Monday, 19 July 2010

Lorenza Mazzetti's Together

Lorenze Mazzetti

Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together was originally included as part of the first Free Cinema programme organised by Lindsay Anderson as a showcase for non-commercial cinema and shown on 5-8 February 1956 alongside Anderson’s own O Dreamland and Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow. Anderson, Reisz and Richardson went on to produce some of the key works of the British cinema of the 50s and 60s, with films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz) A Taste of Honey (Richardson) and If…(Anderson). But for me, it is Mazzetti’s film which really stands out from this original programme, and provides the highlight of the BFI’s Free Cinema box set in which it can be found. Mazzetti was born in Florence and came to Italy in 1952 to study painting at the Slade School of art. She received a grant from the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund after they’d seen her adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Some of the same air of alienation and everyday estrangement which Kafka made his own can be found in Together. The grant gave Mazzetti access to a 35mm camera, and as a result the film has a more assured cinematic feel than some of the other, more rough and ready Free Cinema offerings. Mazzetti returned to Italy soon after Together was completed and shown. She went on to make documentaries and also wrote two successful novels, published in England as The Sky Folds and Rage. The former (a story set during the Second World War drawing on her own traumatic childhood experiences) was made into a film in Italy in 2000, starring Isabella Rossellini, and was known as The Sky Will Fall in America.

The odd couple - Eduardo Paolozzi and Michael Andrews
Together is a film set around the Shad Thames area of East End London, which is seen through the eyes of two deaf mute friends who work on the docks and who are inseparable. They provide an outsider’s perspective, their limited ability to communicate shutting them off from the world of sound around them. Mazzetti, in the interview included in the box set documentary, admits that ‘I was the outsider’, and that through these characters ‘I was projecting my feelings’. The protagonists are played by two of her artist friends, the sculptor and pop surrealist Eduardo Paolozzi and the painter Michael Andrews, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. They form a visually distinctive odd couple, Paolozzi stocky and stolid and Andrews wiry and full of nervy expressiveness. The area is full of noises (this is in part a documentary mapping the sounds of the docklands and its surrounds) but the soundtrack occasionally cuts out, inviting us to enter the silent world of the two friends and share their perspective. There is a moment in the film in which Andrews watches as the daughter of the family in whose house they lodge gazes dreamily through a window at a passing barge and smiles as if she is for a moment seeing the world as they do. Whereas Paolozzi’s character retreats into himself and lives inside his isolation, Andrews tries to reach out to the world around him. There’s a scene in a pub in which an old geezer sitting on the bench beside him engages him in animated conversation. The jazz blasting out of the juke box falls silent and we see the old boy in clear focus. Andrews, struggling to comprehend him, slips in and out of focus, with fluctuating light creating a progression of shadow and illumination which expresses the concentrated workings of his mind. The film introduces the sudden cessation of sound on several occasions, and it’s a very effective device. Stripped of the hubbub of a busy working environment and its attendant and equally bustling social life, we are able to view this world afresh, with visual senses re-awakened. When the sound crashes back in, it hits us with the force of a physical blow.

Not one of us
The film opens with a dedication to the people of the East End, but they are hardly portrayed in a warm light. They are suspicious of and unwelcoming to the two strangers in their midst, their attitude typified by the two stony-faced matriarchs who watch them arriving at their lodgings with arms folded in blunt and disdainful appraisal. Armstrong makes a hat-raising attempt at civility, but their sideways glances spell out the fact that he is ‘not one of us’. Children make a recurrent appearance throughout the film, their songs and games providing interludes between other scenes featuring Andrews and Paolozzi. The opening scenes suggest that they will be presented in a typically cute if scampish manner, but as the film progresses, they become more like the shock troops of the local community. They hang from lampposts and crouch atop stacks of barrels and crumbling walls, sending advance warning of the arrival of our two innocent protagonists, who just want to be left alone. They chalk stick figures of them onto the towering walls of dockside buildings which look like they could easily be the end product of some sinister variant of hangman. Childhood chants form the backdrop to their play, with Michael Finnegan and Eenie, Meenie, Minie Moe carrying a faintly menacing charge. These are the Bash Street kids swollen in number and looking for an easy target for their merciless childhood scorn. The rubble-strewn bomb sites which are still prevalent in the area (it was only a decade on from the war in which the docklands were a prime target) form the open spaces of their playgrounds, and they form a mini-mob of grubby kneed anarchists, with plenty of ammunition to hand. One of the children can be seen picking up a couple of bricks as Andrews and Paolozzi walk through their swarming throng. They plague and pester the two deaf mutes, pulling faces behind their backs, and darting up to and away from them, touching and poking on a dare. Several make that peculiarly English face achieved by thrusting the tongue out beneath the lower lip. It’s a gesture full of cruelly mocking intent, and one much favoured by John Lennon in the early days of The Beatles, an indication that a part of him was still lodged firmly back in the playground.

Bombsite Frankenstein's monster and brick-wielding mob
The deaf mutes have a childlike air themselves. Andrews’ character is awkward and shy but eager to connect with people, to be liked. He has an ache of romantic yearning, gazing longingly at the daughter of the family they lodge with, and at the dark-haired dancer at the fair he visits, with whom he conjures up a passionate encounter in his nighttime reveries. But his obvious neediness only succeeds in alerting the professionally attuned radar of a prostitute at the pub. Paolozzi’s character is withdrawn and expressionless, his broad block of a head creased into a look of permanently furrowed inward concentration. He has shut the world out, retreating into an inner space. He gazes at the children’s marbles, which he has scooped up earlier, in the pub, as if they contain some profound reflection of this inner world. For this odd couple, throwing contrast off each other in both shape and manner, not only the bombsites but the docks and the residential areas surrounding them are a harsh and unforgiving playground in which they have to fend for themselves. They have no gang, only each other. Just for a moment, Paolozzi turns on his tormentors and picks one of them up, shaking him above his head, his square frame outlined against the backdrop of buildings behind like an East End Frankenstein’s monster. In the original script, written by Denis Horne (with whom Mazzetti was going out at the time) it was Paolozzi’s inadvertent theft of the marbles which he finds lying abandoned in the street which prompted the children’s persecution of the duo. The plot was largely lost in the edit, however, and Horne’s co-creator credit seems more a generously inclusive gesture than an accurate indicator of his contribution.

Thames barges through a rainy window
In the end, the children’s incipient violence becomes manifest. They slip through alleys and pour through the window shells of bombed out buildings like soldiers seeking cover amongst the wreckage of war. Paolozzi has nipped off to the loo, which seems to be built into the end corner of a row of terraced houses. It’s the kind of convenience which Geoffrey Fletcher would no doubt have found fascinating, several pages of his book The London Nobody Knows being devoted to quirky lavs. Andrews perches on a wall, gazing at the light on the water in the dock basin beneath his feet. The children creep up on him and one of them tips him over to flounder in the water, his cries for help unheard by the returning Paolozzi, who looks around in puzzlement. The implication is that he slips below the surface and drowns. The final shot is of a tugboat pulling upstream, trailing a chain of empty skips. The sweet thames flows slowly on, as indifferent to the fate of these two outsiders as to any who’ve worked on its shore throughout history. The melancholy tenor of this conclusion, and of the film as a whole (much enhanced by the lonely, hushed tone and dislocated melodies of Daniele Paris’ oboe and violin based score) with its pervasive aura of menace and suspended violence may reflect something of Mazzetti’s own traumatic childhood. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her uncle and aunt. Her aunt and cousins were killed by the SS towards the end of the Second World War, and her uncle committed suicide a year later. She later admitted to being in an emotionally distraught state whilst in England, especially after her break up with Denis Horne, and was unable to complete her follow up project, which was to have been a documentary on the teddy boys. She managed to exorcise some of these early traumatic experiences in her novel Il Cielo Cade (The Sky Falls), which is strongly autobiographical in nature. She seems cheerful and happy in the interview included on the bfi disc.

Junk shop installation
Lindsay Anderson proved a key influence and was generous with his help in editing the film. This was after an initially prickly meeting, in which, as she remembers in the interview, he was ‘so unkind’. He agreed to assist her if thought her film was any good and not just a load of rubbish. She characterises their working relationship in military terms, with him as a general and her as ‘a simple soldier’. Elsewhere, she describes him as being ‘tenderly rude and grumpy’, and they did become friends after this awkward start. It was Anderson who encouraged her to abandon the rigid structure of Horne’s story, and to go out and shoot some more footage of the area. It thus became as much an evocative documentary as seen through the eyes of an outsider. It’s interesting that several others of the Free Cinema films view London from an outsider’s perspective. Frenchman Alain Tanner’s Nice Time observes the night-time crowds around Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square; Robert Vas, who had fled Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1956 drew on his own experiences for his Refuge England; Karel Reisz, who was co-director on Momma Don’t Allow and director of We Are The Lambeth Boys, had left his native Czechoslovakia after the Nazi’s invaded; and Lindsay Anderson (O! Dreamland, Every Day Except Christmas and Wakefield Express) and Tony Richardson (Momma Don’t Allow) were gay and bisexual, and so effectively exiles in their own land at this time. It could be said that artists naturally tend to be outsiders, anyway, and deliberately cultivate a certain distance from that which they wish to observe and creatively transform. Casting two artists as her characters works perfectly for Mazzetti in this sense too, even if it lies outside the framework of the film’s narrative. They certainly look different from everyone around them. The dancer at the fairground looks like she too might have been one of Mazzetti’s Slade art school friends, with her left bank, Juliette Greco-esque look, bare footed with wild, dark hair and black sweater. The scenes of the two in their attic room, or browsing outside a second-hand shop, or Andrews alone wandering through the market and at the fair, reminded me of Ken Russell’s Monitor film Pop Goes The Easel, in which he follows pop artists Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips around some similar London locations.

Shad Thames canyon
The documentary aspect of the film is now particularly fascinating in its glimpses of a world which is now gone for good. The cavernous canyons between warehouses which are filled with clangorous industrial sound worthy of Einsturzende Neubaten during the film, and which are threaded with bridging walkways, are now luxury (and in this case the term really does apply) flats, as indeed is pretty much all of the Thames riverside from Tower Bridge down to Greenwich. You can see the Shad Thames warehouses on the cusp of their 80s redevelopment in the 1984 Doctor Who story Resurrection of the Daleks, in which the narrow street is the focus for some particularly violent action, with inevitable stunt tumbles from gantries. Butler’s Wharf, where Armstrong and Paolozzi are seen working, was home to Derek Jarman’s studio from 1973-79, with the adjoining Thameside terrace the stage for many of his super-8 films (including some of the footage which made it into Jubilee). His room backed onto one of the walkways across the Shad Thames canyon. Butler’s Wharf now houses more luxury apartments, with fancy eateries attached. The criss-crossing, vorticist latticework of cranes and chimneys, the barges and tugboats and cargoes waiting to be winched into warehouses are all fascinating records of the working docks. At the end of the film, we see a steam crane in action, snorting out fuming billows as it dredges the canal basin to deposit bucketloads of river mud into a waiting lighter. In the commentary to the recent re-issue of the film Separation, made a decade or so later, director Jack Bond notes of a steam crane working near to the Royal Oak pub in Isleworth that it was the last one in London at the time. So these beasts’ days were numbered even whilst Together was being filmed. There are some great weathered and worn faces to be seen, too. In the pub scenes, we get the old drunkard offering his boozy ballad, and the louche lothario by the jukebox, twisting his way through his come-on dance in his shabby suit. The ale is dark and the benches occupied with old ladies as much as young men. At the fair and in the market, there are buskers and beggars and bargain hunters scrutinising the goods with an unimpressionable eye. With this film, Mazzetti offers both a documentarist’s view of another side of London, away from the neon advertising of Piccadilly and the theatres of the West End, and a deeply personal reflection on the feeling of being rejected, of being an outsider. As the work of someone who was still a student at the time, Mazzetti is right to look back on it with pride.



Reginald Glanshaw said...

Enjoyed reading this, thanks. When I first got the Free Cinema DVD box set 'Together' didn't make much of an impression, but now it's the film I go back to most. I'm fascinated by the pub scenes, verging on the Victorian with so many extraordinary faces. I would love to know something about the man in the greasy suit who does the rubber-legs dance at the juke-box. So comical and desperate.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding: a short film that still leaves any intelligent viewer thinking and worrying. Besides a compelling narrative of two alienated deaf mutes there is an unrivalled quasi-documentary view of the London docklands, bomb sites and all, in the mid 1950s. Along with "Food for a Blush" - another film by an otherwise unknown maker - it is the joint highlight of the BFI Free Cinema compilation.

Bob Venning

Anonymous said...

This is some review! Thank you for your words.

Anonymous said...

Just watched this film for the first time and it made a great impression. The use of sound is brilliant especially the dock noises that accompany the morning scene as one of the character's washes his face.

Thanks for the review which is very interesting and enlightening.