Oh, those kids today with their potty-mouthed comedians, tattoo parlors, licentious pop stars, key parties, and bowling. What of Victorian values? What of the days when women didn’t merely remove their clothes in degenerate strip clubs but did so while sharing the stage with good, clean vaudevillians telling corny jokes and crooning cornier songs? What of the Empire?
Alas, the sixties put an end to the England of old, the one The Kinks lamented, often with tongue-in-cheek, on Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Primitive London laments similarly, though its long, lascivious tongue is never out of its cheeky cheek for a second.
Arnold Louis Miller released his movie in 1965 when the mores of old were being swung aside by Swinging London’s new libertine ways but films still had to pay tisking lip service to traditional “morality” in order to stay out of the porno theaters. Three years earlier, filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti assembled stock footage of animals mutated by the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, cross-dressing Gurkha soldiers, Reeperbahn drunks, bikini girls, and other verboten delights into Mondo Cane, creating a box office sensation and pioneering the shockumentary form that would be Miller’s cup of tea. He’d already been making nudist camp pictures with titles such as Nudist Memories, Nudes of All Nations, and Take Off Your Clothes and Live since 1961. With 1965’s Primitive London, Arthur L. Miller expanded his interests to include sports, music, business, and youth culture, though sights of skin are never far away.
The first is the decidedly unsexy image of a woman graphically giving birth to a smurf-blue baby, the attending obstetrician’s “most difficult delivery ever” if you are to believe narrator David Gell’s voice over, and it’s probably best to never trust anything you see or hear in Primitive London. Nevertheless, that baby does not look healthy and it is hard to believe that the kid we see at the end of the film contentedly tugging on its milk bottle is the same one. Getting hung up on such issues, or expecting the unfiltered look at life and death our narrator indicates Primitive London will be, is to miss the point and the fun. Arthur L. Miller is hip to this and his libertine leer always undermines the rote conservatism of his screenplay, which waves its finger at the “true delinquents” with their “incapacity to postpone present excitement in the hope of future happiness” attending a wife-swapping key party one moment while fixing its gaze on the pastie-festooned glamour girls of an old-fashioned burlesque club tellingly called Churchill’s the next.
While Primitive London apparently wants us to find all the radical new developments of Swinging London to be shocking, it slyly and regularly reminds us of the city’s sordid past with Churchill’s, a recreation of the Jack the Ripper murders, and the Turkish baths where quite a bit of “misbehaving” once took place, but apparently no longer does. A visit to a chicken processing plant where conservative looking folks look bored while slitting the throats of and de-feathering birds in gruesome detail makes us long to spend more time with those crazy long-haired kids and their immoral ways.
Primitive London’s cluelessly reductive portrayal of youth culture is one of the more delightful aspects of this shock doc, as Miller divides kids into three categories—beatniks, mods, and some very sweet-faced rockers—that, naturally, the kids reject. Their crazy pop music is represented by the always old-fashioned and already-past-his-prime Billy J. Kramer and the groovier beat combo The Zephyrs. Quite unexpectedly, “Can’t Buy Me Love” makes an appearance on the soundtrack; unexpected both because it’s surprising Miller got the rights to use a Beatles song in his movie (assuming he bothered with such legal formalities) and because he implies that this is the kind of music rockers fancy.
Elsewhere we get a breathless freak show of London life, in which weightlifting, bowling, the advertising industry, and millinery are all made to seem as bizarre as a goldfish undergoing surgery for a fungoid growth. Every six minutes or so, the raincoat crowd that was Primitive London’s chief audience were rewarded with strippers, fan-dancers, beauty pageant contestants removing padding from their underwear, mod girls sharing a bathtub to shrink their Levis to fit, and nude dudes in Turkish baths. Miller’s sense of humor could be a real boner-killer though, as he overlays a striptease with the dancer’s own narration about the exhaustiveness of her work and cutting straight from her gripe about the toll stripping plays on her tootsies to a pair of exceptionally ugly feet having corns removed. Not great for titillation but terrific for titters, and 45 years removed from the Swinging London era it parodied and preserved, Primitive London holds up best as a work of surprisingly smart, often self-aware comedy.
Primitive London is currently available to stream on Netflix here.