Britishness seemed to be main motif in BBC’s broadcast of the BAFTAS Sunday evening. When host Stephen Fry mentioned that the event was the highlight of the British Film Calendar, he backtracked as he heard what he was saying and asked: Is there such a thing as a British Film Calendar?
He did well to ask because the constellation of stars he took great trouble to show off — Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks – is no different than what we’d expect to see at the Oscars, though at the Oscars one wouldn’t have had to rely on Twitter to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina wore matching Yves St. Laurent tuxedos, Lily Allen was in Vivienne Westwood, Amy Adams wore Victoria Beckham and Cate Blanchett wore McQueen – there would have been a whole series of programmes right up to the start of the broadcast breathlessly recounting every aspect in great details and using the very latest technological developments to broadcast every stitch to an eager public and garner worldwide unpaid publicity for the giant fashion houses. But as Oprah Winfrey said before the show started, ‘this (the Baftas) is not about glitz and glamour’.
But what are the BAFTAS about? What are they for? Presumably it’s to honour, celebrate and promote British Cinema. But one really wouldn’t have known that from the nominees of Best Film (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorcese) Best Actor (Christian Bale, Bruce Dern Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tom Hanks) or even Best Actress (Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson). Indeed when the first award of the evening was announced and Gravity won for Best British Film, the twittersphere went into a frenzy of speculation as to what was British about it with Droo Padhiar of Peccadillo pictures insisting ‘It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British Film’. Three times. Just in case one didn’t get the message.
Of course, one need not get too purist about these things. If the nominations don’t necessarily reflect a particular definition of British cinema, one which would probably run something along the lines of: films predominantly financed in Britain, about British stories, with a predominantly British cast and crew (Philomena, The Selfish Giant would be unproblematic examples), they do reflect British film culture: the films celebrated are the films that have entertained, delighted and informed us here, be they British or not. Moreover, later in the show when Cuarón returned to the stage to collect his award for Best Director and had presumably been made aware of the brouhaha over Gravity’s win for Best British Film he said, softly but pointedly: ‘I consider myself part of the British Film Industry. I’ve lived here for 13 years and made about half my films here. I guess I make a good case for the curbing of immigration.’ Yet, at the end of his speech, the cinematic culture Cuarón feels a part of was made clear and partly contradicted his earlier statement when he thanked Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, Mexican compadres and current colleagues in the higher reaches of global cinema. ‘I wouldn’t order breakfast before consulting them first,’ he said.
The Britishness of the BAFTAS was visible at oblique angles and at ‘special’ moments; thus the event was hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, one won the ‘Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film’, or the ‘David Lean Award for Outstanding Direction’. The Britishness was also evident in the special awards presented. Thus we had the pleasure of seeing Juliet Stevenson, still truly, madly and deeply dazzling with her looks and her eloquence praise Peter Greenway as a visionary who challenged existing cinematic forms and pushed the boundaries of where cinema and painting meet, and to award him the ‘Michael Balcoln Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema’. Greenaway graciously expressed his surprise and commented on the changes in contemporary cinema: It’s not the same as the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. Cinema has to be continuously reinvented.’ Tellingly, the person he singled out for thanks was his Dutch producer Kees Kasander who he said somehow always managed to put together the money for the British director to realise his singular works (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, etc). Such is filmmaking today.
A concern with Britishness and the forms of its articulation continued as a recurring motif. Earlier in the show, after Stephen Fry introduced her as a ‘ghastly piece of shrieking, stinking offal, Emma Thomson replied, ‘Is it me or being British that makes being referred to as stinking offal …makes me feel so much better about myself.’ The finale of the evening was when HRH The Duke of Cambridge in his role as President of BAFTA introduced Jeremy Irons to really bring out the pomp and ceremony and recount the highlights Helen Mirren’s career. Accepting the award for her Fellowship of the BAFTAS, Mirren first thanked her old teacher, Alice Welding, who recently died at the age of 102 for having inspired her to desire to live in a world of literature and poetry; and then finished off her acceptance speech with a dazzling oration that invoked both acting and Albion, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on’ speech from The Temptest:
Our revels are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-cappe’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all of which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
is rounded with a sleep
It was a rather theatrical and very British end to a BAFTAS that saw 12 Years a Slave, a film which had Channel Four money, a British director and a large British cast, win Best Film but Gravity with its American money and cast and its Mexican director win Best British film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, black and British, won Best Actor. Oh and The Great Beauty the winner of Best Foreign Film didn’t even make it to the broadcast and was put in the little ‘These awards were handed out earlier’ addendum after the end of the main programme. The Britishness of these BAFTAS seems to be defined by placing America at the centre, various articulations of Britishness on the margins or ‘specialised’ categories, and Europeans out of the picture.
A shorter version of this was published in the conversation as https://theconversation.com/baffled-baftas-dont-know-how-to-be-british-23162
I didn’t think much of this when I first saw it and seeing it again on DVD leaves an even worse impression. The only thing that’s still fresh and interesting is Jennifer Lawrence. The rest is very clunky and already rather cheap-looking. Even having District 12 look like a photo of the Great Depression and having the place where all the rich people live look like Berlin circa 1936, à la Leni Riefenstahl, is too obvious, too uninteresting; and the Marie Antoniette haircuts and so on — I understand the rationale but it’s over-emphatic and inelegant: does even the makeup have to be slathered on to make these people ugly? The film doesn’t have the same kind of sympathy for these characters that the novel had and that the film will have to earn in the sequels. Nobody and nothing is really good or sharp. I particularly disliked Stanley Tucci, who keeps playing fey cultural deviants in one smug note, one that would kiss itself with glee were it able to pop in from another dimension … and yet, the film was one of the most popular of its year. But was it loved? I doubt it.
A mother (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) move to a different place to start a new life together. The mother has until now been neglectful. Each has something to prove to the other. Their new home is near a semi-deserted house where the son (Max Theriot) of a family who were actually murdered by their own daughter lives. As The House at the End of the Street is teen-horror, Jennifer Lawrence confronts all the clichés of the genre; she encounters the cool crowd but rejects the sex and drugs; the town bullies victimize the object of her affection etc. Of course, everything is not as it seems and nothing is surprising.
Of interest is the use of meth (which I take to be used as a metaphor for the state of American culture in many works across film and television at the moment, most famously of course in Breaking Bad), again shown here as the reason why the parents are too zombified to notice one of their children has fallen of a swing. The other issue of interest, this time in particular relation to Jennifer Lawrence films, is the extent to which dead, distracted or absent mothers figure (In The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone they’re both present and absent (due to mental problems and meth respectively). Here Elizabeth Shue is the woman who was a slutty party girl in her youth, has been a neglectful mother and wants to make it up all in one go. The film would seem to be a vindication for her but for the coda where you see the fault for the villain becoming a villain is that his mother treats him like a girl, forces him to be the Carrie-Anne whose death was caused by her own neglect.
The film, on the surface at least, seems to have very reactionary politics. At one level it seems to say that the bullying, prejudiced, violent neighbours had been right about the boy who lived down the street thus giving them a reason for their vile behavior (whilst making those who defended him and who died seem to deserve what came to them). It’s a stupid and confused film redeemed only by Lawrence and Shue; Theriot is fine but could have done more with the role (though he is always interesting to look at).
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010) is a quest movie with a deadline: Ree Dolly’s father has put up the family home and the land they live off as bond for his bail. As the film begins, we’re told he’s due to go to court but the Sheriff can’t find him. After he misses his court date, the bail bondsman tells Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) she has a week to get her father to turn himself in or the family will be evicted from their property. Barely seventeen, Ree is presently taking care of her mother, who is clearly suffering from mental illness and a residue of drug addiction, and her two younger siblings, who are too young to feed themselves. They currently live off the land and without it they’re lost. There’s a discussion of separating the children and leaving them with various relatives but the film also intimates that this would make them vulnerable to abuse, though whether it’s sex or drugs or violence is menacingly hinted at without being fully articulated. Ree has no choice but to search for her father. This will put her in the path of danger and in turn offer the audience a prime view of a rural American culture ravaged by poverty and crystal meth.
The centrality of the necessity of the father to the very existence of the home and the family is one of the most powerful structuring elements of this film. Without the father, the family will lose land, house, each other. Ree lives in a patriarchal culture, clearly gendered in relation to tasks (‘don’t you have no menfolk who can do this for you?’ she’s asked). But men just fight, drink, strut, abuse their women and leave them helpless. We not only see them do this but the film underlines men’s absence (even when they are there), their uselessness or threatening presence by the way the film photographs them: in acts of aggression towards woman (fig.1.1-1.2), or far away and out of focus to show that they’re not there or simply won’t help(fig 2), or at a low-angle to make their threat a looming one (fig 3), next to weapons (fig 4), or constantly doing drugs.
A man is necessary but the family is better off by just bringing his bones in and proving he’s dead. The film shows us this over and over again in the conversation that she has with her best friend Gail(who has to ask her husband’s permission to have access to the family truck); in the names given to the men (most prominently Teardrop and Thump Jessop and the interesting dynamic created by the juxtaposition of those two names), in the gentle songs of suffering (mostly country and bluegrass in relation to women with the odd notes of honky-tonk or thrash metal woven in at low volume in relation to men). Men here are a problem; whether it’s the bail bondsmen, the sheriff, the father himself, or the other patriarchs in the film. They’re threatening either when they are the law (the bondsman, the sheriff) or outside the law (drunk, violent, or repressive), even the military recruiter, who is shown as kind, cannot help (and the help he has to offer is one most of us would refuse. Note how what stands between the patriotism signaled American flags on the right of Fig.8.1 and the recruiting poster which avows that the military’s mission is a better future is the reality of Ree’s conditions of existence and the military recruiter’s advice to heed them). Teardrop, as is indicated by his name, is a kind of bridge between a male figure that enables and a masculinity that destroys; he begins oppressively (‘I’ve already told you to shut up with my mouth. Don’t make me have to say it again’) but eventually helps because of bonds of blood (and guilt?).
If men are a problem, women are the solution in this movie. Their faces might be ravaged by meth, they might also take a turn at ‘laying on the hurt’ but they’re also the ones that solve every problem all the patriarchal structures put in place of the family’s survival. And it is through women that Ree finds food (from her neighbor Sonya), emotional sustenance (from her friend Gail, but also that final adoring look her helpless mother gives her at the end) and finally even her father’s bones (through the woman who is attached to the gang leader who had her father killed –the film hints he’s head of a bike gang which is a front for a drug distribution business).
These gendered relationships are supported by labyrinthine set of social mores with extremely codified rules of behavior (depending on gender, kinship, age, and bounded by the school, the military and the law) which we see Ree teaching her younger siblings (e.g. ‘don’t ask for what should be offered’). And they take place in a particular place, the Ozark mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country, here shown as the face of rural America, traditional moonshine land now cranked up and crippled by Crystal Meth. Often we are shown this wintery rural landscape with horses, hay, dead leaves on the floor; a landscape that reaches a peak of beauty in its autumnal dying; and in the midst of this natural setting we’ll see some clothes hanging and a waft of smoke that could be fog before we realize it is really smoke from an illegal lab; the pastoral and the domestic enshrouded and infected by the chemical and the synthetic(see fig 9.1). The culture of the market is seen as a culture of crime (what we see constantly on demand and constantly being supplied is drugs); manufacturing is here shown as only the making of poison and forgetting (there’s a haunting travelling shot following our heroine and another woman through a junkyard full of old cars, a cemetery of an America with no place to go which is very reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Depression photographs of car graveyards, (See Fig. 5.2); education is shown in relation to taking care of babies and marching with guns; American individualism at its most extreme is shown as an underage girl with no social safety net having to risk her life for basic food and shelter.
In Winter’s Bone the American century is over. The most striking images in the film are those of decay and here they mourn what America has become. But instead of setting the action in a retro future as in Blade Runner or other futuristic dystopias of a previous era of American Cinema (The Running Man, Total Recall, the Robocop films, the Aliens films, etc.), Winter’s Bone’s dystopia is constructed from putting an idea of the past in the present rather than in the future. The film is set in the rural heartland and we are made to see it as a problem that not much has changed since the days when Elvis was a child and his mama could only cook squirrel on shortening. In fact the places and faces very much evoke Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs (see Figs 6.1-3)
We see not a culture of consumption but the remains of one, its detritus is everywhere but the things themselves are no longer affordable. Children ride their old, dirty toy horses on trampolines. But this is a consumer culture where the evidence of an abundance of things is only a sign of the lack of essentials (almost industrial size trampolines but no food; gun rather than book displays at the High School, bars and all-night convenience shops but no churches or other places where people can socialize). We do see a gathering with Marideth Sisco singing but the song is Fair and Tender Maidens (‘To all the fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your man. They’re like a star on the Summer’s morning, they first appear and then they’re gone… I wish to the lord I’d never seen him. Or in his cradle he had died…’).
What hope the film offers is one centered on human will and character rather than institutions (‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going nowhere’, says Ree at the end). Children have to be taught to shoot, and gut animals in order to survive (‘There’s a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of real soon,’ Ree tells her brother). The film shows a regression into a social organization that offers no structures of support except kinship, which it simultaneously posits as the greatest danger to the individual and to the family.
Winter’s Bone is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rossellini. It’s a rare American film that places a woman at the centre of the action, this is rarer still in that the narrative takes us through a relay of female characters for the action to be completed and it does so through a woman’s point-of-view. But greater still is the film’s creation of a new archetype which Jessie Lawrence embodies with warmth and purpose. For whilst people like Ree might not be new in life, they are rare in mainstream representation: a woman that we first see in the home making breakfast; who takes care of her Mom and her sibling but is good with a gun; who’s ashamed of her father’s dealing and snitching but finds room to love him; who considers joining the army and embarks on her dangerous journey to save her home; this is a representation we’ve not seen much in cinema before: a young girl takes out a gun to nourish her siblings and risks her life to fulfill the obligations her parents cannot meet; her duty and her actions exceed her obligations; and importantly they centre on a domesticity that this film finds courageous.
That Ree is so earthily brought to life by Lawrence, and that this actress playing this character connected with audiences so vividly that the type was almost instantly reprised in The Hunger Games, is something to celebrate. In it’s mourning for what America has become the film has also created a new idea of person who might yet transform that culture for the better. The film’s dystopia is the culture that now is; it’s utopia is that the type of person who can make it better is a woman, and one who doesn’t need men to keep the house going.