Thursday, 16 July 2009

London in the Raw

This is a DVD that I have somewhat mixed feelings about on account of its provenance. The British Film Institute has long been, after all, the gatekeepers of official British film culture, the one who decide what counts and what does not.

Indeed, in the 1960s it was their journal, the Monthly Film Bulletin, which had a policy of reviewing every film released theatrically in the UK, but which also divided these releases up into two categories: those of special interest and everything else, where the best a film could typically hope for was to be acknowledged as a good example of its type.

No prizes for guessing where London in the Raw was placed, nor for guessing the BFI/MFB's general attitude towards mondo-type documentaries as a whole.

As such, the whole project can't help but have a sense of gamekeeper turned textual poacher (or vice versa) to me, of someone within the BFI belatedly recognising the social historical or potential economic value of the kind of material that they would hitherto have preferred did not exist, even as it was often sustaining the British film industry. (The film's producers, after all, subsequently bankrolled Polanski's Repulsion and Cul de Sac and Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General.)

The first thing that differentiates the film from most of its Italian mondo counterparts its its staying fixed within the one geographical location, which helps provide an additional degree of coherence whilst also lessening the exploitative aspect: Rather than witnessing some film-makers overtly intent on acquiring the the weirdest, most sensationalistic footage they could find from around the world, we instead get a more focussed portrait of one particular city at one particular time.

As is common for the form, imaginary continuity is provided by the narrator's voice over and the montage-style juxtaposition of scenes: At one point a sequence dealing with the theme of beauty juxtaposes women in a health club with another buying a figure enhancing bra, with these being followed by a woman undergoing electrolysis to remove 'excess' hair and a man undergoing a hair transplant to treat its absence. At another a group of alcoholic tramps drinking methylated spirits are contrasted with society types an exclusive club ordering expensive vintages of wine.

With no animal or human death footage, the hair transplant scene is also the goriest London in the Raw gets, as the hair surgeon removes plugs of flesh and follicles from the back of the patient's head and inserts them into holes in the front. The tramps meanwhile prove the closest the film-makers get to exploitation of those less fortunate than themselves, precisely because it isn't as clear whether they're "just doing a bit of acting" like many of the other characters featured.

Otherwise we get a number of stage routines including the obligatory nude; she doesn't do a strip-tease routine on account of a legal particularity of the time, that you could have nudity or movement but not both simultaneously. The commentators voice-off doesn't mention this, although elsewhere it does point to the peculiar situation whereby a man playing a penny whistle in the street was committing a public order offence whilst the prostitute above him calling down to potential trade was not. Needless to say this scene, or at least the part with the prostitute, is one of the more obviously staged ones, the camera moving behind her to catch a shot of her bum as she leans out the window.

What the other stage routines lack in exploitation they gain as historical document of the changing city, as with the contrast between the relatively new Cypriot community and the longer established Jewish one. In this regard the skits we see at London's only Jewish theatre are also interesting for their insiders' play upon stereotypes and as a reminder of the origins of a number of those connected with the film, including co-director Norman Cohen, who would later direct three of the Confessions... films amongst others (again: yes, they were shit, but they and other sex comedies also sustained the British cinema in the 1970s), and producers Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, of Compton/Telki and Tigon note.

In sum, a very British take on the exploitation documentary both in the film itself and the way it has been presented and contextualised here, with the balance between exploitation and documentary further towards the latter than the former.

Or, at least, in the integral version. For also included on the impressive DVD as the main extra is a shorter cut of the film which drops most of the stage routines to concentrate on the sleazier stuff to be more transparently targeted at the normal Soho picture-goer of the time...

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