Against the Hollywood Grain: Trainspotting and Brassed Off

Article excerpt

MAURICE YACOWAR is Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a revival and a death throe. For a case in point, consider the cinema of regional quick. As America's homogenizing commercialism colonizes the global film scene, occasional voices of dissent emerge from works that present a distinctly local habitation within the frame. Their flicker of lively difference is especially touching, fragile, and affirmative in the cinema of English-speaking countries. These are the cultures which -- to hijack Winston Churchill's apercu -- are separated from the United States by a common language.

THE case is especially interesting in Britain. True, most of the country's debate about its national identity centres upon assimilation into the new European Union: the currency, the uber-parliament, the threat of new industrial standards for such cultural essentials as beer and condoms. But in cinema the struggle for integrity is not against the French or German pressures (subtitles guard against that). It is against Hollywood.

The recent cinematic rediscovery of Jane Austen and Shakespeare shows Britain valiantly deploying its cultural heritage against US studios. Britain's classic literature weighs in heavily against the sense and sensibility of Tom Cruise and Arnie Schwarzenegger. But two recent films about the unemployed class, by their determined politics, suggest a more pertinent alternative to the colonization by Hollywood: regional realism.

At first view Mark Herman's Brassed Off! is a comfy, old-fashioned sort of film. In 1992, in the Yorkshire mining town of Grimley (the accent is on the "Grim"), the miners' brass band overcomes various obstacles to win the national championship. Sparking the otherwise all-male band is a pretty blonde surveyor, Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), who returns to her home town and blows its flugel. This is the kind of film that would have come out of the Ealing Studios in the 1950s and 1960s. A village of eccentrics, united for a common cause, triumph both romantically and in their community mission. Thirty years ago it would have starred Alec Guinness or Alistair Sim as the band leader (and perhaps as two or three instrumentalists and the mine owner as well), with Shirley Eaton or Kay Kendall on the flugel. For political import in this diverting lark, one might have claimed its implicit celebration of English eccentricity.

But making an independent film today requires too much money and creative will to allow only an implicit politic, not to mention one of such comfortable sentiment. The world is too much with us these days, getting and monopolizing, homogenizing and spending. So the familiar character comedy of Brassed Off! is openly packaged as an anti-Tory polemic. The old bottle is dusted off to serve a new whine. It opens with a few sardonic definitions, such as "Tory" ("colloq. or derog. ... e.g., Margaret Thatcher"), "Redundancy" ("frequently British"), and "Colliery" ("a coal mine, or pit, one of many closed by the Tories").

The first shot is a line of dancing lights in the darkness. This is revealed to be light-helmeted miners at work in the dark. In redefining the initial impression of lightness as a sombre labour, this sequence encapsulates the film. The first sight gag suggests that the community is not as close as it might seem. Two women gossip over a fence. The long shot reveals that they are separated by another yard, in which a middle-aged man quips about how easy it is to get used to unemployment.

The musicians are anxious about the threatened closure of their mine. But to their conductor, Danny (Peter Postlethwaite, a craggy woebegone chap who is becoming as ubiquitous as Gerard Depardieu), "It's music that matters." He assumes that his 100-year-old band's success will survive the closure of the pit and the bankruptcy of his players. But while he leads his band to a victory in the regional semi-finals, the miners vote to accept a redundancy offer, effectively closing the pit. …