Thursday, September 11, 2008

John Schlesinger: Billy Liar

Once in a while one comes across a book or a film which feels as if it was there just for you, as if you owned them, they belonged only to you. John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar made me feel like that. Of course I am not the only one who feels this way. I am sure even the strongest, the most decisive and action-oriented of people have experienced moments in their lives in which they felt that life was “difficult” and taken a refuge in inwardness, a private world of dreams, thoughts and fantasies – which feels like the only way to assert one’s freedom, individuality and autonomy in an indifferent outside world bent on crushing you. Billy Liar is considered to be one of the popular classics of British cinema of the 60s and I am only surprised that it took me such a long time to come across it. I have already seen it three times and can see many times more. This is quite simply one of the finest films I have seen in a long time and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Billy Fisher (played by a sensational Tom Courtenay) dreams of becoming a writer but spends all his time daydreaming about an imaginary country Ambrosia where he is by turns a war hero, a Mussolini-style dictator and a president. In his more down-to-earth mental wanderings he imagines gunning down his nagging family and his pesky boss. He also can’t help inventing lies about his family background making it sound melodramatic. When the film starts his lies have already gotten him into some trouble. He finds himself engaged to two girls who both even share the same engagement ring. He has misspent the office money and fudged the accounts. His firm by the way is in the business of selling "funeral furnishings." Most of it is incredibly funny in that special painful way, specially because Schlesinger edits together the fantasy and real sequences so well. In the later half of the film he meets the free-spirited Julie Christie (some sort of proto-hippie) who has also rejected the immediate world she is in but unlike him she is able to “act” on her fantasies of freedom. Towards the end there is a very poignant scene where Billy suddenly becomes serious and asks her if she also finds life to be "difficult." She just smiles, we know that she understands what he is going through. When she offers him a chance to escape to London he realizes how important it is for him and for a second we see him weighing down the two sides of the decision – the security of his private life as opposed to escape into the real with its fears, uncertainties and responsibilities, everything that comes with it. In the end you just pray that she could just hold him tight and not let him leave, but well ,the ending wouldn’t have worked the same way as it does now.

The interplay of fantasies with dreary reality reminded me of the recent film Pan’s Labyrinth though I think this film is much superior and much more complex than that. As I said it is nothing extraordinary to invent a private world in which one can be secure, free and powerful and most of our life as teenagers are indeed built around the same. That’s why superhero fantasies are so powerful and appealing and so universal. Although the basic idea is the same I thought Billy Fisher was a much more complex character than your average teenager fantasizing about being a superhero. Most of the film is actually shot on the outside, real location in the city of Bradford which is in the process of modernization with old buildings being demolished and new ones coming up which are no less dreary than the old ones. In this context the fantasies and lies of Billy rather paradoxically make him a much more “authentic” character because he is rejecting and negating the drab realities of his existence. He has escaped into a higher realm of truth which is beyond the “facts” of his world. This also reminded me of Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities who says that in the modern world the “sense of the possible” can exist only in an inward-looking life – an approach built on the negation of what is merely “real” in a shallow way. In fact the only difference between Billy Fisher and a great artist or a writer is that he can’t get himself to act and start his novel that is inside him. (He gets stuck on what name he should choose before starting the book)

Tom Courtenay as I mentioned above is absolutely sensational in every single scene (and he is in almost every scene of the film). His tone and voice rhythms with which he relates his fantasies on the voice-over give those scenes a sense of poignancy which they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Julie Christie has a shorter role but she is absolutely stunning as well. The sequence in which she walks through the streets swinging her handbag is just pure cinema. Actually this scene is one of the hallmarks of French new wave cinema too – a celebration of freedom and free-spiritedness. Her character is also quite refreshingly forward looking – she openly says that she has had quite a few boyfriends and she is still portrayed as a “good girl.” The outdoor location cinematography is brilliant too in the way it uses those sights and sounds and makes them intrinsic to the story. There is a wonderful twist sequence with a wonderfully silly song (“Twisterella”) which almost made me break into a twist. Other characters are perfectly played as well – in fact I can’t think of any single thing in the film which is any less than pure perfection. I also think that they copied the “plastics” sequence in The Graduate from this film or at least took their inspiration from here. (In one of the sequence Billy’s boss shows him a miniature model of coffin made of Plastic - the future obviously!!)

Actually characters who struggle with their indecisiveness and their inability to seize the day and act are quite common in fiction and films but there aren’t many as painfully real as Billy Liar. This is one of the rare occasions when even after realizing that it was all just a story I kept wondering whatever happened to him after the story ended? What did he end up with and what became of him eventually? The truth is not that hard to find I guess, because I feel he is somewhere close to me, in fact a little too painfully close. Lots of details about the film and specially its sources here. I am already looking for the original novel now.


puccinio said...

''Billy Liar'' is one of the best of all British films. I haven't seen it in ages so this is an acceptable pretext for me to revisit it. To me it's one of those films that create a distinct British style that while influenced by the Nouvelle Vague doesn't work like wholesale attempts to make New Wave films in England unlike say Tony Richardson's films.

John Schlesinger was a very talented director in the 60's and early 70's whose career was stiffled somewhat by Hollywood but this film, ''Midnight Cowboy'' and ''Sunday, Bloody Sunday''(which has nothing to do with Ireland) are excellent. His ''Darling'' is flawed but still interesting and more Godardian(while ''Billy Liar'' is more Truffaut and Jacques Demy) and it has a supreme Christie performance(and a good one by the great Dirk Bogarde though he's cast better elsewhere). His other interesting film is ''The Day of the Locust''(the Hollywood adaptation of the Nathanael West classic of the same name, it's got nothing on the book but it's still fascinating).

Actually this scene is one of the hallmarks of French new wave cinema too – a celebration of freedom and free-spiritedness.

To some extent yes although many people neglect the pessimism of such films as ''Shoot the Piano Player'' or ''La Peau Douce''(by Truffaut), ''Les Bonnes Femmes''(by Chabrol, an utterly forgotten super-masterpiece) or much of Godard especially ''Vivre sa Vie''. Only they did it with a sense of humour and casual sartorial hipness.

Alok said...

Those french film sometimes become too "intellectual" and cold (with which I don't really have a problem), what makes Billy Liar a little different is the warmth and the humanity of its portrait. I am also in awe of these British actors. They are skillful and completely spontaneous, both at the same time. I just saw Albert Finney in "Satuday Night and Sunday Morning" and he was astonishing as well. (Actually he played Billy Liar on stage where Tom Courtenay was his understudy.) They are all up there with young Brando in my opinion. It's a great loss for cinema (but may be gain for theatre) that many of these actors spent more time doing theatre.

Also I don't think it is very insightful to compare it with French new wave. Although there is an element of self-awareness of style (specially in the way people are framed with the urban landscape) the style is still subservient to and serves content which is very strong. I think it belongs more the social-realist school (something which has always excited me) though it does take that style into new and exciting directions. I have already put "The Loneliness of long distance runner" on the queue too. I will also look for other Schlesinger films. Thanks as always for all the tips.

puccinio said...

Oh it's no big deal. Someone should see these films after all otherwise they tend to fall on the wayside. Film is after all an uttainable text as Raymond Bellour famously argued.

I've been re-visiting my New Wave favourites. This year marks the 50th anniversary of ''Le Beau Serge'' which is technically the first New Wave film and next year is of course the anniversaries of films by Truffaut, Chabrol and the others. So in the run-up for the eventual celebration or retrospectives for that groundbreaking movement I thought I should re-evaluate how I feel about that.

The British New Wave was very much more socially conscious, for better and for worse. The New Wave was more interested in the way cinema could be used to convey different aspects of experience or doing it cinematically. It wasn't about telling a story but simply to quote Godard, "putting everything in the cinema". That is about eliminating or blurring the line between form and content. Godard succeeded in ridding himself of it altogether.

British actors are great. Albert Finney is fantastic(though if I were you I'd avoid the bland ''Tom Jones'' his signature role). Another film that's closer to a British New Wave film(made ironically by an American) is ''Two for the Road'' and Finney is fantastic in that film, a very mature love story.

Interestingly the one British film made in that period closest to the New Wave in style is Michael Powell's ''Peeping Tom''. Powell is very much old-guard and his cast didn't include any 60's stars(although Karlheinz Bohm the lead went on to join the Fassbinder stock company). Jonathan Rosenbaum declared that his favourite British New Wave film for similar reasons.