Being Human: The Films of B.S. Johnson

For a man who achieved so much as a writer, it's interesting that BS Johnson never really got on with being an author...
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For a man who achieved so much as a writer, it's interesting that BS Johnson never really got on with being an author...

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Best known for his works of fiction, B.S. Johnson was never fully comfortable as an author. In fact, the figure that emerges from Jonathan Coe’s engrossing biography of the great man doesn’t appear to be fully comfortable as anything. He dipped his toe into a number of artistic pursuits throughout his career, including poetry, theatre works and sports writing, but always returned to storytelling, engaging in a lifelong love-hate tussle with the form.

Though he tends to be judged by his novels, Johnson also made and collaborated on a number of film and television works, now collected together by the BFI and Flipside in the anthology ‘You’re Human Like the Rest of Them’.

Throughout the films, as in his works of fiction, Johnson’s obsessions surrounding the recognition of death and its effect on the creative process are explored. The title film, (his first, which he wrote and directed in 1967), concerns a young teacher (an occupation Johnson fell into when writing wasn’t paying the bills) who attempts to teach his colleagues and class about the frailty of the human condition. In particular, the fact that we are all in an active state of decomposition and the only way to deter an inevitable death is to make ourselves ‘an awkward thing to kill’.

Though often labeled ‘experimental’, Johnson can also be seen more as ‘awkward’. In an attempt to derail the confining strictures of literature, he often employed quite drastic techniques to accompany his writing. His second novel Albert Angelo featured holes in the pages to allow readers to skip ahead if they found their minds wandering, while The Unfortunates was presented as a collection of loose pages presented in a box, allowing the chapters to be read in any order.

Sadly, the works are better known for these extremes of packaging than for the words themselves. Many critics have felt that these self-imposed conditions of awkwardness were detrimental to Johnson’s work and it was when he simply wrote that he was at his most successful. Though the writing was always there. No matter how it was presented the power of his words never failed to be singular and shattering. (And Johnson never ‘wrote simply,’ even the books considered to be the most ‘conventional’ tended to have flashes of subversion, such as the brilliantly dark and funny Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, where the author himself appears towards the end of the book making various apologies to the characters).

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This awkwardness is also apparent in his film works. After the success of You’re Human… which won awards and critical acclaim, Johnson made Paradigm which, as David Quantick points out in his notes included with the release, might be considered the “archetypal ‘difficult’ art film’”. A pretentious title, male nudity, an invented incomprehensible language and an increasingly grating electronic soundtrack combine to make something as far removed from Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties as it’s possible to be.

It’s a frustrating film, but it’s supposed to be. It’s about frustration, with someone telling us something undefined we’re never going to understand, at various stages throughout his life, until it ends, unsatisfied. It was despised by pretty much everyone who witnessed it at the time. Even in the easy-going, Yoko Ono penetrated, ‘I’m going to get into a sack as a defiant gesture against the Vietnam War’, art movement of the late 1960’s, it was too much for most.

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Personally, in his films if not necessarily his writing, I feel it is when Johnson is at his most direct and confrontational that he is most effective. A ‘missing believed wiped’ edition of his Mike Newell directed television play Not Counting the Savages is extraordinary. In a galloping thirty minutes, it manages to cover indecent exposure, child molestation, voyeurism, incest and pornography, all contained within the same seething suburban sitting room. As a viewer you naturally judge the characters and their differing levels of repellence. Then the rug is pulled from under you with an unexpected coda.

On Reflection: B.S. Johnson on Samuel Johnson, represents the type of time-filling televised monologue that punctuated the Sunday afternoons of my childhood, but seems completely alien now. Perhaps I even watched Johnson at the time, discussing his namesake straight to the camera for thirty minutes, disturbing the audience with the occasional flash screen title card (‘Publishers Are Parasites’ is one). It works because it’s engaging and funny. Both Johnsons loved jokes.

This technique evolved with Fat Man on a Beach, his final film from 1973 and arguably his most successful. In it, Johnson revisits the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales, a place of almost mystical significance to him. Johnson gambols across the deserted sands, tells tales from his personal history, offers a few gags and occasionally cuts way to a bunch of bananas. He seems perfectly relaxed, even happy, a state of mind confirmed by the film’s director Michael Bakewell who claims Johnson was “completely at ease” throughout the filming.

The final shot of the film sees Johnson wading into the sea fully clothed, Reggie Perrin style, viewed from a helicopter drifting overhead. Soon afterwards he was dead, this cinematic suicide read as a precursor to his actual suicide just days afterwards.

And obviously we were robbed. Johnson was just 40 when he died. After Coe’s biography, recent reprints and now this DVD release, it feels like only now we’re starting the grasp the full extent of Johnson’s talent. He once informed his agent that he would be much more famous when he was dead. Forty years after his suicide, he may finally be proved right.

You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is available now from the BFI