Friday, March 16, 2012

1970s British Cinema and Word Clouds: Fragments 1,2

Traditional histories of 1970s British cinema tend to offer linear accounts of industrial fragmentation and economic difficulties. Alternative and avant-garde practices are described as running counter to and separate from the dreary commercialism of a mainstream cinema seeking to survive, while being dominated by external and more popular product from elsewhere. Generating a word cloud from these accounts would result in the following: ‘drab’, ‘dismal’, ‘dull’, ‘defensive’, ‘drained’, ‘desperate’, ‘dross’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘difference’ (Walker 1985). Later accounts would allow words like ‘transition’, ‘marginal’, ‘independent’, ‘quality’, ‘complexity’, and ‘exploitation’ to be added the same cloud (Higson 1994). Moving on, we find further words like ‘shlock’, ‘dross’, and ‘dissatisfaction’ appearing (Sargeant 2005). A recent upsurge in critical interest has sought to place a greater emphasis on the ideas of achievement and diversity. Here, the words ‘fragmentation and transformation’ are also included (Newland et al 2010). Ultimately, however, we are simply left to rely upon a series of words to account for one of the most visually arresting and diverse periods of in the history of British filmmaking.
         As an alternative, we might view this period not as a history of words but as a history of moments, some valuable, others not necessarily so, but all equally significant to our understanding of this period. The fragments of this history can then be transformed, like the many separate particles found in a kaleidoscope, given new shape and significance and seen in a new critical light by a shift in viewpoint. In this way, for example, the wind, weather and water of Chris Welsby Stream Line (1976); the power drills and pathology of Pete Walker Frightmare (1974); the paganism and pyrotechnics of The Wicker Man; even the puerile pantings of Robin Askwith in the Confessions series, to identify just a few moments from this period, all coalesce to form a new vision of a cinematic landscape and hence a new understanding of 1970s British cinema. A view of this kind of would be contrary to accepted visions of an isolated cinema lacking in continuity (Higson, 1994: 216-7).
       To make this movement from words to moments I am guided by the recent reassertion of a long-standing conviction that film can sensibly be understood ‘as a medium made of moments’. The organisation of events and experiences in this way is, as (Brown and Walters 2011: xi) suggest, ‘a means of understanding and shaping much wider culture’ but, ‘for film, the moment has a special resonance’. Furthermore:
An understanding of film can be profoundly shaped by an understanding of the moment and, furthermore, the extent to which a critic may use their understanding of film as a moment-by-moment medium to structure their understanding of the ways that film can challenge, inspire and move us to thought. (Brown and Walters 2011: 4)