Friday, May 14, 2021

Cannes 1984: English TV Goes to the Movies

Second of three reviews of films shown over the first weekend of the Cannes 1984 festival.

English TV Goes to the Movies 
The opening of Another Country, the first English film in competition this year, is superb. In a dingy eighties Moscow apartment lives an old man named Bennett. A sort of arrogant dwarf, very British, prognathous queen in a wheelchair. A journalist has come from the West with a little tape recorder to capture his confessions. “I’ve always wanted to go down in history,” says Bennett. “Even as a spy in the pay of the Soviets?” asks the journalist. 
One can tell that Bennett is a double for Burgess, MacLean, Blunt or others, who, in the thirties (in their youth), chose Communism, spied, then rotted in the East and died there. with their secrets. How could one become a Soviet spy back in 1932 as a member of the ruling class, the class that sent its children to be knocked into shape at public schools? Alan Marshall (the film producer), Julian Mitchell (the author of the play) and Marek Kaniewska (the director, who came from TV) have asked this question very seriously. 
The answer is to be found in the English public school system, with its rituals and ragging, the childhoods of its humiliated ruling-class, its organised repression of all by all, this machine manufacturing repressed little monkeys ready to serve the Empire, fearing God and loving cricket. And this machine, as is bound to happen, has its failures, its extremists, its real idealists. 
In Another Country, they are two: Bennett and Judd. Bennett’s tragedy is not that he is homosexual, but that he can only assert his desire in a society which lives off sublimated homosexuality like immoral earnings. Bennett is brilliant, nonchalant and dreams of becoming an ambassador. But when he loses face, all he has left is to be an ambassador in his own fashion: a spy (but the film doesn’t tell us about that, it only covers the genealogy of a choice). As for Judd, Bennett’s best friend, he has other reasons for rejecting the taming machinery: he is a Communist and a serious one, furtively reading Marx, and will die a few years later in Spain. The double exclusion of the faggot and the bolshie from the “English” tribe (the tribe that produced the two Lawrences, D.H. and T.E.) is the angle that the film-makers have adopted in their approach to their subject: class treason, no less. 
A big subject then, and intelligently elaborated. What about the film? There isn’t any film. For a long while now, thanks to their origins in television, English directors have brought to their films the seriousness of their scripts and their lack of visual imagination. Few across the Channel still believe in the specific power of cinema. A film like Another Country has no style, just “craft”. It gives us time to notice the good performance of the actors (Rupert Everett, Colin Firth) and to take pleasure in the frequently deceptive feeling that we are suddenly wonderfully intelligent and able to talk for hours – in a pub or a club – about the serious things that the film is about. 
What does this triumphant infiltration of TV drama into cinema finally come down to? It comes down to the world being seen in medium shot (and medium, mediocre, media is all the same thing). In retrospect, we can really understand what cinema was: an adventure in perception, a way of seeing the world from too near or too far, an art of adapting the gaze, of inventing the necessary distances to locate your subject; an art somewhat on its last legs, short of subjects. For, to be frank, this has to be said: as far as the treatment of the aforesaid subjects is concerned, English directors are the best in the world, much superior to their French colleagues. 
So, movies on the one hand and TV on the other? That would be too simple. The boundaries are never as distinct. Nowadays, making movies often comes down to the most conspicuous possible demarcation from TV, from TV-perception. The only “subject” for today’s cinema is its rejection of the TV gaze, of the world seen in medium shots. This leads to a wearisome mannerism (see Beineix) or prematurely worn-out histrionics (see Zulawski). But on the other hand, TV directors go on being dissatisfied with just being TV directors, serious handlers of big subjects, excuses for film debates and jammed talk show switchboards. They too would like to belong to the great sinking continent of Cinema. At the press conference for Another Country, the film-makers said that this wasn’t a film on Communism, homosexuality or the English education system, but that it was, first and foremost, a film! A pity, because it was exactly a film on all those (serious) things. But a film is something else, it is never “on”, it is always “with”. TV leans on things. Cinema deals with them. 

First published in Libération on 14 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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