Where New Dreams Are Drawn: For a Cinema of Interiority

By Adam Kossoff

LEAR: O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.

GLOUCESTER: I see it feelingly.

LEAR: What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears…

King Lear, Act IV, 6

The difficulty is writing about a cinema that cannot be written about. The difficulty is locating a language that can adequately speak of a medium that moves within the terrain of the imagination. The difficulty is giving shape and form to an over-familiar argument framed by patriotic journalists and coded by cultural workers in the thrall of mass-consumption. The difficulty is that the market-place has no need to reflect on its desires. The difficulty is finding models where few exist, of the fear of being left to rot in the margins by those who celebrate their clever conformity and wish not to be reminded of the fact. The difficulty is British Cinema.

Psst… Looking for a hand-out?

The day before the last election, arm-twisted by the arts establishment, David Mellor, Conservative Minister for the Arts, found £11m of public money for the English National Opera to buy the building it previously rented. And while the two main London opera companies get more than £30m pounds a year in subsidy, approximately £5m a year goes into subsidising film production. (The situation is complicated by the fact that the government would claim they are putting more like £25m a year into film. Most of this money doesn’t go into film production but into the British Film Institute, the British Film Commission and the National Film School. Recently, the latter have had a struggle to get the money they need to keep going.)

Cinema is not regarded as a natural conduit for arts subsidies. It is generally not seen as an art form at all, but as a cultural/entertainment medium of mass communication, a commercial art-form on a par with graphics.

Would British cinema be any different if £30m a year in subsidies went into film production? Or would we get much more of the same?

The journey to the interior

The experience of watching a film should represent some sort of inner journey – something fluid, visceral, tactile and palpable. This sense of interior movement can occur in either the Hollywood-type narrative, or in the so-called European art-house/American Independent movie. The main difference is that in the former our journey is mediated by action, character and emotion, and in the latter by the foregrounding of ideas, with a sense of the imaginative potential of the medium and perhaps a questioning of the plenitude of classical narrative.
The British film sector (it’s not, after all, what you’d call an industry) has difficulties in utilising the best elements of both the US and European cinema, although that seems to be what it generally aims for, falling somewhere between Hollywood and the European art-house in both form and content. At the expense of over-generalising, British cinema really seems quite averse to the depth of feeling, anger, rawness and intellectual sensuality that we see (or have seen) in the best films of other nations.

British cinema has rarely been much of a receptacle for interior desires, except, on occasion, during the heyday of the Angry Young Men in the 60s, with films such as This Sporting Life (a portrayal of a violent and aggressive rugby league player in the form of Richard Harris). When was the last time you saw unapologetic nastiness (or should I say the exploration of real desire?) in a recent British film, apart from Jarman’s Edward II? It took the already well-established Neil Jordan a long time to get The Crying Game off the ground owing to the apparently unsympathetic nature of its central character, an IRA activist. Steven Berkoff had to go abroad to get funding to convert his stage play Decadence, a uniquely nasty and funny representation of British upper classness, into a film. And when Tim Roth was asked why a film like Reservoir Dogs would never be made in this country, he argued that there are British directors who could do it, but they would never be able to raise the funds.

‘Dante in exile, walking in the streets of Verona – people whispered to each other that he goes to Hell when he chooses and brings back news from there.’ – Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (1975)

In other film cultures, ripping off the mask, contemplating and exploring the anxieties that lie beneath the surface, is where film largely comes into its own. Not in Britain. In British cinema all the worst traits of the nation’s characteristics seem to manifest themselves, none more so than the fear of extremes. (We do, after all, live in a Protestant country where pleasure is traditionally grounded in politics/morality rather than politics/morality being grounded in pleasure.) Extreme seriousness is too élite, extreme silliness too inane, extreme marketability too American, extreme art too inaccessible, extreme sensuousness too dangerous, extreme anger too raw, extreme emotions too manipulative, extreme fiction too mendacious…

In the cotton-wool culture of Britain, real interiority is the forbidden world, the inner-circle of hell. But then the burning arrows of desire usually have to douse themselves before a film project can find funding and go into production.

The cinema of geniality

In broad terms most ‘successful’ British films of recent years have a quality that could be called ‘genial’. Geniality is a genre in itself – a simple, superficial, soapy quality that glosses and plays lip service to the nastiness of what might be found deep down. It has a passive, floating quality which reflects our culture of forbearance and complacency. The ‘cinema of geniality’, which veers between naturalism and realism, defies internal complexity and depth, reducing central characters to superficial victims of a nasty society, motiveless except for everyday survival.

The ‘cinema of geniality’ adopts a liberal responsibility towards culture but spurns art. It reflects a wistful England of the past still in shock about its present. Modernity has passed it by unnoticed, together with abstraction, the poetic, the imaginative and the lyrical. The narrative that calls on the audience to go with the pace and mood of the film, to trust their instincts, to explore a philosophical and aesthetic position, and which addresses a continually changing present and future, is not part of this genre.

The ‘cinema of geniality’ boasts several different strands. All define themselves by their difference from standard Hollywood fare, all claim a middle-brow market appeal, all are heavily mediated by dialogue, and all seem to embody the Christian ideal, ‘Good is passive, evil is active’:

(a) The decorous, costume drama strand, such as the Merchant-Ivory films and the Branagh Shakespearean dramas. As they home into the universal aesthetic, where art reflects the things that never change, and moral categories remain forever fixed, they present a static, picturesque view of humanity. (This might account for their popularity in the US.) They are often rooted in the 19th-century novel, and tend to reflect the literary-centred backgrounds of people working in the British film and media sectors.

(b) The caricature realist strand, where ‘real’ life is portrayed, but in an exaggerated, mannered fashion, with actors acting themselves acting real people, and so-called ordinary people are made into exotic, picturesque objects which we can sympathetically scrutinise at a safe distance. (Life is Sweet is perhaps an example of this.)

(c) The single social-issue TV dramas about all the horrible things that might happen to us in life. They are illustrations of how nice people become victims of illness, of prejudice, of poverty, of unfeeling politicians. Normally they don’t act, they are acted upon and either they react or depend on others to act for them. It’s 60s Northern Realism that’s migrated South.

(d) The ‘let’s deal with real life on a massive scale’ dramas, which end up as caricatured history stories of heroic achievement (e.g. Gandhi).

A key missing element in the ‘cinema of geniality’ is confrontation, which serves to draw out normally hidden interior desires and emotions and bring them to the surface. This means that the narratives of the ‘cinema of geniality’ seem to habitually take the course of least resistance. For example, The Snapper, based on a Roddy Doyle story, is a film ostensibly about a young Irish woman becoming pregnant and its effects on her relationship to her family. But her family are so passively accepting of their daughter’s pregnancy that there is no confrontation between the central characters. There’s some confrontation in the way the neighbours disapprove, but they are stereotyped and of secondary importance. Consequently, by the end of the film there’s not much conviction or substance in the inner emotional journey that the two central characters, the daughter and the father, are supposed to have undergone.

Another element often missing is the sharply defined central dilemma (usually coined in moral terms) that is the cause of the confrontation in the first place. British films seem to present their dilemmas in a very vague way; as being about the ‘Thatcher years’ or the ‘post-Thatcher years’ or ‘the poverty of the nation’ or ‘the homeless’ or ‘the sufferings of the upper/middle classes in love and out of touch with their time’ or some such generic blandness.

‘The modern age is the age of schism and of selfnegation, the age of criticism. It has identified itself with change, change with criticism, and both with progress. Modern art is modern because it is critical.’ – Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire (1974)

This vagueness is where the main problem in British cinema lies, which tends to choose the characters and the story to represent the politics of the film, reducing it to a preconceived message, presenting a sort of moral fait accompli rather than a process of change.

Polanski’s Cul De Sac, about the narcissism of a successful entrepreneur, and Antonioni’s Blow-Up, about the illusory nature of London’s 60s political culture, come to mind as amongst the two most outstanding films made in this country. They both exemplify how to build stories around strong moral questions that emerge in a visually told story, which weaves in and out of the personal (the central character’s point-of-view) and the general (the moral/political focus of the film). But they were made by foreign directors. As for other outstanding British films, there are a few Powell and Pressburger films that allow carefully thought-out dilemmas to emerge through the pores of the narrative. A Matter of Life and Death, which brilliantly dramatises the precariousness of judging the value of a person’s life, is a good example.

‘The caricatured indicating of the English’

In the ‘genial’ genre there exists an over-simple equation between creating sympathetic characters with characters that are nice, friendly and warm-hearted. This ready rejection of multifaceted characterisation is a bit of an obstacle for any film that strives for a complex interiority. And it’s also a problem for actors who want to act. British actors have to depend on ‘the caricatured indicating of the English’, as Brian Cox aptly phrases it in Salem to Moscow (London: Methuen Drama, 1991). Those actors who, like Tim Roth, want a bit more to do have to go to Hollywood. Perhaps here they can find acting that takes shape from within the personality of the actor; acting that depends not on external contrivance but rather on allowing the emotions to simmer and boil beneath the surface; acting which is centred around what the eyes communicate, rather than an over-dependence on the vocal chords; acting which reveals an understanding of a suggestive, corporeal notion of film which owes something to the performance arts, but is primarily devoted to the economy of a cinematic vision.

In Britain, a drama student can go through drama school for three years and only get two weeks of tuition on film and TV acting. Of course, as soon as they step outside their college they are more likely to get work in TV than anywhere else. Most drama teachers suffer from the delusion that the only difference between the theatre and TV and cinema acting is one of scale. It isn’t. This spurious notion owes its existence to cinema being regarded as the lower art form. Furthermore, given their theatre-oriented bias, drama schools aren’t going to be on the look-out for would-be actors whose potential lies mostly in film.

Let’s get lippy

The British, inordinately proud of their facility with the English language, are in fact overly dependent on the mediation of the written and spoken word. And because cinema is regarded as a subsidiary of theatre, where the spoken word predominates, it’s also regarded as perfectly natural for writers who’ve made their name in the theatre, or elsewhere, to take the leap into the film world. Only it’s never regarded as much of a leap. The most important quality is the exposure of having ‘done it’ in the theatre first. It gives those backing the film a certain security.

Another phenomenon of British cinema (and TV) is its dependence on the novel, like theatre a supposedly purer art-form which is utilised to verify and validate the cinema. On occasion a novel can be turned into a good film, but the two media are as far apart as theatre is to film. (Thus the argument that it is easier to adapt a poor novel into a good film, but not so easy to make a good film out of a good novel.)

The main obstacle in adapting the novel to the screen is rather the opposite to that of the theatre. The medium of film lies somewhere between the thick vocal texts that are typically theatre, and the more intricate, internalised voice of the novel. The problem in adapting the novel, therefore, is to externalise the internal. However, for many British films this is just a case of putting the gloss on a pre-existing story by adding a few ingredients, like well-known actors, nicely tailored costumes and antique-shop trinkets.

Exterior vs. interior

It’s not often that British practitioners engage themselves in any sort of debate, but the recent overt importation of Hollywood screenwriting techniques has drawn them out of their creative trenches. The flak that Robert McKee and other lesser mortals (Linda Seger, Syd Field) who have come to Britain to teach Hollywood scriptwriting methods have got from certain sectors of the British film and TV sector is revealing.

This was epitomised by an article that Alan Plater wrote for the Writer’s Guild Newsletter and a further article in response to Robert McKee’s published defence. Plater speaks against the Hollywood teachers’ rigidity, attacking them for their ‘dogmatic fundamentalism’ and arguing that scriptwriting, like any other form of writing, cannot be taught. He actually seems rather piqued by the possibility that screenwriting is a specialised area of activity, that a screenwriter can serve an apprenticeship and learn structure and rules (and, more importantly, discard them). He fears that these teaching methods are geared to making money more than to making good writers, and that would-be writers with no real talent can be misled into thinking that they can learn to write by these methods of teaching. He also fears that script executives will use the rules of the three-act story as a ready-made shorthand form of criticism, an excuse to tamper and interfere with the final product.

‘What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced.’ – Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text

These fears are not entirely misplaced, but they also unconsciously pinpoint some very English insecurities: firstly with regard to analysis itself, and how analysis and formula are threateningly alien to the original minds of the true creator; and secondly, with regard to a style of writing whose main drive is to move the story into the interior, through the emotions of the central characters.

Hollywood scriptwriting methods provide a recognition that film, even if limited to its revelatory storytelling mode, requires skill and craft that you can’t learn by writing for the theatre, or by adapting a good novel, or by deciding you’ve had enough of making TV documentaries and fancy making a drama instead. Most importantly they provide a recognition that film, as crafted fiction, doesn’t have to make excuses for its own existence or apologise for its own mendacity, something that the ‘cinema of geniality’ has never really faced up to.

McKee’s so-called ‘principles’ give the writer the tools with which to question what they are writing. Within the limitations of the Hollywood-type narrative, they provide the writer (and everyone else involved) with the space to see and to criticise and to ask questions that under Plater’s ‘no-method’ method would never arise in an organised way. They force those involved in the processes of film and drama-making to get inside what they are doing, to move beyond the genial. They provide a grip on the slippery slope of the unconscious, to get tough and pin down meaning and the central dilemmas. They provide a route to interiority that is specific to film. They are a way of seizing control of the celluloid artifice, structuring the time and space of cinema, albeit, in the case of Hollywood narrative, a time and space which is always compressed and tamed so that it fits the ideology of individualistic plenitude.

‘To look is to transgress, but transgression is a creative game. When we peep through a chink in the door of aesthetic and moral censure, we glimpse the ambiguous relation between artistic contemplation and eroticism, between seeing and desiring.' – Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire (1974)

For McKee, the Hollywood narrative convention is universal and historically proven. He argues for the films of Ozu and Godard, yet he always returns to the notion of storytelling as being the foundation of all form, so the reciprocal relationship between form and content remains unrecognised and the language of Hollywood cinema remains unchallenged.

Plater seems unwilling to admit that form (like structure) has any importance whatsoever, which is entirely typical of the ‘genial’ genre. He expounds his ideal ‘instinctual’ method with a quote from Hanif Kureishi: ‘I write page one and if I’m still interested I write page two. If I stay interested long enough I end up with a screenplay.’ For the consequences of this technique see London Kills Me. Plater’s method is a no-method and my point about theatre being the focal point for cinema and TV in this country is illustrated when he writes, ‘On the subject of structure, I quote my agent, Peggy Ramsay. I once asked Peggy how to learn about structure. She said: “Read Ibsen, darling”.’

Where new dreams are drawn

In Britain, where the utopian ideals of the Left have long since been lost, dreamers are sinners (unless they’re dreaming of individual acquisition). Cinema, being one of the most powerful tools of dreamers, is marginalised as a popular medium with little cultural value. Derek Jarman, Ken McMullen, Peter Greenaway, John Akomfrah, Terence Davies, Bill Douglas and Alex Cox are a few directors who have made films outside the mainstream of geniality and who, in their different ways, have attempted to grapple with a cinema of the interior, where new dreams are drawn. But none of them have found it easy raising funds in this country.

The bottom line is economic. In America film-makers have a massive home market, which can, to a certain extent, sustain independent film-makers like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, and where even small-budget features can make their money back on the University circuit. In Europe subsidies make up for the lack of home market revenues. In Britain a limited economic base is provided by Channel 4 and the BBC. But they both have their own inherent institutional identities and are always having to juggle cultural objectives with audience ratings.

The complacent noises that people make in this country about the value of the market-place in film-making is a condescending, convenient tool for limiting the desires of film-makers and the desires of those who go to the cinema. Profitability in the market sustains itself by imitation (every hamburger is an imitation of the last and a model for the next one). Cinema cannot survive in an atmosphere of imitation.

One of the best thing that’s happened to British cinema in recent years is the increase in co-production with other countries. The internationalisation of British film-making undermines the concept of a ‘British cinema’ altogether, exposing it to other cultures which are more sensitive to film as an art form and enabling a film-making that might otherwise remain repressed beneath the parochial and the genial. The problem here is that the only real cross-boundary aesthetic which can take into account the demands of different co-producing countries, while retaining a sense of its own logic and integrity, is the road-based movie. A better solution would be for co-producing countries to organise a more reciprocal arrangement whereby France, for example, agrees to part-fund a British film with no ‘indigenous’ strings attached, while similarly, Britain agrees to part-fund a French film. But do they need us as much as we need them?

In France, over £60m in subsidies is available to film-makers every year – for short films, first-time feature film-makers, second-time feature film-makers, third-time feature film-makers, documentary film-makers, distribution, exhibition, etc. When the London Film and Video Association recently invited applications for development and production it received 570 hopeful projects from Londoners, for a fund totalling little more than £200,000. Less than a tenth of those projects were short-listed, a fifth of the short-listed projects got money. None got more than £15,000. (In market terms, £15,000 would fund less than half a day’s shoot on a low-budget feature film.) In this climate, the debate about what cinema we have, and what cinema we want, is almost defunct – almost, but not quite. After all, film-makers can dream with their eyes open.

The question ‘would British cinema be any different if it got £30m a year in subsidies?’ has a cultural as well as an organisational answer. I have concentrated on the former. The likelihood of getting that amount of money under any British government is impossible to imagine, particularly in a country which chooses to scorn rather than nurture the imaginative. In addition, every film lobby, from the producers’ organisations right through to the film union, BECTU, is frightened of losing what they’ve already got in the way of meagre subsidies and only puts forward the meek option of asking for nothing more than tax incentives to boost the film sector. They should be asking for nothing less than a £30m parity with the two London opera houses, and perhaps a lot more. The only way forward on this issue is to persuade both ourselves and the powers-that-be that cinema (which includes celluloid, video or any other technology of cinematic image-projection, narrative as well as non-narrative) is an art form on a par with any other art form that currently receives public subsidies.

Economic footnote: subsidies are an investment

Subsidised opera and theatre always use generation of income as an argument for receiving subsidies. If anything, cinema, which is a highly labour-intensive medium, has a stronger case. If £30m in subsidies was invested in film production on an annual basis, three to four times that amount would come into the country as co-production money from America and Europe. This might fund 60-100 features a year (depending on budgetary policies). The government will save in unemployment benefits (say, 50 jobs per feature on three-month contracts) and receive large returns in personal taxation, national insurance, company taxation and VAT, not to mention all other indirect economic benefits: exports, cinema attendances, video sales, service industries, etc. In all, millions of pounds will go back to the government, so it’s clear that, apart from the cultural imperatives, subsidies are not simply a generous hand-out.

Adam Kossoff is a writer and director who makes both documentary and fiction films.