I’M not a religious, or even a spiritual man. But if those two words pose any questions to this hard-core materialist, they are often answered by a piece of art. And for me, above every other art form, film provides the most answers.
You may be surprised to hear that it’s not music. As a lifelong commercial performer, by now music feels more like physiology, a basic function for me. Music-hearing, as well as music-making, represents my daily craft and graft, with occasional hard-won epiphanies.
But when I go to the picture house, or download to the home screen, my wish is always that I won’t just be entertained or diverted, but reordered and even transformed by what I’ve seen before me.
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It’s happened throughout my life, and I hope it will continue to happen. As a child, the old SF movie Forbidden Planet raised huge questions in my wee mind about emotion, reason and the fall of civilisations, amidst the expansive shoulderpads and whirring robots.
When I did film and TV studies at Glasgow University, and was given theories to refine my passions for cinema, it deepened – rather than dispelled – my childhood love of Saturday afternoon Westerns.
The psychopathic John Wayne deciding not to kill his Indianized niece in John Ford’s The Searchers, with the last shot a domestic door closing upon him, ejecting him from decent society, blackness engulfing the screen… Such beauty and genius.
Then the lecturers would show you Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend – which demonstrated a whole new way of even thinking about the world. Godard allowed society’s jagged contradictions to poke through the surface of his films, not be smoothed away into a comfortable “story-line”.
But then, great films are often a mighty struggle between the dangerous forces of the world (or the self), and the capacity of directors, screenwriters, actors, editors and musicians to capture it entirely in 90 mins, more or less.
I ration my viewings of Haneke’s Hidden, or Spielberg’s A.I., or Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or Von Trier’s Melancholia, or Anderson’s The Master, because they are so powerful and profound to me. Like psychedelic drugs you should only lightly taste, and not abuse.
All of which is to say that when it comes to the question of “the state of the Scottish film industry” – provoked by this week’s announcement of the Scottish Bafta award nominees – I am no dispassionate, “sensible” observer of the sector.
I want to see Scotland produce great works of “screen” art (which, of course, can also manifest itself on television in episodes, streamed on the web, wherever – it’s the aesthetic ambition I’m talking about). It is an obvious fact that some of the world’s greatest films come out of a wild variety of national cultures, languages and institutions – all bringing their particular riches to the global vocabulary of movie-making.
Given the density of Scottish achievement in contemporary visual arts, literature/theatre/music, and even computer games, we should expect to have a film “culture” (and its enabling “industry”) right at the beating heart of our nation’s creativity.
But we don’t. We really, really don’t. A Scottish national film studio, promised for over 90 years, still lingers as a promising prospect in the words of culture bosses and ministers.
I have been wading waist-deep in submissions and reports and commissions on the Scottish screen sector over the last few days. The experience of hitting the bureaucratising tendencies of Scottish society is like a naked sprint into a field of heather.
I have counted up nine publicly-funded screen organisations – Centre for the Moving Image, Creative Scotland, Scottish Film Talent Network, Creative Skillset, GMACFilm, Glasgow Film Office, Film Edinburgh, BFI Network, Regional Screen Scotland – never mind the support for academic media departments, funded festivals, and Scottish Enterprise’s own creative industries’ brief.
SO many quangos, roaming across the gloaming. Yet where are the great magi, the grand auteurs of Scottish film-making, rising out of this proliferation of support organisations? I’m happy to be corrected, but I can’t identify them, either established or emerging.
There are some harsh truths to be uttered about our public screen strategy. How can it be the case, in the recent words of Robin Macpherson of Independent Producers Scotland, that “BBC Scotland has not had a drama series produced by a Scottish-based company for at least 8 years?” (this excludes the brass-plate operations of London companies operating in Scotland). Is there a lurking anxiety that any production company that’s too indigenous doesn’t have the feel for “selling to the UK networks”?
It’s also somewhat stunning that the “branch-plant” mentality, so much the bane of the wider Scottish economy over the last several decades, seems to be alive and well in screen policy. ScotGov ministers make starry visits to Cannes, Toronto and Hollywood, and set up production funds to encourage American and European film and TV majors to use our “lovely countryside and cities”.
But are we supposed to muffle our critique of the mist-wreathed, pre-modern Scotland that these film and production crews – often imported wholesale from elsewhere – send out to the world? Or worse, when Scottish urban modernity does become a movie backdrop, it’s asked to simulate US locations on the cheap (as in Glasgow taken for San Francisco in World War Z).
I took a read through Creative Scotland’s Film Funding Guidance document for 2015-16. It does due diligence around film-makers creating the right company and staff structures for themselves. Otherwise, it seems like a broken ladder – beginning a few yards above where any aspiring film-maker might think to put their first foot.
The aforementioned screenocracy seems to act like a filter system for pesky entrants, with Creative Scotland preserving most of its budget for safe-bet, semi-major productions who might need a little final top-up for the road.
My great friend, the innovative and award-winning digital film-maker May Miles Thomas, suggested in 2013 that we flip the entire model on its head. Why not, given that decades of top-down management of the Scottish screen sector has in fact generated decline than growth?
Her suggestion is that Scottish funding gives many more smaller grants, with much less preconditions, to some of the thousands of graduates from Scottish film, TV, media and games courses every year. At a time when “all film is equal”, as Thomas puts it – when movie-making (and movie-watching) is an almost permanent possibility – we should at least try to match some of our public support to this tumultuous new level.
I would also suggest that we find a way to nationally curate Scottish film and screen art, both current productions and historical archive, on a dedicated media channel. Do we wait for Westminster to grant us a BBC4-type Scottish channel? I think we should try to get on with it, as a web-streaming project, in any case.
We need to showcase whatever film culture we have, past and present, so that young film-makers have some sense of a tradition (whether they want to work with or against it). But we also need a platform within which ambitious sound-and-image makers can feel themselves part of a generation, sensing the overlap of their concerns and interests.
And these showcases and platforms would also have to educate the public taste. Scots should have the same appetite for ambitious Scottish content on their screens as they do for other art forms. The mismatch is odd, and needs correcting.
Do we get a Paul Thomas Anderson or a Jane Campion out of a radical redrawing of the priorities? Who knows – we may forge an entirely new kind of auteur altogether, out of Scottish conditions. But first, we need to sustain and encourage those who love film enough to make film – and as much film as they are able to.