Wednesday 27 October 2010

Man's Best Friend: Straight on Till Morning (1972)

Straight on Till Morning (1972) is amusingly described here as 'like Ken Loach directing poor cow on LSD'; in fact it was the work of Peter Collinson, director of now ubiquitous 'Brit' film of the 60s The Italian Job (1969). If this was equally feted as a film of the 70s then we'd recognise something of the psychic/social extremity of that period. Spoilers obviously follow...

Rita Tushingham (Brenda) escapes from a spectacularly miserable looking Liverpool to a hardly much more thrilling 'swinging' London, claiming to her mother she's pregnant and going to find the father. Once there she sets out to find a man to make her pregnant, to give truth to her lie, deciding on James Bolam (not the most prepossessing swinging guy), but he, unfortunately, sleeps with her London 'best friend'.

Structured by bizzare editing the film opens and as truly disorientating, if not to say distressing, 'image' of 70s London/Britain. This is even before Tushingham, in scenes of painful awkwardness that perhaps belie Adam Kotsko's theory of the recency of this structural trait, meets her fatal partner - truly post-Norman Bates pretty boy psychokiller 'Peter' (played by Shane Briant).
Entering into a foile a deux, structured by Peter Pan, from which the film takes its title, they settle down in the mews house of the sugar mummy 'Peter' has previously murdered. He has one of those psychopathologies hopefully not present outside cinema (equal parts Norman Bates and Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom)) - murdering his surrogate 'mothers' and anyone he finds 'pretty' with that archetypal British weapon the Stanley Knife.
We see the depth of his pathology when he murders the dog 'Tinker' because Brenda as 'prettified' the poor creature to entice Peter. Settling into 'domestic bliss' (Peter regards women as there to cook and clean), eventually Brenda (now renamed 'Wendy') becomes pregnant. As she seems to have disappeared she is tracked down by her London best friend on behalf of her distraught mother. Unfortunately said friend meets up with Peter and, after sex, he murders her for being 'pretty'.
The most extreme and distressing moment is, unusually aural. Outside of the squelchy 'shunting' in Society, David Lynch's sountrack for Eraserhead, or the slaughtered pigs of The Exorcist, it contains one of the most horrifying sound sequences in cinema.

Peter likes recording his murders (parallel to Mark Lews's filming) and to prove his true nature to Wendy he locks her in the bedroom with a tape playing the sounds of his killing of the dog and the best friend. The sounds of the killing of the dog are truly horrible - obviously we're dealing with fiction, but there's something about the slow and painful killing of the dog that exceeds the sounds of the murder of the friend. I don't know how they got these sounds recorded and I don't want to know.
After escaping from the bedroom and trying to escape by Peter the pregnant Brenda/Wendy is presumably murdered by Peter (this takes place off camera). If we think of the literally suspensive ending of The Italian Job I doubt we could imagine a grimmer counterpart of the undecidable ending.

Of course the film inhabits the misogyny discussed previously here, in almost a parodic way, considering the general unpleasantness of the male characters and Peter's camply 'performative' masculinity (mixing in homophobia as well - it seems appropriate Shane Briant would later play Dorian Gray). On the other hand, the female characters are generally supportive, Brenda's mother is genuinely concerned for her and seems more confused by her daughter's fantasy life and disappearance. The best friend she meets in London may sleep with Wendy's prospective boyfriend and Peter, but she goes to find her and seem socially/sexually liberated, but not condescending or hostile to Brenda.
Therefore, we don't have 'anti-Oedipal' outsiders versus both straights and the newly-liberated hippies/hip, but rather hyper-Oedipal violent inversion. The fantasies of return to childhood are given a far darker edge than anything Denis Potter imagined, and the brutality, in the most banal 'British' way, captures a 'nihilism' that has nothing glamorous or punk about it.

It's the refusal of a 'social' or even 'psychological' explanation for this extreme but banal violence, beyond the usual post-Freudian cliches, that makes the film so misanthropic. A true product of the 70s, a film without hope.

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