In the mid-1950s, young people of the Western society experienced feelings of restlessness and discontentment, which fully emerged on the surface of the society several years later, influencing the next decade to such a degree that the 1960s have remained a synonym for times when things just “were different”.
In 1955, dinosaurs came alive on the Czechoslovak screen thanks to Karel Zeman;in the US, everybody fell for the young “Rebel without a Cause” James Dean; in France, two young journalists of Cahiers du Cinema slipped to a pool during their visit in the film studios where Alfred Hitchcock was just finishing his film To Catch a Thief.
While the gentlemen Truffaut and Chabrol were drying, their colleagues from the Sequence film magazine, aspiring filmmakers Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, were actively seeking their place in the almost hermetically closed British film industry. In 1955, they both made their first short documentaries. Anderson made O Dreamland – a collage of experiences from the Margate entertainment park while Reisz, together with theatre director Tony Richardson, made Momma Don’t Allow – a group portrait of “teddy boys”, young visitors of the Wood Green jazz club. Reisz’s film was financed by the gradually evolving British Film Institute (BFI) which also financed the film The Glass Marble by Italian-born Lorenza Mazzetti , later renamed Together after the creative intervention by Lindsay Anderson. These three young and, in fact, amateur filmmakers initiated the Free Cinema manifesto, thus writing a significant chapter in the history of British cinematography. Paradoxically, none of them was English except for Richardson; Mazzetti was Italian, Reisz came from Czechoslovakia and Anderson was born in Scotland.
Made up of eleven sentences altogether, the Free Cinema manifesto was written to draw the attention of the press to the films by the three (respectively four) filmmakers mentioned above; the films were presented as a film series by London’s National Film Theatre in February 1956. Not even the filmmakers themselves expected Free Cinema to turn out as more than one film evening; however, their films received such strong acclaim of both the audiences and art critique that the continuation of the project suggested itself. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the Free Cinema movement, although established primarily as advertising for films “nobody would screen”, has touched the energies that started flowing through the film world. During the second evening, Free Cinema presented the “guest” American film On the Bowery by Lionel Rogosin; the fourth composed programme, held two years later, confirmed the significance of the new “free” cinema by introducing the newborn French New Wave – Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Truffaut’s Les Mistons. The fifth evening introduced Polanski’s Dwaj ludzie z szafa/Two Men and a Wardrobe while the sixth evening returned to where it started, presenting the new film by Karel Reisz We Are the Lambeth Boys. That was the end of the Free Cinema project as a series of composed cinema screenings. However, Free Cinema as such did not disappear. Having moved to a more general level, the term became established as a label for a new film style which was to flood the banks of world cinema later in the form of numerous national “new waves”. Thanks to the success of Free Cinema, Reisz, Anderson and Richardson moved on to making films which were successful both with the audiences and criticism yet continuing the aesthetics of their first “free” films.
Why was it that the first Free Cinema documentaries attracted so much attention? For instance, Reisz’s films Momma Don’t Allow and We Are the Lambeth Boys depict but one evening in a local dance hall, following the free time of the youth from families of “lower social status”. The answer to this question lies in the period when these films were made and in the way they were made.
(to be continued)
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