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A failed masterpiece. (British film history)
By Jonathan Coe
New Statesman: August 15, 1997
For the next four weeks this column is going to be looking backwards, or even, with any luck, backwards and forwards at the same time. The present moment in British film history - a moment of unparalleled optimism as well as uncertainty - seems a good time to reflect on the things we used to do well, and to ask whether we can ever recover some of that vision and expertise which has drained away over more than two decades spent in the cinematic doldrums.
The best way to frame this question, I think, is by looking at specific films. They won't be the best British films ever made, let alone the most famous. If I begin, for instance, with Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth, this is not to claim it as their finest hour, but simply to argue (as I'll try to argue with my other three choices) that there's at least one aspect of the filmmaker's art Which is here served supremely well; one that has fallen, moreover, into almost total neglect, and that we'd do well to recapture.
Let's put this into some kind of context, though. By common consent these are exciting times for British films. We are starting to remember how to make movies again. Trainspotting has shown that we can target the young audience just as cannily as Hollywood, and Anthony Minghella's The English Patient suggests that we might have another David Lean in our midst. Substantial lottery handouts are lining the coffers of a few lucky consortia, and Gordon Brown's tax breaks will now make it easier for medium-budget films to get financed (although it takes an accountant to explain why). Above all production is rapidly on the increase. At the industry's low point, in the mid-1980s, we were making between 30 and 40 films a year. Last year we made 128. Already we have made more feature films in the 1990s than in the whole of the previous decade.
There's a drawback to all this, of course. Fewer than half of those 128 films made it into British cinemas, already clogged up with American blockbusters. Some of them didn't even get a video release or an outing on television. These films are thwarted by a combination of low budgets, poor scripts and little-known actors: understandably, the distributors and exhibitors prefer to play it safe with Demi and Arnie every time. We may have remembered how to make movies again, in other words, but now we have to remember something more difficult: how to make movies that people want to watch.
The real problem here is a loss of continuity. British film production went into steep decline in the early 1970s, and although the influx of American productions here has meant that there's been no falling-off in technical skills, there has been little scope for people at the more creative end of the spectrum (writers and directors, in particular) to acquire the solid base of experience which would make them fluent in the vocabulary of cinema.
It's not that we don't have talented individuals, then. Rather more seriously, what we have lost is an entire culture. A culture, specifically, of collaboration, in which the emotional impact of films derives from the interplay of four or five different creative sensibilities - director, writer, composer, cinematographer, art director, and so on - each one absolutely at ease with the syntax of the feature-length cinema film.
Gone to Earth was directed by Michael Powell in 1950 and, like many British films of its era, it typifies this lost culture of seasoned collaboration. But there's another reason for singling it out, too: it's also one of the great British regional films, and marks one of the few occasions when we managed to break out of the studio and photograph the endlessly surprising, endlessly lovely British landscape in all its Technicolor strangeness.
Set in the hill villages of Shropshire at the turn of the century, and based on a novel by Mary Webb about an untamed country girl (Jennifer Jones) torn between the amorous attentions of the lusty squire and a sexless parson, Gone to Earth is in many ways an over-literary and madly schematic film. But Powell was prepared to overlook his own reservations about the material. Having tried and, by his own admission, failed to capture the spirit of his beloved Kent in A Canterbury Tale a few years earlier, he was "determined that this should be a genuine regional film", and spent weeks scouring the Welsh Marches for locations with his cinematographer, Christopher Challis.
See the film again today and its melodramatic story soon recedes into the background. What ravishes the eyes and pierces the heart is an astonishing series of pastoral tableaux: the long shadows of birch trees as they lean into the wind against a sky of impossible blue; a bleak mountainside at twilight, its rocks sculpted into the semblance of contorted monsters; silvery trails of mist shrouding a desolate country house at dawn.
Years later Challis was proudly to claim that "the final result was, I think, one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside and in all its moods. Hours of patient waiting in rain, cold and sleet, for just the right angle of sunlight across a landscape, 5am calls day after day to catch the early morning mist: it was all so very worthwhile."
Does anyone today have that kind of patience, I wonder and, more importantly, is there a contemporary writer or director who has that kind of feel for landscape as one of the vital components of a film? We've caught glimpses of it in the work of Michael Winterbottom, most notably in the despondent motorways and northern beaches of Butterfly Kiss. And it was also one of the most heartening aspects of a new British movie I saw recently called Loop, which is a curious amalgam of urban thriller and family comedy.
Loop is directed by Allan Niblo, but the most significant name on its credits is that of Tim Pears, who wrote the original screenplay. Pears' novels In the Place of Fallen Leaves and In a Land of Plenty - vivid sagas of village and provincial life - have done their bit to drag the English novel away from its metropolitan obsessions, and most of Loop is set in the Norfolk fenlands, where a dysfunctional family comes to terms with its history against a backdrop of luminously photographed cornfields, shimmering canals and sun-dappled orchards. It's just as awkward as Gone to Earth, in parts, but it also has the same rich and instinctive regionalism: the landscape of Loop is no mere backdrop, but a real emotional state, a register of character and temperament.
As yet, I gather that the film has no distributor, but it would be a great pity if it wasn't widely seen. Rather than bowing every time to studio-bound convention, it's important to attempt these rare, mysterious excursions into Britain's unvisited corners - as Michael Powell's failed masterpiece continues so potently to remind us.
COPYRIGHT 1997 New Statesman, Ltd. in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group
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