Isn't This Where We Came In?

By Lawson, Mark | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Isn't This Where We Came In?


Lawson, Mark, New Statesman (1996)


There is a strange circularity to mainstream movies: are two decades of cinema-goers watching the same film on continuous loop?

There is a current Radio 4 series called Random Edition, in which a computer jostles all the days of the century like lottery balls, before throwing one of them out. Peter Snow then collects a newspaper from that day and discusses it with pundits to offer a historical snapshot.

This review exercise is a kind of Non-Random Edition, in which two pre-programmed dates are compared in the hope of establishing historical shift. It can be objected that film release dates are accidents of the artist's birth-date and inspiration process, but if the study of popular culture is to have any point, then the entertainment of a single year ought to reveal cultural currents.

Let's begin with what British moviegoers might have watched in 1979 - the year when minority Labour government gave way to a watershed Tory administration - as they sat in their one-screen local Odeon.

There was Robert Benton's Kramer v Kramer, with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep fighting for custody of little Justin Henry, although, even more today than then, it seems improbable that either of them would have wanted the revolting little moppet. The piece is infamous for the "French toast scene" in which the dad fixes the kid's breakfast, Hoffman's notorious perfectionism in rehearsal having reportedly led to a bread, egg and milk shortage in New York.

But, after that, the mocking stops. The fleapits offered Ridley Scott's Alien; George Miller's Mad Max; Woody Allen's Manhattan; Coppola's Apocalypse Now; Monty Python's Life of Brian; Werner Herzog's Nosferatu. It reads like a vintage selection, but that may be to fall for the Darwinist school of cultural criticism, in which past art always seems superior because only the strongest survives. So let's recall some of the less-applauded or smaller works of the year. There was Polanski's Tess; Altman's Quintet; Chris Petit's Radio On.

If categories were assigned to the ten 1979 films listed above - from Kramer v Kramer to Radio On - the genres represented would be: manipulative Hollywood weepie, extraterrestrial fantasy, stylish futuristic dystopia by young director, annual movie from Woody, self-indulgent American history epic by brilliant but tricky director, movie that British cultural establishment wanted to ban, weird piece by cult foreign director, moody Thomas Hardy adaptation, maverick Altman, low-budget British drama.

Will a similar range (the question of quality we will come to later) be available in 1997 - the year when minority Tory government may give way to watershed Labour administration - in the ten- and 15-screen multiplexes? Well, let's look at the output for 1996.

If we match this year's UK releases to the ten types isolated above, it is possible to come up with: Mr Holland's Opus (as the Kramer v Kramer of these days), Independence Day (Alien), Strange Days (Mad Max), Mighty Aphrodite (Manhattan), Nixon (Apocalypse Now), Crash or Michael Collins or Kids (The Life of Brian), Breaking the Waves (Noferatu), Jude (Tess), Kansas City (Quintet), Brassed Off(Radio On).

From this comparison, a leaden year looks comprehensively defeated by a golden age. Few, on a putative edition of Desert Island Films, would choose to be cast away with Mighty Aphrodite rather than Manhattan, Strange Days rather than Mad Max. Indeed, if forced to watch a tear-jerker, even Dustin attempting to cook French toast would be preferable to Richard Dreyfus conducting the first performance of Holland's symphony. Only Michael Winterbottom's Jude would trounce its grandparent, Polanski's Tess.

But though the formats of these films are broadly constant across two decades, the attitudes are not.

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