This week, thanks to a link from, of all people, The Internet Commenter Formerly Known As Moriarty, I have found my favourite piece of UK journalism of the decade. Anne Billson, novelist and Buffy fan, has said the unsayable about the British film industry; it is in a terminal state, and the causes have been there all along.
I agree with so much of what she wrote that I could just copy and paste the whole thing here and just finish off this post with multiple exclamation points of joy, especially with her catty single-sentence drubbing of Mike Leigh. I love it so much I'll pretend I don't mind that she didn't give some praise to John Boorman, who made one of the most visually innovative movies of all time (as well as three of the battiest and most lovable), though I suspect she's more concerned with the recent crop of British film directors. Of all the targets she hit, this in particular struck me as a salient point:
I once heard a British film director say in an interview that he wasn't interested in telling a story visually (why were you directing a bloody film then?), and it's clear he's not the only one. Historically, Britain has produced more world-class writers than painters, and words tend to be valued far above visual imagery, if only because reading and listening apparently require more effort than looking, and so are deemed to be worthier pursuits.
Later on Billson mentions the UK directors who emulate shots from American directors for no other reason than that they liked that shot, not because it is the right shot for the scene. It's funny that she mentions Atonement earlier in the piece. Though there were some shots there that were admirable, the big setpiece single take shot of the Dunkirk evacuation is one of the most overrated shots of the past few years. I take my hat off to Joe Wright for managing the logistical nightmare of it, but what was the point of it? On a narrative level it was meaningless, even though a lot of extraneous information was handed to us.
While I understand that Wright was making a visual reference to the Dunkirk passage in McEwan's novel, it still looked stupid, with the characters wandering around the beach in circles in order to show everything off while Dario Marianelli's music did a lot of the heavy lifting. Compare that to single takes like the nightclub scene in Goodfellas, or the opening long takes from The Player, or Snake Eyes, or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Story happens in those scenes. We discover things about the characters. In Atonement, we're just checking out a beach.
This is not to say there are no British directors who have an amazing eye. Sadly, they're often not lauded in the UK and their careers stall. My favourite British style-genius of the past decade, Lynne Ramsay, created two distinctive and brilliant films, almost got to adapt The Lovely Bones, and then disappeared to work on un-named projects. Garth Jennings has spent so long making Son of Rambow made and promoted that he doesn't even seem to have anything else in the pipeline. Michael Winterbottom once made movies I couldn't wait to see, though that has sadly changed over time. Peter Greenaway buggered off to the Netherlands a while back and his movies retreated to the kind of Matthew-Barney-esque obscurity they always should have had, that weird successful period back in the 80s notwithstanding. We're still waiting for the next movie by the wonderful Pawel Pawlikowski. Terence Malick is now more prolific than he is, shockingly enough.
Many other UK directors who understand what to do with a camera (to varying degrees) have hopped over to America as soon as they could; Paul Greengrass, Martin Campbell, Edgar Wright, Roger Michell, Mike Newell, Stephen Frears, Kevin MacDonald, Pete Travis, etc. etc. The other conspicuous style-addict in British cinema, who won an Best Director Oscar this year and whose name I'm sick of reading everywhere, is probably going to spend some time in Hollywood making worthy films for a while. In fact, the only British director who wants to keep filming in the UK is Neil Marshall, bless him. His next film, Centurion, already sounds unmissable.
Still, I'm surprised Billson doesn't mention the Scott Brothers, as they are surely two of the most influential directors of the past twenty years even if they have made movies that many people consider beneath contempt. Their style has been adapted and ripped-off more than almost any other filmmakers around; surely that's something the patriotic UK film buff can be pleased about. That said, I can understand why she doesn't mention other style-heavy filmmakers from the same background (i.e. advertising), such as Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne, who barely have a good film between them.
Sadly for the UK, Ridley and Tony Scott stayed away while their films became more interesting (Tony Scott had a run of fun action movies in the early 90s, and Ridley makes a lot of flat but ambitious films I feel compelled to see, such as Kingdom of Heaven and Black Hawk Down), and Alan Parker came back to run the UK Film Council. Disastrous. It would have been the worst of all worlds if Adrian Lyne had made anything in the last seven years. I will never forgive him for his disastrous adaptation of Lolita, which remains one of the five worst films of the decade. Yes, worse than Fatal Attraction, Nine and a Half Weeks, and Indecent Proposal glommed together into a big lump of misogynistic Silly Putty, and then bounced off our eyeballs for over two hours. The man is a menace to society.
Why am I dragging up all of this bile? Because last week I saw possibly my favourite British movie of the last ten years, and what's most horrible is that I don't think Billson would like it, primarily because it's not that visual. More on that tomorrow...
ETA: And by "tomorrow" I of course meant two days from now...