Railway stations provide the setting for meetings and departures. Trains
roaring through contrast with the bleakness of an empty platform after
farewells have been made. Several UK stations have drawn on Brief Encounter
as a name for refreshment rooms. Carnforth Station, now described as ‘The
Home of Brief Encounter’, has made a major tourist attraction out of its
contact with the actual filming of the night scenes there. It replicates the
film’s tea room, screens the film daily, and has a shop full of souvenir
artefacts of the film.
‘Art cinema’ as a significant historical element of a national film culture has a secure place in the histories of the major European cinemas (France, Germany, the Soviet Union), apart, that is, from the British. Despite a vigorous minority film culture (the Film Society, small magazines such as Close Up, writers such as Paul Rotha and Iris Barry), and some evidence of an incipient avant-garde cinema (Sexton, 2008), British films remain tangential to the discussions of what Andrew Tudor (2005) has termed the ‘formative’ period of the European art film during the 1920s. Though a major European cinema with roots in the prehistory of the medium, Britain did not produce a Caligari or a Battleship Potemkin. This chapter examines the case for a British ‘art’ cinema of the 1920s, comparable to the canonical European cinemas in the context of the film culture of the period, and an evident climate of intellectual interest in ‘the art of film’. It incorporates case studies on the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith.
From the documentary movement through to the present day, a consistent strain in British social realism can be defined by an impulse towards poetic, image-led narration. The classical principles of taut, cause-and-effect, goal-oriented narrative patterns are eschewed in favour of characteristics more commonly associated with the art cinema convention: authorial self-consciousness; episodic narrative and open-ended narrative; and complicating combinations of objective and subjective realism(s). This chapter points to some of the ways in which art cinema might provide a series of reading strategies that begin to unlock and help to anatomise the underexplored poetic realist tradition in British cinema. Central to this argument will be a close focus on the representation of space and place in social realism. The self-conscious and conspicuous use of space in social realist cinema – often in convergence with highly poetic treatments of rootless, goal-bereft young protagonists – is the dominant and uniting aesthetic trope of poetic realist cinema. In approaching these questions through the lens of art cinema, we may in turn begin to destabilise hitherto reductive approaches to social realism more broadly.
During the 1960s British cinema experienced a creative rejuvenation fuelled by American finance and a cultural climate dominated by youthful dynamism and innovation. This created an interesting conjuncture in which the barriers between mainstream genre cinema and the more experimental or personal preoccupations of art cinema became blurred. The emergence of London as a centre of dynamic cultural activity – in which cinema benefited from developments in television, pop music, fashion and the visual arts – coupled with the propagation of new cultural and political ideas, created an environment in which the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of art cinema could thrive. Before long, European film-makers were pitching up in London, from established auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni and François Truffaut to emerging talents such as Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski. This chapter examines some of the ways in which art cinema came to enjoy a higher profile in British cinema of the 1960s. A key theme is the breaking down of boundaries to create a more fluid and inclusive sense of what British cinema could be, providing the opportunity for more overtly experimental, personal and political approaches to filmmaking.
Pressure (1975) was the first British feature film to be written and directed by a Black film-maker, Horace Ové. Made during a particularly turbulent period in British race relations, Pressure tackled thorny issues such as racism in the workplace, Black homelessness and police brutality head-on. However, Pressure has much to say about intergenerational conflict within ‘immigrant’ families, a subject seldom touched on in film before. Moreover, Pressure is formally innovative. Drawing on the author’s own interviews with Horace Ové, archival material, and close textual analysis, this chapter will explore the making and exhibition of Pressure. It will suggest that the film’s metaphorical and topographical embeddedness in the Ladbroke Grove community (described in the 1970s as ‘the black political heart of London’), Ové’s use of a mixture of experienced actors and non-professional actors from London-based radical Black theatre groups, and the strongly autobiographical aspects of the film, meant that Pressure paved the way for other films such as Babylon (Rosso, 1980) and Burning an Illusion (Shabazz, 1981). Pressure’s meditation on colonialism and its melding of personal and political histories introduced a new ‘Black narrative’ to the screen.
Enrico Cocozza was one of Britain’s most innovative amateur film-makers. Like Norman McLaren, he was an aspiring professional: entering his provocative shorts into the Scottish Amateur Film Festival in order to gain recognition and notoriety, before moving into professionalism. During a thirty-year career he made fifty films, wrote numerous articles and produced a full-length novel. He also set up a film society, built his own cinema, formed a production unit and made a professional documentary for Films of Scotland. He won many prizes, but his work was often controversial. Making fantasy films, especially ones eschewing the usual modesty and self-restraint expected in amateur productions, ensured that Cocozza would be a divisive figure in the Britain amateur film movement. Reference to the so-called ‘Wishaw Estate trilogy’, Fantasmagoria (1948), The White Lady (1949) and The Living Ghost (1959), will form the main body of the chapter.
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.