In Paris again, and the first face I see on the television is Daniel Cohn Bendit, who looks even older than I do, but then he is older than I am. In fact he makes rather a good joke when he says that in four years he will throw a huge party because then he will finally have become a soixante huitard. I had failed to understand how fed up the French were with the ridiculous Sarkosy and all the smart money is now saying that the socialists have reorganised and will win in 2012. The smart money seems to have forgotten that the socialists don’t have an idea in their heads and hate each other with a rare passion. I determine to put some money on Cohn-Bendit for president in 2012 after I breakfast with Marie Pierre Hauville who thinks that it is not an impossible dream. So after a Hungarian Jew, the French may opt for a deported German Jew. Perhaps it is time to believe again in progress.
Archive for March, 2010
Back in London, on spring break, I have been asked by the art gallery Raven Row to come to a discussion about the Edinburgh Film Festival and particularly the Brecht and cinema event of 1975 that was organized with Screen magazine. I’m intrigued but also alarmed at how little I can remember. I rope in Mark Nash at the last minute. Mark edited Screen in the latter part of the seventies and was a witness to the unbelievable level of psychic violence and personal aggression into which the Screen board degenerated, as it became a huge success. As I expect the evening to be one of nostalgic self-congratulation, I want someone in the audience who knows how ghastly it all became. In fact as we have a drink the night before Mark reminds me that, after I had left Screen, the whole saga had a truly tragic end as Claire Johnstone who had been a major force in transforming the Edinburgh film festival in the seventies descended into madness and suicide.
Raven Row is a bright well constructed gallery fizzing with ideas and exhibitions and the evening begins to feel better. I’m delighted to find that one of the Gallery staff Sue Haddon was a Consortium student but I’m ashamed that I don’t remember her until she reminds me that in her student days she was a punk and, suddenly her face swims into memory. Lauren Wright, one of my very favourite Consortium students, always fizzing with energy and ideas, is also there with the great news that she’s passed her Ph.D viva and got a job.
The curators (as everybody now seems to be called) have chosen well in getting a full range of left positions in the cinema. Margaret Dickinson, who worked with Simon Hartog represents the left within the industry, Felicity Sparrow represents the Co-op which supported avant garde film making over five decades, Noreen MacDowell represents the most activist film making. The trouble is that 40 years ago there was no agreed discourse and the intervening years haven’t helped. Paul Willemen who was married to Claire Johnstone might have tried but Paul was always, in my view, violently sectarian and if his beard and hair are now white, age has not mellowed his face or his analysis. He starts the evening with a triumphalist account of Edinburgh in the seventies that, although intelligent, is busy fighting battles more ancient than Thermopylae. When I speak I stress that I haven’t the knowledge to contribute much to the discussion. I wasn’t someone who worked in the industry in the seventies, I wasn’t even a cinephile. I came back from a year studying with Althusser and Derrida in Paris and was asked to lunch in the Lee Ho Fook by Peter Wollen and Sam Rohdie. Brecht’s writings on the cinema had just been translated into French and very rapidly I found myself editing the magazine with Ben Brewster in a period that I still remember as full of excitement and hope. But that period was very brief. Whatever Screen might have contributed to film culture effectively came to an end when all the members of the editorial board closely associated with secondary education resigned. By an irony of history that only hits me when the very efficient Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner send me an electronic copy,the edition of Screen that published the proceedings of the Brecht Edinburgh event also included their letter of resignation.
I end by leaving the particular and turning to the general failure of collective efforts to live and work differently in the seventies. These failures involved huge numbers in the developed world but the fictions, memoirs, histories that might enable us to understand that moment do not exist. The failures were so bitter and damaging that no-one can bear to think about them. But only when that history is understood might we challenge the extraordinary ideological dominance of neo-liberalism.
I am hoping that some of the young people in the room will speak but most of the evening is oldies bemoaning the present. As I have decided, as a spiritual exercise, to resist these pleasures I am unable to join them. When finally a youngish person does speak it is not to offer any historical analysis, there is an invocation of politics but the politics invoked is in fact the residues of the discourse of the Third International without any realisation of what discourse is being spoken nor that its political and economic analyses are completely discredited. This indeed is the ‘politics’ which features in so much postcolonial and art discourse. It may signify a desire but otherwise it has no meaning whatsoever. The words of Franco Fortini (from the first issue of Screen that I edited with Ben Brewster in 1974) come back to me “ It may be that we have not yet despaired enough”. And yet the energy and vibe of the place is not at all despairing. More paradoxes.
Now that Flavia is retired she can come out and spend some time with me in Pittsburgh. The best month in terms of our timetables is February but February in Pittsburgh is grim winter so, when I book her trip in October, I plan a weekend in Los Angeles as a respite. This forward planning seems a stroke of genius after Pittsburgh experiences its worst February in recorded time. Well before the end of the month more snow has fallen than in any months since they began keeping such statistics in the nineteenth century.
As we drive through the sunlit avenues of Los Angeles I feel , for the first time since I stopped producing, a twinge of regret that I am no longer in the game. I suppose that is because Hollywood remains the one unrealized ambition. Not that it was an ambition when I started as Head of Production in 1985. The world of British independent film, of the BFI and Channel 4 was at that time a world sufficient unto itself. Indeed you could say that professionally my producing world was the world of films that could not get an American distributor. And in my early years as I made an annual visit to Hollywood, the studios seemed terminally stupid, always wanting to make last year’s hit with last year’s stars – I think it was Pretty Woman, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts the first year I had these monotonous conversations. However, over time I realized that they weren’t stupid, just businesslike. Making last year’s hit with last year’s stars was good steady business. Making this year’s hit was very risky business indeed, risk that the studios left to the independents. I really warmed to Hollywood in l989 when our sales agent had a screening of Venus Peter and Sabrina Guiness, always a great source of local information, took me and Christopher Hitchens to the Marquis on Sunset for brunch. I was entranced by the hotel with its pools, lawns and a clientele almost exclusively of British rock stars with appalling haircuts. From then on, I stayed at the Marquis and whether it was chance, charm or being mistaken for one of the rock stars, I would always book the cheapest room and then be upgraded to a magnificent villa. Finally I also did serious business there – but it wasn’t producing features but buying clips for our documentaries on the history of film. Paul Jalfon and I used even throw drinks for the poor executives who worked in the clip licensing departments. But when we closed Minerva’s offices in 2002, there was no longer any excuse to go back. By then I had encountered enough of Hollywood at its most vicious to know that I couldn’t deal with the agents, an essential Hollywood producer skill.
I hadn’t thought about any of this for a long time but as we crossed La Cienega on Sunday morning en route for the very disappointing La Brea Museum and the tar pits where they dug out the sabre tooth tiger ( ok cat) and the huge mammoths, I said to Flavia “Let’s go and have brunch at the Sunset Marquis”. Of course, the place had changed, the most beautiful lawn covered with a huge restaurant, the pool shortened and the villas being remodeled. We had a very nice meal and promised ourselves that we would come back but the Sunset I stayed at in the nineties has receded into the past along with my fleeting ambitions to be a Hollywood producer.