Cruising the Zeitgeist

By Robert Chilcott

Young Brits at Cannes

Last year during the Cannes Film Festival I was standing around the Petit Majestic bar next to an unnamed British filmmaker with two features to his credit. Attempting small talk, I pointed out to him the presence, some thirteen feet away, of the director Lynne Ramsay. He looked at her, grimaced, then turned back to me and said “Who’s Lynne Ramsay?”. After a pause of incredulity on my part, I explained that she was the director of Ratcatcher. There followed another puzzled look “What’s Ratcatcher?”. At this point I could have gone on to say that the film had been released in the UK several months earlier to glowing reviews, and that Miss Ramsay had received quite a lot of exposure in the broadsheets and style magazines. Or that, even if he had missed her this time round, surely, with his being a Cannes attendee for the last several years, he might have been aware that she had twice won awards there for her shorts, and that the aforementioned feature had played the previous year’s directors’ fortnight to great acclaim.

I could have also pointed out that she, like he, was a former National Film and Television School graduate, and lived in West London as he did. But no, his ignorance was defiant, so, rather than labour the point, I enquired as to what films he had seen whilst he was there. Struggling for an answer, as though the question had never been put to him before, he replied that he had seen Dead Babies, Sorted and “a great 30 minute promo reel for a Welsh gangster film called Shooters”.

Some years ago I was idealistic and naïve enough to think that, in order to be a filmmaker, as with painting, you had to study the masters, or, rather, I was naïve enough to think that everyone who wanted to be a filmmaker would naturally want to study the masters – that is people making films before you were born – and desire to learn something from them. I soon learnt that the act of sitting in the dark at the Institute of Contemporary Arts watching Godard, Cassavetes or Antonioni, and being inspired to go out and make a film as a result, was a million miles removed from the process of hanging around in some networking event at BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) chatting to gratuitously confident grown adults who use phrases like “high concept” with the utmost seriousness, talk about what a great “Second” (assistant director) so-and-so is, and try so desperately hard to interest Duncan Kenworthy in the ninth draft of their romantic comedy.

Young British filmmakers don’t watch movies and, rather than be slightly embarrassed about this, they proudly display their oblivion on their T-shirts. They certainly don’t watch old movies, or, God forbid, foreign ones, and, as the opening anecdote illustrates, breeze through twelve days of Cannes year after year blissfully unaware that there’s twenty or so films from all around the world competing for a little prize called the Palme D’Or. Indeed, rather than displaying any cinephiliac desire to see the new Michael Haneke or Tsai Ming Liang, they go only to see films on which one of their mates has worked as location manager, or films where there’s a hope of snaring one of the producers at the post-screening party in order to get their own film off the ground. Indeed, all three films my director companion cited had given good parties, a substitute for any critical comments and discussion of the films themselves. This is endemic in the British film industry as a whole. High profile flops such as Mad Cows or Rancid Aluminium arrive heavily signposted, their awfulness broadcast well in advance, so much so that their inevitable function when they finally get a release is to back up the celebrity premiere, the Evening Standard Weekend Supplement spread, the film itself serving merely as a platform to support the PR company.

Whilst it is beyond the scope of this piece to analyse each of the three films mentioned above individually, and would be futile to pen specific, pithy and supercilious comedic diatribes about how ghastly they all are, what inevitably unites them in their failure, and what is symptomatic of what many British films of this kind suffer from, is their sheer desperation at attempting to push all the right buttons, making films to order, a new heritage cinema of unashamed mediocrity – cynically constructed recipes of gangsters, clubbers and drugs, with a seasoning of sub-Tarantino dialogue and a cool soundtrack.

Today, as with the novel, in order to have a viable (i.e. marketable or pre-sellable) post-modernist movie, all of the characters have to be completely bizarre, weird and wonderful, displaying ridiculous combinations of quirky personality traits and jokes which don’t exist in real life. We have a culture of overstatement, exaggeration, hysterical realism. The insipid office mural “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!” has become a mantra for British filmmaking, a triumph of parochialism.

Revelling in small minded, national inertia, the current generation of filmmakers takes all its cues from the zeitgeist, pitching everything between hormonal twelve year olds and readers of Heat magazine. The language and grammar of film have been lost at the expense of a fart joke. Visual, rhetorical tropes of cinema are being used to absolutely no effect, stylistic techniques constantly used to hammer the audience over the head, everyone assuming that we’re all so immune to sensation, that we need to be brutalised.

Even the freak successes of instant “classics” about northern strippers or precocious ballet prodigies illustrate the governance of the media, rather than the cinema, as the dominant influence on the demographic, and it seems highly unlikely that a Billy or a Monty will appear in critical pantheons of great films fifty years from now. However successful in the domestic market they may have been, their inevitable fate is to join combat trousers, tango ads or slightly dated high street fashion accessories in Saturday night retro TV shows as examples of great promotional strategies, championed by transient Radio One DJs and children’s television presenters, and thus completely avoiding any lasting cultural significance. Did we really watch that!

Robert Chilcott is a freelance writer and filmmaker. He lives in London

Cartoons by Janis Goodman