Watched the British postwar classic, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, written by Alan Sillitoe and directed by Karel Reisz, starring Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts and Sally Anne Field. The central character is Alan Seaton, who works as a machinist in a bicycle factory in Nottingham just as the Sixties are beginning. As is common with “angry young men” stories (a trend launched by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger), the central figure is disaffected from society and acts out, mocking authority figures, drinking and fucking a lot. At the time, this was viewed as being in revolt against the oppressive Establishment that sustained a social system in which class lines were rigidly drawn and enforced. You could be smart and talented as hell, but if you didn’t have the right accent (as Henry Higgins noted many years before), your prospects were few. Reisz was quoted as saying he thought of Arthur, for all of his high spirits, as ultimately a sad figure. But audiences then saw Finney as a rakish, attractive, sexy character, determined to grab as much life in the present as possible.
As I watched the film (admiring it greatly), it occurred to me that today’s Arthur wouldn’t wear a mask.
In fact, a lot of the “rebel” figures in the films and plays of the Sixties probably are way more interested in personal freedom than in advancing the cause of a more just society. Does Benjamin in The Graduate ever give any indication of giving a damn about anyone else? (And I say this as a big fan of The Graduate.) On the other hand, it’s because Murray cares about his nephew and Sandy in A Thousand Clowns and wants to keep them in his life that he summons the courage to compromise and go back to a job he hates.
We seem to have a hit a point at which we are re-evaluating our hits and classics. Actually, this isn’t new. I remember Studs Terkel pointing out Jack Nicholson’s abusive behavior with the waitress in Five Easy Pieces, a scene that commonly elicited cheers from the audience. Terkel was right.
In The Wild One, someone asks Brando’s character what he is rebelling against, and Brando responds, “What do you got?” Another film of the era is titled Rebel Without a Cause. It occures to me that if you can’t articulate not only what you’re against but what you are for (and what you are willing to do about it), you’re likely to be a Trump voter, voting out of resentment rather than in the hope of something that will benefit someone more than yourself.