The art of subversion is as strong as ever

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS been a big week for cinema. The Cannes Film Festival has given all sorts of people who are famous for being famous - or for being related to somebody famous - the chance to do silly things in public. Notting Hill, another quirky British (although American-financed) film, has opened to acclaim - unlike the blockbusting, hyper-hyped new Star Wars film. As if that were not excitement enough, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has announced a new quango, the Film Council, with a new logo, to replace all the existing committees that are supposed to subsidise, promote and assist the British film industry.

It has not just been a big week for cinema, but a big year and a big decade, a decade that has confirmed that the film renaissance of the Eighties would be sustained. Indeed, it is worth reflecting on cinema as the art form of this century.

Today we report on the discovery of two films made by the Lumiere brothers, in a biscuit tin in an attic near Lyons. The films were among the first ever made, at the turn of the last century, early examples of the phenomenon that was to transform the artistic consciousness of the next 100 years.

What is striking, as we approach the end of that period, is the vigour with which cinema has survived the suffocating arrival of television. Television, of course, is merely a medium of communication rather than an art form, a pale substitute for the power of cinema when it tries to be cinematic. Which means that cinema has emerged at the end of the tunnel of time as the distinctive art form of the 20th century.

The most significant film fact of the last week, however, was this little gem unearthed in our pages: not a single film made with money from the National Lottery has made a profit. So much for the promise held out for a cultural revival paid for out of the painless, free-money cornucopia of lottery funding. Simply because lottery money is "soft" and public resistance to spending it has been low, this Government and its predecessor have spent it in ways that were bound to be wasteful. There has been a long history of state support for the British film industry, as there has been in other countries for their national cultural industries, but it has never fully justified itself.

And the reason for that is intrinsic to cinema. It is too trite to say that films are by their nature subversive of the state, but there is enough in that to make Chris Smith pause before he pins too much hope on a reorganised quango automatically helping the British film industry get over its periodic inferiority complex. Some of the best films have come out of countries that are emerging from periods of repressive state control, such as Iran and China. Some of the most innovative films have always been made on tiny budgets, or by "oppositional" directors determined to rail against the state of things. Even in Hollywood, one of the most enduring themes is the battle of the little person against the system.

This is what Mr Smith, and all those commentators wringing their hands over the British film industry having to go cap in hand to American financiers, should remember as they wonder about Britain's role in the film industry of the 21st century. Will our medium-sized but highly creative nation be a mere extra in an American production, or a star on the world's screen? Who knows? What we do know is that the answer does not lie in the hands of governments, but in the minds of subversive and free-thinking individuals.