Chapter 6

Borderlines I: modernism and British cinema

Although Truffaut argued that ‘cinema’ and ‘British film’ are a contradiction in terms, there is a considerable history of cultural debate about the artistic potential of British film and some evidence of practical application. Much of British cinema has been inflected with a realist/naturalist style, but there is also an aesthetic tradition which has explored film as a medium capable of conveying complex states of mind with a rich formal apparatus at its disposal, and as a means of political critique. Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter naturally spring to mind in connection with modernism/postmodernism and British cinema, but their work in the 1970s was not the first example of British interest in non-narrative experimental art cinema. As early as 1914, Duncan Grant created Abstract Kinetic Painting with Collage, a scroll painting which ‘came to life’ when viewed through a light-box at a particular speed to match the tempo of a piece by Bach. Grant is representative of early experimentation with film as ‘visual music’ and the majority of artists saw the creative development of the medium to lie in this direction rather than in story-telling/narrative structure (see Wollen, 1994:5).

In general terms, cinematic modernism is concerned to interrogate linear modes of narration, explore psychological traits and abandon traditional forms of characterisation. It explores the visual rather than the verbal, form being obtrusive, and it is often presented as the product of an auteur which nevertheless places great stress on the audience’s interpretation of the work (Bordwell, 1985:206-33). As with other examples of modernist art, the question of representation is foregrounded, emphasising how images must be seen as versions of reality rather than reality itself. In terms of the institutional structures of the film industry, modernist film-making has posed questions about distribution and exhibition networks—indeed, criticising capitalist structures of film-making on a factory basis which appear to subordinate art to industry.

These characteristics are necessarily broad, and I would not wish to be confined to a rigid definition of the art film as opposed to the commercial feature which nevertheless might employ challenging techniques in terms

-147-

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British National Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Plates ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Introduction: British National Cinema 1
  • Chapter 1 - He Fiscal Politics of Film 4
  • Chapter 2 - Studios, Directors and Genres 28
  • Chapter 3 - Genres from Austerity to Affluence 61
  • Chapter 4 - Genres in Transition, 1970s-90s 92
  • Chapter 5 - Acting and Stars 114
  • Chapter 6 - Borderlines I: Modernism and British Cinema 147
  • Chapter 7 - Borderlines Ii: Counter-Cinema and Independence 169
  • Conclusion 197
  • Notes 201
  • Bibliography 210
  • Subject Index 217
  • Name Index 219
  • Index of Films and Television Programmes 227
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