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I Think They Call Him John (1964)

Courtesy of the Craignish Trust

Main image of I Think They Call Him John (1964)
35mm, black and white, 28 mins
Directed by John Krish
Production Company Samaritan Films
Made for The Craignish Trust
Produced by Jack Carruthers
Written by John Krish
Photographed by David Muir
Edited by Kevin Brownlow

Featuring: John Cartner Ronson (subject of film); Victor Spinetti, Bessie Love (voices)

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The life of an old man, John Cartner Ronson, living alone in a huge block of flats in London since his wife died nine years earlier.

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John Krish felt strongly about contemporary society's growing indifference towards its elderly population and had been looking for an opportunity to address the issue through film for some time. If with Return to Life (1960), Krish wanted a general audience to appreciate how it feels to be a refugee, with I Think They Call Him John he wanted an audience to feel what it is like to be old and lonely. But more than this, he wanted to "make people feel guilty" - an approach that was becoming a familiar trait of his work.

Extending the ostensibly observational mode of direction that he had honed in Return to Life, Krish invites viewers to experience the nuances of John's domestic existence through lingering and achingly beautiful black and white shots. The director and photographer David Muir were initially in artistic conflict over Krish's wish for Muir to use a 28mm lens in order that three walls could be incorporated into every shot, inducing the requisite sense of claustrophobia in the viewer; Muir was concerned that a wide-angle lens would make John's modest flat look twice as large, affording the humble living quarters a deceptively palatial aspect. As it was, Krish won the battle and in fact the resultant mise-en-scène intimately engages us, to the point of discomfort, with the minutiae of the old man's world.

The domestic insularity is momentarily offset with a few exterior shots of the building, showing an imposing tower block of the type that began to proliferate in the 1960s as a solution to wartime devastation and planned slum clearances. At once densely populated and impersonal, these modernist structures would be identified as conducive to loneliness, and widely associated with the breakdown of old communities.

The film's apparent fly-on-the-wall style belies very tightly orchestrated action. Krish's directing method involved calling out instructions to his elderly subject: to accommodate this 'puppet-master' technique, the film was shot without sound. As we witness John sleeping, shaving, eating, ironing, we become increasingly mindful of two things: his past and the contribution he made to society as a miner, soldier and gardener; and his loss. More than 'a film about old age', as Krish described it, this is an acute contemplation on the state of loneliness in a modern world. The dignity and respect this anonymous citizen is afforded by the filmmakers is palpable long after the closing credits.

Katy McGahan

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.

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Video Clips
1. A single silence (1:02)
2. The letter (3:21)
3. Memories like bayonets (2:17)
4. Dusk (4:09)
Complete film (26:23)
Brownlow, Kevin (1938-)
Krish, John (1923- )
Postwar Documentary