Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Anxiety of Identity

A few weeks ago a friend and fellow film-lover turned 44. To celebrate the occasion he arranged a little shindig, which I duly attended. As so often happens when film-obsessives get together, the conversation soon turned to what we'd been watching recently. I explained that since the start of the year I've been slowly working my way through the history of British cinema, starting in the late 1890's (I'm currently slowly approaching the 1950's). As a British filmmaker, I explained, I can't help but feel it necessary to have an understanding of British cinema – for, whether I like it or not, this is presumably one of the main contexts in which my films will be judged (although I think my reason for wanting to watch these films does go beyond it an interest in gaining a better understanding of my own national filmic identity, perhaps? I mean, it can't really all just be kitchen sink dramas, romantic comedies and stuffy period pieces can it?).

After I'd finished saying all this, a friend of my friend asked me some interesting questions, such as: 'Will your films really be judged in that context?' and 'Even if they are, is it really necessary for you, as the filmmaker, the artist, to understand that context anyway?'.

For me, the first question was easy to answer: yes, it's inevitable. Films are nearly always judged in the context of their national cinema, albeit, of course, amongst other contexts too, such as, say, genre (a notion I'll return to in a minute). The second question, though, was more complicated.

I suppose, in a way, it opens up wider questions about authorship and audience reception, such as the clash between auteur theory and the poststructuralist murdering of the author (for if a text is rendered authorless then the author's knowledge of context surely becomes irrelevant), but the question also reminded me of a conversation I had with another filmmaker a few years ago. Unlike me, this filmmaker wasn't particularly passionate about cinema. In fact, he told me he didn't really watch films. Whether out of embarrassment or genuine belief I don't know, but the reason he gave me was that he didn't want to become 'contaminated': by not being influenced by other filmmakers, he claimed, it would be easier for him to hit upon something original in his own work.

I've written on here before
about the anxiety of influence and the impossibility of being original, so perhaps, in his own way, he's on to something. But I can't help but feel that if you don't know what's already been done you also don't know what hasn't already been done: so surely it's just as hard to be original? And besides, a love of cinema history hasn't exactly done Scorsese's work or career any harm, has it?

But back to the point. Earlier on I mentioned genre, which might be a useful context to examine here. By definition, genre films work by playing up to – or, on occasion, subverting – a familiar set of tropes. When films do this well they are often bold new takes on the familiar, when they fail they are often formulaic and cliché-ridden. The point, though, is that, more-or-less, the audience knows what they're getting: a comedy will make them laugh, a horror will frighten them, etc. In order to make a genre film, therefore, surely you have to understand the genre, the context, in which your film will be judged? And surely this understanding requires a knowledge of previous works in (previous entries into) that genre?

Although national identity may not be as strong a set of codes as genre, it does none-the-less still come with its own set of expectations (see, for instance, the joke I made at the start of this post about 'kitchen sink dramas, romantic comedies and stuffy period pieces', which, of course, references standard conceptions of what British cinema is supposed to be).

I'm still not sure that I've come up with a satisfactory answer to that second question, so unfortunately I can't end this post with a concrete argument. But I suppose the point that I'm trying to make is that, like genre filmmakers, national filmmakers surely need to know the context in which their films are made so that, whether they conform or subvert (consciously or unconsciously) their national traditions, they can none-the-less at least understand how the film will be perceived by audiences...and surely that is the responsibility of all filmmakers, regardless of nationality or artistic ambition?


Neil said...


Fascinating post.

My current tuppence worth (in that it may change) is that I think it's important to understand what kind of filmmaker you are, rather than where you are.

For example, the recent David Lean documentary on the BBC fascinatingly produced a split between those who felt Lean a British filmmaker, and those who felt him an international/universal one.

I think we are influenced by Geography in unconscious ways, and the best filmmakers use geography as part of the landscape of their work without over thinking it.

I also think it's important to understand the lineage and tradition you follow geographically, as yes, history will place you in that context unless you are someone like Lean, who straddles various theoretical bases.

Nice work.


Richard Parkin said...


What is all this about then?

I sympathize with these anxieties, but they are just that, aren't they? Anxieties.

You can't control how your films will be judged, no matter how well informed your opinions about them. As for developing your identity as a filmmaker through research ...

Yes, watch films, study how they work. Respond to them, borrow from them, love them.

But thoroughly understanding them in context? That sounds like the business of critics and academics.

You'll be good in Q&As though. ;)

very best wishes

Peter_Davies said...

I think even if you weren't that aware of British cinema, your films would still have some of the same stylistic features, characters, tone, mood, dialogue as many other British films. Simply by growing up in Britain and being surrounded by its people you would've absorbed the same experiences and attitudes that are unique to it, and which have shaped British cinema.

I think it would help you identify gaps in British cinema, you can make a name for yourself by exploring areas no-one else has gone near. As much as I love social realism, I think there's way too much of it. I think the middle-class are poorly-represented onscreen. That's why I'm glad Joanne Hogg has risen to prominence with her brilliantly accurate portrayals of middle-class characters.

"I explained that since the start of the year I've been slowly working my way through the history of British cinema, starting in the late 1890's (I'm currently slowly approaching the 1950's)"

Isn't that like thousands of films?

Richard Parkin said...

I agree with Peter that the middle-class have been under-represented in British cinema, since the early sixties. But I would say this revealed the lack of an audience rather than a 'gap in the market'.

The middle-class has been well-served by British TV drama and it seems when they go to the cinema they prefer to have their social consciences pricked by the travails of those whose circumstances are more dismal than their own.

That's not to say that the right film wouldn't find an audience, but it's difficult to convince a producer or distributor that it's worthwhile.

I remember Amy Jenkins tried to parlay the success of 'This Life' into a feature about the love lives of a bunch of middle-class twenty-somethings. It made £700 at the box office that year.

Alex Barrett said...

Cheers for the comments guys, interesting thoughts.

Pete – "Isn't that like thousands of films?" – Well, I'm not being that thorough! Have done seven or eight features and a probably about 150 shorts so far.

Richard – "a bunch of middle-class twenty-somethings" - thanks for the ray of hope for my feature...

Richard Parkin said...

Uh-oh! What was the title of your film again, Alex?

"This Life Just Is" ... ?


Alex Barrett said...

Ha! Indeed. Although, you know, I have never seen a single episode of that show.

Peter said...

"such as the clash between auteur theory and the poststructuralist murdering of the author (for if a text is rendered authorless then the author's knowledge of context surely becomes irrelevant)"

Can you explain what that paragraph means?

Alex Barrett said...

Hi Pete,

It's a reference to two different (and opposing) schools of thought: the auteur theory and poststructuralism.

In the 1950's François Truffaut and the critics of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma came up with the 'auteur theory', in which they posited that the director was the primary author of a film, and that the film could therefore be read in relationship to the life and interests of the director. Andrew Sarris later exported the theory to American, and since then it's become one of the main ways to write and think about films. Under an auteurist reading, films by any given director are often analyzed as a single body of work with their 'signature' themes sought out and explored, the definitive meaning of the text imposed by the director's artistic vision and intentions.

In contrast to this, poststructuralists believe that the meaning of any given text is created not the by the author, but by the reader (or in this case, viewer). My use of the expression 'murdering of the author' is a reference to an essay by Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, which was (I believe) the beginning of this idea. The point was to free the text up from a single, definitive meaning imposed by the author, and allow it to be open to multiple interpretations.

Therefore, the consciousness of a filmmaker to his cultural heritage or national identity would be far more important under an auteurist reading of a film than it would under a poststructuralist reading of the same film, as the auteurist reading would seek out authorial intent in the text, whereas the poststructuralist reading wouldn't take this into consideration when decoding the text.

Hope that makes sense? Maybe the Wikipedia pages on Auteur Theory and The Death of the Author will explain it better than I can...