The Switchboard Operator

By Colin McArthur

It’s Nice to Know we’re Getting Something Right!

Less than a month after the appearance of Vertigo 5, news came that the film we chose to inaugurate our “Is it on Video?” column, Renoir’s Le Crime de M. Lange, would be appearing on the Connoisseur label.

Now we’ve gone one better: between the commissioning and the delivery of the article by Colin McArthur which appears below, we learnt that not only were Connoisseur about to bring out his chosen film, Dusan Makavejev’s The Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator (1967: now released under the title of The Switchboard Operator) but the same director’s Innocence Unprotected (1968) would appear on the same label at the same time.

Moreover, BFI Distribution has obtained theatrical rights for both these films and two other major works by Makavejev: Man Is Not A Bird (1966) and, for cinema-goers probably the most important of all, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. The latter will be a top quality 35mm print, taken from original materials, unlike the video currently in distribution.

Now for the bad news! Though a continuing and important gap in our film culture has been plugged, more recent developments hardly justify a mood of celebration.

The BFI has been unable to find a venue willing to give any of these films, not even W.R: Mysteries of the Organism, a sufficiently long run to justify the expenditure that a full launch and re-release would involve. Thus, the prints are now available, should anyone who knows they’re there want to book them. Sometime in the future, possible theatrical venues will be circularised with information about the films and their availability.

Moreover, there has been a re-structuring at Connoisseur Videos, which will mean a cutback from about 45 new release titles a year to approximately 25. This has been caused by lack of shelf-space in retail outlets, which have, apparently been struggling to cope with an excess of new titles.

We at Vertigo, however, feel these new cutbacks make this column all the more important. We want to hear from you, our readers, about the films you believe ought to be available on video. Write and tell us about them, and why you find them exciting and important.

Ideally, your article should be about 300 words long.

This piece was conceived as a lament for the continuing unavailability of Dusan Makavejev’s The Tragedy of The Switchboard Operator (1967). However, between its being commissioned and its writing, the happy news has emerged that not only has the BFI secured the theatrical rights (though as yet has no plans to open it), but that, within the month, Connoisseur Video will be issuing Tragedy... (under the title The Switchboard Operator) and Innocence Unprotected (1968), another Makavejev film unavailable for too long.

Perhaps inevitably, the distributor has sought to relate The Switchboard Operator to the recent tragic events in what was Yugoslavia by fore grounding in its advance publicity the liberal mores of the heroine, Isabelle, and the conservative mores of her Moslem lover Ahmed. This is, however, a red herring since quite apart from the fact that Isabelle is Hungarian the film is very much of its time in being about sexual mores under communism and connecting with another impulse of the sixties and seventies, Western Marxism’s Holy Grail of a reconciliation of Marx and Freud.

In my view, the importance of The Switchboard Operator to current British film culture is less thematic than formal. Broadly speaking, in the sixties and seventies - by way of Godard, new German Cinema and the cinemas of certain third world countries - we were given a series of object lessons in how to make what might be called a Poor Cinema, a cinema austere in resources but rich in imagination. These are lessons we have largely forgotten at a time when we most need to remember them. The growing hegemony of (post-) Hollywood narrative forms and economic arrangements has extended, by way of mechanisms such as the Sundance Film Festival, into terrain which in earlier decades would have been diversely populated by Poor Cinema. The appearance of The Switchboard Operator offers a timely reminder that all low-budget films need not look like, or cover the same thematic ground, as El Mariachi.

With an admirable lightness of touch, The Switchboard Operator puts into practice Godard’s observation that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. The fractured and reassembled spine of the film is a tragic love affair which ends with Isabelle’s 9probably accidental) death. Woven around this, however, and making The Switchboard Operator the multi-discourse film par excellence, are pieces of ‘found’ footage of all kinds from classical Soviet cinema to academic lectures on sexology and criminology, all of them helping to locate the love affair in wider social and political contexts. The fictionality of the main narrative also bleeds over into documentary in the factual exploration of Ahmed’s job of rat-catcher.

The re-release of The Switchboard Operator is a major event in British film culture, offering one model whereby the economic and discursive tyranny of (post-) Hollywood might be resisted.