David Lister: Every day life on screen is too rare – maybe women can help?

The Week in Arts
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The film Meek's Cutoff, which was released yesterday, is that rare thing: a western told from the woman's point of view.

The band of travellers on the trail include some strong-minded women, the central one played by Michelle Williams, and the film portrays almost elegiacally their long, slow, journey on the wagon train and their troubles with their menfolk. The film itself is long and slow, but absorbing. It even contains some long and slow scenes of Williams and others washing up. As they talk, they scrub the pans with sweat and vigour. Sometimes they don't talk at all; they just concentrate on the manic scrubbing.

Watching these scenes, I was struck by how many westerns I had seen and how little washing-up they had contained. There has been plenty of eating, plenty of drinking, but seldom a plate or mug washed in anger. I don't know whether this is something that a female director (Kelly Reichardt in this case) brings to the party. I suspect that it is.

Naturalism on screen is never as naturalistic as it claims to be. To digress slightly I have always wondered why no one in EastEnders watches EastEnders. Surely if this is a genuinely realistic look at working-class life, the series would be flickering on a set in the background somewhere.

Too surreal? I don't think so. I think viewers could cope with it. Indeed, they would applaud the acknowledgement that TV and its staple soap operas are a part of everyday living, a part that is manifestly absent from TV soap operas. Why do so few people in these supposed slices of life watch television? Why, come to that, do they spend inordinate amounts of time in the pub, but rarely venture into a bookmaker's? These are some of life's mysteries.

Genuine slices of life on screen are all too rare. In the comedy movie Rachel Getting Married there is a dispute over different ways of stacking the dishwasher. Never mind who won. The bigger point is that we had a lengthy dishwasher-stacking scene in a Hollywood movie. A daily event for most of us, but an event rarely sighted in the multiplex.

That film was directed by a man, Jonathan Demme, so it might be too simplistic to say that it is female directors who bring an added naturalism to movies. Mind you, the dishwasher-stacking scene was a bit of a competition and it didn't have quite the mundanity of the washing-up in Meek's Cutoff. So I will stick to my theory that it is female directors who could bring more genuine naturalism to the movies, and with a record number of them announced this week as competing for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, a new era of the naturalistic film might be upon us.

Meanwhile, in television I will continue to look forward to the day when characters in soap operas watch soap operas.

Who would want a royal title?

The Royal Shakespeare Company begins its 50th anniversary season today at its Stratford-upon-Avon home. When Sir Peter Hall founded the company he reckoned, rightly, that he had hit on the three words to appeal to the widest cross-section of British lovers of the arts – royal, Shakespeare and company.

I suspect that those three words wouldn't have quite the same cachet for anyone starting an arts organisation today. Indeed, the National Theatre, which took years to get permission for the word "Royal" to be used in its title, has quietly dropped it from most of its marketing material. And which venue wouldn't dilute the ensemble aims of a company for the marketability of a visiting Hollywood star?

I wonder what the words most likely to attract critical attention and government funding now might be. Reality, relevance and outreach perhaps? Accessibility, education and youth? They don't sound very snappy. Sir Peter can rest on his laurels for the best title yet for an arts organisation – even if the Arts Council now would probably send him back to the drawing board.

Read the reviews and miss the drama

The BBC cancelled its showing of a new dramatisation of the novel Room at the Top at the last moment, and replaced it with an old dramatisation of the novel Fanny Hill without telling the viewers why and without apologising. The reason was apparently that the corporation had not ensured that it had the rights.

What was fascinating was that the Sunday papers had already gone to press, and their critics had been given advance tapes of Room at the Top. So last weekend the show that never was managed to be reviewed, an actress praised here, an actor slammed there and pictures of the protagonists for all to see. But the only people who had seen it were the critics.

It is an intriguing development. I cannot work out whether it is Orwellian or Kafkaesque, but I had a strange vision of a time when the public would not be allowed to see any art or drama, just permitted to read the reviews.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/davidlister1

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