The question that has preoccupied me since screening Peter Brook’s The Lord of the Flies is whether or not I would have recognized it as an important or excellent film without the Criterion Collection label on and treatment of the DVD.
On one level, this is such an esoterically personal question that it seems insignificant to dwell on it. On another level, it touches on the larger question of how films (or their studios) court and acquire reputations. We all like to think we are more impervious to advertising and other forms of propaganda than research suggests we are, and Americans probably receive less formal education in film history and literacy than they do for any other artistic medium.
The Lord of the Flies also raises the question, for me, of how possible (or easy) it is to distinguish one’s response to a work of art from one’s relationship and attitude towards its subject matter. Over ten years ago, I began scoring college aptitude exam essays. Since then, it is not an exaggeration to say I’ve read scores and scores of essays about Lord of the Flies, a staple of the high-school literature curriculum. It was hard for me, then, to approach Brook’s film with a sense of anticipation or expectation that I might encounter a fresh take on the material.
Andrew Sarris calls The Lord of the Flies an “expedition in search of inspired improvisation” (51). Brook’s description of his process is a bit less ambiguous. “There is always an artistic balance in every form between artifice and spontaneity,” (59) he suggests. Brooks relates that he used the primary camera in filming in a traditional, structured, way, setting up shots and material. Rather than similarly plan deviations from the master shot, he gave his second cameraman, freedom to seek out alternate perspectives during the master shooting:
[…] There was a second cameraman, Gerry Fell, a man who had worked for Life […] who knew exactly what we were doing on the picture, down to the intention of every shot, but who worked with as much freedom as a newsreel cameraman. Through the official cameraman I would set up, say, a tracking shot [….] this was, in other words, a controlled shooting. At the same time this second cameraman would be scouting around, taking a set-up which had been brought into existence by the director but trying to find other aspects of it which would fit. And the really interesting thing is that about a third of the picture, I suppose, comes from his material. (58)
Brook suggests in the interview and in the director commentary that some of the best moments in the film are those towards the end which depict the boys dancing on the beach at night and were recorded with the cameramen moving in and out among them. Of course, The Lord of the Flies was released in 1962, and the interview with Brook included in Sarris’s anthology originally appeared in Sight and Sound in 1963. Over forty years later, the use of handheld cameras is so ubiquitous, that it as hard to appreciate its use as daring or innovative as it is to think of the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane as revolutionary.
One of the other participants in the commentary track—I forget if it was the director of photography or producer—called Brook a “con artist for art.” There is an intimate, confessional quality to Brook’s comments that is refreshing to one used to commentaries being long on technical details and short on comments fleshing out the context of a film in an informative way. He hired a director of photography who confessed he has “no previous cinematography experience” and sprinkled his comments with more details about how he raised or saved money to make the film than on the actual making itself. These comments create a spirit of good will towards him and the project the undeniably enhancements my enjoyment (if not necessarily estimation of the film).
In fact, as Brook spoke with reasonable pride about avoiding entanglements with the studio system and making a truly independent film, I found myself reminded more and more of interviews I’ve heard from John Sayles. I was delighted by Brook’s comment that his largest difficulty in working with amateurs was not eliciting technically competent execution of tasks but maintaining morale, since professionals have become used to and inured to the myriad factors that can disrupt or sabotage the film process. But again, the question I go back to is whether or not these qualities permeate the film that actually exists or simply mediate my approach to it. After all, Brook insists that part of the reason he was attracted to The Lord of the Flies was that it was a light subject in terms of production (a camera, a bunch of kids, and a beach) but a large subject in terms of meaning.
Is it? The most memorable shot or scene in the film for me was not one of the improvisational dances on the beach, but that of one of the boys trying and failing to speak when he sees the naval officer who has found them on the island. What is delightful (to me) is how in a film (based on a book) full of words it is in silence where the most nuanced emotions are conveyed. This fact makes sense given the stocking of the narrative with children. In a novel an omniscient or retrospective narrator can exploit the gulf between what children are capable of understanding and processing themselves and what we understand about the situation they are in. Then again, it is clear from the commentary track that the director hoped and intended that this climactic moment of infused meaning would be conveyed not through this exchange but through the close-up of Simon, the lead, crying. Given the fact that Brook details the amount of time and detail given to trying to capture that moment and getting James Aubrey to cry on cue, perhaps there is something to be said for his claim in the Sight and Sound interview that “the result of one who knows his own mind imposing his own will is often considerably less effective than what can happen by itself” (57).
That’s ironic, as I think about it, because The Lord of the Flies suggests that what happens by itself is often more horrible and destructive than what happens when human activity is channeled or restrained by structure and order. So we have a champion of freedom and flexibility in technique and method drawn to and producing material that is itself a cautionary tale about the dangers of indulging the desires for those states in excess.
Sarris, Andrew, ed. “Peter Brook.” Interviews With Film Directors. New York: Avon, 1967.