The Enemy in the Brain

By Julian Petley and James Leahy

It’s difficult to imagine two more highly contrasting films than The Long Day Closes and Wayne’s World. However, they do have one thing in common: both opened in the UK in the same week. And, indeed, two critics explicitly compared and contrasted the two, coming down decisively on the side of Hollywood. Nor were these the only negative voices in what is by now probably remembered as a universal chorus of unalloyed admiration. In fact, at a distance, once can now see that The Long Day Closes was a participant, albeit unwilling, in a burgeoning critical contretemps about ‘art’ v. ‘commercial’ movies, sometimes also framed as a Europe v. Hollywood debate (if one can grace it with such a term).

The two critics who preferred Wayne’s World were Toby Young in the Guardian and Anne Billson in New Statesman and Society, so it’s comforting to note that two of the country’s few remaining mainstream, left-of-centre publications want no truck with arty-farty tosh and opt instead for a sound, John Bull-ish populism in matters cultural. The main problem for both Young and Billson seemed to be that The Long Day Closes so departed from the Hollywood conventions of story-telling that most people would be able, or willing, to follow it. Just a little patronising, perhaps?

For Billson the film was ‘a perfectly formed art-house entity ... the sort of film that was born to be featured at length in Sight And Sound, and will probably win knee-jerk approval from the critical fraternity, which automatically goes into collective orgasm over anything devoid of the Hollywood staples of sex, violence and viewer-friendly narrative.’ Meanwhile, Young described it as ‘an obscure, BFI-funded film’ which ‘offers nothing for the film-going public to connect with’. What was lacking was a good story well told. According to Young, The Long Day Closes ‘doesn’t merely eschew the normal methods of engaging an audience’s interest, it is wilfully inaccessible... departing from virtually every cinematic convention.’ In Billson’s opinion the narrative is so slender that ‘there is, in fact, no reason why any particular scene should follow on from any other. Re-jig the footage, and you would be hard pushed to spot the change.’

But Young and Billson were not alone in these views. For Sheridan Morley in the Sunday Express ‘we don’t get much of a plot’ and the overall effect is like being based over the head for rather to long with bound copies of Picture-Goer.’ But no philistine he; Cinema Paradiso was so much better in the way it dealt with ‘film and family nostalgia’. Well, of course, they do make films so much better abroad. In the Sunday Telegraph, Christopher Tookey was generally positive but criticised ‘the absence of narrative or character development’ and went on: ‘the reels of film could be reassembled in a different order and make just as much sense. I can’t help feeling this is a defect for film is a narrative rather than a static medium.’ And I can’t help feeling that I’ve read this somewhere before; maybe the author was sitting with Anne Billson at the preview. Today (critic mercifully anonymous) found the film ‘a bore’, but even this was an improvement on Vanessa Letts in the Spectator, who called it ‘appallingly dull’, complaining that ‘there is no story here’ and concluding a remarkably stupid and obtuse ‘review’ with the observation that ‘the whole thing was as unrewarding as spending two hours [in fact the film runs for 83 minutes] watching asexual reproduction on a microscope slide.’

These variously negative remarks, though relatively rare in the case of The Long Day Closes, are all too symptomatic of the negative ways in which British cinema and, mutatis mutandis, European cinema in general are frequently discussed in the British media, and especially the national press. There are at least four recurrent and interrelated themes to this particular discourse, and I want to illustrate them by reference to a small selection of representative pieces.

‘No-one goes to see British films because they aren’t any good.’

In the Guardian (12 Dec 1991) Adrian Turner attacks Enchanted April and London Kills Me as ‘representing everything that is wrong with British movies’, which are either ‘complacent James Ivory-E.M. Forster essays in nostalgia or they are expressions of contemporary anomie.’ And even if the films are any good, they have a hard time getting shone ‘because audiences realise they are intended for TV’. Turner concludes that ‘when you see on the screen the words “British Screen Finance in Association with Working Title and Film Four International” the heart sinks before the first shot; better films have come from Bulgaria. You can understand why the government is so reluctant to come up with anything like the money that European film-makers receive in support and subsidies. You begin to think to hell with British movies. They have all been made.’ There is also a quite specifically political version of this argument, which was put forward by that gifted and able film scholar Prof. Norman Stone in his infamous Sunday Times piece a few years ago. One hesitates to prolong the life of this pernicious, partisan nonsense by bringing it up (in more than once sense) yet again, but it’s worth noting Stone’s complaint that many recent British films have ‘nothing to offer an overwhelming majority of the potential audience. They represent at best a tine part of modern England, and, more likely, a nasty part of their producers’ brains.’

According to the Stone ‘thesis’, film-makers produce such overwhelmingly negative visions of contemporary Britain solely because they are depressed at finding it so difficult to finance their films! The only funders prepared still to step forward are ‘supposedly enlightened semi-public bodies with a certain amount of money to spend on “open culture”, regardless of its market. The people involved in this are scared of seeming reactionary having once been taught by adepts of the Left Book Club or having had, at some stage in their careers, to appeal to left-inclined ministries and public bureaucrats.’ The resulting films represent ‘a public view of your country which everyone else sees as a childish caricature. It is a paranoia bred of isolation from the real market. Semi-educated ambitious mediocrities over-competing in a declining market suffering from bouts of muddled creativity, waiting in line to catch public or semi-public money while dreaming of revolting sensationalism are unlikely to produce anything of value.’ That such arrant nonsense should have been given pride of place in a once-great newspaper shows just how far ideology has triumphed over accuracy at News International.

‘No-one wants to fund British films because no-one goes to see them’

Step forward another well-known film expert, Peter McKay. Writing in the Evening Standard (11 June 1990) in the wake of a visit to Downing Street by a delegation from the British film industry, he fulminates: ‘if the productive Ravenscraig steel works can be closed down because it is not operating profitably enough, what justification exists for any government intervention in our ailing film industry? There is no mystery about why more British films are not being made. You can’t make money out of them. If you could, we would invest in them. But from an investor’s point of view you might as well stand at the rail in Kempton Park with a wad of notes in your hand.’ If the industry is in decline, it’s because it’s not making good enough films, and calls for state aid are simply indulging in ‘cry-baby nonsense’.

A rather better-informed commentator is Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times. However, on 4 April 1991 he came up with an analysis surprisingly similar to the above, arguing that British cinema was less cash-starved than idea starved, and that film-makers who were ‘bankrupt of commercial ideas’ were concealing their inadequacies ‘under the pretence that British bankers are investment-shy’. Andrews concluded that: ‘you do not revive, let alone renew, a popular culture by throwing state money at it. The money will merely create a breed of movie-makers who know they need not perform at the turnstile because the Treasury will help them out. Protectionism is a recipe for enfeeblement. A thriving popular culture is ensured only by a direct supply-and-demand rapport between creator and consumer. In six words: Give the public what it wants.’

‘The public don’t want British or other European films. What they want are American ones.’

Taking his cue from recent remarks by Wim Wenders about the need to introduce economic sanctions in Europe against American films, Toby Young in the Guardian (24 June 1992) remarked that ‘what Wenders is really complaining about is that the collectivist radical, vaguely utopian values of European artists and intellectuals of the past 25 years have been surpassed by what he sees as the gung-ho individualism of American mass culture. What people of his generation find so hard to take is that the kind of aggressive capitalism personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger – someone Wenders probably thinks of as an idiot – has become fashionable on top of everything else. It’s one thing to be beaten at the box office by these morons, but to be considered less attuned to the zeitgeist? It’s intolerable.’ But the real problem for European cinema, according to Young, is not Hollywood’s superior marketing muscle, but the fact that it has ‘no manifesto, no sense of direction’. What it needs is new ideas – and to ‘create an Arnold of its own’.

Young returns to this theme in a later Guardian piece on what people choose in the video shop. According to this piece, ‘there is something about the medium which favours the lowbrow’, hence people’s alleged preference for exploitation movies on video above all other kinds of film. ‘Perhaps the real explanation’, muses Young, ‘is not that people’s taste gets worse when they enter the video shop, but their real taste comes to the surface. The crucial difference between watching a video and going out to the cinema is that we watch videos in private. In public, among our peers, we want to be thought of as highbrows, shunning the popular for something challenging. But... videos bring out the slob in all of us. They appeal to that part of us which likes junk food and American beer. We are not trying to impress anyone by how caring we are – this is our space, the one time we can truly be ourselves.’

‘We can forget about European “art” cinema now, anyway, since Hollywood itself is producing “art” movies.’

Impressed by the look of Batman Returns and Alien 3, Tom Shone argues in the Sunday Times (28 June 1992) that ‘the sequel has started to attract directors who might normally be producing minority appeal arthouse flicks’, and that studios were prepared to entrust these films to such talents because, as sequels, they would be assured of large audiences in any event. Shone also went on to argue that there was in fact more difference between Alien and Aliens than between any two Fellini films, and between Halloween 2 and Halloween 3 than ‘any number of Woody Allen’s recent cinematic smorgasbords (which simply resemble every Bergman film)’. In other words, Hollywood now produces the better ‘art’.

The theme of the Hollywood ‘art’ movie was taken up by Toby Young in the Guardian (7 July 1992) in a discussion of Batman Returns. For Young, Tim Burton’s film is ‘a helter-skelter comic-book version of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bete. At $80m it has got to be the most expensive art movie ever made.’ And, like the work of Jonathan Demme, David Lynch, the Coen brothers, David Cronenberg et al, it is evidence that in the last ten years ‘the avant-garde has taken up residence in Hollywood. A number of contemporary film-makers have succeeded in parlaying their quirky, idiosyncratic sensibilities into mainstream commercial success... Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Hollywood system has not proved inimical to art.’

So much for the case for the prosecution. What about the defence? Rather than try to rebut each specific point in turn, let’s try to confine ourselves to a number of propositions which, hopefully, will stimulate further debate.

1. In Britain the supply of films is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of Hollywood; in no sense do films from elsewhere (the UK very much included) operate in a ‘free-market’ situation.

Thanks to the UK sharing a common language with the States (thereby obviating the need for expensive dubbing and subtitling), the fact that the distribution sector here is almost totally dominated by American interests, and the kind of relationships which exist between the major distributors and exhibitors, over 90% of films shown on British screens are American. Others find it extremely difficult to get a look in. Audiences for British and other European films may not be large by Basic Instinct standards, but they aren’t always small either – witness Jean De Florette and Cyrano De Bergerac.

But even if they are relatively small, who has decreed that they shall not be catered for? Why, the market of course, that self-same market which, as we have had screeched at us for years by Thatcher and her cohorts, ‘will always provide’. But it doesn’t, and unless we are to give up all pretence of living in a democracy, this pernicious ideology masquerading as economic ‘theory’ needs to be exploded once and for all, in debates about film supply as elsewhere in society. Of course pace Toby Young, no-one in their right mind wants to ban, or even penalise, Hollywood movies. What does need to be done, however, is to find ways in which non-Hollywood films which some people do indeed want to see can find a space in the market-place. If this means aid in the form of loans or grants or guarantees, at either or both the national and EX levels, then so be it. As the broadcasting debate has shown, there’s a good deal of public support for the idea that culture, in all its numerous forms, is in fact too important to be left entirely to the play of market forces.

2. Without television there’d be no British film industry.

Just because a film has television money in it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s small-scale and uncinematic. Very few European ‘art’ films are made without television money, but we never hear this complaint about them. Nor is it even particularly accurate – witness the work of Derek Jarman, Ken Loach, Mick Jackson, Philip Saville and Amber Films, to name but a few random examples. And why are film critics perfectly happy to praise, say, the ‘intimacy’ of the Czech New Wave, the ‘miniatures’ of Rohmer or the ‘chamber dramas’ of Bergman, only to lambast British films as too ‘televisual’ when they display similar qualities?

3. The British ‘bad’/American ‘good’ dichotomy really needs to be laid to rest.

On one level it leads to the assumption that if we only made films which were ‘more like Hollywood’, the British cinema would be OK. But this ignores the fact that ‘Hollywood’ produces amazingly heterogeneous movies, and it also leads down the road to Revolution or mid-Atlantic pap. But, on another level, it distorts the whole debate about British cinema. Always starting off from a position of inferiority vis-à-vis Hollywood, always wanting to be ‘more like’ some other cinema, real or imaginary, the British cinema, and the debates around it, always start off from a position of defeat. Having the ‘enemy’ in the brain, as it were, stops us from even beginning to engage with the major question, namely: what should a debate about British cinema consist of beyond the ritual sneers at the ‘opposition’ and the usual preliminary throat-clearings to the effect that British cinema should be taken seriously? Still less can we go on to engage with wider questions of cinema in general, in the manner of Serge Daney, namely: what do we actually want from cinema, and what can it offer us any more, in this media saturated environment?

The final result of all this, apart from a stunted, poverty-stricken ‘film culture’, is one more nail in the coffin of companies like Palace. As an understandably bitter Stephen Woolley put it in the Guardian (30 Oct 1992): ‘despite the recent successes of Buster, The Krays and, of course, Scandal, there seems to be a silent conspiracy within the media to drown our own cinematic children at birth. None of the arguments being forwarded by media taste-makers will be applied to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, for instance, because its politics are removed by the distance of history and the incorrect supposition that racism is an American problem which we can guiltlessly probe. The fact that we do not propagate out own product with the same boldness is symptomatic of what has brought the British film industry to its knees. A loss of courage, conviction, and in the end, spirit.’

4. The art/commerce opposition has long outlived its useful life.

This is a more generalised version of the above. All films have some kind of commercial dimension. When did you last come across a film-maker of financier who set out deliberately to lose money? And Hollywood has always had its eye cocked on the avant-garde and European to see what it can make use of. Young cites Demme, Lynch, the Coens et al, but one could just as easily point to Lang, Siodmak, Welles, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Douglas Sirk and many others, of European origin or not, who have managed in earlier times to work decisively against the Hollywood grain. Nor would many of the American film-makers whom Young and Shone admire have developed as they did without all sorts of diverse European influences – think of Scorsese's much-acknowledged debt to Powell and Pressburger, for example. And if Shone really believes what he says about Fellini and Allen, he can’t have seen many of their films.

5. Just because a film is popular, it doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than it means it’s bad.

The populism of the Toby Young position is simply the reverse of decades of Leavisite/Hoggartian disdain for ‘mass’ culture. I’ve never really understood what kind of political position the Modern Review occupies, but what I am struck by is the similarity between the Young/Shone position and that of much of the contemporary academic Left, which has gone in for a peculiarly postmodern version of the trahison des clercs in its abdication of critical (in the Frankfurt School sense) responsibility, its unwillingness to take serious issue with the ‘problem of the popular’ for fear of appearing elitist, and its lack of political sense at a time when such sense has never been more desperately needed.

6. We need a forum where these kinds of questions can be properly and regularly debated.

As is obvious from this article, the Guardian does indeed publish the odd piece here and there, but it never publishes enough replies to get a real debate going. And given the seeming shrinkage of the arts pages, many people feel aggrieved that space is being given to views which can easily be found elsewhere in the press. But anyway, why should this task fall to a newspaper as opposed to a media magazine? Vertigo is only too happy to provide such a forum. All we await are your contributions.

‘All this big talk, for instance about an English film revival. It is no good pretending one has any feeling of hope about it. At best it may, IF anything does eventually come of it, as one rather doubts, achieve a sort of penny in the slot success for those who are venturesome enough to back it. And I don’t want particularly to be hard on England. Simply as one sees it, the sort of  thing England is about to begin trying is the sort of thing Hollywood will have to be about to discard if the popularity of the cinema is to remain. England is going to start not with any new angle, not with any experiment, to go on trundling in wake, not deplorably perhaps, one hopes efficiently, but with a complete acceptance of the film convention as is. The truth is that the average attitude of England and the English to art is so whole nonchalant and clownish that it is quite useless to expect any art to indigenously flower there. Isolated instances may here and there crop up, but REALLY the Englishman can only be roused to enthusiasm on the football field. A cup final will evoke tens of thousands of whooping maniacs. One doesn’t mind that, but in the face of it one does ask WHY attempt art? The preference between the two is so undisputable. One can see that the English revival will be exactly along old lines. They are going to imitate. And unhappily the English thing has neither the weltgeist quality of the German nor the exactness of the American, both of which are fundamentally national.

‘I haven’t found out quite what the English quality is, but having seen all its principle films I hesitate to try to name it.

‘After all, what CAN you expect? England cannot even turn out a pepful magazine. Take any weekly, and you get the sort of thing I mean, that hugely sterile flimflam decorously and expensively printed on best quality art paper, and an attitude of really awfully indecent arrogance, especially towards anything new or progressive or intelligent.

‘None the less, England IS going ahead on this revival, and that its sole purpose is the revival of the film INDUSTRY, and not film ART, is no sin at all, because really good art IS commercial, and the mob has a curious nose for what is good – that is real. We know that an announcement ‘British Film’ outside a movie theatre will chill the hardiest away from its door, and what a pity. Why?’ – ‘As Is’, Close Up, No. 1 (Jul 1927)


The total publicity budget of many Hollywood epics is alone often enough to finance several European movies, even ones whose aesthetic is quite clearly aimed at exhibition in the cinema rather than on TV. The size of this budget, of course, has an effect on the content of the movie, in terms of screenplay, choice of director and casting. Certain stars have, over the years, become harder currency than others and are therefore, from the point of view of PR money, a better potential investment.

Money spent on PR may result in products ranging from a TV ad. campaign to spin-off attention in the colour supplements and arts pages of the ‘posh’ papers and coverage in TV programmes on cinema. Thus it is common for more space to be given to up-market gossip about how it feels to act with one’s spouse than to attempts to locate and describe the poetic beauties and narrative pleasures of individual films. Of course, the former material is available in purely verbal form (apart from suitably glossy stills, which are selected and cropped by the editorial staff, not the critic/journalist) whilst the latter are articulated through a complex orchestration of aural, visual and kinetic effects. These, and their emotional and aesthetic impact, are far more difficult to articulate in words.

This investment has an immediate effect in the market-place, preparing the ground for the application of the saturation booking policy that is the practice of modern film distributors and exhibitors. A quick survey of listings in the current Time Out (25 Nov to 2 Dec 1992) indicates that 69 prints of The Last Of The Mohicans are this week being screened in the magazine’s catchment area; 54 prints of Single White Female; nine of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; and ten of Glengarry Glen Ross.

Hard figures are difficult to confirm, but it seems, therefore, that there exist in London and the Home Counties alone as many prints as have been struck so far for the world-wide distribution of independent films like The Long Day Closes or Riff Raff, which won the international critics’ prize at Cannes. In the whole world there is just one print of Med Hondo’s Sarraounia which has English subtitles and was struck for cinema distribution.

The problem about Hollywood does not relate primarily to the poetic or aesthetic qualities of the films made there, despite the fact that the need to generate a package which the PR people think is a worthy investment for their money often means that films end up being written by a series of committees. The task of these seems to be to reduce narrative or thematic originality to the formulaic, before then going on to regenerate some aspect of originality out of the resulting formula!

The real problem is that Hollywood’s economic dominance is stifling diversity. Without diversity, Hollywood’s own potential for future creative renewal will be undermined, and the cultural aesthetic needs of large segments of the population will remain unsatisfied. – James Leahy