"Do You Want This World Left On?": Global Imaginaries in the Films of Michael Winterbottom

By Dix, Andrew | Style, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"Do You Want This World Left On?": Global Imaginaries in the Films of Michael Winterbottom


Dix, Andrew, Style


"It has now become something of a truism," writes Arjun Appadurai, "that we are functioning in a world fundamentally characterized by objects in motion. These objects include ideas and ideologies, people and goods, images and messages, technologies and techniques. This is a world of flows" (5). Few contemporary filmmakers seem more fully adjusted to this new "world of flows" than the British director Michael Winterbottom. Industrially, generically, thematically, and stylistically, his is a cinema of persistent mobility and migration. Take, for example, his negotiation during the past fifteen years of very different, globally dispersed production infrastructures. While continuing to mine such sources of UK public funding as Channel Four for Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and the BBC for both In This World (2002) and Code 46 (2003), he has also struck international production deals--as with French and Canadian consortia for The Claim (2000)--and has even engaged tactically with Hollywood itself, financing A Mighty Heart (2007) through Paramount Vantage, a niche film division of the parent studio. (1) Winterbottom thus answers to Hamid Naficy's description of the decentered filmmaker in the era of globalization: a figure moving nimbly across "a peculiar mixed economy" (43) of transnational private, public, and philanthropically disposed media enterprises.

In its substance, too, besides its industrial provenance, Winterbottom's work is convincingly figured by many of the master tropes of globalization. "Translation," for instance, is central to his cinema, operating not simply at the level of subject matter (the British journalist Henderson's helplessness in Sarajevo without the help of Serbo-Croat interpreters), but as a major compositional principle (The Claim's "translation" of Thomas Hardy's novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge from mid-nineteenth-century Dorset to 1867 California). The example of The Claim indicates how, in Winterbottom's filmmaking, not only flesh-and-blood figures but also literary texts, song fragments, and genre markers are liable, in further globalization parlance, to be de- and reterritorialized. "Borders" of various sorts are frequently crossed in these films. Winterbottom traverses the genre system, for instance, accessing many cinematic kinds with a globalist's verve. Thus his oeuvre extends from comedy (A Cock and Bull Story in 2005) to the road movie (1995's Butterfly Kiss), and from dramatized documentary (The Road to Guantanamo in 2006; co-directed by Mat Whitecross) to the sci-fi of Code 46. Seemingly secure generic frontiers prove porous: recall the crossing between idioms of rockumentary and hardcore porn in 9 Songs (2004). Lest this talk of border-crossing seem rhetorically inflated and far removed from material frontiers--Naficy cautions that "The metaphorization, multiplication, and shifting of borders are often made productive in postcolonial and multicultural discourses by safely abstracting the borders and by ignoring the unequal power relations there" (240)--it should be noted that liminal geopolitical zones themselves feature prominently in Winterbottom's films. With their dramas of people-trafficking, of struggles between powerful and vulnerable subjects in such key transition sites as airports, ferry terminals, and road checkpoints, works including Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World, Code 46, and The Road to Guantanamo make a plausible case for inclusion in Naficy's "best of border films" (243).

That Winterbottom should demonstrate textual sensitivity towards the migrant dispossessed, yet also operate at times within the interstices of global Hollywood, suggests that his response to transnationality is complex and conflictual, rather than singular. As such, his cinema lends itself well to consideration through the prism of current globalization scholarship. In riposte to earlier emphases upon instantaneous financial transfer and unimpeded corporate growth, studies more recently have sought to register globalization's multiple dimensions and materialities. …

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