Archive for May, 2009

15th May 2009

May 15, 2009

Andrea Arnold’s first film Red Road was set in Glasgow. Her second Fish Tank inhabits London’s East End. Not the fabled alleys of Whitechapel nor even the familiar parks of Hackney but further East where the white working class fled the slums in search of new jobs at Dagenham and the new houses that Harold MacMillan built. Now, where the edge of London meets the Essex marshes, it is home to the underclass that Thatcher and Blair built. A world of terrible deprivation – deprivation of speech, deprivation of feeling, deprivation of life. Here Arnold finds her heroine Mia(Katie Jarvis), fifteen years old, isolated from her peers, rowing constantly with her party loving single mother and her brattish younger sister. Every conversation is nasty brutish and short and Mia tries as hard as possible to be unlikeable. But she is as beautiful as the dawn and as Arnold’s camera captures her in her landscape, we are irresistibly drawn into her young life. Arnold’s first film was marred by too melodramatic a script but Fish Tank effortlessly takes the most ordinary of stories and turns it into a gripping plot.
Michael Hamburger takes up with Mia’s mother and the physical attraction between 15 year old girl and charming hunk is perfectly realised including a sex scene as moving as it is cliched. The final scenes of the film are unbearavbly painful and yet Arnold manages to salvage a credible happy end. This really is direction of the very highest order.


13th May 2009

May 15, 2009

I first went to Cannes in May of l985. I had been appointed Head of Production at the BFI early in that month but everybody that I phoned for a meeting, had declined on the grounds that they would be In Cannes. It struck me very quickly that if I went to Cannes, I could meet everybody. Indeed that remains one of the main reasons for going to Cannes. Everybody is there: producers, distributors, stars, critics, programmers. This year the recession means fewer people but not fewer film people, Indeed the festival is vastly improved by the absence of all the state funded hangers on who had become such an unpleasant feature of recent years. Almost all my friends are there, and those who are not are those who have died. Maybe it is just Hercules’s death or my own age but I am exceptionally conscious as I walk the Croisette of the dead as well as the living.
My first 15 years at Cannes was drink fuelled meetings with distributors and film funds as I tried to raise money for future productions followed by drink fuelled parties. If I saw 2 or 3 films I was lucky. For the last decade, however, I have come to watch films and hope to watch between 30 and 50 in ten days. Parties are a thing of the past as I wake early and without a hangover for the first film of the day at 8.30.
The pleasure of watching a newly struck print perfectly projected with perfect sound first thing in the morning is very considerable and if you follow it with another film at 11, you can eat lunch with a good conscience. And as you eat you can talk. For Cannes is not just watching films, it is discussing them and for ten days movies are discussed under every aspect; technical, financial, social, aesthetic.
Now I always try to make the opening ceremony but this year I am a little late and rather than run the gamut of the hundreds of photographers, I nip up the back stairs. By great good fortune I arrive at the top of the stairs just as the jury are making the long march past the photographers. In the middle of them, looking as though he’s getting ready for a rumble in South London, is Hanif Kureishi. When they reach the top of the stairs he sees me and we go into a Hollywood clinch and I whisper in his ear “ not bad for two poor boys from London. “But I’m from Bromley, Colin’ he exclaims and we roll into the cinema.
The opening film,Up, features a new 3-D technology which all the smart money is saying is the wave of the future. Unsurprisingly the smart money knows nothing. The effects are lame and underwhelming as is the Pixar cartoon We hope for better on the morrow.

28th April 2009

May 15, 2009


22nd April 2009

May 12, 2009

For the 24th year I take the plane back to London from Pittsburgh. The delight of seeing my family after such a long break is always strong and the physical pleasure of London intense. Indeed this year it is more intense as after 35 years in the suburbs of Islington we have moved to the western edge of the City, less than 200 yards from Fetter Lane where I spent my happy childhood convinced that all we needed to inhabit Utopia was a Labour government. Now the country disgusts me. What Thatcher began , New Labour completed and we live in a world of greed and lies where the values of education and art count for nothing. On the news I watch that contemptible figure Brown who between 1991 and 1994 shed every belief he had ever held as he lusted after power. He took office saying that he would always go to Parliament before the Press but the man who was even more responsible for the culture of New Labour spin than Blair or Campbell is now attempting to manage opinion on Mp’s pay through the internet.. His grotesquely twisted features accurately portray a man whose inner being is now so riddled with mendacity that he is technically incapable of telling the truth. I tell Flavia that that this is not merely the last act but the last scene, The scandal of MPs expenses are going to destroy him much more thoroughly and completely than sleaze destroyed the transparently honest Major.
But I am determined not to waste mental energy on this corrupt and incompetent government. Not least because I am in deep mourning for J.G. Ballard. I do not know how many writers one discovers without any authority or guide, but I will never forget picking down from the shelves of Theobalds Road library the yellow coloured Gollancz edition of The Drowned World. The novel, although written within a recognizable science fiction genre, had a psychic intensity and a hard elegance of style unlike anything I had read. . The image of the hero always heading further south through a world under water has remained with me and I devoured the rest of Ballard’s writings at school. In university reading The Atrocity Exhibition was almost as profound a shock and by then there were others who had recognized the Master long before Crash bought him a wider notoriety. Meeting him in at Laura Mulvey’s house in the late seventies was a great thrill, intensified as the party repaired to a restaurant and Ballard announced that he had “wheels” and offered me a lift. He drove very slowly and in the middle of the road but driving with the author of Crash seemed every youthful ambition fulfilled. When I became Head of Production at the BFI, Ballard, or Jim as he was improbably called, was first on my list of writers to see. He was very wise in the way of film and liked my idea of a low budget science fiction movie but said that he had made an early vow only to write a film script when the money for the movie was already in place. Even in my first weeks in the film business this seemed very sensible. However, we liked each other well enough that I made a radio programme about his next novel The Day of Creation and got to visit him in his fabled Shepperton house with its 1950s telephone and extraordinary surrealist paintings. As all the obituaries make clear he was extraordinarily good company, a mine of information and opinion. The last time I saw him was at a screening of Cronenbourg’s Crash in late 1996. I was much besieiged at the BFI at this time and took great comfort from his unsolicited advice, after he had looked me up and down, that I still had one great effort in me, words which remained with me through the late nineties.
His writing continued to astonish: Super Cannes I thought almost as good as anything had done. His last book which announced his death I have still not been able to read but I shall read it slowly and carefully this summer.

12th March 2009

May 12, 2009

Spring break and I’m back in Europe. Eurostar again and my usual Paris meetings. There’s an unusual one too. In the summer 2007 my London Consortium colleague Marko Daniel asked me to give a talk at Tate Modern about some new video art that they were exhibiting. I agreed for collegial reasons but with a slightly sinking heart for the vast majority of video art simply uses the vast resources of this new palatte without any attempt to turn those resources into images. Amongst the dross, however, was some real gold. A short film, called Rapport, which took for its subject matter a neuro-linguistic programming seminar for senior German executives. If you wanted a picture of how individual narcissism is harnessed to corporate ambition to create the economic world in which we now live, Rapport is a key text and I devoted most of my Tate lecture to it.
A year later I got an e-mail from the artist asking me to come to Portugal to see her latest work and to teach a short course at the Gulbenkian. Insofar as I had imagined the author I had imagined an intellectually intense German but Filipa Cesar,as I discovered ,may live and work in Germany but she is an exuberant and witty Latin. We so enjoyed lecturing together that we have arranged to meet to see if we might construct some joint projects.
Filipa is a world-class flirt and , like all directors, totally unscrupulous when it comes to getting her films made. She still harbours ambitions to get me to produce her films. By the end of the day, however, I think she has come to believe my repeated protestations that I am no longer a producer. A producer is simply someone who has or has access to money. For nearly two decades I was such a person but no longer. Even more important I no longer wish to be. The endless stress of producing, so energizing for so many years, is now simply tedious and tiring.
The only thing that I miss from producing is the editing and I would love to find a way of teaching a course on editing. We talk a great deal about this and Filipa shows me a wonderful Pedro Costa film which shows the Straubs at work at an editing table.
The one unrealized film ambition is to work on a genre movie. If I no longer wish to produce one I do occasionally think I would like to try writing one. I tell Filipa this with some trepidation. She receives this news neutrally. “ and the most successful genre is romantic comedy”. Filipa looks at me with withering contempt “ Do you like romantic comedies?” “eerr no” We decide to think about thrillers.

2nd March 2009

May 12, 2009

Today my great friend Hercules Bellville is buried in London. Flavia says that she has never seen the London Oratory so full. By coincidence the Independent publish my obituary the same day. I have spent the week since he died talking to his friends and writing it. Such writing holds off grief because somehow while you write you keep the dead alive. But with the final full stop the grief of loss can no longer be avoided.

Hercules Bellville devoted his life to the cultivation of friendship and the making of films. He was a very considerable film scholar and in terms of intellectual history he should be classed with his Oxford contemporaries and great friends Laura Mulvey, Jon Halliday and Peter Wollen as amongst the first in England to register the full impact of that French cinephilia that gave birth to the New Wave. But Bellville’s scholarship was from the very first to be devoted to the making of films. A list of the filmmakers with whom he worked is also a list of some of the greatest directors of the past forty years.
Unusually and perhaps because of his great privilege: a wealthy family, extraordinary good looks and a charm which was all the more engaging for being extremely hard edged, Bellville never sought the limelight. His credits are remarkable – second unit director on Roman Polanski’s Tess and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, producer credits on Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers – but he was supremely uninterested, even embarrassed, by them. What mattered to Hercules was to be using his extraordinary skills and knowledge to help talent and grace find form in the most powerful and democratic of artistic mediums.
Perhaps the single most important thread in a life woven of extraordinary friendships was the Peploe family. Hercules met the eldest daughter Clare very early at Oxford, where he was reading French and Spanish at Christ Church. His parents had been divorced, his father, Rupert, was a test pilot and his mother Jeanie (nee Fuqua) was the daughter of a diplomat. Hercules became a devoted admirer of Clare’s mother the painter Cloclo Peploe, a life long friend and collaborator with her brother the director and screen writer Mark and the boyfriend of the younger daughter Chloe through much of the sixties. It must be said that a beautiful girlfriend was one of Bellville’s trademarks although it was also typical that when the affair had ended the friendship endured. He was a regular visitor to the Peploe villa San Francesco in Florence in the early sixties and a fellow guest records her astonishment at meeting this impossibly beautiful and impossibly blond young man for the first time.
Bellville’s break came when Polanski hired him as a runner on Repulsion (the one credit he did claim with pride was that it was his hand which comes through the wall as the heroine collapses into psychosis) and he worked with Polanski and his producer Andrew Braunsberg for over a decade following them in the early seventies to Hollywood. From his base in the Tropicana Motel he adopted Los Angeles as one of his many home towns, returning each Christmas to what he called ‘the coast’ to renew and recharge his friendships there. His mother was American and he had been born in California so there, as in so many other places, he considered himself a native.
Bellville was a gentleman of a new school. Independently wealthy he would only live on what he could earn, a great dandy he scorned expensive clothes, seeking his elegant attire in the most unlikely of chain stores. He was a product of the great democratic settlement of post-war Europe and he was as interested in talking to the assistant manager at the Grand Hotel about the rhythms of the tourist season as he was exchanging information about downtown Los Angeles with his good friend Jack Nicholson or exploring a new topic of conversation with a young child.. His vast knowledge of film, art, restaurants, hotels, cities was at the service of anyone who he felt could benefit from what he knew.

Bellville finally found the ideal home for his talents when in the early eighties he joined forces with the great British producer Jeremy Thomas at the Recorded Picture Company. He and Thomas formed the closest of friendships at the heart of the most daring and international of British production companies. Rapiers to each others foils, their merged talents formed a single powerful film intelligence at the service of Conrad’s great dictum – “ above all, to make you see”. The list of films is staggering from The Last Emperor through Crash to Young Adam. Even the financial failures like Terry Gilliam’s Tideland were films of huge ambition. Bellville’s role was twofold. In development he would deploy his vast knowledge and erudition in ensuring that script and cast improved – when asked what he did, he said “I discourage people” but what he meant was that he encouraged them to try harder and to aim higher. Then when the filming began, Thomas did not have to spend a minute worrying whether anybody from the most famous of international stars to the gruffest of grips felt unappreciated or unloved. “Herc” was everywhere dispensing witty reassurance, tiny presents and always talking about films. That esprit de corps so crucial to almost any successful production was ensured on any film with which Bellville was associated.
At the annual festival of Cannes Bellville energized and enthused from dawn to dusk to dawn again. Here he and Thomas could meet with the full range of his international contacts, here he could deploy his perfect Spanish, his fluent French spoken with a cut glass English accent and littered with witty anglicisms, and his considerable Italian. Here he could usher young filmmakers from all five continents into meetings where he would immediately make everyone at ease. Here he could parry wits with that other great multi-lingual diplomat of recent European cinema Marie Pierre Hauville, the festival’s foreign minister.
It is unsurprising that so committed an internationalist was hit so hard by the events of September 11 2001. This outrage seemed to set back for decades everything that Hercules had believed in and to which he had devoted his life. He suffered what the French call a depression nerveuse and many of his friends wondered whether he would ever recover. However in 2003 in his much loved Mexico he met Ilana Shulman and she, who shared so many of his interests in cinema, art and travel brought a tenderness to his life which meant that his final years, even when his lung cancer was diagnosed, were full of happiness.. For a man who insisted that every dinner had a placement and every journey a movement order, it was natural that he should make final arrangements He had been educated by the Benedictines at Ampleforth school and as the end approached he married Ilana and received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

7th February 2009

May 12, 2009

Bataille said that what distinguished the human species biologically from other mammals was shame about performing sexual acts in public and the care of the dead. “Dogging” and Stan Collymore seem to have cut the list by one but care of the dead is essentially human. One penalty of spending my life in two countries is that I often miss funerals and memorial services but by great good chance, the date set for Derek Brewer’s memorial service coincides with my changing planes from Pittsburgh to Sri Lanka and I travel up to Cambridge on a brilliantly sunny morning with snow on the ground – almost the only combination which makes the Fens beautiful. Stephen Heath, friend and collaborator of nearly 40 years – we edited Signs of the Times: Introductory Readings in Textual Semiotics in 1971 – provides a perfect light lunch with a couple of glasses of excellent wine and we reminisce about Derek.
Derek was the senior English Fellow at Emmanuel when I was appointed as a Research Fellow and it was he , a conservative medievalist, who thus offered me, a radical modernist, the first and indispensable rung on the academic ladder. The paradox is less acute than might first appear. Medievalists have long espoused the fundamentally anthropological approach which was the intellectual underpinning of the Parisian radicalism of the sixties and, at least in Cambridge, conservatives and radicals held each other in intellectual esteem reserving their scorn for the outdated Leavisites who, by the early seventies were an utterly spent intellectual force. Actually Derek didn’t scorn anybody He was a patient listener, even to youthful diatribes against the old, and he had the art of making the gentlest of arguments in a very self deprecating way. This meant that it was impossible to ignore what he said. He was the most persuasive advocate of the truths of conservatism that I have met.
When I left Emmanuel after two years to take up an assistant lectureship in the English Faculty and a Fellowship at King’s he had a very secure place in my affections. At that time Assistant lectureship lasted 5 years at the end of which the Faculty had to decide whether to convert it into a full one. In my case they decided to do so by a vote of 10-9, a vote which accurately reflected that the Faculty was hopelessly divided between a Leavisite rump and an unlikely coalition of radicals and conservatives. The full lectureship created, I still had to be appointed to the job and the appointments committee voted 4-3 against me. This vote was followed by a period in which the university tried to find ways of keeping me while respecting its own devolved constitution. Towards the end of this period and when it was becoming clear to me that, unbelievably on any objective academic criteria, I would not be appointed, Derek was named to the appointments committee. I went to see him to ask that he request the vote be retaken. In some ways, even when I look back on it, it was a remarkable conversation. But in that Michaelmas term of my fifth year I had had so many unbelievable conversations with so many of the university’s senior figures that nothing surprised and I was very fond of Derek. He said that it had been suggested that the case be re-opened but that there were voices, arguing for a quiet life, who said that I was anyway going to leave Cambridge to pursue a more worldly career. I said to him that it was not a question of my future but one of simple justice. I said that I felt like a small boy who had been set upon by a gang of bullies and that such bullying should not be rewarded. We left the conversation there but a couple of days later he rang to tell me , in a very solemn voice which did not invite conversation, that he would be asking for the vote to be retaken.
This time the vote was 4-3 in my favour but 5 votes were needed for an appointment and the stage was now set for ‘The MacCabe Affair”. It was difficult then, and it has been impossible since, to explain to anyone outside the walls that I had no animus against Cambridge, indeed that the university had treated me as a prince of the blood for a decade. Derek’s actions, which were brave as well as honourable, stood for the good faith of the university and my colleges. Above all it meant that I was spared any bitterness, a great boon at such a young age.
By great good luck I had gone to see Derek a month before he died. I was apprehensive that his motor neurone disease would be far advanced but apart from the fact he was in a wheelchair, he seemed unchanged and we chatted for nearly an hour much as we had talked thirty years before in Emmanuel.
The memorial service is very moving. Geoffrey Hill reads Herbert’s The Anthem with a passion and intensity which makes one think that one has never heard poetry before. Barry Windeatt his student and colleague of many years delivers a wonderful address which really does evoke the man. Afterwards to Emmanuel. The Front Court can rarely have looked so beautiful – sunlit snow on the ground and a moon hung in a blue sky behind the clock.

January 20th 2009

May 11, 2009

In Pittsburgh I drink less than London for the simple reason that unless I have guests I do not have drink in my apartment. Particularly in deep mid-winter I can go days without alchohol but today I do something very rare. I have brought a good bottle of claret and I open it at 11.30 am and sit back to watch Obama’s inauguration.
I have been politically numb for over two decades. That capitalism is subject to recurrent crises of over-production is evident but there is no evidence that a more advanced social organisation will arise from the ashes.
So, like the boys in Empson’s poem, I am simply waiting for the end. But Obama has unnumbed me, made me feel political enthusiasm and fervour. It’s not that I think he can provide an answer, the world’s problems are surely now too grievous and too multiple but I do think that if anyone can, he can. The speech is brilliant – the full resources of American English, the cadences of the black church and a speech in which every paragraph addresses the American people but many bring specific messages to his global audience. Obama is the first leader of the global village.

January 14th 2009

May 11, 2009

The economic crisis has touched the university and there have been two major reorganizations of the spring term courses in the month before Christmas, cutting as many classes as possible. Instead of teaching my normal graduate course, I have been assigned the department’s most basic course: Introduction to Literature. This course is a requirement for anyone wishing to graduate from the university. Our equivalent to algebra for beginners. Dave Bartholomae (chair of department and friend of nearly 25 years) obviously thinks that I’ll be out of my depth. None of the class will be literature majors and as it’s an evening class, many will have just completed a full day’s work. I am worried about it being an evening class, many of the students will be dead tired before the class begins and the class lasts two and a half hours, but I jest at his worry that I will be thrown by such novice students of literature. When young I did like to teach at the top of my intellectual range – look, granny how clever I am. But now my granny and, indeed, my mummy, are dead and to teach someone with no training in literary studies to read a great poem for the first time gives me as much if not more of a kick as to explain patiently to a class of graduate students why the category of post-colonial interesting if wrong when first formulated by the Bengali Subaltern Studies as a solution to the failures of national liberation has now become an alibi for refusing to analyse the current world of colonial domination where currency and commodity markets and the economies of illegal drugs and military have imposed a colonialism more draconian than ever imagined by the old empires . However my first class has really thrown me. In a class of twenty less than half have read one novel and only three are conscious of ever having read a poem. This is indeed uncharted territory. I have spent almost all the week planning a suitable course. Two novels – The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye – chosen as much for their short length as their undoubted quality and a series of texts and film adaptations from Romeo and Juliet to Mystic River. I am also going to make them all bring in their favourite song and to examine its lyrics after we have all listened to it.
But first, and there is no ducking this , must come poetry. Each class will start with a poem but before that we must devote a whole class to poetry, to try to make them thrill to that use of language which depends on no aid from music or spectacle. I start with The Road not taken by Frost and they quickly understand the play of tenses which make the poem so compelling. But Marvell’s To his Coy Mistress really gets them all going. The wit of the opening stanza, the horrible imagery of the second ( the worms shall try thy long preserved virginity) and the triumphant challenge to time of the third all work the magic I first encountered in my sixth form. I do not trouble them by telling them that this paean to heterosexual love was, as modern scholarship surmises, written by a homosexual and even possibly written as false proof of his heterosexuality. Marvell seems to have known something of the urgency of sexual love – let’s leave it at that. Shelley’s Ozymandias is also something of a hit. The simple irony of “ look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ works well with the repeated footage of the toppling of the huge statue of Saddam. In the mid-term exam I will ask whether they think there will be a statue of George Bush and where it will be built.
Spurred on by these successes I try ‘ The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’. The fundamental stance of the poem – the young man of 21 gazing with comic despair at his middle-aged self is very difficult for a generation, which like mine, has only imagined itself young. But they are all young enough to recognize the pathos of this love song:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

The class ends and I breathe a sigh of relief. From now on the term will be downhill all the way