Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down

A student of mine once revealed that a friend of his dad’s was some kind of a film director. “His name’s Karel Reisz. I know he did something called SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. Is that any good?”

I told him it was, and filled him in slightly on the movie, including the catchphrase quoted above. “That came from his movie?” asked the student. Well, really it came from Alan Sillitoe and his book, but it’s great that Reisz helped popularize it, make it part of everyday philosophy like that.

Reisz’s last work has been lurking in my unwatched pile for quite a while — Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words I, directed by Reisz (who hadn’t worked for some years, and may already have been ill) for a compendium of Beckett adaptations (Atom Egoyan’s Krapp’s Last Tape with John Hurt is rather good).

Maybe I was too influenced by the knowledge that Beckett was influenced by Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JNR, but I had trouble adjusting to the look and feel of Reisz’s version. In a blue-skied studio desert, a nameless, wordless man (Sean Foley) is tormented by his environment, which dangles a bottle of water just out of reach, offers him boxes to help him to climb to the suspended drink, then raises the drink further up. He’s a silent comedy version of Tantalus, imprisoned in a Hell of eternally frustrated desires. Even suicide is denied him, a hangman’s branch folding up uselessly when he approaches with an improvised noose.

Foley is quite good, throwing himself around the set with some athleticism, his face a mask of suffering — comedy is undercut. But the framing and cutting don’t have Keaton’s absolute clarity. In a world where objects shift about in obedience to some malign disembodied whim, it’s no good for Reisz to allow the hanging beaker of water to slip out of frame for long periods — we can’t assume it’s still there if we can’t see it. When the narrative point is that the water is unreachable, including a little dune in the foreground which makes it look as if the man could leap from it to catch the water, is a serious compositional blunder.

Even the dayglo sky, which I found not too attractive in itself, betrays some visible wrinkles in one shot. If they’d been like the creased diorama of FRANKENSTEIN’s blasted heath, I might have liked them, but they just seem like a flaw in something that’s already ugly. Compared to the lovely low-res video of Beckett’s own German TV work, this wasn’t what I’d call pretty.

For Reisz at his best, try the above-mentioned Albert Finney kitchen sink drama, as well as MORGAN: A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT, with a superb David Warner, and THE GAMBLER, a really strong James Caan piece, epitomizing 70s New Hollywood despair, written by James Toback.

UK: Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment [DVD]

Beckett On Film [DVD]

6 Responses to “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down”

  1. Don’t forget Who’ll Stop the Rain with Nicke Nolte and Tuseday Weld in superb form.

    I met Reisz, and his wife Betsy Blair, when he came to town to promote The French Lietenant’s Woman (another Reisz goody.) Charming couple.

    Reisz is also responsible for a teriffic book on film editing.

  2. I tried to watch Reisz’s ACT WITHOUT WORDS I. As I recall, it was broken up into two parts on YouTube and I never bothered watching the second part. I didn’t much care for Minghella’s PLAY or the version of BREATH that was part of the Beckett on Film set either. The directors showed off too much, when I would have preferred something more minimal.

    If you can find it, I highly recommend ACTE SANS PAROLES, a French stop motion version of AWW1 from the 60s. It used to be part of the VHS Janus Collection of Classic Shorts here in the States. Don’t know where it can be readily found these days.

  3. Film Editing, co-authored with Gavin Millar (Dreamchild) adorns my bookshelf. All the more impressive since neither writer had shot or edited a film at the time of writing it, but it’s a great look at the nuts and bolts of editing aesthetics.

    Neil Jordan’s film of Not I also strikes me as needlessly show-offy. Good Krapp and Godot though.

    No sign of Acte Sans Paroles so far, but let’s keep our eyes out!

  4. I think the phrase ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ predates Sillitoe. My Dad was fond of quoting the cod-Latin version, ‘Nil Illegitimi Carborundum’ and I always assumed he picked that up in the army during WW2.

  5. Whenever the subject of salaries comes up in our household, someone is bound to quote Arthur’s line on opening his wage packet.

    “Fourteen pounds, eight shillings and thruppence!”

    We never get the Nottingham accent quite right, nor the note of disgust in the voice, but it’s not for want of trying.

  6. Heh!

    Ah well, if Sillitoe didn’t invent it, he did a good job passing it on to a new generations.

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