The lure of the cinematic cliche

Art is parochial, and something goes terribly wrong with it when it tries to cross borders

I'VE GOT a very bad feeling about Shakespeare in Love. Not about the film itself, which is as good as everyone says, and deftly skirts all those heritage-England problems. Rather, it is the terrible prospect of its triumphing at the Oscars, and the sort of film that everyone will then be encouraged to start making.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz