Warning: beware a narrow focus on the wide screen

Alan Parker's professed anti-intellectualism makes him unsuited for the role of chairman of the British Film Institute, argues Colin McArthur
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The Independent Online
The British, it would seem, don't give a damn who runs their cultural institutions.

Last week's announcement that Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, had made Alan Parker chairman-designate of the British Film Institute passed with barely a mention in the media. In any other European society the appointee to the chair of the country's foremost film cultural institution would have been subjected to the minutest scrutiny as to their suitability, and a healthy debate would have ensued about the future direction of the organisation. In Britain, silence.

Everyone accepts that Alan Parker is an extremely successful maker of popular, commercial films. That is certainly not at issue, although there might be disagreement about the aesthetic value of his films and the ideological tendency of some of them (of which more presently). What is at issue is the extent to which Parker's consistent anti-intellectualism, the narrowness of his aesthetic tastes, and the offence some of his films have caused to non-British peoples, are compatible with the role of BFI chairman. As a private individual, Parker is entitled to hold and express any views he wishes, within the law. But should such an individual be the spokesperson of a national cultural body?

The case against Parker is a matter of public record. From the files on him in the BFI's library, a picture emerges of a figure deeply hung up about his working-class origins and the fact that he did not attend university (and the extent to which, in his own words, he has been made "to feel inferior" on that account). He lashes out at any instance of intellect being brought to bear on the cinema, and at anyone who makes films which do not fit comfortably into the local Odeon. Parker's anti- intellectualism is legendary. Martin Amis has written of his "defensive references to `the intellectual mafia' and other imagined enemies". Meanwhile The Face of July, 1985, described him as follows: "He once said that he didn't want to become `the Brian Clough of the British film world.' His mouth, however, has made him hostage to that remark. Auteur is a dirty word in his book, art-house cinema a temple of self-indulgence, semiology and structuralism a cultural plague. One of his cartoons featured the head of the BFI - pronouncing that `Furthermore, we absolutely refute the allegations that we are masturbators, elitist, pseudo-intellectual or in any way out of touch with the morons who go to the Odeon'."

Parker's incapacity to engage with any cinema other than the popular, commercial one often takes the form of unbridled attacks on film-makers working in other traditions. He has been known to trash the work of, for example, Wim Wenders, Theo Angelopoulos and Peter Greenaway. He once described Greenaway's work as "pretentious and shallow and obscure" and "the biggest con in a long, long time".

With regard to the ideological tendencies of certain Alan Parker films, there is, at the very least, a problem. When black activists and historians complained that Mississippi Burning had written African Americans out of their own liberation struggle, Parker appeared to give no indication that he even appreciated the argument they were making. In the same context, the historian Robert Rosenstone, in his book Visions of the Past: the Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History, specifically singles out Mississippi Burning for censure:

"By focusing on the actions of the fictional FBI agents, the film engages in `false invention' and must be judged as bad history. Indeed, by marginalising African Americans in the story of their own struggle, the film seems to reinforce the racism it ostensibly combats."

When Midnight Express was released, there was some debate about whether its depiction of the Turks was racist. Lord Coleraine raised the issue in the House of Lords, suggesting that the film, about western prisoners in a Turkish jail, might have contravened the Race Relations Act. When the producers offered the proceeds of the British premiere to Amnesty International, that body declined. It wished to dissociate itself from "any tendency which could be interpreted as a generalised denigration of Turkey and the Turkish people". Now, Alan Parker may be able to offer convincing refutations of these charges. My point is that the chair-designate of a public cultural body which maintains relationships with diverse groups, including some from the ethnic minorities, must be seen to be free from taint.

Contrary to what many people think, the BFI is not simply concerned with film-making. It is involved in archiving, distribution and exhibition, book and magazine publishing, education and grant-giving to film bodies throughout England and Wales. Are we then to conclude that Alan Parker's anti-intellectualism, narrow tastes and problematic record in the representation of non-British peoples are soon to influencethe entire range of BFI activities? I remain to be convinced that Parker's appointment is in the best interests of British film culture and the wider British society.

The writer is a former senior officer of the BFI