The Death of Art House: British Directors Once Made Movies as Bold as Sebastiane and My Beautiful Laundrette; Now They Mostly Content Themselves with Four Weddings and Its Ilk. Ryan Gilbey Wonders What Happened to Experimental Cinema

By Gilbey, Ryan | New Statesman (1996), February 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Death of Art House: British Directors Once Made Movies as Bold as Sebastiane and My Beautiful Laundrette; Now They Mostly Content Themselves with Four Weddings and Its Ilk. Ryan Gilbey Wonders What Happened to Experimental Cinema


Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)


Nostalgia is not a feeling that the films of Derek Jarman ever seemed likely to engender. In its wit, vitality and, frequently, its pretentiousness, Jarman's work always seemed to address itself to the present. The years have done little to diminish this quality; watched today, the films are no museum pieces. Still, I must confess to feeling envious of anyone planning to watch his films for the first time at the upcoming retrospective at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. What a treat is in store for them.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Most of the director's major work is here (with the regrettable exception of 1989's War Requiem). The wry, unabashed eroticism of his 1976 feature debut Sebastiane, a loose interpretation of the death of St Sebastian, co-directed with Paul Humfress, will be a tonic to any hearts heavy from the woes of Broke-back Mountain; there is pain in Sebastiane, too, but a good deal of devilish fun, and nothing resembling shame. Jarman's scandalous punk fantasy Jubilee, which made his reputation, still offers a more candid snapshot of 1977-and-all-that than you'll get from downloading old Sex Pistols numbers.

Then there is his masterpiece, Caravaggio, a blissful exercise in fusing an artist's life with his art, equalled in recent cinema only by Paul Schrader's Mishima: a life in four chapters. Narrative is jettisoned in the abrasive collage of The Last of England, while a modern-dress Edward II, complete with placard-wielding OutRage! protesters, laces polemical fury with irreverence. Two of Jarman's most pared-down features, Wittgenstein and Blue, both from 1993, illustrate that a kind of majesty can be achieved through a judicious use of minimalism. Completing the programme are various Super-8 shorts, as well as demented pop videos for musicians whose sensibility overlapped with Jarman's--the Pet Shop Boys, the Smiths, Suede.

And yet, for anyone whose tastes were shaped by these films, the experience of revisiting them has about it the melancholy air of strolling through an old neighbourhood and smarting at the changes. It is not the films that look different now, but the context that made them possible. The temptation to dab the eyes with a handkerchief and declare that "It was all art-house around here when I was a lad" is strong, and should be resisted. However, it remains the case that home-grown cinema has altered beyond recognition since the mid-1980s, when British art-house film-makers had a significant, if embittered, presence in the cultural landscape. Much of this was due to the production wing of the British Film Institute, which provided funding for the likes of Jarman, Terence Davies, Bill Douglas and Peter Greenaway. BFI Production became part of the Film Council in 2000, but a coherent British art-house scene had already vanished by then, and with it a style of film that had not outlived its purpose.

This style might be called austere or intellectual, only that doesn't cover the sense of mischief that is intrinsic to the appeal of Jarman and Greenaway, or the emotional rawness of Davies's pictures, which contrasts so deliciously with his meticulous compositions. Strange to think that an entire new generation of film-goers has no idea what a Terence Davies film might entail, let alone to wonder whether it would care to see one. The National Film Theatre will attempt to remedy this situation with a season later in the year, but Davies himself, out of the director's chair since The House of Mirth six years ago, is only now embarking on his next film, having been stalled by lack of funding. …

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