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An A-Z of Film Themes

Archive for the category “Film and politics”

J Is for Jock

J Is for Jock

 

It’s a well-known fact that progressive politics sound best coming from a butch guy. When Bruce Springsteen questions the class system, or calls for an end to unfair banking practices, or disputes the morality of the war in Iraq, people listen; when a scrawny eco-nerd tries the same thing, eyes roll and television sets are switched off. Another pampered squirt come to tell us how to behave: nothing cripples a campaign like a stereotype fulfilled. The late Macho Man Randy Savage was, and remains,  our most celebrated vegan feminist. On the other side of the coin, I hope Julian Assange doesn’t turn out to be a sex offender, but…

Activists for social justice – keep your yogurt-nibblers out of the spotlight. Let them do the research. By all means let them write the manifestos and design the posters. But for God’s sake, leave the tough stuff to the jocks.

This, I argue, is what Hollywood has been doing for the past ten years or so. The 2000s have seen jocks become the film industry’s prime conveyors of liberal politics. Whether on the football field, the basketball court or the athletics track, jocks have played, fought and cried (and cried and cried) for civil rights, penal reform and economic fair play. All this may sound strange given what we know about jocks. Years of stealing lunch money and screwing cheerleaders have eventually taken their toll. As prodigal sons they have returned – cleansed and chastened – ready to put their bleeding hearts on the line. They may not be particularly subtle. They certainly aren’t radical. But we should embrace these new jocks, for they care. Dammit, they really care.

Cue the rousing music

 

‘They’re Mustangs, Coach. They accepted the challenge.’ (Gridiron Gang).

 

American film has long used the sports field as a crucible within which to examine and resolve ideological tensions of the day. Aaron Baker’s pioneering book, Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film, argues that Hollywood sports films have traditionally promoted conservative values of extreme individualism and white male superiority. The general message, in Baker’s view, is: hard work and dedication will achieve the fabled American Dream. Of course there are a few clauses. If you’re a woman, then avoid nagging your man – don’t complain about his dedication to sports; support him/make his dinner etc. If you’re black you must remain humble and deferential to the white public (e.g. The Joe Louis Story). Film scholar Elizabeth Rawitsch sees in baseball movies like Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) a paean to the ‘melting pot’, where ethnic characters succeed by relinquishing their cultural identities and adopting traits associated with ‘traditional’ (read WASP) America.

When it comes to politics, according to these accounts, the classical Hollywood sports movie is about as limp-wristed as a New York Mets batter. They casually bolster the status quo and shore up all the old class, race and gender inequalities. More recent productions have also come in for a critical drubbing. Since at least the release of Remember the Titans in 2000, it has become de rigour to mock the constant stream of ‘inspirational coach’ movies appearing on the big screen. While the 1980s and 1990s produced the odd Hoosiers or League of their own, the 2000s have turned such pictures into a staple: Titans, The Replacements (2000), Miracle (2004), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Coach Carter (2005), Glory Road (2006), Gridiron Gang (2006), Friday Night Lights (2006), We are Marshall (2007) to name but a few.

I’m surprised by the scorn that has greeted these films, for a number provide valiant (if sometimes heavy-handed) attempts to engage with controversial subject matter. Remember the Titans explores issues no less vexing than affirmative action – the preferential hiring of minorities in the workplace – and public school busing (that is, the transportation of black and white children to unfamiliar neighbourhood schools in order to ensure racial diversity). Unlike conservative commentators, Titans refuses to dismiss the need for such programs. Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) gets the head coach job thanks to affirmative action. He is hired in front of the more experienced white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton), but quickly proves he was the right man for the job. A combination of civil rights legislation and communal activism here brings about a gradual coming-together of the races.

Other movies have followed Titans’ lead. Glory Road takes us back to 1965, and college basketball team the Texas Western Minors’ championship winning season. The victory of an all-black Minors team over the all-white Kentucky in the championship final is depicted as a turning point in not only basketball but also civil rights history. With its promotional tagline, ‘winning changes everything’, Glory Road equated basketball success with social transformation. Coach Don Haskins’ (Josh Lucas’) decision to field the all-black team in the final game works as an allegory of affirmative action – the players afforded a headstart in an attempt to counteract the racist basketball establishment. Haskins attacks prevailing views that black players are empty-headed athletes without  ‘the intelligence’ to beat a ‘real team’. The Minors victory puts paid to such prejudice.

It used to be that jocks won on the sports field, but lost everywhere else. Bookish types could sleep sound in the knowledge that their foes’ high-school glory days would soon give way to poor academic performances, low-paying jobs, shotgun weddings, alcoholism – and always that pathetic desire to relive the past. No longer.

Now the sports film’s closing captions tend to read: ‘so and so did not win the championship that season, but [insert positive contribution to society here]’.

In Coach Carter the boys are taught that success need not come on the basketball court. In fact, when their grades drop, they are banned from playing. Education comes first. Many would go on to enjoy successful careers, go to college, become role models.

Winning is not everything; in many of these films it’s nothing.

Gridiron Gang is less concerned with how well the young offenders play ball than with teaching them their own civic value. Football is an escape from gang life and a road to success in other careers. Leaving inmates to rot in prison, says Gridiron Gang, is a surefire route to reoffending. The Express’s main character, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), doesn’t live long enough to really make his mark on professional football. But his contribution to the civil rights struggle is what makes him truly great. Both The Replacements and Moneyball (2011) provide an attack on extreme individualism, emphasising instead the value (spiritual or monetary) of ‘the team’. And perhaps this is the most prominent characteristic to have emerged from all these films. They are always about dialogue, debate, negotiation and communal action. There is no one person with all the answers. The team always prevails. This in itself is quite a departure from the standard Hollywood emphasis on individual heroism and ‘great men’.

Gridiron Gang (image from http://www.bluray.com).

All that said, I’m not trying to promote the sports film as some kind of liberal Utopia. Inequalities still prevail. For all its efforts, Million Dollar Baby seems to be less about calling for gender parity in boxing than about Clint Eastwood’s personal redemption (see the film’s end). Films like Titans and Coach Carter seem to actively play down or even demonise (as in Titans’ racist cheerleader) women’s social contribution. It is really left to smaller independent productions like Girlfight (2000) to provide a more powerful engagement with feminist issues. Therefore, and while the sports film is providing a forum within which to debate certain important subjects, it may be doing so at the expense of others.

There is one last thing that sports films do a lot of – crying. Men and women, but men especially, cry in sports films. All the time. When the team win they cry; when the team lose they cry; whenever anything happens they cry. By my reckoning We Are Marshall features the most weepy scenes. Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) alone cries on about seven different occasions.  Gridiron Gang also puts in a solid performance with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson blubbing at least twice. Even the female-centred sports film remake, Ice Castles (2010), finds its emotional climax with blokey tears (the boyfriend). The new jock is the latest version of the so-called ‘new man’, that softie metrosexual beast of the 1990s. He has all the intelligence and sensitivity of the old new man, but has a muscular physique to boot. He’s the guy that the women in pseudo-feminist shows like Sex and the City yearn for. Brawn, brains and a few noble ideals .

The athlete activist is ubiquitous. We get them in the movies; we’ve always had them in real life (Billy Jean King, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Max Baer etc). More recently, Olympics sportspeople have become associated with a cause: Jessica Ennis (women in the boardroom), Mo Farah (image of Somalis in UK), Oscar Pistorius (equality for the disabled), Bradley Wiggins (Save the Mods). Jocks dominate the soapbox. And for those of us without the muscles and the stamina, but who still want to get our message across, only one course of action is now possible.

We must contact athletic clubs, football teams, boxing gyms and find ourselves a sporting avatar. I’ve just hired a strapping young boxer, Tony, to take over all my public engagements. For a small fee he will say the things that I want to say against our current government, against the banks, against injustice and inequality. He will proclaim the beginning of a new political and social order.

People will take heed, for he is a jock.

And Jocks inspire a generation.

Sources

Baker, Aaron, Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003)

Rawitsch, Elizabeth, ‘ “It’s Strictly USA”: The Performance and Ethnic Assimilation of Take me out to the Ball Game‘, Journal of Popular Film and Television 39.3 (2011), 124-131.

A Random A-Z of Film Themes: E Is for Economics

E Is for Economics

With events in Libya currently dominating news reports, the entertainment press has been reminding us of its own Gaddafi-related scoops. Pop artists, movie stars, minor royals – many, it seems, consorted at one time or another with the Colonel and his family. One of the most widely-reported stories focuses on Gaddafi’s third son, Saadi, and the substantial amount of money – $100 million by several accounts – he provided the Los Angeles film production company Natural Selection. Producer Matt Beckerman convinced him to invest in the company during a meeting in 2008. ‘As an avid film fan, I’m extremely excited about this venture,’ said Gaddafi Jr. ‘Working with Matty, and with an industry that I hold close to my heart.’ Rousing words indeed, from a man whose CV reads like something out of The Royal Tenenbaums: professional footballer, captain of the Libyan national team, sometime member of three Italian Serie-A clubs, patron of the arts. Sadly, his Hollywood adventure proved to be a blemish on an otherwise glittering career.

Only two Natural Selection films were actually completed. The Experiment (2010), a remake of the German film Das Experiment (2001), sounded promising: it featured A-list stars Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker and was inspired by the so-called Stanford prison experiment of 1971, a scientific attempt to test human endurance and morality by throwing participants into a simulated prison environment as either guards or inmates (do the guards become unthinking brutes? Do the prisoners rebel or crumble? Was Saadi tempting fate a bit by financing a film dealing with such themes?). But all this talent had little impact. The Experiment ended up going straight to DVD. On the set of Isolation, the other film produced by Natural Selection, a director’s chair marked Kadafi apparently sat – alas, unoccupied – throughout the production phase. Isolation has its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Screamfest next month. So if you’re a fan of low-budget horror, and aren’t on Interpol’s wanted list, then get yourself down there to cheer it on.

The Hollywood–Gaddafi connection is but one of many distasteful anecdotes regarding the film industry’s business practices and economic conduct. While on-screen, films rage against oppressive dictatorships, governmental corruption and financial jiggery-pokery – think The Great Dictator, All the King’s Men, The Godfather, Wall Street, Syriana and The Last King of Scotland, to name but a few – off-screen the industry does not always practice what it preaches. Money soothes the conscience even as it poisons the soul. Once we heed the advice of All the President’s Men’s (1976) legendary informer, Deep Throat, and ‘follow the money’, we are confronted with a treasure chest of Hollywood’s financial indiscretions, underhand activities, and cheeky accountancy. The following post casts an eye over some of these dodgy dealings. Courting dictators, ripping off foreign tax shelters, confusing profit margins, complex costings, fake movie stock markets: Hollywood’s accounts can at times read like a paranoid political thriller, at others like a comedy. They certainly bust a few tired shibboleths. Chuck Norris is not the toughest man in movies; David Lynch is not the most confusing. Both of these accolades must go to those who have time and again engineered some of the most coldly calculating and downright mind-boggling stunts never seen on the silver screen – the money men, the accountants.

 

Business Is Business

We deal with all kinds of political ideologies – democracies, dictatorships, despots, monarchies, left wing, right wing. We do business with everybody. (Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America, 1977)

That Jack Valenti, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood at the time, would feel comfortable, let alone justified, in publicly making the above comment, says quite a lot about Hollywood’s business ethos. His words came after some 45 years of deals with the twentieth century’s most infamous monsters. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco might have been railed against in political rhetoric and propaganda campaigns, but, when it came to making a few movie-bucks, there were some willing to go that extra mile in the name of ‘diplomacy’.

Saadi Gaddafi was not the first son of a despot to be schmoozed by Hollywood. In 1937 the American film producer Hal Roach set up a production company with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the Italian dictator Benito. The company, named RAM (Roach and Mussolini), was formed with a view toward cornering the European market. David Welky’s fascinating and very readable account of the American film industry’s dealings with dictatorships in the 1930s, The Moguls and the Dictators, gives an idea of the close relationship that some people in Hollywood were willing to foster with fascist-run countries in order to avoid financial losses. For most of the 1930s, Hollywood endeavoured to stay on good terms with Mussolini (as it did with Hitler and Hirohito). Studio representatives visited Italy on several occasions and hammered out various deals with Il Duce that ensured the continuing profitability of American pictures in Italy. Then, toward the end of the decade, Mussolini Jr. visited the United States in the hope of developing even closer relations between the Italian and American film industries and encouraging film technicians to come and work at Italy’s Cinecitta studios. Things did not, however, go to plan.

From the moment he stepped off the boat at New York Harbour, Vittorio was chased from town to town by anti-fascist campaigners. In Los Angeles, he faced the wrath of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an organisation formed in 1936 and made up of left-wing industry professionals, Charlie Chaplin being one of the most notable. Declared the ‘fascist princeling’ in the League’s press releases, the young Vittorio was snubbed by many Hollywood figures afraid of being tarred by association. (Interestingly, I don’t recall much of an outcry over Beckerman’s deal with Gaddafi back in 2009. It’s only been in recent months that the industry has distanced itself from this ‘rogue’ trader.) Mussolini’s cause was not helped by the banks, who did not consider Italy a provident investment at this point in time. Fears over currency restrictions and worries that Vittorio’s dad would interfere in the company’s affairs meant RAM was unable to find enough backers. ‘It became obvious that there would be no money in making pictures in Rome for anyone in Hollywood’, lamented Variety magazine shortly after the company’s implosion. In the end it was as much economic as ideological considerations that killed off RAM. Even poor Vittorio’s birthday celebrations – he turned 21 while still in Los Angeles – were scuppered, as most of Hollywood’s great and good failed to attend. As Welky wryly notes, ‘Not even the gaily decorated cake, topped with a fascist soldier … could save it.’

When it came to 1930s fascist dictatorships, Mussolini was always clinging onto the bootstraps of his Nazi counterpart, Adolph Hitler. Throughout the 1930s, Hitler and Germany were on the march. Naturally, Hollywood saw an opportunity to cash in. It is an oft-observed fact that Hollywood made little attempt at producing anti-Nazi films until the very end of the 1930s/early 1940s. While Hitler’s political power was on the ascendant, the film industry’s watchword was appeasement. It is a bitter irony that the majority of the film industry’s executives were Jewish, and yet their commitment to providing ‘harmless entertainment’ for a predominantly Protestant public led them to believe that any anti-Nazi (and, by implication, ‘pro-Jewish’) filmmaking would be economic suicide, and, what is more, would increase anti-Semitic tensions in the United States. Of the major studios, only Warner Brothers attempted to speak out against Hitler in the early 1930s. In 1932, Harry Warner cancelled his company’s purchase of the German film studio UFA after visiting Berlin. Witnessing the anti-Semitism already present in political campaigning and sloganeering caused Warner to rethink his business decisions. Warners also produced some of the first anti-Nazi films: a film that Welky calls an ‘oblique anti-Nazi parable’, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and, then, the more explicit Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939).

As Welky demonstrates, a combination of executive timidity and pressure from heads of the Production Code – the body charged with ensuring Hollywood films abided by certain ‘moral’ standards – ensured that Hollywood would not do much to broach the Nazi issue until the late 1930s. And a major cause of the film industry’s change of heart later in the decade was that fascist countries had become impossible to do business with. They limited the number of American films allowed into their dominions, placed high taxes on imports, insisted that they be dubbed and slapped a ‘dubbing tax’ on all films (as in Italy), subjected them to rigorous if not ridiculous censorship so as to ensure few films ever made it to cinemas (many in Hollywood believed that German censors deliberately passed only second-rate American movies in order to put the public off American product) and, finally, placed embargos on American film imports. When in 1937 Universal boss J. Cheever Cowdin visited Germany to ask that the censors go a little easier on his pictures, the writing was already on the wall. Cowdin’s bargaining chip was the fact that Jewish executive Carl Laemmle had been ousted and thus ‘Jews no longer ran Universal’. The Nazis rejected his appeals.

In the end, doing business with the fascists became more trouble than it was worth. And this, along with America’s entry into WWII, led to an about turn in industry policy. And, what is more, the production of numerous anti-Nazi/anti-fascist propaganda films. That is not to say, however, that Hollywood had entirely given up on the tyrant dollar.

The Soviet Union might seem a surprising target for Hollywood in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Yet, as Jindriska Blahova has demonstrated, Hollywood put a great deal of time and effort into selling its films to Eastern European countries, countries at this point in time under the control of Joseph Stalin. Blahova’s work is eye opening for the simple reason that little has been said about Hollywood’s attempts to do business with the communists. We read history after history of a post-WWII climate where anti-communist sentiment reigned supreme, industry figures with even the most tenuous link to left-wing organisations were blacklisted or, in the case of Charlie Chaplin, banished from America altogether, and the films themselves promulgated subtle and not-so-subtle anti-communist messages. But, once again, behind the scenes money was doing the talking.

Partly out of a desire to sell their product to every available market, and partly because they feared that the Soviet industry might become a challenger to Hollywood, industry figureheads were keen to get their product into Eastern European cinemas. Doing this required cosying up to the most powerful man in this part of the world, Stalin. According to Blahova, Hollywood representatives did meet with Stalin and reported negotiations with the Soviet dictator to have been a success. In fact, according to one of these representatives, Stalin was so excited about doing business with Hollywood he had a ‘merry twinkle in [his] eye’. Hollywood’s success behind the Iron Curtain would be impeded somewhat by rapidly cooling relations between the two world superpowers, but, nevertheless, throughout the 1940s and 1950s attempts were made to sell movies to this market, with some – albeit limited – success.

Blahova concludes her article by calling for more research to be done into Hollywood’s relationship with other ‘enemies of the United States’: Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq. Certainly, it would be interesting to see what kinds of documents could be found in state and film archives pertaining to such dealings. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, for instance, Hollywood films were one of the few products not included by the US government in its embargo. While Castro certainly condemned American films, and froze Hollywood-held assets in Cuba, films were apparently still getting in at least until 1961. What kinds of films made it in? Who did the deals? What other unfriendly regimes have been courted by the film industry? North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il is known to be a massive film buff. The possibilities.

But back to the fascists for now. Francisco Franco’s Spain became a prime destination for numerous film producers in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the famous historical, or sword-and-sandal, epics of this period were shot in Spain. At a time when Hollywood’s profits were under threat thanks to a combination of anti-trust legislation intended to weaken the major studios’ monopoly on the film trade and television’s ascendancy as a dominant entertainment medium, the studios put much faith in big-budget, lavishly produced pictures like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra to ‘save’ them from economic collapse. It was hoped that such pictures would become massive ‘events’ for all sections of the American public and thus make mega profits.

Such films were, however, extremely expensive to make. One way in which Hollywood could get the same glossy production values while saving a few dollars in expenses was to shoot abroad. The so-called ‘runaway’ production became a staple of the industry. And a favourite destination for many producers was Spain. It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Hollywood enjoyed low location expenses, technical teams, and a Franco administration willing to provide help and assistance. Spain benefited from investment in the local economy, employment and training for native film crews, and the opportunity to promote itself in pictures that would reach a worldwide audience. As Neal Moses Rosendorf has noted, movies served as an ideal channel through which the Franco government could rebuild Spain’s reputation in the wake of WWII. Attempting to move the country away from associations with fascism, oppression and poverty and promote it as a respectable ally against the communist threat, not to mention a pretty saucy tourist destination, the Franco regime turned, in Rosendorf’s words, ‘The US film industry into an arm of its Ministry of Information and Tourism’. It was hoped that films like El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire would thrill global audiences while subtly emphasising Spain as a sun-drenched, exotic paradise, perfect for a week or two’s vacation. For over twenty years Franco and Hollywood enjoyed this amiable relationship. El Caudillo opened his arms to Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren and their sword-and-sandal chums; western tourists and British criminals opened their arms to the sun, sea, sand and secrecy available in Spain.

As more research is completed, and new documents emerge, other producer–dictator trysts will likely come to light. No doubt I’ve missed a few, and I’d be much obliged to anyone with further tales of such industrial conduct (please comment below, or drop us an email). Nevertheless, it is time to move on from dictators and to examine other economic shenanigans undertaken by the film industry. From immoral relationships to crafty book-balancing tricks, film accountancy is the next topic on the agenda.

Dodgy Deals

If some of the film industry’s business practices have been morally dubious, others are defined by their mind-blowingly confusing legal work and accountancy. Here are a few economic tricks that have financed movies in the past couple of decades.

1. The German Tax Shelter. The legendary, and highly perplexing, German tax shelter provided Hollywood with hassle-free wonga for many decades. Up until 2005, Hollywood could make several million dollars by transferring token ownership of a movie to German investors. As far as I can fathom – and see Edward J. Epstein here for a far more lucid explanation – if it could be proven that a German media fund owned the rights to a Hollywood film then the German investors were eligible for substantial tax breaks. US studios could make a profit simply by doing the following: sell a film’s rights to a German media fund, but draw up the contract so that you have the option to buy back the rights in the very near future. Now the film is nominally ‘German owned’, and investors in the German company can reap the benefits of the tax breaks. For German investors this basically meant that they could write off 100% of the tax on their investment. They could even borrow some money to invest, yet still write off the full tax amount, which meant their write-off was actually more than 100%. After the investors had taken advantage of the tax shelter, the film’s rights could then be sold back to the US studio at a lower price. Apparently, a studio could expect to make back 8–10% of a film’s budget simply by going through this process. Paramount studios, for example, earned $10 million back on the $100 million budgeted Tomb Raider (2003) and, all told, skimmed $70–90 million from German tax shelters that year.

What is more, proving your film to be ‘German’ did not have to mean proving it was German alone. Since none of the film had to be shot in Germany to be classified as German, you could also take advantage of other countries’ film production subsidies. Thus The Lord of the Rings trilogy took advantage of German tax shelters as well as New Zealand state subsidies that required they shoot the film locally. This combination, along with the selling of LoTR’s international distribution rights, meant that New Line had made back most of its production budget before the films had even reached cinemas. Similarly, in the production of Tomb Raider, Paramount combined German benefits with British tax breaks. The studio shot a few scenes in Britain, hired some British cast and crew and did some more selling and buying back, this time with a British bank. The result was a cool extra $12 million for the Paramount coffers. According to one estimate, such dealings meant that Germany lost $750 million in tax revenues in 2004 alone. It must be nice for German citizens to think that, instead of building hospitals, schools, new roads and social programmes, they ensured Angelina Jolie got her multi-million dollar salary and Gollum’s facial expressions looked human. Providing instant dough for many a blockbuster (smaller productions did not tend to have the international clout or legal resources to take similar liberties), Hollywood’s German tax-break gravy train came to an end in 2005. New tricks were required.

2. Hedge Funds. What with the world’s markets suffering virtual meltdown at the moment, it would be in bad taste to offer any sympathy to the progenitors of out collective overdraft, Wall Street. But all the same, there have been some pretty pathetic tales of hedge funds being out-foxed by crafty Hollywood accountants. Since 2004, Wall Street has made enormous efforts to get a slice of the Hollywood pie. Rather than investing in individual films, hedge funds have tended to finance ‘film slates’, groups of 15–20 movies, and to take a cut of a studio’s internal rate of return. This meant that rather than pinning all their hope to the success of one film’s cinema release, they could expect a slice of a studio’s yearly profits: film, DVD, computer games, selling of international rights, tax breaks, etc. It sounded like a win-win situation for the flushed bankers (this was the glory days of 2004), and they jumped into the movie business with gusto. It is yet another example of Wall Street bullheadedness, for the bankers either didn’t read the small print or did not sufficiently weigh up the consequences of their decision. While the studios were given huge amounts of capital – and at the same time did not have their shares diluted or lose control – hedge funds had to wait for a profitability that, at least as far as the studios’ bookkeepers were concerned, did not come. Various factors ensured that the studios benefited from this arrangement, and that the hedge funds did not.

Firstly, it’s all well and good if Hollywood bundles together a group of ‘safe bets’ (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and ‘based on the bestselling novel’ being a few tags that can hardly help but make money). But this was not always the case. Usually included on the same slate as a ‘sure fire win’ were more risky projects. For example, a Sony slate from a few years ago included films like Stranger than Fiction and All the King’s Men, which were not considered likely blockbuster material – and didn’t make much money. What the studios had discovered was a variation on the much-hated old practice of block booking. Up until the 1950s, films were frequently sold as part of a ‘block’ – thus if an exhibitor wanted to buy Casablanca they would also have to buy a load of other (often crappy) films. It was an easy way for the industry to guarantee it’d make an income, even if the film was bad. Something similar, it would seem, can be said of these recent ‘film slates’. The film studios now had their ‘risky’ or, let’s be honest, ‘crap’ pictures guaranteed before release. If major losses were incurred most of these would fall to the hedge funds. Film critic Mark Kermode recently inveighed against the blockbuster culture that sees bad movie after bad movie produced. I can’t help wondering if this deal with the hedge funds, whereby a film is not treated as an individual asset so much as part of a slate, has contributed toward this spate of cookie-cut garbage. One might even wonder if it was actually in the studios’ interests to release duds in order to artificially push down their earnings and avoid paying out on large dividends. One of the nice pieces of small print in these deals was that the studio could take a 10% distribution fee, which did not have to be shared with the hedge funds. This meant that releasing a crappy, underdeveloped picture might well make sense: the studios could take their fee, and most of the risk of failure at the box office was underwritten by the hedge funds.

This is not the only reason why hedge funds did so badly out of the Hollywood deals. When many of the film slates were set up, there was a general feeling that ancillary markets, and especially the booming DVD market, would ensure a studio’s profitability (and thus ensure Wall Street a cut). But after 2005, the DVD market started to contract significantly. Similarly, as noted above, many of the tax-shelter benefits were cut by national governments in the mid-2000s. Such factors led to the hedge funds getting, to put it mildly, royally screwed over. In the last couple of years they’ve been pulling money out again, and trying to blame each other for things going so terribly wrong. Reading some of the interviews with those involved, one can’t help think that part of the reason for the hedge funds’ downfall was the film industry’s ability to seduce even the most hardened of bankers. Star-struck! That is how some of the bankers come across, desperate to put their money in this industry not because it’ll make big profits but because it means prestige. Perhaps the desire on the part of investors to be seen at the In Places and to hobnob with the stars was as much to blame for their losses as were naughty Hollywood accountants.

3. Profit, what profit? Perhaps the most infamous of Hollywood’s accountancy methods is the ability to hide profits. In order that writers, producers, novelists, etc., did not get their hands on a cut, such mega hits as Forrest Gump, Rain Man, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Coming to America never officially turned a profit. The story of the latter was given novel-length treatment. Pierce O’ Donnell’s Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business, recounts the court battle between the comedian Art Buchwald and Paramount Studios. After Buchwald demanded a cut of profits for his part in developing Coming to America’s story, Paramount endeavoured to claim that this $350-million-grossing picture did not make a profit. Through what is known as ‘creative accountancy’ the studio was able to fabricate this blockbuster into a loss-maker. While Buchwald eventually won his case, others have not been quite so lucky. Author of the novel Forrest Gump, Winston Groom, was refused a share in profits because the studio once again claimed that the film did not make any. Bear in mind that Gump collected over $300 million in the US alone, and you can’t help but wonder where the hell the losses were made. For some years Groom refused to sell the rights to his second novel Gump and Co, contending that he could not ‘in good conscience allow money to be wasted on a failure’. However, word is that a script has been in development for several years now; hopefully Groom will have arranged a better deal for himself this time around.

Much more could be said about Hollywood accountancy, and I might eventually throw up another few thousand words up on the subject, if only to try to clarify things in my own head. For the time being, however, I’d like to conclude with a brief reference to a phenomenon that has been gripping marketers and economists for several years now. When investors want to know what films are expected to succeed, what films are likely to fail, they might turn to marketing research departments, they might scan Facebook and Twitter. But one of the most reliable predictors of a film’s financial success has been, ever since it started trading in 1996, the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

Stocks and Shares

First things first, the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) as it currently stands does not deal in real money. It is an online game, which allows anyone to purchase fake stock in movies, television programmes, stars and a host of other derivatives. You are provided with $2 million in start-up funds when you register. The idea is to bet on winners and see your investment portfolio explode. An individual’s profit margin may not be of any great consequence, but the uses to which HSX – in its entirety as a massive body of speculation – has been put suggest an interesting new direction with regard to Hollywood financing, marketing and exhibition. HSX has been used by marketing research companies and university-based economists as the most accurate way of predicting box-office revenue prior to a film’s release. The company that owns the HSX, Cantor Fitzgerald, sells market research culled from the website to studios and investors alike. If a movie’s shares are selling well on HSX then this creates a buzz on a par to an award nomination or the hiring of a top star. Harvesting its information from numerous different sources, HSX is argued to be the most sophisticated predictor of a film’s success. In short, what happens on this website is affecting how a film, or director, or star, is perceived by the industry and by related organisations.

On the HSX, a movie will receive its IPO (initial public offering) months, sometimes years, before it has even begun shooting. The volume of shares bought at this crucial pre-production stage is already acting as a barometer of what millions of entertainment-savvy customers believe that movie to be worth. By implication, such info could actually influence a studio’s decision as to whether to green light a film sooner or later, how much to spend on its advertising, how wide a release to give it, etc. Of course, how much faith a studio invests in the HSX cannot be empirically proven. But when economists at Harvard Business School and numerous other universities are using it for their own papers on box-office potential, one might at least speculate that this fake stock market has not been taken lightly.

All this is, however, but the tip of the iceberg. Last year there was a move to make HSX a reality. That is, a proposal was made to the US Senate which called for the establishment of a Hollywood futures market. People would be able to buy shares in films, in television programmes, in stars, in directors for real. At present various government bills have ensured that the HSX remains virtual, but the past year and a half has seen much toing and froing on the part of regulatory bodies and government organisations. A move to real money may, in the not-too-distant future, still materialise. This raises the question of whether floating individual films on the stock market would be a good or a bad thing. HSX supporters contend that this new system would provide more support for the industry. Producers would not be forced to shoulder all the risk if a film flopped. Fans of a particular novel or comic book may be willing to shell out a few dollars in order to see a movie adaptation realised. A producer could throw an experimental idea out onto the market and see if the public embraced it. This might even lead to more risky projects being given the go-ahead. In a sense it would be a case of demand leading supply. At a time when various commentators have claimed that Hollywood is pumping out the same old rubbish regardless of whether the public likes it or not, a real HSX might force the industry to follow public opinion a little more closely. It’s even been suggested that more arty or independent films might benefit from this opening of the market. An independent producer could float an idea or a script and encourage investors in that way. Again, certain risky projects might find it easier to obtain financing.

The opposite argument, however, suggests that gambling with Hollywood properties on the stock market would actually cause many projects to flounder and industry professionals to lose their jobs. Far from encouraging the cultivation of more film ideas the industry would be even more confined in the kinds of films it could obtain financing for. Only the safest projects would be okayed, thanks to thousands of angry stockholders demanding a dividend on their investment. Furthermore, what happens if confidence is lost in a particular film and everyone starts selling shares? Would this mean a studio would be forced to swallow a pre-release debt? Would they bother to promote it? Would the film even be completed or would it just be left languishing in pre-release purgatory? These kinds of questions have been asked, though no one has really come up with definitive answers.

So, for what it’s worth, in order to explore a few of these questions, I thought I’d monitor my own behaviour on the HSX for a couple of weeks. I’m no super accountant, and the fact that I’m dealing with pretend money does mean that I have nothing to lose. But, nevertheless, I thought monitoring my own actions on the stock market might serve as a starting point from which to examine the relative pros and cons of trading movie stocks and shares. A rough journal from the past two weeks is published below.

'Greed clarifies.'

Betting on the Market

Sept 1: With $2 million in my pocket, I got started. No friend to the mindless, the vacuous, the childish, no Transformers nonsense for me. Small arty films are the order of the day; I’ll be benefactor to the needy. Ten thousand shares purchased for A Woman of No Importance, a planned adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, starring Annette Benning and Sean Bean. Another 10K splashed out on stock in indie director Todd Solondz (when he gets back in business the controversy alone will send the shares through the roof). The Mill and the Cross (art and Rutger Hauer – 10 grand); Shame, 15 grand. Top this off with a substantial interest in the high-profile, but widely acclaimed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and we have a recipe for success. Buy low, sell high, look clever.

Sept 4: Shares purchased in My Afternoons with Margueritte (10,000 at $0.10 each). A sudden burst of patriotism sees me invest in a couple of Simon Pegg films, Burke and Hare and the in-development A Fantastic Fear of Almost Everything. I’m being called for dinner now. Had better log out. Fingers crossed.

Sept 6: Shares not doing particularly well at the moment. Pegg is finished. Will not be spending many more afternoons with Margueritte, down to $0.07. Have bought some stock in Christopher Nolan. Expensive, but at least he makes intelligent blockbusters. Also got myself involved in some US Prime Suspect stock. Should be a sure-fire profit.

Missed dinner thanks to Burke and Hare almost bankrupting me. Pegg – go back to Spaced. Hungry, but quietly confident that tomorrow will see some profits.

Sept 8: Solondz down. Dumped him. Sold all shares in Shame and Mill and bought shares in Gwyneth Paltrow. Maybe all the glamorous dresses she’s been wearing this week will raise her stock price before Contagion opens tomorrow. Woman of No Importance became of no importance to me. I ditched it and bought a few thousand in Straw Dogs. Telling my dad about this purchase over dinner, he looked at me and wanted to know why I’m wasting money on a rubbish remake. ‘Why not invest in indie films, son? I thought you were going to back the underdog.’ Goddamit Dad, why do you have to be so moral all the time? Know he’s right though.

Sept 10: Wasted most of the day on the stock exchange. Things were looking bad all day. Contagion was slipping; Paltrow shite; Straw Dogs dropped a little. Tried to stem the haemorrhage a little with some shares in The Playboy Club, a new US TV programme set in the early 1960s. Will hopefully milk the Mad Men fad. All in all, though, all is not well in my portfolio. Had another argument at dinner. Dad said I’d changed. Asked my younger sister if I could borrow some money for a new suit.

Thank God things got better this evening. At 9am Pacific time, The Amazing Spiderman 2 was IPO’d. I sold everything I owned except the Playboy stock and bought 10,000 shares in the film. Two hours later I’d already made a $50,000 profit.

Sept 12: Hooray for Spiderman. Projections are looking peachy. I’ve made $400,000 profit, and it keeps rising. Am eating a sandwich at my desk now. No longer welcome at the dinner table. It’s probably for the best. I need to keep an eye on market activities. An ‘Untitled Pixar Film with dinosaurs’ goes on the market Saturday. Shares are starting at $80. I’ll use all my profits from Spiderman to invest in this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my arty films, low budget indies, challenging subject matter and all that. But I’ll leave their financing to others; people with more money than sense, people like Saadi Gaddafi. I’ll take my little Marvel and run thank you very much …

Discontinued due to work commitments and atrocious grammar …

The End.

Next up: F is for Flying Saucers

Works Cited

Blahova, J. ‘A Merry Twinkle in Stalin’s Eye: Eric Johnston, Hollywood and Eastern Europe’. Film History, 22 (2010), pp. 347–359.

Rosendorf, N.M. ‘Hollywood in Madrid: American Film Producers and the Franco Regime’. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27:1 (2007), pp. 77–109.

Segrave, Kerry. American Films Abroad: Hollywood’s Domination of all the world’s Movie Screens from the 1890s to the Present (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997).

Welky, D. The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008).

All other sources are electronically cited in text.

My thanks as ever go out to Seb Manley for proofreading, checking, correcting and generally sorting this ramble out. If Seb was an accountancy trick, he would be a top-end blockbuster storming the international box-office, garnering millions from deals on distribution, television and ancillary rights, making everyone at the studio very very very very rich and yet still somehow in the red. Seb proofreads all forms of non-fiction writing. His website can be found here: www.manley-editorial.com.

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.

‘The whole world is watching.’ Medium Cool (1969).

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?’

‘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?

‘Back and to the left.’ The Zapruder film.

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.

The End.

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.

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