Saturday, 15 June 2013

They don't make 'em like that any more

A proper film: The Third Man
Like the proverbial trio of London buses, there are times when stories come in threes. Or at least not in a state of splendid isolation.

Last night, a tweet drew my attention to a report from www/ – an English-language source of French news – about Gallic film and subsidies.

In essence, the EU is discussing a free trade agreement with the US, and the US doesn’t find it “helpful” that France doesn’t want to even discuss the country’s ‘cultural exception’.

This is the state subsidy that helps ensure that the French film-making industry thrives and can fight off ‘competition’ from Hollywood.

Now, let’s be clear, Hollywood bigwigs, including Stephen Spielberg, have defended the French approach.

And so too have many film industry figures from across Europe.

A letter from German director Win Wenders, French star Bérénice Bejo told the European parliament: “Culture is not merchandise; you can’t put it in the same category as cars, lamps, or screws and bolts”.

As of this Wednesday just gone, the top 10 films at the UK box office at all from the US, with the exception of Shane Meadows's The Stone Roses: Made of Stone.

The rest is mainstream, with the exception of the made-for-TV Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s tale of Liberace.

It apparently required TV company HBO to make this, because, in effect, it wasn’t Hollywood enough for Hollywood.

Gallic genius: Jean de Florette
For clarity, I’m actually looking forward to seeing this: this post is not a rant against US films per se.

But there was a time when we used to produce loads of films too – films that reflected British life and British humour, and with a vast variety, from The Servant to Ice Cold in Alex, Red Shoes to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Doctor in Distress to Carry on Doctor, The Railway Children to Whistle Down the Wind, Zulu to The Third Man, Dracula to The Whicker Man.

But what has happened?

We can still make films, but few get made and instead, our cinemas are full of Hollywood movies. And until a few recent exceptions, the bulk of English-language films that have appeared have been aimed at a youthful and primarily male audience.

When push comes to shove, successive UK governments have either not cared enough; been ideologically opposed to subsidy and/or convinced that the market provides the best and most desirable outcomes – or a combination thereof.

Result? An indigenous cinema that barely seems to breathe. And yet across the Channel, you have an entirely different situation, with a wide variety of films being made that reflect in myriad ways, French culture, French life, French experience and French sensibilities.

To be honest, the UK isn't helped by have such a similar language to that of the US – it makes us lazy. But since the 1970s, the bulk of English-language film production has been aimed at a young and primarily male audience (make the right blockbuster and you can sell all the collectibles too).

If you wanted to watch something that was a bit more grown-up, but without that meaning loads of violence (and I have no per se objection to violence in entertainment, incidentally), then you'd mostly be better looking to mainland Europe.

Yet for us Brits, we even judge our own cinema on the basis of Hollywood, getting into a lather if we can find any British element in a film that wins an Oscar. It gets far more coverage than, say, if a British films wins at Cannes.

The French saw a threat to their industry and their culture – and they did something about it.

But in these times, when our own culture secretary, Maria Miller, is telling arts organisations to think more of culture as a commodity to sell, it seems to be verging on the downright heretical to mention such things.

None of this is intended to suggest that any aspect of culture need stand still.

In the case of film, it's not that long ago that an excellent, small-budget British film made an impact: Bend it Like Beckham is not only charming, but it also reflects a number of aspects of modern British life. Nor was it just a movie for 'older people'.

But the commoditisation of culture removes it from the people whose culture it is.

One positive from the years of Labour government was the early move to scrap admissions to libraries and galleries that had been introduced under the post-'79 governments. It also backed, at least a little, the British film industry, by creating a system of tax breaks – a scheme scrapped within very short order by George Osborne.

On the cultural downside, and for balance, Labour allowed the continuation of the previous governments' policy of allowing school playing fields to be sold off.

British culture – in its widest sense – has been changed massively in the space of just a generation and a half. If we remember that such cultural change includes the homogenisation of town centres and the decline in regional difference and identity, it's not difficult to see why there are plenty of people around who feel, in effect, culturally disoriented.

Only yesterday, I spotted a story about a man who has already saved and restored one magnificent Art Deco cinema and is now onto another one.

Via Twitter, I discovered that a similar thing nearly saved the cinema in Lancaster – but then it was razed to the ground and the site 'redeveloped'.

I have happy memories of Lancaster, but I'm not even sure sometimes how much I want to visit again: I suspect that so much of what I remember will have been subsumed into the same old homogenised sights I see in any city I visit in the UK.

So many of the buildings that helped to give our town and cities and sense of their own identity were allowed to rot and have now gone, replaced – often – by identikit structures that have an intended lifespan little beyond 30 years.

We no longer build for the future, let alone posterity. And how we build has become the epitome of our apparently chronic addiction to short-termism.

Pubs are another example of cultural change – not all, bit some simply because breweries spot the chance to flog a building/land for easy cash.

Many people are priced out of attending elite sport. Swimming pools are either boarded up – or have to charge much more than they did just a few years ago. Libraries are being closed – or in some cases, councils are trying to save cash by turning them over to unqualified volunteers. I'm probably not the only one who actually remembers when becoming a librarian was considered a good career. Not any more, apparently. Anyone can do it.

So, bon chance to the French. I hope that they prevail under this attack. After all, the US government doesn't want the issue of French films on the table because of quality, but simply because of big dollars for already-rich corporations.

Perhaps one day, we might have a government that actually cares an iota about our own culture – and sees the impact of a free-market dogma on it, and the resultant disorientation of at least some of the populace.

Unfortunately, much like Uncle Sam – to whose coattails we so desperately cling – we seem to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

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