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Issue 33

A Clear View of Britain

New British film

BY Howard Schuman and Jonathan Romney in Profiles | 04 MAR 97

Howard Schuman: There seems to be a new generation of British filmmakers who have stories to tell about having survived the last ten years. They seem to be approaching these stories with confidence, a new kind of surrealism or grotesquery, which I'm finding very interesting. It also seems that these new British filmmakers - from what you have to call 'mainstream' to guerrilla filmmaking - are willing to go out somehow and do it off their own bat if they have to. I've seen dozens, if not hundreds of at least interesting short films in the last three years. And that seems to have marked, at least in my head, something new - a social or aesthetic change. It's very subtle, but something has happened, and part of it has been the lessening of the obsession with America and American culture.

Jonathan Romney: Obviously there are still key American films and filmmakers.

Yes, but it might be partly because it's not so difficult to go to America now - you can check it out for yourself, you don't have the mythology that develops when you can't go some place - and partly because American studio filmmaking and even a lot of the independents have been less interesting. Whatever, I'm seeing more of an interest in British society and British landscape, leading to a mini-explosion. In addition to that, television is no longer an avenue for most of the young filmmakers as it was in my generation. So this completely unexpected creative mix seems to have happened and I don't know how far it's going to go, but it seems to me there's a whole new range of filmmakers with obsessional energy looking at Britain from unusual angles. Or is it just one of those minor things that happens?

Well I'm thinking of two films in particular that we both like - Andrew Kötting's Gallivant (1996) and Shane Meadows' Small Time (1996) - which seem to exemplify the ways of looking at what's going on now from a different angle. Obviously people have been looking at the British landscape from different perspectives for several years - Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway through the 80s for instance, but I have to admit a particular prejudice of mine, a kind of resistance to the British landscape, the British scene, British iconography, in any medium other than TV.

But why is that?

Recently in The Wire David Toop wrote a piece called 'Is there a crisis in American Music', about his disillusionment with American music as it is now. He starts off by saying how he grew up in love with American music, how 'The first time I travelled to New York City I felt I'd come home, all these years, all those years of watching I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Naked City, Highway Patrol, Yogi Bear, Top Cat. Even the dust on Manhattan's window ledges and the heat from the radiators felt more familiar than English grime and warmth'. What was interesting for me was I immediately recognised that feeling, but I didn't recognise the disillusion. Since I've always seen more American films than British films, somehow the landscape of, say, the Coen brothers and Reservoir Dogs (1992) - all those movies about little American towns with diners and bars and drunks falling over - is far more familiar to me in the cinema than the British landscape: it feels the natural landscape, the default world. The British landscape seems somehow unreal or absent to me, and I was wondering if these new representations, such as Kötting's and Meadows' were capitalising on that feeling of alienation, of unfamiliarity, by making our landscape more unreal, more peculiar.

You've raised a number of issues, and one of them has more to do with exoticism than relative qualities of skill, filmmaking and even script writing, a certain built-in exoticism. Sitting in Brooklyn when I was a kid, for instance it was very intriguing to see films like The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). One of the appeals of those films to a New York Jew was simply the unfamiliarity of the English landscape and a certain weird in-built Anglified quality. But you also seem to be saying something very negative about British film that I hear time and time again from people in this country for whom I have a lot of respect. These people usually say the films are too literary or they're not 'cinematic'. You're saying that with American landscapes, the appeal is not that they're exotic but that they seem familiar to you and you're more connected to them than to British landscapes.

It's very peculiar because they're at once exotic and over-familiar. It's as if they're so exotic that we not longer realise how exotic they are. They've become the only landscape we associate with cinema, whereas the British landscape we associate with television. This means that when British filmmakers try and do the real world, we think of it as TV film - this has always been my problem with Ken Loach or Steven Frears films, but for no other reason than by virtue of the fact that they're showing Britain.

But the British landscapes that are stylised at the beginning of Oliver Twist (1948) or Great Expectations (1946) are incredibly potent cinematic images.

I agree.

So when does the British landscape become diminished for you? Is it something that television did to the British landscape?

It probably started in the early 60s with so-called 'Northern Realism' films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and with Loach moving from TV to cinema.

So it isn't that objectively, the landscape is incapable of becoming vibrant or even mythological, it's the style in which the landscape is envisioned by the filmmakers.

Yes, and it's something foreign filmmakers seem to be able to do in an interesting way. I was thinking of Skolimowski's Moonlighting (1982), about Polish workmen in London: it's quite clearly London - there's the off-license on the corner - but it's not a London that I feel I know. It's a London that I recognise through some sort of bizarre Polish optic, and it's an alien place. In some ways I think British filmmakers often take Britain for granted, they try and show it as it is rather than the way that some sort of imaginative optic might transform it.

Well, you've located something that I think has changed in recent years. For example, the way in which Richard Loncraine - not a new filmmaker - used London from the 30s and the 40s as the backdrop for Richard III (1995) suddenly made quintessential London images. He took them out of their context and we saw them then in a completely different way.

Yes, that was very powerful. At the very least that feel was a kind of surreal tourism, a psychogeography in the classic sense; he took St. Pancras Station and Battersea Power Station and tweaked them either by presenting them from an angle we'd never seen before, in a fictional context we'd never seen before, or by transforming them digitally. Actually the film that first used that technique is Michael Radford's 1984 (1984), which used Senate House as the Ministry of Truth. It was both recognisable and a completely alien building, like it existed on Mars. So very occasionally, once every ten years, the landscape is transformed by these strange imaginative leaps.

Another example would be Shane Meadows' Small Time, which takes the familiar setting of council flats and just blazes them in colours, framing them in new, interesting and very subtle ways. The warmth seems also to signify an emotional warmth.

Of course, Pedro Almodóvar always has these extraordinary decors which resemble no flat anyone ever lived in - bright orange or bright blue. If you associate British cinema with Loach and the documentary tradition, this manipulation of the immediate space is a very un-British thing. But within the confidence of using space there is an element of paranoia which makes it really interesting. Patrick Keiller for example, transforms not the interior space but the outside world, because he deals entirely in exteriors. He's looking for places that have secret stories to tell - in both his films London (1993) and Robinson in Space (1997), you get a location which is visually completely innocuous but from which he spins a story. He tells you an aspect of its history that you didn't know, say that Apollinaire used to visit his girlfriend in Landor Road in Brixton, and these spaces come to take on a resonance. So with both these interiors and exteriors the idea is that you're not simply being shown them as they are, but in a way that you'd never before imagined them.

Both London and Robinson... are journey films: one within London, one all around Britain. Andrew Kötting's Gallivant, is also a film about a journey, and also comes from the mind of someone who trained in art school, although it's much more emotional.

What I think is interesting is that both Gallivant and Robinson... are about the director seeing what another person sees, whether it's Robinson or Kötting's daughter and grandmother. It's like 'I'm going to show you things'. And what's interesting about the film is the landscape you make out of it. Robinson... doesn't really tell you what it is that you're seeing, so you end up constructing your own idea of Britain from it. In Gallivant, you take it on faith that they're going round the coastline, and again you construct this imaginary Britain for yourself. A completely different side of the picture is Jude (1996) by Michael Winterbottom, which, given that he was working within a costume drama genre, is very different from and much darker than the Merchant Ivory, white linen tradition. But in it Britain seems geographically far larger and more threatening. It's the story of the end of the century, I suppose, and Jude and Sue are going around a Britain which is actually too vast for them and in which they're going to get lost. So all these filmmakers are in different ways playing on a geography which is in our mind, because actually we've forgotten how big the British Isles can be. We take it for granted in American films that we're dealing with big landscapes, but here the challenge is to kind of play with what has somehow become a very small geography.

What you seem to be saying is that some of these filmmakers are expanding our notions of Britain's landscape.

Yes, and there's also a temporal dimension at play. In a way, the history of Britain has been bought up wholesale by the heritage filmmakers - just think about the glut of Jane Austen adaptations. There are so many more subversive aspects to the British literary tradition but we're terribly cautious of any kind of literary cinema. I would like to see a cinema that was genuinely literary in a way that it hasn't been before. I think a lot of Jarman's work is literary in the best sense, as is a lot of Greenaway's work although he's referring less to British literature than to the 'literary' mindset which creates categories and concentrates on amazing parallels: These are films that are not simply to do with word-to-image mapping, which the Austen and Merchant Ivory adaptations invariably are.

Probably the most astonishing thing about Gallivant is that it finds the beautiful and the tatty, without passing judgement. You never know what's going to look beautiful and what's going to look like kitsch from one moment to the next.

Well, that's because Kötting genuinely didn't know what he was going to find.

That's right - it was an adventure, a truly picaresque film. But he's not at all self-conscious about involving his grandmother and his daughter, who is very smart but physically challenged, is spastic. It managed to be very emotional without being manipulative or sentimental.

It's also time-based in the realer sense that he knows the journey's only going to last a particular period of time, and that both his grandmother and daughter have their mortality circumscribed in different ways - Gladys is 91 and Eden has only a limited life expectancy. So he's kind of in the thick of time and space. The moment in the film where he's pondering this in voice-over is uncomfortable and almost too close to the bone - you know he's upset.

As a person and as a filmmaker he has an amazing all-embracing interest in a wide variety of human behaviour, which, as an American, is a quality that I would call British at its best. It's an aspect of the British tradition of tolerance and civil liberty which has been sorely challenged by the government over the past decade. The contemporary clichéd vision of Britain ignores this great liberal tradition. Kötting, it seems to me, is playful, quirky, challenging in his technical strategies, and yet without being sentimental is devoted to a human connection. In American hands it could've been cringe-makingly sentimental. It should be said about Kötting, that to arrive at this very benign view of human behaviour, he exorcised a lot of anger in his system when he made Smart Alek (1993), which is one of the most startling shorts I think any British filmmaker has made - one of the bleakest, most nihilistic films - about a boy who hates his family and then sees them wiped out. Complete wish fulfilment.

It is interesting how Gallivant differs from those films which supposedly get the spirit of Britain by doing that Janet Street-Porter thing - 'what the kids are into'.

Well, what Kötting does is to create a more realistic view in a peculiar way - he talks about the centre by discussing the margins. And those margins are middle-aged people or old people who happen to be on holiday and young kids on an estate kicking a football around. None of these people have any apparent connection with what we in London like to think of as the zeitgeist. He's saying 'well, this is actually what it's like if you go to the coastal towns, where the cafés don't have any tables in them'. And I think we in the media shouldn't be blinded as to how superficial and tenuous the supposed zeitgeist actually is.

There's another way in which Kötting goes beyond zeitgeist and it's part of what we were saying about the rediscovery by modern filmmakers of the landscape of Britain. It's incredibly simple and obvious: Britain's an island, and one of the many levels in the film is simply about the difference between coastal people and inland people. Britain is an island, and yet I can hardly think of another film which has made that discrimination. It's a simple notion but it comes up powerfully because you realise you haven't heard it discussed.

What I also like about Gallivant is that it's very cold, there's always a cold wind blowing in from the sea. You get the sense that this was a very uncomfortable, gruelling journey. When we think of cinema's picture of Britain, we see Helen Bonham-Carter sitting on a lawn on a hot summer's day, wearing a frock and about to devour a scone. We forget all about the storms, the Turner and Joseph Conrad aspect of it. Gallivant conveys the sense of discomfort, of being stuck in the middle of a sea somewhere completely detached from Europe. We yearn for America, but never for France, which is just two steps away.

I have lived here for 29 years and I've never felt the depth of filmmaking talent to such a degree. Of course, a lot of that talent is in short films, and people may lose their energy as they get older and have kids and have to pay the mortgage. But in addition to this depth of talent, the range of films in the last year or two is very interesting. You go from The Madness of King George (1994), for which I have a lot of time, Jude which to me doesn't totally work but at its best is very bold and is certainly attempting to make us look at the landscape, to Small Time (1996), Boston Kickout (1995), Gallivant, Shallow Grave (1994), Small Faces (1995) and London. Even a film like Hard Men (1996), a postmodern ironic gangster film, a would-be Reservoir Dogs, has its moments of quite idiosyncratic humour and charm in a funny kind of way. Add to that the fact that some of the more established filmmakers, such as Mike Leigh, are probably at their best.

Unfortunately there's something which needs to be overcome - that's when bracing British intellectual scepticism degenerates into defeatism. Having said that I have felt very strongly for at least a year that even some of the most sceptical and curmudgeonly of the old guard, are acknowledging that at least at the moment there is a kind of opening out of filmmakers and opportunities. It may die because finance may dry up, there aren't enough venues and distribution for young filmmakers is terrible, but it's hard for me to imagine that this amount of energy will simply evaporate.

The distribution thing's a real problem if you compare it to the possibilities that new filmmakers have in France; there the film might run for a week in some little cinema in the Latin Quarter but at least it'll be there and it'll be publicised. Here, the number of British films that find their way into that little precious box at the NFT and no-one sees them...

This is a problem that has to be addressed, but it's tied to another factor - that there is still no sign of an audience for British film. When The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) opened there was a queue round the block at the Screen on the Hill. But nowadays apart from Trainspotting (1996) and one or two other films that have a kind of hip quality, we have lost interest in British films and I think that's crucial. There's a greater appreciation of British films abroad than there is here. American and European filmmakers have been talking about Mike Leigh for a long time, but many of us in Britain have taken until Secrets and Lies (1996) to be won round. It shouldn't just take the brilliant marketing campaign Trainspotting had to get an audience.

I agree. One of my favourite filmmakers is Raul Ruiz. He must have made something like 50 features. At one point he was making several features a year, on next to no money, and I've seen about 25 of them and some are completely unwatchable, but the point is you don't go to see a Raul Ruiz film thinking 'If I don't like this I will never see another film of his again and I will recommend that he never be allowed to make a film again'. You go expecting the next one to be unwatchable as well and then you're going to get to see the one that you really want. It's like that with Robert Altman: every time Altman makes a bad film I think 'this is really good because three films from now he's going to make another masterpiece'. Instead of the situation we have at the moment where every film has to be make or break, filmmakers have to be allowed to develop this sort of flow.