Slippages: A Cause for Unease?

By Liz Wells

Language develops through slippages in usage, but some shifts are alarming. At last November's State of Independence conference, frequent references to “cultural cinema” and “cultural film-making” left me wondering what would constitute a “non-cultural” film.

The answer was swiftly supplied: the distinction offered was between “commercial” and “cultural” film practices, basically, distribution-led versus production-led cinema. So commercial film is not cultural? Suddenly we are returned to the hierarchical world of Leavis, or to Frankfurt School debates relating to the autonomy and effects of “Art” defined in opposition to mass culture! Surely after so many years of research and debate focused upon popular pleasures and practices (epitomised by the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in the 1970s and '80s) such a return in retrogressive!

The source of slippage is clear. For some time we have talked of “cultural industries” as a means of defining an economic sector; we also refer to cultural partnerships, and, indeed, cultural workers (those employed within cultural industries.) Such terminology emerges from the community-based politics of the late seventies and eighties, and has been further embedded through more recent commitment to Third Way models of community development (matching varying sources of funding, private and public).

Cultural workers may make films, and community film and video may be associated with Third Way development. But to take the next step and describe the products of such practices as “cultural image-making” goes beyond what might appear as the closing of a language loop. This (mis-) closure articulates aesthetic understandings which I, for one, am surprised to find returned within a Left arena. Dangers of association with elitist notions of Art are increased, given that “independent” practices include experimental (artists’) film and video, which all too easily acquire the mantle of specialness conferred by the exclusivity of gallery and festival screening.

Three points then: if we take culture to refer to a broad sphere of social activity (encompassing pub-going, cinema-going, shopping, etc., indeed, everyday behaviours) then “cultural” meanings are always in play. These include the discourses of popular film, commercial cinema. Second, it we accept this, then the phrase, “cultural image” is surely tautological! Third, to adopt such binary distinctions as “cultural” versus “commercial” without qualification is to risk returning to the elitist aesthetics of modernism. Am I alone in feeling uneasy about this?

Liz Wells is course leader of the MA in Independent Film at the London College of Printing