Fantastic Beasts, and How to Film Them

Neil Neil Archer

 Image result for fantastic beasts and where to find them movie

2016 was a great year for British cinema. This is one message from the British Film Institute, the main promotional body for UK film. Pointing to a record-breaking expenditure of £1.6bn on film production in Britain, and box-office figures showing a 27.5% domestic share for ‘UK-made films’, the BFI’s recent report took pains to emphasize the continuing health of the industry.

Beyond the headline, the picture is complex. These ‘UK-made films’ are predominantly movies made in the UK with British crews and creative input, financed mainly by Hollywood conglomerates: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them being the main examples. The levels of investment relate, similarly, to franchise films in production last year, such as the eighth Star Wars instalment, shot in London.

Ever since the 1970s, in fact, when the first Star Wars film was shot at Elstree, but when the market for home-grown films declined, the robustness of the British film industry has often been measured by its ability to draw ‘inward investment’ from overseas producers, and not just its intermittent production of award-winning films like Chariots of Fire, The English Patient or The King’s Speech – all of which, we should add, benefited from wider international financing. ‘British’ cinema is mostly transnational cinema: movies like Bridget Jones’s Baby, for example, a prominent British film on 2016 list, is made by Working Title, the UK company whose output is largely synonymous with British cinema overseas – Love Actually, Atonement, Hot Fuzz – but which is supported by its Hollywood parent and distributor, Universal.

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Making and marketing films is expensive: usually, only significant levels of investment guarantee wide distribution, and the potential for critical and economic returns. The British Film Commission, the agency that supports filmmaking initiatives in the UK, incentivises inward investment in British production through tax-breaks. The UK Film Council, a New Labour initiative, took a mostly similar line until being dissolved by the coalition government in 2011; yet it remains a key policy of the BFI’s ‘Wide Angle’ international strategy.

Brexit has given new urgency to this question of film production. As discussed at this year’s Cannes festival, UK policy-makers need to face up to the withdrawal from EU film-funding schemes such as MEDIA. The message of the BFI report from numerous sources is in turn telling: the record-breaking statistics, they suggest, ‘demonstrate that the UK’s world-leading film sector continues to thrive and that Britain remains open for business’; ‘UK film is open for business’; ‘[we must] ensure the UK remains a competitive destination… for international production’.

Playing down the impact of Brexit, the language here seems directed more across the Atlantic than the Channel, and perhaps worryingly dependent on the continued support of jumpy Hollywood investors in a precarious production climate. Beyond the important economic questions, though, a broader cultural conversation centres on what this ‘business’ might mean for an idea of British cinema. Some of the opinion stateside just days after Brexit, alongside more optimistic UK voices, highlighted the enticements of a weak-currency and EU-deregulated Britain for US investment, as well as alternative channels of investment such as Netflix. Exactly how this helps British filmmakers, or potential films about British life, is not entirely clear, and may imply that UK film will increasingly be defined by its US-backed players.

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We should avoid though creating a binary between ‘real’ British films and Hollywood movies ‘Made in Britain’. Franchise movies like Fantastic Beasts are global exports of a recognised cultural character and value. Local revisionings of genre cinema, meanwhile – The World’s End, Attack the Block, Sightseers offer critical or political viewpoints though globally translatable forms. In light of Brexit, such films may assume a renewed cultural function. This was indicated by the reception at home and abroad of 2014’s Paddington, co-produced like the latter two films by StudioCanal (a UK company owned by the French conglomerate Vivendi): a wonderful example of how a British popular film could at once encompass its literary traditions and political topicality. I eagerly await its 2017 sequel.

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Nor should we assume that the global currency in so-called British ‘heritage’ cinema, which trades in revisiting archetypal emblems of the national past, simply means selling a touristic fantasy to international audiences. Exactly why British film-making seems especially preoccupied with a return to the second world war – this year alone, following Their Finest’s light-hearted take on wartime media, we have two (more!) films about Churchill, the Joe Wright-Gary Oldman team-up Darkest Hour being the more promising – probably tells us a lot about Britain’s national incapacity to leave its (finest hour of) history behind. But the lavish scale and backward-looking nature of such films can also embrace a reappraisal of its national subject. This month, director Christopher Nolan makes a homecoming of sorts with his IMAX-enabled vision of Dunkirk. Taking a leaf from Wright’s Atonement, which offered a revisionist perspective on the allied evacuation from France, Nolan’s film is the latest to deal with this often mythologised moment of British history. Having also just watched Peter Morgan’s sublime The Crown, produced for Netflix, my appetite is whetted for further big- (and smaller-) screen explorations of the national past that confront all its failings, fables, and cruelty. Fantastic beasts, indeed.

 

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Film, Television and Brexit: What happens now?

Brexit

Now that Article 50 has been triggered, and the clock is ticking down on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, what are the implications for Film and Television in Britain? This was the question informing FILM AND TELEVISION STUDIES AFTER BREXIT, a one-day workshop conducted at the Claus Moser Research Centre on April 4th. Convened by Neil Archer, Lecturer in Film Studies at Keele, the workshop drew on the expertise of a range of guest speakers, as well as the input of participants from both Keele and elsewhere. Building on the conversations and conclusions emerging from the workshop, and on the work concurrently undertaken by colleagues across the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the event forms part of a continuing and evolving discussion of Brexit and its implications for British life, culture and global standing.

Beth Johnson, former programme director of Film Studies at Keele, now Associate Professor of Film and Media at the University of Leeds, started the proceedings with a riveting and important look at the way recent reality television – ranging from shows like Kirstie’s Handmade Britain to Benefits Street – has played an active and often problematic role in the construction of a popular British imaginary during an era of austerity, and in the run-up to the EU referendum. Dr Johnson’s analysis of Channel 4’s controversial Benefits Street focused on the way the programme, taking up the viewpoint of its more long-term, natively British inhabitants, sets up an overarching point of view into which the street’s European immigrants – predominantly, an extended Romanian family not claiming benefits, but running an improvised scrap metal business – are both ostracised and rejected. As the paper concluded, given the power of such television to shape as much as represent reality, we need to be particularly attentive to the way such programmes can inform – or indeed exploit – public opinion.

In a companion piece, James Leggott, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Northumbria University, offered a detailed overview of some of the films made in the run-up to the EU referendum, asking whether or not a sense of Brexit can be detected in their narratives and representations. Dr Leggott identified the way that the figure of the European immigrant emerges more prominently in recent cinema, in films as wide-ranging as The Goob, London Road and (in a more dubious form) horror films like Mum and Dad. While acknowledging that it is difficult and perhaps problematic to ask if the ‘signs’ of Brexit were visible in these films, the paper raised a series of other, and in the interests of a post-Brexit British cinema, more pressing questions: Who are these films for, and who is seeing them? What sense do we make of the older concept of ‘social realist’ cinema, when such films – Dr Leggott’s main example being Ken Loach’s award-winning I, Daniel Blake – are only seen by middle-class audiences in art cinemas? Amongst the many questions generated by this paper, then, the question of how British cinema, especially at the lower end of the budgeting scale, needs to respond to the contexts of Brexit, but also how and by whom it will be seen, emerges as the most important one.

This was followed by two papers offering reflections, respectively, on the significance of Brexit for our conceptions of ‘English’ and ‘Scottish’ cinema. Julian Petley, Professor of Screen Media at Brunel University, sees Brexit as a significant moment in the emergence of Englishness as a mode of identification, over and above other associations of ‘Britishness’. Professor Petley’s rigorous overview of film scholarship in the UK showed how, all too frequently (as in Raymond Durgnat’s famous book, below), ideas around England and Englishness have been collapsed into Britishness in problematic ways, usually to the exclusion of the Kingdom’s other distinct countries and identities.

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The paper also identified the ways in which an image of England has been specifically mobilised in recent years – and in particular, though under the misrepresentative guise of ‘the UK’, in the run-up to Brexit – as one that is victimised and put upon by the rest of the world (what Professor Petley describes as the ‘self-pitying mythology of Englishness’), despite the UK’s standing as one the world’s most powerful economies. While identifying some of the problematic notions of using Englishness as a defining concept, and some of the limiting ways ‘culturally English’ filmmaking has been defined (exclusively, for instance, around notions of ‘English heritage’ and literary adaptations), the paper astutely invited us to rethink ideas around ‘English cinema’ that emphasise diversity and inclusivity. As Professor Petley’s conclusion noted, multiculturalism and plurality are commonly associated with a Britain and a Britishness that may never have really existed, and if at all, may not for much longer; and that, consequently, if we are to challenge the most reductive assertions of the leave campaign, we should learn to talk in positive terms about an English cinema that encompasses these same ideas.

The follow-up paper by Jonny Murray, Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, was a fascinating and thought-provoking look at the perspectives of Scottish film production on the Brexit vote. Dr Murray provided a detailed view of the way recent Scottish films have forged previously unfamiliar links with filmmaking tendencies and film practitioners – producers, directors, actors – from mainland Europe, and especially Scandinavia, in films as diverse as Aberdeen, The Last Great Wilderness and Red Road.

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Chiming with Professor Petley’s comments, the discourses around the endurance of British film post-Brexit may emerge mostly from an English perspective that takes the largest country in the UK as synonymous for the UK as a whole – and thereby crowding out the specific interests of a Scotland that, unlike its southern neighbour, voted significantly against Brexit in the 2016 referendum. As Dr Murray argued, then, while a particularly European and trans-national type of filmmaking has emerged in Scotland over recent years, this is jeopardized by Brexit, if it means that vital sources of European co-production finances are cut off. If this is the case, as Dr Murray concluded, and if Scotland perhaps inevitably devolves from the UK, then the new game may be one of pursuing ‘inward investment’ – Hollywood money, invested in foreign countries to produce film and television there – in aggressive competition with its nearest neighbours.

This final thought was an arresting one ahead of the fifth paper, which focused largely on the significance of inward investment for the (so-called) UK film industry, but also how this partly England-centric conception may one day face competition from within the British Isles. Discussing the links between British cinema culture and Britain’s uses of ‘soft power’, Neil Archer looked at the way certain tendencies in film production – the James Bond series, Working Title rom-coms or the Mr Bean films, the Harry Potter franchise – have been mobilised as indicators of the country’s global standing. Identifying the links between such films’ references at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and the strategic promotional aims of government and initiatives like the GREAT Britain campaign, Dr Archer argued that a particular image of ‘Britishness’ has successfully established the UK’s global cultural influence; though at the expense of a more nuanced view of modern Britain and the everyday realities of lower-scale British film production.

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Adding that the post-Brexit mood for the UK film industry appears reliant on a boom in inward investment, Dr Archer raised the question whether the representations of Britishness around the 2012 ceremony were themselves symptomatic of a tension already existing between Britain’s international self-image, and a resistance to this image at a popular level, ignored in this case by dominant cultural taste-makers. At the same time, the paper concluded that in a post-Brexit climate and economy, commercial and transnational film production like Working Title films, or – in the preferred example – films like Paddington, produced by the French-owned UK company Studio Canal, could play an increasingly important role in the cultural representation of Britain abroad; evidence suggesting that it is British-based family films like Paddington or the Harry Potter series that have a more meaningful impact on the perception of the UK overseas, conveying as they do messages frequently out of sync with official government policy.

This idea that cinema could take on an increasingly ambassadorial role for Britain in light of Brexit was picked up in the final paper. Entitled ‘Who Will Listen to Britain Now?’, Owen Evans, Professor of Film at Edge Hill University, offered an engaging account of the Brexit contexts from his own position as a Germanist working intellectually and geographically between the UK and mainland Europe. Professor Evans’ talk highlighted the dispiriting sense of disillusion felt by the many Germans based in the UK and working in the creative industries (such as illustrator Axel Schaefer, whose take on the Brexit rhetoric can be seen below); as well as noting the extent to which so-called ‘British’ films, drawing on European funding and exhibition initiatives, are often more broadly European in their reception and profile: a key instance being (again) the films of Ken Loach, whose audience (and a point echoing James Leggott’s earlier observations around I, Daniel Blake) is mostly on the continental mainland, not in the UK. There was an optimistic note in Professor Evans’ talk, though, both in its suggestion that Britain could take a leaf from Germany’s regional filmmaking policies, but also in its insistence that at the cultural level – and as indicated by the prevalence of artists and creative leaders working between London and Berlin – the UK is far from closed for business to European partners. Highlighting, then, that the channels of cultural communication are not so easily limited by government policies, Professor Evans stressed that Britain’s leaving the European Union was not necessarily a departure from Europe; and that the affinities linking a devolving UK and a previously divided Germany could form the basis for what he called a Kultur Europa uniting the two countries. A similar suggestion, in fact, to that made by the Guardian’s associate editor a full three days after the event!

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It is hoped that this is only the start of a much broader national – and European – discussion, with Keele University as one of its key centres. While the full impact of Brexit remains unknown at present, film and television studies have an important part to play in investigating and commenting on the potential implications and possibilities; as well as identifying some of the ways film and television production has both informed the contexts of Brexit, but also might potentially mitigate its most corrosive effects. FILM KEELE would like to thank all the contributors who offered the foundation for discussion, as well as the various participants who provided the key questions and diverse responses throughout the day: in particular, David Forrest from the University of Sheffield, and Clive Nwonka, from Greenwich University; in addition to the various colleagues and students from Keele – Joe Andrew, Nick Bentley, David McWilliam, Helen Parr, Nick Seager, Wallis Seaton, Laura Minor, and Daniel Skentelbery.

To be continued…

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017. Here’s Hoping…

carrieNeil Neil Archer

Such is the enduring capacity for drama in Hollywood – the place, as much as its films – that it is able to deliver things no screenwriter would have the nerve to dream up. I was musing over the content of this piece a couple of Thursdays ago when I checked the morning news, only to find that Debbie Reynolds had died. Cue the ensuing mental double-take: I was still processing the news that her daughter, Carrie Fisher, had died the day before following a heart-attack suffered over Christmas. Like E.M. Forster’s exemplary Queen, her mother had died, according to the headlines, of grief. Heaven knows what Carrie – a sharp comic writer and novelist and, less well known, a courted Hollywood script doctor – would have made of it.

Ms Reynold’s uncanny sense of Hollywood timing (with all the appropriate respect to a great lady and her doubly-bereaved family, this was some way to bow out) pulled some of the rug from my own musings on the serendipities and poignant coincidences between Hollywood’s real and imaginary worlds. It was her daughter I was thinking about that Thursday morning, realising as I just had that her face – more precisely, a convincing-enough digital reworking of its younger form – was the last face I would see on the big screen in 2016, appearing as it had at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But also, that she had delivered in that now fateful final appearance, an important concluding word: ‘Hope’.

Okay, okay. I know this final word was there to create an associative link between the end of Rogue One and the full, re-branded title of the film that chronologically follows it (and it’s one of the marvels of Gareth Edwards’ film that it is so painstaking in its efforts to fill every narrative gap between it and Episode IV’s in media res opening: I’ve no doubt overlooked several decades of fan speculation here, but I was never much concerned where the ‘stolen data tapes’ of A New Hope had come from). But it also seemed more than apt at the conclusion to a year in which hope felt to many in such scarce supply, for both opponents and proponents of the Trump-Brexit axis, to take just the Anglo-American example, which – we ought to recall – profited from a wider disenfranchisement from the political and economic status quo.

But the ideology of this triumphant (Trumpant?) politics by its own nature undermines hope, based as it is on isolationism and the imposition of figurative and literal barriers. As the now outgoing US president identified in the title of his second book, hope is audacious: to be hopeful in contemporary times, and not merely to retrench in fear, requires boldness and courage, in order to face what is difficult, and indeed, fearful. With the modern world starting to feel unnervingly close to the imagined 2027 of Children of Men, rather than the 2019 of Blade Runner (choose your dystopia!), the sort of hope called for by the young Princess Leia, in the context of Rogue One’s showing, hardly feels like the airy Hollywood sentiment it might otherwise have evoked.

Like most dystopian cinema, Children of Men, which celebrated (if that’s the right word) its tenth birthday at the end of last year, exacerbates the most negative aspects of contemporary society as its own call to hope, showing a refracted image of our own present in the potential future. Not for nothing was the documentary that accompanied Cuarón’s film called The Possibility of Hope, in which various environmentalists and/or stars of the intellectual left (James Lovelock, Slavoj Žižek, Naomi Klein) dissect the contemporary world’s ills and suggest some potential remedies. It’s telling that in the film, loosely adapted from P.D. James’s novel, the world’s apparently chronic demise stems, in a Gaia-style form of earthly recalibration, to a global lack of fertility that has left the planet entirely childless, until a young pregnant woman is found. This is a bit of a ruse, of course; the film isn’t remotely concerned with why this happened, or whether there’s some scientific fix. It’s rather what happens, emotionally, socially and environmentally, once you remove the young from the equation, with which the film is concerned; the abrupt answer being that everything goes to shit. A similar thing, it’s worth pointing out, seems to have happened in Blade Runner, the all-permeating jadedness of which owes a lot to the lack of children in its rain-lashed urban sprawl (and it’s here left to the ‘infant’ replicants to re-imagine childhood for everyone else’s benefit).

The absence of children, then, is literally the absence of a future, but it is also symbolic of the absence of hope; and conversely hope, even in the face of an uncertain future, still exists in the presence of a child. Children of Men, a modern-day secular nativity (it was released in the US on Christmas Day: some festive outing, that one), consequently saves its most potentially mawkish but actually quite moving sequence for the moment when the newly-born baby, guarded by its mother and Clive Owen’s faded activist, is carried out to safety through a militarised zone of armed confrontation – and the clusters of brutalised squaddies stop, dumbstruck and goggle-eyed at the sight.

It’s for similar reasons that we invest so much in the young in films, for the simple reason that a) they’re trying to find out who and what they can be, b) they’re finding their way in a cynical and destructive adult world, and c) they offer the fragile possibility that they won’t fuck it up (the possibility of hope, in other words). The appeal of The Hunger Games and its many imitators is not merely the dramatic context of the games/trials etc. as events, but the fact that the competitors are just kids, for God’s sake. Not that they need to be pitched against each other in a literal arena of death: teen(age) films like The Breakfast Club or Entre les murs or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seem more potent the further away I get from them in age, not through nostalgia (I love John Hughes movies, but never really watched them at the ‘appropriate’ age), but rather because, as Catherine Driscoll writes in her book Teen Films, such films enable a viewer like myself to ‘restag[e] and recross… the fantastic line between childhood and adulthood’, allowing one to (re)invest in the emotional and existential dilemmas of youth from the reflective vantage point of adulthood (or in my case middle age, to be more specific).

All of which brings me back round to Debbie and Carrie, both of them, remarkably, enjoying their defining moment of screen success at the age of nineteen, in Singin’ in the Rain and then Star Wars. As children nurtured by and within Hollywood, needless to say, the pair were only ‘normal’ nineteen-year olds in the same sense that, say, Andy Murray or Lionel Messi were ever normal teenage boys. But what verve, what lack of fear! Anyone who knows the history of Star Wars’ production, or who has sat through any of the prequel trilogy, will know that humour was never George Lucas’s gift to the world; and in turn, that much of the screwball banter that leaves the 1977 film still so vigorous owes most to the old-school class and wit of Fisher and Harrison Ford. And if you ever needed an object lesson in the grace of filmmaking and of the human body, or how song and dance might seem enough on which to build hope, look no further than Singin’ in the Rain: it’s all there! May their Force be with us in 2017.

Re:Bourne (Notes on Sequelitis)

Neil Neil Archer

 

It’s the name, I guess, and its evident capacity for lame puns (see above), that has made the Bourne series something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we’ve found out over the course of three films, Bourne is less an actual name, and more a description of the way Matt Damon’s soldier, David Webb, is re-created as the series’ amnesiac automaton. The Bourne Ultimatum, back in 2007, saw Bourne processing this discovery before hurling himself into New York’s East River, just as his CIA protector Pam Landy exposed the files on the agency’s assassin programme. Leaving Bourne’s body unfound, and hinting in the final frames to another re-birth of sorts – a silhouetted figure, floating in the river’s amniotic fluid, jerking into action and swimming away – director Paul Greengrass drew a line under the series he had helped define since helming The Bourne Supremacy in 2004. For Greengrass, as indeed for Damon, there was nowhere else to go. A return film, Greengrass quipped at the time, might as well be called The Bourne Redundancy.

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Back they are, though, after nine years, and four years after the curious footnote of The Bourne Legacy; an odd (if not redundant) ‘side-quel’ which interwove another agent’s story around the events and timeline of the previous film. The fairly self-explanatory Jason Bourne picks up some time after the New York dunking, and pieces together more of the titular character’s enigmatic history. Despite having intimated they were never going to make another Bourne film, there are plenty of good reasons why Damon and Greengrass should return to the franchise. Neither of them has been exactly struggling since The Bourne Ultimatum, but the opportunities to work again on the biggest canvas (Ultimatum was produced for Universal at $100m, and took in half a billion at the global box office) are obvious. The cynical view would see this return for the most part in financial terms. Isn’t this after all the primary reason sequels get made? Perhaps: but this would overlook what the sequel actually represents in contemporary cinema. As much as the logic of the Hollywood franchise dies hard (as it were), we need to think about what sequels or serial filmmaking actually do; and how, in fact, they are transforming our understanding and experience of the movies in various, often unexpected ways.
The 2012 side-quel was evidence of the fact that ‘properties’ such as Bourne belong, finally, to the studios that own them. If anything, the historical significance of The Bourne Legacy may lie in its inadvertently postmodern title, which describes the film’s own logic and process of franchise maintenance, as much as it identifies anything to do with the film’s plot. If cold business logic is at the heart of this, it’s worth noting how the ‘sequelitis’ currently manifest in Hollywood is symptomatic not so much of opportunism, but the more anxious manoeuvres of an American cinema coming to terms with significant cultural and economic shifts. Hollywood’s largely self-propelled movement over the last four decades towards the blockbuster or ‘tent-pole’ film – large-budget movies released simultaneously across thousands of screens, with the opening week, or even weekend, determining the movie’s success – has proved a profitable model, though with related financial and artistic costs. The digitization of film projection means that studios no longer need to produce thousands of individual prints, yet the marketing budgets for these films, as studios clamour for the attention of first-weekend audiences in a competitive field, is often comparable to the production costs of the (already very expensive) movies themselves. In the era, then, of the billion-dollar movie – the Avatars, Avengers Assembles and Skyfalls of our time – the framework for what constitutes a film’s box-office success has shifted upwards. The expectations for a film like Jason Bourne will consequently be enormously high: such films are not produced with a view to anything less.
In a decade, then, in which the holiday tent-pole film is the default form, but in which $200m franchise start-ups can rise and fall with barely a mention – The Lone Ranger, John Carter, Tomorrowland – Hollywood has balanced extravagance with conservatism, relying on the road-tested formulae of its established properties, with their built-in familiarity and all-important ‘pre-awareness’ factor. All franchises, of course, had to start somewhere; but a main difference now, as Lynda Obst shows in her book Sleepless in Hollywood, is that the West-Coast studios increasingly have eyes on the Chinese market; now officially the biggest captive audience for Hollywood film in the world. Even a cursory glance at the Chinese box office over the last few years reveals just why established film series, and what’s more, a certain type of series – preferably one that is either modern or futuristic, global in its settings and casting, mythic rather than culturally specific in its storytelling (hence the prevalence of expensive science-fiction and/or superhero franchises) – are the obsession of Hollywood producers. Within this context, sequelitis is a symptom of risk aversion, not necessarily a lack of imagination.
If sequel dependency is the new abnormal, though, to borrow Obst’s phrase, film production has evolved accordingly, in an often friutful way. By its own nature, a successful sequel could never really be a rehash: in order for it to work, degrees of innovation and variation need to operate alongside reiteration and familiarity. What’s more, once the series logic is structured into a film’s rationale, the expectations and ambitions are re-calibrated. As I wrote a few years ago, series like the Bourne films take their cue as much from long-form television as from cinema, in their capacity to combine self-contained episode narratives with overarching storylines across the various movies. The individual films, in turn, can function discretely, but are in fact amplified and enriched by their positioning within a wider series. In the process, the series creates breadth within its world, and encourages the greater investment of viewers. This is by now such an assumption in contemporary Hollywood that my original argument already sounds like a quaint statement of the obvious. Today’s multi-film narratives, with Marvel’s and DC/Warner Bros.’ endlessly proliferating series being the models, can move in any temporal direction while developing a linear narrative line, while also overlapping and interweaving, hinting at other films to come, or leaving clues and cues to be picked up across the series as a whole.
Of course, the movies are only here following the lead already established by audiences, or more specifically fans, in insisting that a film is no longer a prescribed and finite two-hour experience. As both generators and consumers of what is variously called dispersed narrative, ‘transmedia’ storytelling or the media of ‘convergence’ – wherein stories are disaggregated and pieced together from across different media platforms and content – fans have come to play a significant role in shaping and maintaining the form of modern popular cinema. Fans, or modern audiences more broadly, demand that the show goes on, both in the afterlives they create for films, and increasingly, in their expectation of narrative returns. A narrative implication of this state of affairs is that a film series, in fact, cannot really end. In this respect, franchises start not so much to resemble long-form television series (which, after all, do eventually end), but rather soap opera. In Spanish, the colloquial term for the latter is culebrón – literally, ‘big snake’ – a word which aptly evokes such television’s remarkable capacity to go on and on with no apparent end in sight; to the almost mystical point, in fact, when the snake runs into its own tail, and beginning becomes end becomes beginning ad infinitum: a slightly pretentious way, perhaps, of saying that the soap opera replicates the varied rhythms and open-endedness of everyday life.
Applied to movies, though, as Nicholas Barber has recently mused, what does this mean for our traditional conceptions of ‘the end’? If movies are never really finished, how can we make sense of any narrative claims to resolve and restore, the dominant popular function of the cinematic ending for over a hundred years? What, moreover, does the endless dispersal and proliferation of narrative mean retrospectively for the films as we once experienced them? As Barber notes, the harmonious happy ending of Return of the Jedi now feels like a bit of a ruse. If it’s all going to go belly-up again in a few years time – new Empire wannabees, planet-destroying weapons, more running, hiding, pain and loss – what was all that hand-clapping for? What, in fact, is the point of carrying on at all? More problematically for Barber, if the narrative arcs and resolutions of individual films ultimately defer to an endless bigger picture, why bother watching any one of them, when you can simply catch up on a later episode?
Barber has a good point, though maybe in his haste to defend the virtues of classical Hollywood endings, he misses the comic and satisfyingly pessimistic possibilities of the unfinished story. I’ve always been wary of the neat-and-tidy conclusion, which after all is what many find so sentimental and grating in the Hollywood ‘happy ending’. Openness and uncertainty are in many respects desirable and effective qualities in a conclusion. The Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful film in many ways, but its stand-out quality in the Star Wars series relates to its bitter-sweet and unambiguously unresolved ending. Isn’t it one of the ironies of the contemporary franchise movie, in fact, that at its most synergistically business-oriented moment, and its maximization of commercial possibilities, it starts to elide into the non-conclusive, non-resolving domains of the art or auteur film – where rejecting neat narrative resolutions and happy endings was always de rigueur – against which it supposedly stands in eternal opposition?
And on this point, let’s not forget that so-called ‘independent’ or ‘world’ cinema is hardly immune to the power of the sequel. After making ten television films based around the ten commandments, the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a trilogy of inter-weaving films based on the French tricolor (Blue [1993], White [1994] and Red [1994]); one in which the main characters pop in and out of each other’s films, before finding themselves together at the end on a sinking ferry. Julie Delpy, meanwhile, Kieslowski’s star in White, is perhaps best known as one half (with Ethan Hawke) of Richard Linklater’s ‘Jesse and Céline’ trilogy (Before Sunrise [1995], Before Sunset [2004] and Before Midnight [2013]): a seemingly ongoing

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before sunset

 

 

series of improvised films, about a transatlantic couple who meet on a train and fall in love (Sunrise), finally see each other again after nine years (Sunset), and then actually have a relationship (Midnight). The before-midnight-580narrative beauty of these films, which feel like semi-fictional counterparts to the lives of the actors that star in and co-write them, is the way they offer ambiguity and hesitation in place of clear resolutions. Life is after all rarely in a finished state, defined largely by uncertainty about the future (what’s going to happen?) and speculation about the past (what might have happened?). Consequently, Linklater’s films leave us with a set of possible ‘happy’ outcomes counterbalanced by their potential for failure: will Jesse and Céline meet up a year later, as they promise each other (they won’t); will they resist getting together again after nine years (they don’t); and can their relationship survive in the real grown-up world (it can’t). Given Linklater’s fondness for taking film-making conceits to extremes (as per his real-time coming-of-age movie Boyhood [2014]), I wouldn’t be too surprised if we follow Jesse and Céline’s on-off romance until one or both of them is dead – if even that is enough.
Will the Bourne series follow suit? I personally like the idea of following Bourne into aging retirement, perhaps settling down by the beach with Pam, reflecting on his past as a semi-automated death machine as he walks his dog. Inevitably, another team of buff, hollow-eyed assassins will at this moment come out of the trees. At which point, Damon’s famously taciturn agent will probably not sigh, raise an eyebrow, and growl: ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’. Cue the ensuing carnage, with added aches and strains.

Brief Thoughts on Br(ex)itish Cinema

By NEIL ARCHER

Let’s be honest: the clue is in the title. Amongst many other things it represents – most of them, I would add, much more important than this one – Brexit potentially, perhaps irrevocably, is a cut-off point in our understanding of what ‘British cinema’ means. Not just in the sense that many films to come will inevitably deal with, and be affected by, the outcome of the EU referendum (not to mention the very possible likelihood of Scottish independence); but also inasmuch as writers on British cinema (I am one of them) will have to reflect wholesale on the histories and narratives we have constructed for it. The rules even of the very recent past will no longer apply: the last decade, even last year, will start to feel strangely distant. A slight readjustment of letters and semantics and Br(ex)itish cinema becomes Ex-British cinema. ‘This cinema’, as John Cleese might have said, ‘is not pining. It has ceased to be’.

While I can’t call this good news, it isn’t necessarily terrible: it’s just something we’ll have to deal with and make sense of in the coming years. We have no idea what this cinema will be like (as the screenwriter William Goldman famously remarked, if there’s one thing the history of the movies tells us, Nobody Knows Anything). I’m speculating here, though, on what I’ve specifically called Br(ex)itish cinema: one which will not exactly reflect Brexit itself, but mostly reflect on it, adapting itself to these new circumstances. What largely defines many people’s (and much of mainland Europe’s) idea of British cinema, for instance, is its legacy of social realism: witness for example the recent Palme d’Or win for Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) amongst the yachts and seafront glamour of Cannes. Cinema such as this will want to get to grips with the causes and consequences of Brexit for many of those who, after all, voted for it, and will probably be most affected by it. Not a ‘Brexit cinema’ as such (what exactly would that look like?) but a Brexit-ish cinema. Given his own very ambivalent relationship to Europe, I wonder if Loach can put off his oft-discussed retirement to contend with these critical times. If not, the baton is incontestably there to pick up.

How would Loach, though, or anyone else for that matter, get it done? When Loach came out at Cannes in favour of the EU, but which he also criticized as a ‘a neo-liberal project’, he ultimately emphasized its cultural importance for filmmakers and other artists. The infrastructure of European co-production has nurtured art-house and festival favourites such as Loach across the continent: I, Daniel Blake, for example, was an Anglo-French-German production. Britain leaving the EU might mean that, without the European subsidies that sustain the distribution of critically-acclaimed but often non-commercial films (such as the multiple prize-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul [2015]), fewer European films will be exhibited in the UK than is already the case; just as it will also make it harder for British films to be made and distributed throughout Europe. Industry insiders reacting immediately to the results of 23 June were fairly unanimous in their assessment that Brexit would prove a testing, even ‘devastating’ moment for the UK film (and television) industry, reliant as so much of it is on EU funding commissions such as MEDIA and Eurimages, as well as on the free movement of film casts and crews across borders. Perhaps Loach should make his next film for Netflix.

A sneaky (if slightly tangential) thought came to me, though, as the news unfolded over the last weekend, and the value of sterling plummeted. As many commentators have stressed over the years, in hard-nosed economic and employment terms ‘British cinema’ is understood mainly in terms of what Britain does most of, and very well: acting as a studio site for large-scale movie production.Since the end of World War Two, Hollywood has always sought newer, less expensive places to shoot its films, frequently drawing on the expertise of film-making crews in once thriving, now declined international studios (such as Rome’s Cinecittà in the 1950s). Twentieth Century Fox packaged George Lucas and Star Wars off to Elstree in London because it was cost-effective, not because they were anglophiles (and with occasional departures, the franchise’s principal studio location has remained in England). Likewise, what we might call ‘British-ish’ films such as the Harry Potter series (produced by Warner Bros. and David Heyman’s London-based Heyday films) were not made in the UK (entirely) out of loyalty to Harry’s creative origins. I was worried that my salvage plan for Br(ex)itish cinema in the form of massive US investment was, to put it succinctly, bonkers, until I read a Guardian blog the other morning by a Hollywood-based British producer advocating this very thing. While I regret the circumstances, I certainly embrace this idea; even if it’s not clear what such films would be saying about Br(ex)itain.

This leads me to a final question (and – spoiler alert! – a rather flippant but well-intentioned answer): with the inevitable drop in Br(ex)itain’s cultural credit rating, and in light of Brexit’s damaging impact on the coherence of the EU more generally, what kind of films could a Hollywood-bolstered Br(ex)itish film industry sell back to Europe? Both Harry Potter and James Bond, it should be noted, endured Britain’s diminished international lustre on the back of the 2003 Iraq war: the latter, partly by reinventing himself in Casino Royale (2006) almost self-reflexively as a public-school thug; the former, well, because it’s Harry Potter, and they’re all such moppets. The Potter series was in any case, like most mythic sagas, sublimely adaptable to whatever social context you saw in it (in a way, isn’t its whole narrative of beleaguered, multi-ethnic mudbloods battling against the pureblood establishment an apt, politically-charged one for these times?). I’d personally welcome a grown-up sequel to the series, preferably one emphasizing its Scottish roots; maybe one in which Minerva McGonagall comes out of retirement to lead a secessionist Hogwarts, broken free from the Ministry, while Harry and co, Victor Krum and Fleur Delacour team up in a sexy pan-European mash-up.

This probably won’t happen (alas), but meanwhile, the case for James Bond’s persistence remains very much up in the air. This is nothing new: as much as the quality of the Bond series over the last five decades has been (to say the least) variable, it’s bloody-minded resilience in the face of historical and cultural change deserves some respect. Perhaps, as one German commentator suggested last week, this is down to the traditional British ability to bluster through with empty-yet-charming pomp. As much was emphasized in  Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, which pitted Bond and Her Majesty together in a grand, but also highly parodic, opening entrance. Is such a move, even as light-hearted a one as this, conceivable now? Beyond the potential economic impact on film productions like the 007 series, my suspicion is that Bond, like Br(ex)itain more generally, needs to engage in some pretty serious cultural work if it is to maintain status on the European, even international, stage. For a whole bundle of historical and political reasons, and not only with regard to the UK, casting Idris Elba would be a serious and long-overdue move in a challenging direction. And if he’s not available, why not go for broke and – in the true spirit of cross-channel bilateralism, and if Eon productions can still swing a visa – cast the wonderful French actor Jean Dujardin, who has after all had plenty of practice. I’d be interested to see how the hardline Leave camp reacted to that one.

Welcome

Welcome to FILM KEELE, the official blog for the Film Studies programme at Keele University. As well as informing about current and forthcoming events relating to the programme, the blog will be a platform for both staff and students to discuss and express their experience of Film, as a medium and an academic discipline. As a programme engaged with the aesthetic possibilities of Film, and its evolving role in various aspects of social and political life, FILM KEELE will offer a vital space for voicing questions, debates, and enthusiasms.

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