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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: “Permissive,” (1970, Lindsay Shonteff)

I really hope there are no major changes of management at the British Film Institute. Like, ever. It's not because I have a long-standing respect for that oft-august body (although I do, I really do). And it's not that I spend a sufficient amount of time in Britain to take advantage of the many services the body offers over there (although I would, if I were spending any particular stretch of time in that place). It's pretty much because I'm thoroughly nuts about the Institute's DVD arm as it's currently constituted, and would love for it to continue doing as it does for as long as I'm around to be thoroughly nuts about it.

It's true that some of the miraculous feats of said arm are due to be reproduced, to some extent, here in the States; the Criterion Collection is coming out with Blu-ray discs of Antonioni's Red Desert and Visconti's The Leopard, the BFI Blu-rays of which have garnered much praise (I have their Desert, and it's wondrous to behold; it's also Region B locked). One salivates over their upcoming Ozu Blu-rays, and wonders if they will find domestic analogues. But one area where the home video arm really excels is in very specifically British stuff that isn't necessarily gonna find a home at an American label. The staggering Jack Bond/Jane Arden films Separation, The Other Side of Underneath, and Anti-Clock (films I was so both exhilarated and flummoxed by that I found myself completely unable to write about them in a way I felt satisfactory to me, for which I apologize), for instance. Bill Douglas' should-really-be-seen-by-everybody Comrades, to name another example. And then there's the side label, BFI Flipside, devoted to "rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions."

Note that "weird and wonderful" doesn't necessarily mean "good." That is, I should clarify, doesn't necessarily mean "good" in the conventional sense, or as some feistier than myself might put it, the "bourgeois" sense. The two features included on the January 2010 DVD and Blu-ray disc of 1970's Permissive—the other film is 1971's Bread—don't offer much in the way of standard entertainment or, for that matter, grindhouse titillation. The pictures depict two sides of the same countercultural coin. Permissive, directed by Lindsay Shonteff—a journeyman of the sort that makes last entry's auteur Val Guest look like Jean-Marie Straub by comparison—is a grim tale of a young innocent thrown to the lions of rock and roll groupiedom pretty much the minute she hits London. It's the tail end of the age of Aquarius, freak folk is still in vogue—much of the film's score is provided by the cult proto-prog group Comus, but does not, alas, represent that combo's most inspired work—but everybody really, really seems to hate each other. Typical dialogue exchange: "You know where I can find Lacy?" "That bitch?" Really, not so much as a "nice to meet you" is ever spoken here.

How accurate are the films' observations of not just debauchery but plain old bad manners? Or is this all just reflective of a "these damn kids with their loud hair/long music" disapproval on the part of the moviemakers? Interestingly enough, in a short piece about Comus in the package's typically excellent, thorough booklet, that band's Roger Wooten says, "As far as the seedy side of the underground is concerned, it was close to real life." Which is pretty depressing. Robert Benayoun (I know, I can't stop citing this quote) talks about sadistic cinema possessing the "elective, even ceremonious climate, [...] venomous and intoxicating, [...] of total perdition." Whatever kind of cinema Permissive represents, it possesses the climate of complete and utter skinkiness. If you don't know the difference between perdition and skinkiness, what can I say, you need to get out more. One way the difference shows here is in that there's pretty much zero titillation factor to all the copious displays of naked flesh.  The depictions of sex are so clammy and unhygenic-seeming that after watching one barely ever wants to disrobe again, let alone pursue carnal congress.

That particular glitch aside—and don't worry, you'll get over it soon enough, I have faith in you—watching these peculiar items will accomplish several positive things for you. One of them being that your nostalgia, or imagined nostalgia, for the 1960s will just evaporate. And the presentation—the high-def transfers do a superb job of preserving the particular texture of the particular stock that seemed endemic to much low-budget exploitation fare of that era—will produce a kind of interesting cognitive dissonance as you watch it in the comfort of your own home. "Why aren't these floors sticky?" you may well ask yourself.

I love Shonteff’s “Devil Doll”. Here’s hoping for a decent DVD of “Million Eyes of Sumaru”.
Shonteff’s 70s crime thrillers are hilariously “skinky,” not to say “skanky” “skunky” and possibly “skonky.” THE most unappealing heroes, and the filmmaker seems quite unaware of this.

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