The deplorable in pursuit of the unwatchable

Apparently one of David Cameron’s favourite films: Lindsay Anderson and David Sherwin’s IF… made under the Eady Levy, a scheme to promote British cinema which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher.

So, our glorious leader David Cameron (“He’s a CUNT!” shouts Fiona whenever his bulging-sausage face besmirches our cathode rays) wants the National Lottery to support “commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions.”

Of course, anyone caught making a film which supersedes the quality and impact of the best international films will become an immediate pariah and have all funding withdrawn. Nothing like aiming for the middle.

And also of course, by “impact” Cameron means box office. There IS a debate to be had about whether film should be funded purely as a profit-making concern, or at least partly for artistic, cultural reasons like every other art form supported by the Lottery…

David Cameron.

(On the principle that politics is showbusiness for ugly people, who would play Cameron in the film of his life? If Thatcher can have a hagiography like THE IRON LADY, why shouldn’t Cameron get his own, THE TAPIOCA LUNGFISH? I see a 40’s era Ray Milland — more attractive than Cameron, which is the way movies do it, but smarmy and just a little too chubby to be trustworthy. Of course, you’d have to CGI-erase the charm, self-awareness and humour.)

Cameron points to THE KING’S SPEECH as the kind of blockbuster we should be seeking to make more of. As the producers of that movie could tell you, it nearly didn’t see the light of day because none of the potential funders saw it as a blockbuster. It did eventually receive support from The Film Council, which Cameron abolished.

Since nobody, apparently, can predict what will be a hit, Cameron’s battle cry is a bit like saying “Can everybody please buy more WINNING lottery tickets.” In fact, it’s exactly like that.

There are, in fact, ways to increase your chances of box office success. I will list them —

(1) Pick a subject already known by, and interesting to, the public. Screenwriter Terry Rossio (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) calls this “staking out a piece of mental real estate.” The easy way is to acquire a hot property like Harry Potter or Warhorse, but that takes money. But Robin Hood, the Loch Ness monster and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are copyright-free. And, as Warners in the ’30s knew well, any topic which sells tabloid papers can sell movies — as long as you add the magic ingredients of story and sex appeal. This takes talent, of course, an imponderable quality often, apparently, hard for executives to recognize.

(2) Use a familiar genre and/or clear tone so that the public can clearly grasp the kind of pleasure on offer. Convey this in the title, poster and trailer. (Note: if your title is LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS and your film is NOT about lesbians who kill vampires, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.)

(3) The above depends on the filmmakers actually knowing the kind of pleasure on offer. In the days of British Screen, I could never work out if anyone involved in HOUSE OF AMERICA or THE LOW DOWN actually had a clear idea what form of pleasure they were attempting to provide.

(4) And that’s about it. Stars, and a massive publicity campaign could help, but those cost money. Controversy is free, but the mechanisms of the funding process exist to prevent genuinely divisive films ever happening.

That’s entertainment!

If Cameron had actually proposed something like the above, I might have semi-agreed with him. But following the above plan wouldn’t result in all our films being successful, or even defensible. SEX LIVES OF THE POTATO MEN, which became, perhaps unfairly, the whipping boy for those who wanted to bash the Film Council, had two hot TV stars and a clear genre and tone, though it was clearly following the gross-out comedy trend at rather an extreme historical distance. And it actually aroused some controversy, although not a very helpful kind: it was all, “this film is dire, horrible and unfunny, how did it ever get made?” Not all publicity, it seems, is good publicity.

The fear is that everybody would end up making movies patterned after the Hollywood majors’ rather limiting set of cookie-cutter patterns. But this certainly needn’t be the case. Would following the ideas above limit the kind of work we made? Not if it were accompanied by an understanding that a successful industry should make the biggest possible range of product. Trends change so fast in cinema that an attempt to concentrate on one particular genre, budgetary scale or group of stars will result in almost instant obsolescence.

Ken Loach has put forward the radical notion that we should try funding a wide variety of films, some of which would find commercial success. He’s actually right. I usually get the impression that Loach despises everything that isn’t his kind of dreary social realism, but at least he admits the need for more than one flavour to be on offer. An American producer at Edinburgh Film Fest in the 90s said “You only make about four kinds of film in the UK. You have your Merchant-Ivory period dramas. You have your boysie gangster films. You have Ken Loach social realism, and you have what I call “social realism lite” — the BILLY ELLIOT kind of films.”

Since then, not much has changed except the options have shrunk. In the wake of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, everyone who had a naff gangster script decaying in their slush pile hastened to vomit it up onto the screen, alienating the audiences who had been starving for a bit of GET CARTER type energy (the empty but stylish GANGSTER NO 1 and the rather more interesting SEXY BEAST arrived just too late, after all the goodwill was gone). The Ivory Merchants and their heritage cinema withered owing to galloping sciatica (with THE KING’S SPEECH scoring a hit partly because it was a kind of entertainment we hadn’t seen for a while). And social realism in both its sterile forms seems to lack the ambition to actually tackle the major political themes of the day.

In addition, we’ve seen some attempts to reinvigorate the moribund British horror film and the British comedy — the colossal success of THE IN-BETWEENERS MOVIE on UK screens harkens back to the days of George Formby, or Hammer’s big screen versions of popular sitcoms — a small film can be a big hit in a purely local way by pitching at an audience it knows to exist. Meanwhile, Optimum and Ealing are raping their back catalogues and remaking everything that used to work, on the basis that if they flip the coin enough times it’ll come up heads — but they haven’t grasped that this is one of those polyhedronic dice used in Dungeons & Dragons and heads is only one of about a thousand facets.

What’s largely missing, except in a minority of the horror and a few non-generic exceptions, is any actual ambition to do anything good. The remake guys may fool themselves into thinking that by recycling something that once had vigour and passion and blood in its veins, they’re continuing a tradition of quality, but that’s true only in the sense that chinless, twelve-toed products of in-breeding represent a continuation of their once-proud race. By remaking something that was perfectly good to begin with, you are (a) setting yourself up to fail (b) confessing your lack of imagination (c) staining the memory of the original and (d) hitching your wagon to something which was heading in the right direction forty years ago but is no longer a reliable indicator of the current zeitgeist.

In their largely brainless way, the remake whores have latched on to point (1) — mental real estate. Except they really are kidding themselves if they think the title BRIGHTON ROCK has any hold upon the film-going public of this country today. Instead of traducing the best stuff in their back catalogue, they should be looking for promising ideas that were fumbled the first time — movies where the bad choice made decades ago can help you locate the right approach, where the topic or the name of the author or the title or the genre gives you a commercial hook but you’re actually seeking to improve something rather than copy it. And the good news, if you take that approach, is that the Canal+ library and the other back catalogues contain far more unsuccessful films than they do classics. You’ll be spoilt for choice!

Or, you could emulate the best films of the past by refusing to emulate, and striking out into fresh territory.

49 Responses to “The deplorable in pursuit of the unwatchable”

  1. You’d think society as a whole would get tired of remakes by now.

    Wouldn’t you?

    And I’ve found if you follow directors whose work you enjoy, you’ll find a stead (if mind-numbingly slow) stream of new, interesting films.

    Great post!

  2. I enjoyed this article. I might adapt it for a remake.

  3. Adam — yes, one good function of a National Lottery might be to see that our best filmmakers are kept busy. The usual suspects are getting pretty long in the tooth, though, so you would also have to dig out some new talent, and maybe give a fresh chance to promising talents like Ben Hopkins and Paul McGuigan (difficult but talented) who fell through the cracks.

    Anthony — heh.

  4. (Lovely post btw)

  5. Pippa The Lesbian Vampire. It’s got everything: sex, violence, silly hats.

  6. Beautiful love scenes like the above are definitely out under Cameron.

    (Larry Kramer recently told me that when he was in the UK for the shooting of Women in Love he had a brief, but needless to say memorable fling with Richard Warwick. Yes, he was fantastic in bed.)

  7. This reminds me of a situation my wife found herself in a few years ago. The Governor of our state was a huge film fan and regaled people with his Robert DeNiro impression when anyone was around. He loved putting problems of the state into the context of his favorite mob films and TV shows.

    I guess his love of films didn’t extend to his constituents, at least the weakest ones.

    He cut funds out of the state budget that would allow films to be shown in state-run nursing homes. When my wife brought this to the attention of the film fanatic Governor, he shouted at her.

    “Don’t you understand what these things cost?”

    He didn’t have a good film analogy for this one.

  8. Paul Duane Says:

    Kill List (quibbles re final section aside) and Skeletons seem to me to be the green shoots of a genuinely intriguing new British cinema, but I can’t see anybody on Cameron’s team giving them the nod.

  9. “Blancmange faced cunt” if you don’t mind.

  10. The adjective varies, the noun is inviolate.

    I just got Skeletons, have to find a slot for it!

  11. “indieLONDON: After Get Carter, didn’t you say that you should only ever remake bad movies?

    Michael Caine: Yes, I thought that. We remade a bad movie that starred David Niven and Marlon Brando and we called it Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The first one wasn’t funny at all. If you remake a very good movie, you’re kind of on a hiding to nothing. I would never have remade [original Sleuth writer] Tony Shaffer’s script. But with Pinter’s script, there isn’t a single line from the original script. So, for me it’s not like a remake at all. It’s a double whammy for me, because I’m not playing the same part anyway. To remake Get Carter and Alfie, which were both very good movies, was a mistake in the first place I thought – and I was even in the Get Carter remake because Sly Stallone was a friend of mine, and he said: “Come and walk on for a day…” So I did it for a joke.”

  12. …and for money.

    He’s right, except that Bedtime Story is just as funny as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and it repeats a lot of the same schtick verbatim. But yes, it was a fair target for remaking.

    BEFORE the Get Carter remake, Sir Michael said “I’m all in favour of it, as long as I get a part.” He knows which side his bread is buttered on.

  13. Seriously, Loch Ness Mobster needs to see the light of day: you even mention 1930s Warners in the same paragraph!

    I’d add one further genre that seems to crop up disproportionately often in British cinema, the coming-of-age film, sometimes though not always served with a slice of social commentary. (Fish Tank, Submarine, Son of Rambow, Sixty Six, Bend it Like Beckham, Beautiful Thing, etc., etc., etc.)

  14. It grafts onto social realism and social realism lite so readily!

    OK, so we need to get to Cameron and pitch him the idea of a cigar-smoking plesiosaur with a tommy gun.

  15. Which genre does “Robinson in Ruins” fit into?

  16. That would come under the heading of “non-generic exceptions” mentioned in passing above. And also as a good example of the kind of work for which a sliver of Lottery money should be earmarked, so we can at least argue we care about cultural content.

    Keiller is a national treasure who should be on some kind of stipend to make a film a year.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    In the remake of GET CARTER, Caine finally gets the chance to say a line often attributed to him by impersonators, “Not many people know that.” There he is one up on Johnny (Me Tarzan, You Jane”) Weismuller and James (“You dirty rat” )Cagney.

  18. Keith H. Brown Says:

    Isn’t there something of a contradiction between suggesting the use of out of copyright sources like Robin Hood and the likelihood that they will already have been used as the basis for many films before, thus setting yourself up to fail on account of being seen as a remake?

  19. John Seal Says:

    I assume Stephen Fry will be cast as David Cameron when the time comes. Rupert Grint will co-star as coalition sidekick Danny Alexander.

    But who will play Michael Gove??

  20. Spike, the baby from Eraserhead, is presumably all grown up now and available for work (Haven’t seen him in anything lately)…

    Now George Osborne, that’s difficult…

    Keith, I don’t think a Robin Hood movie need be a remake as such — Robin and Marian, in the 70s, was the first film to put on screen the famous death scene. And the BBC’s rubbish TV show owes nothing to Fairbanks.

    But I don’t necessarily suggest that all British films follow my three/four step plan — I was just trying to find a formula to put flesh on Cameron’s thin, airy bones of a thought.

  21. “If…….” is one of Cameron’s favourite films????????? Don’t make me laugh. This strikes me as one of those toe-curling attempts to be cool that politicians always engage in when asked about their cultural tastes. Was Cameron a rebel at Eton? Was he sent down for dope smoking? Shagging his housemaster’s wife? Daubing anarchist slogans on the wall of the chapel? Climbing onto the roof with an Uzi and murdering half the governing body? I don’t think so.

  22. I imagine he sees the revolution at the end as on a par with his Bullingdon days of shop window smashing, and views the whole thing nostalgically: “Ah, public school! Bogwashing and flagellation!”

    David Cameron also enjoys the Smiths. Of course he does.

  23. Great post. I’m with Fiona … she’s said everything I want to say on the subject.

  24. That was Cameron at the start of that clip, jumping up from the audience and trying to cop a feel off Moz.

  25. david wingrove Says:

    At the risk of being hated by everybody on this blog and beyond, I feel it’s unfair to bash Cameron for NOT being an expert on the film industry – a thing he has never claimed to be.

    The lead in such matters really needs to come from a designated Minister of Culture. Do we have one at the moment? If so, what’s his name? I keep thinking it must be Michael Gove (who is at least culturally literate enough to appear on the Late Review) but he seems to have been shunted off to Education. Or is it all one department these days? The mind boggles!

    The problems with the UK film industry (or lack thereof) strike me as structural and institutional rather than policy-based. No government in our history has ever developed an effective policy for the film industry, or set up an effective framework in which to manage it. In this area, we lag behind the French and the Spanish but a few steps ahead of the Italians. I would be simply amazed if Cameron and his lot were any different.

    Oh, and actually I can imagine Cameron liking IF… He at least seems to have a sense of humour about his public school background, a quality that Tony Blair notably lacked. Not that I’d have wanted either as my House Captain back in the day – but if I’d been given a choice…

  26. When discussing successful remakes of the less than successful, the film that is often cited is The Maltese Falcon, where the third time was the charm. Of course back then they were just re-using a book to make another genre film, not over-calculating the marketing and audience recognition of a property. The current profusion of steroid pumped film versions of American baby-boomer television shows is enough to drive me to…television reruns. At least there the empty headed properties aren’t stretched beyond the hour and half-hour slots they were designed for.

    If David Cameron is bulging-sausage face, would Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich be mashed potato face?

  27. OK, let’s try to be fair to Cameron (the cunt). He’s in the ridiculous position, familiar to politicians, of having to say something meaningful about an industry he’s completely ignorant of. But rather than staying in safe territory like “The King’s Speech was a big hit! Well done!” he actually OFFERS ADVICE. Can you blame anyone for feeling patronized?

    The thought of the combination of Cameron and Gingrich in office is strangely unappetizing, despite my love of sausage and mash.

    Huston’s remake of Maltese Falcon was justifiable — it was a very filmable book which Hollywood had failed to get right. Hollywood has steered clear of doing it again because Huston nailed the casting in an unbeatable way — also because they recognize that the property wouldn’t be a sure hit today, as those who recognize it would resent a remake, and those who don’t might be indifferent.

    All these superhero movies and TV adaptations are a little depressing, partly because the subjects are often not suited for adaptation, partly because the results tend to be samey, and partly because it’s just depressing that they don’t throw the net wider. But I often think that a LITTLE of Hollywood’s love of excitement and fantasy could be a useful infusion into British film. But it still has to be British, because audiences prefer real Hollywood product to the fake kind, and rightly so.

  28. Facial slabbery aside, I think that the proper comparison for Cameron isn’t Newt Gingrich but Willard “Mitt” Romney, sensibly amoral moneybags. Cunt, meet Asshole. Mere asshole, that is, as opposed to grandiose sociopath, walnut-brained moron, prune-hearted bigot, hysterical closet-case, or any of the rest of the lovable GOP stock company.

  29. In this sense Cameron is David Puttnam 2.0

  30. At least Puttnam started out with some promise, working on The Final Programme and Ken Russell’s Mahler. His decline into heritage porn is mirrored latterly by Working Title’s slip from vaguely ballsy Alex Cox movies to Love Actually.

  31. Would you include Merchant-Ivory under heritage porn? If so, I think some of their films can actually be subtly subversive, as well as the idea(l) of England being represented by two gay non-British men working with a German-Jewish screenwriter.

  32. I think they could be subversive, but I never found them interesting or cinematic with it. The bereft esthetic chimed so nicely with the establishment that it never seemed to matter that sometimes the content or message, as with Maurice, might be more radical.

  33. isn’t the minister for culture Jeremy hunt/cunt? pace radio howler by james naughtie

    I don’t think jeremey inspires much hope either…

  34. Isn’t he called “heritage minister” or something equally uninspiring? “No, we don’t want any NEW art, we’re full!”

  35. Tony Williams Says:

    As an exile from these distant shores, a refugee from Thatcher in decades past (though Meryl Streep has caught up with me) , I’m feeling like one of those characters in a Walter Scott novel such as REDGAUNTLET noting the changes in society. How passions have now emerged calling “Wee Davie” by the infamous “c” word! Can things be THAT bad? I’m tired of reading about the latest heritage TV production focusing on times past when the lower orders supposedly respected their betters as the WC show last year attempted to do. The same goes for stories about the leading actress leaving DR. WHO that makes the front pages of the internet DAILY TELEGRAPH.

    But what about work in British genes such as the gangster and horror movie as well as other forms of low-budget cinema? Please respond and respect my genteel sensibilities if you can. I’m still shocked by hearing the “c” word associated with a Scottish lassie far removed from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Catriona.

  36. I’ve censored Fiona’s response ;)

    After the glut of inadequate comedy gangster movies, the genre has been somewhat moribund, though signs of life are re-appearing. Horror movies and ghost stories also show signs of activity, but there’s nothing you could call a “movement” yet.

    Attack the Block was a promising sign — a film addressing British society by way of imaginative and exciting genre drama.

  37. Attack the Block is really wonderful energetic, engaging INTELLIGENT – seek it out at once.

  38. It’s just starting to make an impact on DVD in America, I believe.

  39. I have tried to read your article more than once and it is clear that you don’t even make an attempt to argue a cohesive point or story. You neither argue a clear and concise point nor commit to one that is your own. If you believe Cameron is a cunt then have the courage and conviction to say it yourself, rather than hide behind someone else’s words so that you can’t be held accountable, if the view you “argue” is seen as deplorable. More likely, since your writing is purely speculative and lacks any confidence, I’m guessing you are very uncomfortable with your identity. You argue that Cameron is untrustworthy bc he is fat. Where is the logic there? It doesn’t even work as a metaphor, it just makes you sounds small, prejudice, and humorless. This is all that has been conveyed in your lengthy verbal diarrhea. Your words and thoughts are a disease to creativity and to the collective unconscious.
    Further, you pussy foot around with words without actually conveying anything other than your subjective view of the world, as though its holy and or fact. If everything you say is to be believed, then you are just blogging about how shallow you are, which you may or may not be aware of. I am going to guess you are not bc likely you’re not strong enough to be completely honest with yourself.

  40. I would say that I make a number of scattershot points in the post. Maybe they don’t add up to a single argument, but maybe that wasn’t my intention.

    Of course, I think Cameron’s a cunt too (he’s currently trying to make a lot of families on benefits homeless) — I was merely reporting the kind of lively conversation we have around the house, not hiding behind anyone else’s views.

    I’m actually fatter than Cameron, so I feel entitled to have a go.

    Unfortunately, while arguing that I don’t make any point and simply pour out abuse, you don’t seem to make any point either, and pour out a lot of abuse too. “Your words and thoughts are a disease to creativity” — I mean, is that nice? If you want to argue that Cameron is noble, or that his comments DID make the slightest bit of sense, why not actually attempt to do it instead of spitting vitriol at me?

    I have a theory that the insults we throw at others are very often the things we fear are true of ourselves. But not in the case of me and Cameron — because I’m not trying to make unemployed families homeless.

    You’ll notice that I dispute your argument without saying anything bad about you. Can you manage the same? Can you explain why Cameron is right to go up and lecture the film industry, which he obviously knows nothing about, in a way that makes no sense?

    I look forward to having a reasonable and polite debate on the subject.

  41. Marvellous article and comments but one big very late complaint, what’s with all the traducing of Cunts? I can say hand on something or other that I have a lot of time for cunts (and I’d like a lot more cue Carry On music), how insulting people associate things I love with things I don’t… Heh. (seriously, I’ve never understood the use of that word in those negative contexts but that’s just me!)

  42. The solution to this quandary is to abandon the word as a female part descriptor and concentrate on its prime ministerial applications.

  43. Ah, still don’t like it but if used as many people do I suppose it’s apposite except it can’t be separated from what it means so I find that uncomfortable (calling someone a cock is silly and amusing if not complimentary but to use the other is the worst thing you can call someone, it seems dubious, yes, I think to much, if not well)! Your solution regarding its prime ministerial has merit but how I wish that the word hoard provided more alternatives (he blithers pompously).

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