Friday, August 29, 2008

Production Lines

There has been a bit of fuss over the fact that Shane Meadows' Somers Town was basically funded by Eurostar, as an advertisment for the joys of trans-European travel. To a degree, there's something actually quite admirable about this. Anyone not incorrigibly romantic and/or hopelessly naive would be well aware that not only are most films funded by all manner of deeply unpleasant multinationals, but that anything over and above a certain budget is rammed full of product placement - if there's any art form where the 'author' is more absolutely dictated to by commercial imperatives (outside of architecture) then I don't know what it is.

Conversely, the instances when film has been funded by bodies solely interested in their own product (or ideology) being promoted have often been by far the most interesting. The subsidised montage propaganda of 1920s Russia, for the most obvious example; and in Britain, one of those brief, abortive developments of a truly filmic culture (as opposed to filmed theatre) was wholly corporatist. Not only the work of the GPO Film Unit, beautifully imaginative snapshots of soft-socialist humanitarianism, but also John Grierson, working at the behest of the Empire Marketing Board; or Shell (Shell! Is there any corporation more grotesque?) providing the funding (and ostensible point) of Len Lye's Birth of a Robot. In all of these cases, the sponsorship actually produced something more strange and more interesting than might have been produced by the untamed creative psyche. Partly this is because there is, of course, something enormously romantic and attractive about travel, transience, communication - one can't imagine the films of the Milk Marketing Board being nearly so exciting.

Before Somers Town, there was the industrial film unit British Transport Films, whose excellence suggests that a film made entirely to promote the buying of train tickets can be as interesting, if not more, than someone's untrammelled creative vision. Somers Town tries to have it both ways. It certainly doesn't announce itself as A Eurostar Film or anything so vulgar. Nonetheless, it's all pretty obvious. The new terminal is contantly mentioned, and the final scenes in Paris - in glorious technicolour! - lay it on very thick. As an argument for travel, it works very well, and is a rare statement against anti-East European racism (about a third of the film is in Polish), and for a British cosmopolitanism. It's funny, sweet and very slight, and by far the most irritating thing about it is the appalling David Gray/Mike and the Mechanics-esque soundtrack, all soulful heartwarming crooning over the over-signposted 'epiphanies'. Oh for a British film that doesn't aspire to warming the sodding cockles.

Maybe after the renationalisation of the British rail system we can hire Meadows to make transport films with knob gags and neo-realist cinematography. What is far more worrying than the promotion of train travel is the necessity that the film show the regeneration of this small area round the back of the St Pancras and Euston sheds. The film is shot mostly on local estates (very elegantly - the Red Vienna-style Ossulston estate is especially well-used), but underneath it all - and nowhere to be seen in the film - is the realities of class cleansing in King's Cross. As an excellent series of posts at Homo Ludens has pointed out, the area has been subject to a 'regeneration', as ever involving the demolition of social housing, and a predictable masterplan of new bars, new restaurants, new offices. Housing for the kind of people portrayed in Somers Town - Polish building workers, homeless strays from the Midlands fresh off the train - is not on their list of priorities.


Blogger dave said...

if there's any art form where the 'author' is more absolutely dictated to by commercial imperatives (outside of architecture) then I don't know what it is.

Owen, a small thing:
While this has been true for nearly the entire history of film, I think it isn't any longer. Friends and comrades* here stateside have been making films for the cost of a month's rent on a 2-bedroom flat. By 'films' I mean features, though of course shot on video formats and not film. Some of this work is quite beautiful, and at least tangentially distributed (small theatrical run, Netflix, etc).

I'd love to see Somers Town; This Is England was well-hyped upon its release stateside.

* I'm using the term 'comrades' here to mean 'fellow filmmakers'; so far, few seem to share my political impulses, at least in their work.

7:14 pm  
Anonymous david said...

What about the re-nationalisation of the UK film industry! Its the same Nulab cosying up to big business logic that drives the reasoning behind the UK film council's unremitting support of the Hollywood majors in the form of massive distribution incentives / tax exemptions / direct investment, to say nothing of the cut price 'creative' native labour assigned these mega-productions and frequently going under the euphemism ‘internship’ (read illegal labour practice). “If its good for the economy, it’s good for everyone” they bluster through cigar stained teeth. As with the case of privatisation of the national rail network though and the bailing out of the corporations for their ‘benign neglect’ by the state, aren't the Hollywood majors getting free seats on the next departing gravy train?
I just wonder whether the angle of attack then needs to be aimed at the system a bit more rather than at this perceived homogeneity of the 'creative' type. Afterall, the barriers against anyone who's not an Oxbridge grad or who isn’t patronisingly plucked out as having the ‘working class’ novelty x factor seem if anything more insurmountable, what with the elite and their unremitting dumbing down japes being forced onto everyone. Class seems as significant an issue in the culture industry as it does in the regeneration issue.
No need to add, with this going on the likelihood of another Jarman or Petit emerging and properly shaking production out of these decades long slumbers recede even further into the past.

11:51 pm  
Blogger Plough Your Own Furrow said...

Hi Dave

I didn't know anything about the Eurostar tie in until the last 20 mins of the film and it really spoilt it for me.

However, I think that in this age of digitalisation and convergence of media and technology the rules are yet to be written for film production and distribution. The independent was never better equiped to walk into Jarman's boots and start making good art and not just commercial failures/successes.

Your view of the status quo - Oxbridge/X Factor working class star I completely agree with though.

11:24 pm  
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11:28 pm  

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