This chapter uses Sarah Turner’s Perestroika (2009) as a springboard for exploring the contemporary intersections of ‘art cinema’ and ‘artist’s film’ in the British context. Part essay film, part psychogeography, Turner’s experimental narrative blurs the boundary between documentary and fiction, turning a train journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway into a philosophical reflection on the relationship between interior and exterior reality. I argue that Perestroika opens a space for reflecting on contemporary viewing contexts. In his review in the Guardian newspaper, Peter Bradshaw stated that ‘it is the kind of film that is arguably better viewed on the wall of an art gallery’, while also acknowledging that the film’s raw affective power derives from the cinema setting. In its association of content to context, Bradshaw’s comment raises broader questions related to the ‘art cinema’/‘artist’s cinema’ dichotomy. What is this ‘kind of film’ that seems awkwardly positioned between two institutions – the cinema and the gallery? How does the hybrid aesthetic approach in Perestroika force us to evaluate viewing contexts in relation to the different traditions it encompasses? In analysing these questions, the chapter draws on notions of immersive experience and haptic vision (Marks, 2002) that locate the film between narrative and abstraction.
British art cinema: Creativity, experimentation and innovation brings together a selection of essays from both new and established scholars that engage with how far artistic creativity, entertainment and commerce have informed a conceptual British ‘arthouse’ cinema. The chapters show that rather than always sitting in the shadow of its European counterparts, for example, British cinema has often produced films and film-makers that explore intellectual ideas, and embrace experiment and innovation. The book examines the complex nature of state-funded and independent British filmmaking, the relationship between the modernist movement and British cinema, and the relationship between British cinema, Hollywood and US popular culture. The chapters cover the history of British cinema from the silent period to the 2010s. Film-makers explored in detail include Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Derek Jarman, Ken Russell, Horace Ové, Joseph Losey, John Krish, Humphrey Jennings, Nicolas Roeg, and lesser-known artists such as Enrico Cocozza and Sarah Turner. There are new essays on the British New Wave, the 1980s, poetic realism and social realism, the producer Don Boyd, the Black Audio Film Collective, films about Shakespeare, and the work of the Arts Council in the aftermath of World War Two.
While he is often portrayed as having a particular affiliation with the Renaissance, Derek Jarman engages with a highly eclectic array of influences, both early and modern, in his work. Many of Jarman’s films have their roots in medieval literature. Indeed, he viewed his punk film Jubilee as ‘a healing fiction’ that ‘harked back to Pearl and Piers Plowman’; while he claimed that The Last of England was structured like a medieval dream vision. Jarman’s work is unusual in that it is simultaneously experimental and traditional and this chapter will also show how his medieval influences exist in a complex relationship with the work of more modern cinematic forebears. This chapter offers a close reading of the medieval aspects of several key Jarman films. It will also consider important references to medieval literature in his journals and notebooks and will looked at his unfilmed ‘medieval epic’, Bob Up-A-Down. Finally, the chapter argues that Jarman belongs to a clear line of European film-makers, including Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and British film-makers such as Michael Powell, Ken Russell and John Boorman, who have shown a fascination with the Middle Ages in their work.
This chapter makes the case that the art cinema that has formed something of a parallel enterprise to the British film industry has survived, and at moments prospered, not just through the talents of the nation’s film-makers but also the efforts of producers and others who have brought their vision to audiences. Don Boyd’s forty-year career offers an illuminating insight into this process. From the late 1970s his work at the helm of Boyd’s Company, and many subsequent ventures, has combined art cinema with more commercial productions. As a director himself, Boyd has been very keen as a producer to enable film-makers to create challenging and distinctive work in an industry that was not conducive to making mainstream films, let alone art cinema. This is demonstrated through his work with Derek Jarman on The Tempest and The War Requiem and his portmanteau film, Aria, showcasing film-makers including Godard, Jarman and Roeg. In telling this story the chapter utilises extensive material from Don Boyd’s archives, held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter. His career has seen great highs and lows and the archives show his desire and struggle throughout good times and bad to get art cinema to the screen and to maximise its audience.
The filmmaking style of Joseph Losey is rooted in his early career in the theatre. Losey’s work as a director on the New York stage in the 1930s bore the imprint of the then-experimental theories and concepts of some of the early twentieth century’s major theatre practitioners. Later, he would translate their ideas into a distinctive cinematic language which came to maturity as he developed into an ‘arthouse’ director in 1960s Britain, in exile from Hollywood’s anti-communists. This chapter outlines Losey’s career in theatre, and explores the theatrical influences on him, exemplified in the work and theories of Bertolt Brecht and Vsevelod Meyerhold. The connection from ‘stage Losey’ to ‘screen Losey’ is demonstrated through close formal analysis of films from Losey’s British film career. His exile status gave him a singular inside/outside view of Britain, which, coupled with a directorial style immersed in modernist theatre concepts, resulted in films which occupy an important place in British art cinema.
After a period of neglect, the film career of Humphrey Jennings, one of the most prominent directors of the British Documentary Film Movement, has been the subject of increasing interest over recent years. By virtue of his diverse artistic talents, Jennings can be seen as a purveyor of what German Romantic thinker Friedrich Schlegel called ‘progressive universal poetry’, a form of creative expression that collapsed the boundaries between all art forms. This chapter explores Jennings’s film work through the prism of his artistic and intellectual endeavours as a whole, arguing that it demands to be seen in that broader cultural and aesthetic context. It proposes that this prodigiously talented man be seen not merely as ‘the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced’ (Lindsay Anderson), but as the epitome of the ‘universal poet’ envisaged by Schlegel in the eighteenth century, drawing on his diverse, yet complementary, passions for art, poetry, photography and design in the films he produced between 1936 and his untimely death in 1950. The chapter explores the roots of the rich aesthetics that characterise Jennings’s cinematic language and its liberation of images.
This introduction engages with issues such as Britain’s traditions of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism and how these pertain to the history of British film. We consider how far British films conform to class-based, ideologically informed notions of ‘high art’; the tensions between highbrow and low art in British cinema; the complexities of state-funded and independent British filmmaking; and the question of how far artistic creativity, entertainment and commerce might co-exist within a conceptual British ‘art’ cinema. Attention is paid to the relationship between the modernist movement and British cinema; the relationship between British cinema, Hollywood and US popular culture; historical conditions in which British art cinema develops and flourishes; and the transnational nature of much of what we call British cinema, and British art cinema in particular.
Cultural politics and art films in post-war Britain
From the moment of its genesis in 1945, the Arts Council of Great Britain endorsed film as an art form, directly supporting and sponsoring art films for almost fifty years. On the way, it shaped a specialised strand of art cinema in Britain that nurtured experiments in film form and shaped the careers of many independent film-makers. This chapter focuses on the formative period of the Arts Council’s engagement with film and its role in the creation of an art cinema canon and related art film culture in Britain. It argues that we need to trace the beginnings back to a landmark (but curiously forgotten) exhibition, The Art of the Film, organised by Roger Manvell in 1945 in London. This is probably the first exhibition about film (its history and aesthetics) to have been staged in Britain – definitely the first supported by the arts establishment. It also happened to be the very first exhibition that the Arts Council organised. The chapter draws on primary research in the Arts Council archives and contemporaneous sources, and offers a new historiography about the beginnings of both the Arts Council’s art film schemes and the shaping of an art cinema canon in Britain after World War Two.
The work of John Krish provides a useful means of examining the multi-layered patchwork that is British art cinema. Krish made documentaries for public and private clients. He made public information films, ‘B’ movies, adverts, and even a religious film, as well as working for the Children’s Film Foundation and for television. Whatever the format or genre, he pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable, resulting in a number of his films being banned. The range of his work is startling and reflects the fragmentary nature of British film production from the 1950s to the 1970s. Nonetheless, a highly coherent body of work emerges, characterised both by dark humour and pessimism at human folly, and by a natural warmth towards his subjects, from lonely old men to deprived children. This chapter considers Krish’s auteur credentials and cult status, acknowledging his embodiment of the diversity and contradictions which characterise British art cinema.
This chapter reflects on the ways in which the reputation of the British film director Nicolas Roeg has developed from the 1970s through to the twenty-first century, and considers how this might tell us interesting things about the discursive and cultural frameworks that shape particular films (and the critical reception of them) historically within the contexts of British art cinema. Looking specifically at Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell, 1970) and Don’t Look Now (1973), it argues that through an engagement with the ancillary discourses that have circulated around Roeg’s reputation and the reputation of the films he has worked on over the last fifty years we might develop a more nuanced understanding of how British art cinema can be seen as a set of complementary and competing, historically contingent discourses, informed by concepts of aesthetics and authorship, narratives of production, exhibition, reception, but also, significantly, reputation.