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.
By looking at the changing economic, institutional and cultural circumstances governing the production and circulation of British films since the 1980s, this chapter explores the emergence of various kinds of ‘British art cinema’ that emerged during this period. In particular, it indicates the way in which public funding, lottery revenues and television finance have underpinned the emergence of a range of British films that join a tradition of international art cinema. Although the films concerned exhibit many of the ‘classic’ features of art cinema – personal self-expression, formal invention, generic self-consciousness – the chapter indicates how the conventions of ‘art cinema’ have continued to mutate and extend in different directions. This chapter therefore attempts to map some of the diverse strands of British art cinema that have emerged since the 1980s and weigh up the critical discourses that have attached to them. In particular, it looks at the significance of the ‘realist’ tradition for British art cinema and the way in which this has fuelled debates about ‘poetic realism’ and ‘social art cinema’. It also looks at the more overtly modernist/postmodernist strand of British art cinema and its links with both other art practices and more general socio-political currents.
Released six years after Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture Oscar, Stage Beauty (Eyre, 2004) portrays Shakespearean performance history at the point in the Restoration when female impersonators were replaced by actresses on the English stage. Given the similarities between the two films, it comes as no surprise to find that the press response to Stage Beauty made frequent comparisons, describing it as: ‘bitchy half-sister to Shakespeare in Love’; ‘Shakespeare in Love II’; and ‘Shakespeare in Love for transvestites’. Those involved in making Stage Beauty were keen to differentiate its cinematic qualities. The film was adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his stage play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and directed by Richard Eyre, a former artistic director of the National Theatre. This chapter examines the textual features that mark this film out as a serious-minded depiction of theatrical heritage and gender play, along with the reception discourses that the film stimulated. It also considers possible barriers to cultural engagement with Shakespeare as manifested in ‘art cinema’ with reference to audience research.
The development of Latin American cinema in the 1960s was underwritten by a number of key texts that outlined the aesthetic and political direction of individual film-makers and collectives. Solanas and Getino’s ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ (1969), Glauber Rocha’s ‘An Esthetic of Hunger’ (1965) and Julio García Espinosa’s ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969) were not merely theorisations; they were manifestos written by and for film-makers working towards revolutionary praxis. Although asserting the specificity of Latin American politics and aesthetics, the theoretical foundations of its New Wave influenced oppositional filmmaking way beyond its own regional boundaries. This chapter looks at how the theory behind New Latin American cinema inspired and propelled film-makers in Britain, especially those of the Black Audio Film Collective, which represented a merging of politics, popular culture and art that was, at once, oppositional and melodic. Fusing postcolonial discourse with pop music, avant-garde aesthetics and reimaginings of subalternity, it provides us with a useful example of transcontinental counter-cinema, and its major figures have continued to produce challenging work that, as a recent interview with founder member John Akomfrah stated, is still drawing inspiration from the philosophy of New Latin America film.
The biopic and the composed film in British art cinema
This chapter focuses on some of the overlaps between the anti-realist tradition and British art cinema. It does this through an examination of two small, but artistically significant traditions in British filmmaking, the composed film and the artist’s biopic, and assesses how these forms have been exploited by two key figures in British art cinema: Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway. Attention is paid to Russell’s The Music Lovers, and Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, Goltzius and the Pelican Company and Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Before this, however, the chapter briefly examines the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the composed film. ‘Composed film’ was Powell’s adopted term for a work that was substantially or entirely shot to a pre-existing music score. Particular attention is paid to The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman.