In 1966 Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company mounted a collaboratively devised stage show titled US. The subject was our relationship to and responsibility for the Vietnam War. The following year, with a minimal budget raised in part by subscription in the United States, he directed a feature film titled Tell Me Lies developed from but in no simply a document of the stage show. The film enjoyed modest distribution in 1968 but for various reasons it has been all-but-invisible for 45 years. Thrillingly, the Technicolor Foundation and the Groupama Gan Foundation have restored the film under Brook’s supervision and this version has just been released in France. I saw a print at a London Film Festival screening on Sunday (at which Brook did a Q&A afterwards) and I am still mentally reeling. My ideas about the film I begin to explore below, but first here is the trailer.
There is an article here about the restoration by the Technicolor Foundation and the Groupama Gan Foundation. Also online is an exemplary bi-lingual book, from which the framegrab above comes. This features an introduction by and interview with Peter Brook and extensive historical background. My thoughts are simply a footnote to this.
I had little sense of what to expect before Sunday’s screening, although I knew that the film was unconventional. Yet that hardly prepared me for a hard-edged collage that resembles nothing so much as mid-period Godard. The influence is, in part, quite explicit, with the reference of a shot of Glenda Jackson reading Mao’s little red book that is a direct quotation from La Chinoise (1967).
There is newsreel footage of demonstrations and poetry readings, and there are acted, apparently improvised scenes of a white middle-class couple and their friends. The opening title says that Tell Me Lies is ‘a film about London’, and much of it is grounded in the city during the summer of ’67. Astonishingly, director of photography Ian Wilson captures that moment in pin-sharp 35mm images of great beauty. There is a pair of choric comedic commentators who pop up throughout, at one point questioning – just after a character has described the film as a ‘semi-documentary’ – quite what that might be.
There are wryly amusing parables of anti-war activity, and there are songs, delivered in Brechtian mode direct-to-camera, the most powerful of which is Richard Peaslee’s setting of Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Tell Me Lies’. (The clip at the end of this post is not from the film, but is a remarkable near-contemporary performance.) There are meditations on images, both still and moving, and a constant questioning of what is documentary and what is fiction.
Indeed the insistent self-reflexivity is such that when the film includes two truly shocking sequences of archive footage I found myself initially asking if these were ‘real’ before recognising only too intensely that they were – and are. The first is the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk who the camera observes dispassionately as he dies before the lens watched by a circle of other monks, and by us. The second is a brutal execution by firing squad and pistol, the circumstances of which remain unclear.
Throughout the viewer has to work hard to make connections in a manner that could not be more different from the over-explained linearity of today’s television. Nor is the rhythm of the film a familiar one, so that certain sequences (and some shots) are held and held and held for far longer than we would now expect. The most striking example of this is a scene at a party which the central character (played by actor Mark Jones) attends. There he engages in conversation a group of older men, among whom can be recognised Kingsley Amis and Auberon Waugh. Their callous conversation, caught be a camera that is very obviously present but which was not expected, remains remarkable and shocking.
In the Q&A Brook said that he asked a rather grand lady to throw the party and invite the guests without telling them its purpose. Then he turned up with the actor, the camera and ‘a very large bottle of whisky’, and people continued their conversations with a disarming absence of awareness. This is part of what makes the film seem so radical, along with the formal strategies and constantly shifting sense of enquiry as opposed to sloganeering. Its politics are those of the question, not of any answer – and this I think makes it almost unique about other British films from the Left in the 1960s and ’70s.
No film escapes its moment, and there are gender politics inscribed here that we may find uncomfortable today. There is an uncomfortable sequence about American soldiers finding solace in Hanoi in homosexual relationships, which cannot decide to what extent this is scary. Many of the specific references would have been more transparent for an audience back in 1968. Nonetheless this feels very much like a film for now as much as for then.
When Clyde Jeavons, who was chairing the Q&A on Sunday, described the film as ‘agit-prop’, Peter Brook corrected him sharply. ‘Agit yes; prop – no,’ he said, explaining that this was not a film that knew what it thought and was trying to persuade others of the rightness of its cause. Rather, this was and is a film that wanted and wants to ask questions of its audience – questions about complicity, about engagement, and ultimately about what is to be done.
In that sense, then, this is most definitely a film about ‘us’ – about ‘us’ and Bosnia, ‘us’ and Iraq, ‘us’ and Syria. And it remains a film that should continue to make us all uneasy. For after the questions and the self-examination and what some might regard as liberal hand-wringing, the recognition emerges that – perhaps – we need the lies we are told about Vietnam and Bosnia and Iraq and Syria. We require the comfort they bring, for without them the horror of those wars and of so much else in the world would be more reality than perhaps we could bear.
PS. I want to return to this subject soon, not least because I have realised that US was also the subject of Peter Whitehead’s 1967 documentary Benefit of the Doubt, which is available on a BFI DVD. How fascinating that a stage show from the 1960s was the subject of two different films at the time.
PPS. For all that we collectively revere Peter Brook and hold him in the highest regard as a creative artist, I fear that we are startlingly cavalier about his legacy, and perhaps especially his feature films. As far as I know The Beggar’s Opera (1953), Moderato Cantabile (1960) and Marat/Sade (1967) are not legally available in this country, and Wikipedia also lists another film from 1967, Ride of the Valkyrie, about which I know absolutely nothing. Why are these and his 1983 The Tragedy of Carmen (filmed as I recall in three different versions, with three different sopranos) not available on DVD? Or if they are, please point me towards them.