Terence Blacker: Feelgood films and the glow of self-righteousness

I imagine I was not alone in feeling slightly queasy while watching this latest turn in the celebrity circus
Click to follow

The pictures beamed around the world from London's Bafta ceremony will have done both the film business and the British tourist industry a bit of good. A glittering array of stars and movie professionals posed for the cameras on the red carpet and then, during the ceremony, smiled, laughed and cried in the required manner.

But there was something new this year, making the Baftas more than the usual celebration of talent, beauty and entertainment on the silver screen. The movie business, it became clear, is now motivated by goodness and a sense of moral responsibility. Each of the most nominated films was making an important liberal statement of one kind another - about homosexuality, or freedom of speech, or the evil of drugs companies, or racial prejudice.

They were, in the words of David Puttnam, "committed, decent films which absolutely have something to say", and those who appeared on stage to accept awards for them seemed, for the most part, committed and decent, too. Instead of the time-honoured tearful thanks to the producer who never lost faith, the fellow actors who really deserve this award, the tone this year was less egotistical. These were stars who cared about the world.

I imagine I was not alone in feeling slightly queasy while watching this new turn in the celebrity circus. What began as a mild intestinal niggle when Stephen Fry went into his camp public schoolmaster routine, became more difficult to ignore as award-winners vied with one another to show their sensitive side.

Full-scale dry-heaving nausea set in when Stephen Fry adoringly introduced "our headmaster" Dickie Attenborough, who then delivered an emotional tribute to David Puttnam. Accepting his Bafta fellowship, Lord Attenborough reduced several of his audience to tears.

One should perhaps not read too much into any of this. Lord Attenborough is physically incapable of standing in front of a microphone without his voice breaking and his eyes welling up. The last time I saw him give a speech, he was blubbing within moments - and he was only there to hand out degrees to graduating students at Sussex University. Lord Puttnam may indeed be a credit to his profession, and his speech, which closed with a heartfelt tribute to his father, would have been just fine at a private gathering. In this context, it seemed faintly exhibitionist.

Every business deserves its little love-in now and then. An evening during which enemies can pretend to love one another and join in a well-orchestrated corporate hug is a relatively innocent act of self-indulgence. It is only when the event becomes part of a hugely expensive and influential mass-market promotion that its innate dishonesty has wider implications.

When Hollywood values bleed into everyday life, it affects us all. Those "committed, decent films", however well-made and brilliantly acted, expressed good-hearted but essentially safe liberal values: conglomerates can be mean, freedom of speech is precious, cowboys should be allowed to go to bed with one another. Those involved in them would have us believe that their films play an important civilising part in the political process but, if they do, it as at the level of agreeable dinner-party chat.

Cinema deals in the feelgood factor. It wants to make its audiences emerge from the theatre feeling happy. Once it was enough for the guy to get the girl, for the baddies to bite the dust, or for lovers to walk into the sunset. Now, at a time when personal emotion is a tricky and ambiguous business, the gooey warm feeling in the pit of the cinemagoers stomach as the closing credits roll is provided by the film's underlying tug of seriousness and concern for the future of America, or even the planet.

There is probably already a Hollywood phrase, deployed wherever a screenplay writer is pitching for finance, to describe this important new part of the production mix. The term will convey a generalised contemporary relevance, and a fuzzy moral message which will enable an audience to feel that, somehow just by watching it, they have made some kind of contribution towards a better world.

It is obviously not a bad thing, this fashion for mainstream films to have an ethical core. The problem is that they are, above all, part of the entertainment industry. The glow of self-righteousness that emanated from directors and stars as they receive their awards on Sunday is reflected, in a smaller, duller way, among cinemagoers who have shared the liberal values expressed on screen. The film has reminded them that they believe in tolerance, love and freedom.

And after that? Not much, actually. Cinema may entertain and may even inform, but it rarely stimulates action. The bars and restaurants near cinema duplexes will not be echoing to the sound of moral debate, and for a very obvious reason. Those films may "have something to say" but that something is rarely contentious or difficult.

For many people, the act of going to a good-hearted, mildly intelligent movie is about as close to the political process as they are prepared to be. Very far from encouraging involvement and commitment, cinema can often act as a substitute, a dangerously seductive narcotic which replaces the problems of life in the real world with the experience of sitting, feeling concerned but in a comfortable and passive way, in front of a screen.