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The cinema in Russia today


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THE CINEMA IN BRITAIN TODAY

If you want to go to the cinema in Britain today you will have to face
two problems. The first is to find a cinema in your locality which is
still showing films and which has not been turned into a bowling alley,
a bingo hall or a ballroom. The second is to find a film worth seeing.

The large industrial cities used to have five or six cinemas in the
centre and about thirty in the suburbs. Even small towns had several
cinemas. But since the advent of television, cinemas have been closing
down at an alarming rate. Between 1948 and 1962 half the cinemas in
Britain closed down, and the attendances dropped by over two-thirds. The
downward curve, although less sharp, is still continuing. Most cinemas
in Britain run continuous performances from about midday to eleven at
night. Tickets cannot be booked in advance except at some West End
cinemas and a few in the provinces. Practically all new films have a
premiere run at one of the big West End cinemas owned by giant cinema
companies. The length of the premiere run depends on its financial
success, and the tendency, especially with the huge epic spectaculars,
is for longer and longer premiere runs — sometimes several years.

General release cinemas are in the grip of a double monopoly — Rank and
A.B.C. Between them, in 1960, these two film giants owned 638 of the 2,
819 cinemas in Britain. Although this is a numerical minority, it •
represents all the key cinemas in the country; for while the rest of the
cinemas are grouped in small privately-owned chains of three, four or
perhaps a dozen, the Rank and A.B.C. cinemas form two major networks all
over the country, and no British film can hope even to cover its costs
unless it is booked by one or other of these circuits. Moreover, banks
will not advance money to film producers unless they have a guarantee of
distribution through companies linked with one or other of these two
circuits.

Consequently, producers who do not toe the line are not only effectively
banned from the majority of the screens of this country, but also
virtually prevented from making films. (Some recent exceptions to this
have emerged — small, genuinely independent productions made with money
gathered from private sources by young producers determined to break the
iron grip of the duopoly, with its sole aim of profit.) There are
several reasons why the film industry is losing audiences.

Many film magnates put the blame on television, and this was certainly a
major cause at the beginning. But since television audience figures have
now passed their peak, while cinema audiences continue to decline, part
of the answer must be sought in the quality of the films now being
produced.

In the socialist countries, the film industries have accepted the
challenge by striving to make better films. Many of the film tycoons in
Britain have sought the exactly opposite solution. In the fifties they
tried to lure the public back into the cinema with all sorts of films
with an accent on horror and the lowest kind of pornography. This

n accent on horror and the lowest kind of pornography. This
branched out into crude anti-communism and to some extent this field is
still being exploited. The most recent box-office successes — the James
Bond series — combine all these features in a sickening opportunist
blend of savagery, racialism, anti-communism, sexual degradation — all
done for a laugh!

Another solution was the introduction of all kinds of technical
developments like cinemascope, 3-D, cinerama, etc.; but despite the
advantages of improved techniques, the audiences continue to decline.
Various kinds of co-production were tried to attract foreign markets,
with British and American interests sometimes in competition, and
sometimes in alliance.

In her article "New Trends in British Film-making" (see Marxism Today,
May 1964) Nina Hibbin states:

While Britain was becoming a forward base for U.S. rocket strategy,
Pinewood (the study of the Rank Organisation) was becoming a forward
base for the American film assault on Europe. American 'aid' meant that
British studios could produce costlier and more ambitious films, but the
price was — American stars, American ideas, American themes. It became
increasingly difficult to tell whether a film was British or American.
However brave or good or noble we were, it was the American hero, with a
word of worldly wisdom on his lips and a gun in his hands, who showed us
how things should really be done; better than us at drinking, at
fighting and in bed . . .

Later, multi-national co-productions with West-German. French or Italian
stars to add local interest to films were designed for export to these
and other markets. Another gimmick was the mammoth spectacle, the . . .

… huge three-hour epics with polynational casts, a monosyllabic
script for easy dubbing into a dozen languages, and a sensationalised
story to conform to the film-makers' assessment of popular
'international' taste. And where better to get the material for such
epics - the eyegougings, the burnings, the tortures, the orgies, the
savage battles and the catastrophes than from that bottomless
storehouse, the Bible, or from legends of Greece and Rome? . Ultimate
dead-end in this trend was Cleopatra. It is doubtful whether the
reported cost - a minimum of 14 million pounds -will ever be recovered;
the result is a wholesale bore (ibid., p. 153)

Yet the big film financiers are convinced that tills is what the public
wants; that this is "entertainment".

The public is tired of films about politics and the kitchen sink and of
sermons about the North of England as it no longer exists'. So said John
Davies, chairman of the Rank Organisation, in his annual report last
year (ibid., p. 151).

Yet the striking thing is that towards the end of the fifties a new type
of film began to be produced, pioneered by young directors, writers and
producers who waged fierce and relentless battles with the big companies
for the necessary financial backing. These films, many of which have
been shown in the G.D.R., like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room

n in the G.D.R., like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room
at the Topand A Kind of Loving etc., were mainly of the "kitchen sink"
type. They dealt with aspects of reality which the vast majority of the
cinemagoing public recognised and took to their hearts. The hero of
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a factory worker — an almost
unheard-of character for a "hero" in the past. When the best of these
films were shown, the public flowed back into the cinemas.

These films were made by serious film producers, notably by WoodfaJl
films, a company formed by Tony Richardson and John Osborne. They
brought to the screen the "new trend" in theatre and literature, filming
the novels and plays of the "angries" and then taking up stories or

plays with a social-critical theme.

Among directors working along these lines Karel Reis, Lindsay Anderson,
John Schlesinger and Sidney Furie. Joan Littlewood, genius of the
progressive theatre, formed her own film company to make Sparrows Can't
Sing, which was performed in its original stage version by Theatre
Workshop in Berlin in 1961.

. . . the best 'new trend' films have tried (or try) to establish a firm
identity with the working-class life they depict, a contemporaneousness
of thought, a sense of social criticism and a feeling for the mood

and aspiration of people today (especially young people) which is
sometimes explicit and sometimes woven into the fabric of the film
(ibid, p. 155).

The problem of finance is a very real one to all film-makers because an
initial outlay of several thousands of pounds is essential even to start
a film. Production is so costly than even the major film companies have
to borrow part of their capital.

The two big companies, Rank und ABC, not only control exhibition, but
are also powerful production companies themselves (ABC is a part of
Warner-Pathe, which is a British-American Film production combine). The
big American-British companies, e.g., M.G.M., Paramount, United Artists,
have permanent distribution arrangements with one or other of, them, and
are therefore able to produce whatever they want. Any smaller company
(Woodfall, for example) is unable to enter production unless it has the
backing of one or other of the big production and distribution companies
for the particular film it is proposing to make.

In the past, the big film financiers' conception of what constituted the
ingredients of box-office success was so rigid that it was practically
impossible for new ideas and new themes to break through. They were
guilty of continual underestimation of the public. The film magnates
were more than surprised when, after the initial battle for capital,
films of the new trend, tackling subjects thought to be
"non-box-office", began to make fabulous profits. But despite their
success, the magnates continued to be chary of such films. The reason
was not so much a financial as a political one. The "new trend" films
were basically anti-Establishment and anti-war. Many of the people

eople
connected with them were associated with progressive movements — with
the CND, for instance. Although the "new trend" had political
weaknesses, there is no doubt that the Establishment saw it as a
challenge, and, together with the Tory government, was prepared to crush
it.

A move in this direction was the selling-out of the British Lion shares,
owned by the government and therefore under partial public control, to
private interests.

The protest by the Unions, the Association of Cine and Television
Technicians, Actors' Equity, the Labour movement in general, and others
concerned about the welfare of the film industry, forced the government
to sell to Michael Balcon's company, which had a better

reputation for artistic integrity, than to the company they had
originally negotiated with in secret, Sidney Box's company, which
represented much more highly-commercialised interests. While public
protests were not strong enough to prevent the sell-out, they did
achieve a partical success.

The "new trend" had certain weaknesses — a preoccupation with sex,
emphasis on brutalisation, and the isolation of the individual, and,
apart from one or two notable exceptions (the Alan Sillitoe films for
instance), it suffered from a complete lack of positive political
direction. It was essentially an "anti" movement, although even as such,
its value cannot be underestimated.

But failing to develop along more positive lines, it has recently tended
to become not just "anti" in relationship to capitalist society, but in
some cases "anti" man himself. A number of the most recent productions —
films like The Caretaker, Lord of the Flies, and The Pumpkin-Eater — are
rejecting the social implications of the best "new trend" films, and
have retreated into mysticism, obscurantism and despair. Many of them
depict man as a helpless victim of deep-laid psychological forces which
he can neither control nor understand. On the positive side, however, we
now have for the first time in Britain a "serious" contemporary cinema
which can challenge the narrow financial interests of the purely
"commercial" cinema; and it is in the "serious" cinema that the battle
of ideas can come more and more out into the open.

There is, in fact, at present, a two-way dichotomy. On the one hand,
there is the conflict between the "serious" and the "commercial" cinema;
on the other, there is the struggle between positive and negative ideas
that is sharpening in each category. More and more, the issues that are
involved can be formed into a single basic question: "Is man a helpless,
isolated vessel tossed about by uncontrollable inner forces, or is he in
control of his own destiny?" Upon the second alternative depends the
future of the British film industry, its vitality, its truth, and its
success.

Diana Looser


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