Subverse Britannia II: The Knack

The Knack …And How To Get It is the second film in the Subverse Brittania collaboration between Dr David Forrest, Dr Matthew Cheeseman and Paul Bareham.

Film poster for The Knack... and how to get it

The films describe an arc through 1960s film: from the kitchen sink (A Taste of Honey) through the snappy, swinging style of the mid-sixties (The Knack …and How to Get It) to the jaded realisation that success and fame lead to loss (Charlie Bubbles).

As with the first series of Subverse Brittania, the films have been selected to explore the shared ground between social realism and fantasy. Not only do they describe trends in British filmmaking, they also describe British society in the 1960s.

It’s tempting to roam the surface of The Knack, following Richard Lester’s stylish direction which animates London as a playful, ever-so-with-it farce. Along with A Hard Day’s Night and Help (which he made before and after) Lester established the surreal vocabulary of pop on film, later receiving the first MTV Lifetime Achievement Awards in 1984 for ‘essentially inventing the music video’.

It’s a pleasure to let the camera guide you through a series of witty, inventive set pieces, gliding with all the panache of John Barry’s hip, jazzy score. No wonder the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1965, it seems as if the whole 60s scene, irreverent, swinging and young, is up there on screen, enjoying life freely, oblivious to any threat, real or imagined, in its depiction young men having, and trying to pick up, the knack of seducing women.

Three very different men share a house. Ray Brooks’ character is only known by his last name: Tolen. He is a domineering alpha male, extremely successful with women who literally line up to sleep with him, signing his guestbook on the way out.

In contrast, Michael Crawford’s Colin is all of a quiver. He wants girls, girls, girls so much he falls apart around them, metaphorically and literally, a Frank Spencer before Frank Spencer. Between these two extremes is Donal Donnelly’s Tom, an artist with more interest in the colour white than women.

The men are all disturbed by the arrival of Rita Tushingham’s Nancy, naïve but northern, who sparks a competition between Tolen’s ruthless cool and Frank’s (sorry, Colin’s) madcap charm.

The relentless misogyny becomes difficult to watch. Women, here, are matter to be manipulated and conquered. The measure of good sex is the time it takes to seduce, do ‘it’ and finish. Even Nancy does not manage to escape the possessive, controlling tone of the film, one which never, strangely, contradicts the light, snazzy direction.

This winning but disturbing contrast, between fresh camera angles and leather gloves, cool haircuts and grubby undergrowth, only heightens the surrealism of the set pieces, intensifying their subliminal currents into something slick and bitter. And this, really, is the dark power of the film, which liberates male sexual desire from the old guard of taboo and the stigma of vice, pretending that it is instead something new and fresh, giving it a coat of white paint.

Of course, any film about the sexual revolution in 60s London, is going to look askew from 2013, with the pace of contemporary accusations of past abuse only matched by the typically English self-flagellation that has accompanied it. Our sympathy has been readily absorbed by Subverse Britannia, which tempts us to be savage with the groovy past, too ready to criticise.

Yet there remains something about The Knack that makes one pause and seek alternatives, redeem it. Is it a knowing, prescient indictment of the business of pop, the machinery of cool? A satire of the male id, ego and superego?

Nothing in this kooky vision of London quite seems to work as expected, from the vending machines to the front doors, from the story to ourselves, the viewers.

Written by Matt Cheeseman, on 13 November 2013.

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