The new rules of the game

Laments about the ease with which we can be hypnotised by our past are merely the frustrated rants of culture's now-redundant gatekeepers, argues Philip Dodd

August 4, 2011

Credit: Kobal
Horse sense: The Coen brothers' remake of True Grit with Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges is symptomatic of the fascination with the recent past

They did not come along often. I remember seeing a new print of Jean Renoir's French Cancan. But there were not many other film re-releases that found their way to Sheffield in the mid-1960s. I suppose I was brought up on the aesthetics of scarcity. Or maybe, just a scarcity of aesthetics.

I remain marked by that early rationing. Every time I go into HMV, at least the one on London's Oxford Street, I still marvel at the rich menu of films available cheaply on that now-ancient technology, the DVD, which does for film what Penguin Books once did for literature: make available the riches of history in a mobile form. And this is without even mentioning the cinema history that I can find to download, legally or otherwise, from the internet.

In this brave new world of plenty, the meaning and importance of the re-release of a film such as Alan Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad this July (it has just played four nights in Sheffield) has changed. Of course, the re-release gives a new audience a chance to see it in its full and proper cinematic glory, and the media coverage may well attract a new audience in addition to those who want to revisit a past when "fin du cinema was really fin du globe", or so Jean-Luc Godard seemed to believe at the end of Week End (1967).

But the re-release of a film is now unlikely to feel like an "event" in the present age of plenty, as it once did in the era of scarcity.

Yet for some, the age of cultural austerity (I know this is the economic age of austerity; the prime minister tells me) was preferable. There is a palpable unease at the ease with which we can access the past, how much of the past is out there to access at the click of a mouse - and our lotus-land desire to luxuriate in it.

The most recent register of what I might call the anxiety of plenty is to be found not in the world of film criticism but in pop music. Simon Reynolds' recently published Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past argues that the availability of past music and pop music's fascination with its own immediate history - from revivals and reissues to band reformations and reunion tours - have in effect cancelled pop music's commitment to make it new. He could have mentioned the computer game industry (which is energetically already recycling its own brief history) or jazz (which has its own tribute mania with groups such as the Mingus Big Band). Film is not dissimilar, as Reynolds notes, with references to remakes of Tron, True Grit, Alfie...the list is legion.

Now of course there are commercial imperatives driving this fascination with the immediate past. If the speed of change is ever-intensifying, then perhaps a generation's loyalties more quickly become "history" and thus more quickly packageable as "heritage" or nostalgia. It is even possible to challenge the general thesis that we are uniquely fascinated by the culture of our immediate past: think of Victorian culture from Jane Eyre to Matthew Arnold's poetry and the ways it gorged on recent Romantic poetry and iconography.

Even with the caveats, however, it seems plausible that the availability of so much of the cultural past at the click of a mouse is likely to change the nature of present culture. After all, deprivation and austerity have effects, as I saw recently in Shanghai when an important Chinese artist, Sun Liang, showed me work from the 1980s that mixed in a compelling way Chinese and Western idioms. Some pieces looked like they had borrowed from the work of the German artist Georg Baselitz; and one of the paintings was named Salome. He explained that small black-and-white images of Baselitz's work became available in the cultural thaw after Mao Zedong's death, as did Oscar Wilde's Salome. If the (very fine) work he made was marked by the meagre diet available to him, it is likely that the full-blown feast available to film-makers, writers, musicians and other artists in the West will in its turn give rise to distinctive work - even if it is too early to judge whether it will be any good.

But equally interesting is how the cultural gatekeepers have responded to this plenty. Once upon a time, in what I call welfare culture, there were cultural mediators who determined what we saw (I am still grateful to whoever programmed the Sheffield Library Theatre film programme) and the context in which we saw it. The Arts Council of Great Britain, founded in 1946, licensed a new cadre of arts professionals. That is all in the past; or at the very least arts and cultural professionals and mediators do not have the power they once had.

We now live in a world of YouTube and its links, which make myriad connections programmed by you or...well, who knows? The "moment of authority" has come and gone, even if there are those who think that a new kind of gatekeeper is ever more needed to guide us through the flood of stuff.

In Retromania, Reynolds speaks suspiciously of how everyone is a curator now, even artists. I am slightly at a loss to understand why that should necessarily be a matter of regret. It is hard not to think that there is some connection, which I cannot quite work out, between the massification of higher education that took place in the 1980s and the mass availability of the cultural past that new technology ushered in from about the same time. To the old gatekeepers, both forms of massification have something quite unpleasant about them. Their response can sometimes seem like the cultural version of "No one goes to Margate any more. It's so crowded."

Now I might have sympathy with the established gatekeepers if their own curation was impeccable. But look at the pattern of British Film Institute re-releases. To put it kindly, it lacks ambition, despite the quality of some of the individual films.

If Reynolds argues that present music lovers and musicians are in thrall to the 1980s and 1990s, a glimpse at the list of BFI re-releases over the past year (from July 2010) suggests that the decades of the 1950s up to the 1970s - and most especially the 1960s - are by far the preferred territory of the institute's gatekeepers. For them, Last Year in Marienbad (1961) is the perfect film. It is one of eight out of 12 films (if the British releases are excluded) that come from the 1960s - almost all of them from either Western Europe or the US. Now, I know that all public institutions are cash-strapped and so need to fill seats and make sales, but in a globalised world, where power is shifting east, there might be a combustible interest in cinema from China or Japan of the 1920s and 1930s, to take two obvious examples. But this is not an ad hominem or feminam attack on the BFI's curators.

Official theatre is no better. In the 1970s, Peter Daubney's World Theatre Seasons brought to London (never to Sheffield) theatre from across the globe. Compare the National Theatre today, which sometimes seems as fixated with 1960s dramatists (David Hare, Howard Brenton, Alan Bennett, the late Harold Pinter) as the BFI is with 1960s auteurs. The National Theatre is at present even more timorous about essaying beyond Dover and never beyond Western Europe. The music-man Reynolds is just as enamoured of the 1960s, inevitably comparing that decade's forward-looking character to the backward-looking present culture.

Phrased simply, the 1960s generation or those committed to an orthodox version of its aesthetics (and their account of the 1960s is partial, to put it mildly) are unnerved by just how easy it is to "find" culture of the past without their mediation. It was so, so much better when culture was hard to find and when there was a vanguard to lead everyone to the promised land.

If I have to choose between the 1960s gatekeepers with their necrophiliac absorption in a particular past and those promiscuously surfing the YouTube world, fascinated, maybe at times hypnotised, by the uncontainable variety of the past, I'll have the YouTube lot any time.

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