European film movements are most clearly understood as part of the cinema of periphery in relation to popular Hollywood productions. In consideration of examples from one European country, to what extent is this an accurate view?
This essay will focus on some of the key movements in British cinema, looking at how they relate to the world of Hollywood. Firstly,I shall look at how British films have found their way into the American and world markets via the London-based company Working Title Films, and to what extent these films are integrated into the Hollywood scene. Secondly, There will be an assessment of the tradition of social realism in British cinema,including the New Wave and Brit Grit movements, and their place in international cinema. Next, I shall look at the documentary movement in British cinema, and its impact on the wider world.
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One of the most noticeable movements in British cinema in recent years has been the proliferation of the Working Title Films Company. Founded in London by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, Working Title has enhanced the profile of British cinema to an unprecedented extent. The screening of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 proved a turning point in the history of British film, proving vastly popular with American audiences,and subsequent productions from Working Title have helped to cement the place of the British Blockbuster in Hollywood. In this way, British cinema has been able to produce films with international mass appeal, and it is probably fair to say that there are more mainstream British films on at the cinema now than there were fifteen years ago.
However, it is important to consider that,although there has been an increase in the commercial success of British film,it is still arguably seen as a satellite of Hollywood. For instance, even successful British films are often labelled as art cinema. In an article on Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, Julian Hill argues that,
Although it does offer entertainment through a fascinating narrative, the film as a whole is presented in a creative way, owing to the amateurish vision of Kapur. (Hill, 2000)
Indeed, its relationship to Hollywood is entirely coloured by its status as an art film, and by implication, its partly British origins. Bordwell and Thompson argue that any British film of this type would be viewed as art cinema in Hollywood, as art cinema is a term,
used by the US film industry to describe imported films of interest the upper-middle class, educated audiences. (Bordwell and Thompson, 1990)
In this respect, British film is still marginalized in relation to Hollywood. Commercial success has been forthcoming, but the very fact that a film is British in origin leads it to be viewed in different terms to those in which a Hollywood movie is viewed. Even the big blockbusters of the Four Weddings ilk are viewed at least partly as foreign curiosities, and crucially they often try to appeal directly to an American audience, for example, containing a token American character.
One area in which British cinema has perhaps demonstrated greater independence from Hollywood is in the field of so-called social realism films. There have been many movements over the different eras which fall into this category, from the New Wave cinema of the 1950s and ’60s, such as Room at the Top (1958), to the what have been called Brit Grit films, like Nil by Mouth (1997), and this recurring idea of kitchen sink realism forms an important part of the British cinema tradition. Indeed,it has been suggested that all of these movements are a tradition in themselves(Thorpe, 1999, cited in Lay, 2002) It is in this area that, for many critics,the real essence of British cinema is found. It has been argued that the aesthetics of British realism are defined in terms of opposition to Hollywood spectacle. Visual and acting styles were to be restrained, the emphasis was to be on ordinary people in ordinary settings. (Cook, 1996)
In this respect, British cinemais not always a mere satellite of Hollywood, as it also tries to be deliberately antagonistic towards Hollywood ideals. Unlike many of the Working Title films, with their quasi-American leanings and their use of a highly stylised Britishness, some social realism has sought to challenge this position. For example, in Trainspotting the audience is introduced to a much darker vision of Britain, and one less obviously palatable to Hollywood audiences, than that which is seen in Four Weddings and a Funeral. At first glance, one could argue that much British realism is so idiosyncratic as to be marginalized in the wider world, but films like Trainspotting and The Full Monty show that it is possible to make a film depicting ordinary British life that has mass appeal.
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However, although this form of cinema apparently demonstrates an indifference to Hollywood conventions, as cook notes above, it is actually not indifference but a form of rebellion. In this sense, British social realism as a part of international cinema can be seen as still subservient to Hollywood, albeit in a more subtle way than some of the other blockbusters. In order for it to be deliberately antagonistic toward the ideals of Hollywood, it is necessary that those ideals must exist,and in that sense, social realist films are peripheral to Hollywood as they fulfil the role of a counter-movement.
Alongside realist fiction, a major area of British cinema is the documentary. Arguably Britain’s major contribution to world cinema, its heyday was in the 1930s. The documentary movement was headed by John Grierson, and funded by the film units of the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office. Through landmark productions such as Housing Problems (1935), the movement used its state backing, and freedom from commerce, to highlight many of the social problems of its day, and has been identified as the first movement to have a lasting influence on the art of film (Rotha, 1972). Like the fictional forms of social realism, it demonstrated a freedom from, and to some extent an aversion to, the ideals of Hollywood. However, unlike other forms of social realism, it is often criticized for its lack of aesthetics.
There was no consistent artistic theory underlying the movement; the film art was to be used as a means to apolitical end. (Guynn, 1975)
In this sense, then, not only is there the consideration of the documentary movement being antagonistic to Hollywood, but also the fact that it lacks artistic drive means that it can only form part of a balanced view of cinema. The art of film making is certainly able to deliver important views and to comment on the state of the world, but it is ultimately an art, and in this aspect the documentary movement, as we have seen, was lacking. Therefore, it must necessarily be peripheral since it does not engage the full potential of its genre, rather in the way that apolitical pamphlet usually shows less artistic development than a poem or a novel. In the light of this consideration, one could view the documentary movement and its legacy as a marginal aspect of cinema – an important marginal aspect, even a necessary one, but nevertheless something that exists as a useful sub-genre and therefore is secondary to Hollywood.
In conclusion, it does seem that British cinema is to some extent peripheral to Hollywood. Working Title films have in recent years brought British films into the Hollywood mainstream, but many of the films have contained an Americanised element, or have been seen as art cinema. In this way, even hugely popular British films are in a sense marginal. Social realism has provided an avenue in which British cinema has been able to shrug off Hollywood ideals in favour of showing ordinary people’s lives, and many films of this type have been successful overseas. However, in rebelling against Hollywood in this way, such films can be viewed as peripheral to it in an antagonistic sense. Similarly, the documentary movement rebelled against Hollywood to some extent, and the movement’s international importance is undoubted, being described as Britain’s major contribution to world cinema. However, its lack of an artistic aesthetic makes it necessarily marginal in the world of cinema. Film is, at bottom, an art form, and any movement that neglects the artistic element in favour of a political message can only ever be a marginal – if important – part of the whole.
British cinema then, when viewed in an international context, is always peripheral to Hollywood. It is doubtless an important part of world cinema, and has made invaluable contributions to both the art of film and to the tradition of reportage through film, but the dominance of Hollywood in the international scene means that any movement that is outside it is, as a matter of course, a comparatively minor player in world cinema.
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