The Short Films of Lindsay Anderson

Lindsay Anderson was one of those directors who didn’t merely put on an “outsider” front to blend in and play the part of a cool anarchist, he lived the role his entire life. In college, at Oxford, he began an innovative and influential Sequence Magazine (along with Gavin Lambert and Karel Reisz) in which he openly attacked modern British Cinema while extolling the virtues of his favorite films and directors—John Ford, in particular. Anderson was an influential critic in his own right, and his challenging of both the contemporary state of British filmmaking and criticism lead to the Free Cinema movement of documentary films, which itself would be the catalyst for what would become the British New Wave.

But while other members of the movement went on to Hollywood or had relatively little problem getting films made, Anderson stuck to his radical guns which resulted in his star falling as quickly as it had risen. After his If… became a commercial and critical darling, especially at Cannes where he won the Grand Prix at Cannes, his subsequent films failed to live up to expectations and he struggled for the rest of his life with failed attempts at getting films made. But Anderson supplemented his tumultuous film career with a successful career as a theater director, yet those close to him felt his heart was in film where he regretted not making more than the five features that he completed.

Once again we have Criterion to thank for their tremendous effort in painting a complete picture of films and the people that make them that extends far-beyond the runtime. Their bonus disc for Anderson’s debut film This Sporting Life features his first film, the short documentary Meet the Pioneers, another early documentary, The Wakefield Express, and his last film, Is That All There Is?

Meet the Pioneers

Anderson’s first film is a documentary about the impact that the invention of the conveyor belt has had on British Industry. The majority of the film was shot in the local coalmines and Anderson follows the belt and the workers from the lowest depths, to their responsibility once it reaches the surface. While the majority of the film focuses on the coalmines, Lindsay also takes a look at a limestone quarry and the use of the belt in a thread packaging company. Throughout the 33 minutes, Lindsay also provides the voiceover that accompanies the images and the music.

The film itself is fine on a technical level, but there’s very little any director could have done with such uninteresting subject matter. But Anderson does a great deal to humanize the film, rarely simply focusing on the automated mechanics of the conveyor belt, but observing the workers in their environment in an attempt to understand them and what they do. He certainly does a great job of rendering the grit and grime of the setting through the images, and painting a humanistic portrait of the British working class along the way.

The story behind the film being made is more interesting than the film itself. In an interview available on the disc, the film’s producer, Lois Sutcliffe Smith, tells the story of how she met Lindsay as a student, and thought of him whenever her husband had an idea of making a film about the coal miner workers and the conveyor belt. Lois had met Lindsay at a party and had been impressed by his Sequence magazine, and decided to hunt him down to the direct the film. The result was a memorable several months in which both displayed their filmmaking naivety. But Smith is a fantastic storyteller, and she keeps the long interview endlessly entertaining throughout its runtime.

The Wakefield Express

Instead of a coalmine and conveyor belt, here Lindsay turns his camera on a local newspaper run in the town that would become the setting for This Sporting Life. Even in the few years since working on Meet the Pioneers, Anderson’s developing sophistication as a filmmaker is apparent; The Wakefield Express is more ambitious, better executed, and, more importantly, more entertaining as a film. Anderson fluidly observes those who work at the paper from the inception of gathering the stories from the local people, to the eventual pressing and selling of that paper.

Even though The Wakefield Express and Meet the Pioneers are the same length, the former seems infinitely denser, perhaps because Lindsay is allowed more breathing room to observe a greater variety of aspects that go into making the paper. There’s the humanistic side that begins with people telling stories, but there’s the fascinating mechanical side of how the paper itself is made. Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the film comes when Anderson digresses slightly to follow a chorus group of children as they sing and put on a play.

The film actually has a slight tinge of Citizen Kane in it; in an odd way, it feels as if it could be the documentary on Kane’s life when he began as a newspaperman. But Lindsay is still working her without any anchoring characters or subjects. But, at the same time, he’s able to turn the collaborative nature of producing a paper into the subject itself, filtering it through all of the hands it must go to before it finally goes to print.

Is That All There Is?

Anderson ended his career with a bang in this autobiographical film that’s as fun, witty, and wry as it is shot through with a somewhat melancholic undercurrent. The film is structured to cover a life in the day of Anderson. He wakes up, turns on a life, eats breakfast, takes a bath, goes shopping, converses with visitors, and holds a ceremony for friends who have passed away. While there is a certain everyday mundanity in the events, Anderson turns out to have as much charisma in front of the camera as he does behind it.

The film’s centerpiece turns out to be the various conversations that Lindsay has with his friends and acquaintances at his quaint kitchen table in his own home. A variety of writers, actors, and producers come by to discuss what they’re working on and just to shoot the breeze. In a kind of Cinéma vérité, the film feels as if its constructed from closely approximated excerpts from Lindsay’s real life. Nothing feels overtly staged, yet we know that they must have been on some level.

The film works best when Anderson is keeping the focus on him, but he still can’t help but occasionally take jabs at a society that he seemed constantly opposed to. Most egregious is his juxtaposing images of people shopping in a supermarket, with images of huge, packaged chicken, and them paying money at the checkout, with images of people and children starving in Africa. Perhaps it’s all of the late night infomercials for charities that has fortified us against such images, but it’s important to keep in mind that this was ’93. That said, such devices still feel out of place in the film, and terribly heavy-handed.

But what is more subtle is the humanistic struggle the film paints between artists and the commercialization of cinema. In one scene we humorously see Anderson in a bath, surrounded by his film posters, as he begin to look around with a confused look on his face, almost as if he’s asking in images “Is That All There Is?” But there’s another scene that features him going over a handful of scripts with a friend for a handful of projects he’d love to work on, but in which he has zero support for; he even reads letters of rejection that are as good as flat out saying “these suck because we couldn’t possibly sell them.”

The film ends with Lindsay’s composer and friend playing the title song as Anderson gathers with other friends on a boat to commemorate two female friends that had recently passed away. But given the context of the film, it’s hard not to feel like the ceremony is a wake for Lindsay’s career that was over much too soon, or perhaps Lindsay himself, who died a short time after the film was completed. But it’s infinitely appropriate that the film ends with a kind of dry, unaffected sarcasm that mixes both a warm humanism and a cold cynicism of a man who was ever the rebel, but a rebel who deeply cared about the things he rebelled against.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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