Interview with Karel Reisz and a London Cab Driver
BROADCAST: 1962 | DURATION: 00:33:40
Interviewing a London cab driver and Karel Reisz while Studs was in England. Recorded in the cab and in Karel Reisz's London home.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel [traffic noise] Riding in the cab this morning, I'm just thinking as I was talking to the driver here, about the streets of London, how narrow they are and the jammed aspect of the, of the automobiles. How do you manage to get around? It's pretty rough sometimes isn't it?
Taxi Driver As you probably know, you know when we drive these taxis, we have to take a very extensive test, on learning the streets. And we do manage to find a few back ways, you know, around the back doubles, when the main roads get a bit blocked. 'Cause our main roads compared to yours I should imagine are still side streets. 'Cause they're very narrow, even the main roads in parts. But, as far as the traffic situation is concerned, this don't seem to be getting any better and it never will do as far as I can see. And the traffic keeps increases every year. They just can't keep up with the pace.
Studs Terkel [unintelligible].
Taxi Driver Well the, they just, they just can't keep the roads developed, see? Ahead of the traffic, you know it's- they try and make underpasses here and there, you've probably seen Hyde Park Corner. But they just can't keep ahead of it. It just keeps catching them up all the time, as they move it through one place, it jams up at the next place. [construction sounds]
Taxi Driver Yeah.
Taxi Driver Well not so much they, sir, mostly for protection of the driver, really. And at night, you can pick up some pretty dodgy customers in certain parts of London. And with the window what could open right back, you could find yourself in trouble. Especially for the night world, 'cause, like 3:00 in the morning you get 4 of the [unintelligible] in the back. You, they say take me [unintelligible] to somewhere in the East End of London, down in the docks or somewhere, you could find yourself in quite a lot of trouble if they got the window open. It wouldn't take much to put their arm around your neck and hold something up to you, or anything like that. And -- that's what it's there mainly, for protection of the driver.
Taxi Driver Yeah, no I -- not so much -- not too bad in the day, but in the night, I've -- I know of cases, you have drivers being hired, and 3 or 4 people, they go down to a nice quiet spot of London, nice and dark, and they got out, asked for all his money, and if he refused to hand over they pulled him out the cab and give him a good [belting?]. It has happened. And it does help to have that window there.
Taxi Driver Oh yeah, you have plenty occasions of that. You have -- I've had no end of times when I've had women crying in the back. Had arguments with their boyfriends, and all that sort of business.
Studs Terkel Oh, I know what I want to ask you about. I've been hearing a lot of talk about changes taking place in England, the class system breaking down. You know, that is, there'd be less and less difference between the high and low taking place. Do you think this is so? Is it breaking down?
Taxi Driver Well, I don't think so. I reckon' you still, if you still got a name of a good school behind you, you're just that one step ahead of anybody else. If you got the name of a Goldstone or Eton or anything like that behind you, I think it's going to carry you much further than is just an ordinary grammar schoolboy. I think you're that one step ahead, if you have got those names behind you. Personally, that is. That's how I feel about it, but anyway.
Taxi Driver Well I don't think that's so much true now because, maybe in the old days it was, but now you see, accent don't really matter so much because if a man can earn money, he can go anywhere, no matter how he talks. If he's got a shrewd head on his shoulders and he can, he can do some good business deals and earn himself some good money, then that man can go anywhere. Maybe the upper class, so-called upper class would look down on him slightly, but, it won't make no difference, I think. I think -- I don't think that would bar a man from making progress, if he has got a good head on his shoulders what he talks like.
Taxi Driver Alright.
Studs Terkel [pause in recording] Now they should be -- now it's moving, isn't it? Now, okay. I had the wrong speed. Seated with film director and at the moment the producer as well, Karel Reisz. The name may not mean too much to American audiences, but if perhaps we associated him with a film that was seen in America a couple of years ago, the adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's novel "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," the name means definitely something. Mr. Reisz we think of this film, I know it's old hat with you now since it's done several years ago. Yet it was something new in, in British cinema, was it not? This kind of hero who did not have the BBC accent, Arthur Seaton, who still rebelled, I believe, at the very end. Wouldn't you say this had as much of an explosive effect on British movies, say as Jimmy Porter of "Look Back in Anger," had on the British stage?
Karel Reisz Yes, I think the film was very influential. I don't think we can talk about the film in isolation. You know, you mentioned Jimmy Porter, there was of course "Room at the Top," there was "Taste of Honey," there were Alan Sillitoe's other books, notably "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." It was a general movement which cleared away a lot of restrictions, which were strangling the British theater and cinema. I feel myself that, that's a phase of British film-making and theater that was important, but important in a way -- in a negative way, and it cleared a way a lot of prejudice. But I don't think the works themselves were really very good. And I think it'll be in the next 5 or 6 years that we'll see whether the liberation has liberated us into anything really worthwhile.
Studs Terkel When you say it cleared the way, perhaps we could expand on this just a bit. Even though the work itself may not have been too significant, what happened is. It cleared the way in -- could you be more specific about this Mr. Reisz?
Karel Reisz Well the tradition of British cinema was a cinema in which -- about the middle and the upper classes, in which working class people were either comic characters or villains. That's the assumption of the British musical, a tradition which runs back a long time and the assumption -- certainly the assumption of the British theater, it's the assumption of Noel Coward, of Terence Rattigan and of that whole--
Karel Reisz That whole lot. Well, John Osborne of course stands for something quite different, and in the novel, Alan Sillitoe, and David Storey, and Keith Waterhouse stand for something quite different. But I think any plays or films which aim to assert a different class position, any works in fact which make that their primary aim, are by their very nature rather limited. And I think in about 10 years time we will think that most of this work was honest, but let's say superficial.
Studs Terkel Primitive.
Karel Reisz Primitive. What now has to be done, is that this new freedom has to be used, in depth. Do you know that the Arthur Seatons have to be examined, not as social phenomena, but as full characters in drama, in comedy, in tragedy, rather than, and I think I include my own work in this very much, rather than, perhaps skillfully but nonetheless, sort of animated social pieces of social observation.
Karel Reisz It may do -- do you know I don't -- I wouldn't like to guess how the thing should work and maybe it won't. Maybe it'll dry up I hope it won't. All I feel is that, the little revolution we've had has been rather little. And the sort of stature of film-making that we find in France and in Italy, which is absolutely not achieved in England I think, will have to be worked for quite hard.
Studs Terkel You say the stature achieved in France and Italy, I immediately think of several figures, and this is a question to be raised. In the case of Fellini, say, this is the hallmark it seems here of one man, that is one man's stamp is definitely upon it. A Bergman, say, or, you know, or Fellini or perhaps even Ray the Indian director. Is the stamp of one man beginning in -- is this part of a developing pattern here, too, perhaps? Or will it still be specialization?
Karel Reisz I would have perhaps chosen Antonioni and Visconti and Truffaut and Renoir, but I know exactly what you mean. [cough] That kind of individual cinema, let's say, cinema used as art, is something that we are very far behind in England. We're very far behind with it. We're still either efficient entertainers, you know sort of in the 30s and 40s tradition of Hollywood, or we are, should we say skillful interpreters of writers' work. And this step from this sort of mediocre level of film-making to the proper thing, to the cinema of Renoir, Antonioni, at that level, we haven't made.
Karel Reisz Yes.
Studs Terkel Film viewer, occasionally. He's spoken in -- I think of "L'Avverntura" and "La Notte," of his approach being that of a painter, at times, not just that of a cinematic man alone, in some way, unless I understand here, a fusion of two forms. That is, he doesn't worry too much about the fact that there seems to be a stillness, that there's a lack of motion at times, but that he seeks -- he wants the audience to look at some of his work as though they were looking at a painting too. To look at it, and look at it, and not to feel rushed. And as a result of this the impact would be even more upon them. Do I misinterpret here or does this make some sense to you?
Karel Reisz I think it makes sense to me, but I think it's really tied up with what Antonioni is wanting to say, that is to say he's in essentially what has interested him in the last 3 or 4 films has been the kind of static, continual, despair of creative man. If you think of all the last 3 films they've all been failed creative men in sort of locked, unsatisfactory despairing.
Studs Terkel Yes, in sort of despairing, sexual relationships. [cough] And the resolution of those hasn't been a matter that could be brought about by quick action. It's been a matter of putting images on the screen and letting them hang there, letting them communicate slowly, letting them seep into an audience. And in that sense the tempo, you know, could be called a painterly one as opposed to a montage-y, quick one. So I mean in emphasis I understand exactly what you mean, but in principle, every film director works like a painter and a storyteller, after all he uses pictures. Just in Antonioni's case I think the emphasis is slightly towards more to the painterly-ness.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about, you know, for me. Unfortunately, for us, all we've seen of yours is just, I believe, "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning," but, a mutual friend of ours, Dennis Mitchell, tells me that you're rather excited about a new film of which you are the producer, one called "Sporting Life?"
Karel Reisz Which is, was directed by a colleague of mine from the old documentary days, Lindsay Anderson. And has Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts in it. It's based on a novel by David Storey who is, I think, the best of our young novelists. He's only written two novels, this one and a novel called "Flight into Camden." That film, we've just finished it actually, like the other films of this cycle, is set in the industrial Midlands of England, actually further north in Yorkshire, and has a working class setting, but the subject of the film is absolutely not the working class-ness of it, do you understand?
Karel Reisz It is a love story, a very violent love story, of two passionate, inarticulate temperaments, and really we've made it two and a quarter hour film which simply chronicles this relationship between the two people. It's in a way arises out of this little revolution but is completely, and I hope a step forward from it, completely different, in that its emphasis is absolutely not social, not sociological. We've tried to make a drama, which happens to use working class characters.
Karel Reisz Yes. Yes. It is also experimental, in the sense that we've tried to do it subjectively. We've tried to make a film, which -- which makes the audience feel the experience of the principal character and we've not done it at all with a first person camera with commentary or any of any sort of tricks, but we've tried to evolve a style in the film, which continually reflects the state of mind, the feelings, the -- of our main character. That doesn't, that perhaps makes it sound in some way gimmicky and so on, it's not that at all. It's simply a matter of the style in which we've used it -- it's absolutely the opposite to a film like "Saturday Night," which strove for a certain objectivity, for a certain going back from the social scene, and saying this is how it is in this particular world. Quite the opposite. I think myself that in "This Sporting Life," lie perhaps the seeds of something a good deal more serious for the British cinema than the British cinema has known for many years.
Studs Terkel We think of the British cinema, from interviewing the young playwright Arnold Wesker the other day, he said he had gone to school, he wasn't quite certain what he was going to do before he began writing plays, or just in the early period, and he studied film technique, he said with Lindsay Anderson and with you, Karel Reisz. He spoke of Free Cinema. This is a phrase that [cough] here. What is Free Cinema? What does that mean specifically here?
Karel Reisz There was a group of us: Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, myself, an Italian girl called Lorenza Mazzetti, and we were making documentaries here, documentaries which were [cough] not government-sponsored, not industrially-sponsored, which were free expressions of ourselves, really. And we had a great deal of industrial difficulty with it and we were, this is 10 years ago, and we issued manifestos and so on. Now the whole thing was done on a very small, rather amateur scale. But I think the influence of that movement, there was something like 8 films made altogether. The influence of that movement on British feature film-making of, sort of 6 years later, that's about 4 years ago, was very considerable. You see after all Tony Richardson, who made "Look Back in Anger" and "The Entertainer" and "Taste of Honey," he was one of the Free Cinema boys, has been an absolutely crucial figure here in this revolution. Free Cinema was, you know people now talk about it as though it had been some kind of militant, left-wing social thing. It actually wasn't that. We happened to be mostly left-wing people, but half the films were not political at all, not social at all. The sort of slogan of Free Cinema was simply freedom for the director.
Studs Terkel This subject, you will, aesthetic freedom is one that immediately arises. It was about a year ago at a round-table that was conducted. A number of Hollywood directors were involved and Otto Preminger was one and quite obviously took over the panel and was pooh-poohing the idea that there is no aesthetic freedom for the American director. And we're saying that, as much as any European director has. The question of aesthetic freedom.
Karel Reisz I mean the question of aesthetic freedom is a complicated one because some people don't want very much, do you know? If you set your limits very, you know, if you set your target very small, and you don't want very much freedom then I daresay you can get it wherever you want, wherever you work. And Preminger is a very distinguished man. But he works within a convention, or he's lucky to want to work within a convention that is commercially acceptable. Well of course then he has as much freedom as he wants. There are a lot of directors however, who, to be equally free have to fly in the face of the industry, and those I think, those sort of directors are less free in America than anywhere else.
Studs Terkel So it depends then upon the nature of the freedom, really. The flavor of the freedom that this particular director seeks is one that expresses a point of view that might be, that's somewhat antithetical to the status quo one way or another, this might not be permissible.
Karel Reisz I think it's partly that, it's -- I think it's not only a matter of the points of view that the director wants to express, it's also the technique and the the whole manner of presentation, you know, Preminger for instance works by preference with very well-known established actors. Well that's fine. That is a perfectly respectable, good way of making films. If the director, however, wants to work, just as honestly with, say nonprofessionals, or if Preminger wanted to make a film with nonprofessionals, I think he would find it very difficult. I think really the only country that's sort of any one -- or 2 countries that are beginning to solve this problem, and industries always only solve this for a period of 5 or 6 years and then it gets swamped again, has been France and Italy. In Italy, film production works on a quite different system from here or America, that's to say it's not tied up with distribution. The producer acts as an independent kind of impresario, and if the producer has enough money and enough taste, he can let the director get on with it and let him do what -- I mean Fellini works like that, Visconti has worked like that, Antonioni sometimes works like that. It isn't a question of being responsible to the rank organization or to MGM. Its a question of being responsible to a producer, to a Diaghilev, if you like.
Studs Terkel Yes.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yes. So then the question is to whom do you answer? And this -- and it would depend upon the taste of that person or group to whom you answer, whether you answer to a box office, to a banker or to the Diaghilev, you say. This in a sense is a key factor, is it not?
Karel Reisz Absolutely. And its I think absolutely not true to say that answering to the big corporations produces commercially more successful results than answering to the Diaghilevs. Do you know what I feel about it is this: that in films particularly now, with the sort of extreme instability of film distribution, the industry product and the industry salesman, is just as likely to be right or wrong as the artist. If you look at the history of the last 3 or 4 years, many of the aesthetically most successful films have also been commercially the most successful, and vice versa. Do you know, I think that the pattern of film distribution which existed in the 30s and 40s and perhaps early 50s, where a certain kind of product tailored to the market automatically make money, where in fact the salesman could predict if you put a, b, and c into the film until such and such a story it will make money. That situation disappeared, and the artist now is every bit as good a guesser--
Studs Terkel Ah.
Karel Reisz Yes. I think that of the cinema is now, you know, playing second fiddle to television. And I think what the cinema has to produce is something that the industrial product, which is supplied for television, can't meet. Therefore the cinema is, for the next few years, I think, in a very, very good position for experiment, for adventure, for individual expression. How long that'll last, I don't know. But you see this doesn't mean better or worse, because it also means, for instance that the extremes of horror films and violence and so on, which also can't be shown on television, those films also make money.
Karel Reisz Exactly.
Studs Terkel Then, however then, it would -- the hope then at least for someone such as you, or the, or the quest of someone such as you, would be a search for a new way of expressing yourself, or a new kind of meaning, that cannot be found on the TV screen with the restrictions it has.
Karel Reisz Do you see way -- words like, new ways and so on. That's really for critics to say. What one tries to do is to find subjects that really sort of, intrigue one, set one alight a bit, and then find the right way of doing that. I feel that the whole premium that we set on novelty in the arts nowadays, is quite mistaken.
Karel Reisz Yes?
Studs Terkel You mean the new Karel Reisz [cough] is a different man from any other director, because you're a different man, and therefore the way to be found is your own particular way, and is for you in a sense to discover what it is you can do most effectively as this kind of craftsman.
Karel Reisz Precisely. And this has nothing to do with, for instance Preminger, whom we talked about earlier. I think Preminger is a very individual director, with a very specific point of view, which however happens to want to express itself in relatively conventional terms. Well that's fine. Why should one attack him for not being like Godard, if in fact he doesn't want to say what Godard wants to say?
Studs Terkel So you yourself, Karel Reisz. Now if I may, I don't mean for you to be a Nostradamus, but, are there -- do you sense a kind of trend, or a kind of direction in which the film might be going? What with the various influences upon it, one way or the other.
Karel Reisz I think, speaking very broadly, I think the cinema is drifting away from narrative methods and dramatic methods towards a more -- towards a cinema in which the sequence itself is expressive. That is to say the 3 minutes in the film is like a painting with a meaning of its own. And the next 3 minutes is like a painting with a meaning of its own, and the next 3 minutes. Rather than the 3 minutes all being part of a dramatic or a narrative pattern which add up to a whole. I think the influence, you know, the cinema did, particularly when sound came, take so much of its influence from the theater, and was really crippled by it, I think for many years. Well crippled by it by perhaps is the wrong word, but anyway very, very deeply influenced by. We are beginning to go back to methods of expression which are far more similar to the silent cinema than to the theater. That is to say, a painterly sequence-by-sequence kind of cinema, rather than a dramatic one.
Studs Terkel As you are talking of sequence-by-sequence cinema, the non-narrative technique, I couldn't help but think of "Last Year at Marienbad," for the moment. Perhaps that may have been on your mind as you were talking, I don't know. But would that--
Studs Terkel Oh.
Karel Reisz But it's certainly true of Antonioni, it's always been true of Renoir, it's true of Truffaut, it's true of -- Visconti not, Visconti's relatively conventional in that way. But it's certainly true of our films here in England, do you know. I mean I don't want to mention them in the same breath as Antonioni and Truffaut, but something like "Taste of Honey," or "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," certainly "This Sporting Life," are not narrative films. They are films which communicate through individual bits, and one hopes that when the bits are all put together they have a meaning, but it isn't the meaning of the story.
Karel Reisz Precisely.
Studs Terkel Karel Reisz, perhaps two more questions, and let you go back to your breakfast on this early Sunday morning invading your household here. I'm nostalgic, and I look back at times, and it seems of all the documentaries that have been made, the British seem to have been just about the most deft or the most depth-ful, too -- how can you explain? This is true I think, is it not? [lighter striking] The British and documentaries, even though as you say trailing, in feature films to France and Italy, when to, when it came documentaries, they were up there. How would you explain this?
Karel Reisz The documentaries in England of the 30s were a reflection of the sort of social movements and the very strong social movements that existed here: the Fabian, the left-wing, the movements that went towards social welfare. And this was all very well organized here. And the documentary movement caught that spirit extremely well. I think those films are more or less, they've -- horribly dated.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Karel Reisz There is a kind of un-demonstrativeness about English people which makes them peculiarly suitable to documentaries, I think. And I think the post-war documentaries are not only of our Free Cinema group, but of 2 or 3 -- you know, lots, a few others, have also been -- could absolutely stand by, stand comparison with the Italians or the French. [cough] The only thing I would say about it is that, our documentaries have also been rather insular, rather on a small scale, little perfect things, but little. And I don't actually subscribe to this notion that British documentary have been a major influence in world cinema.
Studs Terkel Maybe it's the fact that you mentioned this one point the undemonstrative quality of the English people, and perhaps it had this impact on a more demonstrative member of the audience, me namely. [laughter] And so as a result it seemed to me to just be startling in its truth or what seems to me its truth, because they were undemonstrative [cough], you see.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Karel Reisz Local truths, and as such people seeing them abroad have seen a bit of England in them. But I think films should do a bit more than that, than be guides to a country. They should sort of strive to have higher ambitions for a slightly more universal statement.
Studs Terkel Obviously Karel Reisz this seems to be your credo, because throughout this theme was recurring. You speak of small truths and conjure that which you are seeking which is a larger than life, that is pavement kind-of-life truth, which you--
Studs Terkel True.
Studs Terkel Feel that basis of cinema, I suppose of all art, really, in a sense. Anything we haven't talked about, Mr. Reisz, that you care to -- I always leave that one opening question for gaps to fill in, that maybe something on your mind at this moment, involving cinema or the lively arts generally in Britain?
Karel Reisz I've been away in Australia now for 3 months planning a film that I'm going to do there next year, and I've been very struck by how lively things are out there compared to here. I think here we're going through a rather bad lull after the excitement of 3 or 4 years ago, and going to an absolutely new country like Australia where everybody is extremely unsophisticated about the arts, but damn well says what they want, is a great stimulus to a European. The Australian painters and writers and people in the theater, I mean some of them are very distinguished, but by and large the ones that aren't, have a sort of boldness of statement about them which is marvelous. That there isn't this kind of over-sophistication, this over-refinement, and I think actually we do have to get back to something of that sort of primary impulse in the arts particularly in the public arts, which in England we've been losing.