Raining Stones IV: For a Richer Vision of Poverty

By John Akomfrah

Does Andrew Sarris still go to the cinema in search of auteurs? Possibly an irrelevant aside, given the number of other malingerers from the shop floor of cinema. Still, the aside is not without an obscure merit since it was he who in the 70s made a telling observation that the cinema had forgotten about money. Naturally he meant American cinema, but his observation still seems to have a purchase on a certain reincarnation of cinema which has become globally known in this decade by the euphemism of the ‘mainstream’.

‘If there’s one problem in our society,’ Sarris said, ‘it’s that everybody’s wondering where his next buck is coming from but you never see a movie in which anyone has money problems.’ Anyone who has seen Ken Loach’s film Raining Stones will note the obvious relevance of this point. But we are tracking other phantoms here, so let’s pursue this line of reasoning a little further.

Over a decade before Sarris’ comment, Rossellini had already read the last rites to that reincarnation of cinema auteurism. TV, he felt, was the only place left where an albeit cumbersome alliance of vision, realism and utopia could still be forged. In TV, Rossellini thought conceit and dishonesty would not triumph at the expense of the auteur for the simple reason that in TV classical economics had found a key convert for its doctrine of supply and demand. We now know otherwise. And yet there were times when this seemed almost true – to the point that by the time the prophecy finally choked the maestro, younger more agile talents had learned to look the beast straight in the eye. In so doing they managed to wrestle from it some very major concessions which in their clarity, elegance and simplicity mirrored Gramsci’s equally elegant but regularly unsubstantiated claim that ‘truth is always revolutionary’ (re Mike Grigsby, Tony Garnett, Trevor Griffiths, David Mercer, etc.). In retrospect we can also say that this bravura yielded success at a certain cost because in the end it always was a posture which repressed a number of truths, especially when it came to sustaining a life for the cinema. My feeling now is that this is the decade in which most of these ‘repressions’ will come home to roost.

By the time Rossellini died, Ken Loach had done most of his memorable work on TV and was already sneaking in insights gained from his adventure through the front and back doors of cinema. So if Andrew Sarris had known of this work, he would have realised that there were some very precious exceptions to his observation even as he formulated it. And some, again like Loach, have continued to contradict it.

So what are the repressions looming on the margins? Well, the elegance of Gramsci’s formulation always masked another definitive but much more perplexing possibility for the truth-teller, namely that the truth always hid more truths and if truth was in any way simplified, it always proved to be Janus-faced. Scepticism was therefore your best armour and you forgot that at your peril. This last point ties in very neatly with some of my current obsessions, which hopefully will have a bearing on Loach’s Raining Stones.

It is fair to say that when I first sat down to write this piece my sense of the film’s importance and weight was always tempered by a set of preoccupations which forced me simultaneously to acknowledge a lingering dissatisfaction with it, a dissatisfaction which stemmed partly from an agnosticism about the film’s claims to a certain kind of truth on class. This dissatisfaction also stemmed, more crucially, from a renewed yearning for new varieties of truth, for a certain kind of cinema which hints at the world always on the margins of the stereotype, a cinema capable of epiphanising the secretions of the future in the present, not simply as dream-deferred or fantasy, but as an intrinsic ingredient of the everyday, a cinema constitutionally opposed to what the Indian film-maker Kumar Shahani has called a ‘designed universalism’. In other words I am looking for the kind of elation I had when I first saw Germany Year Zero.

It is of course possible, since these are necessarily my presumptions, that they should stay that way. It is also equally possible that – since I have spent so long fuming against cynicism, against the absence of memory, against the falsification of history – any work which affirms the opposite values, as Raining Stones admirably does, becomes then burdened with a neurosis of exaggerated demands.

On the other hand, it also did occur to me that there are increasingly fewer film-makers on whom one can confer this dubious honour of over-expectation, and that this in itself is reason enough for persisting with a discussion on Raining Stones, a point brought very forcefully home to me by glancing through a 1972 copy of Sight and Sound. Of all the films selected for that year’s Cannes Film Festival, several were by directors who are no longer with us (Huston, Fellini, Tarkovsky). Others now work erratically (Rosi, Wertmuller, Herzog). Only two, Ivory and Loach, appear to have worked with any consistency over the last five years, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a James Ivory film.

Most of my current preoccupations are neatly encapsulated in a statement by Kumar Shahani: ‘The possibility of new conjunctions so bewilders the world at this very moment that even the most Proustian of sentences would not suffice to take us through a labyrinth of truths on a flight to that continuum of knowledge and praxis promised by the preceding centuries.’

Most great moments in cinema that I really value are those moments which always seem to be perched on the edge of disaster – moments that really take risks with themselves. When these risks are taken they can either result in complete failure or, when successful, can achieve real illumination. There are some such moments in Raining Stones, but are we now so poor that we can’t ask for more? Maybe that’s life, or should I learn to be more assertive?

"When Arnold Schwarzenegger burst on to the screens recent­ly in Last Action Hero, the film exemplified the rewards which large media players hope to gain from such mergers [between computer, enter­tainment and telecommuni­cations sectors]. The film was made by Columbia Pictures, owned by Japan’s Sony Corporation; the soundtrack came from CBS, owned by Sony; and it was screened in cinemas with digital sound systems made by Sony. Sony has also made virtual-reality games which work on Sony hardware." – Guardian (23 Oct 1993)

Founder member of Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah directed Handsworth Songs and Seven Songs for Malcolm X.