Reviews

The Pleasure Garden

The Pleasure Garden is a very engaging curiosity, and should be applauded for its inquisitive, progressive and cheeky exploration of love, sexuality and art.


The Pleasure Garden

Director: James Broughton
Cast: John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Lindsay Anderson
Distributor: BFI (UK)
UK Release date: 2010-02-15

Despite its obscurity within the canon of British cinema, watching The Pleasure Garden (1953) for the first time is a minor revelation. Recently released on DVD by the BFI, this 36-minute film playfully toys with avant-gardism -- unsurprising considering director James Broughton’s pedigree – and has a poetic narrative rich with metaphors and symbolism. An artistically ambitious project, it was deservedly recognised at the Cannes film festival in 1954, where it was awarded the Prix du Film de Fantaisie Poétique.

Broughton, a San Franciscan Renaissance poet, playwright and filmmaker, worked almost exclusively in 16mm during his 40-year film career, and conceived The Pleasure Garden as a “mid-summer afternoon daydream”. The film certainly has a whimsical, dreamlike quality, and filmed amongst the ruins and beautiful gardens and terraces of the Crystal Palace in London, it is essentially a series of vignettes, during which various eccentric and overlapping characters strive to connect, often intimately, with someone or something, each expressing their desires, fears and frustrations through action, song and narration.

Under Broughton’s imaginative direction, certain characters are highly symbolic. The two key figures in the film are Col. Pall K. Gargoyle (John Le Mesurier), and his nemesis, Mrs. Albion (Hattie Jacques). Gargoyle, a sort of park keeper, is a censorious figure who attempts to thwart, with governmental efficiency, any fun, physical contact, displays of flesh, or artistic expression that occur in the grounds. Gargoyle is also a philistine; when a frustrated artist (the British film director Lindsay Anderson) slams the modern sculpture he is working on to the ground, Gargoyle puts a ‘No Littering Please’ sign next to the wreckage.

If Gargoyle symbolises a society stunted by repression, inhibition and artistic bankruptcy, then he is the antithesis of Albion, a kind, wand-waving Cupid type who dances and frolics around the park, encouraging the visitors to sate their desires, express their artistry, and indulge in overt displays of affection and love. Against this backdrop, and watched dispassionately by the graceful statuary that inhabit the Palace’s grounds like celestial chess pieces, the other characters are allowed to drift in and out of the narrative, frequently being either helped or hindered by the dichotomous Gargoyle and Albion.

Among them is a young lady, curious about her body, who is transfixed by the curvaceous form of a classical statue she wishes to imitate (until Gargoyle orders her to do her buttons up); another, a cheerful, gregarious American, attempts to find a lover but is stopped when Gargoyle cuffs his wandering hands and locks him in cage; a middle-aged man rifle-hunts for a mate, while a suitable woman perches herself in a nearby tree, hoping to be blasted by his Cupid’s ammo (Albion later helps him take aim); another pretty young woman, trussed up to the neck in formal black clothing and controlled by her puritanical Aunt Minerva, is helped by Albion to throw off the binds of inhibition and start enjoying the fruits of life (Albion freezes Minerva in time, enabling the niece to escape).

Amidst all this light-hearted surrealism, there are some serious moments. A beautiful young war widow, Miss Greaves (geddit?), wanders through the park alone and sings, in voiceover, a plaintive lament to her dead sailor husband (“my lover true, in navy blue, he lies at the bottom of the sea, without me”). When Greaves eventually drowns herself in the park’s lake, Broughton appears to be suggesting that clinging to the emotional tragedies of the recent war is not healthy, and the need to move on is paramount. The emphasis on progress, liberty and optimism is prevalent throughout the film.

The Pleasure Garden draws to a close as Albion and Gargoyle push-and-pull for supremacy, and this battle is articulated literally at the film’s climax, during which Gargoyle and his repressive black-clad minions, who plan to turn the lovely park into a graveyard, have a tug-of-war with Albion’s coterie of artists, athletes and lovers.

At a polar opposite to the easygoing hedonistic frivolity of The Pleasure Garden, the accompanying film that represents the sole extra on the disc (and actually exceeds the running time of the main feature) is an entirely different proposition altogether.

The Phoenix Tower (1957), which is not related to the The Pleasure Garden in any artistic context, is a prim and very rare 39-minute documentary that charts the complicated planning and construction of the Crystal Palace television transmission tower, erected in 1956 within the same derelict area that served as the location for The Pleasure Garden. In this respect, it’s a fascinating historical document.

The Phoenix Tower is meticulously detailed, focusing as it does on the complicated technical and architectural theory behind such a large building project. However, it manages to eschew jargon, and keeps things simple, informative and interesting. The film becomes visually spectacular when terrific and hair-raising footage of the actual construction begins, and for vertigo sufferers, the frequent scenes of unsecured workmen climbing around on thin girders 750 feet above London will no doubt make a few heads swoon (Harold Lloyd has nothing on these guys), while wide helicopter shots of the finished tower - which still stands and broadcasts signals to this day - neatly conclude the film and give some indication of the scale of the metal monolith.

Essentially a promotional film (it was used as a test transmission broadcast for several years), The Phoenix Tower’s primary function is to show enterprise, innovation and industriousness, and this it achieves. It’s perhaps of no surprise that the narration is provided by the legendary voiceover stalwart Bob Danvers-Walker, whose precise and mannered diction graced myriad public information films, radio broadcasts and Pathé newsreels, often conveying, with authority, the impression that ‘everything is under control’, and here is certainly no exception.

In addition to The Phoenix Tower, other supporting material with the DVD includes a booklet containing information on both films, and a concise history of the Crystal Palace both before and after the fire that destroyed it.

The picture and sound quality of The Pleasure Garden are commensurate with the film’s age, but Walter Lassally’s nicely composed black and white cinematography is still rendered bright and crisp, and the grain is minimal for a 16mm production. The quality of The Phoenix Tower is not as good (the BFI had to use a third generation video copy for this DVD), but in the circumstances I’d argue that the crackling soundtrack and the scratched, grainy picture, while not intrinsic to the aesthetic charm of this obscure ‘50s production, are not too detrimental, either.

Overall, The Pleasure Garden is a very engaging curiosity, and while dated in some respects, it should nevertheless be applauded for its inquisitive, progressive and cheeky exploration of love, sexuality and art (it’s also great to see the beloved British comedy actors Le Mesurier and Jacques in early, unusual roles).

Produced at a time when Britain had yet to unshackle itself from the drab, grey austerity of the war years, the film to some extent pre-empts the personal freedoms and liberation of the '60s, a decade in which the cultural and sexual revolutions heralded an exciting new age of social technicolour.

BFI
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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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