The Knack…and How to Get It

This post was originally published on the New Beverly Cinema blog on August 23, 2016. It is being republished here with full permission of the New Beverly. For the original post (with different artwork) please see the original post here.

In March of 2015, The Knack…and How To Get It screened in Nimes, France for their British Screen Festival. During the introduction, director Richard Lester spoke on the experience of making the film, saying his previous movie (A Hard Day’s Night) was essentially “about four people who communicated without speaking and [The Knack was] about four people who speak without communicating. The original stage play was very much more, as we say,  fascist versus liberal,  it was a more political piece.  In my usual fashion of ruining a good play or a good book, I quickly tried to turn the fascist into a figure of pity and scorn. So the strongest character quickly became the weakest.”

The Knack…and How To Get It is a difficult piece for many to engage in, even if it is a comedy. But that is one of the reasons it remains such a fascinating work. This swingin’ London-drenched film is funny and whimsical in the manner of Help! or A Hard Day’s Night, while also quilting the intellectual and emotional power struggles of the youth and working class, a familiar tool of British New Wave cinema. If that weren’t enough, woven into the verbiage, visuals and characters of the film are discussions of sexual freedom, women’s liberation and male domination, all highly topical in 1964.

The vast majority of the British New Wave was nicknamed “angry young men” films or “Kitchen Sink films” (mostly due to the kind of social realism that it utilized). One might’ve assumed that this adaptation of Ann Jellicoe’s play would have followed those New Wave rules a little more closely but that was entirely not Lester’s style. Instead, his film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 with its conflux of surrealism, intergenerational commentary and sexual/linguistic anarchism.

The Knack… was one of two films adapted from women-written plays at the time, the other being Sheleigh Delaney’s Taste of Honey. Both played strong parts in the British New Wave and were considered to be groundbreaking in their own ways. Fun Fact: Rita Tushingham stars in both Taste of Honey and The Knack… and was the only performer from the stage production of The Knack to make it to the film! Secondary Fun Fact: The Knack…and How to Get It features the first glimpses of three of the most gorgeous women to ever delight the silver screen: Charlotte Rampling (water skiing), Jane Birkin(a girl on a motorbike, because of course), and Jacqueline Bisset (one of the ladies in the white sweaters)

The Knack…and How to Get It is an awkward film. It’s challenging at its best and uncomfortable at certain edges. There won’t be any major film “reveals” in this article but it would be unfair to the reading (and hopefully viewing) audience if I was not to tell you that there was an extraordinary examination of the word “rape” within the film text. There are a variety of ways that this can be viewed, none of which I propose are in any way excuses for rape/rape jokes/anything of that kind, so bear with me. Within this exchange, language becomes practically meaningless. So we wonder…what has meaning become with these characters? Do any of them know what they mean? Of the characters given, we have been led to see that emotional meaning is only critical to a few of them. If this is the case, where does the word “rape” work and with who? Lester had stated that these are characters that speak without communicating. Is it only through threats and fear that one may effectively deal with the other? But then does she herself understand her own power? The dynamics of the film, especially when the majority of the work has maintained a highly critical and negative spin on men’s treatment of women ends up being highly complex and must be taken into consideration when this moment comes to pass. This multilayered film is a damn onion and there is no getting around that.

In the modern context of gender dynamics, female agency and sexuality, the obvious questions arise when discussing a piece like The Knack: has the film aged well? Is it still relevant? As we delve into a work that is keenly problematic in a number of different ways- both for young women and for young men and our relationships to each other, be it 1964 or 2016 – I say that yes, this film is still relevant and worthy perhaps because of those problematic spaces.

This may sound like a quite serious film and in many ways, the subjects being tackled are quite serious: rape, harassment, “being cool,” toxic masculinity, nerd shaming, you name it. But let us not forget that this is, above all, a Richard Lester film. While we may continue to dissect the intricate verbiage and myriad of narrative interactions between characters for years to come, the film itself is utterly entertaining. And that cannot be discounted. The levity within tenseness is welcome.

Having been trained in Peter Sellers’ Goon Show school of absurdity, Richard Lester knew exactly how to throw together a tableau of WTF-ness, even for 1964.  Aside from the fact that furniture is being dragged around a large urban area (London) and surreal incidents are part and parcel of the narrative from scene one, Lester added a Chorus of everyday folks as part of the film. This was, of course, no part of the original play, but the moment this Chorus appears and a running commentary on the younger generation starts, there is just no question. Richard Lester is written all over this film. This unconventional and completely anarchic spirit that breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis is the same spirit that Lester brought to his films with The Beatles and would later bring to the Superman films and everything in between. It is Lester-ism, just in varying degrees and incarnations.

As The Knack…was being shot, Lester details the camera set up that they used for the outdoors work. A number of different tents were set up to hide second or third cameras and used to film normal people on the streets of London who were watching the crew film. “As you can imagine,” Lester grimaces, “[most of the time] they were disgusted. So we took those bits of film, natural people responding to us, and added comment and voices over for post-production, and it became the style of the film.”

This spontaneity, youth critique and class-consciousness emphasizes the role that The Knack…and How To Get it played in British New Wave cinema. Ann Jellicoe may not have liked the adaptation of her play but the film certainly transmogrified the original material into something else entirely; a critical piece of British Film history and a work that, in modern context, allows us to investigate the meaning of language, actions, image concepts and the relationship of masculinity to sexuality. As a woman, it may be an uncomfortable film at times, especially since it is a comedy. But it is a smart film, which is integral to its interpretation. There is a lot going on in the film. It is absurd, sometimes shocking, always worth watching.

Of note: Richard Lester’s connections to the British New Wave do not end with The Knack. 1968’s Petulia (the incredible film that the New Beverly Cinema is pairing up with The Knack…and How To Get It) is populated by British New Wave figures. The star, the lovely Julie Christie, was in a pioneering BNW classic called Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965) and Nic Roeg, cinematographer for Petulia, shot quite a few films in the early 60s for different BNW filmmakers. In addition, the hip John Barry score that runs throughout The Knack… finds its match in the compositions that Barry has written for what Lester often said was the favorite of his films, Petulia.

Sinamatic Salve-ation Visits the Wayback Machine: British New Wave Mondays on TCM!

So ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. At first, I thought I was going to write fiction. Then I couldn’t finish a damn thing, and I scrapped that idea. Those were the Smith-Corona days. Then, soon after, due to my love of Stephen King, I read The Talisman, and convinced my cousin that we should write a book together. THAT would solve the problem!

Not really. I still couldn’t get anything completed. I gave up on all my writerly notions. Until I discovered film theory, history and criticism. My world changed forever, and I have been scribbling about it in one form or another ever since. One of the things I enjoy most about film writing is getting to introduce people to subjects or films that they, perhaps, have never considered before. It was much easier pre-internet takeover, when things were primarily in print form, circa-my undergraduate career. However, I am still of the opinion that there are some things that people have yet to discover and/or appreciate.

Like the British New Wave.

Tonight Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is starting their British New Wave Mondays in March series and it’s a doozy. This evening alone you can grab Room at the Top  (Jack Clayton, 1959), The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960). You can also see Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz, 1966) and Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), but the last two don’t quite fall into the British New Wave category. They are truly excellent films, however, and I would highly recommend setting your DVR!! Morgan is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

I fell in love with the British New Wave in my late teens, and, like any good relationship, it has continually been a source of interest for me over the years and never let me down. Is it the fact that it was borne from documentary and surrealism and I enjoy both? Perhaps. Is it the use of Rita Tushingham and Julie Christie? Yes. Is it my mad love affair with young Tom Courtenay? Probably. However, I tend to see it as a the full package that it is: highly influenced by the theater of the time and an extremely economically desparate climate, these films reflect a young culture that was looking for romance, fantasy and a way out in any way that they could. It rarely worked, but watching it is both heartbreaking and beautiful. Each film is so different and so fantastic in its own way. I could never say that Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961–playing on March 12th, by the way! Do NOT miss this!) was quite the same as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963–playing on March 19th, and starring the inimitable Richard Harris!), but they carry with them threads of Britishness, youth, and energy that cannot be denied.

These are some of the first punk rock films ever made. Screw the Sex Pistols, gimme Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963)

Tom Courtney, Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963)

So I come to my main point. I wrote an article about the British New Wave for my school film magazine in the Winter of 2000. See, around that time everyone was starting to be very excited about British cinema again, with the release of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) a few years earlier and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) quite soon after that. I was young and a completely unpolished writer. I was a semi-academic undergrad studying critical film theory at UC Santa Cruz, and I knew that these most recent films were great, but I was bummed out that more people weren’t aware that England actually had a film history. So, I wrote the following piece. Since TCM is doing this great series, I figured it was time to go back in time and dig it out, warts and all.

Please forgive it. It is now going on 12 years old, and clearly not what (or how) I would write the same piece today. However, I feel that with the series going on, it is only right to share a little piece of my old-school British New Wave writing here. In addition, if any of you readers do happen to watch any of the films in the TCM Series, I would love to know what you think. They truly are wonderful films and get wrongfully neglected too often.

BRIT FLICKS: Yes, There Were Films Before Trainspotting

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) was cool. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was cool. And more recently, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) was cool and won awards. So it seems that there is an awakening taking place all over the United Kingdom. Now while it is true that these films are unusual, exciting and exemplary pieces of filmmaking, it is not true that they are the first of their kind.

From 1959 to approximately 1964-65 Britain experienced a cinematic revolution. It was the transition from “dull studio artifice” of traditional classical narrative and story patterns to something more up-to-date and relevant to the audiences watching. This revolution of sorts was called the British New Wave and called upon audiences to identify with their entertainment instead of feeling disconnected by their lack of correct representation on-screen.

Several directors played a key part in the creation of the British New Wave. Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and the best known Tony Richardson all figured into the creation of this new group of humanistic and reality-based films.There were no princes or fairytales in these films, nor were there any real “winners” at the end. These were films that faced the harsh realities of being young and working class in England. According to writer and critic Arthur Marmick, this period had three major tendencies: social criticism and satire, authentic representation of working-class lifestyles, and genuine innovation in breaking away from purely naturalistic film. These same reasons were why the watching public was very interested in these films and was notably more fond of them than of the films that had come out in previous years of post-war Britain.

This cinema was very much based around life’s harsh realities, the fragility of the family, and any and all emotional discourse erupting from that, as well as unusual visual portrayals of working class existence. Instead of following traditional narrative structure, these films chose to break it up, segment it, and tear it down. They speed up scenes such as the stealing of the car in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), making it look like an old silent film.

In addition, the continual flashbacks within Loneliness add to the main character’s “angry young man” persona, but also solidify him as the quintessential working class anti-hero. This camera play seems to leave us with the obvious influence on more recent cinema figures like Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy). These recent films have not only utilized this same kind of camera work but also explored some of the different realms that the British New Wave presented.

Many films in the British New Wave explored the establishment of youth communities as a result of feeling let down by family-figures, betrayed, or just kicked out. These ideas are also quite pronounced in Lock, Stock…and even more exemplified in the lifestyles and relationships within Trainspotting. Boyle and Ritchie play with a world in which the only protagonists are young kids, quite reflective of the universe of young unfortunates that figured into the British New Wave.

One parallel that also seems to run between the groupings of films, then and now, is their reliance on current and controversial literature in order to make these films a much more real and present-day experience. Tony Richardson fought with the British Board of Film Censors a great deal just as a result of his use of “working class language” which they found inappropriate. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner became a big deal between the censors and the filmmaker because of the story. The BBFC discussed Alan Sillatoe’s novel as being “full of wrong-headed social sentiments” and the main character, Colin, to be anarchic and a “good hero of the British Soviet.” After Sillatoe and Richardson made certain concessions with the language in the film, removed a few elements and reworded a few other items, the film was allowed to be released.

Clearly, by the time Trainspotting was made (from the Irvine Welsh novel), British New Wave, the elder sibling had already paved the way. Not only was working class vernacular not a problem,  but frank discussion of heroin, crime and familial violence was explicitly represented (although the British New Wave seemed to represent familial violence fairly regularly). As well, the cinematic styles that had been borne out of the British New Wave- the quick cuts, the visual choppiness that set it apart from all else on the UK screens of the time- lent themselves beautifully to the anti-narrative literature of someone like Welsh.

The one area that modern British films don’t seem to be exploring as much (with noted exceptions) is the roles and positions of women. Although there has been a certain amount (not much) written about the British New Wave and the “angry young man” films, there were also films that contributed greatly to changing and recognizing the role of young women at the time. Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) is a perfect example.

Paul Danquah (Jimmy) and Rita Tushingham (Jo) in Taste of Honey (1961)

In A Taste of Honey, a young teenage girl named Jo has to deal with an exceptionally irresponsible single mother. Jo decides that she has had enough when her mother throws her aside in favor of a new boyfriend. Jo leaves and encounters a black sailor named Jimmy. She has a one-night-stand with him almost as a way of recognizing her own independence (sidenote for all you Smiths fans out there- remember that line from “Reel Around the Fountain”? The one that goes “I dreamt about you last night and fell out of bed twice”? That’s in this film!). Jo becomes pregnant from this encounter and must move forward, trying to find a home for herself and her new baby that is on its way. Luckily, a new relationship with a gay young man surfaces and, while Jo is alienated, she has renegotiated life on her terms.

Julie Christie as Diana Scott in Darling (1965)

This film was of significant importance as it showed the emergence of a discourse that surrounded young women and their sexuality, something that previous British cinema had not thought it wise to approach. Others films followed which advanced discussion of a previously taboo subject and began to break down stereotypes previously created for women in British film. As Julie Christie said of her role in John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965), “She was extraordinary…Here was a woman who didn’t want to get married, didn’t want to have children like those kitchen-sink heroines; no, Darling wanted everything…”

All in all, it was the non-conventional nature of the British New Wave that has helped to spawn the non-conventional nature of the recent UK films now. It was the desire to open up doors and, as Marmick said, “authentically portray while genuinely innovate” that created a whole genre of films that still lead us to the theaters today.