Cinema has the power to wow, bringing narrative to life on an epic, fantastical scale. In contrast, theatre is often seen as a middle-class, middle-aged pastime, too expensive for the rest of us and lacking the escapist power of film. The traditional proscenium arch distances the audience from the action and the narrative favours a slow-moving, realistic pace in contrast to the high-speed car chases characteristic of Hollywood blockbusters. Or so I thought. It seems, however, that the medium of theatre is undergoing a transformation. Not only are we seeing a sudden influx of Hollywood stars flocking to the West End, but the London theatre scene has over the years become renowned worldwide for a growing experimentalism which draws on the fantastical nature of the big-screen. No longer is it only in the realm of film where anything is possible.
The cynics amongst us may argue that Hollywood stars view the theatre as simply an opportunity to revive a fledgling career or combat the critics who portray them as nothing more than celebrity darlings who can’t act for toffee. Indeed, Sienna Miller’s recent foray into the theatre world in Terrence Rattigan’s “Flare Path” appeared to be little more than an opportunity for her to flounce her glossy hair and sigh daintily over her troubled love life as two men fought for her affections. Hardly taxing for her, I’m sure. But scepticism aside, the arrival of silver-screen cognoscenti such as Danny Boyle and Kevin Spacey to the West End has breathed new life into this more traditional medium. The West End is drawing in the big names from the world of cinema and whilst this encourages more young people to go to the theatre it has also led to a surprising, and successful, intertwining of styles.
Danny Boyle’s recent production of “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre in London is a perfect example of what happens when the two worlds collide. Best known for his expertise in the film industry, having directed and produced cinema classics such as “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Trainspotting” and “127 Hours”, his relocation to the theatre world proved a resounding success with fans camping out from 4AM everyday to buy tickets. Boyle’s talent at portraying epic locations alongside naturalistic character studies was beautifully translated onto the stage. Through his use of special effects and ambitious set design the audience found themselves perched atop a mountain one second and buried deep in the Scottish highlands the next in a way that is usually only realised on the big-screen. Boyle proved that the intrinsically escapist, all-consuming nature of cinema could successfully be adapted to fit a smaller medium.
In contrast, the recent stage production of “Children’s Hour” at London’s Comedy Theatre drew on cinema’s ability to create intimacy between the actor and the audience in order to illustrate the narrative’s central theme of entrapment. On the big-screen the director creates a connection between the characters and the audience through the “close-up”; the director becomes the eyes of the audience, controlling exactly what we see and when we see it. In theatre, they lose this ability and the whole stage is laid bare. However, the play’s two stars Knightley and Elizabeth Moss created detailed, naturalistic performances similar to what we would see on the big screen in order to draw in the audiences’ eye just like the lens of a camera can. As a result, the sense of betrayal and frustration which is so beautifully portrayed by the nuances of Hepburn’s performance is effortlessly translated onto stage by Knightley.
Furthermore, not only are the styles of theatre and cinema combining, but theatre and cinema themselves have been combined to great effect. Kneehigh Theatre’s recent production of “Brief Encounter” was staged in Haymarket cinema and used snippets from the film as a backdrop to the action onstage, with the actors occasionally interacting with the videos. Similarly, the aforementioned “Flare Path” used film to show the war planes flying over head, vividly bringing to life the stage reality in a way that theatre rarely does. By incorporating film into stage productions, theatre is able to transport the viewer to far-flung locations in a way that previously only cinema could.
As the things we love most about cinema gradually filter into the medium of theatre, the decision as to whether we’d rather spend our evening down the local Odeon or at the National surely becomes harder. Unfortunately there is one key aspect of cinema which has not yet proved influential within the theatre world: the price of tickets. For us penniless students, this is sadly a decisive factor.
The Zahir: What makes Cannes different from other film festivals?
Jenny Walker: This is its 64th year so is one of the longest-running, if not the longest, film festivals around. It’s a film festival and a film market combined, and has a wide range of different kinds of competitions. Along with the Palme d’Or – which is the “prize of prizes” on par with an Oscar, but is more of a ‘whole film’ award – there’s the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight), which celebrates directors’ achievements in their field, and now a well-regarded short film corner, which anyone can send their short films to for a small fee, getting access to the market place and festival.
It’s also very well placed in the sunny south of France. Taken together this means it attracts all the biggest names, and they know they’ll be feted on a grand scale by a well-oiled machine in the sunshine.
Zahir: That really makes a big difference?
JW: The French do shiny-bling-in-the-sun so well. The Palais Cinema is one of the finest, with huge screens and great sound. So essentially, red carpet screenings heaving with papparazzi and squealing fans mellowed by local rose wine is a spectacle and holiday in one. And that goes for the market, too. Everyone’s much happier doing business with a glass of fizz and bowl of fraise than sitting in a sweaty office in London getting studio tan.
How easy is it for new or independent film-makers to get themselves noticed?
It’s a big noisy place with a lot going on, so the sheer amount of traffic will guarantee a degree of recognition. People are also very receptive to the idea of independent films over Hollywood blockbusters, so will often search you out in the hope they’ll find the next big thing.
Zahir: What are your film recommendations of the festival?
JW: THE ARTIST is a black and white film without dialogue which has been very well-received. Tilda Swinton made an interesting job of an American accent in Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. And mercifully we seem to have avoided the self-indulgent disaster of UNCLE BOONMEE… which was last year’s winner.
Self-styled Scandanavian wild-child director Lars Von Trier managed to upset everyone by proclaiming himself a Nazi sympathiser when introducing his film MELANCHOLIA. When he was then told that the jury decided he was persona non grata in Cannes he said, “I’m quite proud of my ban”. Oh dear.
And the Palm d”Or went to … Terrance Malik’s THE TREE OF LIFE. An American film with a Hollywood cast including Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, reversing the last few years’ sense that the USA was on a lock-out. So there was buzz about Brangelina being in town, but the best news is that after a few years of controversial choices with WHITE RIBBON being liked and not liked, and UNCLE BOONMEE making most people’s jaws drop, the big prize has gone to a widely-liked film, a reverse on some of the unlikely, even controversial choices of recent years.
Zahir: Aside from the films, what were your personal highlights?
Well, firstly the rumour that Johnny Depp had a sailing ketch in the harbor, and anyone who cared could see him and Penelope Cruz on board. Turned out to be just another of those rumours that zip along the Croisette like wildfire, heating the publicity machine that is Cannes. But after ten days of stomping up and down the mile-long Croisette in the otherwise lovely heat with bruised and blistered feet, networking till dawn, and getting up again at 8am for breakfast meetings (why do people do that?!), my personal highlight was sleeping for more than five hours a night!
American hegemony amongst the film industry is a well known fact. Almost everyone across the globe has seen a Hollywood production and, for the majority of the 20th century, the term Hollywood had more or less become synonymous with the film industry. In fact 85-90% of box-office takings over the last twenty years have been from Hollywood productions. One could be excused, therefore, in thinking that it was in America that the concept of cinema originated. However, the first moving picture developed on celluloid film was in fact made by British inventor William Friese Greene and publicly shown in 1890 in Hyde Park, London. Yet despite cinema being essentially a British invention, the British film industry has proved to be miniscule in comparison to our American cousins.
However, it is not the case that the British film industry has had no success whatsoever. British films have, over the last fifty years, even in the face of overwhelming competition from abroad, gained huge critical acclaim and have been some of the most commercially successful films in history. From the 1960’s production of Laurence of Arabia - winner of seven academy awards including best picture and said by the American Film Institute, BFI, Total Film and many more to be one of the greatest films of all time – to the Harry Potter franchise, Britain has proven itself to have some of the greatest talent in the world. With such cinematic legends as Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Michael Caine, Danny Boyle and Anthony Hopkins – to name but a few – it is undeniable that Britain is an indispensible contributor to cinema screens across the globe. So why, I hear you ask, do we consider the British film industry, as Matt Pearson from The British Film Resource puts it, as “little more than a cottage industry”? If British talent is so great and its films so successful, why is its industry claimed to be so small?
The answer lies in Britain’s heavy dependence on inward investment which comes almost exclusively from America. According to a report published by the House of Lords in 2010, inward investment accounts for about two thirds of the expenditure of an average British film production. In 2007 it was recorded that almost 70% of total British production expenditure was from foreign investments. So despite the fact the Harry Potter series, filmed in Britain with British cast, crew and producers, is the highest grossing film series of all time, the majority of the profits are returned to the bulging pockets of the Hollywood investors.
The financial muscle Hollywood offers the British film industry comes at a further price than mere money however. In order to get the required inward investment a film must be seen to be potentially successful; that is to say it must be expected to sell and make the rich investors richer. After all, the film industry is still a business.
Creative control is thus constrained and for years British films have had to be tailored towards Hollywood’s blockbuster style in order to secure the required financial support.
And it is not just in the Harry Potter films that one can observe the bruises left by Hollywood’s restrictive grip. From supposed British successes award winner for best picture – and “The English Patient”- winner of nine academy awards including best picture – Hollywood’s influence is patently clear.
Such hybrid films lack the sense of gritty British realism and black humour that characterises our British culture; an approach Hollywood insists on glossing over in an attempt to make films more accessible to American audiences. The House of Lords report does as much to confirm this, describing the British Film industry as being “profoundly influenced by the American film industry” which is “built around the major Hollywood studios”.
However the problem is a catch-22 situation; the American dollar is the fuel on which the British film industry is run. It is in the area of distribution where the greatest earnings are made- the distributor generally receiving more than half of the box office profits – and unfortunately it is also this sector that America completely monopolises. Due to Britain’s inability to finance the production and distribution of its own films, American investments are essential. Since the 1950s the British government, realising the great economic benefits of the British film industry, has made an effort to support it by offering tax relief on film production expenditure in order to attract foreign investors.
Whilst this has been successful in encouraging American investment, which in turn has by and large helped the growth of the British film industry, it has had little or no impact on independent films that have not, to some extent, sold their creative freedom to Hollywood. Yet even for the films that are willing to co-operate with the major Hollywood companies, there is a danger. Becoming overly dependent on inward investments from America risks turning Britain into an overseas arm of the main body of Hollywood creating a situation where Hollywood films are produced in Britain to utilise the tax levies – in effect using Britain for cheap labour. America’s dominance in the global film industry has its foundation in Hollywood’s model of vertically-integrated companies that enable the business of producing and distributing films within a single company to be self-sufficient. Attempts have been made by British companies such as Rank, Cannon and PolyGram to emulate this mode of business, producing and distributing the late 90s successes like “Trainspotting” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. But unfortunately none has been able to sustain itself due to the lack of sufficient finances. John Woodward, former CEO of the UK Film Council, said that the problem with the British film distribution sector is that “by and large … we are talking about a relatively small number of pretty small companies.
What we do not have in the UK is anything approaching the scale of the Hollywood studio, which has the ability … to select the film, finance it, get it made and then distribute it in all markets”. Former head of distribution for Optimum Releasing- one of the most prominent distributors in UK independent films and world cinema – Danny Perkins, stated that, although “there are some very strong independent companies” in the British distribution area, “they have alliances with American companies. That is the key to it really”. And this is the sad truth.
While the Harry Potter films make billions, films like Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed “Happy Go Lucky”,
winner of a golden globe and Oscar nominee, can only make a measly $3 million at the American box office simply down to the fact they did not manage to get a major American distributer onside. The reality is, until Britain produces its own Warner Bros or Universal, it will always be dependant to some extent on the American green dollar.
At least this has certainly been the case in the past. Until only very recently, events have proved right the words of Eric Fellner, a producer of “Frost/Nixon”, who stated that “even when we’ve made… quintessentially British films, we’ve still been dealing with agents and studios and stars in Hollywood “; “this business is run from Hollywood”. Nevertheless, the immense success of the current “The Kings Speech”, which only had a budget of $10 million and has managed to gross $170 million in the box office so far, has seemed to skew this almost universally accepted centralisation of the film industry. Despite the high profiles of independent film festivals such as The Raindance and Sundance film festivals, financial success is still seen to be reliant on Hollywood’s participation, especially in the area of distribution. And with finance being the life blood of the film industry, British cinema cannot run merely on critical acclaim. Even past British triumphs and as “Slumdog Millionaire”- winner of eight Oscars and Best British Independent film at the British Independent Film awards – which grossed in nearly $378 million worldwide, had to go through Hollywood’s Warner Bros pictures for distribution.
So, although “The Kings Speech” is certainly not the first independent British film to attain critical praise, it is one of very few British films completely independent from Hollywood, which has managed to gain financial success worldwide. In other words, it is one of the only films that have brought significant amounts of money into the British film industry without it being immediately sent back to Hollywood. Thus “The Kings Speech” does not only broadcast a raw, untainted version of British cinema across the world, but represents a destabilisation of the Hollywood hegemony. The question that now remains is: is this a sign of the-beginning-of-the-end for the long reigning imperial Hollywood and subsequent birth of high-grossing, completely independent, British films that can finance themselves? Or is “The Kings Speech” a mere anomaly in an otherwise American financed industry? Only time will tell.
“I’m not perfect, I’m nothing.” These bleak and fatalistic words encapsulate the struggle for perfection which plagues many of the female characters in Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar nominated psychological thriller. The film follows an aspiring ballet dancer, in her preparation for the most important performance of her career. The child-like, naïve Nina must realise the darker, sensual side of herself in order to embody the roles of both White Swan and Black Swan. The film delves deep into Nina’s psyche, portraying her own troubled quest for identity and sexual awakening.
For the characters, the pursuit of perfection is all-consuming and we are drawn into the claustrophobic visceral nightmare. In striving for perfection, Nina becomes lost in a fantasy world and the audience is left uncertain as to the boundaries between illusion and reality. The pressures of society contribute to this struggle, with Nina battling against both male dominance and the time constraints on her ability to achieve perfection in her career. This explosive mixture inevitably leads her to self-destruct. Whilst the example of Nina is extreme, the film does highlight a number of issues relevant to today’s society. Problems of gender and age, while diminished, still hold some relevance for the modern working woman and the dismissal of 58 year old Moira Stuart over ageist prejudice illustrates the pressures which still exist. It is a theme, which has been explored continually through the vehicle of film.
The similarities between Tennessee Williams’ 1950s film “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the recent “Black Swan” highlight how issues of gender and age, a great concern in the 50s, still have relevance to modern society. The faded Southern belle, Blanche DuBois is strikingly similar to the character of Nina. While she strives to uphold a façade of perfection, it is slowly revealed to the audience that in fact she is a deeply troubled character running to escape from her past. Like Nina she is driven by the pursuit of perfection and consistently attempts to create a perfect, if illusory, image of herself to gain male approval. Her self-worth is entirely dependent upon being accepted by others and her youth and feminine beauty are the only tools which she can utilise to achieve perfection. However, her beauty has faded and so her attempts are fruitless.
The dominance of masculinity, as shown through the character of Stanley reflected the inequalities of 50s society, and Blanche’s continual fear of being old illustrated society’ s fixation on youth. Her desperation and vulnerability as a single woman of a certain age is clearly portrayed through her relationship with Mitch, who she clings to as her only security. Whilst these themes would have been relevant to a contemporary audience who would have recognised the plight of an unmarried woman and the lack of options available to her, the similarities to ‘Black Swan’ are surprising. The fragility of Nina at the hands of her over-bearing male director, who exploits her vulnerable sexuality to gain control over her, draws parallels with Stanley’s treatment of Blanche. Furthermore, Nina’s constant awareness of her approaching age and realisation that she may not achieve her goals as a result reflect Blanche’ s own concerns.
However, in comparing Nina and Blanche it is obvious that decades of struggles to gain equality has made headway. Whereas Blanche, without the security of Mitch is lost, without a role or purpose in life, Nina is able to pursue her dreams. She has forged a successful career for herself as a woman, and is not defined by her spouse, as are the female characters in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Through success in the ballet world, she has gained her own individuality. However, the constraints of gender and age are still prevalent within her career, suggesting that women may still have a way to go before we are considered equals. Perhaps these issues will never be fully resolved until social perceptions on female success are separated from the female image. For Blanche, beauty was inextricably linked to perfection, and Nina battles with bulimia in an attempt to fit the expected ideals of a ballet dancer. Perhaps we may even question whether images of perfection that women enforce upon themselves are a construct of society, or come from within.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish.
We’re all familiar with T.S. Eliot’s magnum opus The Wasteland. But does its message of a planet in decline still resonate with the world we live in now? Yes, says Lucy Walker, and more than ever before. Her new creation, Waste Land, influenced in part by the poem, is a documentary about the world’s largest rubbish dump, Jardim Gramacho of Rio de Janeiro, and the self-appointed catadores (scavengers) who work there. Sifting through the 7,000 tons of Rio’s rubbish deposited there every day, they hope to earn their living by searching out recyclable materials such as cans, bottles, plastic, and paper.
Today almost 20,000 catadores live at the site, scavenging 200 tons of waste a day. Entirely dependent on an economy based on the trade of recyclable materials, they have extended the life of the landfill site by removing materials that would otherwise have been buried. The catadores might have given Jardim Gramacho the highest rate of recycling in the world, but the fact remains that it is not a sustainable future. Amidst the fear and squalor of Rio, the catadores, half of whom actually live and sleep in the rubbish, choose this career as a last resort. Faced with drug trafficking, prostitution, or garbage as a way of life, they choose garbage.
But don’t be fooled. Waste Land isn’t just a ‘day in the life’ snapshot into the work of the catadores, but an artistic collaboration. It documents the relationship between these rubbish collectors and Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz, who seeks to create portraits of them using the waste materials of the dump – bringing a new meaning to the idea of recycling. Muniz’s use of rubbish as a medium for artistic expression is unconventional to say the least. He explains why it interests him: “The beautiful thing about garbage is that it’s negative; it’s something that you don’t use anymore; it’s what you don’t want to see.”
In fact rubbish seems a perfect medium for this type of artistic venture – representing a group of ignored and forgotten people through something we “don’t want to see” is both fitting and provocative. Director Lucy Walker remarks that across the way from Jardim Gramacho you can see Christ the Redeemer reaching his arms out to the wealthy south, explaining that “They say even Christ turns his back on the north of Rio, where we are.” Waste Land is not just a project focussed on exposing human and environmental concerns, but as a criticism of the economic disparity in Rio, and the government’s reticence to address the problem of the catadores.
Director of the project Lucy Walker speaks about what influenced her to make this movie, saying: “I have always been interested in garbage. What it says about us. Where it goes and how much of it there is. How it endures. What it might be like to work with it every day.” Speaking on location I hear that answering these questions proved more difficult than anticipated: “just when you get used to the smell they find a human body, or mention a leprosy epidemic, and the sound man passes out… there are so many things to be afraid of, from dengue fever to kidnapping”.
Vik Muniz states that what he really wanted to do with Waste Land was “to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials they use every day”. The portraits Muniz creates from the waste of Jardim Grammacho are sold at auction and all of the profits accumulated are given back to the catadores, to help them build better, safer, sustainable futures for themselves. “I hope the movie serves as a means for us to see our journey to becoming involved with people so far from ourselves,” Walker says, encouraging us to get involved, and take responsibility. By granting the viewer an emotional connection with the catadores, Muniz and Walker are able to demonstrate the transformative power of art, and the alchemy of the human spirit.
Waste Land inspires the viewer to take the time to think about how much waste we generate as individuals, and the effect it has not just upon the environment, but our fellow human beings. “Garbage is the negative of consumer culture”, Walker says, “it’s everything that nobody wants, and when it disappears from everyone’s lives, rich or poor, it doesn’t disappear at all, it appears here.” Muniz and Walker’s project is not just based on recycling waste materials for artistic ends, but encouraging us to recycle our own perceptions of waste, the environment, and the people it affects.
Waste Land is released on 25th February.