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World Cinema.

Posted January 13th, 2012 by Ben

Amidst the tide of premature hand-wringing conjured to clear the path for Lord Smith’s report to flop anti-climatically onto desks this Monday, there was one comment which struck me as informatively wrong.


When most British talent moves almost directly to Hollywood (from Edgar Wright and Duncan Jones, to Sam Mendes and more) we should be asking ourselves what we can do to keep commercially and artistically successful filmmakers working in and making films about Britain.

It is a commonplace complaint that the failures of the UK industry force our brightest hopes to emigrate to LA like rare butterflies dancing just above the foam of the Atlantic. Though it is true that most English speaking filmmakers who find success will at some point work on a Hollywood picture, the fact that this is so often seen as some sort of failure tells us a lot about why we see our domestic cinema in such gloomy terms and why we therefore take such buffoonish steps to try and look after it.

What does this migration of brilliance actually mean? That we lose our brightest stars or just that we loan them? Those who actually abandon these shores for good are surprisingly few. Most of the actually successful names you care to throw around, Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie, Tom Hooper, Sam Mendes, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Duncan Jones still count the UK as their home. Indeed, unless my twitter feed is deceiving me, Jones has just directed a TV advert for one a British bank. Even the Scott Brothers (who for all I know now live in a base on the moon) still keep their company firmly straddling both the US and UK.

In purely economic these people are little different from migrant workers from Eastern Europe sending cash home across the channel. In more creative terms their impact on world cinema is impressive and that remains good news. The benefit our domestic industry gains from exporting its talent is not something to be classed as failure.

Yet so often we make out as if they leave because of our failure, as they are forced out by our sheer lack of comparative talent. No one ever says that they might be leaving of their free will, to pursue a type of filmmaking that is best done within Hollywood’s purview. One of our finest screen actresses, the immaculate Kristen Scott Thomas makes more films in French than English these days yet I don’t hear many people sighting this as a damning failure of our ability to create compelling lead roles for women over 30. I think it’s great that the French love her and I think it’s great that the Americans adore Simon Pegg. How does their success make the rest of us look bad?

Most importantly it is not a one-way street. They go, they come back, the essential truth we need to recognise is that talent moves freely between Hollywood and the UK because we are not actually at war. We are not actually in competition with Hollywood.

Don’t throw things. Of course I agree that in the battle for bums on seats UK films are in direct multiplex competition with Hollywood’s. Worse this is a battle in which Hollywood doesn’t play fair and in which those who have power over the situation here refuse to act. However outside of the domestic box office we are just another branch of English language cinema, one that believe it or not, is surprisingly popular when you consider our relative size.

I don’t see any need to create a UK industry that mirrors Hollywood, that beats the yanks at their own game. Making films is not the same as international football. There isn’t a world cinema cup handed out once every four years and we don’t have to be constantly dismayed when the Germans win it. I love world cinema, a term I don’t use euphemistically to mean worthy art-house films in black and white but simply to mean cinema made somewhere in this world.

By imagining we are locked in an entirely fictional battle with Hollywood we turn ourselves into the drunk outside the tube, still trading blows with an opponent who was never there. This mindset infuses much of the popular discourse on film planning and policy. This leads us toward short term strategies aimed at creating precisely the kind of industry we can’t hope to sustain.

  1. Gillian

    What is the role of cinema: is it just a business, where the return on the investment is all? Or is it a valid and important (even crucial) form of creative national expression? It’s so expensive to make films that it’s hard to put cinema in the same category as literature – which after all is just not as costly to produce. Nobody can argue the importance of literature as creative national expression (imagine Russia without Bulgakov, England without Orwell, America without Ginsberg). Yet cinema touches more lives these days than literature does. We understand the world though storytelling and always have. And today our stories are mostly told in the form of moving images.

    So, how do we as English speakers, create valid national cinemas that don’t compete with Hollywood but deserve a place in world cinema?

  2. Ray

    What basis in fact does the assertions that, “cinema touches more lives these days than literature does” and that “our stories are mostly told in the form of moving images”come from? I love cinema and I love literature but who’s done a study on which is better? Harry Hill perhaps?

  3. Ray

    Sorry about the grammatical mistakes in my first comment – entered in haste!

  4. Ray

    And I didn’t mean better, I meant in terms of numbers. I get the feeling my own basis of argument is steadily losing credibility…oh well.

  5. Ben Blaine

    Gillian, thanks for such a thoughtful response.

    Personally I would attempt to avoid stressing a pernicious division between the cultural and commercial purposes of cinema. It is, I think, a mistake to divorce the two and imagine all cinema as a simple binary of either profitable or valuable. To borrow your literary allusion, it is easy to forget that many great books were written as much for financial gain as artistic inspiration; Dostoyevsky wrote both “Crime & Punishment” and “The Gambler” simultaneously in order to pay his gambling debts.

    Similarly I think too often we mistake the outcome for the inspiration. Nationalism is not inherent to artistic creation. You list great writers who wrote defining texts about the world that surrounded them. If Ginsberg had been a Russian, Orwell and American and Bulgakov English then it is hard to imagine that none of them would have not still achieved what they did. England may well have made Graham Green the writer he was but it wasn’t being English that made him a writer.

    Neither is Nationalism central to the audience’s enjoyment. The affection I feel towards Hamlet is no different to that I feel towards the Cherry Orchard or Casablanca. The fact that I was born closer to the home of the author of one doesn’t make it more mine than the others. Flags get draped over an artist’s work but the love of country that is bound up in something is not a competitive nationalism but an appreciation of a national spirit; you don’t have to be a Russian to love Checkov. It seems to help to not be English in order to love Richard Curtis.

    By letting unnecessary conflicts narrow the terms with which we discuss the sort of cinema we would wish our work to form a part of we ruin our best chance of creating something truly compelling. Commercial vs Cultural, Art House vs Mainstream, the need for British cinema to compete with Hollywood or Europe – these are all distractions. Setting out to make films that are “more British” or “more successful” is to misunderstand the reasons why people go to the cinema.

    How do we as English speakers create valid a national cinema that deserves a place in world cinema? I expect the best first step will be to stop trying. After all, Dostoyevsky wasn’t trying to create a uniquely Russian literature which would place his country on the world stage, he was just trying to pay his bills. For too long we’ve not been thinking about paying bills, just about trying to look like we could.

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