Wednesday, September 2, 2009

British Cinema

This weekend the Observer published their list of the top 25 British films produced in the last 25 years, which makes for thoroughly depressing reading. The top ten of these, in particular, is rather disheartening:

1. Trainspotting
2. Withnail & I
3. Secrets & Lies
4. Distant Voices, Still Lives
5. My Beautiful Laundrette
6. Nil By Mouth
7. Sexy Beast
8. Ratcatcher
9. Slumdog Millionaire
10. Four Weddings and a Funeral

Where do I begin? My problem with this list is that - you know, it's fine. There are - what - two or three excellent films in there and the others are good. Probably. But is this really all that could be cobbled together? The wider list of 25 feels like it contains practically every British film I can name. How is the British film industry so bare?

I noticed that Jason Solomons of the Observer at least had the dignity to post some sort of apology for the paucity of this list, in which he compares the British film industry unfavorably to the French industry, and laments a lack of funding etc etc. All of this is true and I want to go into it further. But there are other things hampering British film, and the first of these is that there is no real culture of cinema here, for a number of reasons. The ridiculous ticket price and the lack of interest in cinema as an art form - as opposed to an other disposable medium - means that English cinephiles are few and starved. I think there's a sort of national embarrassment at the idea of someone creating beautiful pictures - which would at least account for the way Peter Greenaway doesn't feature on this list; a real scandal.

I also think Britain is stuck in that it's always playing catch-up with the United States, except with far fewer funds. Since we share a language, our talent often gets swept off into American films, and British films are stuck. French films survive exactly by setting themselves against American, and using the difference in language to feed a difference in sensibilities, in images. Of these actors - Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Ewan McGregor, Clive Owen, Rachel Weisz - who is really, truly involved in the making of British cinema? Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani, Emmanuelle Beart, Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Amalric all make French films, and they make LOTS of them - up to four or five a year. I can hardly name five British films that came out last year. Let's actually see if I can, off the top of my head. Here goes.

1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. Hunger
3. Happy-Go-Lucky
4. Somers Town
5. Oh for fuck's sake, that's all I can think of.

There should be something more than that. The problem also lies with television, which is where the true creativity comes from in Britain - and even then, British television is being throttled and going through what feels like a bad patch at the moment. Still, some of the best stuff I've seen has happened on television here - I'm thinking of Boy A or The Mark of Cain, for instance - or Shameless, or Red Riding. The real auteurs of Britain are here: Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Poliakoff. It's important to have auteurs - people taking the reins of their own work, and creating their own thing - because otherwise the inevitable kowtowing to commercialism actually ends up choking the industry: I'm thinking here of the way the British film industry has one or two supposed 'hits' a year. That isn't an industry.

The culture of television - led by the brilliant, pioneering BBC - has also contributed to the dying out of pictures. Play For Today created brilliant work, particularly in the field of writing, but I think it meant that grand, brave and soaring films came to be seen as an extravagance. So many of Britain's films are lacking in scope, in a cinematic quality.

A further thing is the lack of British antecedents and influences - where French directors look to the New Wave and since then to younger directors like Kassovitz and Jean-Francois Richet for inspiration in filming their world, and where Americans can feed off the Scorsese-Altman generation, Britain's older statespeople are diffuse or ignored: Lindsay Anderson, Michael Powell, David Lean. Good stuff all, but no trace of a movement. This means that the antecedents are few and every film-maker needs to look elsewhere or start again, in filming their country.

Still, this list includes Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Loach, Leigh, Meadows and Pawlikowski. That isn't bad. But this list really does seem to be picked from the few, not the many. Go back 25 years in France and you're looking at films like Le Grand Bleu, La Haine, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Trois Couleurs: Bleu or Un Coeur En Hiver, to name five completely off the top of my head, and all way better than anything in that British top ten. But also try Rois et Reine, The Beat My Heart Skipped, Betty Blue, La Belle Noiseuse or Les Amants du Pont Neuf. And I still haven't mentioned Godard, Techine, Resnais or Varda.

I think it's so important that cinema in Britain takes a long hard look at itself and stops congratulating itself on the occasional good showing at the Oscars. I long for a new government to recognise that the arts need proper, decent funding, and not just a few scraps from Film 4 and Working Title. But in Britain you still pass for a snob and a fussy aesthete when you suggest using the revered taxpayer's money for something so fanciful as art.

Listening to: Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out