Thursday, 19 July 2012

"Take Me Up to the Top of the City" Billy Liar's View From The Hill, 1963


A recurring motif in British new wave cinema is that of the scene with a "view from the hill". This motif is strikingly in evidence in the John Schlesinger film Billy Liar (1963). Like many other British new wave films of this period, Billy Liar is set in a northern industrial town - in this case, Bradford. Like other favoured cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, Bradford is a large city surrounded by dramatic rural landscape. The contrast of visual landscapes is used to express the dichotomy between the town and the country, and between the past and modernity. These are issues at the heart of many of the British new wave films, whose young protagonists frequently stand at the cusp of a transition between two spheres: tied to the traditions of family and community that represent the past, but tugged at by desire for the city that stands for modern living and independence. 

Most of the action in Billy Liar takes place among the building and roads of the city. Gliding along the streets, the camera and the film's characters wonder the city, showing off Bradford's personality of vibrancy and movement which typifies the romantic notion of the hustle and bustle of city life. The shots during the "view from the hill" sequence in Billy Liar are in high contrast to the imagery that comes before and after: shots of demolition and war damage, bulldozers colliding into the sides of buildings, with piles of rubble seen in the empty gaps where buildings once stood, accompanied by the sounds of drilling. This depiction of destruction is endowed with a certain amount of relish, as these scenes interrupt the smooth panning camera movement that records the historical monuments, town halls, pompous statues and inner-city terraced housing, along with the tweeness of the suburban semis that Billy lives in. It seems to be a destruction of one idea of the city in favour of another. The sweeping camera work focussing on the new (at the time) 60's tower blocks is backed by a soundtrack of upbeat modern jazz music; the order of these images makes it clear that this image of modernity is one Billy favours. During one of Billy's fantasy sequences as the ruler of Ambrosia, he addresses a large crowd: “we will rebuild the drab and the shabby...master craftsmen will change the face of our cities, we will build towers, towers!” as the crowd roars with applause.

It is interesting that the sequence of the "view from the hill" comes after one such fantasy episode: it is as, if coming out of his fantasy projection of Ambrosia (his ideal state), Billy is then forced to confront the dark side of the reality of his life in Bradford. The start of the sequence sees the back and shoulders of a stationary Counsellor Duxbury filling up half the right hand side of the frame. The camera then backs away, moving to the left, leaving him in the middle of the frame; on either side of him are the tall peaks of the moors' hills. His voice is heard - “now then lad” - as the camera continues its pan left. A steep valley is seen in the background as Billy enters the frame, approaching, climbing the steep path up towards the counsellor. The town below is barely visible in this view from the hill: the dip appears so low that all that can be seen is the framed outline of the triangles of terraced roofs. The surrounding moors are craggy, brutal looking rocks jutting out at sharp angles into the sky. Pieces of brick, burnt out frames of cars, scrap metal and junk litter the scene, like war-damage debris that no-one has remembered to clear away. This is a place the town below has seemingly forgotten about. 

Counsellor Duxbury represents patriarchal power and the traditions of the town, through both his official station as a council man and his colloquial, old-fashioned mode of speech. As Billy and Duxbury stand talking about the state of Bradford, Duxbury stands higher up the hill than Billy, making visually clear their social status and power difference: he is looking down as he speaks to Billy, who is positioned lower in the frame as if he were subservient to the older, more respected man. They talk of the older buildings that are being knocked down, and the things that are being made way for; Duxbury is clearly resistant and anxious about the change. Billy, who earlier made it clear he is all for "out with the old, in with the new", is excited about modernity invading his town. Slyly mimicking the colloquial speech and accent of the Counsellor, Billy impersonates Duxbury's attitude of nostalgia towards the town, making his views appear banal and small-minded. As Duxbury ponders: “Ah they're all coming down, all the old buildings...The city centre, that's all new...”, Billy joins in, mocking him: “ah, you could get a glass of beer, a meat pie, cigarettes, matches and change, all out of a four pence”. Up on the hill the two men stand alone together, each representing a different generation and time. A giant telegraph pole looms behind Duxbury's head, visually emphasising his anachronism - change has already happened, yet through his denial of it he is in some ways still in the past.  

During a close up of Duxbury's face he offers some advice to the wayward fantasist Billy, telling him to “think on”. Billy's mockery thinly disguises his feelings of superiority towards the uneducated Duxbury, yet Duxbury is well aware of Billy's misdemeanours, knowing all about the unsent calendars Billy pocketed the postage for from work. A shadow seems to have hung over the scene as the men change position, with Billy high on the hill and Duxbury lower. Duxbury tells him again to “think on!". This can be seen as a role reversal: Billy is now in the position of the adult and therefore will be forced to make amends for his behaviour. As he is  repeatedly told throughout the film, he must learn to "grow up".  

Billy is now alone after Duxbury has mirrored his path up by his exit down the hill - again, a symmetry that reflects the changing of roles. Perhaps in defiance of Duxbury's advice, Billy rushes up the hill with the stolen calendars under his arm with childlike glee. Once at the top of the hill the camera is tilted down at Billy, from the point of view of looking down at someone smaller or younger, reinforcing the childlike quality of Billy's character. As the calendars float dreamily down the sharp hill face, we are shown Billy's face full of pleasure as he gives into his desire to escape responsibility and the pull of reality. The scene from the hill behaves like a liminal space that is disconnected from the world below it. It  is a place in between, for Billy a place that allows him to remain somewhere between being a teenager and becoming an adult. After he has disposed of the calenders, the hills and Billy's figure are seen in silhouette as he runs up one hill and down the other, making the scene become fantastical. Here, the "view from the hill" acts as a significant motif, which allows for contemplation and space in a place that is familiar yet separate from the world and city below.


A recurring motif in British new wave cinema is that of the scene with a "view from the hill". This motif is strikingly in evidence in the John Schlesinger film Billy Liar (1963). Like many other British new wave films of this period, Billy Liar is set in a northern industrial town - in this case, Bradford. Like other favoured cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, Bradford is a large city surrounded by dramatic rural landscape. The contrast of visual landscapes is used to express the dichotomy between the town and the country, and between the past and modernity. These are issues at the heart of many of the British new wave films, whose young protagonists frequently stand at the cusp of a transition between two spheres: tied to the traditions of family and community that represent the past, but tugged at by desire for the city that stands for modern living and independence. 

Most of the action in Billy Liar takes place among the building and roads of the city. Gliding along the streets, the camera and the film's characters wonder the city, showing off Bradford's personality of vibrancy and movement which typifies the romantic notion of the hustle and bustle of city life. The shots during the "view from the hill" sequence in Billy Liar are in high contrast to the imagery that comes before and after: shots of demolition and war damage, bulldozers colliding into the sides of buildings, with piles of rubble seen in the empty gaps where buildings once stood, accompanied by the sounds of drilling. This depiction of destruction is endowed with a certain amount of relish, as these scenes interrupt the smooth panning camera movement that records the historical monuments, town halls, pompous statues and inner-city terraced housing, along with the tweeness of the suburban semis that Billy lives in. It seems to be a destruction of one idea of the city in favour of another. The sweeping camera work focussing on the new (at the time) 60's tower blocks is backed by a soundtrack of upbeat modern jazz music; the order of these images makes it clear that this image of modernity is one Billy favours. During one of Billy's fantasy sequences as the ruler of Ambrosia, he addresses a large crowd: “we will rebuild the drab and the shabby...master craftsmen will change the face of our cities, we will build towers, towers!” as the crowd roars with applause.

It is interesting that the sequence of the "view from the hill" comes after one such fantasy episode: it is as, if coming out of his fantasy projection of Ambrosia (his ideal state), Billy is then forced to confront the dark side of the reality of his life in Bradford. The start of the sequence sees the back and shoulders of a stationary Counsellor Duxbury filling up half the right hand side of the frame. The camera then backs away, moving to the left, leaving him in the middle of the frame; on either side of him are the tall peaks of the moors' hills. His voice is heard - “now then lad” - as the camera continues its pan left. A steep valley is seen in the background as Billy enters the frame, approaching, climbing the steep path up towards the counsellor. The town below is barely visible in this view from the hill: the dip appears so low that all that can be seen is the framed outline of the triangles of terraced roofs. The surrounding moors are craggy, brutal looking rocks jutting out at sharp angles into the sky. Pieces of brick, burnt out frames of cars, scrap metal and junk litter the scene, like war-damage debris that no-one has remembered to clear away. This is a place the town below has seemingly forgotten about. 

Counsellor Duxbury represents patriarchal power and the traditions of the town, through both his official station as a council man and his colloquial, old-fashioned mode of speech. As Billy and Duxbury stand talking about the state of Bradford, Duxbury stands higher up the hill than Billy, making visually clear their social status and power difference: he is looking down as he speaks to Billy, who is positioned lower in the frame as if he were subservient to the older, more respected man. They talk of the older buildings that are being knocked down, and the things that are being made way for; Duxbury is clearly resistant and anxious about the change. Billy, who earlier made it clear he is all for "out with the old, in with the new", is excited about modernity invading his town. Slyly mimicking the colloquial speech and accent of the Counsellor, Billy impersonates Duxbury's attitude of nostalgia towards the town, making his views appear banal and small-minded. As Duxbury ponders: “Ah they're all coming down, all the old buildings...The city centre, that's all new...”, Billy joins in, mocking him: “ah, you could get a glass of beer, a meat pie, cigarettes, matches and change, all out of a four pence”. Up on the hill the two men stand alone together, each representing a different generation and time. A giant telegraph pole looms behind Duxbury's head, visually emphasising his anachronism - change has already happened, yet through his denial of it he is in some ways still in the past.  

During a close up of Duxbury's face he offers some advice to the wayward fantasist Billy, telling him to “think on”. Billy's mockery thinly disguises his feelings of superiority towards the uneducated Duxbury, yet Duxbury is well aware of Billy's misdemeanours, knowing all about the unsent calendars Billy pocketed the postage for from work. A shadow seems to have hung over the scene as the men change position, with Billy high on the hill and Duxbury lower. Duxbury tells him again to “think on!". This can be seen as a role reversal: Billy is now in the position of the adult and therefore will be forced to make amends for his behaviour. As he is  repeatedly told throughout the film, he must learn to "grow up".  

Billy is now alone after Duxbury has mirrored his path up by his exit down the hill - again, a symmetry that reflects the changing of roles. Perhaps in defiance of Duxbury's advice, Billy rushes up the hill with the stolen calendars under his arm with childlike glee. Once at the top of the hill the camera is tilted down at Billy, from the point of view of looking down at someone smaller or younger, reinforcing the childlike quality of Billy's character. As the calendars float dreamily down the sharp hill face, we are shown Billy's face full of pleasure as he gives into his desire to escape responsibility and the pull of reality. The scene from the hill behaves like a liminal space that is disconnected from the world below it. It  is a place in between, for Billy a place that allows him to remain somewhere between being a teenager and becoming an adult. After he has disposed of the calenders, the hills and Billy's figure are seen in silhouette as he runs up one hill and down the other, making the scene become fantastical. Here, the "view from the hill" acts as a significant motif, which allows for contemplation and space in a place that is familiar yet separate from the world and city below.

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