The lure of the cinematic cliche
Art is parochial, and something goes terribly wrong with it when it tries to cross borders
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 19 February 1999
There is a strong risk that English film-makers, in search of a repeat miracle, are going to turn back towards the classy historical movie. Because that is what England means. Not to the English, but it's certainly what England means to Hollywood, to America, to most of the world.
Art, in the end, is parochial, and something goes terribly wrong with it when it tries to cross borders, to appeal to people from different cultures. An audience without a common background cannot appreciate anything ambiguous, any subtlety in humour; cannot, in the end, be relied upon to enter into an engaged dialogue with a work of art.
If you want to make your appeal international, you paradoxically have to narrow your range, and simplify and blunt what you want to say. And this has happened across the film industry in a particular way. The economics of the industry mean that a film has to have some possibility of worldwide distribution; and the best chance of achieving that is to try to say only one thing, to sell your English film on the basis of its Englishness and forget those who don't get your jokes and can't tell you the name of your Prime Minister.
If you want to see what happens to a film industry when it starts to think that the opinions of foreigners are of any value or interest, you have only to look at the decline of the Italian film industry over the last 20 or 30 years. In the Sixties, Italian films were the strongest and most inventive in Europe. Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini, Rossellini and dozens of others were working at full imaginative stretch. And they were making films almost entirely for a domestic audience, with the intention of pleasing minds that were like their own. I can't believe that the makers of Rocco and His Brothers and Juliet of the Spirits wasted five minutes wondering what Americans would think of their films. They are products of a culture, not attempts to produce a palatable image that will make sense in Idaho.
It really makes you weep to look at the incredible rubbish that represents the Italian film industry now. The industry has been encouraged, by the half-witted enthusiasms of Hollywood, to lobotomise itself. Film after film sets up a picture-postcard image of Italian life, where everyone is your friend and the clown wipes away the little boy's tear. Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, and now that revolting Life is Beautiful; every suspicion of serious thought is subjugated to whimsy, to the heart-warming fantasies that are what Americans seem to expect when they go and see an Italian movie.
But the problem is not that Americans are stupid, but that, across the world, films are being made with an eye on what will make sense in a whole range of cultures.
It is an economic decision which has been as much a disaster for the American film as for smaller national industries. Once, an American film was made up of jokes which Americans would get, and the result was All About Eve; now, it has to make sense to Germans and Koreans, and films are made in which a father is reincarnated as a snowman.
They are equivalents of the Ferrero Rocher TV ad; they make some kind of sense everywhere, and perfect sense absolutely nowhere.
No national film industry is content, it seems, to make films that aim primarily at the national audience. They seem to want to make a film that will make as much sense in Kuala Lumpur as in Kansas or Kensington. And the result is either a film of terrible, bland predictability, or a film that reproduces the most widely-held idea of a particular nationality.
No one could make Rocco and His Brothers now, because, as everyone knows from the movies, Italians don't struggle for their rights; they lie about all day eating olives in the sun. What the English are about, if we listen to Hollywood, is History and Class; Shakespeare and Queens Elizabeth and Victoria.
It's far too late to do anything about the Italian film, but the British film industry is still strong enough to make an effort and stick to its guns. Of course, it's nice when someone notices what you're doing, and we ought to be pleased that Americans are getting some sort of pleasure out of an English film. But the opinion of Americans should be of absolutely no interest to us, and the British film shouldn't make much of an effort to second-guess what will appeal outside Britain.
We shall start making good films when we make films which please us, not by presenting cute, 90-minute images of Englishness to the outside world. It hasn't happened yet; but it would be really very beneficial all round if Shakespeare in Love didn't make a clean sweep at the Oscars. This is a very good film, but I promise you, what would follow in its wake would be quite unspeakably awful.
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