A Random A-Z of Film Themes: C Is for Camera
C Is for Camera
Not long after civil unrest swept England’s major cities in August 2011, self-proclaimed guerrilla filmmaker O.D. Gruner sat down to write what he considered to be his masterpiece. Entitled No Man Is an Island, his film depicted the burgeoning relationship between a working-class rioter and a Conservative politician. The two characters first encounter one another in Notting Hill (where the rioter happens to be completing six months’ community service – street sweeping, removing graffiti and so on – and where the MP happens to live). Their initial meeting is frosty to say the least. But as time goes by a friendship blooms. They come to understand one another; they develop a bond. The movie ends with the politician making a speech about how rioters are ‘human beings for God’s sake’ and, in a final act of magnanimity, agreeing to adopt the young man. His biological family could not afford to keep him, anyway.
Receiving plaudits from David Cameron and his political allies, winning several Academy Awards, and drawing its fair share of cringes from other quarters, the film propels Gruner into the public eye. He uses his new-found fame to pontificate on and on about ‘the camera as a tool for public good’ and ‘the filmmaker’s responsibility’. What follows is excerpted from one of the many (most would say too many) interviews he gave during his brief spell as the chattering classes’ cause célèbre.
A Chat with O.D. Gruner (originally published in Film Talk, December 2011)
I had heard from a fellow reporter that O.D. Gruner was a ‘difficult’ interviewee. In journalists’ parlance this tends to mean an arrogant arsehole with very little of interest to say about anything. The man behind No Man Is an Island, a film dealing with the fallout from the England Riots, had become quite a mascot for the political classes. But when it came to actually voicing an opinion on something – on politics, on film, on anything – he was known to be decidedly incoherent. Perhaps that was why politicians liked him so much. And it was certainly why, sat waiting for him at Carluccio’s Bistro, a West Kensington hangout of the over-fed, I started worrying how I was going to turn whatever drivel emerged from his mouth into two thousand words of copy. The bistro seemed appropriate enough, considering what I’d heard about my subject: fussing waiters, crystal carafes, lace napkins – the kind of place you’d invite five hundred or so of your closest friends for a spot of self-promotion. At Gruner’s request, I’d ordered a selection of vegetable canapes, which were now going cold on the table. A brief shuffling at the bistro’s doorway signalled his arrival – forty minutes late.
‘Rudolph, darling!’ Gruner threw his arms around the waiter who had greeted him at the door. ‘It’s been too long.’ Before Rudolph had a chance to reply (and I suspect he would have replied that his name wasn’t Rudolph), Gruner was off again. Swirling from table to table, half ballerina, half pinball, he seemed to know intimately every one of the bistro’s patrons. Or, at least he wanted me to think so. Slapping ‘Paul’ and ‘Roger’ on their backs, cuddling up with Pippas and Martines and cooing mwahs to all those Gwyneths and Michaels sat beyond his lusty reach, here was pomposity incarnate. The whole performance was pathetic. It reminded me of Gloria Swanson’s ‘grand’ entrance at the end of Sunset Boulevard (1950). Descending her mansion’s imposing staircase, Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, is under the mistaken belief that she is starring in a new movie. The cameras may be rolling, but Desmond is not bound for the silver screen. She is bound for the six o’clock news. In fact, her rampant addiction to movie stardom and desire for public adulation has landed her with a murder rap. The only chariot she’ll be riding off into the sunset in has the letters LAPD printed on its bumper. I wondered if this was a common theme in cinema: an obsession with making movies, an addiction to the camera, leading to some kind of destruction, corruption, even death. ‘I love shooting film,’ says John Cassellis, the documentary-maker hero of Haskell Wexler’s movie about political protest and social upheaval in late 1960s America, Medium Cool (1969). This ‘love’ will lead him on a journey of political and personal awakening, but one with some pretty tragic consequences. Or what about the depressed and jaded director of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), or Filip, the amateur cameraman of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (1979), who finds out a great deal more about the people and politics of communist-era Poland than he bargained for? Tragic drunk Norman Maine tops himself in A Star Is Born (1937/1954). His suicide is an attempt to save his wife’s acting career and a show of disgust toward his own career’s implosion. Watching Gruner, now strutting toward my table with all the modesty of a celebrity rooster, I couldn’t help wishing him a similar fate.
Without so much as a good evening, let alone an apology for his lateness, Gruner plonked himself down at the table and surveyed its adornments. His eyes fell on the canapes and he picked one up. Nibbling around the edges, he flashed a disgusted look in my direction. ‘You decided against the spinach ones, then?’ he said, accusingly. I suppose I looked baffled because his facial expression quickly changed into one of pity. ‘Not to worry, I’ll have some brought over.’ He made several hand gestures in the direction of a nearby waiter and then turned back to face me.
‘Now, I know what you’re going to ask, and yes, I did learn a great deal from Ken.’ For the second, and certainly not the last, time in the evening, I was confused.
‘Ken Loach. It’s often said…’
It had not occurred to me to note any similarities in terms of filmmaking, let alone political commitment, between Gruner and Ken Loach. What the hell, I thought. Let’s run with it. ‘That’s interesting, so what did you learn from Loach?’ Gruner gulped down the last of his wine and signalled for another glass. At this point he did not seem interested in following up on his initial announcement, so I thought I’d offer him a few suggestions. With films that address subjects ranging from labour rights and organised labour (Bread and Roses; Riff-Raff), capitalism vs socialism (Land and Freedom) and the Troubles in Northern Ireland (Hidden Agenda), not to mention his penchant for having characters literally sit down and debate important ideological issues, Loach really is a director interested in the camera as a political weapon.
Renowned for his hand-held camera work and quasi-documentary feel, Loach is going one step further in his current film project The Angel’s Share (due to be released in 2012) and shooting parts of it on Glasgow CCTV cameras. What kind of effect this will have remains to be seen. But one could imagine it combining formal and thematic traits associated with Loach, such as documentary ‘realism’ and political commentary – a reference to the contemporary culture of surveillance, perhaps. And maybe this was what Gruner was thinking when he mentioned Loach and himself in the same breath, for he too attempts to weave a ‘documentary aesthetic’ into his film. His film begins with real footage of the riots, shot on a mobile phone.
If I asked you to name one memorable image of the events of August 2011, what would you reply? A burning building, perhaps, or youths carrying 52-inch televisions, or an injured young man having the contents of his backpack stolen by a gang of bad Samaritans? Quite likely, the image that lingers in the mind was not shot by the BBC, or ITV or Sky or any other mainstream news outlet. Very possibly, the image was captured on a mobile phone. For a brief moment back in August, Joe and Joline Bloggs of Hackney Wick turned Abraham Zapruder and captured the nights that shook a nation. From Blackberry to blog, these images hit the internet in a flash, and were visually defining events even as they were unravelling. And just as Zapruder’s amateur movie, shot on Dallas’ Dealey Plaza in November 1963, has become, for many, the document of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, mobile phone footage will surely be central to collective memory of the riots. While Gruner is the first filmmaker to make use of this footage in a fictional film, I suspect that there will be many others who will follow in his wake. The question is: what kind of stories will they tell?
Since Gruner’s film, No Man Is an Island, is the first to deal with the riots, it is worth briefly reminding ourselves of its plot. The film begins with documentary footage of England up in flames. It then cuts to the riots’ immediate aftermath, where those involved in the disturbances are being sentenced. After this we meet the two main characters: a Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea, George Lovelorn; and a young working-class rioter from Croydon, Brad Davis. Davis avoids a prison sentence and is instead given six months’ community service. This takes him to Notting Hill, where, one autumn morning, he bumps into Lovelorn. He is, in fact, scrubbing away graffiti that had been scrawled on Lovelorn’s offices – ‘Tories are pricks’. Alas, each day the same message is written somewhere on the office wall, so Davis finds himself spending more and more time in the company of Lovelorn. What follows is touchy-feely Hollywood gold: a relationship develops between the two men; they come to love one another, platonically of course. Lovelorn ends the film in fatherly mode, agreeing to adopt Davis from his impoverished family. In what Gruner has referred to as his film’s ‘final symbol of reconciliation’, Davis attends Lovelorn’s office on the final day of his community service and finds that the ‘Tories are pricks’ message has not been rewritten. Cue the credits. And cue my questions, for I had many.
I wanted to know why Gruner had decided to begin his film with real documentary footage. Did he see his film as in some way ‘documentary-like’, an attempt to explore and explain the reality of events that had just transpired? Was he trying to make a ‘history’ of the England Riots? To what extent did he strive for authenticity in his representation?
‘I see the mobile phone as inheritor to the Super-8,’ declared Gruner. ‘That is to say, it is the new form of amateur cinematography. With regard to the riots, the Blackberry or iPhone or whatever allowed people to create their own histories of the riots, to capture the events for posterity. They did not need to rely on mainstream news for their information; they could rely on one another. Your friend in Manchester showed you what was happening in Manchester; your friend in Notting Hill replied with videos of events down there. A wave of amateur documentary-makers, amateur newsreaders, even, given the arrests made thanks to these videos, amateur law enforcers, was enabled thanks to the Blackberry. The mobile phone is the ordinary Joe’s BBC, and I wanted to make it clear that what I was making was a history of the people. By beginning my film with real footage taken on mobile phones I was saying in a sense that my camera is but an extension of the people’s camera.’
An eloquent answer indeed, but if this was the case, why had he presented a politician as his film’s hero, and a Tory politician at that? And, furthermore, if this is a film about – as Gruner so Blairishly put it – the ‘people’, why did the film not consider the social and political conditions that, some argued, had made certain ‘people’ riot in the first place? I told him that I thought more needed to be made of the social inequalities that wracked many urban areas and that, if not sparked the riots directly, at least fostered hot-beds of discontent ready to explode at the slightest provocation. I also wanted to know whether he thought the mixing of documentary material and a fictional narrative would affect his film’s representation of the riots. Could his film potentially, dangerously, rewrite history?
‘A filmmaker’s job is not to report facts,’ he replied. ‘The facts are many, contradictory and open to debate. A filmmaker must provide his own interpretation of the past. We directors are not and cannot be required to answer to the same historical standards as historians. We are artists and should be allowed to embellish and interpret as we see fit. Shakespeare’s Richard III was not historically accurate, but dramatically brilliant and emotionally resonant. I do not, of course, compare myself to Shakespeare [here Gruner looked slyly over at a young fan sat at a nearby table and gave her a wink]. The camera does not record – it interprets.’
This was an interesting argument, one well used by directors of historical films such as Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon) and Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Miracle at St. Anna). But it did lead me to remind him that, just minutes earlier in our conversation, he had referred to his film as a ‘history’. Is he now saying that his film is not history? And, furthermore, Stone and Lee are well known for attempting to challenge ‘official’ establishment histories in their films. Does Gruner believe that his film is doing something similar?
‘Not all history needs to wear its politics on its sleeve. The riots were a tragedy that our country is still trying to come to terms with. I did not want to start making rabid political claims at a time when the wounds are yet to heal (the Conservative politician was a mere coincidence). I intended this film to be a kind of therapy, if you will, to show that, come what may, the human spirit will endure.’
And there he might have a point. Perhaps now was not the time to be making political films about the riots. Maybe the wounds were still too raw. Yet, if he really intended to make a politically neutral and non-editorialised film, why, then, did he choose the riots as a subject in the first place?
‘Now I didn’t mean my film has no politics. I said it didn’t wear them on its sleeve. I would say that my film is political in its call for tolerance and understanding. We must all work together in order to make the world a better place for ourselves and our children. Indeed, as a great man once said, we are in this together.’
God he sounded like a politician…
And so, as our interview drew to a close, Gruner knocked back the last dregs of his Chianti and rose to leave. He looked me in the eye with an earnestness that suggested he was about to conclude on something genuinely meaningful. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I suppose he learnt a lot from me, anyway.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, and told him so. ‘Ken,’ he replied, and winked, then skipped off for a last round of hello darlings before disappearing into the crisp Kensington night. And for all his dickishness as a person – let us not play games, he was a buffoon – I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for him as he made his jaunty retreat. He was clearly a very troubled and very confused man. The interview had seen him change opinion once, twice, three times, sometimes mid-sentence. He did not seem capable of holding an argument longer than it took him to finish a glass of wine (which, as my tab concluded, was not very long).
Yet I don’t think he intended anything malicious in his movie. No Man Is an Island is, I suppose, nothing if not warm-hearted. In Gruner’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece’ is distilled the very reaction and emotions (if not the politics) that I felt back in August. Why couldn’t we just all get along? Why couldn’t our problems be solved that easily? A call for tolerance, a representation of cross-class reconciliation – these are not bad things to have in a film. Perhaps it was me who was being biased, coming, as I did, to the interview with my own views on the political role of the filmmaker and the camera as a tool for public good. Who was I to say how the riots should be remembered, anyway? I had made the critic’s cardinal error of seeing things in terms of my way or the highway. And in these terms No Man Is an Island was always going to be shunted onto the hard shoulder. In hindsight, maybe I should have been more generous toward Gruner and his opinions. Maybe all us people willing to criticise others’ movies should turn the camera on ourselves now and again (like Filip does at the end of Camera Buff) and subject our own opinions to a little more interrogation. Or maybe I was being too hard on myself.
Next up: D is for Dinner, a recipe for disaster.
As ever, I am grateful to Seb Manley for proofing and correcting my many grammatical errors, and for generally improving my work’s readability. From theses to websites, Seb puts the punch back in punchuation and returns flow to the over-flowery: www.manley-editorial.com.
Works I found helpful when writing this article
Burgoyne, Robert. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Rosenstone, Robert A. History on Film/Film on History: Concepts, Theories and Practice (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2006).
White, Hayden. ‘The Modernist Event’, in Vivian Sobchack, ed., The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modernist Event (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17–38.