The City in Fiction and Film, week 12

australian_db_passport_to_pimlico_HP07238_Lweek 11

This was a nice gentle week, beginning with watching Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius 1949) and then turning to other matters before discussing it.

First up was some general feedback on the student’s first essays. They all get extensive individual written feedback, but it is good to pool together some more general points, since individual feedback can sometimes feel very isolating – as if you alone are the only person making errors. Overall, though, the class has done pretty well, and we pretty much focused on essay structure, quoting and paraphrasing more effectively, and presentational conventions.

Second, I presented a broad strokes overview of what we have done this semester – it is good to remind students of quite how much ground they have covered, and to make more explicit the connections between weeks, especially if you can also not-so-subtly tailor it towards the upcoming exam in January.

Third, we took a look at the exam paper, ensuring that everyone understood what is required of them – and pointing out that it would be a good idea to ensure they had access to a copy of the film they were going to write about before they go home for the Xmas break.

Then, at last, we discussed Passport to Pimlico – which to my bemusement no-one much liked. So we spent some time off-topic digging into that:

  • partly it was that it is more of a comic film than a comedy, genial rather than guffaw-inducing;
  • partly it was the historical specificity of the film and thus of much of the humour;
  • partly it was that the humour depends so heavily on types which are no longer commonplace, and on the casting of specific actors. For example, if you don’t know Margaret Rutherford, her character is probably quite mystifying, but if you do know her she is a delight to watch because she is up there on the screen being Margaret Rutherford; Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are only quite so funny because of the way they turn up in yet another film as basically those guys from The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock 1938); and so on;
  • partly it was a lack of someone to identify with – something I would have liked to have more time to talk about because I am never quite sure a) what it means, and b) why people feel it is necessary to find someone like themselves in a film in order to enjoy it (if that is what it means). It is, however, worth noting that this – whatever this is – is probably compounded by the film being sort of centred on Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) but dispersing its narrative among an ensemble cast.

It must have all seemed even more baffling when I mentioned that one part of the film – when ordinary Londoners turn up to feed the besieged Burgundians – always chokes me up, the way those I-am- Spartacus moments tend to do (although oddly, not in Spartacus (Kubrick 1960)).

Thank goodness I didn’t get on to talking about the apparent influence of the film on late-60s/early-70s black power sf  – Warren Miller’s The Siege of Harlem (1965) in particular seems to borrow a chunk of it – or to pointing out that when imdb trivia says ‘Some historians, for some reason, have considered this to be a borderline science-fiction film’ I think it is referring to something I once wrote.

So, alone in a room full of people who did not even remotely plain love the movie, I found myself thinking, ‘Blimey, I’m a furriner’. And no one airlifted me a pig for company…

Building on last week’s discussion of Bicycle Thieves, we considered the film in relation to postwar experience and to the emerging conflicted programmes of rebuilding bombed cities and  slum clearance. The film opens with a lovely bit of contrast and misdirection: a dedication to the end of rationing (which would not end for another five years) cuts to a little bit of Latin nightlife, possibly in Havana – only it is not Havana at all, but Pimlico (actually Lambeth), and the music is only ‘Les Norman and his Bethnal Green Bambinos’ on the radio. So we cut from the exotic to the mundane, to a world not of languid plenty but to a period of austerity languishing in a heatwave. (This contrast is returned to throughout the film: when communal eating is instituted, but takes the form of sidewalk cafés, but they don’t like French cuisine; when Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray), out courting the impoverished duke (Paul Dupuis), dreams of the orange orchards where he lives, only for him to point our there is really only a cement factory there now; etc.

One of things I like about Passport to Pimlico and Ealing’s Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton 1947) is their willingness to show bomb-damaged London – unlike, say, The Perfect Woman (Knowles 1949), which opts for the rather fantastical London of a West End farce where it seems like there is not a trace of the war (although it too articulates a utopian vision of plenitude in the midst of austerity).

The Pimlico community, a mix of lower middle class shopkeepers and their more working class neighbours, also contrasts well with the working-class communities of Bicycle Thieves. The community is disjointed, primarily along class lines, as the council meeting demonstrates – Arthur presents his lovingly crafted plan to convert the bomb-site into a swimming pool and park so the neighbourhood kids have somewhere safer to play and the adults have somewhere to relax, but the proposal is outvoted by the local bank manager Mr Wix (Raymond Huntley) and others who wish merely to sell the land to the highest bidder. This kind of conflict between a community’s needs/wishes and the (apparently) easy money to be made off property developers forms a pretty constant current in postwar development, including things such as Lambeth councils recent dodgy campaign against the residents of Cressingham Gardens.

The community, however, is brought together by conflict – the film makes very pointed use of WWII imagery, evoking the already-mythologised spirit of the Blitz as much as it does the Berlin airlift. And the film positions us on the side of the community against Whitehall bureaucracy, against jobsworth coppers and customs agents – but also, a little problematically, other Londoners, conceived of as spivs and black-marketeers trespassing on the Burgundians new position of exceptionality and privilege, as too much chaos and disorder, as not-being-from-around-here. Sadly, the film never ceases to be timely in this regard. But on the bright side, a kind of border-defying, working-class internationalism based on sharing breaks out among Londoners (and chokes me up), countering wealth and power, and opening out the Burgundian community once more.

And then it was time for mid-year module evaluation forms, and holiday wishes, and then home for a nice cup of tea (except the central computer controlling the phasing of Bristol’s traffic lights had gone haywire and that nice cup of tea was a couple of hours away).

Week 13

 

 

 

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