Is That All There Is

UK 1994, 52 mins
Director: Lindsay Anderson

A contemporary review
This article, I had better start by saying, will not be an ‘objective’ review of Is That All There Is?, but as personal as the film Lindsay Anderson has made. An old friend, he asked me to write about it – provided, of course, that I liked it – because he said he ‘couldn’t think of anyone else who would fully understand what I’ve tried to express’. And as I like the film very much, I shall try to express here how it affected me, the delayed echo I hear as I write.

In 1971 a soon-to-be-defunct American magazine, Cinema, published a monograph by Lindsay on John Ford – something I had originally commissioned, when I was editor of Sight and Sound, as the first of a projected series on film directors, delayed and then cancelled owing to lack of funds. In the introduction that Cinema asked me to write, I noted – from the vantage point of a California expatriate – that Lindsay had always been far more ‘British’ than myself: ‘He is impatient and sometimes furious, but remains deeply attached. He will always live there, I guess, because like Ford he loves the idea of solid, far-reaching roots, and like Ford he is fundamentally a secret person. Exile involves self-exposure…’

Well. Lindsay still lives in Britain, of course, but he’s a kind of exile anyway. And Is That All There Is? tells me first of all, with a degree of self-exposure new in his work, how he feels about it. The film was commissioned by BBC Scotland as part of a series called
The Director’s Place; there were no guidelines, just a request for a 50 minute account of how he lived and worked. At first, having no idea what was expected of him, he felt disconcerted. But it was finally liberating. The film creates its own unexpected form, a kind of controlled free association. One episode follows another, seemingly isolated, but in fact linked by a subtext.

After an opening shot of a dour, turn-of-the-century London block of flats comes the first of several intertitles in the style of silent movies, used (as in O Lucky Man!) to punctuate scenes: ‘Every Day’. The next shot shows Lindsay waking up in bed, switching on his bedside radio and being subjected to the first of various media bombardments that will provide more violent punctuation – salvos of bad news alternating with explosive images. ‘Every Day’ continues with the director swallowing a few prescription pills, then lying almost entombed in a bubble bath as he gazes up at the posters of his films that decorate the bathroom walls. He doesn’t let on what he’s thinking, his eyes are veiled, enigmatic, almost saurian, but the television in the living room has supplied an implicit comment in the form of a peculiarly brutal and disgusting clip from Lethal Weapon 3. This is (almost) all there is now.

Preceded by an actual disaster image from television, of the floods in Pakistan, the director ventures into the street – ‘ventures’ because his deliberate but wary pace suggests someone who expects the territory to be hostile. But here, as he sets out on a round of local chores at the dry cleaners, the wine shop, the supermarket – he is beginning to ‘play’ himself, very much a ‘character’, ironic and a bit crusty, in his exchanges with the shop people. This is clearly a ritual: they expect it, Lindsay enjoys it, and there’s an affectionately programmed, Beckett-like futility to the whole thing. As a later hospital visit for a heartbeat check-up suggests, age has made physical inroads, but his spiritual eyesight remains as sharp as ever.

Another intertitle announces ‘Visitors’, and as a succession of friends and colleagues – the writers Bernard Kops and David Sherwin, a couple of actors, a young television producer – drop by the flat, it becomes clear that the centre of life is the kitchen. As well as more posters on the walls, there are a John Wayne collage and a newspaper photograph of the Queen Mother, smiling with the same terrible sweetness as the actress who impersonated her in Britannia Hospital. Around the table, improvised conversations circle the same topics: the unpromising state of the world and the rejection of film projects. Although downbeat, the tone is oddly cheerful. When Lindsay reads aloud to Sherwin various letters declining their latest script, it is less to commiserate than to mock the pomposity and/or stupidity in the responses.

One eruption occurs, however – not from the media, though as startling as a previous television image of an exploding washer-dryer. Lindsay’s nephew Sandy leans back too far in his chair and overbalances. When the others laugh, the nephew advances on his uncle in an outburst of manic rage and starts pouring the contents of a wine bottle over his head.

Three brief sequences show the director at work. With designer Jocelyn Herbert and playwright David Storey he talks about the set for his production of Stages at the National Theatre; with BBC producer Andrew Eaton he discusses About John Ford, the documentary he recently wrote and narrated- but the talk is of Ford, not himself; and while dictating a biographical note for the Stages programme, he breaks off to comment that he has ‘not a bad record’ in the theatre. In each case the tone is matter-of-fact, almost throwaway, and refreshingly free of any attempt to ‘explain’ his work or to analyse ‘the creative process’.

A TV news tidbit, about the Queen under fire for her wealth, kicks off an engaging scene with Lindsay’s cleaning lady, who sings ‘Always Look on the Bright Side’, then involves him in an absurdly complicated argument about bus versus Underground travel in London. A celebration of the ‘ordinary’, and of the salt of the earth, its mood connects with some of his early documentaries, particularly Every Day Except Christmas – just as the epiphany that closes the film echoes the finales of If…. and O Lucky Man!

The riverboat Connaught moves along the Thames, the crowd on board invited by the director to a memorial ceremony for two actresses, Rachel Roberts and Jill Bennett, who were close friends of himself and of each other. Among those present we glimpse other friends and colleagues: Anthony Page, David Storey, David Sherwin, Betsy Blair, Jocelyn Herbert. This being a Lindsay Anderson film, the atmosphere is anti-funereal, a time to demonstrate enduring affection for the lost rather than to mourn the loss itself. Alan Price, at an electric piano, sings ‘Is That All There Is?’, the song made famous by Peggy Lee and just as effective in his own, more openly protesting style. Then ashes and flowers are scattered over the water, with two brief flashbacks intercut – to Jill in a delicious moment from Lindsay’s satirical TV film based on Alan Bennett’s The Old Crowd, and of Rachel in a sombre mood in This Sporting Life. And the ship sails on…

This sequence is extraordinarily moving – as a salute to two passionately vulnerable, talented and quirky outsiders who fought a losing battle with life. And it’s no coincidence, of course, that Lindsay appreciated them so deeply. He is still fighting the outsider’s battle himself – which is what Is That All There Is? seems to me, finally, to be about.

The world it creates, and the self-portrait of the director in that world, has an unmistakable aura of aloneness. But it avoids self-pity. Defiance is the keynote, mellower than in If…. or Britannia Hospital, but no less stubborn. The rebellion may have failed, and those schoolboys on the roof of college given way to the yuppie generation, but Lindsay still leads an opposition party of one. And the price he has paid for remaining faithful to his pungently original, shit-kicking talent is to have made only six feature films in 30 years. Most British directors of his generation have made at least twice that number, and while less may be more in Lindsay’s case, the record seems only marginally less frustrating for that. So does the fact that he has done notable work in the theatre; films have always been his ruling passion. From time to time, over the years, I’ve heard the comment, ‘Lindsay doesn’t make it easy for himself.’ This, of course, is only a way of asking why he doesn’t compromise, and overlooks a basic point. If compromise were in his nature, Lindsay would never have made the films he has succeeded in making.

Like Ford, his favourite director, Lindsay is part rebel and part traditionalist. But where Ford’s lack of sympathy with contemporary life led him to a poetic idealisation of the past, Lindsay’s distaste for an age of moral shabbiness and closed hearts has fired him to attack it directly. Shock tactics have always been his preferred weapon: the incongruous or violent imagery that suddenly detonates in the middle of scenes of ‘Every Day’, the shots of starving Somalian children interrupting a vista of supermarket plenty. And very occasionally there’s the shock of nostalgia, like the still photograph that ends this film, a youthful Lindsay who stands waving from seaside rocks. It comes as a reminder of the long road travelled, from a time when the view was more open and encouraging than it is today.

But the last delayed echo I hear is of unrequited love, for a country of the mind, the better place that he would like England to be – and that in the 60s optimism of If…. he thought it might become. Slow dissolve, and it turned into Britannia Hospital. Now, even if he asks Is That All There Is?, he carries on regardless, finding moments of comfort and solidarity where he can, and for the rest of the time, keeping his finger on the trigger.
Gavin Lambert, Sight and Sound, October 1994

Director: Lindsay Anderson
Production Company: Yaffle Films
Commissioning Company: BBC Scotland
Executive Producer: John Archer
Producer: Trevor Ingman
Photography: Jonathan Collinson
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Music: Alan Price

Lindsay Anderson
Alexander Anderson
Murray Anderson
Kathy Burke
Laurence Cohen
Andrew Eaton
Dr Tom Farrell
Jocelyn Herbert
Bernard Kops
Rosemary Martin
Catherine O’Neill
Rohit Patel
Brian Pettifer
Neil Pilkington
Mark Podmore
Alan Price
Sheridan Russell
Mark Sigsworth
Davey Sherwin
David Sterne
David Storey
Tom Sutcliffe
Alan Bates
Alan Bennett
Graham Crowden
Edward Hardwicke
Anthony Page
Alexander Walker

UK 1994
52 mins

Director: Ken McMullen
Production Company: Looseyard
Producers: Hannah Wiggin, Sean Lewis
Photography: Tony Costa
Editor: Guy Landver
Music: David Cunningham

Sean Lewis
John Cartwright

UK 1995
38 mins

This Sporting Life
Wed 1 May 20:20; Wed 15 May 17:50; Thu 23 May 12:00
Lindsay Anderson: Meet the Pioneer
Thu 2 May 18:10
No Film Can Be Too Personal
Thu 2 May 20:20
Sun 5 May 15:20
The White Bus
Sun 5 May 17:30
Mon 6 May 17:50; Thu 16 May 20:30; Tue 21 May 18:10; Fri 24 May 12:10; Tue 28 May 20:45
BFI Library Event: Outing Anderson
Wed 8 May 20:00 BFI Reuben Library
In Celebration
Thu 9 May 20:25; Wed 22 May 18:00
O Lucky Man!
Sun 12 May 14:10; Sat 18 May 14:20; Mon 27 May 19:20
Britannia Hospital
Tue 14 May 20:35; Sat 25 May 18:00
The Whales of August
Thu 16 May 12:20; Sat 25 May 16:00; Fri 31 May 20:30
The Old Crowd
Thu 16 May 18:30
Lindsay Anderson vs the Short Films Industry + intro by Patrick Russell, Senior Curator of Non-fiction, BFI National Archive
Thu 23 May 18:20
Stand Up! Stand Up!
Thu 23 May 20:30
Never Apologize
Fri 24 May 17:50
In Collaboration: Anderson and Others
Sun 26 May 18:10
Lindsay Anderson Experimenta Mixtape, curated by Stephen Sutcliffe
Thu 30 May 18:10

With thanks to
The Lindsay Anderson Archive at the University of Stirling

O Lucky Lindsay Anderson!
4-week course from 7 May – 28 May, 2-4pm at City Lit, Keeley St. exploring the work and influence of visionary director, Lindsay Anderson, with course tutor John Wischmeyer. To book online www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/o-lucky-lindsay-anderson or call 020 3871 3111 and quote course code HF364
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