The bitter Truffaut
THE BRITISH CINEMA BOOK ed Robert Murphy BFI Publishing pounds 40 /poun ds 14.99
Sunday 14 September 1997
It resurfaces in books and articles, alongside those epithets that seem to be more or less reserved for writing about English films: "cosy", "easygoing", "academic", "whimsical", "literary", "parochial", "worthy", "half-hearted", "respectable", "inhibited". All these appear in Tim Pulleine's quite appreciative essay on Ealing Studios, in this new collection, which claims to represent "the progress made in exploring the history of British cinema" - in a blurb that, yet again, refers to "the cosy pleasures of Ealing".
There are several problems in discussing British cinema over the past hundred years, and one of them is that historians of the subject for the most part share a general sense, during that period, of belonging to a nation in decline. Robert Murphy's concluding chapter to this volume says that critics viewed British cinema up to the 1940s as "something to be ashamed of", while he himself goes on to talk about the 1950s as being characterised by "respectability, deference, caution [and] consensus", shading into "tawdriness and indulgence" by the end of the 1960s and, after a dash of "unadventurous orthodoxy" in the 1970s (he is quoting Alexander Walker on the Rank films of that period), suffered "shock therapy" as its infrastructure was "kicked away" under Margaret Thatcher. And, in case anyone thought that we could look back with pride to the silent period and the Forties, there are articles elsewhere in the book pointing out the poverty of Britain's contribution to silent cinema and describing the films of the immediate post war years as marked by "good taste, restraint [and] reticence."
Some of these criticisms may originate in a sense of the country's changing place in the world ("cosy", "parochial", "unadventurous", "whimsical"), while others reflect British anti-intellectualism and preoccupation with class. This psychological baggage makes it hard to embark on a balanced assessment of cinema history. Instead, critics trawl through the film archive for whatever lies outside the mainstream, whatever helps to relieve their feelings of embarrassment at the "parochial", "middle-class" world of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Doctor In The House and presents itself to them as in some way "transgressive". Gainsborough melodramas, Hammer horrors and Carry On comedies are treated as though they were the cutting edge of a subversive cultural offensive, despite the obvious poverty of most of them in terms of script, characterisation, direction and plotting. This collection has essays on costume films, melodrama, comedy and horror, as well as two pieces defending 1930s "quota quickies" - "constantly surprising in their ability to entertain, intrigue, engage and fascinate any historian with a little imagination and a passion for the popular culture of the 1930s", Lawrence Napper assures us.
By contrast, the strand in British cinema history that leads from the documentary movement of the 1930s to the Free Cinema movement, and beyond, is treated nowadays with suspicion (though Ken Loach and Mike Leigh command some respect). The article on "art cinema" in this volume was entrusted to the Swedish academic, Erik Hedling; it mentions directors including Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Nicholas Roeg whose "transgressions" have been of the wrong kind to interest British critics. They are more or less ignored elsewhere in the book (though John Hill does briefly dismiss Jarman and Greenaway's "postmodern aesthetic experiments" which owe their "cachet of `high art' " to "literary or theatrical sources"). Hedling's chief interest, however, is Lindsay Anderson, who gets a mention from two other writers, not for his films, but for his 1957 article, "Get Out and Push" - an attack on the shortcomings of British cinema and its critics.
So who needs Truffaut? We ourselves do it much better, with our acute personal antipathies to cosiness, parochialism, the academic, the intellectual, high art and the middle classes - all things that the contributors to this book are, admittedly, well qualified to write about, since almost every one of them is a university lecturer. Only Alan Lovell seems anxious to celebrate the diversity of British cinema, which has produced films as varied as Henry V, Withnail and I, Distant Voices, Still Lives and Butterfly Kiss - an attitude that might provide a starting point for a slightly less neurotic view of its history.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Optical illusion turns blue demon into brunette
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to donate entire $32bn fortune to charity
- 5 Mystery sea creature - with 'fur' and 'a beak' - washes up on remote Russian beach, baffling scientists
Top Gear: Former co-host James May to present new BBC2 car show
Game of Thrones season 6: Daenerys actress Emilia Clarke says '50/50 chance' Jon Snow is alive
'Dukes of Hazzard' pulled from screens by CBS as outcry over Confederate flag grows
Game of Thrones season 6: Release date, plots and dragons - everything we know so far
Game of Thrones: Leaked season six script introduces new 'red priestess' and hints at Daenerys Targaryen's next chapter
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture