Our films should be for us, not Tarantino

The impossible dilemma is that a film can only succeed if it appeals to an American audience
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Quentin Tarantino loves stars; that is evident from his movies. Perhaps one should say "stars"; one of the most enchanting things about his films is the way they take a figure with an aura of exhausted celebrity, and exploit that stardom in perverse ways. The entry of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Pam Grier in Jackie Brown or David Carradine in Kill Bill, depends on that special, seedy aura of long-gone celebrity.

For Tarantino, films are all about stars, and no one can deny that he creates a marvellous frisson in his work by the sheer verve of his casting. In many ways, he reminds me of Visconti, who had a similar genius for perceiving a quality in an unlikely actor, and extracting a performance which could never be repeated. It works for Tarantino: it may not be a universally applicable principle of film-making.

This week, Tarantino clashed with the actress Tilda Swinton, and the entire British film industry, at the Cannes film festival. He was quoted as saying that audiences "showed up" for one reason, to see "the stars". Defending Hollywood, he wondered why, if it was so monstrous, would British actors "get the hell out of" Britain as soon as they became famous and set up their establishments in Beverley Hills?

To add insult to injury, Tarantino went on to praise India and Hong Kong for sustaining a domestic film industry, based on star appeal; Britain, in his view, used to produce a good range of movies, but no longer. His example of British film making, incidentally, was the Carry On movies.

Tilda Swinton, that excellent actress and intimidating intelligence, had a go at responding to this faintly confused argument, by saying that Tarantino was only talking about "industrial cinema", that the industry had suffered from the blight of the multiplexes, and that "we can't exist with only one kind of cinema". But in a way, it was only her response which made sense of what Tarantino was saying.

The confusion in Tarantino's diagnosis, however, springs from an almost impossible paradox in the English-speaking world. English films, let us assume, need stars to be successful. But does anyone think English films don't employ stars? For instance, the recent, amusing film Shaun of the Dead used Lucy Davis in the lead. By our national standards, she is certainly a star, and after The Office, a much loved actress.

But is she a star by Tarantino's standards? Perhaps not. At this point, you have to start to wonder whether the definition of an English-language star, these days, is someone who no longer makes films anywhere but Hollywood. The paradox is powerful, and genuine, but impossible to resolve. An English film will not succeed until it employs stars; an actor cannot be considered a star if he or she principally appears in English movies.

It is extremely odd, really, that Tarantino's example of confident English film-making should be the Carry On movies, which barely used anyone with the smallest reputation outside this country. Perhaps the passage of time has conferred the glamour of universal stardom on Joan Sims and Kenneth Williams, but they certainly would not have seemed like that at the time.

On the face of it, Tarantino's argument makes so little coherent sense that you feel it can't possibly be true. But in reality, he has described the impossible dilemma which our film industry has to solve, and which is damaging many national film industries. Outside America, a film can only be considered a success if it appeals not just to its national audience, but to an American audience which may know or care very little for that foreign culture.

This is notoriously the case with many European films, which, in recent years, have taken to producing appallingly broad caricatures of their own national image - a Paris of accordions and love affairs in Amélie, an Italy of sunny villages in monstrosities like Il Postino. But it is also the case with our own industry. The focus on bankable stars and familiar national imagery only produce a success, it sometimes seems, in the shape of unrecognisable wish-fulfilment movies like Love Actually or Notting Hill. Even then, a major role must be provided for a well-known American actor, like Julia Roberts or Laura Linney, acting as their Virgil into the hell which is Abroad.

Both Tarantino and Swinton are right, in their own way. Tarantino explains why British movies aren't as successful as they could be: both because his standards of success are intrinsically flawed, and because the industry itself accepts those standards and lives down to them. But Swinton is undoubtedly right when she says that we need more than one kind of cinema.

India and Hong Kong, it is true, are vibrant, energetic industries which work to their own agenda, and don't need to worry about the judgement of outsiders. That is down to the immense size of the national markets they serve. But on the other hand, there are other, smaller national industries which still seem to be driven by the national audience, and not to worry about it, such as Japan's. I think it will take a considerable effort of will if we, as Europeans, are going to start making films which are intended principally or entirely for ourselves. But until we do that, and don't worry about the worldwide appeal of our movies, we won't start making really good movies again.