Blunt phoenix pits itself against Hollywood


October 26, 2001

Do we need another film journal/magazine? I mean one that is not panting to tell us what Hollywood is currently chewing on. The publication of Enthusiasm raises the question in an acute form. Beckett-like, the magazine was born and died with its first issue in December 1975. Poorly designed with a small, difficult-to-read font, the issue was devoted wholly to Jean-Marie Straub, an acquired taste even then. But this was intentional. The editor was "not much interested in industry-produced films, B-pictures, genre melodramas or whatever all these fashionable little boxes are called". The magazine's aim - "to promote those who work without compromise and who forward the development of film-making" - was a little heroic. At a time when idealism became suspect, Enthusiasm's demise was inevitable.

In the summer of 2000 it was reborn, and there are now three new-style issues. The Thatcher years, the Major interregnum and the new Labour continuum have done it a power of good. Enthusiasm has re-invented itself and come out fighting. It is now handsomely published in monochrome, with just a coarsely screened close-up face on the cover, well designed and easy to read with generous space around the text and stills. Each issue has a challenging editorial and ends with provocation from the editor and others; interviews constitute the core. The aim is now a "blunt confrontation of cinema versus the movies ie art versus commerce". I have yet to meet a director who has not desired commercial success, or one who has not aspired to art. But you do not expect banners to carry arguments; complexity aplenty is to be found in the body of the magazine.

The publisher/editor is Artificial Eye, which means Pam and Andi Engel, film distributors and owners of the Chelsea and Renoir cinemas (and the late-lamented Other Cinema); Andi Engel is also a film director. Their business address is not an ivory tower. What might at first blush be seen as quixotic - Enthusiasm almost certainly loses money - forms part of their other activities. Most of the interviews are with or about film-makers connected with Artificial Eye. The magazine is also a platform for independent distributors and exhibitors, whose voices are rarely heard outside trade papers.

Even so, is it not simply giving us more of what is already available? Superficially, yes. In the latest issue, three of the 11 articles are reproduced from a range of European publications. However, they are of a piece with the commissioned ones: six footnoted interviews with directors from Austria, Britain, France, Hungary and Poland. The subjects receive the kind of serious attention they would not get from any other magazine. So at a deeper level, there is no other film publication (at least in English) like Enthusiasm; taken together, the articles amount to something of a counter-culture. The language, the ideas and the style differ profoundly from other magazines, which seem wholly acculturated by Hollywood. Whatever articles their editors happen to run, the roads outside their offices all lead to LA.

Yet Enthusiasm suggests a crisis in art cinema. How many films by these Enthusiasm interviewees can you name? Chantal Ackerman, Stephen Frears, Michael Haneke, Johan van der Keuken, Pawel Pawlikowski, Bela Tarr and Francois Ozon? - you get no points for Frears. Reading their interviews, I wished I had seen the films - well, some of them. (Not to speak of the films the interviewees have not made but should make, or wished they had made, which they love to talk about.) But where can one see them? Less and less on television. TV executives assert that there is a limited interest in subtitled films, so they treat them as stuff for insomniacs and shift workers. What about in the cinemas? Engel berates director Alan Parker for complaining that since the closure of the Academy in Oxford Street (in April 1986), it has been difficult to see foreign films in London cinemas. "Somebody (not me) should buy him a guide-dog who loves foreign films and knows where to find them"; and he prints a revealing interview about the closure of the Academy. Parker's quandary is a surprise because he was responsible for closing down the European Coproduction Fund. Nonetheless, he has a point. It is not so much a question of where to see foreign films - there is an illuminating interview with Tony Jones of City Screen, which will soon own, programme or manage 54 cinemas in the United Kingdom - as of what is on offer when you get there.

Seeing Hollywood product is a habit, seeing foreign-language films a more deliberate act, requiring effort. We look for gems and each film has to fight for attention. When the films are part of a movement, such as the French Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 1960s or the Czech cinema of the 1968 Prague Spring or the German cinema of the 1970s, or are from a country that has become fashionable such as China or Iran, it is easier to inculcate a film-going habit.

Sadly, there have been no new ideas or movements in Europe for a while (Denmark's Dogme was a self-conscious, arbitrary and failed attempt to create one). The European public sector, which for decades has been the main source of production finance, must bear some of the blame for this because it demands guaranteed commercial success. Decision-makers across Europe, having attended workshops given by failed Hollywood screenwriters, use the same references, speak the same jargon and employ the same arguments when assessing proposals. Convergence and conformity are threatening to destroy distinction and the individual voice. We have imported Hollywood's ways without understanding the cultural reasons for their success (and failure). There is also a matter of anatomy. We in Europe tend to go for the head and the heart, Hollywood for the solar plexus and the loins. But, of course, artists everywhere subvert the trend.

In a guerrilla operation such as Enthusiasm, it is not surprising that Engel chooses to reproduce Colin MacCabe's attack on the British Film Institute, titled "Cultural vandalism", originally published in Screen International, just before this year's Cannes film festival. If it had not existed, Engel would have had to invent it. The relationship of independent distributors and exhibitors to the institute has always been contradictory. The BFI has been a source of funds, information, services, collaborations and even inspiration; it has also been a rival, an obstacle and a pain in the butt. MacCabe, a former head of the BFI's Production Board, charges former arts minister Chris Smith, now thankfully on the back benches, and Alan Parker, now worryingly chairman of the Film Council, with doing considerable damage to the BFI. But he admits, as a member of the executive, to having let "the institute fall prey to Parker and Smith", although he is reticent about the details. In a friendly spirit, I should like to remind him.

The BFI has always been a shifting target. A hole-in-the-corner operation when it started in 1933, almost everything good and ambitious about the institute was invented by Sir Denis Forman, BFI director from 1948-55 before going to Granada Television, where he later became chairman. Forman made the BFI a focus for film culture in Britain, epitomised by its house magazine Sight and Sound, which was generally accepted as the world's leading film magazine for several decades. It was also a creative centre. Young talent disenchanted with the establishment and the film industry worked in, for or alongside the BFI: directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Alain Tanner, Claude Goretta, Kevin Brownlow, Peter Watkins, Robert Vas and many more.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the BFI became a centre of conflict. Internally, it was divided into warring factions according to those within film theory; externally, it was pulled this way and that by academia and the film industry, which itself was fractured. In the early 1980s, I was at the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC) and recall two meetings, including my first with Parker. He put his arm out and stopped me in the restaurant at Pinewood Studios with the words: "I don't like what you are doing at the NFFC but I think you should take over the BFI Production Board." I replied that having run both organisations, I knew them to be profoundly different. And that they should remain different and separate. Some time later I had lunch with Sir Basil Engholm and Tony Smith, chairman and director respectively of the BFI, at the Oxford and Cambridge Club. They asked me not to oppose the Production Board's move towards making more mainstream feature films, which was my job at the NFFC. This push-me pull-you situation was reflected in all of the institute's activities. When Parker took over the Film Council in 1999, he absorbed the Production Board - and it was still the wrong decision.

By the 1990s, the BFI was doubling up on almost all film activities within education and the industry - and doing much of it inexpertly - and there was a split between those who wanted to embrace the industry and others who were strongly opposed to it. One or two executives wanted to have it both ways. There was even talk of the BFI's leading the industry. I suppose if you attend enough management conferences, and pick up the lingo, you can fool yourself about anything. On the other side, the dead hand of academe was encapsulated by a former head of the BFI's education department's saying that he preferred people not to see a film if they were not going to understand it (he had the understanding?).

What was missing was a proper assessment of the developing role of the BFI. The problem was, and is, a cultural one. Successive governments, and their agents, saw the problem mainly as a managerial one. But of course the BFI was not an isolated case. Most organisational problems are perceived as managerial, rather than political, social or cultural. The government now has the BFI it wanted: financially sound, smooth running, quiescent and trouble-free - rather like the proverbial Good Indian.

Today's Sight and Sound typifies the BFI's failure. The magazine is under pressure to be both popular and highbrow, and sadly the result is neither. It has no distinction, no identity. When I polled friends and colleagues in the industry about the latest issue, they said they had dipped into it but none had read more than a couple of articles, or wanted to. I recommend everyone at the BFI to read Enthusiasm. It is not a model for them, but it will remind them of the passion and commitment that was once theirs.

Mamoun Hassan is a former head of the BFI's Production Board and managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation. He is now a director of Alchemist Films, a film investment group.


Editor - Andi Engel
ISBN - ISSN: 1470 9767
Publisher - Artificial eye (three times a year,
Price - £10.00

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