I was once informed that, as a film critic, I displayed (at least) one obvious bias. When I nervously inquired as to what this bias was, I was told that it’s clear that I have a thing against British cinema. I was a little startled by this comment but, looking into myself, I don’t think I can entirely deny the charge.
The comment especially played over in my mind during two weeks that I once spent holidaying in New Zealand in the mid 1990s. It will come as no great sociological revelation to anyone that – from a certain angle – New Zealand displays a very Anglophile sensibility. The signs of British culture, and especially British popular culture, are absolutely everywhere there. (I also realise there are other, major cultures resident in NZ, but that’s not my topic here.) You turn on prime time TV and see British cop shows, medical dramas, soaps, courtroom sagas – not on some sedate station like Australia’s Australian Broadcasting Commission, but the commercial channels. Weekly tabloids, like the New Zealand version of Truth, ooze ribald, rabidly politically-incorrect Benny Hill humour from every page. The BBC TV version of Pride and Prejudice appeared while I was there – again, on a commercial channel, prime time Sunday night. The frequent interruption of this broadcast by advertisements brought forth not only a hail of protesting letters in the daily papers, but at least one full-length editorial decrying this sacrilege against the exceedingly lovely Jane Austen.
And then you get to the movie theatres. In one major city of New Zealand, there were more British than American films playing on first release – everything from Secrets and Lies (1996) down to the UK surfing movie, Blue Juice (1995). And in Christchurch, where my trip ended, the local arthouse cinema had five British films currently playing – and just one American movie, Fargo (1996), for occasional late-night screenings. That’s a situation unthinable in Melbourne or Sydney (and perhaps even in many British cities!).
OK, it’s true that I come from a generation of cinephiles that polemically preferred the fantasy, action and colour of American cinema over the more mundane pleasures of British cinema. Most film fans know that famous crack made by François Truffaut (and later recycled, even less responsibly, by Jean-Luc Godard): “British cinema is a contradiction in terms” – and, I admit, I’ve gleefully quoted that one several times down several decades.
But there was always something a bit warped about this worshipping of American cinema over all other, smaller national English-speaking cinemas – especially when this worship comes not from Americans, but non-Americans like me. I wrote a long, long essay about this issue in 1987, called “No Flowers for the Cinephile” (reprinted in my book Mysteries of Cinema). It is a complex business, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that fans of non-American fans of USA culture have simply been brainwashed, seduced or colonised by that big, nasty, capitalist culture. Nonetheless, I think the cult of loving grandiose American popular culture – whether in cinema, music or literature – can obscure other possibilities for appreciating the diverse cultures of the world. It certainly had that effect on me throughout much of my teens and 20s.
Since then, I’ve become much more interested in those smaller, English-language national cinemas of Australia or Canada, for instance. I try not to automatically berate Australian and Canadian filmmakers for failing to be Martin Scorsese on the one hand, or Andrei Tarkovsky on the other. Because that is what has tended to happen with these more modest national cinemas: they are dismissed because they don’t achieve either the visceral glory of popular American movies, or the sophisticated sublimity of the best European (or East European or Asian) art cinema. The question therefore becomes: what is there between these two poles of American populism and European art, what is it that smaller national cinemas sometimes do very, very well?
Let me return to the particular example of the British cinema, and my old bias against it. What is the sweeping case against British movies – why have film buffs enjoyed deriding them so much down the years? Well, I think the argument would go something like this (and don’t quote me out of context, please!). British movies are, on the whole, dreary. They tend to be stuck in unadventurous grooves – always adopting the mode of modest naturalism/realism, rather than the more fantastic, virile, expressionist styles of American cinema. And, above all, the emotional tone of many British movies is – to use that deathless word coined by Pauline Kael – miserabilist. That’s to say, they are dank, depressive, sardonic, slumped, amusing in a brittle kind of way – not feel-good or Utopian in the American manner, and not magnificently despairing or voluptuously melancholic either, aka the grand, European way.
Of course, there have always been exceptions to the miserabilist tradition. Michael Powell, John Boorman, Ken Russell, more recently Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway: these are all part of what Raymond Durgnat calls the great and often unsung tradition of British Phantasmagoria – a camp, gaudy, excessive, often vulgar tradition, drawing on everything from the circus and music hall to William Blake and Oscar Wilde. Such filmmakers acknowledge that aspect of the British national character which is, according to Durgnat, “as quietly mad as ever”.
But let’s not completely lose sight of all that good old kitchen sink drama, all that brittle sarcastic comedy and grotty naturalism that Kael thought was, in the end, so damn miserable. Obviously, we’ve got on our hands here a cinema geared to the everyday, to ordinary lives. It’s not Utopian and it’s not voluptuous – but it can have its own intensity and its own intelligence. Mike Leigh comes from this naturalistic-realistic tradition in a proud and defiant way. Beyond Leigh, though, what is particularly interesting in some modern British films, as in some Australian and Canadian films, is the emergence of an unusual hybrid: a mix of homespun miserabilism with something else, something often borrowed from another national cinema. Trainspotting (1995), for instance, is an especially fine shotgun-wedding of naturalistic grit and laconic humour with the high-key energy and verve of (say) Scorsese. The remarkable career of Stephen Frears – from The Hit (1984) to The Grifters (1990), from Dangerous Liasions (1988) to The Snapper (1993) – has never ceased producing new hybrids of tones, moods and styles. And it was Frears who recently responded to Truffaut’s dictum about British cinema being a condtradiction in terms with the eloquent sentence: “I say bollocks to Truffaut!”
Ultimately, what I’ve come to recognise is that British miserabilism, in and of itself, is a quite intriguing phenomenon. here’s an attitude, a tone, a sensibility or outlook there that is not a million miles away from certain Australian films – particularly those that go down well in the UK, such as Muriel’s Wedding (1994). Even before you get to all the British phantasmagorias, and all the special British-American hybrid-cases that I’ve just mentioned, the miserabilist films – straight-down-the-line, no-frills miserabilist films – can have their own complexity and fascination. I think the British film that, more than any other, opened my eyes to this fact some years back was Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (1985), which is as deeply down the drain of that kitchen sink as UK films can get. But what a fascinating tension in that fine movie between, on the one hand, a portrait of an absolutely depresing social milieu and, on the other, the muted but intense yearnings and dreams of ordinary people. That tension, that drama, that was worked on by Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Frears in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). And it was these two films, in particular, that flooded back to me as I watched the enjoyable Beautiful Thing.
The first thing that struck me about Beautiful Thing is that, although it lands in arthouse cinemas in Australia, it hasn’t got much of a tie to any strict tradition of British art film. It has more of a populist, knockabout, TV feel to it. It even brings back memories of (for me) that pinnacle of British miserbalism, the TV series On the Buses – and that’s not only because Olive (Anna Karen) from that show has a prominent role here. There’s really something grubby, cramped, pinched and endlessly humiliating about everyday life in Beautiful Thing. But this general gloom is not portrayed as grim tragedy; it’s tossed off more as light comedy, a comedy of daily survival, in a familiar populist spirit. As in Muriel’s Wedding, it’s the relentless put-downs dished out by family members, the tagging of every character as some kind of loser or nutter, that creates the strangely warm comic effect of recognition and delight.
Actually, Beautiful Thing walks an interesting and delicate line, and this is what makes it a good film. Director Hettie MacDonald (who has since mainly worked in TV) and writer Jonathan Harvey (adapting his own 1993 play) tip now and again just slightly, in two different directions, away from this everyday populist misery. On one side, the film dares to look into the abyss: it contemplates the violence of domestic abuse, the pain of separation, dysfunction and broken families, the social oppressions and prejudices that weigh down on anyone who differs from the social norm. (Ken Loach’s former collaborator Tony Garnett is one of the producers here.) This is, essentially, a story of two gay teenagers (Glen Berry as Jamie and Scott Neal as Ste) in a working-class environment, struggling to express and acknowledge their own sexuality within a world that generally wants to deny it. But, on the other side of everyday survival, the film also looks to something more optimistic, something that’s indeed Utopian.
Beautiful Thing has been both praised and derided as an “urban fairy tale” – a phrase handily spread by its publicity campaign. The fairy tale touch is its Utopian, romantic side, and I confess that I was utterly won over and charmed on this level. There comes a moment when reality – hard, grim, miserable reality – starts slowly sliding away. We enter a space of mutual love, sudden and unexpected support from friends and family members, sunshine and song. The film doesn’t become a total fantasy trip, but it does approach such a destination. This resembles, in a sense, the Hollywood tradition of romantic utopias, from musicals such as Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954) to contemporary Steven Spielberg epics like The Color Purple (1985): all the bad things disappear, and good vibes magically remake and recast the world into a better, infinitely more liveable place.
Beautiful Thing sticks, to the very end, with the co-ordinates of its real, concrete world: high-rise flats, streets, disgruntled neighbours, daily irritations. But it allows its characters to dream and, more than that, it lets their dreaming transform their world just a little, for a precious, frozen moment.
© Adrian Martin October 1996