Saturday, 25 September 2010

Guardian Film Power 100 List: Hollywood Owns UK Film Culture Shocker!

The Guardian has just published its Film Power 100 list – a list of people who wield “the greatest influence on which films you get to see when you go to the cinema on a Saturday evening, or turn on the TV to catch a movie.”

Their methodology: “Our definition of power is this: the ability to shape the experience of film viewing in the UK. That means it's not just a list of British film figures. Nor is it a run-through of Hollywood moguls: everyone on our list has to have demonstrable influence within the UK.”

Montagu’s analysis:

So, who controls British film culture? The answer, unsurprisingly, is Hollywood. With the exception of Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, the top ten people are all Hollywood figures. Vaizey himself only made the list because he is currently deciding which British institution will be in charge of giving the government’s £30m subsidy to Hollywood after the abolition of the UK Film Council. Working Title producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner come in at number 12, which itself is a reflection of the need to orientate British films towards Hollywood and the American-dominated international market in order to be successful, which is basically what they do. The first figure who can make a genuine claim to be relatively independent of Hollywood is Danny Boyle who comes in at number 31. We have to get to 33 places down on the list before we see a British production company represented – Channel Four’s Commissioning Executive, Tessa Ross, which is a reflection of C4’s continuing and longstanding importance. At 36 we have Christine Langan, Commissioning Executive at BBC Films. Geoff Andrew, Head of Film programming at BFI Southbank is the only British Film Institute figure to make the list, which is, perhaps, surprising.

Will this influence Vaizey in his current negotiations? Probably not.

This is not really "news", but it is a problem. It's not a problem in reductively nationalist terms, which is how the national cinema issue often plays out - a cultural equivalent of the "British jobs for British workers" slogan. It's a problem because it demonstrates the extent to which the decisions about what people get to see in this country - and elsewhere - are determined by a tiny minority of distant, unaccountable power players. The Guardian Film Power 100 list is a reflection of a profoundly undemocratic film culture.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

RIP UKFC: Geoffrey Macnab's Obituary of the UK FIlm Council

Geoffrey Macnab gives his obituary to the UK Film Council in October’s Sight and Sound.

This piece is worth a read for the insight it sheds on the debates that took place when the UK Film Council was formed, particularly the elusive desire for a sustainable, large-scale UK film industry.

As Macnab says, “the furore over the announcement [of the closure of the UK Film Council] underlines just how dependent on public funding the British film industry remains. It also reminds us how bitter the debates about public film policy have always been.”

He continues:

“We’re now at the end of a cycle. The UKFC is faced with abolition and the public film-funding model will almost certainly have to be redesigned. It was telling that in April 2010 the UKFC announced that its current chairman Tim Bevan would chair a think tank to identify ways of ‘growing UK companies of scale’. This, of course, was exactly the goal back in 1997, when the government awarded the three lottery-backed franchises worth more than £90 million over six years. The truth is that in 2010, over half of independent production companies are loss-making.”

The goal of a self-sustaining film industry is no more realistic now than it was back in 1998, or 1968 for that matter. The question is now, as it was then, how to sustain film-making in this country.

Any ideas let me – or Jeremy Hunt – know.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Climate Change Activism Debate: Jamie Henn vs George Monbiot

Is this the start of a major debate within the climate change activist community? Veteran activist and commentator George Monbiot has been taken to task by the co-founder of climate change campaigning website, Jamie Henn. The debate so far is interesting, not only because it may be the beginning of a debate within the climate change activist community in general, but also because of what it suggests about media strategy and tactics in the fight against global warming - or more specifically, the fight to get governments to act over global warming.  To explain...

Henn's article in the Huffington Post attacks an article of Monbiot's on In the original, Monbiot discussed the poor prospects of any sort of meaningful deal on climate change at the upcoming summit in Mexico in December. Monbiot - not being one to mince his words - argues that, with the failure of Copenhagen and the impending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, "there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth. The response to climate change, which was described by Lord Stern as 'a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen', is the greatest political failure the world has ever seen."

It's not hard to see why Henn would take this personally., founded last year, grew from the Step it Up campaign founded by Bill McKibben in 2007. It exists, according to their website, in order to "create a grassroots movement connected by the web and active all over the world. We will focus on the systemic barriers to climate solutions, changing political dynamics whenever possible. At the same time, we'll get to work implementing real climate solutions in our communities, demonstrating the benefits of moving to a clean energy economy." Just the sort of instrument that George finds lacking in the current Green Movement, then.

To this Henn replies: "I think there is an instrument, but it isn't policy prescriptions or solar panels: it's the Internet." Henn continues: "Thankfully, there's a new movement that's been building up outside and inside the established environmental groups. All around the world, there's a new set of Young (twittering) Turks that are shaking up the status quo and offering a new way forward."

This debate raises questions about the centrality of new media to contemporary political activism, especially within the environmental movement. The 10:10 campaign, founded by McLibel and Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong, is a good example of the strengths and limitations of this brand of Internet activism. The 10:10 campaign proposes a global day of action on the 10th October 2010 and the idea quickly spread across the world through the power of the Internet. At the same time, beyond creating press coverage, giving celebrities opportunities to demonstrate their green credentials and persuading people to recycle, its potential as a political force is unclear. In Britain it is so radical that David Cameron signed the British government up for it like a shot. How much of an effective or lasting impact will the campaign have on October the 11th? states that "we think the voice of ordinary people will be heard, if it's loud enough." But without an effective political force to channel that voice the danger, surely, is that it will be ignored among thousands of other decentralised and local actions. The Internet may be a useful tool to spread and coordinate activities, but it is surely a mistake to see it of itself as an effective instrument for containing man-made global warming. Monbiot asks "So what do we do now?"  Hyperbole aside, Henn is forced to answer "I don't really know either." 

Henn finishes by asking "we're doing our work, what about you?" This seems a bit rich considering Monbiot's record: founder of The Land is Ours campaign, banned from Indonesia and so on. While he can be a polarising figure his commitment to fighting climate change and finding effective solutions and strategies cannot be denied. Further, he has always championed direct action alongside strategies that aim to work within established political channels.

It will be interesting to see how this conversation pans out.

Finally, to do my bit and spread the word, the video:

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Unfriend Coal

Unfriend Coal, Greenpeace spoof on David Fincher's new Facebook film, The Social Network.

The Social Network's tagline is "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." Clearly Greenpeace is one of them.

Cultural Shock Doctrine Part Two - Hunt Attacks Progessive Cultural Policy

Jeremy-culture-vandal-Hunt (who is fast becoming a favourite subject of this Blog) used his speech at the Media Festival Arts in London to reiterate his “long term commitment to the arts sector”. Hunt talked of sharing pain, future growth, blah blah blah...

But what shape is this sector going to take? Hunt also took the opportunity to take a swipe at instrumental aspects of cultural funding under New Labour, according to The Mail:

“Public money will no longer be given to arts organisations simply because they hire a high proportion of women or ethnic minorities”. The “days of securing taxpayer funds purely by box ticking – getting cash simply because a diversity target has been hit – are now over.”

This suggests a number of things about the politics of the cultural shock doctrine.

Firstly, the idea that organisations were hiring a high proportion of women or ethnic minorities to get cash is laughable – the problem has always been that were not hiring a fair proportion, ie one that reflects the population as a whole, the local area or the audience. Instrumental policies, where they actually existed, were designed to address systemic racism and sexism by increasing diversity to more equal levels. Attacks on policies that attempt to make the cultural sector a more equal place are, of course, quite natural Tory territory.

Secondly, there has been a popular and sector perception of this sort of reverse discrimination going back to the cultural industries days of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. However, the extent to which this ever informed creative industries policies in their post-1997 incarnation is debatable (The Mail can only give the example of one book of ethnic minority poetry, although, to be fair, this may represent poor journalism). New Labour were able, through the discourse of the creative industries, to draw together the genuinely politically progressive sections of the cultural sector that developed in the 1980s behind the idea of market-led diversity. To take an example from film policy:

“Diversity is both a catalyst for creativity and is key to the success of the UK film sector. However, the profile of the sector’s workforce shows it has a long way to go before it can demonstrate that it is inclusive of the diversity of contemporary British society. Inevitably, this has a significant impact on the stories that are told, the way they are told on screen, the levels of access to film for potential audiences and, in terms of content and portrayal, the images of Britain and the concepts of “Britishness” around the globe.” (Report here, page 5)

This is a reflection of a cultural policy that managed to align a progressive cultural politics with commercial interests. While this discourse paid lip-service to diversity, multi-culturalism and so on, its real focus was always the market. It therefore found it hard to interfere with areas of the market that worked but also happened to be white-male dominated. As a result, New Labour cultural policy was seemingly unable to make a case for diversity that is not based on commercial success; a moral or political argument, for instance. As mentioned in a previous post, after thirteen years of this, research has shown that the film industry is still inherently racist and sexist. Furthermore, in employment terms the cultural sector is more male dominated than the rest of the economy (63% compared to 53% - figure here, page 47). The idea that the last thirteen years were a bonanza in public funding for members of ethnic minorities and women regardless of talent or quality is a myth promoted by arseholes such as this one.

For the Tories, attacks on this sort of thinking are a coded way of attacking the principle of anything remotely politically progressive in cultural policy in general and clearly they are signalling that they are withdrawing support and political influence from the liberal cultural intelligentsia. Further, this works to deflect criticism from the cultural shock doctrine – the cuts in cultural funding are about withdrawing the tax burden created by rampant political correctness and restoring cultural authority to the white middle-classes, as opposed to hamstringing the cultural sector. As Kristine Landon-Smith argues in the Newstateman, “we are seeing a retrogressive new conservatism at work.”

At the same time, this ties into a genuine hostility to the cultural management mechanisms favoured by New Labour – the hysterical emphasis on targets, application forms, report-writing; a bureaucratic centralised system which effectively stifled autonomy.

New Labour came to power in 1997 with a relatively coherent cultural policy developed during time in opposition with clear differences to their predecessors. Cultural conservatism was to be dispelled in favour of modernisation; the heritage industries became creative industries. So far the ConDems have only demonstrated slash and burn dressed up as right wing dogma. We can undoubtedly expect more of this sort of thing in the coming months and years.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Creative Industries are Bollocks - Podcast on Media Studies and Higher Education

Montagu came across this Podcast on the Culturalstudies website which may be of interest to anyone anticipating the destruction of Higher Education. US-based academic Toby Miller interviews Des Freedman and Natalie Fenton from Goldsmiths on the cuts being made to the sector and challenges facing media studies as a subject. This is an interesting discussion about the development and influence of the creative industries discourse.

The creative industries discourse is one mechanism through which media and cultural studies are being increasingly geared towards the perceived needs of industry and business. This is, of course, part of a wider political-economic process and linked to fashionable concepts of the post-industrial economy, the knowledge economy, the information society, and so on. It's important, therefore, to develop a sophisticated and piercing critique.

"It's bollocks" - Fenton.

In the second part of the interview Fenton and Freedman talk about their research which is also worth a listen if you are that way inclined.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Culture Vandals from Magdalen College

In a recent article, Evening Standard columnist Sasha Slater recounts her time at Magdalen College, Oxford. Magdalen College is, of course, the illustrious institution at the centre of the Laura Spence scandal of 2001. It is also the former College of no less than five members of the Cabinet including George Osborne, William Hague, Chris Huhne, Dominic Grieve and Jeremy-culture-vandal-Hunt.

Slater remembers:

“A drunken student (now a company director) swinging, Tarzan-like, out of the windows of the Junior Common Room gave an ancient sculpture of a greyhound a swipe with his feet and smashed it to smithereens on the flagstones below. Undaunted, the president of the college, who should have known better, borrowed a beautiful full-sized mirrored sculpture of a winged unicorn from the flamboyant artist Andrew Logan. This was erected amid great fanfares but only lasted a couple of weeks before the same student snapped its horn off. Andrew Logan's response was unprintable.”

I wonder if this is the sort of education that prepared the Culture Secretary to lead us through these tough economic times?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Cultural Shock Doctrine: Arts Funding Cuts and Neoliberalism

Further to a previous post, the cuts in arts funding in the UK are starting to take effect.  The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is expected to be one of the hardest hit in the upcoming spending review and is anticipating cuts of up to 40%.  Culture-vandal Jeremy Hunt already announced the closure of the UK Film Council.  According to Trisha Andres in the Guardian, we can now add to this list arts services and schemes specifically targetted to the young such as the Arts Journalist Bursary Scheme and the Find Your Talent Scheme.

Along with cuts to University places, apprenticeships and jobs the ConDems cuts are already hitting young people hard.  Unemployment among the young (under-18s) is already 33% and for those without GCSEs it is as high as 50%.  77% of the decline in employment has been felt by young people (under-24s).  Figures here.

On the other hand we have corporate culture-vultures waiting in the wings for their share of reconstructed neoliberal art once the flames die down.  For example, Rena De Sisto at Merrill Lynch - who has the Sith-like job title of Global Arts and Culture Executive - has argued that:

"The government proposes that the arts community adopt the US-based approach to arts funding, with less dependence upon public and more upon private funding sources.  In fact, the British arts community already has a tradition of private philanthropic and corporate funding, so the difference with the US is really one of degree.  And while the US may be further along the curve, with its longer, more comfortable relationship with private funding for the arts, in both nations the arts sector can benefit from new approaches to working with corporations.  Similarly, many types of companies can and do benefit greatly from supporting the arts.  But some fundamental changes need to occur to unlock this opportunity."

De Sisto argues that the days of public support are over and that arts organisations must allow companies to "extract sound business benefits, such as access for employees, brand visibility and client outreach opportunities."  Doesn't sound much like a culture to me.

This is, of course, nothing new.  The Thatcherite attack on the cultural welfare state was always predicated on the wider attack on the post-War social democratic settlement and this represents the latest phase of neoliberal restructuring.  For example, Richard Luce was Minister for the Arts in Thatcher's government when he made this statement in 1987:

“there are still too many in the arts world who have yet to be weaned away from the welfare state mentality - the attitude that the taxpayer owes them a living.  Many have not yet accepted the challenge of developing plural sources of funding.  They give the impression of thinking that all other sources of funding are either tainted or too difficult to get.  They appear not to have grasped that the collectivist mentality of the sixties and seventies is out of date.”  (Quoted here, page 30)

This again shows the need for opponents of cuts in arts and cultural funding to join the dots and link-up with the wider campaigns to defend public services.  And ideally this would be a grassroots campaign that is led by the people who have most to lose from a barren neoliberal-corporate culture, not by Damien Hirst.

Friday, 10 September 2010

This is England 86: Politics and Nostalgia Part One

Montagu has been eagerly awaiting director Shane Meadows’ first foray into television with This is England 86, a four-part spin-off to his outstanding 2006 film This is England. The first part screened on Channel Four on Tuesday night to generally positive reviews (the Telegraph described it as “astonishingly good”) and a solid audience share.  This is quality British television in the making.

Meadows is an interesting director; a maverick of new British cinema, his films blend the irreverent ‘underclass’ humour that was put into effect so successfully in Shameless with a sense of genuine commitment to working class community, culture and experience, particularly from the perspective of children and young people.  This means that his often biting and ludicrous satire very rarely becomes patronising.  Meadows stands firmly inside the tent pissing out.

This is England contained the thematic preoccupations that have defined all Meadows’ films: the exploration of marginalised and periphery working class communities and experience; masculinity, childhood and adolescence.  However, it also marked a new, more explicitly politicised edge to his films, set at the height of Thatcherite jingoism during the Falklands war and critiquing far-Right politics.  The final scene where Shaun throws a Union Jack into the sea was a marvellous cinematic antidote to the popular nationalism and racism given space to expand by New Labour’s foreign and domestic policies of populist racism.

Andrew Higson, in a discussion of heritage costume dramas of the 1980s, identifies a tension between the visual spectacle of nostalgia and a more politicised social critique.  From this point of view nostalgia, as one of the central genres or modes in British film, can be seen as inherently conservative and in opposition to the more progressive traditions of realistic British cinema which have tended to focus on the here and now.  Of course, this opposition has a long history in socialist politics in which we can see nostalgia allied with conservatism in trying to “role back the wheel of history” (in Marx’s phrase).  This makes This is England 86 an interesting prospect politically.  Does the nostalgia of the series undercut its potential to offer a social commentary on recession and unemployment in the present?  Meadows himself clearly does not see any incompatibility:

“Not only did I want to take the story of the gang broader and deeper, I also saw in the experiences of the young in 1986 many resonances to now - recession, lack of jobs, sense of the world at a turning point.”

On the other hand, the appeal of the series might be found precisely in a depoliticised, backward facing nostalgia. For example, the preview event in Sheffield:

“For the creation and promotion of this event, Fuse Sport & Entertainment and film specialist elevenfiftyfive are collaborating to curate a live, interactive experience, taking fans back to 1986 where the cinema will be transformed into a working man’s social club, including a live performance by a local Ska band, free sausage rolls and monster munch to boot!”

From the evidence of the first part in the series, nostalgia for the 1980s has been placed more centrally than politics, particularly in terms of iconography - from soda streams to shell suits and scooters.  At points this seemed clumsy and overbearing.  On the other hand, the performances of Vicky McClure as Lol and Joe Gilgum as Woody were fantastic and a female central character is a well-needed departure from Meadows’ usual nearly exclusive focus on masculinity and men.  We shall delay a final analysis of the political potential of nostalgia in This is England 86 until it has run in its entirety.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Blacklisted the Movie

From the Reel News Facebook page:

First ever public showing of BLACKLISTED, the new documentary (15 mins) about the illegal Consulting Association blacklist containing personal details on 3213 building workers who had raised concerns about safety or unpaid wages. The secret database was used by multinational construction firms to prevent trade unionists from gaining employment. The blacklist is a continuation of a vindictive attitude by building firms towards un...ions going back many decades. The film shares first hand experience from 12 blacklisted workers (including Ricky Tomlinson) about their fight for justice.

After the film, blacklisted workers, Reel News, MPs and human rights experts will take questions and discuss the ongoing campaign against blacklisting and the implications for all trade unions today.

Chair: Steve Acheson (Blacklisted Electrician and UNITE Manchester Contracting Branch Secretary)


John McDonnell MP

Professor Keith Ewing (Institute of Employment Rights)

Shaun Dey (Reel News)

Chris Murphy (UCATT Executive Council)

plus Blacklisted building workers from UNITE and UCATT