Is it selfish to be angry all the time? What if anger is the only sensible response to a ridiculous and dying world? 1959's Look Back in Anger, based on John Osborne's play, doesn't spend much time explicitly talking about the past but one scene where one of the story's more mild mannered characters vaguely observes "Something's gone wrong somewhere, hasn't it?" seems to point to a fundamental decline in the state of things. I couldn't help thinking of the origin story put forth in episode eight of the new Twin Peaks--like the Beats in the U.S., a culture that seems very much to've influenced the world depicted in Look Back in Anger, there's a sense of something having gone wrong with the fundamental fabric of human society for which everyone is paying a price on a deeply personal level. The film resolves a little too cleanly for my taste, something that later "Angry Young Man" films seem to improve upon, and some of the supporting characters could've used more fleshing out, but this beautifully photographed film centres on one fascinating character played by Richard Burton.
Burton plays Jimmy, a young man who earns a meagre living from a market stall despite being a university graduate. His two flatmates are his wife, Alison (Mary Ure), and a young Welshman named Clff (Gary Raymond). Later, Alison's friend, Helena (Clarie Bloom), joins them and in one conversation between Helena and Cliff, I got the sense of the two being governors of opposing political philosophy of the state populated by Jimmy and Alison. Cliff tells Helena how hard he's worked to keep Alison and Jimmy together and Helena doesn't understand why.
Jimmy is constantly in a rage. He channels it into his trumpet playing in a local club--his admiration for the great jazz musicians of the day, seen in posters for Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson that decorate the walls of the flat, seems another page taken from the Beats. He also takes out his anger by deliberately insulting his wife and friends; in his calling Alison a "cow" constantly he displays a casual misogyny designed more to hurt people around him than to sell them on any heartfelt philosophy. He hates Helena even more, his insults suggesting he sees her as morally smug though we never learn very much about her. Presumably he feels that way about her because she's been trying to get Alison to leave him.
Jimmy also sublimates his anger into fighting for an Indian immigrant named Kapoor (S.P. Kapoor) who works in the same market. He constantly receives unfair treatment from the market inspector played by a young Donald Pleasence. Kapoor provides an clear external manifestation of the corruption of reality Jimmy perceives at all times.
There's also the influence of young misfit American films at work like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause and Richard Burton shows a Shakespearean actor can give the method actors a run for their money. Even when he and Cliff are messing around with a double act they've rehearsed for their own amusement one senses the constant undercurrent of resentment in Jimmy. He always seems to be picking at the people around him, as though desperate to find they, too, have the anger beneath their complacent masks.
Alison and Jimmy aren't always fighting and when they make up they tend to do a strange role play where he pretends to be a bear and she a squirrel, seemingly a reference to Ibsen's A Doll's House. Since this seems the only time the two are comfortable with each other and their relationship, one wonders if Osborne is making a point about what was lost when this game was cast aside in A Doll's House.
In the Wikipedia entry for the song, there's an uncited note that says David Bowie's "Look Back in Anger" has nothing to do with Osborne's play. If that's true, then all the resonance the lyrics have with the story must be an extraordinary coincidence. Certainly I hate Oasis' "Don't Look Back in Anger" even more now. The Bowie song has something in the fury that builds in a constant state of forced stasis and gradual decay that certainly seems to be part of the film.
Twitter Sonnet #1114
The minute hand banana peeled the watch.
A time appointed classic brass to tack.
An idle sprint suspends at needed Scotch.
Direction eased for wind and falling slack.
Spaghetti arms can hold a saucy kid.
Appointed pasta kneels before the pot.
A boiled face emerged beneath the lid.
A mind assembled dinner serves a lot.
The empty picture frame remembers glass.
A station stopped beside a moving train.
The faces of the ticket slowly pass.
An anger came to market all in vain.
A retrospective soured well and bad.
A rainy time and long the lodgers had.