Following my fortnight at the Cannes film festival I’ve returned to the UK exhausted, addled by alcohol and ever so slightly sun-bronzed. I’ve also come back with two specific quibbles. One of which is the fact that because I didn’t know I was going to Cannes until just over a week before I wasn’t able to apply for accreditation, and so whilst everyone else in that stupidly attractive beach town, brimming with astonishing cars and even more astonishing women, was able to sample the latest delights from Terrence Malick, Lars Von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, the Dardennes Brothers and Nicholas Winding Refn, I had to content myself with hearing about all of them second hand, and diligently await their cinematic releases. Incidentally, if anyone took me up on my “Tree of Life” Palme d’Or award bet and didn’t mention it at the time, now’s the moment to speak up.
My other niggling issue, which will occupy this column after its short holiday, is the fact that at the world’s greatest and most prestigious film festival there was only one British film in the main competition: Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk about Kevin.” I realise of course that the number of British competition entries is bound to alternate every year (we did have a decent showing last Cannes) and that as far as entries go this is a particularly good one, which from the sounds of things was a little hard done by to have walked away with nothing. Ramsay is one of our most unflinching and uncompromising filmmakers, and Tilda Swinton is the greatest screen actress in the world. The thing is, I was at the festival with a project called “Cannes in a Van” and had an incredibly fun and stimulating time. We did what it says on the tin: parked on the Croisette every night, fought off les gendarmes and screened a vast selection of mostly British short films from the back of a van, with rear projection and two massive speakers and everything. It was great because it felt like we were truly riding on a wing and a prayer to give these films a platform, no matter how small or guerrilla, and in the process we uncovered some fantastic pieces of work. It made me, and numerous people who stopped by a for glimpse, mourn for the olden days of the cinema when a couple of shorts would accompany the main feature. Would this really be such a difficult thing to bring back.
But I digress. My quibble isn’t about the lack of platforms for short film exposure, or even the lack of platforms for good independent films: if a piece of cinema is truly worthy it will find an audience, not matter how small or exclusive. The problem is namely how we bring British films to a larger audience, and what kind of platform would be the most suitable. British cinema seems to be as out of place on Le Boulevard de la Croisette as it does on Hollywood boulevard. That’s not to say we don’t occasionally emerge triumphant on both: Ramsay’s film seemed in any case to be a festival highlight, and the success of “The King’s Speech,” which before it exploded was a smallish independent production, need not be reiterated in too much detail. In general, though, is British cinema a little too idiosyncratic, a little too culturally specific, and a little too niche to make a real impact anywhere save in our own country?
This seems to me to be more of an essentially British problem than it does an international one, and I’ll give a quick example to illustrate this. Since getting back into Blighty I’ve been to the cinema twice to catch up on films I’ve fallen behind one: Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” and “A Screaming Man,” made in Chad and a competitor at the previous year’s Cannes film festival. The former immediately established itself as my film of the year: as a massive Kurosawa fan it obviously plays to my pre-existing tastes, but the craft of the film was quite astonishing and its story and characters were simultaneously faithful to Japanese culture and history and yet universally relatable to. “A Screaming Man,” about a pool attendant who send his son to fight in the country’s civil war when he is replaced in his job by the boy, pulled off a similar trick. The film exists as a meditation upon the socio-political state of Chad in recent times, and is completely enmeshed within the traditions, behaviours and cultural make-up of that country: but the central relationship between father and son in a time of war and struggle ultimately reaches the heightened emotion of grand literary tragedy, which again audiences in any country can relate to. Would audiences in Chad find a similar universality in Lynne Ramsay’s cinema, or Ken Loach’s, or Mike Leigh’s? Maybe, but then again maybe not.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the defiant, world-beating pioneer spirit of the British that makes us so resilient in standing alone, and whilst this attachment to our identity is commendable it does also give way to a certain stubbornness: a kind of acceptance that in general British independent cinema makes films for the British, and that enjoying and understanding these films is kind of an exclusive club. Yet Britain is at the same time torn, as it is in all things, between American and European sensibilities. British filmmakers who have rejected our native independent scene have always graduated towards the states as far back as the days of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, and it continues to the present day. Some of the greatest film directors in the world at the moment are British: Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright and Sam Mendes to name but three. They’ve all graduated towards Hollywood, and you’re unlikely to see any of them enter films in competition at the major European film festivals.
These are perhaps exceptional cases, but if we look at the other great contemporary British filmmakers they haven’t gone the way of Europe either: they have, as aforementioned, remained staunchly British. They’re producing great work in doing so: Shane Meadows is a particular favourite of mine with regard to the simultaneously funny and brutal sense of social realism that permeates his films, but the same can be observed in the work of Andrea Arnold, Noel Clarke and the previously praised juggernauts that are Loach, Leigh and Ramsay. I’m not saying I want these filmmakers to drop sticks and completely change what they do, nor do I think we should pander to European tastes in a desperate plea for approval: but is it really necessary for staunch independence or escape to Hollywood to be the only two options open to upcoming directors?
For starters, there is absolutely no need for Los Angeles migration: we have proved that on occasion we have the resources and the ability to do what American populist cinema does better than films churned out of the Hollywood dream factory. There may be American money behind it, but whatever faults you can find in the Harry Potter franchise, and there are many, you have to give credit to how successfully the films have performed on the world stage backed by largely British talent, especially the British direction of over half of the eight pictures. More impressive was last year’s “Kick-Ass,” which with a British screenwriter and director produced a stonking superhero actioner which both parodied the ridiculous onslaught of comic book films I took down in my previous column, and at the same time asserted itself as a superior work within the genre. It’s a shame Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” didn’t quite make enough money, because if it had done it would have been universally hailed as doing the exact same thing.
British cinema has the ability to be a world-beater in both populist and art house cinema, but in the case of the former a climate simply doesn’t exist to support this ambition. The present political and economic situation is of course a major obstacle, and how the BFI will perform in taking over from the UKFC remains to be seen. Either way, it’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out. But until we have the stability and infrastructure to commandeer Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden studios for ambitious British projects again, and until a wave of directors emerges who are less attached to British sensibilities and identity, British independent cinema will remain as it is.
Perhaps I’m wrong to be so anti-establishment, but when one views practitioners in social realism to have become as much a part of the establishment as lavish period dramas and literary adaptations, surely the time has come for a new rebellion to take place. A rebellion in which we cast off our Britishness and aim for something higher, more universally profound, more ambitious. Or perhaps I’m the only one who wants this. In which case, ignore the above, go and re-watch “Kes,” and rub your hands with glee and await the next series of “Downton Abbey.”
Still, it’s a shame we aren’t re-watching “The Seventh Seal,” or awaiting the next series of “Mad Men.”