VOLUME 5: PAGANS – Locating the Folk Heroes of British Cinema
Ask someone to locate British cinema, and the best they will be able to do is point to the UK on a map. Even then, they would be wrong.
In Pauline Kael’s 1962 polemic ‘Fantasies of the Art-House Audience’, written for Sight and Sound, she excoriates – from an ideologically right-wing perspective – the puritanism and moral superiority complex of the art movie of the time, or more pertinently, the liberal intellectual class who enjoyed and praised them. What, exactly, constitutes an art movie for her is vague – she takes equal issue with Alain Resnais’ bleak memory play Hiroshima Mon Amour (1960) and Sidney Lumet’s warmer, surely more moralistic 1952 film 12 Angry Men – but her despisement of the types of people who she even admits she hobnobs with at cocktail parties is absolutely unequivocal. Her chagrin stems from what she perceives as an artform that, at the time, was doing insufficient work to grapple with the post-war nuclear age. From her stars-and-stripes-adorned parapet, she surveys the landscape and asks, like General Patton with a typewriter, “Has puritanism so infected our thinking that we believe a nuclear war would be won by the pure in heart?”
It’s difficult not to substitute in surrogates that reflect the state of the UK on the occasion of our formal exit from the European Union. For the intellectual cocktail party class, one barely needs to change any of Kael’s details and would be met with the avatar for the Pret-dwelling Guardian type excoriated by the Vote Leave class, whose opinions are forced on everyone and enjoyed by no-one. For 12 Angry Men’s unwavering, cuddly faith in the eventual re-establishment of the liberal order through civility, might we suggest that If You Like This, You’ll Love Paddington 2? And for the artform unequipped for the present age, British cinema fits the bill. So, to paraphrase Kael, has Paddington so infected our thinking that we believe Boris Johnson’s cabal of fascist goblins would be beaten with a hard stare?
The blame for this denuded film culture in Britain is not solely to be laid at the door of the craven institutions commissioning such nonsense, however. We must also recognise the damage done by the British critical sphere, a group of (largely London-centric) writers who, in place of robust Socratic debate flung in every direction like golden shit in a monkey enclosure, instead give into the tenets of nicecore. Far be it for us at Cinema Year Zero (our editorial group are all London-based, after all) to suggest that we should instead be taking to the streets of the South Bank and hammering on the British Film Institute’s door demanding penance from the Chief Exec, or that it’s a dog-eat-dog world where every critic ought to be foaming at the mouth looking for a fight with everyone who writes for GQ, like a pub bruiser looking to put a pint glass in someone’s eye. Instead, it is our wish that more critics might take each other to task in print. Where is the spirit of Rosenbaum vs Ebert on Ingmar Bergman, or Kael vs Sarris on auteurism? The last major British critical spat that actually meant something outside of Twitter was when Danny Leigh had a tiff with the quiff, naming and shaming Mark Kermode in the hallowed pages of Sight and Sound as one of the middle-class critics contributing to the tunnel vision of the UK’s cultural conversation.
We might also do well to learn when to separate content creators from critics. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can write about ‘the least festive Christmas movies ever’, or complain about Christopher Nolan’s sound design in Tenet (and they do, and their name is Stuart Heritage), but it takes at least some brio and imagination to be a critic. Yes, criticism is a craft, not an art. But the work of a critic should not be as a word-generator, but someone who is able to engage with the text with which they are presented, to have the rigour to actually dismiss something when it is bad, to situate it in its historical context, and to understand from whence it came. In other words, do your research and do your job.
Naturally, this situation is not helped by industrial machinery that values clicks over quality. There is always a line that one eventually crosses where the piece one is working on turns from niche into essentially unworkable for an actual publication. But that line feels as though it is moving closer and closer to the writing that’s both published in reputable places and interesting to read. The very event that inspired us to create this publication in the first place was the ‘indefinite hiatus’ of Film Comment. It appears that Sight and Sound is heading in a different, but arguably no less defeating, direction, towards being Empire magazine for Curzon members.
Who, then, is challenging the turgid state of British cinema? We are a lowly online publication that, proud though we are of the writers featured in our digital pages, does not have the kind of outreach required to shake Arts Council England by the shoulders and get them to snap out of it. The places that do, whether or not they are aware of Britain’s arrested development, choose to let it go unmentioned.
Hence, we begin the volume with Ben Flanagan and Paddy Mulholland’s surveys of the state of British cinema. Flanagan pinpoints 2012 as a flashpoint that began the Paddingtonisation of British cinema. Mulholland uses Andrew Kötting’s films as the exception that proves the rule: British identity has a hole at its centre, and cinema isn’t doing well at filling it. Meanwhile, Tom Atkinson and Kirsty Asher look back to deceased titans of British filmmaking that suggested antidotes to the country’s stunted cinematic development, before their respective passings: Alan Clarke and Ken Russell.
Speaking of Clarke, whose films set in Northern Ireland were indelible pieces of political filmmaking in the 1980s, Anna Devereux’s piece examines Britain’s colonisation of Irish actors, like Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan, who are seen as Brits when it’s convenient. Finally, three essays taking aim at the warped class structures of Great Britain. First, from Laura Venning, an essay about the sinister but undeniable comfort we derive from the period drama, arguably monuments to pre-industrial Britain, a Simpler Time. Then, Joseph Owen looks at a contemporary film, Sean Durkin’s The Nest, and traces the genealogy of the Yuppie. And lastly but not leastly, Cathy Brennan takes a trip in the Wayback Machine to When Toby Met Julie, a documentary about Toby Young and Julie Burchill’s fateful meeting in 2005, three years before Young would be played by a spritely Simon Pegg in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Ben Flanagan looks back on the apex of British cuddliness.
Paddy Mulholland identifies Britishness in the films of Andrew Kötting.
Tom Atkinson laments the lost vision of Alan Clarke.
Kirsty Asher declares Ken Russell to be the last British folk hero.
Anna Devereux on the colonisation of Irish actors.
Laura Venning examines what her enjoyment of the period drama means.
Joseph Owen traces the genealogy of the yuppie in British cinema.
Cathy Brennan asserts just how it was that Toby Young and Julie Burchill lost friends and alienated people.
PLUS – The Best Films of 2020
We surveyed our contributors for their favourite films and cinematic discoveries of the last 12 months.
Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!