. An outRageous! essay on The Arts, Education and The People. | London Progressive Journal
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An outRageous! essay on The Arts, Education and The People.

Sat 21st Jan 2012

My brain is bursting its bounds, filled with films spooling out of their projectors and turning my eyes into sprocket holes making today's rant even rantier than usual.

Yep, fulfilling my duties as a loyal Bafta voter, I've been watching and re-watching about three or four films a day - something I used to do on a daily basis as London Editor of an international film magazine. I can assure you that it's possible to assess films on a more informed level than whether or not you merely like them. And it's certainly possible to assess them on more stable ground than whether or not they're commercially viable.

What neither you nor I nor anyone can do is predict what will make or break the box office. Not even if you're a UK prime minister - especially one who's dragging the country from gutter-mire further down to sewer ordure.

Ever since film honchos redefined art-form into industry - and particularly since yesterday's film loving studio heads ceded power to money-motivated accountants - the green -lighting of projects has been primarily in the hands of those con artists, disguised as Madame Nostradamus, gazing into a crystal ball, telling you what you wanna hear, and collecting a wad of cash before you leave the tent.

Their record, ladies and gents, ain't great. Well, not left to their own devices. To justify their guesswork they seek an awful lot of help from publicists and promotion. And for that they spend, spend, spend.

That's why films need to make back their production costs within weeks, if not days, of their release. And it's why the P&A [promotion and advertising] budgets are about a third of a film's total costs.

Shock horror, they rig the market - just like a handful of City gents we know about.

Duck and cover you cowardly Cameron, with your absurd and dangerous announcement that UK film finance should be based on what will make a hefty monetary return rather than on questions of quality. It's like declaring to school art departments that their grants must back only the as yet unpainted paintings likely to attract the Saatchi Gallery in a decade's time.

Francis Bacon's works are both genius and uncomfortable. Why, the Con-Dems wonder, couldn't he just paint a vase of lovely flowers. They don't know about art but they know what they don't like.

This rant is aimed at your crassness, Cameron. It goes to the heart of what is art, and why it's so important in preparing people for democracy.

You and your Govey worm spout with ersatz though well-rehearsed authority, such nonsense about the purpose of education that we might be forgiven for confusing fairly well-constructed sentences with meaningful content.

Before we sit down to the banquet of wider educational implications, help yourself to some of the freshly baked Bafta contenders on display, and contemplate why they've made it out of the oven. You won't find a complete round-up of this year's semi-finalists, but I'm using them as currency to get a purchase on why the political world continually regards The Arts as unimportant.

More people visit museums than attend football matches - but art baffles those decision makers whose worlds depend on assigning quantity rankings, and not on evaluating the elusive truth of quality. Footie? Tennis? Marathon? Easy! You win, you lose, you rank, you don't. But is an Inuit scrimshaw carving "better" than Rodin's The Kiss? Is Beethoven or Mozart worth Best Composer? Not so easy.

For films - as for so much else on offer under capitalism - however much you can identify what you like, and however much you're willing to be charmed into buying a ticket by the self-interested promotion of advertisers and p.r. companies - none of that defines a good film, let alone one worthy of The Best.



It's like saying, "I like blue. Blue is the best colour. The award goes to blue." Which certainly explains the premise of an excellent Bafta contender this year called Toryboy.



Director John Walsh, previously a Labour supporter and well-praised documentary maker, himself becomes a Tory candidate to challenge the corrupt and despicable old Labour horse dominating a northern constituency. Hard to believe this duplicitous incumbent could ever have been a Socialist.

Walsh confirms our suspicions that, no matter how painfully the truth bites your bum, the most potent factor in choosing politicians relies on something much more amorphous. And that's the nebulous belief that your loyalty must be guided by those vague and unquestioned values spoon-fed by your family and community. That's why your choices define safe seats, even if they fill your bum with splinters.

Cameron, Milliband, Clegg, Uncle Tom Cobley and all rely on such truths, confident they can concentrate dwindling resources on their version of boffo box-office.

Cameron and his grossly misinformed advisors just haven't understood that a self-selected public vote to oust a celebrity from the jungle has nothing in common with an assessment by professionals who are expert in their fields.

So-called public choice in a so-called free market equals the manipulation practised by great magicians. But sometimes even manipulated box-office returns can be subverted.

As the Bafta candidates reduce down to a short-list, it's salutary to understand why no one could have predicted some top runners' anticipated success. Nearly all are independent films - some very accessible, others remarkably difficult to watch - but each at least partially deserving the critical acclaim which led to their Bafta endorsements.

Blockbusters, primarily American imports, have been dominating UK cine-fare for too many years. Happily 2012 sees reels-full of challenging treatments that could not have been predicted to redeem their production costs at the box office.

Taking inspiration from the real world, and probably green-lighted because of last year's King's Speech accolades, top competitors in various categories include a couple of films featuring real-life icons. My Week With Marilyn, an account of Monroe's filming with Laurence Olivier, and The Iron Lady, in truth an uninspiring, often craven and pedantic traipse through Thatcher's political career. Each film is flawed, though both are raised to a sublime level by the acting: Meryl Streep's Thatcher and Michelle Williams' Marilyn transcend their subjects.

Another surprise is The Artist, a delightful nearly silent black and white film, sprung from an undeniable love of cinema. But underneath the apparent froth is a potent plea for a greater understanding of why artistic freedom and integrity must be protected, and how experimental and difficult artistic decisions pave the way for the greatest popular appeal.

I cannot believe that the pitch to potential investors included those elements; more likely was the comparatively low budget, feel-good treatment, and a sensational performance by a dog.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo, also motivated by an amorous devotion to cinema, is a love poem, setting a charming, often very funny, and moving human story in the context of the mechanistic world of invention and early motion pictures.

The only film of all those up for awards that a priori occupied a "safe seat" at the cinema, is the last in the Harry Potter series. And that's primarily because it had an almost captive audience even before the script was written.

Video artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen's film Shame, on the other hand is not - in the words of that great Irish wit Flann O'Brian - an easy pancake. It's a complex yet very revealing portrait of a tortured sex addict. Michael Fassbinder, quickly establishing himself as an actor of great range and astounding screen presence, explores every nuance of the character's misunderstood affliction. In an age when our society as a whole remains uncomfortable about sexual matters and relies on prurient assumptions, Shame deserves the praise it's getting. Let's hope its award-ceremony attention pays dividends at the box office. It would be a loss to British cinema if Steve McQueen, like a handful of other equally uncompromising filmmakers such as Ken Loach, should have to jump through hoops to finance their next project.

Means-testing cancer patients. Clairvoyance for film funding. Dunno about you, but I see a pattern. And it ain't anything resembling art.

Perhaps some policy makers do recognize the power of artistic quality, but I suspect they'll only trust a gold-plated bottom line. Meanwhile most of the media, hence most of the public, become diverted not by any cogent analysis of film content or even execution, but by the red carpet journo scrum to squeeze inanities from stars as an excuse to push their form of art. In case you didn't know - the Fourth Estate generically refers to any press photo as "art," even the blurry ones supposedly showing Carey Mulligan's knickers.

Even Bafta members, largely a knowledgeable bunch who do care passionately about film, sometimes allow factors that have nothing to do with a film itself to define awards contenders. So while the Academy should be applauded for its spotlight on The Help - an American film adaptation of a best-selling novel about the obscene prejudice shown to post-war Negro maids - there's no rhyme nor reason why at least four particular films should have been ignored.

Unless, of course Lars Von Trier's Melancholia was being punished for his ill-judged Hitler comments at last spring's Cannes Festival, and Roman Polanski's scathing social satire Carnage was too savage a reminder of the director's ill-judged sex act a generation ago.

The depiction of how high-level capitalism destroys lives in the very accessible Margin Call may have been too close to home for many. As for The Tree of Life, which unwraps itself into the big-lollipop questions we've all sucked on - well, it's a film that demands close attention. What's it all about, Alfie? Eh? Perhaps we're too inured to blockbusters after all.

We tend to assume politicians know what they're doing. Why else would they be in positions of leadership. Turns out they haven't got a clue. Especially in such a chaotic global moment. Even brushing aside the annoying verbal gnats of blame that each side unleashes on the other, there's no plan, let alone any consensus.

Except, of course, when they're all on safe ground with matters of business through which they seek to justify every self-interested policy that shapes children's education or abandons the elderly onto a reduced-benefit ice floe to perish.

These are vital matters which the Occupiers across the world want debated by everyone. But the result of their courage is only the merest acknowledgement that there just may be something to talk about.

All the recent blabberings about this or that kind of capitalism spouted by politicians petrified of offending their constituencies, fail to address the point. Namely, instead of trying to justify an economic system that is quintessentially unjust and falling apart, where's the debate about fresh, new alternatives.

I keep hearing broadcasters asking those most mistrusted, how people can regain trust in them. I keep hearing the ruthless cowboys of high-finance pontificate remorselessly about their obscene strategies. Every day I listen to reports about how we all agree that the only way out of our financial mess is for the poorest people to reduce their daily expectations. Well, I don't agree, buster!

Underpinning these irrelevancies to real social change is how to reign in the tendency of a generation which is increasingly unwilling to be conned. The emphasis of social policies constructed to shield the status quo from both riot and free debate is a redefinition of education.

For hundreds of years up to the turn of the 19th century, and leaving aside for a moment all the bedrock inequalities, the unavoidable royal anomalies, and a few lethal sociopaths, most of those who assumed political power were schooled in the art of social analysis.

The underclasses, deliberately marginalised from such philosophical privilege, never had a look-in; for other socio-economic reasons their lives pretty much carried on as usual.

Whatever else was and still is wrong with the shape of top-down power and wealth, there appeared to be an agreement that culture, led by the arts science and philosophy, provided a shared residence called civilization. The key tool that maintained such a domicile was education.

Today's politicians no longer require an educated electorate, however much they bleat to the contrary. In cahoots with their business masters and mates, what they mean by education is the ability to know just enough to follow orders. Their big educational goal has nothing to do with league tables or pre-uterine maths tests. It's about providing a work force. Providing slaves to keep the status quo, to keep themselves and their cronies smothered in cash and privilege.

They say what's wanted are more skilled workers. They mean it will look very bad if an Accident and Emergency Department needs to close down because there aren't enough doctors.

They say not everyone needs to go to uni. They mean they'll be very inconvenienced if they can't find a plumber.

They say they want an informed electorate, who'll ask intelligent questions. They mean don't teach them anything that will lead to scrutiny of the inequalities that protect them from reality.

They say they'll fund young entrepreneurs with start-up loans instead of student loans; or to endorse worker participation on remuneration boards. They mean they want to bribe a generation to take business risks with the added bonus of whetting appetites to entrench capitalist principles of exploitation of labour, without in any way engaging with a viable alternative of true worker/ownership cooperatives where people work with each other and not for someone else.

A couple of years ago the BBC broadcast a series called Rich, Famous, and Homeless. Several media personalities including writer and journalist Rosie Boycott, writer and broadcaster Hardeep Singh Koli, and the Marquis of Blandford who calls Blenheim Palace home, all were meant to live the life of a homeless person for a week or so.

On the first night most of the participants went a long way toward understanding their prejudices about why people live such desperate lives. But for the Marquis it was all too much. In fact his whole focus was to turn the premise into a game of how to outsmart the producers and circumvent the rules.

While the rest were resting on the pavement, he wormed his way into a posh hotel, rang his wife and begged her like a whiney lost boy to rescue him. And back he trotted to Blenheim.

They do not want to play by the rules. They want to set the rules and ignore them. And punish those who don't obey them. They want to divide and rule, and will castigate anyone who points it out.

That's why they're scared of The Arts. That's why they've reduced education to a Job Centre.

That's why society needs to cast off its garments of deception and fraud, and take an unashamed look in the mirror.

I'm betting that's a film we can all invest in!
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