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THE BRITS HAVE GONE NUTS
A ROMANTIC SCHISM
by Harlan Kennedy
A modest proposition: Great Britain has gone mad. Or at least is exhibiting the first signs of a truly advanced schizophrenia.
If the eyes are the windows of the soul, the windows of a nation are its movies. The glass is cleaned to a transparent sparkle by the collective self-expression of a dozen or a hundred different people all doing their own things, and by the mandates of the public, who want to see clear through the artist's vision (the hell with him) into the world they live in. Almost too easily, Britain's schizophrenia can be glimpsed through the perfect transparency of its cinema. To many wishful Britishers the bifurcation of movie culture must seem exhilarating: on my right the Gandhis, Chariots of Fires, and Passages to India; on my left the Private Functions, Ploughman's Lunches, and Wetherbys. But it can also be heard as a tattoo of terror beating out a warning to the world.
It's a symptom of schizophrenia that the patient can be completely lucid in each of his separate personalities, exhibiting no theatrical madness whatever. He or she does not romp about the drawing-room in a flowing nightgown like Ophelia or Lucia di Lammermoor. No, there is about incipient insanity a deadly earnestness. The pinstriped suit or the Marxist-Leninist denims house a fissuring ego as fitly as does the shredded robe, the tattered doublet. What Britain is suffering from, however, is a very peculiar and complex form of divided self. It often believes it is one personality when it is in fact two, and that it is two nations when it is in fact one.
Through its history, Britain has developed a form of romantic schism, called the class system, which allows one half of the country always to blame the other for what is going wrong. Since the Empire slipped away, Britain can cope with the depression, the shame, the anger only by directing it at someone else. And when xenophobia doesn't do the trick, the nation splits itself in half and becomes a two-in-one limited company for mutual reproach. The middle class blames the working class for everything, and the working class blames the middle class for everything. Then they both turn around and blame the upper class, which scarcely exists except as a media figment. (There are only six left.)
This is, of course, exactly the way in which a human being turns to schizophrenia. He decides, unconsciously, to hold one part of himself responsible for the other part's misery. The wonder of British cinema in the last ten years is that this split personality manifests itself not only macrocosmically – in two kinds of filmmaking, the Oscar-lauded chunks of history (Gandhi, Chariots) and the shoestring-Socialist pics (Ascendancy, Wetherby) – but microcosmically. There is schism within individual films as well as within the collective mass.
The two Oscar blockbusters have been picked at enough by critics to obviate detailed surgery here. So has the whole India phenomenon embracing Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Far Pavilions, The Jewel in the Crown, and two more forthcoming miniseries, Mountbatten and Indira Gandhi. All we need do is pick about to find the special signs we need of British split-personality.
What we find are the inner sores of self-laceration and ghastly internal bleeding. Far from being celebrations of Empire, except visually, these films are severe reproaches to British history. While our ears and eyes swoon to the éclat of majestic scenery, lovely costumes, and gosh all those elephants, our souls are being told to stay behind after class and get a ticking off for treating our colonial subjects so badly. For carving up other nations and leaving them to put the pieces together. For snobbery, cruelty, and oppression.
Here is double-standard moviemaking in its most ambitious and appalling form – it's like being asked to bend over a luxurious perfumed ottoman while being given six of the best with teacher's cane. There's a love-hate relationship with Empire in British cinema that is totally unresolved. Intellectually, we agree to eat humble pie about our imperial past. Emotionally, the impact of the India movies is to make us fall head over heels in love with the dear dead old days, when even Britain's villainies were Big; when even its blunders and failures had tragic status; and when, if we had nothing else, goddammit, at least we had glamour.
It's probably true: you cannot make films on a big gilded scale, like Gandhi and A Passage to India, and expect audiences to condemn the characters at their center. Do you want to pick a fight with someone 100 times your size? How do you stand outside a historical event that has got you wrapped around in glorious 70 mm. or the amplitudes of wide screen and Technicolor?
Gandhi, A Passage to India, and Chariots of Fire (where the eternal light of India is swapped for the eternal torch of the Olympics) show Britain, even when going down, as going down in a blaze of glory. Even the roles of the non-Anglo-Saxon purveyors of infinite wisdom – the Mahatma, Professor Godbole – are taken by British actors; Ben Kingsley and Alec Guinness plaster boot polish over their faces until they are as one with the Subcontinent. And even the roles of the disgraceful British snobs and nitwits and despots who made us make such a mess in India are played redemptively by Great British Actors: Sir John Mills, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir... zzzzz. In these big-screen Oscar hunters, we just cant help loving ourselves.
Enter the still, small voice of flagellating conscience: a breed of British low-budget movie, TV funded or drawing on ex-TV talent, in which we cannot stop hating ourselves. Television, that small flickering thing in the corner of the sitting room where there used to be a fire, is a great medium for honing the contemptuous eye – and for winning respect abroad based, perversely, on its incommunicable cultural selfhood. Remembrance, Ascendancy, Wetherby, and Another Time, Another Place have all copped prizes at foreign festivals. Partly this is because foreign audiences cannot understand them but are convinced they are subversive; partly because the lack of imaginative vitality or visual flair in most of them looks like the last word in Brechtian or Rossellinian austerity.
Let us not doubt the
intelligence of these films. They take a jeweler's eyeglass to this diamond
set in a silver sea, this England, and are determined to spot the flaws. Only
then, perhaps, can the diamond be refaced and perfected, even if in the
process it is cut smaller and smaller. Against the besotted giantism of the Gandhi-Passage-Chariots axis,
Yes, but how does it work in practice? These films take a teensy corner of British life past or present and describe it with the kind of social minuteness and Socialist subtexture that make left-wing critics go all gooey. Symbolism is used occasionally, with an unapologetic, even derisive boldness, as if the artist were really above such things but here he goes anyway. In Edward Bennett's Ascendancy, Connie (Julie Covington), a mournful young Englishwoman living in Northern Ireland as partition is about to break out, has a crippled right arm. This makes playing the piano very difficult for her, but symbol-spotting very easy for the audience. Ah Connie, your Capitalist (right) power to move events (arm) is heroically impotent! It is the left that has the muscle, etc., etc. Not even that very noticeably, however, as she glooms about the house in eternal mourning for Ireland and for her brother's recent death in World War I.
Here in its purest form is the pintsize modern British hate-movie. The main character is helpless against the tide of history, whether it's Ypres or Belfast. Social events are always a conspiracy by Them (rich and powerful) against Us (poor and helpless). And the hero(ine)'s defense strategy is not an eloquent attempt to change minds or events by words or deeds but a self-hugging, holier-than-thou alienation. Its weapons are irony, pain, and a narcissistic sense of tragic hurt.
The Ploughman's Lunch, written by Ian McEwan and directed by Richard Eyre, exhibits these qualities no less surely than Ascendancy. Though it's about a disaffected journalist who is having a crise de plume after the Falklands War, the roots of our hero's disaffection are as plurally vague as the reasons for Connie's crippled arm. This Grub Street Hamlet (played by a Jonathan Pryce sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought) becomes a blank page on which we the audience may write all our disaffections. So we sit out there feeling vaguely disaffected for 100 minutes, wondering what to write, until teacher comes in at the end and says we can all write: 'Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party, and the Horrible Swing to the Right' The picture's finale unspools at a Brighton Conservative Party conference – filmed for real, with the fictional characters mingling with the factual crowd – where Maggie is holding forth in a stream of what the movie would like us to see as right-wing bellicosity
This film and its suspect schema, which makes you feel you're thinking for yourself when you're actually waiting for a prompt from the movie, were hailed by many British critics as a great insight into the British Zeitgeist. But its smugly acerbic self-regard is not so much a mirror held up to Britain as a mirror held up to itself. And a pocket mirror at that. The film is born of TV and TV styles. The camera is seldom more than an unadventurous recorder of talking heads; the movie medium plays almost no creative role in using angle, lighting, or design to add strong expressive or expressionist inflections.
The Ploughman's Lunch belongs to the same school as more recent films like A Private Function, Dance with a Stranger, and Wetherby. Here the something-rotten-in-the-state-of-Britain syndrome is more cleverly voiced, in scripts and stories, but equally underpowered cinematically. In these movies we have a series of Austerity Britain: of food rationing (A Private Function), emotion rationing (Dance with a Stranger), and self-expression rationing (Wetherby).
The first two films are set in postwar Britain, when the pinch of World War II self-sacrifice is yielding to the returning appetites of peacetime; just as, in the Eighties, recession-racked Britain is constantly peering at the skyline for better times on the way. The pig in A Private Function is a potentially glorious comic McGuffin: a present on a platter from writer Alan Bennett to director Malcolm Mowbray. But instead of preparing a banquet with it, ex-TV Mowbray looks the gift pig in the mouth. What could have been a luscious allegoric farce is shot in the visual and behavioral earth tones of stingy, dingy naturalism. It's a suburban newsreel instead of a sumptuous porky fable for our time.
Bennett's small-town bigwigs (Denholm Elliott in prime sleazy form) are determined to carve up this hunk of black-market flesh; Maggie Smith and Michael Palin are the social climbers who steal it; and the pig herself (Betty) farts all over the parlor. This is a picture of Britain in the Forties for Britain in the Eighties, when we're all going mad at the effects of the recession, the miners' strike, the failing pound, etc., and yelling for our long-overdue banquet with haunch of pig. But Mowbray never turns the particular into the reverberan, the local into the epic. It's a small picture, full of vague emphases and floating self-contempt, about a small Britain.
So is Dance with a Stranger, written by Shelagh Delaney and directed by Mike Newell. Attacking another potentially momentous fable of postwar life – the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain – Newell directs it like a tinny film noir. This is a Britain, the film tries to argue, in the grip not of a Recession Era but of its sexual and emotional correlative, a Repression Era. But for a film about sexuality scorned or stifled, and its dire results – Ruth Ellis murdered her lover when he left her – it has little eroticism and less passion. It is merely a sequence of demure and doomy conversation scenes in which Ellis (Miranda Richardson) bobs her platinum hair at sugar daddy (Ian Holm) and errant knight errant (Rupert Everett) alike. The film makes no real imaginative leap into the Fifties, nor is its vision big enough to set up any resonance between Britain then and Britain now. It glooms from scene to scene in its own timeless Neverneverland.
Wetherby is the most frustrating of all the current dirges for Britain, because there's wit here fighting a losing battle with writer-director David Hare's formulary sense of place and time. We are not in the immediate postwar years here except for the flashback sequences, when we glimpse the girlhood of our schoolmarm heroine Vanessa Redgrave. But Hare's Yorkshire village seems time-warped anyway. As the police investigation proceeds – a young man has shot his brains out in Vanessa's kitchen, no one knows why, no one knows even who he was – we're in a rural England that could be a cross between Agatha Christie and Ealing Comedy. It's one of those films in which, whenever someone comes up to a cottage door and opens it, the reverse angle from inside the cottage seems to look out on a couple of studio shrubs and a backcloth that's seen better days.
Hare's background as a stage writer betrays itself in a narrative rhythm whereby each caesura in the story seems to be a pause while the scene changes and the characters lock themselves into position for the next chunk of dialogue. The attempt to crossbreed psychodrama with whodunit is promising: Redgrave's soul is unpicked, and so is the soul of Britain, even as the police pick at the mystery killing. But Hare, like the other directors in this British mini-movie movement, has let message and medium infect each other. His themes – inarticulacy and fear-of-pain – are embodied in an anal-retentive visual style.
Camera movement is confined mostly to token little track-forwards from introductory master-shots into conversational two-shots. Lighting is noirish, but drably and unstylishly so – more as if there were electricity problems in Redgrave's cottage than as if Caravaggio or Jacques Tourneur had dropped by. Like A Private Function and Dance with a Stranger, Wetherby is fascinating as a script and blueprint. But in performance the dread miniaturism of TV influences cuts it down from being a British tragedy to being a teaser trailer for one.
These movies are undone by their failure to jack up a particular and parochial plot line into a story with resonance and universality. They refuse to make the leap from TV slice of life to high-density movie mythmaking. The schizophrenia afflicting the Gandhi-Chariots school of movie was a split personality between anti-British content and a style that celebrated Britain. But in these shoestring suffering-movies one finds a divided self in which desire – to make the particular dramatize the general – totally fails to mesh with achievement. The particular remains the particular.
Given this thinking-small climate among young British directors, it's no surprise that when they do try to make the leap from Small to Great they break both legs and several ribs in the process. Michael Radford made his feature debut with Another Time, Another Place, a competent little something-rotten pic about a Scottish POW camp for Italian prisoners in World War II, where a lovelorn Lothario (Giovanni Mauriello) attempts to thaw the deadly frost of Scots wife (Phyllis Logan). Radford, eager to extend his vision of Big Chill Britain, next made 1984, a brave attempt to rise on the sprocket-holes of his dead self to higher things.
He doesn't make the climb. There are deliberate, forced attempts at cinematic grandeur: a bold Fritz Lang-style painted roofscape outside a window, the recurring image of the lush green hillside that haunts our hero's dreams. And the mass rally scenes have a momentary verve as the heads bob multitudinously before the luminous face of Big Brother. But whenever we get on with the story, the film goes dead. It becomes a succession of two-up dialogue scenes in which your eyes, and eventually your ears, are crushed under the weight of all that script. In the interrogation scenes, especially, you may feel that the screen has been cleared of visual clutter for a logorrheic demonstration of Great British Acting. John Hurt vs. Richard Burton, and the first man to underplay a phrase gets a ferret down his pants.
1984 gave way to 1985, and 1984 gave way to Brazil. Now here's a different, mirror-written problem. At least in Terry Gilliam – American-born, though resident in Britain – we see an eye at work. Gilliam has concocted an après-Orwell fantasy about a hyper-bureaucratic city state, which might have been designed by Piranesi and Albert Speer and lit by Lyonel Feininger. But though it has designers and decorators galore, this metropolis forgot to hire a screenwriter. The plot is a duff succession of cod-paranoid revue skits, in which our hero (Jonathan Pryce) is assailed by exploding piping in his flat, bombs in restaurants, nasty civil servants in the corridors of power, and (well, why not, we're throwing everything else in) an electronic Samurai who pops up spoiling for a fight in an alley.
With Gilliam one wishes to reverse the emphasis of Cezanne's quip about Monet – "Il n'est qu'un oeil, mais Mon Dieu quel oeil " – and say, 'My God what an eye, but he is only an eye' The problems of the British cinema would be entirely solved if Gilliam (all eye and no script) could be somehow persuaded to mate with the small-screen Savonarolas (all script and no eye) like Hare, Eyre, and Mowbray.
Amid this grim torrent of Brit movies about the Brits, which has the bizarre characteristic of trying to flow upstream to its source rather than downstream, there are a few brave souls determined to swim in the other direction and reach the open sea.
John Boorman's films are 'British' only in the best and least limiting sense: in their unstrained, poetic incorporation of ideas from Arthurian legend and ancient myth into diverse plots and settings. Indeed you can argue that Point Blank, Deliverance, and The Heretic are better films – for the poetic transformations they inspire in embroidering these motifs into stories with a different life and dramatic self-sufficiency of their own – than the more frontal expositions of Anglo-Saxon myth and morality in Zardoz and Excalibur.
Likewise, the best sequences in Boorman's latest film, The Emerald Forest, are those where philosophy meets painting – or Jean Jacques Rousseau meets Henri Rousseau – amid the flying certainties of a far-flung quest film. The carrying of the American engineer (Powers Bootle) from jungle to civilization is a brilliant montage of traveling shots as his stretcher is cross-cut with a leopard pounding through the trees; and there is a wonderful surrealism in the scaling by the engineer's frond-girt wild child (Charley Boorman) of the wall of a big-city apartment block. Elsewhere, the film misfires, as Boorman's misses and near-misses always do, when the message is allowed to speak louder than the story or images. The message here comprises much weary tub-thumping about the environment and the white man as an invader who destroys a "magical" unity between tribal man and Holy Nature. Boorman the eye and Boorman the myth-spinning romantic are stronger than Boorman the moralist.
Ridley Scott, like Boorman, has a mytho-centric British romanticism that provides the textured, labyrinthine visuals in The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner. The last two, though American in cast and context, have a European density of image – sprung from painters like Blake, Fuseli, Redon – quite unlike that of U.S. sci-fi movies. Blade Runner, especially, has a plot as clotted with medieval quest impulses as any Boorman film, and a structure almost as disorienting in its place-time challenges as any Roeg. This fall, Scott's Legend will leap into daylight, to show if he can similarly transform the cuddly-monster variety of Tolkienite fantasy.
Nicolas Roeg is the third major British filmmaker whose Britishness is not a ball-and-chain tying him to British subjects and settings, but a spiritual and cultural taproot from which he can grow into the open air of "international" subjects. His last four films – The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Eureka, and Insignificance – have all featured American characters or settings. What makes him British is the Anglo-European eclecticism of reference, which he shares with Boorman and Scott, to the legends and literature of his own island and continent, and a love of fragmentation whereby the kaleidoscope, not the window, becomes the view-through to truth. In its jagged blend of near-absurdism and total seriousness, this fragmentation is closer to Lawrence Sterne, Lewis Carroll, and Virginia Woolf than to the more sinuous logic-of-illogic of Borges and Pirandello.
These are the "international" U.K. filmmakers who, while being identifiably British, are unfettered to British content. And while they fight the good fight at the multimillion end of the market, the pocket-size Brit-obsessives like Hare and Eyre find their visionary adversaries in directors like Derek Jarman and Neil Jordan.
Jordan's The Company of Wolves is a snarling Freudian-Gothic opéra fantastique. Born in the diaphragm of the European fairy tale, the film has a pan-psychic resonance that reaches up and out to all corners of the global unconscious. Jarman has mined martyrdom myths in Sebastiane and repainted Shakespeare with eclectic glitter in The Tempest. In his new, non-narrative feature The Angelic Conversations, shot in hallucinatory video, Jarman uses Shakespeare's sonnets as a way to make British culture leap out to join the imagery of Dante and Michelangelo, Cocteau and Kenneth Anger. Rock, fire, and flaking water; singing air and twanging instruments; machismo in meltdown; the bullying certainties of nationalism liquefied by an elemental alchemy that unites modern and medieval, the local and the limitless.
All art is a communication between the Self and the Other. The problem comes when the Self appoints as the Other merely another part of the Self. Britain has the means of escaping this psychological hall of mirrors, this endless self-communion, by loosening its fixation on "British" subjects. It's no surprise that a country that has lost its wealth and its political power, a country seized with insecurity and ravaged by strikes, should take refuge in hugging its past or dyspeptically trying to shake truths out of its present. It's a way of keeping alive an endangered identity. But if cultural identity has any meaning at all, or any hope of staying alive, it must be able to walk, talk, and function when not fastened to nationalistic subjects.
In the cultural boom-time of Elizabethan England, you recall, there was a bardic operator called Shakespeare who wrote plays set in Denmark, Cyprus, Venice, Illyria, Florence, France, and Bermuda, as well as a few in Britain. In an important sense, of course, the plays were all "about" England. But they were not umbilically tethered to England, or its history or politics, like Gandhi, Ascendancy or Chariots of Fire.
The Eighties brand of Little Englandism is a sure way to guarantee that England stays little, and that English movies do the same. An expanded vision is needed – the vision of Jarman and Jordan, of Scott and Roeg and Boorman – that sees beyond the shores and beyond the equally parochializing confines of telly aesthetics. Otherwise, the schizophrenic impulse will grind films ever smaller, and a cinema that talks only to itself will be in danger of devouring itself.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE AUGUST 1985 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.