Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK).

Sunday, 05 November 2023 13:22

Hollywood Politics and Oliver Stone

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Ian Scott, Professor of American Film and History at the University of Manchester (UK), October 2023

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. This evening we're going to explore Hollywood's up and down relationship with party politics over the years while also focusing on one of the industry's great creative firebrands, Oliver Stone.

IS: Hello, my name is Ian Scott and I'm Professor of American Film and History at Manchester University in the UK. My research specialisms are in Hollywood movies, the relationship between cinema and American political culture more widely, and the social, cultural and political history of California.

BG: So what was the catalyst that got you first into Hollywood and politics?

IS: The relationship of politics to movies has always intrigued me, and my own taste had gravitated towards what were broadly termed political films a long while ago. Movies like ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’, ‘All the President's Men’ and ‘JFK’. But really it all came together when I was a grad student studying California politics; I was interested in why people who'd never stood for office before would try to win election races at a very high level first time out, principally getting elected to Congress, in other words.

All The Presidents Men 1976

The political scientist David Canon wrote a really influential book for me and for my research at the time, and it was called ‘Actors, Athletes and Astronauts’, and in it Canon claimed there was mounting evidence that these were the routes to high office. In other words, people from the entertainment industry, sports stars or people who'd done heroic acts of derring-do. I applied Canon's theory to my own research looking at candidates in California during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s who wanted to run for the House of Representatives, the federal House of Representatives, and before I knew it I was implicitly predicting the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California.

BG: And this relationship between party politics and Hollywood, when did it first take hold really?

IS: I suppose I'd make the claim that politics and the movies have always been inextricably linked, but really it was the 1930s, The Depression, that put that relationship into sharp relief. The Hollywood studios, as they were growing in stature and influence through the 20s, were always perceived as conservative at least at the top among the moguls, and those moguls who came west were interested in developing an archetypal American persona.

So, many were Republicans and they imposed a pretty rigid conservative line in the studios, and remember at this time studio workers were beginning to unionize as we start to get into the 1930s. The moguls thought these were all going to make Hollywood a hotbed of left-wing politics and agitation, and that did happen: it's often forgotten that the 30s really were a period of deep unrest in and around the film industry; quite a lot of strikes, quite a lot of agitation going on and, to some degree, it made the moguls even more conservative.

The difference really was the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. That began to change things. First of all, Roosevelt was a Democrat and there hadn't been one of those in the White House for 12 years, so really that was going back to the beginning of Hollywood's infancy really, so they weren't quite the force on the national stage they were by the early 1930s. And second, FDR understood that from the off if he wanted to communicate his New Deal policies to the wider population he had to be both a broadcasting star himself – so he created his famous fireside chats, as you know, his weekly radio broadcast to the nation – and he needed to cultivate a relationship with Hollywood that would sell, however implicitly, the idea of economic and social regeneration in America.

BG: And how did World War II affect Hollywood's output?

IS: The war maintained that political connection and, of course, Hollywood was deeply involved in propaganda for the military by way of organizations like the Office of War Information. After the war the Cold War provided impetus for topics and at the same time the prevalence of film noir as a genre provided an aesthetic base for Hollywood to continue to make films with a social and cultural agenda to them, if not an outright political ideology.

So you've got post-war movies like ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ that contemplated the nation's priorities after the war; films like Frank Capra's largely underrated ‘State of the Union’ with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; Robert Rossen’s ‘All the King's Men’; and then a little bit later ‘A Face in the Crowd’ directed by Elia Kazan. All of these made an impression in the late 40s and at the turn of the 50s but, of course, the coming and growing anti-communist force during that era distracted Hollywood as well, and it scared off filmmakers and the studios from much further inquiry and investigation.

A Face in the Crowd 1957 res

BG: Fascinating. And what followed in the 60s and 70s?

IS: So by the time we get to the 1960s and 1970s you have a different kind of force at work, a different kind of agenda is emerging. Conspiracy and paranoia thrillers like the classic ‘Manchurian Candidate’ from 1962 and then in the later decade ‘The Parallax View’ with Warren Beatty and ‘Three Days of the Condor’ with Robert Redford all suggested an American political landscape dominated by shady cabals and big corporations unaccountable to anyone. And these films began to tap into the mood of disillusionment with politics that had finally come to fruition with the Watergate scandal in the midst of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s.

BG: Indeed. I literally forced Jack Clark, who I work with, who's 25, to watch ‘All The President's Men’ last night so he was aware of 70s paranoia. Anyway, please continue.

IS: Hollywood generally was always suspicious enough of someone like Ronald Reagan – who was an insider, of course – not to trust him entirely. Reagan had previously been a New Deal Democrat who turned over to the Republican party and became governor of California in the 1960s before he became President.

The Clinton era followed a pattern established by John F. Kennedy that Hollywood was to be cultivated and money should be sought, endorsements gathered, that kind of thing, and it was very successful for Clinton during the 1990s.

By the time of the George Bush administration in the 2000s, Bush largely eschewed Hollywood: he didn't feel it was the kind of community that was very sympathetic, probably rightly, to some of his politics. Although in the immediate post-9/11 era there was an unlikely alliance between the administration and the Hollywood studios and some of the unions like the Screenwriters’ Guild that tacitly supported The War On Terror in the backdrop to 9/11.

The Obama years brought in endorsements even from those who resisted political involvement. So big celebrities, musical stars like Bruce Springsteen who'd been very loathe to support and come out publicly for candidates in the past, came forward for somebody like Obama, who it was thought was really going to change not just American politics but really the whole of American life, American society at that time.

The Trump years followed, of course, and that was quite some reaction as you know, and in many ways the Trump years have been a masterclass in someone saying how much they're personally loved and how they're admired only for such communities – and Hollywood has been most particularly vocal in this – only for communities to refute that claim entirely about Trump in many ways.

BG: And in what ways have films affected government policy rather than a vice versa?

IS: The wider political landscape has seen the exposure of things like American nuclear policy, for example, in a movie like ‘The China Syndrome’ in the late 1970s starring Jane Fonda, a film that appeared around the time at the near nuclear meltdown disaster at 3 Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

But perhaps one of the most obvious examples of influence is, of course, Oliver Stone's ‘JFK’ from 1991. A film that had such traction beyond the pages of review sections of the magazines and newspapers that it eventually resulted in the U.S Congress passing what is known as the Assassination Records Collection Act which set up a review board that over the past 30 years or so has released millions of pages of previously redacted material. JFK caused such a storm over the official story of Kennedy's assassination in 1963 that the American Congress quietly realised it was actually the custodian of a history that frankly few accepted anymore, if they ever had; and Stone, who gave testimony to Congress himself, was well aware of the impact that his film was having and the influence it was having over people's public perception that the Warren Commission Report of 1964, intimating that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin who had killed Kennedy, was simply not believed by the wider American populace.

BG: And you interviewed Oliver Stone. That must have been something?

IS: I did find Stone absolutely fascinating to interview, and subsequently I began to learn a lot more about what motivated him, and understand the years after I'd interviewed him – which was around about 2012/2013 – I began to understand a great deal more about what it was he was telling me at the time, particularly when I reviewed his first book of memoirs a couple of years ago, ‘Chasing The Light’.

In a way Stone encapsulates some of those contradictory impulses in Hollywood. He very much wanted to tell his own stories when he came to Hollywood and it just so happened that those stories and the history that he was a part of, and growing up in, during the 1960s and 1970s was really a time of fraction and disjuncture and a very kind of conflictual time for the United States and for American history more generally.

Stone understood the great opportunities and principles that are at the heart of the American ideal, but he also understood well the terrible costs that were paid for some of those principles. Notably in Vietnam where Stone served with distinction and then made later three very different films about the conflict. But at the same time you know he's kind of an establishment figure: he understands Hollywood's an industry and he works within its confines for good and for ill.

I'll tell you when I asked who he most admired in American cinema – thinking that I had a list in my head of the kind of names he would go to – he straightaway said Steven Spielberg, not the filmmaker you might automatically assume to be somebody Stone would think of as a real inspiration. But the point was that Stone admired Spielberg's freedom within the system, the ability to make films on his terms. Stone might not have made a film like ‘Lincoln’ the way Spielberg did, or ‘The Post’, or ‘Bridge of Spies’ or more subject matter you could see Stone being attracted to, but I think he just admires Spielberg's craft and his determination not to be swayed by fads and taste to do what he wants. That, for so many political filmmakers indeed, is an enormous attraction: the freedom to be able to dictate your own projects and mould them to your vision, however collaborative that vision might seem.

So I think Stone would tell you he managed longevity and he managed to kind of mould his political vision because he made films on time and to budget, and certainly he delivered a run of movies from ‘Salvador’ in the mid-1980s, all the way he's through to probably ‘Natural Born Killers’ a decade later, that were commercial but were also critically challenging movies that audiences wanted to see, and which in Stone's case tapped into a zeitgeist that few filmmakers can ever achieve.

But with movies like ‘Platoon’, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, ‘The Doors’, ‘JFK’ and even ‘Nixon’, as well as ‘Natural Born Killers’, Stone had a run of films that did all of that and more. He understood about maintaining relations with the studios – even though he didn't always agree with them by any means – but that's why he's managed to mould such a long-standing career for himself.

BG: A compelling character indeed. Many thanks for your time, Ian. It's been great.

IS: Thanks very much for having me. Thank you.

BG: This has been the UK Desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.

Queer Horror, Marxism and Hollywood
Thursday, 14 September 2023 13:42

Queer Horror, Marxism and Hollywood

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Darren Elliott-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Film & Gender Studies at the University of Stirling (UK), for Arts Express

Brett Gregory: Hi, this is the UK desk for Arts Express, and my name's Brett Gregory. Over recent weeks, we've been exploring cinema, not only as a playground for entertainment, escapism, and egos but also as an economic, political, and ideological battleground for social class, gender, ethnicity, technology, and, as we're going to discover in this evening's episode, sexuality.

Darren Elliott-Smith: Hi, my name is Darren Elliott-Smith. I'm a senior lecturer in film and gender, and I teach at the University of Stirling in Scotland in the UK. My research specialisms are in the representation of LGBTQ people in the horror genre, and I'm arguing that it's more recently that this has moved out from the shadowy realms of implicit and symbolic representation of yesteryear.

BG: So how are we to understand queer theory as a critical approach to cinema and its relationship to, say, Marxism?

DES: I suppose it depends on your understanding of queer as a theory and how the term and the ideology have altered in recent years. For me, it's often kind of obvious that there are at least two strands to queer theory. One being around identity politics and attempting to offer what Harry Benchoff describes as an oxymoronic community of difference. So this is a kind of paradox, I suppose, in itself that captures the problematic existence within queer culture and queer theory. But queer, as a word and as an ideology, in my understanding, also still disturbs some people, depending on your social persuasion, or your generation or background, in lots of different ways. And in terms of where this fits with Marxism, queer activism all drew upon socialist rhetoric that called for change, a change whereby the queer collective were being marginalised, crushed, and effectively killed by capitalist, imperialist, middle-class, white CIS hetero patriarchy. And Pride, though far removed from the activist origins of Pride marches in the 1970s, 1980s, still retains some of that need for change to look after the collective and therefore the individual as they exist within the mass, free from the oppression of that ruling elite.

BG: And how does this inform a queer understanding of the horror genre in particular?

DES: Interestingly, many of the works of early horror film theorists in the 1970s, particularly the definitive work of queer film scholar Robin Wood, utilised both a lesbian and gay approach with a socialist and Marxist approach as well. So he argued that, using a little bit of psychoanalysis merged with Marxism, that those ideals and energies that don't fit the bourgeois capitalist, imperialist, and white patriarchal culture of production and reproduction are cast out as other across this imaginary border, which then sets up the binary of us versus them. The problem is that actually within horror and within a lot of Gothic narratives, the ‘them’ or ‘they’ sometimes come back. The fact that they always come back, repression and oppression eventually is shown to fail in the horror narrative, causing this monster, creature, killer, or infection, whatever it is, to come back and threaten that pure individual that's meant to represent the US.

BG: Can you give us a specific film example where the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary becomes blurred?

DES: in kind of focusing on this theory. He collapsed the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary, and we see this most critically skewered in films like George Romero'sNight of the Living Dead,’ whereby the undead, the zombie, the returned, kind of reanimated corpse who once was human, once was us, become a ‘them’ figure, and then they return to assimilate everybody else into this undead horde, where children eat parents, and the sole survivor, which in this case is Ben, black male, is gunned down by white vigilantes at the end of the film, who stake him for one of them, even though he's not zombified; he's actually still human and very much alive. And Romero's point is that the gun-toting white male doesn't see any difference; actually, all exist in an othered state.

Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead 1968

BG: So what is the scope of horror films and television shows which is under consideration here?

DES: Queer horror, although I'd argue that all horror is queer in that it seems to represent the odd, the strange, the non-normative, and as a genre, it seeks to distress, to upset and to challenge, and to scare. It's for me a set of films and TV shows that are made, normally by LGBTQ creatives, that foreground queerness as an element of representation in some way, but this subgenre also includes historical considerations as influences upon these newer out contemporary horror films and shows. So, in order to do that, we have to look at what a lot of academics and myself call closeted texts like, Interview with a Vampire, The Hunger, Psycho, Bride of Frankenstein, all these films that kind of clearly have LGBTQ themes running through them but never really explicitly kind of outwardly state that they are. So they involve some kind of symbolic interpretation or reading.

BG: From a historical perspective. The Hays Code, which was introduced in the 1930s, clearly had a resounding effect on cinema's representations, narratives, and themes. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? 

DES: So, the Hays Code was set up after a series of scandals rocked Hollywood, and people were worried about the deplored world of filmmaking as one that might infect supposedly decent heteronormative family life. One particular case that's often cited is the star Fatty Arbuckle being accused of raping a young starlet in the early 1920s. So, Will Hays set up a production code that would monitor the content of all film productions and those that were released in US cinemas, preventing certain elements and themes and narratives that they deemed would seek to poison US ideology. It's Vito Russo's documentary and book ‘The Celluloid Closet’ outlines this really well in terms of the impact on LGBTQ+ folks. The rule that existed within the Hays Code strictly prohibited any depiction of what was called "sex perversion," impacting any explicit representation of any non-normative sexuality or romance. So, Some films had to get around this by using symbolism, inference, suggestion so as to ensure that their true audience were being represented in and seen in films. Some directors, queer-affiliated directors, were kind of doing this deliberately, coding their films in a way.

The Bride of Frankenstein 1935

BG: For example?

DES: The Universal franchise of horror films from the '30s and the '40s were actually playing with the limitations of the code as well. It's been kind of recently introduced so the suggestion here becomes quite pointed at times, and there's a practice of rebellion in a small way, and this was more pushed, I suppose, by the makers of these films. So if we can kind of go to certain auteurs, film directors like Todd Browning, whose sexuality was often kind of questioned but never fully defined, he made the pre-code film ‘Freaks,’ which is problematic but also really interesting kind of queer film in its representation of non-normative body types. There's also James Whale, who is a gay British director who ramped up the suggestion in his version of ‘Frankenstein,’ that he directed and even more so in the kind of more comedic and kind of almost parodic ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ where we have this homoerotic triangle literally exploding off the screen between Frankenstein the creature and Dr Pretorius as well.

BG: And once again social class is at play in such horror films as well isn’t it?

DES: Class definitely comes into it again, drawing on those early Marxist readings from Franco Moretti on the nature of the capitalist blood-sucking vampire configured more recently as a corporate CEO or landed gentry or an aristocrat versus the underclass or working class, the proletariat of the zombie or a mindless slave. And we see a kind of a literal version of this in the depiction of Haitian voodoo in early RKO texts like ‘I Walked with a Zombie.’ But the queerness present in the upper classes, something I suppose that's reflected on as a consideration of effete queer men, idiosyncratic in their taste, often overindulged with an emphasis on the pursuit of overwhelmed senses, and that kind of stereotypical depiction of upper-class queerness is existent in early Gothic texts like ‘Jekyll and Hyde' and ‘Dorian Gray,’ where the upper classes are seen to wallow in debauchery that's propped up by generations of wealth, them having the time, the money, the power to indulge in seemingly perverse desires.

I Walked with a Zombie 1943

BG: And queer horror is still disrupting and destabilising popular conservative sensibility today as well, isn't it?

DES: Well, the recent remake of Hellraiser wasn't received so well by so-called purist horror fans. Um, they took against this more explicit queer content and they rejected in particular the idea of trans actor Jamie Clayton as the new Pinhead. I mean, not realizing that this film was written by a gay male author, directed by the same man, Clive Barker, and inspired by his experiences of BDSM queer practices that he saw in Berlin nightclubs. And it's quite clear that it's queer from the get-go.

BG: And your academic work presents is exploring the relationship between queer horror, trauma, and mental health, is that correct?

DES: So my recent work looks at the impact of neoconservative, neoliberal ideologies upon LGBTQ individuals' mental health and how horror and Gothic are often the go-to genre for the representation of this. So recently, we've seen a few films that foreground this, utilising horror tropes. ‘Hypochondriac’ from 2022 focuses on this young man who fears that he's inherited his mother's mental illness but sees himself split into two versions of himself: one is a wolf man, the other is this kind of non-normative, seemingly kind of normal queer individual. Other films like ‘Thelma’ from 2018, which is a Swedish supernatural film about a girl with Carrie-like powers who comes to terms with her own lesbianism that has been repressed by her staunch religious parents. And even the recent series of ‘American Horror Story: NYC’ tends to come to terms with personal and cultural trauma that's affected the queer community and also across the world, but particularly in New York. Via various, albeit from my perspective, they're quite clunky allegories and explicit narratives around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

BG: And we must never forget that with the current rise in right-wing attitudes in both the US and the UK, there are real lives at stake here.

DES: So it seems that in the past few years, things have become even more obvious that being different, being LGBTQ in today's world can be scary. Our rights are being taken away one by one, these hard-won equalities that have been rolled back, and our existence as legally equal is increasingly becoming very precarious. So it's a really interesting time, I think, for theorists and for filmmakers to think about the ways in which we can start to kind of think about how cultural theory that once oppressed and stigmatised queer people is now being re-interpreted, re-expressed, and re-presented to allow queer filmmakers and theorists to take up that mode of address that can offer critiques of the establishment and of also our own subcultures and of those that still oppress us.

BG: Fantastic Darren, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the show. Your cinematic observations have been both illuminating and important. 

Wednesday, 13 September 2023 08:51

A Driven Man: Review of ‘Kubrick and Control: Authority, Order and Independence in the Films and Working Life of Stanley Kubrick’ by Jeremy Carr

Published in Films

Like many eager teenagers who found themselves sleepless and cinephilic during the Gilded Age of VHS in the 1980s, you genuinely felt the presence of the director of The Shining at your shoulder as you sat alone in the living room and watched his vision of the unfamiliar, the unnerving and the uncanny ominously unfold.

The absolute exactness of everything on screen, in concert with the hypnotic electronic orchestration by Wendy Carlos, drenched with such doom and dread, overwhelmed and compelled you to return to its psychopathy again and again until, without knowing it, you had soon learned the dialogue verbatim as if it was a lyric from some obscure prog-rock album entitled ‘Grand Guignol’.

Jeremy Carr’s comprehensive hagiography of Stanley Kubrick’s career of creative compulsions and authorial control conjures up many, many youthful memories such as this and, as a consequence, it is a must-read for anyone who pines for the serious aesthetics of mainstream cinema to return.

Stanley Kubrick at Sadlers Wells Theatre in London 1949

Kubrick first began to learn to ‘direct his subjects, to control light and shade, to understand lenses, composition, exposure, and balance within the frame’ as a precocious 17-year-old staff photographer working for Look magazine in New York between 1946 and 1950. According to Dr James Fenwick:

[he] seems to have wanted to push the limits of the creative freedom he was offered at the magazine … [attempting] to broaden his autonomy … [and] invest his own personality into his work.

Onwards and this competitive attitude and approach to producing cinema with distinct authority was helped and honed throughout the 1950s by way of the chess matches he played against the regulars in Washington Square in the shade or under street lamps; a meticulous métier which he would introduce to the cast and crew on the movie sets he was later to govern. As the director himself explains in John Baxter’s Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (1998), if chess had any relationship to filmmaking ‘it would be in the way it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive.’

Day of the Fight became Kubrick’s first motion picture at the age of 23, a 16 minute black-and-white documentary which follows Irish-American middleweight boxer, Walter Cartier, as he prepares to fight Bobby James on April 17, 1950. Here, in between the staging and the spit, the uppercuts and the close-ups, Carr identifies the shadow of a leitmotif which would eventually loom over the director’s entire oeuvre: the driven man.

In The Killing in 1956, for instance, his first proper studio picture for United Artists, veteran ex-con, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), strides across the screen as he confidently describes to his fiancée the herd of hoodlums he is about to corral with the sole purpose of pulling off a daring $2 million robbery at the racetrack.

In turn, in 1957 Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) can be seen in Paths of Glory to be a character cut from the same thick cloth, single-minded in his lofty and loquacious attempts to hold the French military command to account as he defends three soldiers who have been arbitrarily accused of cowardice during World War I.

Stanley Kubrick during the filming of Paths of Glory in 1957

Crucially, this incipient interpretation of the masculine desire to confront, combat and conquer – against the odds, against authority, against nature, against destiny – famously evolved into Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the titular militant messiah in Universal Pictures’ Spartacus in 1960. This sword and sandal saga about a humble gladiator rising up to lead the largest ever slave revolt against the imperious Roman Republic was the most expensive and prestigious film production Kubrick had helmed. Furthermore, its subsequent commercial and cultural success helped to solidify his own personal and professional ambitions to be recognised as a leading figure within the industry, a true American auteur.

As Carr explains:

He was at the mercy of an egotistical group of actors (heavyweights Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton bickering with each other and questioning the authority of this young filmmaker), an equally obsessive producer/lead performer (Kirk Douglas), and the constraints dictated by a film of this size and scope.

This said, as Peter Kramer continues:

[Spartacus] established him as an important player in Hollywood … [enabling] him to negotiate with financiers and distributors from a position of strength so that from then on he could produce medium- to big-budget films … yet made without much interference from them.

The male drive to succeed however is not enough in itself. Such a raw and potentially ruinous emotion needs discipline, direction and order if it is to achieve its aims effectively, reach its destination intact and claim its prize. As a consequence, iconographic tropes such as maps, plans and/or schematics, either handmade or technological, often feature prominently in Kubrick’s mise-en-scène as a visual connotation of the characters’ need for organisation, method and control.

In his first production shot in colour, for example, the 30 minute promotional documentary The Seafarers from 1953, he explores how the Seafarers International Union in Maryland recruits and regulates its mariners, fishermen and boatmen before they work the oceans. To illustrate the scope and influence of this huge endeavour Kubrick pans across a large world map as the narrator asserts: ‘Antwerp, Cape Town, London, Marseilles, Singapore … You name it: picking his destination is the right of every Seafarer.’

More memorably of course is the mesmeric overhead push-in on the scale model of the hedge maze in The Shining in 1980. Restless in the reception hall of the Overlook Hotel, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) leans over and into it like a disturbed divisional general surveying his battle plans for the next day as his wife and son appear superimposed like mere insects, happily oblivious that they are wandering through a metaphor for their patriarch’s decaying mind.

Indeed, Carr reiterates this recurring Kubrickian conceit in his epilogue when he cites the screenplay for Napoleon, the unrealised biographical epic which many critics agree would have proved to have been the director’s raison d'être, the totality of his cinematic aesthetic:


Pencil between his teeth, dividers in one hand, [Napoleon] creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid out from wall to wall. Other large maps cover the table, the couch and any other available space.

In line with his increased production budgets, abilities and aspirations Kubrick advanced his ruminations on order, control and power considerably with Dr. Strangelove in 1964, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and A Clockwork Orange in 1971. On the one hand these three films can be seen to mirror the theoretical work carried out by one of his 1960s contemporaries, Marshall McLuhan, in terms of technology serving as an extension of man: his physicality, his consciousness, his ethics and his will. And, on the other, it could be argued that they also echo Karl Marx’s position in the 19th century with regards to technological determinism and the hegemonic role this plays in the socio-economic relations and cultural practices of wider society.

For example, the cockpit of the B-52 in Dr. Strangelove is heaving with ‘a smorgasbord of lights, switches, maps, gauges, radars, and guides’ as it transports a hydrogen bomb to its intended Soviet target. The message from the military to the body politic is very loud and clear: everything is under control. We have the technology. God bless America.

With the incomparable 2001: A Space Odyssey the audience, and cinema itself, are invited to take a giant leap forwards as Kubrick propels us from the prehistoric broken bones of homicidal hominids and into the nervous system of the spacecraft Discovery: its intricate network of hibernation pods and plasma pipes, scanners and closed-circuit cameras all interconnected and centralised within the mainframe brain of HAL, the supercomputer whose sole duty is to transport the crew to Jupiter to investigate an alien radio signal. We can only assume that, hypothetically, if this fully-funded, interplanetary mission is successful then it would surely herald the expansion of American political, economic and cultural imperialism out of this world and throughout the cosmos.

Returning to earth with A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick explicitly intertwines technology and hegemony by way of the Ludovico Technique, a state-sponsored behavioural aversion procedure which is tested on one desperate experimental subject: the untamed, ultra-violent rapist droog, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Here scientific research, knowledge and needles are employed by the British Ministry of the Interior to physically inculcate self-control and conclusively cure him of his own destructive free will. The treatment leaves working-class Alex meek and defenceless and, against our better judgement, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for him. Prof. Philip Kuberski argues however that the film’s narrative should not be regarded as a defence of free will at all but instead as a reminder to the audience that we are also ‘conditioned in some way or another’ and the day-to-day freedoms we think we enjoy are just an ‘illusion’.

With this in mind we can thus posit that Kubrick’s driven men, whether they know it or not, are also suffering from a similar existential crisis. That is, their desire to confront, combat and conquer is just that, a desire, and not a logical decision which they are able to make. As a result, their attempts to control and direct their impulses with plans, maps or technology are ultimately unsustainable due to the impermanence and vicissitudes of the wider world, the people within it and the forces in between. Thus, their turbulent and tragic character arcs can only lead their sense of purpose, and their sense of self, to overexposure, disorder and defeat.

In Lolita in 1962, for instance, the upstanding university lecturer Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is ultimately undone by his illicit infatuation with the 14 year old Dolores Haze, deliriously dissolving into ‘a mere shell of himself, totally out of control and forcibly subdued by … hospital staff’.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of the 1975 film Barry Lyndonjpg

Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), the self-serving 18th century Irish scoundrel and gambler in Barry Lyndon in 1975, swears that he will never ‘fall from the rank of a gentleman’ but, inevitably, he comes tumbling down the social ladder following a messy duel against his stepson where he loses his leg and is banished from England forever.

Then there is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) who, in Full Metal Jacket in 1986, humiliates and belittles his squad of new recruits, stripping them, one by one, of their egos and their dignity in order to transform them into marines, into killing machines who are ‘ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds’. It is ironic that this brutal training regime proves to be more successful than anyone could of imagined when, during one sleepy evening, the maligned and malfunctioning Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) executes Hartman, his nemesis, with a bullet to the chest.

As can be seen nearly all of the male protagonists mentioned are leaders and/or patriarchs who, while memorably constructed and beautifully performed, are also narcissistic, naïve, deluded and alone. Consequently, one critical lesson we can learn from Stanley Kubrick’s exceptional oeuvre, as well as from Jeremy Carr’s fine book, it is that as audience members and as mindful citizens we should always be extremely careful about the kind of men we choose to bestow authority, control and power upon in political, corporate and cultural life.

This review was first broadcast on Arts Express by WBAI 99.5FM in New York, see here.‘Kubrick and Control: Authority, Order and Independence in the Films and Working Life of Stanley Kubrick’ by Jeremy Carris available here.

The Hollywood Renaissance and The Blacklist
Wednesday, 13 September 2023 08:22

The Hollywood Renaissance and The Blacklist

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford (UK), for Arts Express

Brett Gregory: Hi, this is the UK desk for Arts Express, and I'm Brett Gregory. My guest this evening is the curator of a unique season of controversial yet compelling Hollywood movies from the 1960s and seventies. In collaboration with National Film Festival organisers Cinema Rediscovered, global distribution company Park Circus, and the esteemed British Film Institute, will be touring cinemas in the UK and the Republic of Ireland over the next two weeks.

Andy Willis: Hi Brett, thanks for having me on the show. My name is Andy Willis. I'm a professor of film studies at the University of Salford in the UK. Alongside that, I'm also a senior visiting curator for film at HOME, which is a multi-arts centre in the middle of Manchester in the North West of England.

BG: And what is this curated film program, this creative project, about exactly?

AW: So, this project is on the Hollywood blacklist, but particularly on how those people who were involved in the Hollywood blacklist ended up going back into the American film industry in the 1960s. It's particularly focused on those who contributed in the broader sense to what's now known as the Hollywood Renaissance. It went really from the early stirrings of the Hollywood blacklist, which began at the end of the Second World War. In the trade papers within the film industry, such as the Hollywood Reporter, articles began to appear accusing people who worked in the Hollywood film industry of having communist sympathies. This is quite ironic, seeing as when the Soviet Union was an ally, many people were encouraged to make pro-Soviet films. But after the war, when they were now the enemy, suddenly those films were held against people when they were accused of being communists or communist sympathisers. This came to a peak in October 1947 when The House Committee on Un-American Activities Committee, often known as HUAC, subpoenaed 19 people to appear before them to be questioned about their loyalty and communist sympathies.

BG: Reds under the bed. So initially, you say 19?

AW: They actually called only 11 people, and one of those people was the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who did talk to the committee. But then, realising that the writing was on the wall, very soon after, he got a plane to East Germany and had one of the most legendary careers in European theatre. The 10 who were left were all held in contempt of the committee and were eventually sent to prison for a year. They became known as the Hollywood 10, which included mostly writers, but also a couple of directors and writer-producers. I think that reflects how influential and important writers were seen at the time within the Hollywood film industry. It was the writers who could put ideas within the films.

BG: And then what happened?

AW: Things got worse just after that. In 1947, there was a statement made by key people in the Hollywood film industry, known as the Waldorf Statement. They met at the Waldorf Hotel. People like Louis B. Mayer from Metro Golden Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn from Columbia Pictures were in attendance. They all came together and said that if they had anyone working for them under contract who was seen to be a communist sympathiser or a Communist Party member and didn't renounce that, then they would terminate their contract. That started the Hollywood blacklist.

BG: All very sinister. And there was some sort of in-your-face propaganda campaign going on as well, wasn't there?

AW: Very shortly afterwards, in June 1950, there was the publication of a pamphlet by Counterattack called 'Red Channels.' 'Red Channels' really stuck the boot in even more to progressive practitioners within the Hollywood film industry. It named 151 actors, writers, musicians, as well as broadcast journalists and other people working in the media. After they were named, they were effectively blacklisted and unable to work.

BG: And how long did this reign of terror go on for?

AW: It lasted for a good 10 to 15, for some people coming up to 20 years, where they were unable to work. They were unable to have their names on films or television programs they wrote. It's a very dark period for Hollywood and caused great rifts that lasted for decades after, with people not being happy with those who had named names. One of the things people may know is that as part of the HUAC trials, people would be invited to name names of Hollywood's communists or communist sympathisers. Famous people like Elia Kazan, the theatre and film director, did name names, which caused great disruption in their working relationships. For example, Kazan worked a lot with Arthur Miller, and after he named names, Miller refused to work with Kazan again. When Elia Kazan was given a lifetime achievement Oscar, people like Ed Harris and Nick Nolte were sitting on their hands, not clapping and looking stony-faced. Outside, people like Abraham Polonsky, the writer-director, and Walter Bernstein, the writer, were protesting about giving a lifetime achievement Oscar to someone who had named names and destroyed the careers of many of their friends and work associates.

BG: Yeah, I watched that ceremony with Ed Harris and Nick Nolte on YouTube years ago. Totally awkward. Anyway, let's move on to the films you selected for the program.

AW: One of the key films we chose for the season was 'Serpico' from 1973. It's directed by Sidney Lumet, with a stellar performance by Al Pacino. But what people may not know is that the first early drafts of the screenplay were written by Waldo Salt, who had been blacklisted. Another film we selected was 'Midnight Cowboy' from 1969. It's really the film that brought Waldo Salt back into focus. He had made a couple of other films after his blacklist, notably 'Taurus Bulba' from 1962. But he was unhappy with those kinds of adventure films and wanted to do something more weighty. When John Schlesinger and Jerome Hellman were looking for someone to adapt the novel, it was Waldo Salt who found a way to do that.

BG: Midnight Cowboy is a great film, but why is it a key film for this program?

AW: It is still the first X-rated film to win the Best Film Oscar. Waldo Salt was also rewarded with an Oscar for his work on the film. This seemed to be an important film, emblematic of the new Hollywood and its challenging ideas. I wanted to highlight that Waldo Salt, who suffered from the blacklist era, was able to contribute to the progressive politics of a film like 'Midnight Cowboy.'

BG: Tell us more about the movie 'Uptight.' I've never heard of it.

AW: 'Uptight' is an interesting example among the films in the season. It's much lesser known than 'Serpico' or 'Midnight Cowboy.' It's directed by Jules Dassin, who was also blacklisted in the early 1950s. He moved to Europe and rebuilt his career there, known for 'Rififi.' 'Uptight' was the first film he made back in America. It's an adaptation of the same novel that John Ford adapted for 'The Informer' in the 1930s. Jules Dassin, who suffered from the blacklist, I think was interested in this idea of the guilt at the core of this film.

BG: And there were political shenanigans going on behind the scenes, is that right?

AW: It's a fascinating film, but the making of the film is also really interesting. Shot in Cleveland, there was so much tension among the extras that they had to take the production back to Los Angeles. The FBI reportedly tried to get people working on the film to inform them about the politics of the film. Jules Dassin takes the setting from Ireland and the IRA of the original novel and places it into the Black Power movement in Cleveland in the late 1960s. It's a fascinating film.

BG: Black Power, the IRA. What else do you have lined up?

AW: Yes, another film that focused on the Black experience in America and had a contribution from someone blacklisted is 'Claudine.' It's a much smaller, quieter film set in Harlem around a single mother played by Diahann Carroll. She meets a well-meaning garbage man played by James Earl Jones, and they try to make a go of things in 1974. The film is directed by John Berry, who had been blacklisted and went on to work on this film. It's an important historical film, I think, and has been a little forgotten.

BG: A film that hasn't been forgotten, though, is Robert Altman's 'M*A*S*H.'

AW: 'M*A*S*H' is another familiar film in the season. It's remembered for breaking Robert Altman and introducing his filmmaking style, with sound and image combining in a unique way. For this season, 'Look Who's Back: The Hollywood Renaissance and the Blacklist,' I wanted to focus on the screenwriter of 'M*A*S*H,’ Ring Lardner Jr. He had been one of the Hollywood 10, one of the first victims of the blacklist.

BG: Why is Ring Lardner Jr.'s work on 'M*A*S*H’ so important?

AW: Ring Lardner Jr.'s contribution was vital to 'M*A*S*H.’ He brings progressive politics and attempts to portray the horrors of war. It also looks forward to the cynicism of the 1970s. 'M*A*S*H’ is one of the great anti-war movies. America was still in the thrall of Vietnam in 1970, and I don't think anybody needed any pushing to relate the film to the Vietnam reality that many Americans were experiencing.

BG: And you focus on a particular female actor in your program as well, don't you?

AW: Yes, I didn't want to focus only on writers. I included Hal Ashby's 1975 film 'Shampoo,' which is set in the late 1960s and is about the excesses and vanity of America during that period. It features a standout performance by Lee Grant, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Lee Grant had been an actor who, in the 1950s, was on the cusp of real fame but was blacklisted. She reappeared in the 1960s in films like 'The Heat of the Night' and was nominated for an Oscar for 'The Landlord.' Lee Grant is a great example of how an actor can come back from the blacklist and re-establish themselves at the centre of the Hollywood film industry during the Hollywood Renaissance.

BG: Hollywood, the dream factory with nightmare working conditions.

AW: The Hollywood film industry sees itself as the dream factory, offering a particular version of society as the aspirational one we should seek out. The Hollywood blacklist era shows that when people were writing other versions of potential future societies or contemporary societies that weren't supported by the capitalist studios, they were quick to act and marginalise those people. Let's hope there are writers, directors, actors, and musicians willing to offer alternatives and challenge the status quo.

BG: Great stuff, Andy. It's always healthy to end with a clenched fist in the air. It's been a pleasure having you on the show, and I wish you the best of luck with 'Look Who's Back: The Hollywood Renaissance and the Blacklist.' This has been the UK desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.

Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK). His critically acclaimed debut feature film,‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available in the US and UK here, on Amazon Prime.

Labyrinths of Austerity
Friday, 14 July 2023 09:12

Labyrinths of Austerity

Published in Life Writing

Writer-director Brett Gregory on his bleak, moving, semi-autobiographical feature film, Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’, which tackles austerity, class, and mental health. Images are taken from the film. An interview with Brett is here.

Although I was born on an RAF base in Buckinghamshire, I was raised on a run-down council estate in a Nottinghamshire mining town from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. After my alcoholic stepdad was arrested for assault for the umpteenth time, my mum became a single parent on benefits with three children. We had no money: we ate salad cream sandwiches, we used the local newspaper as toilet roll and I could only afford to go to the cinema once over this period, and that was to watch ‘Tron’ at the ABC Cinema in 1982 for my 11th birthday.

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Every other movie I watched was either on a black and white portable television in my bedroom or on pirated VHS tapes on the colour television in the living room downstairs.As a result, I have no spiritual affinity with cinema-going or any of its mystical rituals like many other filmmakers claim to have. With television however it’s a different story. For example, in 1982 I also grew aware of the power of the British State by following Newsnight reports about the Falklands Conflict throughout the spring. This was far removed from reading about World War I or World War II in history books; this was seemingly happening in the present tense right before my very eyes.

It was around this time as well when I became fascinated by a puzzle book called ‘Masquerade’. The author, Kit Williams, had buried a bejewelled golden pendant in the shape of a hare somewhere in England, and in the book – which told the story of Jack Hare – he’d hidden textual and pictorial clues to pinpoint the pendant’s exact location. I never solved the puzzle, and the treasure was discovered by way of fraud in 1988. The 2009 BBC documentary ‘The Man Behind the Masquerade’ tells the story.

In 1984 the Miners' Strike broke out and, as hundreds of working-class communities were torn apart across the Midlands and the North, I then became aware that the British State would attack its own citizens just as readily as it would foreign entities. Watch video footage of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ online and you’ll see what I mean.

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Such familicidal tendencies were further demonstrated in the mid-1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government launched a completely unhinged and homophobic public health campaign using the slogan: ‘AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance’ which infected an entire generation of adolescents with paranoia, distrust and self-doubt. The original leaflet is archived by the Wellcome Trust.

Surrounded by all this new knowledge and real life horror, it’s no surprise that by this point I’d started to read Stephen King novels and Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’. In turn, I’d also begun to take the family’s Jack Russell, Shandy, on three hour long walks across farmers’ fields and to a nearby forest, as faraway from civilisation as possible.

I wasn’t a monk however, and would lead a double life by hanging around the front of the shops on the estate with older teenage lads in the evening: learning how to smoke, how to spit, how to swear, how to be angry and how to tell stories ‘that had better be fucking funny!’ When everyone eventually wandered home, I’d then return to my bedroom and switch on the Acorn Electron personal computer which my mum had bought on hire purchase to keep me quiet.

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Interestingly, if you wanted to play ‘free’ DIY games like ‘Tomb Hunter’ or ‘Spy Raider’ on a personal computer you had to type in hundreds of lines of BASIC code which were published in magazines like ‘Electron User’. However, if you made one single error – missed out a number or a letter or typed a colon instead of a semi-colon – then the game wouldn’t work. Little did I know at the time but this painstaking transcription process taught me extremely close reading skills and these would later prove very useful when I studied literary theory and literary criticism as a part of my BA and MA degrees in English Literature in the 1990s and, in turn, when I began to write, direct and edit short films in the 2000s.

In 1988, while writing a crappy ‘Twilight Zone’-style short story on a second-hand Olivetti typewriter in the kitchen, I noticed that Thatcher’s Tory government had now begun to mute all television broadcasts that featured representatives of Sinn Féin, a practice that would only end in 1994. It was at this very moment when it was confirmed for me that I didn’t live in a free society, and I probably never had.

Why was I was being denied access to this information? Why was I being denied the opportunity to make up my own mind about things, or gauge how I felt about such things? Or consider how I should or should not react to them? Or even learn from them? Furthermore, what other information was being withheld from me? What else didn’t I know? And why?

Naturally, as a young man desperate for answers which he was never going to receive, I grew frustrated and started searching out alternatives to the mainstream like I was on some sort of survival mission. I began to read the work of ‘troublemakers’ like George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and Oscar Wilde, as well as whatever biographies I could lay my hands on at the local library in town.

In turn, I also started watching Moviedrome on BBC 2. A late-night television series which started in 1988, it was basically film school for poor people. Subversive film director Alex Cox (‘Repo Man’, ‘Sid and Nancy’) was the presenter. He would enthusiastically discuss the origin, production, style and themes of films which I’d never heard of. These films would then be screened, and I’d suddenly feel my imagination expand, feeling a little less insane and a little less alone. Science fiction classics like ‘X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ or ‘The Fly’ (with Vincent Price), and newer experimental fare like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. Rugged 1970s films like ‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘Point Blank’, ‘Badlands’ and ‘The Parallax View’.

What this four-year study programme of ‘cult’ films taught me, as well as the literary books I was now rifling through on a regular basis, was that it wasn’t simply what you thought that mattered but, if you desired to feel vaguely like yourself on your own terms, then how you thought was just as necessary.

After finishing my BA and MA about eight years later I started claiming housing benefit for this damp, solitary bedsit I was confined to while I worked part-time at the library at the University of Derby for the next six years. The main reason for this was so I could have free access to all the books which I’d never had the opportunity to read while in formal education. I gorged myself on Jorge Luis Borges, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Bukowski, Gustav Meyrink, Jean Genet, Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Primo Levi, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alasdair Gray and Franz Kafka.

After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television on September 11, 2001, I realised that the human race and its leaders were never going to improve during my lifetime, and so I decided I might as well study to be a teacher, sharing what I’d learned, before it was too late. In 2003 I then managed to secure a job teaching A Level Film Studies and A Level Cultural Studies at a college in Manchester.

These recollections of my early personal and cultural life form the basis of my aesthetic approach in ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’. For example, as well as the myth of Sisyphus and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, the narrative structure is loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, and the Lacanian phallocentric ‘I’ - which is associated with this novel’s subtext. In the film, Young Jack even points to the Stoodley Pike monument at one stage and exclaims, “And that big tower looks like a lighthouse, dunnit?”

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In turn, different types of storytelling are addressed to try and understand how and why these represent, and even help to construct, who we think we are. For example, there are numerous ‘storytellers’ present throughout, but who is telling the truth? What about gossip, rumour, poor memory or falsehoods? Who should we trust? The dominant third-person narrator; the newsreaders on the mobile phone; Boris Johnson; the Granny’s voicemails; the female interviewees’ recollections; the protagonist as a boy, as a youth or as a man; Brett Gregory the screenwriter or Brett Gregory the director?

A copy of Kit Williams’ ‘Masquerade’ appears in one of the opening scenes as an intertextual prompt. The characters Young Jack, Jack and Old Jack each tell the audience that they’re looking for their missing dog, Shandy, who keeps getting lost while chasing rabbits. So all three ‘Jacks’ are chasing an invisible ‘Jack’ Russell who, in turn, is chasing the fictional ‘Jack’ Hare from ‘Masquerade’ in the hope that this will ultimately lead to… what? Treasure? The Truth? The Prelapsarian Past? This idea of losing oneself within oneself is also flagged up in the opening Borges’ quote from ‘Labyrinths’ and reiterated in the print of M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ which appears on one of the doors in the protagonist’s flat.

The monologues delivered throughout were written to function as the characters’ streams-of-consciousness, rather than spoken words, since what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is far too complicated to be deemed to be a part of the social realist genre.

In these ways then the film is structured like a working-class modernist novella and, I suppose, this is why a general audience finds it difficult to understand. If my name was David Lynch, I presume people would be inclined to put more effort in.

This said, I have great faith that the film will find a wider audience over time. Co-producer, Jack Clarke, who’s around twenty-five years younger than me, has promised to make sure the film is still available to audiences long after I’m gone.

‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available here on Amazon Prime in the UK and the US.

This article originally appeared in Strange Exiles in June 2023.

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A heartfelt exploration of one of the maestros of modern British cinema: Tracking Loach, by David Archibald
Sunday, 16 April 2023 08:59

A heartfelt exploration of one of the maestros of modern British cinema: Tracking Loach, by David Archibald

Published in Films

Brett Gregory reviews ‘Tracking Loach’ by David Archibald (Edinburgh University Press, 2023)

David Archibald’s book, ‘Tracking Loach’, is an academic celebration of Ken Loach’s 60 year career in socialist filmmaking and political activism. It is also an extremely timely publication in that Loach’s latest film, ‘The Old Oak’, will be receiving its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2023.

The author’s unique approach is to prioritise the contextual mechanics of film production studies over the theoretical speculation of critical screen studies, arguing that the reflective observation of the methodologies and logistics involved in preparing, shooting and exhibiting a feature film should elicit a complementary understanding of a filmmaker’s aesthetic. This reminds me of a television interview with David Niven from the 1970s where he asks something along the lines of: ‘How can a critic write a decent review if he’s never actually made a movie himself?’

During Archibald’s ethnographic pursuit of Loach’s poetic and political process his primary sources of data are the annotations, interviews, shooting documents, digital footage and photographs he accrues while being physically present during the production and exhibition of Loach’s working-class comedy-drama set in Glasgow, ‘The Angel’s Share’ (2012).

It should be noted that to be granted access to such a complex and sensitive creative environment and its extremely busy and anxious workforce – its technicians and performers – and, in turn, to enjoy the company and trust of its leaders who have the weight of a major production bearing down on them – Ken Loach (Director), Paul Laverty (Screenwriter) and Rebecca O’Brien (Producer) – is a memorable achievement in itself.

To accompany him on his journey the author also draws on a wide variety of historical and theoretical secondary sources, including the BFI’s Ken Loach Archive, and, as a working-class filmmaker, postgraduate and former film studies lecturer, I found many of his scholarly citations to be just as illuminating as his on-set observations.

For example, when working alongside his early screenwriting partner, Jim Allen, Archibald highlights that Loach’s television productions in the late 1960s and early 1970s were influenced by the political ideas of Leon Trotsky in that the UK’s established democratic system was seen to be inadequate with regards to the economic interests of the proletariat.

Following on from this it is argued that Loach’s films generally aim to reveal to the audience, either explicitly or implicitly, the harsh realities, exploitation and despair of working-class experience and, in turn, that capitalism is not a natural, normal or inevitable way of ordering or governing society.

With this in mind the socialist concerns of Loach’s oeuvre have generally transitioned from addressing issues such as organised labour in ‘The Big Flame’ (1969) and ‘The Rank and File’ (1971), to unorganised labour in ‘Riff Raff’ (1991) and ‘The Navigators’ (2001), and then on to unemployed labour in ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) and ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016).

While such films could be viewed as a war artist’s mournful depiction of socio-economic casualties lying strewn across a neoliberal battlefield, Archibald posits with reference to the Italian historian, Enzo Traverso, that they can also be understood as evidential ‘open wounds’ which the Left need to nurse so the embers of possibility can once again be reignited.

Aware of Raymond Williams’ contention that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing’, the author proceeds to cite Newland and Hoyle’s view that in some ways Loach’s creative output in the 21st century has begun to move away from the wholly melancholic art cinema of, say, ‘My Name Is Joe’ (1998) and on towards the Ealing comedy tradition with films like ‘Looking for Eric’ (2009) and ‘The Angel’s Share’ (2012). Indeed, as Loach himself states in a footnote, ‘not every film has to end with a fist clenched in the air.’

Loach is a social realist director with the eye of a sympathetic documentarian, influenced by, amongst other things, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, the Free Cinema Movement and the 20th century current affairs programme, ‘World in Action’.

Moreover, similar to the generic conventions exhibited in films from the Italian neo-realist movement such as ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945) and ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), Archibald frequently underscores Loach’s overarching quest to, paradoxically, recreate spontaneity, authenticity and ‘truth’ in his fictional work by employing predominantly naturalistic filmmaking techniques.

By shooting on a ‘real’ location instead of within an ‘artificial’ studio Loach’s objective is to not only encourage the actors to respond to their surrounding environment like recognisable, everyday human beings, but to also display the historical power relations which are inscribed into, for example, the municipal buildings which overshadow them.

Echoing John Grierson’s principle of ‘actuality’, Loach tends to shoot static medium long shots with the filming apparatus and its crew as far away from the ‘action’ as possible, a tactical attempt to motivate the audience to decide what is important and what to focus on, as if they themselves are simply observing matters from across the street.

In turn, this sense of things ‘really happening’ is often reinforced by natural lighting during a shoot via the sky for exteriors or windows for interiors, and by way of continuity editing in post-production so as not to ‘interfere’ with the actors’ onscreen performances and the linear story they are striving to tell.

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Of course, to achieve ‘the illusion of the first time’ casting is crucial, and Loach’s production team frequently enlist non-professional or amateur actors as a consequence. David Bradley as Billy Casper in ‘Kes’ (1969), Crissy Rock as Maggie Conlan in ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ (1994) and Martin Compston as Liam in ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) are just three notable examples.

As well as providing a real world opportunity for a filmmaker to collaborate, explore and develop a character more or less from scratch, Jennifer Beth Spiegel points out that casting non-professional or amateur actors is also good for marketing in that it draws the attention of the popular press by way of the presumption that these ordinary individuals are pure and unsullied by the elbow grease of the film industry and the ego of show business.

An important factor in this process is that unlike most other independent British production companies, Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘Sixteen Films’ has become well-financed and self-sufficient over the decades and as a result they have the time to carry out lengthy scouting missions in order to locate and secure the right actor for the right role.

So to achieve a sense of verisimilitude on screen and in the minds of the audience, Loach et al seek out and cast performers who, besides their physical appearance, not only share similar personality traits with the characters they are pencilled in to play, but who also originate from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

This approach is exemplified by the casting of Paul Brannigan as Gareth O’Connor in ‘The Angel’s Share’ in that the film’s screenwriter, Paul Laverty, first encountered him while conducting research at Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit. As Archibald relates, in line with his onscreen character, Brannigan, born in Glasgow’s East End, had been imprisoned for violent crimes and gangland feuding, but was also ‘attempting to go straight’.

Of course, critics will argue that the casting of non-professional actors undermines the history and craft of acting, the experience involved, the knowledge accumulated, the techniques learned, the talent nurtured. For example, in an interview with the author, the actor Roger Allam points out that amateur actors ‘would be at a loss in a Molière play’. While this may be true, a reasonable response would be: what other practical routes are there available in the UK for the working class to climb up on to the silver screen and represent their identities, communities and histories fairly?

In an industry predominantly based in London and owned, run and populated by the middle class and their superiors, the costs involved to train as an actor are astronomical to an ordinary person and the distance to travel, particularly for those in the North, preposterous. Indeed, the few British working-class actors who are lucky enough to enjoy a public platform have consistently highlighted this socio-cultural system of privilege, prejudice and exclusion over recent years.

While Christopher Eccleston asserts that the ‘working class … are not wanted in the arts anymore’, James McAvoy argues that the dominance of privately educated British actors in the 21st century is ‘damaging for society’. In turn, Gary Oldman has stated that he is unable to direct a follow-up to his incendiary ‘Nil by Mouth’ (1997) because ‘They don’t want another one. They want ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’.

In the light of these socio-economic and ideological realities, Loach’s casting of non-professional and amateur actors – together with the working-class stories he tells and the working-class worlds he creates – should be regarded not simply as an aesthetic choice or even socialist posturing. Under the stifling, reductive right-wing administration we are all currently enduring in the UK, enabled on a day-to-day basis by numerous obsequious and self-serving cultural institutions and organisations, it could be reasonably argued that such an approach is, in truth, a revolutionary act.

In his epilogue Archibald includes an apposite quote from the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel:

‘A writer or painter cannot change the world but they can keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them, the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts.’

In ‘Tracking Loach’ there is so much more to discover and learn from its unique, rigorous and genuinely heartfelt exploration of one of the maestros of modern British cinema and modern British politics, Ken Loach. It is highly recommended.

Brett Gregory is the writer/director of the critically acclaimed, self-funded working-class feature film, ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ (2022).