seem to bend over backwards in order to avoid upsetting conventions. To acknowledge that it's all a movie - and treat this as a joyous fact - often seems like the greatest taboo. It all makes one long for those halcyon days of the Czech and British and French and soon-to-born American New Waves, when spontaneity, immersion in film history, simultaneous acknowledgement and embracing of the form all coexisted. As Archie Bunker used to sing, "Those were the dayssss...." (ugh, I promised no politics, sorry...)

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