Volume 1 - Issue 5 - Editorial

By Vertigo

‘There’s no turning back!’ trumpets Sky Sports, in its attempt to recruit subscribers from the cinema audience. ‘Nonsense!’ bellows a member of the audience. Embarrassed, all around him look the other way, as if he did not exist and had not spoken.

The brutalism of ‘There’s no turning back!’ finds, however, nothing incongruous in marching hand in hand with nostalgia, be it for ‘warm beer’, or for warm beer’s cinematic counterpart: ‘The most successful series of films in the history of British cinema. Thanks to the Barbican ‘The Ultimate Bargain... the Khyber Pass’ has allowed us to celebrate 100 years of cinema by watching all 30 Carry On films for a mere £30! How long will it be before the NFT (sorry... BFI South Bank) offers us the world’s first full retrospective of Rank’s ‘Look at Life’, accompanied by an incisive cultural analysis in the ‘new’ Sight & Sound?

Beer, ironically, was the focus of the most successful consumer campaign this country has ever witnessed. No beer drinker was nostalgic for ‘warm beer’, but most wanted a drink that tasted like beer rather than rusty water. An alliance between beer enthusiasts and the media stopped the rapidly monopolising big breweries in their tracks. Their economic dominance remained intact, but they had to take on board the public’s demand for quality and, to a lesser extent, its demand for diversity. If only today’s independent film-makers could claim comparable support, space, understanding and attention from today’s film critics!

Some of our friends admit that the narrowing of intellectual space and the closing down of artistic diversity characteristic of the last couple of decades have so depressed them that they no longer wish to read about film and TV. They don’t buy Vertigo, and they wait for new films to turn up on TV rather than going to the cinema. They just want to keep their heads down and get on with the modest projects they’re allowed to work on, in the hope they can go on paying the mortgage without having to contribute to a film or programme whose message is clearly socially destructive or morally objectionable. Analysis has been replaced by acquiescence, vision by conformity, diversity by orthodoxy.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for this reaction, so successful has Market Stalinism been in contemporary Britain. In this new ideology, the ‘Laws’ of the ‘Market’ are invoked as incessantly as the ‘Historic role of the Party’ used to be in the old version. They are presented as operating with an equally blind determinism. In fact, today’s ‘Market’, even the global financial market, is as much a social and political construct as yesterday’s ‘Party’.

Both were the product of a series of social and political choices, some of whose effects were intended, some unforeseen. Both were born out of a pressure towards monopoly, towards control and centralisation, and sold by a rhetoric that set out to disguise what was going on as its opposite, thus justifying future action based on further similar choices. Both spawned a crippling bureaucracy: the manager and the Party functionary; the commissioning editor and the ideological commissar; the accountant and the political commissar. No wonder our media have surrendered to such slogans of the 90s’ Newspeak as ‘Diversity is elitism!’, ‘Mass marketing ensures freedom of choice!’, ‘History is bunk/boring/dead!’ Take your pick!

Internalising the restraints of the new dogma may leave people uncomfortable, but internalise they do. The medicine may taste nasty, but we’ve got to understand that it’s not good for us. Anyway, can we be sure, deep down, that our malaise isn’t really our own fault? Perhaps working harder (on those occasions when we are able to find work at all) on less interesting projects, for less money and with less job security, is our punishment for, once upon a time, demanding too much, expecting too much, hoping too much? If only we hadn’t been so greedy had been prepared to settle for less! For many of us, the fibre of social conscience is wound so tightly together with the strands of guilt that, on a subconscious level at least, we wonder whether we don’t deserve our fate when things go wrong. After all, working in the media or being an intellectual offers a pretty privileged existence in comparison to that of, say, a miner... particularly a Third World miner! Or even a junior doctor in a hospital, liable at any moment to drop dead from stress and exhaustion! Thus many of us collude in our own disempowerment, probably not all of the time, but certainly some of the time.

Sadly, this is particularly true of the ‘New’ Labour Party. Since the all-too-brief moment in the 80s when Neil Kinnock flirted with the idea of an ‘enabling state’, the traditional inch of difference between Labour and the Tories has come to look more and more like a Euro-friendly millimetre.

Determined to be elected so that it can make a difference, ‘New’ Labour has become increasingly obscure about what kind of difference it intends to make. All too often, when taking a stand on an issue, ‘New’ Labour has seemed as bad as or worse than the Tories! Who, for example, can feel happy about the idea of Gordon Brown, with his slavish subservience to Bank of England monetarism, replacing Kenneth Clarke, who at least resisted Eddie George’s demands for higher interest rates? Nobody wants a return to the bad old days of broken promises, or for over-detailed policies to be offered up to the media as hostages to fortune, but rhetoric cannot make an old country young, or tell us what Labour wants power for.

Of course the ‘New Jerusalem’ is not just over the horizon, waiting to be built. Similarly, though we daily experience uncontrolled and arbitrary spin-offs from ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’, we’ve hardly benefited from it as we hoped to, were, indeed, once promised we would. This might have been different had the revenues from North Sea oil been invested in our future and our infrastructure, in re-tooling and preparing for the information society, rather than being squandered on hand-outs, mainly to the undeserving rich. This is the economic and technological context in which we have to assess the significance of Heritage Minister Virginia Bottomley’s recent announcement of plans for digital TV. The take-up of all new forms for the delivery of the TV signal is so slow in the UK that promises of any radical change in the media environment can only be taken with a pinch of salt.

Encouragingly, however, people are becoming aware of what they have lost as a result of the greed, incompetence and tunnel vision of the last decade and a half, and of how this is having a negative effect on the quality of their lives. Ironically, that’s why Labour is so far ahead in the opinion polls. Moreover, people are becoming so alienated by the rhetoric of the market that many find the mode of address adopted by ‘New’ Labour unacceptable. Should Labour be elected, it’s likely that the first wave of opposition will come from where it is least expected, from those whose dissatisfaction the leadership has failed to acknowledge.

To state that Vertigo and its readers are likely to be part of this opposition must seem like a funny way of thanking Chris Smith, then Shadow Heritage Minister, for the generous, frank, indeed exemplary, way in which he has made clear where he stands and what he hoped to do in office. It is because we believe we are in agreement when we talk about diversity that we wish we could create an opportunity to show him what we mean when we talk about independent film production. We believe that there are more ways of telling a filmic story than drowning it in blood or schmaltz, or choking it with special effects or Hollywood marketing hype! When it’s a matter of filmic poetry, or even filmic innovation, small really can be beautiful, and for many British film-makers escape to Hollywood is the result of vision frustrated, not ambition fulfilled.

We also challenge the notion that, inevitably, film, and the arts in general, must expect to be the recipients of only small amounts of government money. England’s parsimony towards the arts has been historically determined. So has the greater generosity of her partners in the European Union. The United Kingdom came into being before the savage flowering of 19th-century nationalism, one of the major off-shoots from the Romantic movement. Though the English perceived the Union as having settled the issue of the nation state once and for all, for the other constituent nations this settlement was less final and clear-cut. Moreover, for the new nation it was a time when political struggles, for example that between the Crown and Parliament, were still to be resolved. The result is a minimalist attitude towards the nation state, and a minimal role for culture, which, like language, is more a site for cross-class mockery or bickering than a pillar of national ideology.

Conversely, in France the dissemination of a uniform language was one of the major results or impositions of that country’s system of national secular education. Similarly, explicit, even rhetorical, notions of Frenchness and French culture have contributed importantly to France’s national identity, as well as being an aspect of that nation’s imperialist project. One of the most ironically beautiful images in modern cinema (epic in both the Hollywood and Brechtian senses) is that of the African soldiers in Med Hondo’s Sarraounia, who sing of their Frenchness as they set out to conquer, pillage and massacre their neighbours at the behest of their white French officers and NCOs.

Though amongst our other partners in the European Union the specific manifestations of the relationship between the arts and ideology of the nation vary, cultural nationalism repeatedly forms an important part of the right-wing agenda, with the result that support of the arts is not a site of conflict between left and right, and energy can be directed towards debating other issues. Our state is built out of different ideological blocks, and our legislators find it hard to grasp what determines the cultural policies of our EU neighbours. Nevertheless, even within the UK the tables at the end of Richard Taylor’s article demonstrate forcefully how comparatively generous is government support of the arts in, say, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where nationalism is part of the political agenda, and national identity is in the process of reassertion and redefinition.

Thus cinema enters its second 100 years in an era of economic and ideological as well as technological change. Louis Lumière’s ‘Invention without a Future’ is alive and well. It’s living it up in Hollywood, whence, recently, came the news of the world’s first completely computer-generated feature film, from Disney, a conglomerate then still retaining a toe-hold on first place as the most gigantic of the world’s media giants.

Conversely and reassuringly, the USA is also home to a thriving independent cinema. The film-makers of the Third World still inspire us with their vision of a new cinema in a new world. Jacques Rivette’s Jeanne La Pucelle has opened recently in London, confirming there’s still life in the traditions of the New Wave, tat explosion of Gallic energy and invention which, having revitalised film-making in the late 50s, in the 60s taught us all to dream of a cinema to which we might, one day, contribute.

Thus, we enter the next 100 years with a manifesto: choices do exist, even if they have to be fought or; opening up spaces is better than closing them down; difference is more exciting than conformity; artists have more to offer society than accountants; today’s universal truths will become tomorrow’s outdated ideological baggage.


"More than once I have aired the opinion in this column that animated photography is getting played out. That I was utterly and hopelessly wrong in so soliloquising is now proved or nearly proved. A few days ago a new company was brought out under the title of “Paul’s Animatographe, Limited”, with a capital of £60,000. The profits on the business which the company have brought over from the period from March, 1896, to the same month in the present year were £12,838 15s 4d. and the estimated profits for a similar period in the future are £15,000 per annum! So, you see, animated photography is not played out by any means." – Cecil Hepworth in Amateur Photographer