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Michael Winterbottom is the most prolific and the most audacious of British filmmakers in the last twenty years. His television career began in the cutting-rooms at Thames Television, and his first directing experience was on the Thames TV documentaries,
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book. This study of Michael Winterbottom is essentially concerned with his films, since most of his early television work is currently unavailable. Winterbottom is the most prolific and the most audacious of British filmmakers in the last twenty years. He does not merely keep up the pace but never ceases to be innovative and ambitious. Given his early association with Lindsay Anderson, he shows some continuity with the British New Wave. In films such as Go Now and I Want You, there is an unaffected interest in working-class lives, though with less sense of 'mission' than we would perhaps associate with those late 1950s/early 1960s directors. He has more in common with Anderson's restless, emotive and cerebral reactions to the worlds in which he situates his films and shares Anderson's absolute eschewal of sentimentality.
This chapter articulates the ideas which have led to the name 'Michael Winterbottom' being associated with a particular body of work. It focuses on the factors which tend to dissipate the idea of Winterbottom as the single source of a world view and style, and to relocate his films within a constellation of directors, films and national cinemas. Winterbottom has used a consistent creative team and a stable of actors. His name has become synonymous with an oeuvre that skips across genres and styles, often exhibiting connections with a host of filmic influences. Winterbottom's own words here provide some indication of a context for 9 Songs. The chapter seeks some methods to deal with the notion of authorship in relation to Winterbottom, to understand his work better in relation to traditional notions of authorship.
This chapter focuses on Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, In This World and The Road to Guantánamo, with a brief reference to 24 Hour Party People as five very different films that have particular relationships with the historical world that they represent. A closer inspection of his films reveals a marked consistency, despite the perceived variation in genres and themes, a consistency that derives from a basic realist mode that closely attends to the historical import of the drama at the heart of all his films. The figure of Roberto Rossellini provides a useful way into thinking about Winterbottom's work in relation to the historical imperative that motivates these films. Rossellini's earliest films Rome, Open City and Paisà provide a useful comparison with In This World and Welcome to Sarajevo in particular.
Those who admired Michael Winterbottom's first cinema feature, Butterfly Kiss or the telemovie Go Now would not have been likely to expect him next to turn his interests and talents to adapting Thomas Hardy's late Victorian tragic novel, Jude the Obscure. The film moves inexorably, as the novel does, towards its bleak denouement, stopping short of the death of Jude with which Hardy concludes his agonising fable of lives crushed by a heartless society as well as by a malign fate. Winterbottom also adapted Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge to make The Claim, which fits easily into one of the dominant Western paradigms. If Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy diverges wildly from the first-person chronicle that was the characteristic genre and mode of the eighteenth-century English novel, Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story plays with several recognisable film genres, its own most obvious genre is that of the film-about-filmmaking.
The diversity of British director Roy Ward Baker's output raises the issue of genre in British filmmaking in unusually vivid terms. This chapter considers what Michael Winterbottom has done with specific popular genres as the road movie, the musical and the science-fiction thriller, how far he has adapted their conventions to contemporary film practice and ideology, and whether these films, in reworking Hollywood genres, exhibit any peculiarly British inflections by focusing on three of his movies: Butterfly Kiss, 24 Hour Party People, and Code 46. The chapter is concerned with the extent to which Winterbottom gratifies and/or subverts generic expectations and, indeed, the whole notion of classical narrative cinema, as defined by the output of the Hollywood studio years in which genre filmmaking became a staple of cinematic entertainment.
A film such as Go Now, made for television but shown in cinemas in some countries, is a case in point: it exhibits some of the informing traits of melodrama but its treatment is in certain essentials realistic, avoiding the gratifications of melodrama, at least as the mode is practised in Hollywood cinema. With or Without You raises expectations of romantic comedy but deflects - or dissipates - these with a surprising acridity of tone; and the noir-influenced I Want You hovers between thriller and erotic drama. Realist sex and concert scenes, to the point where there is almost a whiff of documentary in the film's short footage, but it also has a vestigial narrative continuity. As in so many of Winter-bottom's films, there are insistent stress on movement, an almost mandatory beach scene as a somewhat simplistic signifier of release and 'naturalness', and stress on music.
Despite modest financial return, Michael Winterbottom's films have been well received, critically. Virtually none of his films has been given a critical thumbs-down; equally, though, none has been a major box-office hit. His current standing in British film production is high. His latest release at time of writing, A Mighty Heart, has won golden opinions at the Cannes Film Festival and there has been talk of Oscar nomination for its star, Angelina Jolie. When he has made road movies, they have been spiked with terminal pain in each of Butterfly Kiss, In This World and The Road to Guantdnamo, and in the latter two at least, crossed with a documentary aesthetic that would seem to preclude the easy outcome of an upbeat ending. And the latter certainly also eludes his noir thriller, I Want You, and indeed most of his films.
This chapter aims to suggest some of the ways in which A Mighty Heart's lineaments mark it unmistakably as a Michael Winterbottom film. First, it strikes one at once as yet another foray into politically dangerous territory. In this respect, it reminds one of Welcome to Sarajevo, which found drama in the war-torn Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia. There is a further echo of Welcome to Sarajevo in that its protagonist is again a journalist attempting to monitor this volatility, the while preserving a core of integrity, though A Mighty Heart has less of the conventional excitement of the man-in-a-fraught-situation than the earlier film. What Winterbottom offers in A Mighty Heart is, then, a species of literary adaptation, yoked to techniques of documentary drama with an overriding social awareness - and perhaps for the first time, in the sheer physicality and emotional rigour of Jolie's performance, a star vehicle.