Charlie Bubbles & A Cinema Of Rebellion

To mark the passing this week of screenwriter and author Shelagh Delaney this week, here’s a tribute to her finest work, the oft-forgotten classic of British Cinema, Charlie Bubbles

From the earliest days of the cinema Hollywood has looked towards Europe for talent, inspiration and business, and no better was it exemplified during the 1960’s Hollywood Euro-boom than with Albert Finney’s sole-directorial outing, Charlie BubblesCharlie Bubbles was produced at an interesting point in Finney’s career. A hot property and focus of the American film industry following the success of Tom Jones, Finney chose not to capitalize on this surge in popularity and instead decided to focus upon the more personal projects that the stage brought with it, before settling to work on his directorial feature film debut, Charlie Bubbles, a decision made the experience of working with director Stanley Donen on Two For The Road. Charlie Bubbles is based on the novel by Shelagh Delaney, who also wrote Tony Richardson’s A Taste Of Honey, with Delaney also writing the script for the film, which strikes a startling similarity to the life of the films writer–director.  Produced by Universal Pictures, Charlie Bubbles represents a period of time in which the American studios of the Hollywood system looked to Europe for material, in the wake of the successes of the many great waves of national cinemas that the early 1960’s brought with it. Just a few short years saw the rise of the French Nouvelle Vague, the British New Wave, the Czech New Wave and internationally observed activity in India, with the likes of Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan playing outside of their native cinemas and attracting the attention of the financially orientated system of the USA. Filmmakers such as Michaelangelo Antonioni and Francois Truffaut saw the major Hollywood film studios keen to benefit from an audience whose cinematic demands were evolving.

Charlie Bubbles opens with shot of the upmarket London in which the title resides as the story begins, with establishing shots of an environment that bears stark comparison to the location of the films third act. We are introduced to our protagonist as he drives around famous London landmarks in his gold Rolls Royce, which itself is perhaps the ultimate icon of high living. A gold Rolls Royce is the kind of icon of living well that one could imagine a character from a British New Wave film as proof of ones success, and in the same breath is a symbol of British luxury, and one that would be internationally familiar. All the while we struggle to garner a complete look at the character of Charlie, his face sill obscured even as we finally get a look at the character in frame for the first time. It is only when Charlie enters the gentleman’s club that we see him wholly.  Stylistically the film is heavily reminiscent of the European cinema of the time, with its slow panning camerawork reminding particularly of the work of the Truffaut films of that period (with particular attention paid to 1968’s Stolen Kisses, and even the earlier Fahrenheit 451, a film for which Truffaut was “hired” by the US studio Universal), and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, a film that bears comparison to Finney’s directorial debut on many levels. The fluidly panning shots somehow maintains a linger that suggests detail and meaning within the scene that may or may not be there. The layering of the mise-en-scene dictates that we are wholly engrossed not only in Charlie’s world, but also in his state of mind, with his emotional response of disinterest highlighted by the manner in which the camera focuses upon specific details within the gentleman’s club. Presumably intended as from the view of Charlie we focus upon the décor, and we are fixated on the mixture of noise created by multiple dialogues within the room, as opposed to the traditional introductory scenario that one would expect from a films opening moments. The nature of the similar looking individuals that make up the clientele for the gentleman’s club serves not only to set up the fact that Charlie is a fundamentally different figure to the rest of his contemporaries, but also as a way in which to further invest us, the audience in his situation. Charlie cuts a contrasting figure, with his standoffish attitude apparent in his gestures. He appears uncomfortable, and not of the “world” in which he is, by default, belonging to. Again we are presented with a long, placid shot of Charlie as the other men speak. This entire section is cut around these types of lingering shots, designed around heavy technical dialogue that is as alienating to the viewer as it is to the character of Charlie. The scene goes on to a series of sweeping point of view shots from Charlie, in which he takes in the room around, again highlighting the scope and alien nature of the environment that Charlie has placed himself in.

Albert Finney, as an actor (and indeed as a concept) represented a form of cinematic rebel in his early days on screen. Via the British New Wave, and in particular in his breakthrough role as the character of Arthur Seaton in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney crafted one of the key cinema rebels, and a character that could sit happily alongside the likes of the protagonists of Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild One as timeless examples of onscreen revolutionaries. The post-war environment on both sides of the Atlantic brought with it the sort of freedoms and realization of ambition that have been well documented elsewhere, and Hollywood was one of the core industries that benefited most from the adolescently grown up results of post-World War Two baby boom and the advent of the concept of the teenager, providing fare that would both relate to and inspire the awkward and ambitious younglings that formed a large part of its audience. Now the kind of “Rebel Cinema” and revolutionary pictures that I am referring to in this piece are of course very different to the genuinely revolutionary cinema that has occurred in other parts of the cinema from elsewhere in the world, and I’m not attempting to draw comparison with the likes of the work of Gillo Pontecorvo or Costa-Gavros, but I am instead looking at the portrayal of figures of rebellion in regular national cinemas.

At the climax of Reisz’s film we leave Arthur Seaton with his declaration that he would not turn into the kind of person that his parents were, which is a similar sentiment to that which James Dean’s Jim Stark carried with him throughout Rebel Without A Cause, as well as countless other Hollywood films, if one was to consider this basic declaration as that of one of a vow of ambition. Within Charlie Bubbles our protagonist is a man that has achieved the ambitions and intentions of the archetypical on-screen young rebel, and is now moving back towards the scenario that he has striven to remove himself from. It is telling in the opening line of dialogue in Charlie Bubbles, in which our protagonist is asking after his estranged wife and son, the key representatives of his former life (quite literally the “key”, if one considers his hometown of Manchester to be the “door” to that life) that his feelings towards his past might not be as complete as his potential financial arrangements might like, and this exchange sets the tone for Finney’s agenda as director and storyteller for the duration of the film. Unlike Finney’s character in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, who declares his intentions and emotions quite vocally, through means of voice over narration, we are never quite sure of just wheat Charlie is thinking, feeling or planning. Nor do we ever truly understand just what it is that he craves. That the film ends on such a confusingly surreal premise, which is open to all manner of interpretations and emotional attachments, from those as diverse as interpreting the scene to hold both a sense of hopefulness and a sense of dread, is suitably apt, and wholly fitting with the general tone of Finney’s film. The use of several scenes throughout the film that bear all of the hallmarks of being dream sequences adds to the further confusing nature of the piece. I can’t help but feel that the film is an attack of sorts on the films of the early portion of his career, not necessarily in a malicious or vicious manner, but in a similar way to how a man might look back on his formative years and contemplate his youthful mistakes. Charlie Bubbles is very much a commentary on the core themes of the work in which Finney started out, with the rebellious attitude of the real Albert Finney clear throughout this film.

It is this rebellious attitude that affected the career path of Albert Finney in a far greater manner than anything else. Nominated for a best actor award at the 1963 Academy Awards for his eponymous turn in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, Finney was in a position to join the ranks of Hollywoods finest, but unlike many of his British New Wave contemporaries Finney kept to his own path and stayed away from the Hollywood for much of his career. Indeed it could be said that it wasn’t until the later portion of his career that he caved in and embraced the American cinema, with roles in the likes of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and the Bourne series of films. Instead, Finney chose to focus upon the stage, even more intently after the failure of Charlie Bubbles. In fact, it wasn’t until 1977’s Looker that Finney actually appeared in a film made in the United States (although he had acted in Stanley Donen’s American produced, yet Europe set Two For The Road in the years following Tom Jones).

As mentioned above, many of his contemporaries did indeed head to America thanks to the success of the films of the British New Wave. His Saturday Night and Sunday Morning director Karel Reisz worked on the James Caan vehicle The Gambler, a contemporary interpretation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, and Who’ll Stop The Rain, a Nick Nolte–starring piece on Vietnam. Tom Courtenay appeared in a number of US productions such as King Rat and Doctor Zhivago in the immediate aftermath of his New Wave successes with the likes of The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar. It was perhaps Courtenay’s The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner director Tony Richardson that adopted the cinema of Hollywood most keenly, and most rapidly though, with his satire on the American film industry The Loved One produced by Warner immediately after Tom Jones swept the 1964 Academy Awards. The tale of a young Englishman (confusingly played by a young American man, Robert Morse) and his journey through the “dead-scene” of 1960’s Los Angeles went relatively unnoticed upon its initial release, but has garnered something of a retrospective kudos thanks to its genuinely forward thinking approach to anti-war critique.

Further on in the gentleman’s club scene Charlie Bubbles is decorated, and in turn decorates with food an old friend from Charlie’s past, Smokey Pickles (played by Colin Blakely). A surreal scene which brings to mind another member of the British New Wave in Lindsay Anderson’s If. Indeed, both films share a further similarity in which the line between fantasy and reality are blurred to the extent that the manner in which the cohesion of the narrative plays out is specifically charted as a result. Upon initial viewing of the film one might be forgiven for actually expecting the scene to be revealed as some kind of fantasy, giving the viewer an insight into how Charlie truly felt in this alien situation, alas no such revelation occurs. This surreal tone is echoed throughout, with the films closing moments being the most obvious moment.  Charlie’s inadvertent run-in with Smokey marks a shift in tone for the character, with the ineffectual dialogue that previously surrounded him literally interrupted by Smokey’s brash behavior in the restaurant, and awakening a part of the Charlie of old somewhat. This is literally displayed in the following scene, in which Charlie and Smokey head to a department store, in order to purchase clothing to replace those ruined in the scene before. Traditional, or even stereotypical “Northern wear” such as flat caps and tweed jackets replace the dapper clothing that was damaged in the food fight, while Charlie and Smokey proceed to partake in traditionally working class activities such as horse betting and visiting a gaming arcade that evokes the typical Northern seaside resort. The two drink and play pool, again activities commonly associated with the working class. Throughout this sequence Charlie is somber in tone and mentions his wife on several occasions. A lingering shot on a sweating, heavily drunk Charlie reminds of the earlier sequence in the gentleman’s club, yet in a contrasting manner as opposed to a familiar one. This image of the heavy drinking, hard living, no nonsense protagonist ties in nicely with the autobiographical elements of the Charlie Bubbles project.

One criticism generally attached to the debut filmmaker would be the manner in which they perhaps somewhat carelessly use the medium to experiment with the form in an unrestrained and amateurish fashion.  One section in which Charlie Bubbles may be accused of such experimentation (read – showing off) is the section in which an entire several minute long scene takes place within the confines of a ten screen CCTV set up that forms an entire wall in Charlie’s office. Diagetically the screens are used to watch over the action that happens in the house, with Charlie overseeing, if not quite orchestrating the actions of those quite literally beneath him (Charlie’s office is on the top floor of his townhouse). He does have an unusual degree of control over the inhabitants of the house, with a speaker system running through each room that enables Charlie to directly communicate with those in the house, and in a manner, direct them.  While it is never explicitly stated, one could assume a number of things from this situation. The first would be that Charlie is an extremely paranoid person, who, when faced with a situation that he can control, will do so to the fullest ability. This would tie into sense of lacking that Charlie faces in other areas of his life, be it the alienation he feels in the environment of the meeting during the films opening section, or the manner in which he is treated as a non-entity by his wife and child later on in the picture. As Charlie follows Eliza (Liza Minneli) from screen to screen we are given a hint of his feelings towards her and his relationship with her, and as Mrs. Noseworthy (Margery Mason) interacts with the camera we are given an insight into how the screens are a common and important part of the way the house communicates. Smokey’s drunken escapades around the house are viewed on the screen, providing a comic relief that jars with, and further confuses the actions of Charlie, who himself is pointing a gun and a camera at the screens. Charlie, like Finney acts as director from his own private space. Technically the scene is a marvel, with the manner in which the camera pans from screen to screen in order to accommodate the action of the house being genuinely inspired. There’s no doubt that such a stylistically loaded scene is evidence of a filmmaker experimenting with the concepts of screen space and technique, but it works incredibly well, giving further incite into the psyche of our protagonist. Interestingly, in this scene we see that Charlie has a book entitled Classics of Foreign Cinema in his office. The book features the façade of Monica Vitti from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura on the cover, which in turn highlights the kind of cinema inspiring Finney at the time. L’Avventura is considered to be the archetypical “film about nothing”, which is a tag that has been attached to Charlie Bubbles upon occasion too, a label that is proven wrong in this one scene alone, in which we have so much going on onscreen. The use of the book as a technical device, in order to make the audience aware of his influences strikes me as a blatant reminder from Finney that this film is not your typical piece of cinema.

The appearance of Liza Minneli in Charlie Bubbles, as Eliza, Charlie’s young American assistant marks another explicit connection to Hollywood and the American film industry. Minneli is a direct link to the golden age of the Hollywood cinema, with both of her parents key figures in that industry. Minneli was a notable stage performer and singer when Finney cast her in Charlie Bubbles, which is surprisingly her first credited screen appearance (although she did appear in a number of films as an infant with her mother Judy Garland). Minneli’s appearance in a “foreign” picture reminds of the vogue of the time that saw a number of American actors working in the European cinema. Jack Palance’s turn in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris and Jack Nicholson’s appearance in Antonioni’s The Passenger are other examples of this, in which the boundaries between Hollywood cinema and the rest of the worlds national cinemas were blurred. This blurring of the international boundaries follows in a long tradition of Hollywood importing talent from Europe. F.W Murnau is possibly the highest profile of the early filmmakers enticed to America, with the promise of an unlimited budget by William Fox.  Perhaps the less than harmonious relationship that would blossom between Murnau and Fox, and Fox’s disappointment with the resulting works produced by Murnau could be seen as an appropriate analogy for Hollywood’s relationship with European cinema in general. The likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang all relocated to Hollywood, with their own national cinemas either unable to accommodate the filmmakers ambition or politically maintain a working relationship with them. Fritz Lang’s emigration to the United States in the early 1930’s is the subject of many a legend, but it is also worth pointing out that even in the years prior to his disapproval with the national politics that pushed him away from Germany, Lang and UFA were already working on product that could translate and sell to the US. M, his first sound film represented an interesting scenario for Lang, whose complex silent work would theoretically face major problems when translated into the sound era. The silent films of the early cinema had universal selling appeal, in that theoretically the only aspect of a film that would need changing from country to country would be the language of its inter-titles. With the dawn of sound boundaries were inadvertently introduced, with a film made in German having little ability to play outside of German speaking countries. To combat this many high profile early talkies would see “international” versions shot side by side, with the dialogue sequences reshot in different languages. M is a great example of this practice in action, as it is believed that Lang had no involvement in the International version of the film, throwing up further questions as to authorial control.

In spite of Charlie’s wealth and fame,  we never actually learn anything of the work he does. We know he is a writer, but of what? This adds to the general mystery surrounding Charlie, and in spite of our best expectations we learn very little more about him for the remainder of the film. There is no explanation as to why his marriage failed, although I guess there is an argument for Finney having enough faith in his audience to presume that his marriage was a casualty of his success, and there is no satisfying revelation as to what it is that Charlie actually seeks in life. It could be said that Charlie Bubbles is a film that celebrates the ordinary. There is very much a muted celebratory tone in the anti-climactic nature of the manner in which Charlie finally is reunited his family. An audience familiar with the typical composure of such scenarios would be hard pressed to find satisfaction in the scene that Finney presents them with. Not only is it literally underwhelming, but emotionally it provides the sort of beat that one wouldn’t expect. As opposed to being greeted with open arms by his beloved son, who has lets remember, being the subject of much concern on the behalf of his father for much of the films running time, Charlie is instead spied upon, much like the manner in which his own life is contained within a bubble (pun intended) from which he spies upon the people around him.  Likewise in the sequence at the football match, Charlie and his son sit in an empty executives box, surrounded by, but separate from the rest of the crowd.  As Charlie fusses over his son it is clear that he is unsure just how to deal with him. The dialogue free exchanges of sandwiches, drinks and scarf tucking soon descends into boredom for the kid. That the whole sequence is scored to the cheers and reactions of the crowd to the football game can’t help but appear to be sound tracking the battle of wits being played by Charlie and his son.  The awkward nature of the scene is cut by an encounter with another figure from Charlie’s past, a man who is now an official at the football club (and presumably the source of Charlie’s tickets to the event). In this scene Charlie shows his true feelings towards celebrity, perhaps for the first time, as in earlier similar encounters he has appeared largely accommodating of strangers pursuing his public persona. Likewise with the scene involving the journalist laying in wait outside his wife’s cottage, although it is clarified in this sequence just how surprisingly easily Charlie is influenced by those around him, and particularly so by the women in his life. The scene in which Charlie’s wife, the similarly wonderfully named Lottie Bubbles (Billie Whitelaw) takes control of the situation, and in the scene that follows we again notice that Charlie is only at rest when in the presence of a woman, but a moment that echoes the previous “bedroom” scene heavily. This time though his wife, who coerces him to sleep, calms Charlie which of course draws comparisons to the earlier love scene with Eliza, which may or may not have been a figment of Charlie’s imagination, another surreal episode. It strikes at this point that Charlie Bubbles is a heavily manipulated figure for a rebel, which again makes a nice complimentary aside as a note on the work of Albert Finney’s early career. Charlie Bubbles presents the dark side of the rebellious figure in cinema, and in turn a very British take on the Hollywood-ised figure of the on-screen rebel. I noted as well that Charlie Bubbles is much a film about place and locale as it is the eponymous protagonist, and found it appropriate that it was perhaps in this one area more than any other that Finney’s film shares a common feature with the Hollywood cinema, in that it is as much a film about a city, and fitting to compare to the cinema of Hollywood, which is surely the national cinema most concerned with providing an image of its own self?

The final section of the film is massively surreal, and works as both the literal climax of the picture, and as a culmination of the surreal dream sequences that have littered the film. Charlie awakes from the previously mentioned slumber, only to find a hot air balloon is docked in a nearby field. He proceeds to climb in the hot air balloon and floats away. Whether or not this is a fantasy sequence is unclear. That it follows a scene in which Bubbles is put to bed by his wife would suggest that a dream sequence is a distinct possibility, and it would definitely be in keeping with both the style and the tone of the film. This ending fits into the type of box that one would expect of the borderline avant-garde European cinema of the time, with the undetermined fate of the situation reminding heavily of likes of The 400 Blows and L’année dernière à Marienbad. Coincidently perhaps the most famous ambiguous ending of all also occurred in 1968, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ambiguous endings are heavily tied to the likes of horror films these days, with the device being used as an opportunity for trailing a sequel. There is a major difference between an ambiguous ending and a cliffhanger, and in case of Charlie Bubbles it doesn’t feel as though a wholly formed, explicitly defined climax is necessary to appreciate the film. We don’t need to know what happened to Charlie, nor would we actually want to. Likewise with The 400 Blows, and even though that particular film saw several sequels, the direct repercussions of the closing moments of The 400 Blows were never fully explained in any of the sequels. In contrast, a film like The Empire Strikes Back, in which the film ends with several loose ends, sees each of these strands wholly explained and rectified by the end of the first act of the next film in the series, The Return Of The Jedi.

Europe and The United States have long being the twin parents of the cinema. Be it in the actual invention of the cinematograph system, or the manner in which a large portion of the birth of the studios stemmed from immigrants to the US, so it was inevitable that pictures of the likes of Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles would one day be funded by a system that heavily contradicted the style of work on screen, and the mentality of the people producing it.

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