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.
What is art cinema?
Definitions of art cinema have long been contested, but the generic term ‘art cinema’ has generally come to stand for feature-length narrative films that are situated at the margins of mainstream cinema, located somewhere between overtly experimental films and more obviously commercial product. Whether it is through a modernist, drifting, episodic approach to storytelling; a complex engagement with high culture; the foregrounding of a distinct authorial voice; or a simple refusal to bow to
At first glance, it must seem strange that a chapter in a collection on the subject of British art cinema should focus on a costume drama such as Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre, 2004), which features a cast of familiar British character actors alongside American leads. It may seem even more odd when one considers that the film is being examined as a counterpart to Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) – a runaway commercial success that won the Academy Award for Best Picture – with which it shares thematic and stylistic similarities
In a European country like Britain you would normally expect the most interesting films to be produced within the area of art cinema.
Alan Lovell 1
Art cinema, as a significant historical element of a national film culture and a counterbalance to the international power of the American cinema, has a secure place, established very firmly in the 1920s, in the histories of the major European cinemas, and represented, in particular, by the films of France
What is British art cinema? Finding the answer to this question is far from easy. Other nations seem to have found the task simpler; one of the earliest French production companies called itself Film d’Art and was dedicated to making ‘cultural films’. 1 By the early 1920s a group of international avant-garde artists, including Man Ray and Fernand Léger, were settled in Paris pursuing their creative interests through the comparatively new medium of cinema. Yet when Erik Hedling wrestled with the term for The British Cinema Book (2009
Writing in 1969, Alan Lovell observed that Britain apparently lacked the kind of stylistically self-conscious art cinema characteristic of other European countries. 1 If Britain had an art cinema, he argued, it had taken the form of the documentary film which had characteristically subordinated aesthetic experiment to educational and ideological purposes. 2 By the 1980s, however, it had become much easier to identify a recognisably British ‘art cinema’ and to see it as a significant strand of
Art cinema, just like its mainstream counterpart, needs audiences to be sustainable. Reaching those audiences requires structures to finance production and to distribute and exhibit work: in short, a business. Without this business, films remain largely unseen or the preserve of a coterie of insiders. Art cinema as a cohesive genre emerged in Britain comparatively late, in the 1970s, 1 and its survival since then has not just been achieved through the talents of film-makers but also by producers, distributors, exhibitors and programmers
accommodated alongside a tangible and authentic sense of place and time; an authenticity of performance, marked by the casting of non-professional actors recruited as much for their experience of their characters’ environments and occupations as for their dramatic skills; and an interest in dislocation, both political and emotional (although they are inextricably connected), combine to shape what we might understand as a poetic tendency within Loach’s work with Hines. With these characteristics in mind, the films might also be categorised within the broader context of art
The application of the concept of ‘art cinema’ to British film production in the 1960s immediately poses certain problems of definition. If we adopt Steve Neale’s institutional perspective, highlighting how the concept was used in France, Italy and Germany to foster indigenous national cinemas that could resist the threat posed by Hollywood by emphasising the cultural value of film, 1 then the evidence suggests a rather different set of priorities in the case of Britain. For the UK film industry
Derek Jarman occupies a central place in British art cinema. Indeed, John Hill argues that it was Jarman, along with Peter Greenaway, who made it ‘much easier to identify a recognisably British art cinema and see it as a significant strand of British and, indeed, European filmmaking’ 1 in the late 1970s and 1980s. On closer inspection, however, several of Jarman’s films are not so easily identified as examples of art cinema. Certainly, his early 16mm features, Sebastiane (1976), Jubilee (1978) and The Tempest (1979) as well as