Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Anxiety of Identity

A few weeks ago a friend and fellow film-lover turned 44. To celebrate the occasion he arranged a little shindig, which I duly attended. As so often happens when film-obsessives get together, the conversation soon turned to what we'd been watching recently. I explained that since the start of the year I've been slowly working my way through the history of British cinema, starting in the late 1890's (I'm currently slowly approaching the 1950's). As a British filmmaker, I explained, I can't help but feel it necessary to have an understanding of British cinema – for, whether I like it or not, this is presumably one of the main contexts in which my films will be judged (although I think my reason for wanting to watch these films does go beyond it an interest in gaining a better understanding of my own national filmic identity, perhaps? I mean, it can't really all just be kitchen sink dramas, romantic comedies and stuffy period pieces can it?).

After I'd finished saying all this, a friend of my friend asked me some interesting questions, such as: 'Will your films really be judged in that context?' and 'Even if they are, is it really necessary for you, as the filmmaker, the artist, to understand that context anyway?'.

For me, the first question was easy to answer: yes, it's inevitable. Films are nearly always judged in the context of their national cinema, albeit, of course, amongst other contexts too, such as, say, genre (a notion I'll return to in a minute). The second question, though, was more complicated.

I suppose, in a way, it opens up wider questions about authorship and audience reception, such as the clash between auteur theory and the poststructuralist murdering of the author (for if a text is rendered authorless then the author's knowledge of context surely becomes irrelevant), but the question also reminded me of a conversation I had with another filmmaker a few years ago. Unlike me, this filmmaker wasn't particularly passionate about cinema. In fact, he told me he didn't really watch films. Whether out of embarrassment or genuine belief I don't know, but the reason he gave me was that he didn't want to become 'contaminated': by not being influenced by other filmmakers, he claimed, it would be easier for him to hit upon something original in his own work.

I've written on here before
about the anxiety of influence and the impossibility of being original, so perhaps, in his own way, he's on to something. But I can't help but feel that if you don't know what's already been done you also don't know what hasn't already been done: so surely it's just as hard to be original? And besides, a love of cinema history hasn't exactly done Scorsese's work or career any harm, has it?

But back to the point. Earlier on I mentioned genre, which might be a useful context to examine here. By definition, genre films work by playing up to – or, on occasion, subverting – a familiar set of tropes. When films do this well they are often bold new takes on the familiar, when they fail they are often formulaic and cliché-ridden. The point, though, is that, more-or-less, the audience knows what they're getting: a comedy will make them laugh, a horror will frighten them, etc. In order to make a genre film, therefore, surely you have to understand the genre, the context, in which your film will be judged? And surely this understanding requires a knowledge of previous works in (previous entries into) that genre?

Although national identity may not be as strong a set of codes as genre, it does none-the-less still come with its own set of expectations (see, for instance, the joke I made at the start of this post about 'kitchen sink dramas, romantic comedies and stuffy period pieces', which, of course, references standard conceptions of what British cinema is supposed to be).

I'm still not sure that I've come up with a satisfactory answer to that second question, so unfortunately I can't end this post with a concrete argument. But I suppose the point that I'm trying to make is that, like genre filmmakers, national filmmakers surely need to know the context in which their films are made so that, whether they conform or subvert (consciously or unconsciously) their national traditions, they can none-the-less at least understand how the film will be perceived by audiences...and surely that is the responsibility of all filmmakers, regardless of nationality or artistic ambition?