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47:4 Winter 2006 

issue editor 

John Caughie 

cover illustration 

Dream person scene in Chungking 
Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994) 


DES o’rawe: The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 395 

BRIAN Hu: The KTV aesthetic: popular music culture and contemporary 
Hong Kong cinema 407 

ADAM GALL AND FIONA PROB YN-RAPSEY : Ivan Sen and the art of the 
road 425 

British cinema institutions dossier 


CHRiSTOPHE dupin: The postwar transformation of the British Film 
Institute and its impact on the development of a national film culture in 
Britain 443 

GEOFEREY NO WELL-SMITH : The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its 
aftermath 453 

PETER THOMAS: The struggle for funding: sponsorship, competition and 
pacification 461 

JULIA knight: Agency vs archive: London Film-Makers’ Co-op and 
LVA vs Film and Video Umbrella 469 


IAN GARWOOD: Annette Davison, Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood 
Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s; K. J. Donnelly, 
The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television; Carol Vemallis, 
Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context 477 

EWAN KIRKLAND: Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch (eds). 

Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions 483 

JOHN mundy: Andrew Moor, Powell and Pressburger: a Cinema of 
Magic Spaces; Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, Michael Powell: 
International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker; Sarah Street, 
Black Narcissus; Mark Connelly, The Red Shoes 489 

Correction: In Screen, vol. 47, no. 1 (2006), we referred to Michael Renov’s 
book The Subject of Documentary (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) as 
The Subject in Documentary. We apologise for this error. 

The great secret: silence, cinema 
and modernism 


1 Susan Sontag, The aesthetics of 
silence', in Styles of Radical Will 
(London: Seeker and Warburg, 
1966), p. 11. 

2 Stanley Caveil, The World Viewed; 
Reflections on the Ontology of 
Film (Cambridge, MA; Harvard 
University Press, 1971), p. 147. 

Silence is not simply the absence of sound any more than black is only 
the absence of colour. Silence traverses all manner of contexts: it is never 
absolute and achieves significance in relation to what it denies, displaces, 
or disavows. It is impossible to think, speak or write about silence 
without invoking sound: 

‘silence’ never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its 
presence: just as there is no ‘up’ without ‘down’ or ‘left’ without 
‘right’, so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound 
or language in order to recognize silence.’ 

John Cage’s 4 ' 33 " is - despite itself - an experiment with sound; the 
‘silent’ screen-paintings of Robert Rauschenberg contradict abstraction 
by representing it; the silences that propagate in the works of Samuel 
Beckett intimate the ineffability of everything because they are involved 
in a search for something. In film, it has been commonplace to view the 
phenomenon of silence from a nostalgic perspective: ‘What was given up 
in giving up the silence of film, in particular the silence of the voice? ’.^ 
However, the persistence of silence in cinema raises important questions 
about representation and abstraction, the expressive and the secretive. 
How does the experience of silence influence our perception of moving 
images, and their relationship to a soundtrack? Does silence emphasize 
sound or is sound the source of silence? Does filmic silence create an 
aural void that produces an experience of visual plenitude? This essay 
proposes to examine some histories, theories and moments of filmic 
silence in the hope of contributing towards a critical practice capable of 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 

3 Michael North, 'International 
media, international modernism, 
and the struggle with sound’, in 
Julian Murphet and Lydia Rainford 
(eds). Literature and Visual 
Technologies: Writing after 
Cinema (Basingstoke; Palgrave 
Macmillan, 2003), p. 52. 

4 On the remarkable range of sound 
practices and musical 
accompaniments that existed 
during the 'silent' era, see: Rick 
Altman, Silent Film Sound 
(New York, NY: Columbia 
University Press, 2005), and 
Richard Abel and Rick Altman 
(eds). The Sounds of Early Cinema 
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana 
University Press, 2001). 

acknowledging the enduring significance of its many forms and 

It is generally accepted that the relative ease with which the American 
film industry successfully adopted sound technologies was due as much 
to the immediate needs of its narrative aesthetic as to the miracle of 
Hollywood ingenuity or the bravery of corporate investors. Synchronous 
sound rapidly enhanced the acoustic realism of a cinematic experience 
that - by the early 1920s - had made the story (and the script) central to 
the production and reception of commercially viable films. This said, the 
complete integration of sound into this narrative-orientated cinema was 
not without its footfalls: the inconvenient crackling of arc lights; the 
restriction of screen movement; the need for longer takes; and the 
‘foreign problem’. With speech came language, and the language of the 
American cinema was, of course, English. Without some fluency in 
English, countless foreign actors were either dubbed (for a while) or 
dropped (for good). Meanwhile, non-Anglophone countries did what 
they could to protect themselves against the latest phase of US cultural 
imperialism: linguistic assimilation. Without resources comparable to 
those available to Hollywood, effective resistance was virtually 
impossible. Even in France, the coming of sound traumatized the film 
industry between 1928 and 1934, crippling independent production and 
facilitating the exploitative ambitions of foreign companies such as 
Tobis and Paramount. Moreover, the quantum conversion to 
synchronous sound in US cinema did not bode well for more 
experimental and artistically committed filmmakers: 

The result was a general stratification, at least of the U.S. film world, 
with the foreign and the avant garde banished together to the 
commercial periphery and fewer opportunities for the general 
audience to see movies that did not conform to the classical 
Hollywood model. ^ 

It is hardly surprising, then, that the most eloquent and impassioned 
opponents of sound were filmmakers and film intellectuals closely 
associated with modernist visual culture, and with the ambitions of 
European avant-garde movements. 

In the face of the inexorable spread of sound, the attitude of this ‘anti- 
sound’ lobby often seemed hopelessly idealistic. However, with the 
exception of ‘impressionists’ such as Germaine Dulac or Marcel 
L’Herbier, it is important to remember that the first critics of sound were 
essentially critics of dialogue-orientated cinema: it was ‘talk’ in 
particular, rather than sound in general, that perturbed them, and their 
arguments against sound were not necessarily arguments for silence. 
(Silent cinema was rarely - if ever - truly silent and, like any invention, 
film sound did not appear sui generis.y Eisenstein, for example, did not 
argue against the institutionalization of synchronous sound per se, which 
he regarded as inevitable. Instead, his anxieties about the ‘talking film’ 
were provoked largely by the fact that the Soviet film industry was not 

396 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

5 S.M. Eisenstein, W.l. Pudovkin 
and G.V. Alexandrov, 'Statement 
on sound (1928 )', in Richard Talyor 
(ed.), S.M. Eisenstein: Selected 
Works, Volume I: Writings, 
1922-34 {London-. BFI, 1988), pp. 
113-14. In terms of Eisenstein's 
early theories of contrapuntal 
relations between images and 
sounds, see also his 'An 
unexpected juncture' (1928), in 
Taylor (ed.). Selected Works, 
l/o/ume/, pp. 115-22. 

6 James Donald, 'From silence to 
sound' in James Donald, Anne 
Friedberg and Laura Marcus (eds). 
Close Up: 1927-1933: Cinema 
and Modernism (London: Cassell, 
1998), pp. 79-82. See also North, 
'International media, international 
modernism, and the struggle with 
sound', in Murphet and Rainford 
(eds). Literature and Visual 
Technologies, pp. 53-63. 

7 Rudolf Arnheim, 'Sound film by 
force' (1931), in Film Essays and 
Criticism, trans. Brenda Benthien 
(Madison, Wl: University of 
Wisconsin Press, 1997), p. 42. 

8 Bela Balazs, Theory of the Film: 
Character and Growth of a New 
Art. trans. Edith Bone (London: 
Dennis Dobson, 1952); see 
particularly Chapter 16, 'Sound'. 

yet capable of competing with the USA (and Germany) in this area of 
film production. In other words, without the technological resources to 
protect the sound film from itself - so to speak - the cinema was in 
danger of regressing into the facile dramatic genres and theatrical forms 
of its infancy. For Eisenstein, the true destiny of the cinema as a popular 
art form lay in the development of dialectical montage techniques and 
not in pandering to Holl 5 rwood’s intellectually inert preference for ‘high 
cultural dramas’ and filmed dialogue. The Soviet attitude to sound at this 
time was strongly supported by the editors of Close Up, the Geneva- 
based film journal that published an English-language version of ‘The 
sound film: a statement from the USSR’, co-authored by Eisenstein, 
Pudovkin and Alexandrov.® Although never simply or unanimously 
‘anti-sound’, the contributors to Close Up did develop a fairly coherent 
set of arguments in favour of silence during its short lifetime (1927-33). 
Like Eisenstein, figures such as Bryer (Winifred Ellerman), Ernst Betts 
and Dorothy Richardson also argued that synchronized speech 
jeopardized the internationalism of cinema, and undermined the 
nurturing of a culturally heterogeneous and artistically inventive (world) 
film culture.® 

While other critics of sound during this period were less concerned 
with the nationalistic implications of its emergence, no one 
underestimated the aesthetic consequences of synchronous sound for an 
art form that was still struggling to secure broad intellectual credibility. 
Rudolf Amheim, for example, argued that sound, like colour and 
alternative aspect ratios, undermined the artistic specificity of film - 
destroying the ‘wondrously fragile’ equilibrium between representation 
and distortion that was unique to this medium: ‘the silent film, precisely 
because of its silence, was forced to be delightful’.’ Bela Balazs was also 
concerned with the ways in which sound seemed to emasculate the 
essential qualities and artistic specificity of film art. ® While Balazs - like 
Amheim and Close Up ’s Kenneth Macpherson - modified his general 
opposition to sound, his theory of ‘sound-montage’ did explicitly identify 
an expressive role for silence within the aesthetic stmctures of the sound 
film. Of all the arguments and anxieties that were generated by the 
coming of sound, Balazs’ s defence of silence remains the most 
constractive and suggestive. 

The concept of ‘visibility’ was always integral to Balazs’s argument 
that the cinema, particularly in its use of the closeup and montage, made 
the world newly visible. In his attempt to formulate a cogent aesthetics of 
the new art of film, Balazs asserted that one of the unique qualities of 
cinema was the way in which it - for the first time - made sound visible 
through silence. Silent cinema attenuated the visibility of the speech act 
because it represented speech as a purely visible phenomenon. In the 
silent film, the audience observed images of sound that were so strong, so 
convincing, that they forgot to remember that they were not hearing the 
sound of speech. The appreciation of sound was thus enhanced not 
simply by silence but by the secret revelation of the sources of sound, a 

397 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

9 Balazs, Theory of the Film, p. 206. 

10 Ibid. 

11 Ibid. 

12 Ibid., p. 207. 

13 Ibid. 

revelation that was, according to Balazs, so powerful that it eliminated 
our need to hear and our desire to experience a synchronous relationship 
between a sound and its source. Throughout the 1920s, as sound 
technology became more sophisticated and synchronized sound more 
common, Balazs continued to argue that ‘the visibility of sound’ was 
fundamental to the uniqueness of cinema as an art form. However, Balazs 
also realized that sound, if liberated from the demands of narrative 
realism, could more readily contribute to the development of innovative 
cinematic techniques - new degrees of visibility - and, by the late 
1920s, he had begun to theorize systematically on the nature and 
expressiveness of filmic silence within the sound film. 

Broadly speaking, Balazs’s later comments on silence fall into three 
categories: its acoustic qualities, its ostensible presence in the silent film, 
and its dramatic potential in the sound film. For Balazs, silence is an 
acoustic effect that cannot be perceived by means of ‘hearing nothing’. 
Silence only occurs amidst sounds; it is a product of noise rather than a 
non-sonic phenomenon: ‘Silence is when the buzzing of a fly on the 
window-pane fills the whole room with sound and the ticking of a clock 
smashes time into fragments with sledge-hammer blows’.^ At one level, 
silence might then be said to have many functions but only one form, and 
it is at this undifferentiated level that silent film attempted to utilize 
silence. However, according to Balazs, the silent film could never 
reproduce silence: ‘for its silence was not mute; it was given a voice in 
the background music, the landscapes and men and the objects 
surrounding them were shown on the screen against this musical 
background’.’” Similarly, theatrical silence (‘a theatrical cessation of the 
dialogue’ ) merely imitates silence, or rather de-limits its expressive 
possibilities. Theatrical silence cannot resonate beyond a moment in the 
articulation of speech, or beyond the confines of stage space. This is not 
silence because ‘the experience of silence is essentially a space 
experience’,” it is merely part of the grammar of stage sound: ‘[on the 
stage,] the effect of silence can never be drawn out or made to last’.’^ The 
sound film, then, is the only art form capable of reproducing silence. Not 
only can sound create the dimensions of depth and duration required to 
make silence truly silent, but it can also invoke silence to transform the 
expressive power of the moving image itself: ‘A silent glance can speak 
volumes; its soundlessness makes it more expressive because the facial 
movements of a silent figure may explain the reason for the silence, make 
us feel its weight, its menace, its tension . . . [in] the film, silence does not 
halt action even for an instant and such silent action gives even silence a 
living face’.’” 

It can seem a short step from Balazs’s assessment of the acoustic, 
historical and dramaturgical character of filmic silence to the conclusion 
that these arguments promote a cinematic experience uncannily close to 
the phenomenological realism advocated by Bazin. However, if Balazs’s 
formalist cast of mind seems compromised by his fascination with 
revelations from the incidental and the natural - not to mention the 

398 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

14 Noel Carroll, 'Lang, Pabst and 
sound', in Interpreting the Moving 
Image (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1998), p. 93. 

15 See Peter Wollen, 'Viking 
Eggeling’, in Paris Hollywood: 
Writings on Film (London: Verso, 
2002), pp. 39-54. 

assured lyricism of his prose - he himself saw no contradiction between 
an aesthetic sensibility and a materialist commitment to ‘a theory of the 
film’ that seeks to keep ‘reality’ at odds with the truth. Balazs’s position 
on silence reminds us of the contradictions that characterize his writings 
on film; yet, it is these contradictions that often redeem his insights (and 
prose) from the descriptivist excesses of ordinary formalism. Balazs 
understood the necessity of an experimental approach to sound montage, 
and he was convinced that this was the only creative practice capable of 
giving silence ‘a living face’. In this sense, he was the first major theorist 
to recognize that the coming of sound was also the coming of silence. 

The diversity of positions that emerged - particularly within the 
formalist resistance to synehronous sound - is worth bearing in mind 
when considering the use of sound with silence in films produced at the 
dawning of the so-called ‘sound era’. In all the turmoil that the advent of 
synchronized sound occasioned, it is easy to overlook the formal 
innovations of more mainstream directors in harnessing the dramatic 
potential of asynchronous sound-montage. In this regard, many ‘silent 
sound’ films of this period exemplify a response to developments in 
sound technology that augment, rather than impair, the aesthetic 
achievements of early cinema. A canon of such films would include: 
Blackmail (Alfred Hitehcock, British International, 1929), Enthusiasm 
(Dziga Vertov, VUFKU, 1930), A Nous la liberte (Rene Clair, Tobis, 
1931), M (Fritz Lang, Nero-Film, 1931), Das Testament der Dr Mabuse 
(Fritz Lang, Nero-Film, 1932), and Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, UFA, 1932). 
Aceording to Noel Carroll, what is realized in these films is derived ‘from 
a penchant for asynchronous sound based on a paradigm of montage 
juxtaposition as a means to manipulate, to interpret, and to reconstitute 
pro-filmic events’.’'' However, it may be the case that this ‘penchant for 
asynchronous sound’ was also derived from the fact that, throughout the 
1920s and early 1930s, the relationship between commercial filmmakers 
and avant-garde artists and theoreticians (particularly in Germany and 
France) was more intimate than ever before (or since). Arguably, the 
modernist dream of a cinema shaped by a productive symbiosis between 
film and the other arts (painting, music, architecture, theatre, poetry, and 
so on) was itself a casualty of the ‘sound era’ and its fetishization of 
sound-image synchronicity. 

Films such as Das Testament der Dr Mabuse or Vampyr certainly 
share expressionistic motifs and themes, but their ‘silent sound’ aesthetic 
owes something in spirit, if not in substance, to the Bauhaus experiments 
of this period (for example, Kandinsky’s ‘colour music’ and Moholy- 
Nagy’s work on the geometric construction of silence), and to the work 
of graphic filmmakers such as Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Viking 
Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger who, throughout the 1920s, attempted to 
extend into film their experiments with sound painting, tone colour, 
rh 5 fihmical imagery and aural animation.’® Such associations recall 
Dadaism and Futurism (which directly influenced Vertov’s early writings 
and experiments with sound), with its eonception of ‘a radio of silence’ 

399 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

16 Eric Freedman, The sounds of 
silence: Benjamin Fondane and 
the cinema', Screen, vol. 39, no. 3 
(1998), p. 168. 

17 Michel Chion, The Voice in 
Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman 
(New York, NY: Columbia 
University Press, 1999), p. 11. 

(an aspiration that was partially realized by Orson Welles in the silences 
that remain the most disturbing and memorable feature of his famous 
War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Carroll also mentions Luis 
Bunuel’s Surrealist masterpiece, L ’Age 'Or (1930), a ‘silent sound’ film 
that belongs alongside the work of Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Rene Clair 
and Benjamin Fondane: 

The wish of the silent film was to a large extent catastrophic: to 
suppress all speech and all logic which underpins speech and all 
conception of man which logic underpins. . . . All that cinema wanted 
was for the audience to lose its balance.’® 

Furthermore, directors like Hitchcock and Lang were keenly aware of 
cinematic developments within the avant gardes, and they were often 
eager to explore the implications of these practices for their own 
filmmaking ventures. Sequences in Hitchcock’s The Lodger 
(Gainsborough, 1926), for example, are strongly influenced by prewar 
French Surrealist and Dadaist film, while his desire to involve Len Lye in 
the production of an animated sequence for Secret Agent (Gaumont/ 
Rank, 1936) and his collaboration with Dali on Spellbound (Selznick IP, 
1945) testify to an enduring enthusiasm for avant-garde forms and 
approaches. Similarly, Lang’s collaborations with Ruttmann on Part One 
of Die Nibelungen (1924), and with Fischinger on Die Frau im Mond! 
Woman in the Moon (1929) - Lang’s last silent film - suggest that the 
development of an experimental (that is, non-realistic) use of sound and 
silence created new abstract possibilities for all filmmakers of this period. 

Situating such ‘silent sound’ films within the wider context of the 
European avant gardes also raises questions that challenge conventional 
treatments of the historical and aesthetic relationship between ‘silent’ 
and ‘sound’ cinema, and the place of silence within that relationship. The 
arrival of synchronized sound did not just herald the demise of the silent 
film; it obliterated an invaluable, if fragile, vision of cinema as an art 
form. With sound, a cinema that could derive its aesthetic specificity 
from the visual arts and music, a cinema of images, and images of 
images, was supplanted by a cinema of plots and protagonists, second- 
hand theatricality and filmed dialogue. The invention of sound, so 
orthodox film history asserts, was a definitive moment in the 
development of film language, and yet the construction of this definitive 
‘moment’ (or ‘moments’ - 1895? 1905? 1927?) is itself contingent upon 
a teleology that has - amongst other things - culminated in the equation 
of silence with absence and nothingness. As Michel Chion has remarked: 
‘Although all histories of cinema allude to [the] plethora of experiments 
[between 1895 and 1927] to one extent or another, they don’t challenge 
the neat division of film history into a silent period and a sound period’.” 
In short, this ‘neat division’ can conceal the extent to which the coming 
of sound chronically debilitated the cinema’s capacity to experiment, and 
interact, with other visual arts. Instead of advancing, the cinema 
regressed, increasingly transforming itself into a base storytelling and 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

18 Chion, The Voice in Cinema, 

p. 221. 

19 Ibid., pp. 8-9. 

20 Ibid., p. 95. 

slavishly commercial cultural venture. However, even in the midst of this 
seemingly terminal decline into synchronicity, continuity and filmic 
banality, some directors have still been able to find in silence a space for 
reconciling the cinema’s present with its true past. 

In The Voice in Cinema, Chion challenges the ‘neat division’ approach 
to film history by examining the ways in which the ‘deafness’ of early 
cinema continues to exist in the sound film’s mise-en-scene, in its 
renderings of cinematic ‘muteness’ and in its presentation of the curious 
intercourse between bodiless voices and voiceless bodies. It is hardly 
coincidental, therefore, that Lang’s Das Testament der Dr Mabuse and 
Hitchcock’s Psycho (Universal, 1960) figure prominently in Chion’s 
treatment of the disembodied voice. Central to Chion’s analysis of the 
relationship between voice and image in audiovisual perception is the 
concept of the acousmetre: ‘a kind of voice -character specific to cinema 
that in most instances of cinematic narratives derives mysterious powers 
from being heard and not seen’.’® In addition to generating suspense and/ 
or signifying insanity or the presence of the supernatural, the acousmetre 
can also function (a la Balazs) to make silence a visible subject within the 
sound film. Although the unseen voice and the silent character should not 
be confused with the character in the silent film, they still inhabit a 
profilmic environment that registers the absence of sound: ‘So it’s not so 
much the absence of voices that the talking film came to disrupt, as the 
spectator’s freedom to imagine them in their own’. If ‘[voices] in silent 
film, because they are implied, are dreamed voices’ then the acousmetre 
‘allows us [again] to dream the voices - in fact, to dream period' 

The acousmatic dimension, in a film such as Das Testament der 
Dr Mabuse or Psycho (or, according to Chion, The Invisible Man [James 
Whale, Universal, 1933], Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse / Thousand 
Eyes of Dr Mabuse [Fritz Lang, CCI/Aristo, 1960], The Wizard of Oz 
[Victor Fleming, MGM, 1939], and so on), disrupts the illusion of 
audiovisual synchronicity, and redeems the essential ambiguity of the 
voice in ‘silent’ film. The persistence of silence through the concealment 
of a sonic source is an attractive notion. However, keeping the 
acousmetre in the dark (so to speak) is easier said than done. For 
example, the difference between the expressive function of the 
acousmetre in Das Testament der Dr Mabuse and its deployment in films 
such as The Wizard of Oz, Dr No (Terence Young, Eon, 1963) or 2001: A 
Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, Hawk/MGM, 1968) can too readily 
seem coincidental, rather than fundamental, to this act of redemption. 
Chion’s discussion of the mute character in the sound film, on the other 
hand, offers a more productive connection between ‘sound’ and ‘silent’ 
cinema: ‘The silent ones of the sound film should bear no particular 
relation to the silent cinema, and yet. ... In the modem cinema they can 
represent, by a sort of proxy, the memory of a great Lost Secret the silent 
movies kept’.^® 

The body without a voice, like the acousmatic voice, is a source of 
both diegetic and profilmic ambiguity. The mute in the sound film is both 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

21 Ibid., p. 96 

22 Ibid., p. 100 

23 Ibid. 

24 Ibid., pp. 105-106. 

25 Ibid., p. 106 

26 Noel Burch, 'On the structural use 
of sound', in Theory of Film 
Practice, trans. Helen R. Lane 
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton 
University Press, 1981), 
pp. 99-100. 

elusive and ubiquitous, both an absence and a presence; ‘to encounter the 
mute is to encounter questions of identity, origins and desire’.^’ Chion 
briefly outlines the typical roles performed by the mute: as the ‘double’, 
‘shadow’ or conscience of the protagonist (such as ‘the Kid’ [Dickie 
Moore] in Out of the Past [Jacques Tourneur, RKO, 1947]); as the 
enunciator and agent of retribution (‘The man with no name’ [Clint 
Eastwood] in Sergio Leone’s ‘dollars trilogy’ ); as the unobtainable 
object of desire (Gitone [Max Bom] in Fellini-Satyricon [Federico 
Fellini, EPA, 1969]). Given that these dramatic roles are not necessarily 
specific to the cinema, Chion attaches an additional set of possible 
functions performed by the cinematic mute; functions that enable the 
body without a voice to ‘refer back to the origins of cinema ... [to the] 
“great secret” of silent film’.^^ 

The mute accentuates the mise-en-scene of early cinema - masking, 
exclusion, off-screen space, and so on - and foregrounds an alternative 
cinematic economy of absence and presence. Furthermore, the mute, like 
his acousmatic counterpart, emphasizes the essentially unstable nature of 
‘language, speech and the voice in the cinema’. India Song (Marguerite 
Duras, Sunchild/Films Armorial, 1975), for example, creates a space for 
silence through its montage of ‘an image track of voiceless bodies, 
mutes, moving about, and a soundtrack where disembodied voices speak 
among themselves’.^Chion also discusses Les Enfants du paradis 
(Marcel Came, Pathe, 1954) in terms of how it exposes the historic 
antagonism between silent and sound cinema as little more than a 
reproduction of the age-old antagonism between pantomime and theatre. 
Not only does Game’s film suggest ‘the abyss of mutism’ (‘which is what 
the talking film retrospectively constmcted as its silent infancy’ but - 
ultimately - it wagers on the possibility of retrieving silence: 

Les Enfants du paradis is . . . about a certain impossibility, a certain 
malediction at work in the relation between language and desire, and 
wherein the mute plays a role of revealer and of focus of projection. 
The film refers back to the myth of innocence and knowledge at the 
time of silent cinema, the guardian of the ‘great secret’. ^ 

There are some films - Les Enfants du paradis and India Song, for 
instance - that cherish this ‘great secret’, films that acknowledge the 
probability that only the innocent are entitled to a future; the rest have 
secrets and (as Das Testament der Dr Mabuse and Psycho intimate) the 
form of the secret is more meaningful than its content. 

Writing in the late 1960s, Noel Burch welcomed the fact that 
certain European directors had ‘at last begun to be aware of the 
dialectical role silence can play in relation to sound’. In particular, Burch 
commended the creative way in which ‘these film-makers’ were 
separating ‘the “colours” of silence (a complete dead space on the sound 
track, studio silence, silence in the country, and so forth), [and were 
glimpsing] some of the structural roles such silences can play’.^® 

Burch refers only to Jean-Luc Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

27 For some analysis of silence in 
Fellini, see Christina Degli-Esposti, 
'Voicing the silence in Federico 
Fellini’s La voce della tuna', 
Cinema Journal, vol. 33, no. 2 
(1994), pp. 42-53. A discussion of 
the relationship between sound 
and silence in Tati can be found in 
John Fawell's 'Sound and silence, 
image and invisibility in Jacques 
Tati’s Mon Oncle', Film Quarterly, 
vol. 43, no. 1 (1990), pp. 221-9. 

d’elle/Two or Three Things that I Know About Her (Anoucka/ Argos, 

1 967), but his comment (and this passing reference) suggests any number 
of other valid examples: Dreyer, Bresson, Tati, Fellini, Bergman, and 
Antonioni, for instance.^^ Within the cinema of such directors, 
rediscovering the spectrum of silence assisted in the creation of new 
aesthetic modalities, new ways of configuring alienation and 
fragmentation, absence and the asynchronicities of Being. However, the 
modernism of these directors does not reside in their supposed reaction 
against an intellectually impoverished (and politically insidious) cinema 
of narrative realism. If they articulate an argument, it is one that chiefly 
relates to the cinema and to a vision of the cinema that treasures its ‘great 
secret’. Films such as La notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, Nepi, 1961), 
The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, Svensk, 1963), Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 
Palladium, 1964) and Vivre sa vie j My Life to Live (Jean-Luc Godard, 
Pleiade, 1962), for example, encounter politics (in the widest sense) 
through aesthetics. These are Aims that rejuvenate the dream of a cinema 
of synthesis rather than one of antithesis: what they are for matters more 
than what they are against. At the heart of this ‘project’ then was a quest 
for the lost future of the cinema, a quest that combined an authentic 
appreciation of the achievements of early (and avant-garde) filmmaking 
with a spirit of intellectual generosity that could, amongst other things, 
rediscover a future for the cinema. 

In La notte, Antonioni creates a soundscape in which the relationship 
between a noise and its source is approximate rather than exact. In such 
an environment, the dissonance between things and the sounds that they 
make begins to convey a sense of the world as a place where a universal 
silence is only ever interrupted by sounds, where even the sound of a 
footstep can never be synchronized with the image of a stepping foot. 
The boundaries between onscreen and offscreen sound confuse', the city 
and its noises (car horns, engines, sirens, a helicopter and even the sound 
of rust crumbling from the lock of a disused door) are noises that are 
already dead, already part of a past that here involves a writer who can no 
longer write, and a lover who can no longer love. Sounds are intrusive in 
La notte, profoundly inconsequential gestures that may scratch but can 
never puncture the firmament of silence that envelops the soul. The 
rituals and routines of life create a structure for communication but they 
cannot protect us, or our relationships, from being overwhelmed by the 
persistence of silence. The most significant moments in La notte are 
moments when silence itself is given ‘a living face’. Lydia (Jeanne 
Moreau) sits in a car talking and laughing with Roberto (Giorgio Negro), 
but we hear nothing other than the incessant rain; Giovanni (Marcello 
Mastroianni) listens silently to Valentina’s (Monica Vitti) recording of 
her reveries on life and solitude (‘A garden’s silence is made of sounds; 
press your ear to a tree and listen . . . ’ ), which she then erases as if to 
remind Giovanni of his own spiritual ‘muteness’, his vanity. On the golf 
course - when the party is over - Giovanni listens to Lydia as she reads 
him a love letter that he had once written to her. He can no longer 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

28 Colin MacCabe, Godard: a Portrait 
of the Artist at 70 (London: 
Bloomsbury, 2003), p. 158. 

recognize the sincerity of his own words. Giovanni has become an absent 
presence in his own life: lost, empty and silent. 

There are expressive points and counterpoints here with both Dreyer 
and Bergman. In Gertrud, for example, silence carefully textures the 
film’s lingering images of impossible dreams and disappointed desire. 
Conversations abound but they are always straining against the true 
uneventfiilness of language, merging immaculately with Dreyer’ s long 
takes and the relentless immobility of the film’s cinematography. The 
incessant naming of names, chiming of bells and ticking of clocks - the 
film’s vertiginous cacophony of repetitions and reverberations - are part 
of the great refusal that Gertrude both resists and accepts. Her final 
farewell to Axel is little more than a look and a wave - a silent gesture 
that communicates everything. Similarly, in Bergman’s The Silence, 
spoken language is as omnipresent as authentic communication is absent. 
As in Dreyer’s film, the only sound that can begin to inhabit the spaces 
created by words and their meaninglessness is music. The Silence 
portrays the disintegration of a relationship between two sisters who are 
bound by the incestuous and deeply antagonistic nature of their 
relationship. The city, and the hotel in which they are staying, resonates 
with foreign voices and alien sounds. The underlying silence of 
everything is only interrupted when Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and the elderly 
waiter find themselves listening to a radio broadcast of J.S. Bach’s 
Goldberg Variations. Suddenly, they realize that they share a common 
word, a word that breaks the spell of silence: ‘music’. This simple 
coincidence of meaning is sufficient to initiate a relationship between the 
two that parallels the erotic relationship between the younger sister, Anna 
(Gunnel Lindblom), and the young waiter who works in a bar across the 
street from the hotel. The other source of mediation between the sisters, 
the true witness to ‘the silence’ that the film depicts, is Anna’s young son, 
‘Johann’. Bergman’s cinema, like that of Antonioni, is not a silent 
cinema but it is often a cinema of silence. 

In Vivre sa vie, silence becomes an instrument of fragmentation, a base 
element that assists the processes of separation and reconciliation that are 
integral to Godard’s artistic principles and practices. Vivre sa vie opposes 
the closed and facile synchronicities of narrative cinema by reconvening 
the elemental dialogue between images, texts, gestures and voices: for 
instance, the document and the fiction, Zola and Poe, Dreyer and Renoir, 
Montaigne and Parain, Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard. As in films 
suchasRflWf^e a part /Band of Outsiders (Anoucka/Orsay, 1964) or Deux 
ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, Godard deploys silence ‘dialectically’, 
creating gaps and ellipses to texture his intricate tableau. A Brechtian 
influence is undeniable, but it should not be misunderstood. Godard’s 
interruptions utilize the ‘alienation effect’ to transcend it: ‘It is of course 
possible to understand [the] turn to Brecht in terms of politics . . . [but] it 
is probably more illuminating to think of Godard’s engagement with 
Brecht in terms of modernism’. 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

29 Takeshi Kitano, quoted in 
'Good-As-Deadfelias: Howard 
Hampton on the fiims of Takeshi 
Kitano', Artforum International, 
voi. 55, no. 8(1997), p. 72. 

Early in Vivre sa vie, Nana S. goes to the cinema with her brother. 
They watch Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Godard, 
who has already given us myriad closeup shots (‘portraits’ ) of Nana’s 
face and profile uses this cinema to dissolve the difference between Nana 
and Joan/Falconetti. There are some shuffles and a whisper (an intrusive 
‘Tu connais?’ ) as Godard’s sequence creates a meeting of silence with 
silence. Nana’s tears, like Joan’s, are the tears of knowledge. This 
remarkable sequence itself revives the ‘great secret’ of the cinema, the 
secret of images and what images secrete. In Vivre sa vie, the disruption 
of sound, like the diffusion of citations and the rich coincidence of 
connections and disconnections, liberates the cinema from the prison 
house of narrative coherence and the illusion of synchronicity. Godard’s 
cinema is a cinema of careful restoration rather than one of strident 
iconoclasm, and what it restores is nothing less that what the cinema once 
promised to itself but instead gave to others. 

In one sense, the pessimism of those early directors, performers and 
writers was justified: the aesthetic authority of the moving image has 
been supplanted by an industrially determined cinema of formulae and 
narrative facility. This cinema has, of course, produced many 
masterpieces, but not that many (and in recent decades very few indeed). 
In another sense, sound invented silence and the traces of this ‘invention’ 
can still be detected in the sound cinema: in ‘silent sound’ films of the 
early 1930s; in the spectre of the acousmetre and the gestures of the mute 
character; and in the discontinuities, ellipses and gaps created by postwar 
European modernists like Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and Dreyer. It 
continues to be very present in the abstract and ‘non-representationaT 
films of people such as Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, 
Richard Serra, Stan Brakage and Nathaniel Dorsky, who have continued 
to manipulate silence in the pursuit of ‘visual music’, that is, releasing the 
music within the image itself, or ‘capturing’ the sound of light. In the 
documentary films of Chris Marker, Raymond Depardon, Johan van der 
Keuken and Errol Morris, an aesthetics of silence is often necessary for 
the articulation of fragility, uncertainty and despair. Indeed, it is also 
possible to apprehend the sound of silence in the work of other more 
contemporary figures, such as John Cassavetes, Andrei Tarkovski, Theo 
Angelopolous, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Takeshi Kitano: ‘For 
me, film is essentially silent’.^® In truth, the ‘great secret’ of the cinema 
has not been lost, it has merely been scattered elsewhere and there will 
always be filmmakers willing to put their trust in what a moment of 
silence can deny, displace or disavow. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Des O'Rawe • The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 

47:4 Winter 2006 

issue editor 

John Caughie 

cover illustration 

Dream person scene in Chungking 
Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994) 


DES o’rawe: The great secret: silence, cinema and modernism 395 

BRIAN Hu: The KTV aesthetic: popular music culture and contemporary 
Hong Kong cinema 407 

ADAM GALL AND FIONA PROB YN-RAPSEY : Ivan Sen and the art of the 
road 425 

British cinema institutions dossier 


CHRiSTOPHE dupin: The postwar transformation of the British Film 
Institute and its impact on the development of a national film culture in 
Britain 443 

GEOFEREY NO WELL-SMITH : The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its 
aftermath 453 

PETER THOMAS: The struggle for funding: sponsorship, competition and 
pacification 461 

JULIA knight: Agency vs archive: London Film-Makers’ Co-op and 
LVA vs Film and Video Umbrella 469 


IAN GARWOOD: Annette Davison, Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood 
Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s; K. J. Donnelly, 
The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television; Carol Vemallis, 
Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context 477 

EWAN KIRKLAND: Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch (eds). 

Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions 483 

JOHN mundy: Andrew Moor, Powell and Pressburger: a Cinema of 
Magic Spaces; Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, Michael Powell: 
International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker; Sarah Street, 
Black Narcissus; Mark Connelly, The Red Shoes 489 

Correction: In Screen, vol. 47, no. 1 (2006), we referred to Michael Renov’s 
book The Subject of Documentary (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) as 
The Subject in Documentary. We apologise for this error. 

The KTV aesthetic: popular music 
culture and contemporary 
Hong Kong cinema 


1 David Bordwell, Planet Hong 
Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art 
of EntertainmentiCambudge, MA: 
Harvard University Press, 2000). 

2 Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture 
and the Politics of Disappearance 
(Minneapolis, MN; University of 
Minnesota Press, 1997). 

Serious discourse on Hong Kong cinema both in the West and in Chinese 
academic circles developed through two major approaches. The first, of 
which David BordwelTs approach is characteristic,’ valorizes Hong 
Kong film as an alternative art cinema. This claim considers the films and 
genres of Hong Kong film that are disseminated around the world and 
stresses the films’ formal sensibilities and incessantly inventive craft. 
The second approach, of which the work of Ackbar Abbas is perhaps the 
best example,^ discusses Hong Kong cinema as a product of the island’s 
postcolonial situation, and the ways in which, culturally and politically, 
the 1 997 handover to China affects its inhabitants and manifests itself in 
local film aesthetics. 

In this paper, rather than proposing a third approach, I want to draw 
attention to issues which are absent in both these approaches, in 
particular, the issues of stardom and of popular music and culture. These 
are key issues whose absence seems to me to be remarkable given their 
centrality to the reception of Hong Kong cinema at the local level. In my 
discussion, therefore, I will draw first on theories of popular music in 
film. Then, using Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) as an 
example, 1 will argue that, since the familiarity of popular songs and 
popular singers does not magically disappear when filmgoers enter the 
movie theatre, we must consider the ways in which audiences ‘use’ such 
songs in other media - radio, television, fan magazines - in order to 
understand how they function in the medium of cinema. This is 
particularly the case in a cinema in which popular singers commonly 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 

3 Kathryn Kalinak, Settling the 
Score: Music and the Classical 
Hollywood Film (Madison, Wl: 
University of Wisconsin Press, 
1992), pp. 186-7. 

4 Robert Lack, Twenty Four Frames 
Under: a Buried History of Film 
Music (London: Quartet Books, 
1997), pp. 207-23. 

5 Claudia Gorbman, Unheard 
Melodies: Narrative Film Music 
(London: British Film Institute, 

6 Gorbman, Unheard Melodies. 
p. 163. 

double as actors, and in which the latest hits of the singer/actor are as 
eagerly anticipated as any action sequence or plot turn. In this way, I 
hope not only to correct the over-generalized appropriation of the 
category ‘Hong Kong cinema’, but also to introduce a new strategy of 
textual analysis into its study, a strategy of special importance now that 
the field is developing beyond the generality to consider issues such as 
genre, industry and transnationalism. 

Traditionally, film music theorists have had difficulty placing popular 
songs within their theoretical frameworks, often relegating the 
phenomenon to brief mentions in the closing chapters of books on film 
music. For example, in her study of Holl 5 rwood music, Kathryn Kalinak 
includes a two-page mention of the pop song phenomenon, claiming 
that while ‘the pop score initially challenged the classical model as a 
radical alternative’, it ultimately ‘continues to function structurally 
within the classical framework’.^ In discussing the differences between 
pop scores and classical scores, Kalinak focuses on what pop scores 
cannot do that classical scores can (for example, they cannot maintain 
structural principles or directly illustrate narrative content), which leads 
her to incorporate pop scores as a weak subset of the classical 
Hollywood score rather than to consider the features of pop scores that 
define them as a quite different means of conveying information or 
engaging spectators. Similarly, Russell Lack organizes his 368-page 
book into major concepts in film music of the sound and silent eras, 
followed by notable exceptions that do not seem to fit into his larger 
argument. The exceptions include twenty-five pages on the pop music 
phenomenon, mostly in economic rather than filmic terms. ^ Even 
Claudia Gorbman in her seminal study of film music. Unheard 
Melodies: Narrative Film MusicF saves the pop music phenomenon for 
a brief afterword, although to her credit Gorbman makes no attempt to 
integrate pop music into her greater thesis, only to note that the 
phenomenon poses new questions that would require a reworking of the 
standard assumptions of film music theory. The final paragraph of her 
book reads: 

Have listening habits and responses changed in response to 
commercial interests? Has it become ‘normal’ to listen to a rock song 
with lyrics at the same time as we follow a story? A semiotic 
phenomenology of the evolving relations between music and image, 
and, overall, of changes in the ‘diegetic effect’ or disposition of 
representation, needs to emerge. No less essential is an understanding 
of music’s place in the changing relations among the recording 
industry, TV and video, and film. Music belongs to a number of 
systems, an economy of desire. What is being marketed, to whom, 
and how successfully? How does the market alter pleasure and 

I want to pick up where Gorbman leaves off to answer her question about 
how audiences are responding to the emergence of pop music in film, and 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

7 Jeff Smith, The Sounds of 
Commerce: Marketing Popular 
Film Music (New York, NY: 
Columbia University Press, 1998), 
p. 25. 

8 Smith, The Sounds of Commerce. 
p. 79. 

9 Gorbman's and Kalinak's work is 
primarily concerned with classical 
(non-popular) scores. Some good 
examples of rigorous textual 
analyses of popular songs in film 
are; Ian Garwood, 'Must you 
remember this? Orchestrating the 
"standard" pop song in Sleepless 
In Seattle', Screen, vol. 41, no. 3 
(2000), pp. 282-98; and Jim 
Mealy, 'All this is for us: the songs 
in Thelma and Louise', Journal of 
Popular Culture, vol. 29, no. 3 
(1995), pp. 103-19. 

how exactly their perception of pop music in film is related to their 
consumption of pop music in other media such as recorded music and 
television. A study of audiences and pop music in film would then 
necessarily include contextual considerations such as the economic 
imperatives of record labels and film studios, the consumption patterns 
and tastes of the kinds of audiences that watch films with pop songs, and 
the social and political environment for film/music production, 
exhibition and consumption. What Gorbman understands, and what I 
want to explore, is the fact that the perception of popular songs in film 
cannot be divorced from their life outside of the cinema because, unlike 
the ‘classical’ film score, pop songs already signify so much to the 
audiences who consume them in their everyday lives. Kalinak’s claim 
that popular song scores still function in a classical narrative mode may 
be partly correct, but is far from sufficient; instead, an analysis of the 
function of the pop score must account for the ways film audiences create 
meaning (for example narrative meaning), bringing into consideration 
the ways in which they ‘use’ songs in their everyday audiovisual media 

There have been some recent approaches to pop songs in film that 
have already begun to answer Gorbman’s question. Among them, the 
most useful to my discussion of Hong Kong cinema is the study of 
movie studio/record industry synergy. Early in his book The Sounds 
of Commerce, Jeff Smith writes, ‘We must first situate film music 
more generally within its economic, industrial, and historical 
context’.' He does exactly that, drawing from trade magazines such 
as Variety and Billboard in conjunction with previous studies of pop 
music to historicize the relationship between Hollywood and the 
recording industry, from the use of soundtracks as marketing tools to 
the effects on pop song selection as a result of media 
conglomeration. He then takes case studies of films such as Breakfast 
at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) and Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 
1964) to explore in depth how the economic, industrial and historical 
contexts affect film production and reception. 

Most interesting about Smith’s approach, and what I attempt to 
expand in this paper, is that he does not describe the economic, 
industrial and historical context as an end in itself; instead, the lessons 
derived from an investigation of these contextual factors are used as the 
conditions for a more nuanced textual analysis. For example, Smith 
writes that Henry Mancini’s economic imperative to deliver a hit 
soundtrack album for Breakfast at Tiffany ’s encouraged the composer to 
write one or two main themes (developed out of the chart-topping hit 
Moon River) and to punctuate the film’s score with several light swing 
or Latin jazz numbers that may not have any narrative or structural 
value, but give the film, and especially the soundtrack album, a ‘better 
value’.® Smith then proceeds to examine how each of these elements is 
used throughout the film. This approach combines the rigour of Kalinak 
and Gorbman’s textual analyses® with studies of pop music in film that 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KW aesthetic 

10 For example see Lack, Twenty 
Four Frames Under and John 
Mundy, Popular Music on Screen: 
From Hollywood Musical to Music 
Video (Manchester: Manchester 
University Press, 1999). 

11 Examples include David Bowie, 
Sting, Prince, Bruce Willis, Eddie 
Murphy and Mick dagger in the 
1970s and 1980s, and Madonna, 
Mariah Carey, Tupac Shakur, 
Jennifer Lopez and Whitney 
Houston in the 1990s and 2000s. 
When these rare crossovers occur, 
it is a major media event and the 
question of acting and singing 
talent is the most discussed topic. 

12 This is why Peter Chan's 2005 film 
Perhaps Love was dubbed Hong 
Kong's 'first' musical in decades. 
For an example, see 'Ruguo ai; 
gewu chuanqi aiqing' [Perhaps 
Love: music and dance, strung 
together with love']. People Daily 
1 December 2005, URL: http:// 
world. / 
3922560.html [4 August 2006]. 

13 Yingchi Chu, Hong Kong Cinema: 
Coloniser. Motherland and Self 
(London: Routledge, 2003), p. 56. 

concentrate on the issue from an economic perspective.’” In this paper, I 
want to apply this integrated approach to an understanding of 
contemporary Hong Kong films that use pop music in very different 
ways from those of classic Holl 5 rwood. Like Smith, I will consider not 
only the economic factors that determine the supply of pop music film, 
but also the demand-side factors such as how audiences comprehend 
and desire pop songs based on how they use these songs in their 
everyday lives: on television, in concerts, or in karaoke boxes. I will 
begin with the industrial conditions from which popular music in Hong 
Kong film emerges. 

As is the custom in Chinese cinemas ranging back to 1930s Shanghai, 
there is an unwritten ‘no song, no movie’ rule in popular Hong Kong 
cinema which persists today. As was the case with such classic Shanghai 
and Hong Kong stars as Zhou Xuan and Grace Chang, actors today thrive 
in a star system linked symbiotically with the recording industry. The 
most popular stars are often also the most played artists on the radio, and 
it is common for a popular singer to move into acting (dramatic ability is 
secondary), or an actor to become a singer. The fluidity of personnel 
between media is accepted, and even encouraged, by the media. (This is 
not the case in Hollywood, where a crossover artist is approached with 
scepticism,” or in Bollywood, where actors dance but their songs are 
almost always overdubbed by playback singers who are then the ones 
who become concert and album stars.) The ‘musical’ as a distinct genre 
in Hong Kong is less pronounced;’^ because so many actors are also 
singers, the ‘no song, no movie’ rule cuts across generic boundaries. This 
is most apparent in romances and comedies, but even a heroic bloodshed 
thriller like John Woo’s The Killer (1989) has a theme song sung by Sally 
Yeh, the film’s female lead, used heavily throughout the film to comment 
on the plot, to reveal Yeh’s character, and to locate the film within the 
various ‘taste constituencies’ of Hong Kong’s pop culture. Another 
example is the Tsui Hark-produced The Swordsman (1990), which 
features lead actor Sam Hui’s theme song Hero of Heroes, a song which 
- along with the film - became such a hit in Hong Kong that it was 
parodied in the film’s sequel, Swordsman II (1992). 

In the late 1990s, Hong Kong’s handover to mainland China weakened 
the film industry as many popular stars and directors left the colony for 
Hollywood. At the same time, accelerated globalization resulted in a 
rapid influx of American and other foreign Aims. Golden Harvest, 
perhaps the most dominant film production studio in Hong Kong during 
the 1980s, shifted its emphasis to the distribution of Hollywood films 
during the 1990s.’” Setting aside their reluctance to replicate the 
industrial structure of Hollywood, studios in the late 1990s and early 
2000s began to adopt Holl 5 rwood modes of financing to keep the 
dwindling industry afloat. ‘Hollywoodizing Hong Kong cinema is 
regarded by the industry as the most promising way of rescuing the 
shrinking domestic market’, writes Yingchi Chu. Chu singles out some 
effective and transferable strategies of the Hollywood system: the 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

14 Chu, Hong Kong Cinema, p. 126. 

seeking of funding from banks, the approval of scripts before shooting, a 
reliance on early publicity and cross-media promotions, and the use of 
cutting-edge special effects. 

As a result, studios in this period slowly began to rely on soundtrack 
albums and music videos to promote films. Soundtracks had never been a 
big part of the Hong Kong film industry, and although they are currently 
becoming more popular, they are still reserved for certain special cases 
where they seem particularly marketable. It is customary for recording 
artists in Hong Kong and Taiwan to release one or two albums per year 
and also to star in a similar number of films per year; so it is likely that a 
new film (and its associated theme songs) will coincide with the release 
of a new album. This tends to make a soundtrack album at least 
redundant, and potentially confusing to the market. An exception which 
demonstrates the rule is superstar actor/singer Tony Leung Chiu-wai, 
who recently starred in the films My Lucky Star (Vincent Kok, 2003), 
Infernal Affairs III (Wai Keung Lan and Siu Fai Mak, 2003) and Sound of 
Colors (Joe Ma, 2003). In this instance, since he had not released a music 
album since 2002, soundtrack albums were released to make up for his 
recording lag. 

It has been a feature of the recent trend towards ‘Hollywoodizing’ the 
Hong Kong film industry that studios have been more aggressive in the 
production of soundtrack albums as part of the marketing and profit 
maximization of their films. In 2003, the Hollywood studio, Warner 
Brothers, released its first Asian-language production, Turn Left, Turn 
Right (2003), and pitched a pop music campaign in the Hollywood mode. 
Before the film’s release, the film studio wooed Warner Asia recording 
artists Sun Yanzi and Gigi Leung to record tracks for the soundtrack. 
They then released the music videos, complete with clips from the film, a 
month before the film appeared in the theatres. In this way, they 
simultaneously publicized the film. Sun and Leung’s records, and the 
soundtrack for the film, and at the same time multiplied the revenue 
streams. The strategy was successful: both the film and the soundtrack 
shot to the top of their respective charts and the songs were nominated for 
Hong Kong Film Awards. Given the success of this marketing ploy, as 
well as the desire by local filmmakers to learn from Hollywood 
production strategies, it is likely that the trend towards soundtracks and 
music videos will dominate the future of the relationship between the two 

However, music videos and soundtrack albums are only two routes by 
which audiences encounter film-related pop songs outside of the films 
themselves. Other media such as karaoke. Karaoke TV (KTV) culture, 
fan magazines, concertgoing and popular music encourage audiences to 
bring the different worlds of popular songs into the film experience. I will 
now turn to the ways in which this characterizes the new interactions 
between film studios and record labels, and the ways in which filmmakers 
in Hong Kong are responding to these shifting economic relationships. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

15 Richard Corliss, 'That old feeling: 
Hong Kong horrorsl' Time Online 
Edition, 13 November 2002; URL; 

0,9565, 388906, OO.html [4 August 

It may be helpful to begin by clarifying what I understand by ‘the 
audience’. Not all Hong Kong audiences watch the same kinds of 
movies, nor do they all listen to the same (or any) popular music. It is, 
however, clear from recent film and record marketing strategies, and 
from the popularity of crossover superstars, that there is a large, 
identifiable segment of the filmgoing population which consumes both 
popular film and music, and which may serve as a ‘target market’. This 
mainstream audience is held together not only by two symbiotic 
industries but also by popular media such as print culture and television 
entertainment news, all of which create a culture of gossip and news 
around multimedia superstars and celebrities. As in Hollywood, ‘stars’, 
and the discourse which surrounds their celebrity, are primary sources for 
‘infotainment’, and hence for marketing. In Hong Kong, specifically, the 
star bridges two industries, and thus his or her image has dual dimensions 
when deployed on talk shows, billboards and magazines. Thus, when a 
star like Sammi Cheng appears on talk shows, she is not sometimes a 
singer and sometimes an actress depending on her latest project, but 
simultaneously both, drawing her celebrity from both media. She is 
expected to play off her tough, screwball image from movies even as she 
sings a song from her latest album. The consumers of these images in 
Hong Kong tend to be a particular demographic group which is ‘in-the- 
know’ when it comes to celebrity romances, popular biographies of 
current stars, and the latest music and movie releases. Gossip and 
infotainment culture, epitomized by tabloids like Apple Daily, Oriental 
Daily News, and the now defunct EastWeek Magazine, is widespread in 
Hong Kong, far eclipsing attempts by film criticism in mainstream 
journalism to ‘refine’ consumption. American Time Magazine columnist 
Richard Corliss writes: 

The Hong Kong showbiz scene has an appetite for sensation. The tiny 
Special Administration Region is crawling with movie stars and pop 
idols who are paid to be in public - presiding at boutique openings, 
promoting their CDs, shilling for breast-enhancement creams - and 
who, when they’re on their own, can step in the usual amount of 
trouble. It’s also got more gossipmongers and paparazzi per square 
inch than any place in the world, and dozens of newspapers, like Apple 
Daily and the Oriental Daily News, that are feverishly devoted to 
exposing the dark sides of bright people. The salacious news generated 
by this former colony makes U.S. tabloids seem lazy and reticent by 

The relative absence of any counter-discourse (such as film criticism) 
allows stars’ publicity to reign. The nominees of recent Hong Kong Film 
Awards are precisely the people who populate the gossip pages - Cecilia 
Cheung, Carina Lau, Karen Mok, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau and 
Aaron Kwok - all of whom are both movie and music stars. In addition, 
with the relative decline in popularity of local films in Hong Kong since 
1997, it is becoming increasingly the case that star status is no longer 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

16 Both tho film and album did 
relatively well in Hong Kong, but 
Chung's paparazzi snapshots in 
the tabloid EasyFinderi\e\N off the 
newsstands, leading vendors to 
demand more copies and initiating 
a massive and well-publicized 
outcry in the Hong Kong 
entertainment industry. Yiben 
bianli [EasyFinder], no. 761, 

23 August 2006. 

17 Michel Chion, Audio-Vision; Sound 
on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman 
(New York, NY: Columbia 
University Press, 1994). 

18 Ibid., p. 25. 

19 Ibid., p. 28. 

defined by the star’s previous films (which are losing ground in 
popularity), hut by reports of the star’s latest scandal, which is relayed 
with aggressive regularity to a public which may have lost some of its 
appetite for local movies hut not for local gossip. It is not surprising then 
that this public reacted with more enthusiasm to Gillian Chung’s recent 
tabloid revelations than to her latest film 49 Days (Lam Kin-Lung, 2006) 
or her album Around the World with Eighty Dollars (Twins, 2006).’® 

It is this large, gossip-hungry, knowledgeable segment of the 
mainstream Hong Kong population that I refer to in this article as ‘the 
audience’. It is the presence of this ‘knowing’ audience which allows the 
Hong Kong film industry to use songs to activate the culture’s cross- 
referentiality in order to define characters, to motivate narratives, and to 
engage audiences as potential or past consumers of popular music. The 
discussion which follows illustrates how this process operates within the 

In Wai Keung Lau’s film, Dance of a Dream (2001), a dance instructor 
played by superstar Andy Lau does an impromptu recreation of singer/ 
actor Leslie Cheung’s famous 2001 concert performance at which he 
sang onstage in a skirt designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. The scene is 
noteworthy for being an unintegrated musical number, as if the star is 
taking a break from the plot to do a song and dance routine for the 
audience in the cinema. However, what is the audience to make of this 
peculiar moment? Since the scene is so split from the story, are we 
watching the dance instructor singing or are we watching Andy Lau, 
Heavenly King of screen and song, delight us with a musical 
showstopper? Is the fantasy of the diegesis broken by Lau’s musical 
intermission, or was the fantasy always qualified by the two personas 

To answer these questions, I turn to Michel Chion in his classic text 
on film sound, Audio-Vision}^ Chion identifies three modes of listening: 
causal, semantic and reduced. In the case of Dance of a Dream, as well 
as those that follow, I will focus on causal listening, which Chion 
describes as ‘listening to a sound in order to gather information about 
its cause (or source )’1® For example, when we hear the sound of a 
woman’s voice, we use causal listening to determine her gender and age 
(through vocal timbre) and perhaps even her name or identity (if we 
recognize the voice). Causal listening is nearly always determined by 
the context of the sound, such as the image and other sounds. Most 
films are constructed in such a way that causal listening is facilitated 
through logical and consistent interactions between picture and sound, 
identified by Chion as the ‘audiovisual contract’.’® In a conventional 
Hollywood film, when we hear the sound of a man’s voice from the 
speakers and see a man move his lips onscreen, we attribute the sound 
to the person of the man we see on the screen, not to an ADR artist 
dubbing the voice, nor to mechanical pulses emitted from a theatre 
speaker, nor to the vibration of vocal chords. This is the audiovisual 
contract between the audience and the film which structures our 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

20 It is then perhaps not coincidental 
that Lau's character in the Infernal 
Affairs series is named Lau Kin- 
ming and his character in Johnnie 
To's Needing You . . . (2002) is 
named Andy. 

21 Rey Chow, 'Between colonizers: 
Hong Kong’s postcolonial self- 
writing in the 1990s', Diaspora: a 
Journal of Transnational Studies. 
vol. 2, no. 2 (1992), reprinted in 
Ethics After Idealism: Theory, 
Culture, Ethnicity, Reading 
(Bloomington, IN: University of 
Indiana Press, 1998), p. 161. 

22 Chow, 'Between colonizers', 

pp. 161-2. 

responses to sounds and images, and it is this contract which determines 
the ways in which we are expected to characterize and read Lau’s 
performance in Dance of a Dream. As with most actors in Hong Kong 
cinema, Lau is prone to typecasting, and Dance of a Dream is no 
exception. The beginning of the film establishes his character as 
charismatic, conceited and talented: qualities that Lau wears proudly in 
most of his films. Furthermore, his character is a dance instructor, 
reminding the audience of Lau’s other career as one of the most popular 
music acts in Hong Kong. If that were not enough, the last name of the 
character he plays is also Lau, further blurring the boundaries between 
character and star.^® Thus, from the start of the film, we already read his 
character as more than simply Lau, the dance instructor, but as an 
extension of Lau, the star. Therefore, the audiovisual contract for this 
film rules that the source of his voice - the person on the screen - 
contains a number of dimensions: it is simultaneously the character, the 
actor and the singer. So the presence of the song half-way into the film 
does not break the fantasy of the story since that fantasy had already 
included the audience’s extra-cinematic experiences of Lau from the 
very start of the film. Andy Lau, the singer, is bound into the world of 
the film and into the character which Andy Lau, the actor, plays. He is 
included in the audiovisual contract in all his dimensions in such a way 
that, when we hear Andy Lau, the actor, sing Leslie Cheung’s classic 
song Wind Continues to Blow, we are simultaneously aware of the 
charisma of Andy Lau, the singer, flaunting his musical abilities; the 
confidence of Andy Lau, the actor, impersonating Cheung, another 
singer-actor; and the conceit of the talented dance instructor, Namson 
Lau, the fictional character. These are all bundled together to create both 
person and persona on the screen in a way which is multiple but coherent. 

A result of the industry interactions between film, music, press, 
television and karaoke is an audiovisual terrain that encourages 
consumers to read textual signs by drawing connections across media. 
Rey Chow notes. 

This is a city life in which all productions - industrial, commercial, 
and economic - are dominated by another - the production of signs. 
The production of signs is at once superficial and abstract, in that it 
triggers meanings rather than concretizing them.^’ 

On the lyrics of Hong Kong rock star, Luo Dayou, Chow writes. 

As signs and codes, the lyrics are intersemiotic with other signs such as 
those of fast food, mass communication, pocket novels, videos, 
karaoke, and so forth, in the sense that all such signs share a relation to 
postcolonial city culture, a relation that is legible only in its 

Looking now at one of the most popular singer-actors in mainstream 
Hong Kong popular culture, Faye Wong, I will show various ways in 
which pop songs are structured within the film Chungking Express 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

23 Stephen Tee, Wong Kar-wai 
(London: British Film Institute, 
2005), pp. 53-4. 

24 Ibid. 

25 Yeh Yueh-yu, Gesheng Meiying: 
Gequ Xushi Yu Zhongwen 
Dianying [Phantom of the Music: 
Song Narration and Chinese- 
language Cinema] (Taipei: Yuan- 
Liou Publishing Company, 2000), 

p. 211. 

(Wong Kar-wai, 1994). This structuring depends on precisely that 
intersemioticity of Hong Kong popular culture which Chow notes, 
engaging its audience through its existing knowledge of the singer and 
her songs, and in turn promoting Wong’s latest CD release. 

Critics have been quick to notice the innovative and distinctive use of 
pop songs in Chungking Express, whose soundtrack includes music as 
eclectic as 1960s rock, 1950s R&B, reggae, Cantonese opera, Bhangra 
and Cantopop. Stephen Teo has eloquently argued that the use of songs 
from around the globe contributes to the film’s duree, or experience of 
the passing of time.^^ The film’s duree is multicultural in a way specific 
to the spatial configurations of Hong Kong, best represented by the 
Chungking Mansions in the heart of Tsimshamtsui, a space well known 
as one in which businessmen, labourers, criminals and tourists from 
around the world collide. However, Teo does not consider the local 
working of the intersemiotic meanings of each musical element, instead 
treating each foreign song as simply one flavour in a multi-ethnic soup of 
global pop, a testament to ‘Wong Kar-wai’s post-modem style’.^^ More 
precise is Yeh Yueh-yu’s observation about the kinds of sexual 
connotations associated with certain song genres: ‘The music’s hazy 
nationalities don’t simply imply an ambiguity in its meaning. Black 
music in the two sections of Chungking Express is used to connote 
criminal but joyously lurid (hetero)sexual arousal’.^® Yeh’s approach 
considers the systems of musical desire, however essentialist and 
problematic, within the spectator. She does not, however, apply this 
approach to the other songs in the film, nor does she suggest that there are 
meanings and connections made by some audiences and not others. As a 
result, she fails to consider the ways Wong uses pop songs to evoke the 
local discourses surrounding Faye Wong, the singer, as they articulate 
with and colour Faye, the character. 

Chungking Express is a definitive example of how the presence of an 
actor’s song brings fan gossip and popular knowledge into the narrative. 
The 1994 film was the first foray onto the big screen for Faye Wong, 
already established as a ‘pop goddess’, and won her the best actress 
award at the Stockholm Film Festival and a nomination at the Hong 
Kong Film Awards. As 1 have suggested, fan gossip plays an enormous 
role in the discourse of the star in Hong Kong, and as the biggest music 
star of the early 1990s, Wong was among the most scmtinized and 
publicized celebrities in the popular consciousness. Bom in Beijing, 
Wong moved to Hong Kong in 1987, and by 1989 had released her 
popular debut album under the stage name Shirley Wong. By the end of 

1990, she had three platinum albums for Cinepoly Records. Then in 

1991, according to popular legend, Wong decided to suspend her 
skyrocketing career and pack up her bags for New York City to ‘discover 
herself. She is quoted in a 1996 interview as saying: 

1 wandered around, visited museums and sat at cafes. . . . There were so 

many strange, confident-looking people. They didn’t care what other 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

26 Faye Wong, quoted in Anthony 
Speath, 'She did it her way', Time 
International, 14 October 1996. 

27 Mike Levin, 'Reluctant idol Faye 
Wong', Billboard. 20 August 1994, 
p. 52. 

28 Yeh Yueh-yu, 'A life of its own: 
musical discourses in Wong 
Kar-wai's films', Post Script. 
vol. 19, no. 1 (1999), pp. 124-6. 

people thought of them. I felt I was originally like that too, 
independent and a little rebellious. But in Hong Kong I lost myself I 
was shaped by others and became like a machine, a dress hanger. I had 
no personality and no sense of direction.^® 

After returning to Hong Kong in 1992, Wong shed her ‘Shirley’ stage 
name and became Faye Wong, releasing an album called Coming Home 
which featured the critically acclaimed hit The Woman Who Easily Gets 
Hurt, a dramatic departure from the usual love ballads of the Hong Kong 
pop industry and also from her first three albums. Wong became famous 
for criticizing publicly the formula-driven Canto-pop scene, producing 
songs her own way, choosing her own outfits, and covering songs by 
European pop /rock acts like The Cranherries and the Cocteau Twins.^^ 
Her next four albums took an edgier, more enigmatic turn, with decidedly 
non-mainstream (personal, rather than romantic) titles like No Regrets 
(1993), A Hundred Thousand Whys (1993), Mystery (1994) and Random 
Thoughts (1994). 

One month after the release of Random Thoughts, Wong starred in 
Chungking Express, which featured two songs from her album. The 
film’s borrowing from Wong’s autobiography is unavoidable. Not only 
is her character also named Faye, but she is presented as a whimsical 
dreamer who has grown weary of Hong Kong and wants to escape to 
America. Working the register at a cousin’s fast-food stand, Faye is 
depicted as an enigmatic loner. She falls in love with a policeman 
played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, but instead of getting to know him by 
conventional romantic means, she sneaks into his slummy apartment 
during his lunch break and redecorates it. In her study of Wong Kar- 
wai’s use of music, Yeh Yueh-yu argues that the Mamas and the Papas’ 
California Dreamin’ is ‘Faye’s song’ in Chungking Express because it 
discursively represents her against Dinah Washington’s What a 
Difference a Day Makes, which represents the policeman’s ex-lover. 
She argues that ‘the places in Chungking Express where “California 
Dreamin’” presides present, from a music fan’s point of view, the most 
wonderful moments in the film’.^® While I agree with Yeh that 
California Dreamin’ not only modifies Wong’s character but also 
‘transforms [the cop’s] apartment into the space of Faye’s 
daydreaming’, I would contend that California Dreamin’ does not 
represent the most pleasurable moments of the film because it does not 
observe the audiovisual contract between the film and the film’s local 
audience, an audience which is not only conscious of, but probably a 
fan of, Wong and her music. As with Lau’s character in Dance of a 
Dream, Wong is immediately configured as a composite of her 
offscreen persona; rebellious, mysterious and mischievous. Our 
relationship with the character Faye is built on our relationship with 
Wong the singer/actor, and therefore we become most enthralled by her 
character not when an American ‘oldie’ is on the soundtrack but when 
we actually hear her sing. In fact, the Mamas and the Papas’ song 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

becomes rather annoying by the third or fourth spin, but her cover of the 
Cranberries’ hit Dreams from Wong’s Random Thoughts album is 
exciting, fresh and spontaneous (much like her character) because it 
delivers the personal, distinctive Faye Wong performance her fans had 
been waiting for all along. 

Retitled into Cantonese as Moong joong yun, or Dream Person, the 
song appears in what are perhaps the two most magical moments in the 
film; a montage in the music video style of Wong replacing sandals, 
clothes and toys in Tony Leung’s room, and her return to Hong Kong, 
which ends the film and leads into the closing credits. Since Random 
Thoughts had already been released for a month, fans would have been 
familiar with its songs. With commercial savvy. Dream Person is 
limited to key scenes to prevent overexposure, yet it remains powerful 
enough to remind audiences that the hit song is currently available on 
record. The song’s presence in the earlier scene is significant because it 
starts with the instrumental introduction of the song notable for being 
identical to the original Cranberries’ version. Since every song up to 
this point has been a western song, the audience expects to hear the 
Cranberries’ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan come in on the 
soundtrack - but instead it is Wong’s voice they hear, sending a shock 
of recognition and exhilaration through the local audience. This, at last, 
is Wong’s scene. 

Wong had been Hong Kong’s most popular female singer for too 
long for her distinctive vocal declamation to escape the attention of 
the local audience. Similarly, the presence of Dream Person at the 
end of the film is appropriate because it again reconnects Faye the 
character to Wong the star. The song symbolizes a more enlightened, 
mature return to Hong Kong, reinforced by the audience’s knowledge 
of the song as part of Wong’s post-New York professional and 
personal trajectory. Thus, because popular song is such a dominant 
signifier beyond the movie theatre, its presence in the movie theatre 
inevitably summons the song’s and the singer’s histories into the 
film, folding them into the narrative. In fact, the last shot of the film 
goes back to Wong’s album. As the airy rush of the song’s opening 
appears on the soundtrack, the camera tracks down to a CD player 
before cutting to the credits, as if to remind us not only of the CD 
player in the policeman’s apartment, but also of the presence of 
Wong’s CD in record stores across East Asia. Since the audiovisual 
contract installs Faye Wong, the singer, into the local audience’s film 
experience and into the marketing of the film, it is no surprise that 
the film be asked to return the favour by publicizing her newest 

Lyrics are possibly the most distinctive feature of the use of pop 
songs in film. Because of their linguistic communicative ability they 
work in a way which is different to the traditional ‘classical’ score, 
which depends on emotional cues defined by culturally accepted 
musical grammar (cadences complete musical ideas, a lively accordion 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

denotes festivity, and so on). Like a voiceover, lyrics can narrate 
directly the inner emotions of a character onscreen; and like the 
voiceover, lyrics can never be taken too literally. They often require 
mediation by the audience to create meaning. Just as voiceover 
narration must always be taken in the context of the film (an 
unreliable narrator is characteristic of a genre such as film noir), 
lyrics must also be contextualized. However, since the context of 
popular music spans far beyond the boundaries of the cinema, we 
must include in our contextualization the ways in which the 
audience has already appropriated and understood the lyrics which 
they have experienced on record or on the radio before they came to the 

Dream Person is an interesting case because it is a new version of an 
already popular song. Covers and translations always draw suspicion 
because performers of remakes take already tested melodies instead of 
creating new ones. The suspicion draws listeners’ attention to the 
variations and changes, thus it is in the variation that the meaning of the 
cover tends to reside. While the instrumentation in Wong’s Dream 
Person is nearly identical to the original, the lyrics have been changed 
significantly, better fitting the Cantonese language as well as Wong’s 
personality and her popular image as a mysterious romantic. The lyrics to 
the Cranberries’ 1993 hit begin: 

Oh my life is changing everyday 
Every possible way 

Though my dreams, it’s never quite as it seems 
Never quite as it seems 

I know I felt like this before 
But now I’m feeling it even more 
Because it came from you 

Lead singer O’Riordan sings of a lover who appears before her like 
someone from her dreams. However, as the second stanza suggests, this 
lover surprises her because he is even better than she expected. Wong’s 
version envisions the moment contained in these two stanzas quite 

Person of my dreams, let’s embrace for a minute 

Then kiss for ten minutes 

How can a stranger walk into my heart 

And cause this ecstasy? 

It seems that you and I were once in love 
and I’ve never been so close to you 
Thoughts start becoming outrageous 

The most notable change is that, while O’Riordan’s version looks 
optimistically into the future, Wong’s version is in doubt about the 
past and looks into the future with great uncertainty. In the first stanza. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

29 Abbas, Hong Kong, p. 25. 

30 Ibid., p. 36. 

31 Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, 
pp. 278-9. 

Wong urgently desires to kiss and embrace the stranger for as long as 
possible as if his presence were about to vanish. There is an emphasis 
on time limits and an anxiety over disappearance. While O’Riordan 
‘knows she felt like this before’, Wong can only sing that she ‘seems’ 
to recall once being in love. The past is not clear, and Wong is 
restlessly in the present. We can assume that the listener to Wong’s 
version was familiar with the Cranberries’ Dreams, not only because 
Dreams was an international hit but because Wong’s cover came out 
only a year after the original. Therefore, a local listener interested in 
why Wong would cover Dreams would notice the change from blissful 
optimism to romantic anxiety as it is translated into Cantonese. When 
Wong’s version is inserted into the scene in Chungking Express in 
which she breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment, the meaning of the 
lyrics is constructed differently for a ‘knowing’ listener familiar with 
the song’s history. Through the extratexual meaning of the lyrics, the 
film is able to narrate a scene as well as convey an atmosphere of 
perpetual disappearance, an atmosphere which Abbas calls ‘dejd 
disparu’ or ‘the feeling that what is new and unique about the situation 
is always already gone, and we are left holding a handful of cliches, or 
a cluster of memories of what has never been’.^* Unlike the lyrics of 
songs in a musical, popular music lyrics in film are not expected to be 
literal because the audiovisual contract between image and popular 
song in Hong Kong films does not demand that they be so. In this way, 
popular song lyrics have a special versatility; the flexibility of the 
lyrics due to the multiple meanings that can be gleaned from the 
song’s context outside of film allows the song to draw meaning from 
more than its words and notes, but also from entire histories and 

In addition to looking at the textual characteristics of the song 
(such as lyrics), audiences also assign meaning to songs based on the 
media the songs inhabit outside of the cinema. Here is where the term 
‘MTV aesthetic’, frequently applied to Hong Kong cinema not only by 
the popular press but by scholars such as Abbas^” and Bordwell,^’ 
reveals its limitations. Traditionally the term’s deployment confines 
discussions to considerations of film style, often as a symptom of 
postmodemity, rather than focusing on how this particular style 
constructs narrative meanings and textual relations. I would argue 
that the ‘MTV aesthetic’ in film is not merely a stylistic 
characteristic but is instead a new form of engagement between film 
and audience, a relationship based on the fluidity of star and song 
discourses across media and a result of the intersemiotic nature of 
Hong Kong pop culture. To understand the engagement between 
the quick rh)dhmic editing and camera movements during a film’s use 
of pop music, we must go beyond its postmodern ‘cinema of 
attractions’ and consider the actual cultural associations of the paying 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

The moving camera follows Wong 
on her emotional {mis)adventures. 
Fig. 1 

The Dream Person scene in 
Chungking Express (Wong 
Kar-wai, 1994). 

Fig. 2 

The Music video for No Regrets 

When Wong’s Dream Person appears in the middle of Chungking 
Express, there is indeed a spectacle of sight and sound, but that 
excitement comes not only from the audial and visual stimuli but 
from the audience’s uncanny recognition of the cinematic style as 
music video. In the preceding scene, the hand-held camera is shaky 
as it captures a conversation between Faye and the policeman, but 
the shakiness is there to heighten the observational nature of the 
camera. As soon as the song begins, however, the mobile camera 
sheds its status as the observer of a scene, and begins to express the 
character’s inner world. Wong Kar-wai’s improvisatory style serves 
this dizzying tone well. There is something improvised about 
Wong’s movements, and about the movement of the camera which 
moves in and out with her, fascinated by her every move. In her 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

Faye enigmatically smiling for the 
camera in similar poses. 

Fig. 3 

The Dream Person scene in 
Chungking Express. 

Fig. 4 

The music video for Know Oneself 
and Each Other (1994). 

video for the song, No Regrets, released a year before Chungking 
Express, the camera similarly follows a lovelorn Wong down 
expressionistic corridors, capturing her internal confusion. The 
rapid editing and constant movement of the camera (what could be 
called its ‘MTV-ness’ ) represents the restlessness of her psyche as 
narrated by the lyrics. The scene in Wong Kar-wai’s film not only 
replicates the style of Wong’s music videos, but also borrows her 
image from them (figures 1 and 2). There is a shot in the 
Dream Person segment where Wong gleefully mugs for the camera 
(figure 3). This is not representative of the passive, observational 
camera from preceding scenes, but instead draws the camera into the 
fun of being Faye Wong, in the same way as she mugs in front of 
the camera in her music video (figure 4). These techniques bring a 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

Fig. 5 

Still from the Glass Slipper 
musical interlude in Marry a Rich 
Man (Vincent Kok, 2002). 

Fig. 6 

The corresponding moment in 
singer/actress Sammi Cheng's 
Glass Slipper karaoke video. 

32 Hong Kong trans-medium fluidity 
between music video and cinema 
is not a one-way flow. A year 
later, the video for Faye Wong's 
song Vacation was uncannily 
reminiscent of her apartment 
scenes in Chungking Express, 
similarly showing Wong 
wandering aimlessly from bed to 
closet to sink to refrigerator and 
back again. 

rush of recognition, allowing the audience to enlarge the frame 
of reference of the scene by relating it to its experiences of the 
star’s image from other media, in particular here, from music 

What the film’s borrowing of the audience’s music video 
experiences suggests is that this so-called ‘MTV aesthetic’ is not 
simply an ecstatic style imposed on a passive audience, but a 
particular way of engaging a cognoscenti audience, drawing on and 
drawing in its extra-cinematic cultural experience. Instead of an ‘MTV 
aesthetic’, which has become a short-hand for a kind of drugged 
audiovisual passivity, I prefer the notion of a ‘KTV aesthetic’, an 
aesthetic which draws on the interactive mode of Karaoke TV which 
allows the audience to make meaning almost as much as the text 
itself does. 

In Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Asian communities, KTV (Karaoke 
TV) is a cross between a Karaoke bar and a hotel, where patrons rent out 
rooms equipped with a television, couches and a karaoke system that 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

33 Casey Man Kong Lum, 'The 
karaoke dilemma: on the 
interaction between collectivism 
and individualism in the karaoke 
space’, in Toru Mitsui and Shuhei 
Hosokawa (eds), Karaoke Around 
the World: Global Technology, 
Local Singing (London: Routledge, 
1998), p. 166. 

34 Not all VCDs/DVDs of Hong Kong 
films subtitle song lyrics, but many 
do. Interestingly, Stephen Teo has 
also made the connection 
between the song number in Hong 
Kong film and karaoke, but in a 
completely different context. Teo 
notes that the song numbers in 
Mandarin cinema of the 1940s 
and 1950s could also be called 
karaoke in nature because all 
songs are subtitled (often with 
bouncing ball to guide the viewer/ 
singer). See Stephen Teo, 'Oh, 
Karaoke!: Mandarin pop and 
musicals'. The 17th Hong Kong 
International Film Festival, 
Mandarin Films and Popular 
Songs: Affs-Sffs (Hong Kong, 
1993), pp. 32-6. 

35 Hiroshi Ogawa writes of this 
phenomenon in relation to 
Japanese television shows and 
commercials. 'Now most hit songs 
are the theme songs of television 
dramas or image songs for 
television advertisements. . . . 
Users often check what songs will 
be used as theme songs or image 
songs in advance in order to 
practice singing these particular 
songs.' Hiroshi Ogawa, 'The 
effects of karaoke on music in 
Japan', in Toru Mitsui and Shuhei 
Hosokawa (eds). Karaoke Around 
the World: Global Technology, 
Local Singing (London: Routledge, 
1998), pp. 50-51. 

36 Casey Man Kong Lum, 'The 
karaoke dilemma’, p. 18. 

allows users to select the songs to be performed. Patrons typically come 
in large groups for various reasons: to party, to relax, to spar in singing 
competitions or to mingle with friends. Menus are provided and waiters 
come to the rooms to take orders for food and drinks. The KTV has its 
own culture; there are accepted rules that must be followed concerning 
participation, jeering, microphone passing, and so on. As Casey Man 
Kong Lum writes, 

it should be obvious that some form of collectivism and 
individualism does co-exist and intertwine in the karaoke 
space: that while a karaoke event is a collective activity for social 
interaction, it is also an opportunity for individuals to 
express themselves or, put metaphorically, to have a voice of their 



Karaoke videos with the vocals on are nearly identical to musical 
interludes in Hong Kong films. Both are edited like music videos, 
both feature the singer, usually in moments of personal or 
romantic reflection, and both have the song lyrics at the bottom of the 
screen (figures 5 and 6 )^ It is perhaps inevitable that the viewer of such a 
scene in a movie should take the audiovisual congruity between film and 
karaoke video as an opportunity to hone one’s musical skills, particularly 
if he or she is watching the film at home or in private.^® The musical 
interlude in a Hong Kong film therefore becomes more than a plot 
device, but an invitation for audience participation. Casey Man Kong 
Lum writes that ‘karaoke participants are the producers of the 
performances in karaoke scenes. ... In and of itself, karaoke music or 
songs are incomplete in their content’.^® What I am suggesting about the 
specificity of Hong Kong film is that we can adopt this description of 
karaoke to understand the musical interlude in the films because the two 
media are so similar in sight and sound. When the moment arises in a 
film, we can say it is not a complete filmic performance unless there is a 
viewer to sing it back - either aloud or in one’s head. 

KTV /karaoke culture affects the way in which identification can be 
thought in these films. The apparent invitation to ‘sing along’ with the 
character, drawing on a range of cultural experiences and memories, is an 
invitation to identify in a different way: a kind of participation, a literal 
co-recitation of lyrics, which is distinct from conventional assumptions 
about identification exclusively through the gaze. The KTV aesthetic 
does not assume that a film exists in a cultural/aesthetic vacuum, but 
allows audiences to bring their total media experience into the film (and 
vice versa), and permits them to make their own meaning based on the 
audiovisual intersections (such as the presence of pop songs) between 
multiple cultural forms. 

Because this phenomenon of popular music in film is both economic 
and aesthetic, it is misguided for the scholar of current film music to 
focus on one without considering its necessary relationship to the other. 
In current Hong Kong film, it is primarily through the discourse of stars 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

37 Steve Fore, Transnational action: 
John Woo, Hong Kong, 
Hollywood', in Sheldon Lu (ed.), 
Transnational Chinese Cinemas: 
Identity, Nationhood, Gender 
(Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii 
Press, 1997), pp. 221-38; Annie 
T. Ciecko, 'Jackie Chan and the 
cultural dynamics of global 
entertainment', also in Lu (ed.), 
Transnational Chinese Cinemas. 
David Desser, 'The Kung Fu craze; 
Hong Kong Cinema's first 
American reception', in Poshek Fu 
and David Desser (eds), The 
Cinema of Hong Kong: History, 
Arts, Wenf/fy (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 2000), 
pp. 19-43. 

38 Notable exceptions include 
Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li and 
Stephen Chan Ching-ku (eds), 
Hong Kong Connections: 
Transnational Imagination In 
Action C/nema (Durham, NC: Duke 
University Press, 2006), and some 
contributions to Laikwan Pang and 
Day Wong (eds), Masculinities 
and Hong Kong Cinema (Hong 
Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 
2005). Law Kar and Frank Bren 
(eds), Hong Kong Cinema: a Cross- 
Cultural l//ew(Lanham: Scarecrow 
Press, 2004) is a useful 
transnational study of Hong Kong 
cinema that goes beyond the USA. 

and music culture that pop songs are able to open film texts to audiences’ 
experiences outside of cinema, and as gossip culture continues to 
maintain its grip on mainstream audiences’ attentions, it is increasingly 
difficult to understand Hong Kong cinema without understanding the 
ways in which it engages its local audiences through their familiarity 
with a multimedia audiovisual space of stars, songs and cinematic 
spectacles enhanced by publicity music videos, simultaneous film and 
record release dates, and movie soundtracks. 

Scholarship on Hong Kong cinema today has grown beyond the two 
approaches mentioned at the beginning of this essay. In addition to 
considerations of genre, industry, gender and nationalism, the audience 
has become one of the field’s most active topics. Yet however thoughtful, 
necessary and full of surprises articles by Steve Fore, Anne T. Ciecko, 
David Desser and others are, they remain primarily focused on what US 
audiences bring to Hong Kong cinema.^^ Inspired by theories of 
postcolonialism and orientalism, these studies astutely tease out the ways 
in which gender and genre are rewritten or reinterpreted as Hong Kong 
cinema becomes an American industry. Absent in these studies are the 
audiences for Hong Kong cinema throughout Asia, Oceana, Europe, 
the Chinese diaspora and Hong Kong itself.^® Each of these 
communities contains its own specific fissures, histories and markets, and 
thus each consumes, desires and interprets Hong Kong cinema in its own 
way. My argument has been that a ‘KTV aesthetic’, a mode of 
interactivity, intermedia and intersemiosis which is not 
accommodated by accounts derived from classical cinema, gives 
us a way of understanding the specificities of Hong Kong 
cinema and the particularities of its audience within their own 
defining contexts. 

Thanks to Chris Berry for inspiring me to write this article and kindly providing invaluable suggestions throughout the 
process. Thanks also to Janet Bergstrom for giving new life to the article by encouraging me to re-visualize some of my 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Brian Hu • The KTV aesthetic 

Ivan Sen and the art of the road 


1 Paul Carter, The Road to Botany 
Bay: an Exploration of Landscape 
and History York, NY; Alfred 
A. Knopf, 1988); see also Ross 
Gibson, Seven Versions of an 
Australian Badland (St Lucia: 
University of Queensland Press, 
2002 ). 

2 In an interview with Ivan Sen, 
Daniel Browning goes on to report 
that 'only after a short pause . . . 
did I realize that's not what he - 
as both writer and director - 
intended'. See Daniel Browning, 
'Ivan Sen interview’, Awaye! 
(radio programme, tx., 15 March 
2002): URL: http:// 
ivan_interview.htm. For 
background on Sen, see http:// 
rose/sen_i.htm [16 September 

3 We use the term 'Australianisf 
here to describe readings which 
are not simply produced in the 
geographic location 'Australia' but 
which produce 'Australia' as an 
object bearing a 'national cinema'. 
Australianisf discourses are 
deployed to demonstrate the 
differences between Australian 
and US versions of the road film. 
The term Australianisf here refers 
to this assertion of difference from 
the USA and the gathering of 
many films into a 'national 

This essay considers the role of the road space in the films of Australian 
director Ivan Sen. In the three years between Vanish (1998) and the 
critically acclaimed feature-length Beneath Clouds (2001), Sen has 
developed a distinctive approach that highlights the ambivalence of the 
Australian road space and its relationship to postcolonial country, culture 
and history. Sen’s films depict a photographic, flaneurial attention to the 
road and what lies beneath it and beside it. His films do not hurtle down 
the road at top speed with a sense of frenetic escape, but are composed at 
walking pace. As Paul Carter notes, the history of European colonization 
in Australia is also the history of roads,’ and this affects what stories 
Australian road films might carry. When placed beside the road film as it 
has come to be understood. Sen’s films appear both to occupy the genre 
and to be at odds with it. Sen apparently ‘shifted uncomfortably’ when 
told by Daniel Browning that Beneath Clouds could be seen as a 
‘blackfella road movie’.^ This discomfort may relate to the ways in 
which both categories ‘blackfella’ and ‘road movie’ do not capture the 
complexities of the film’s representations of Aboriginal and white 
Australians. Nor does the description reflect the film’s departures from 
the road movie genre, a genre which, more than others it seems, tends to 
be read by critics along the lines of ‘national’ tropes. Sen’s films are not 
straightforward road films, but they do show a fascination with the road 
at the limit of generic expectations. In the first section of this essay we 
discuss three of Sen’s short films Vanish (1998), Tears (1998) and Dust 
(2000). The middle section addresses the road film as genre and its 
readings within Australianist^ discourse, while the last section focuses on 
Sen’s feature film, Beneath Clouds (2001), and its inflection of the road 
film genre. 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 

4 Donna Haraway, The Haraway 
Reader (Loudon: Routledga, 2004), 

p. 2. 

5 Karan Jennings Sites of Difference: 
Cinematic Representations of 
Aboriginality and Gender (South 
Melbourne: Australian Film 
Institute, Research and Information 
Centre, 1993), p. 76. 

6 Georgine Clarsen, 'Still moving: 
Bush Mechanics in the central 
desert', Australian Humanities 
fleweiv (March 2002), p. 10. URL; 
clarsen.html (16 September 2006], 

7 The Australian High Court's Mabo 
decision (1992) represents the first 
land rights case which established 
Native Title for indigenous people 
in Murray Island. The case 
overturned the legal fiction of terra 
nullius (land occupied by no one 
recognizable to European systems 
of sovereignty), by which European 
colonization occurred. Native Title, 
made possible by the Mabo 
decision, fell short of recognizing 
Aboriginal Sovereignty, which is 
still being campaigned for today. 

8 Felicity Collins and Therese Davis, 
Australian Cinema After Mabo 
(Port Melbourne: Cambridge 
University Press, 2004), p. 3. 

9 See Daniel Laderman, Driving 
Visions: Exploring the Road Movie 
(Austin, TX: University of Texas 
Press, 2002); and Timothy Corrigan, 
'Genre, gender, and hysteria: the 
road movie in outer space’, in A 
Cinema Without Walls: Movies. 
Culture after Vietnam (Piscataway, 
NJ; Rutgers University Press, 1 991 ). 

10 Benedict Anderson, /mag/ned 
Communities: Reflections on the 
Origin and Spread of Nationalism 
(London: Verso, 1983). 

11 Laderman, Driving Visions. 

12 Corrigan, 'Genre, gender, and 

13 Steve Cohan and Ina Rae Hark 
(eds). The Road Movie Book 
(London: Routledge, 1997), p. 1. 

14 Dargis, quoted in Cohan and Hark 
(eds). The Road Movie Book, p. 1 . 

15 Daniel Headrick, The Tools of 
Empire: Technology and European 
Imperialism in the Nineteenth 
Century (t^e\N York, NY: Oxford 
University Press, 1981); see also 
Carter, The Road to Botany Bay. 

The road is one of those taken-for-granted places that insinuate 
themselves into our lives not simply as bitumen or path, but also as a way 
of thinking. Cinematographically, roads create ‘natural’ lines of 
perspective and have compositional elements that can be manipulated to 
highlight how the framing of a story can tell us as much as the dialogue 
itself. When we are thinking about cinema and roads, it might be a road 
metaphor that takes us in another direction, down another route, track or 
path. This dead metaphor of the road has become a ‘material semiotic’^ 
form of knowing. Texts which attempt radically to critique accounts of 
white cultural appropriations of indigenous culture are themselves 
articulated with reference to the road, as in Karen Jennings’s conclusion 
to Sites of Difference, a book which seeks to generate culturally 
heterogeneous accounts of Aboriginality. Jennings hopes to ‘plot a route 
through the discursive field of Aboriginal filmic representations. My path 
has needed to be both wide and narrow.’® Similarly Georgina Clarsen, in 
her reading of Bush Mechanics, argues that ‘stretching the car metaphor 
in another direction may perhaps move us along’.® More recently, 
Felicity Collins and Therese Davis argue that Australian cinema since the 
Mabo decision is marked by what they call ‘backtracking’ and 
‘going over some old ground’.® These examples demonstrate yet again 
that the road is a device for thinking; not surprisingly it lends itself to 
Illustrate whole networks of ideas such as ‘modernity’® and even 

The traditional road movie may have been counter-discursive in 
relation to 1960s youth culture” and post-Vietnam US culture,’^ but it 
does not necessarily gel with postcolonial politics in contemporary 
Australia. While road movies in the USA are posited as going ‘back to 
the nation’s frontier ethos’,’® in which the road signifies ‘an empty 
expanse, a tabula rasa, the last true frontier’,’® such a terra nullius image 
now rings hollow in postcolonial Australian cinema and culture. The 
road forms part of a network that is already tied up in histories (past and 
present) of colonialism and modernity. Indeed, establishing a network of 
transportation and communication technologies is necessary to the 
conduct of colonization, and the sophistication of such networks 
accounts for the breadth of scope of imperialism in the late nineteenth 
century.’® In past histories of colonization, and of nineteenth-century 
imperialism particularly, the role of the steamboat and the railway in the 
penetration of continental landmasses is central. Roads, while not a 
technology specific to imperialism, come to form part of this network, 
whether they pre-exist contact or are built after it. Arguably, in 
Australian history, built roads are more specific to the practices of 
colonization and development, and have facilitated and maintained 
colonization and dispossession. 

Sen’s films demonstrate that a ‘road to freedom’ does not lead to 
‘nowhere’, to a terra nullius, but leads into, onto and through someone 
else’s already culturally inscribed land. As Tony Birch points out in 
relation to Beneath Clouds ‘as in indigenous culture, the land itself is the 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

16 Tony Birch 'Surveillance, identity 
and historical memory in Ivan 
Sen's Beneath Clouds', in Nikos 
Papastergiadis and Scott McGuire 
(eds). Empire, Ruins and 
Networks: The Transcultural 
Agenda in Art (Melbourne; 
Melbourne University Press, 

2005), p. 198. 

17 For further discussion of this film 
see Fiona Probyn-Rapsey 'Bitumen 
films in postcolonial Australia', 
Journal of Australian Studies, 
vol. 88 (2007), pp. 51-60. 

18 See also Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, 
'The ethics of following: trackers, 
followers and fanatics’, in 
Australian Humanities Review, no. 
37 (December 2005). URL: http:// 
Probyn.html [16 September 2006]. 

repository of historical memory’.’® In Sen’s films, it is often Aboriginal 
characters who are perceived by whites as ‘trespassers’ in spaces 
dominated by whites (roads, cotton fields, com fields, pubs, cafes). Sen’s 
films emphasize the ‘somewhereness’ of land and place by focusing on 
the contested nature of spaces beside the road, beneath the road and off 
the road. This is clear in three of Sen’s short films in which the road plays 
an important compositional and narrative role. 

Much of Sen’s technique of manipulating the compositional elements 
of the road can be seen in his early documentary film, a personal and 
lyrical meditation called Vanish. Vanish traces the Gamilaroi people’s 
forcible movement into the Euraba reserve in 1912, then to the Old 
Toomelah reserve in 1927, and then, in 1937, to Toomelah Mission. Each 
interview with elderly and younger residents of the nearby towns has 
them dissolving in and out of the sequence. In the case of Aunty Flo, 
Aunty Ruby and Craig, a road joins the foreground with the background 
landscape. Roads illustrate the depth of space behind the subjects, who 
are positioned right at the edge of the frame. This way the road becomes a 
curiously centred space against which Sen’s subjects are marginalized, 
framed off-centre. The history of forced removal and forced movement 
drives an association between movement and vanishing, thus providing 
grounds for the slowness of the images, the still, wide-angle shots of 
land, machinery, roads and roadscapes. To consider the stillness of these 
shots is to think through the forced movement of the people he 
interviews, forced movement thus acting as counterpoint to slow, still, 
landscape shots. Each interviewee is recentred through the patient 
attention to their faces, words, pauses. Sen’s interview technique and the 
editing suggest another important emphasis on speed - the long pauses 
in the interview with Aunty Beano and Craig illustrating the 
awkwardness of, and commitment to, the interviewee / interviewer 
relationship. It serves as a reminder of the time it takes to allow these 
stories to be told and the responsibility of the listener to be patient, to 
listen, to be quiet. This does not sit well with the traditional road film’s 
emphasis on speed, as brought out by another documentary road film. 
Beating About the Bush (Caroline Sherwood and Nicholas Adler, 1993), 
in which Peter Rothmanus challenges the white filmmakers: ‘You’ve got 
to be here [in the Aboriginal community] for ten or twelve years before 
you can start to bring proper issues out’.” Sen’s pauses and his attention 
to gaps in the narrative, uncertainties, shyness, indicate the time and 
space that is necessary to attempt to read and hear stories of Aboriginal 
movement and belonging. The ‘gaps’ in time between the answers and 
the questions also indicate points of no entry (no road) for the viewer: 
there are going to be many points in this film that are unavailable to the 
viewer, especially if they are non-Aboriginal.’® Christos Tsolkias’s 
review of Beneath Clouds in Senses of Cinema demonstrates that such 
silences and pauses are intensely provocative to a dominant culture 
which demands that Aboriginal subjects speak their subjectivity, 
share their stories openly, quickly and straightforwardly. To quote 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

19 Christos Tsolkias, Through clouds; 
a discussion of Kandahar ar\d 
Beneath Clouds', Senses of 
Cinema, no. 20 (2002), p. 4. 

Tsolkias: ‘There is intelligence at work here, but after a while I wanted 
someone to talk, to articulate, and to argue’.’® Tsolkias’s ‘want’ reflects 
his reading position and misses the point of how the dialogue occurs in 
the film. He reads muteness as the film ’s problem. Alternatively we could 
read the demand for speech and argument as the problem. 

Tears is a short film on which the feature Beneath Clouds is based. 
Tears, like Vanish, also utilizes a drastic slowing down of movement. 
Unlike much of the history behind Vanish, the movement of the 
Aboriginal characters in this short film is more self-directed: ‘Do you 
wanna stay in this shithole forever?’, Lena (Jamila Frail) asks Vaughn 
(Luke Carroll). They begin their walk away from the mission. Walking 
along the roadside, the shots hold a large sky and closeups of the 
characters’ faces towards the edge of the frame, again suggesting a depth 
of country behind them. Vaughn struggles along the side of the road on 
crutches while Lena walks determinedly ahead. A Ford Falcon pulls up 
with friends from the mission: young men in the front seat, a young 
woman and child in the back. Vaughn is told that the cops are looking for 
him. Lena looks into the back of a vehicle at a screaming toddler with 
flies on her face, held by a young mother. She manages a curious half- 
smile at the girl, while the slow-motion camerawork suggests something 
elemental about this image of the girl (Lena’s future, if she were to stay). 
A similar image occurs in Beneath Clouds as a young woman pushes a 
pram over difficult terrain past Lena. An image of a girl pushing a pram 
away from the camera also ends one sequence of Vanish. 

In Tears, images of death and decay loom in the road. A dead 
kangaroo, in closeup and in the foreground as they walk off, suggests a 
decomposition of life around them. Dust caused by a car passing them 
makes the road behind them hazy and indefinite, like memory and 
erasure as it is depicted in Sen’s other film Dust. Tears cuts from one 
image to the next as in a slide show without voiceover: an unused child’s 
slide, an old watertank, a deserted street. Decaying road signs also loom 
large above: a ‘T-intersection’, obscured with white paint or corrosion, a 
decaying sign of a highway number, half of a bus stop sign on a pole (‘us 
op’ ) above Vaughn in the final scene. Lena leaves on the bus with 
Vaughn watching before the bus dissolves (vanishes) out of shot, as if 
melted away by the haze made by the sun, suggesting the slow movement 
of time in Vaughn’s immobility at the bus stop, looking down at his feet, 
rather than at the tracks of the bus taking Lena away. 

Sen’s other short film. Dust, highlights the significance of what lies 
just beneath the surface; in this case it is the land off the side of the road, 
in a cotton field. The film opens with a line of cars on a dusty road 
heading towards the aptly named Bald Hill. The dust is everywhere. The 
driver of the vehicle is Leroy (Clayton Munro), with passengers Vance 
(Wayne Munro) and an elderly woman in the backseat, Ruby or Mum 
(Reta Binge), who says ominously, ‘may get a storm later on’. The 
roadsigns are also ominous - ‘Slaughter Creek’ - then two different 
shots of ‘No Trespassing’, the juxtaposition signalling land seized and 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

20 Ron Eyerman and Orvar Lofgren, 
'Romancing the road; road movies 
and images of mobility’, Theory, 
Culture & Society, vol. 12, no. 1 
(1995), p. 73. 

21 Ibid., p. 72. 

22 Ibid. 

named after a massacre, and then ‘protected’ by white law. Sen uses road 
signs again to flag the narrative. In another car we see a young white 
couple, Mick (Tristan Bancks) and Amy (Nathalie Roy), drive up and 
park. Mick complains that the other workers are ‘fuckin’ coons’. Sexual 
jealousy over the white girl arises with Mick telling the girl: ‘I saw you 
back there . . . don’t fucking look at him, he’s a fucking coon’. Leroy and 
Mick have more in common than disapproval of interracial relationships; 
when a police car arrives, both are under suspicion; Amy looks to Mick 
while Vance looks to Leroy. Both turn and run but the cop grabs someone 
else and drags him off. A shot of Ruby, where we look into her eyes in 
closeup, suggests that she has seen all this - the removal of children - 
before. Leroy worries about Mum as she collapses on to her knees in the 
fleld in the distance: ‘She’s going fuckin’ crazy, bro’.’ A dust storm 
whips up and all are forced to race back to their parked cars to seek 
shelter. Mick and Amy do not make it back to theirs so Vance calls them 
into their Falcon where all sit out the storm uneasily. When they get into 
the car Mum is sitting in the front seat, indicating a shift in the film’s 
perspective. Rarely do the women occupy the front seat in Sen’s films. 
She tells them ‘Bad things are happening all around here. They rounded 
up your people, women and kids too. Bad things. Old mum told me a long 
time ago, now I tell you.’ The dust storm settles, they get out of the car to 
see bleached bones and skulls revealed in the dirt. As the road sign said, 
this is ‘Slaughter Creek’. A series of closeups of shared gazes tells us the 
story of recognition and contrition. A sunset shot shows them standing 
high in the landscape and then they vanish, again dissolving into the land, 
land that outlasts their presence on film. 

Attempting to define these films in terms of cinematic genre is a 
difficult task. Genres are constellations of cultural products that share 
narrative structures, stylistic conventions, archetypal characters and 
situations as well as relationships with institutional and social structures. 
Given that the road, the road journey and the relationship to country 
features in all of these films, it is possible to link them to the road film. 
Indeed, Sen’s feature-length film Beneath Clouds was uniformly 
described as a road movie (in Collins and Davis, and Tsolkias, for 
example). However, this does not mean that it is a ‘road film’ like any 
other. As we have argued, road films do not translate smoothly across 

Critics in countries other than the USA and Australia have pondered 
the significance of the road film. Eyerman and Lofgren have analyzed a 
different ‘cultural habitus of the road’ in Sweden through its road films, 
and have found that the ‘basic theme of road movies, “risking it”, has 
little resonance with Swedish conceptions of personal challenge and 
social mobility’.^® Added to this, the concept of ‘taking to the road’ is 
‘difficult to translate into Swedish’,^’ and fear of the unfamiliar is less 
apparent in the films, given that Sweden is identified as ‘such a relatively 
homogenous culture.’^ Susan Picken finds that the ‘m5hhology of the 
road never quite took hold of the British imagination the way it did the 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

23 Susan Picken, 'Highways, by-ways 
and lay-bys; the Great British road 
movie', in Jack Sargeant and 
Stephanie Watson (eds), Lost 
Highways: an Illustrated History of 
the Road Movie (London: Creation 
Books. 2000), pp. 221-9. 

24 Ibid. 

25 Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka The 
Screening of Australia, vol. 2 
(Sydney: Currency Press, 1988). 

26 Delia Falconer 'We don't need to 
know the way home: The 
disappearance of the road in the 
Mad Max Trilogy', in Cohan and 
Hark (eds). The Road Movie Book, 
pp. 249-71. 

27 Meaghan Morris, 'White panic or. 
Mad Max and the Sublime', 
Senses of Cinema, no. 18 (2002). 
contents/01 /18/mad_max.htmi 
[16 September 2006]. 

28 Stephen Muecke, No Road: 
Bitumen all the 14/ay (South 
Fremantle; Fremantle Arts Centre 
Press, 1997). See also Stephen 
Muecke, ‘Backroads: from identity 
to interval', Senses of Cinema, no. 
17 (December 2001). URL: http:// 
contents/01 /17/backroads.html 
[16 September 2006]. 

29 Jonathan Rayner, 'Loop the loop 
and crash head on: Australian 
road movies', in Sargeant and 
Watson (eds). Lost Highways, 

p. 101. 

30 Rama Venkatasawny, Catherine 
Simpson and Tanja Visosevic, 
'From sand to bitumen, from 
bushrangers to "Bogans"; 
mapping the Australian road 
movie', Journal of Australian 
Studies, no. 70 (December 2001), 
pp. 75-84. 

31 Falconer, 'We don’t need to know 
the way home’, p. 253. 

32 Venkatasawmy Simpson and 
Visosevic, 'From sand to bitumen’, 

p. 80. 

33 Rayner, 'Loop the loop and crash 
head on’, p. 112. 

34 Collins and Davis, Australian 
Cinema After Mabo, p. 7. 

American’ because its roads are rather ‘brief Accordingly, she finds 
that British road films concern ‘contemplation rather than conquest’.^'' 
Sen’s films, focusing primarily on Aboriginal people in north-western 
New South Wales, are culturally specific in their inflection of the genre. 
Here we emphasize their departure from the genre, rather than attempting 
to shore it up with more examples of its expanding boundaries. 

Australian critics also tend to read the road film genre, perhaps even 
more than other genres, in terms of its ‘ Australian-ness’ (Susan Dermody 
and Liz Jacka, Delia Falconer, Meaghan Morris, Collins and Davis, 
Stephen Muecke^® and Tsolkias), with Jonathan Rayner’s description 
being fairly typical; the road film as a ‘site for the definition of 
Australianness and the exploration of specific Australian concerns 
Part of the reason for this slippage between road film and nation is that 
the road is, as Benedict Anderson suggests, so much a manifestation of 
the nation-state in its marking of territorial borders that it seems 
overdetermined. Falconer, Morris, Muecke, Rayner and Rama 
Venakatasawmy et al.^” have all written about the Australianness of 
Australian road films, isolating what it is that renders them different to 
US road movies. Delia Falconer has argued that Australian road films 
like George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy (1979, 1981, 1985) articulate a 
particularly Australian and postcolonial anxiety which sees them move 
away from British models of occupation toward the US fetish of the road 
and car.^’ Moreover, Falconer argues that Mad Max is metonymic of the 
Australian film and tourism industry itself, breaking into the US or global 
market by appealing to specific Australian anxieties about its own 
economic viability. Venkatasawmy, Catherine Simpson and Tanja 
Visovesic argue that the Australian road film differs from the US genre in 
terms of narrative (the inability to cross borders or escape to another 
country) and in terms of its genealogy. They argue that Australian road 
films can be traced back to early bushranger and drover narratives {The 
Overlanders [Harry Watt, 1946], Ned Kelly films and documentaries 
such as Back of Beyond [Michael Robertson, 1 995]), while contemporary 
road films are often combined with other genres, such as social realist, 
sci-fi apocalyptic, thriller, comedy or urban road film.^^ Rayner reads 
Australian road movies as being ‘downbeat’, not ‘uniformly positive, 
restorative or transformative’. The films, he argues show a ‘futility of 
action or movement’ and characters ‘for whom control over events or 
circumstances is lost or never gained’. Furthermore, he suggests that ‘the 
road symbolizes a postponement of the task of addressing problematic 
issues, but offers no chance of evading them conclusively’ Such a view 
of the melancholic nature of Australian cinema is also taken up by 
Collins and Davis in their account of recent, post-Mabo Australian 
cinema of all genres. They take the ‘anxiety and ambivalence which 
seems endemic to Australian nationhood and to Australian cinema’^'' and 
relate it specifically to a post-Mabo cultural melancholia. They argue that 
national cinema between 2000 and 2002 produced a cycle of ‘strangely 
belated’ films which revisited or backtracked over ‘certain familiar 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

35 Ibid., p. 8. 

36 Ibid., p. 9. 

37 Ibid., p. 76. 

38 Ibid., p. 78. 

39 Ibid., p. 81. 

40 See Michael Foucault, Power/ 
Knowledge: Selected Interviews 
and Other Writings. 1972- 1977, 
trans. and ed. Colin Gordon et al. 
(Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980). 

41 See Homi Bhabha, Nations and 
Narrations (London: Routledge, 

42 Catherine Simpson, 'Beyond 
glitter to grief: Catherine Simpson 
reviews Australian Cinema After 
Mabo by Felicity Collins and 
Therese Davis', Austraiian 
Humanities Review, no. 34 (2005). 

43 As Bhabha relates, 'the native 
intellectual who identifies the 
people with the "true national 
character" will be disappointed'; 
Homi Bhabha, 'Cultural difference 
and cultural diversity', in Bill 
Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and 
Helen Tiffin (eds), The Postcoloniai 
Studies ffeac/er (London: 
Routledge, 1995), pp. 206-9. 

44 Tsolkias, 'Through clouds’, p. 6, 

45 Brian McFarlane 'Backtracking', 
Meanjin, vol. 62, no. 1 (2003), 

p. 68. 

46 Corrigan, 'Genre, gender, and 
hysteria', p. 142. 

figures such as the black tracker, the lost child, the bush battler, and the 
Australian landscape itself.^® Collins and Davis suggest that the Mabo 
decision promoted a ‘rupture in the continuity of Australian history’^® 
and that, since the Mabo decision, there has been the ‘recognition of 
historical amnesia (rather than an unknowable, sublime, interior void) as 
the founding structure of settler Australia’s myths of belonging’.®^ Since 
Mabo, the landscape, they argue, has become a ‘land with a history’,®® 
producing a cinematic ‘aftershock’ which ‘implies that indigenous and 
settler Australians alike are still living through the unresolved trauma of 
colonial settlement’.®® 

Readings that presuppose the existence of a national cinema are 
problematic for a number of reasons, not least because it can make 
critique read like the work of an upstanding citizen. Writing the 
cinematic history of a nation has similar limitations to writing a 
biography of the dead; a life unravels with a clear middle, beginning and 
end, events become parts of a whole, building blocks of a grand, 
bitumenized, narrative. This approach can sometimes overlook the 
seemingly inconsequential, aberrant parts, ‘subjugated knowledges’'"’ 
and differences within the nation. Writing which maps narratives on to 
nations^’ reinforces the ways in which the nation is itself a product of 
precisely this kind of epistemological approach. In a review ot Australian 
Cinema After Mabo, Catherine Simpson notes that the ‘unifying process 
is extremely important in the context of a comparatively small domestic 
cinema that lacks a niche. We do need to be wary, however, of 
disavowing the diversity of Australian cinema product for the sake of 
creating unity.’'*® Not surprisingly, readings which require that 
Aboriginal or Australian filmmakers reflect the nation tend to find them 
always lacking,'*^ as in Tsolkias’ comment that ‘the brutality of the 
Australian landscape deserves something more’'*'’ than Beneath Clouds 
can offer it. Similarly, Brian McFarlane, in his reading of Australian 
cinema, backtracking and racial bigotry (in Rabbit-Proof Fence [Phillip 
Noyce, 2002], The Tracker [Rolf de Heer, 2002], Black and White [Craig 
Lahiff, 2002] and Australian Rules [Paul Goldmain, 2002]), finds that 
‘not any of these films quite measures up to these demands’.'’® Collins 
and Davis’s use of ‘backtracking’ to describe recent Australian cinema 
indicates a melancholic attachment to ‘national’ trauma/cinema. 

It is possible that the ‘lack’ in these ‘national’ films is not a problem 
stemming from the films themselves, but rather from the attempt to 
match cinema to nation. In other words, the ‘lack’ is ascribed to the films 
rather than to the methodology. Readings which attempt to map the road 
film onto the nation can miss one of the genre’s defining features which 
is, according to Corrigan, its ‘compulsion to dramatize its failures to 
repress and contain’.'’® If the genre cannot ‘repress and contain’, then 
readings which posit a nation as the container attempt to do what the 
genre cannot, thereby betraying its difference. 

The other reason that we resist the ‘nationalizing’ of Sen’s films is 
because this would assume a common language for reading ‘the’ nation. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

47 Judith Butter, 'Endangered/ 
endangering: schematic racism 
and white paranoia' (1993), in 
Sara Salih and Judith Butler (eds), 
The Judith Butler Reader (Oxford: 
Blackwell. 2004), p. 207. 

48 Homi Bhabha, 'Of mimicry and 
man: the ambivalence of colonial 
discourse', October, no. 28 (1984) 
p. 127. 

49 Muecke, No Road. p. 18. 

50 See Carter, The Road to Botany 
Bay. 1988. 

51 Gibson, Seven Versions of an 
Australian Badland. 

We cannot assume to be able to read the texts in a ‘national’ sense: we 
read them as white (therefore limited) readers, remembering, as Judith 
Butler observes, that ‘[t]he visual field is not neutral to the question of 
race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic and 
forceful’. Sen’s films cannot be roped unproblematically into a 
national narrative. Rather, his films inhabit but critique (‘resemble but 
menace’ f® the road film, which as we have shown is imbricated with 
nation. His films also ‘inhabit’ but critique the national framing of 

The ‘Australianizing’ of the road film occurs regardless of the 
possibility that ‘roads’ might not in fact mean the same thing to all of 
those who use them. This point is raised by Muecke and leads to a 
discussion of the different epistemologies of Aboriginal and non- 
Aboriginal people. Aware of the colonial history of the road, Muecke 
deploys a concept of the ‘No Road’ as its limit. This concept comes from 
Muecke’s ficto-critical work No Road: Bitumen all the Way; he in turn 
borrowed the title from his friend Gloria. She told him the story of a local 
man from a community outside Darwin in the Northern Territory. She 
asked him whether there was a road out to his community and the man 
replied: ‘Road? No road . . . NO ROAD. Bitumen all the way. Bitumen 
aaall the way.’''® In this story the bitumen is not a road, the road is a track. 
What is a road to some is not a road to others; where one sees a track, 
others might see a road. These are quite different perceptions of place but 
articulated homonymically. 

The relationship between road and track is not a neat opposition, not 
always surface and depth (the track beneath the road) but intertextual: 
one is built out of and into the body of the other, like a fold where 
cultures meet, at times violently. The presence of the road does not 
negate the track; it is indebted to it, it invokes it, it brings it into presence 
suggesting a coexistence of radically different ways of reading country 
and history. For instance, where white critics lament colonial history and 
violence (often relegated to the ‘past’ ), Vaughn, the young Aboriginal 
man in Beneath Clouds, tells us, ‘the war ain’t fuckin’ over’. That war is 
played out in the road space, and in the space of film criticism. Watching 
the road in Sen’s films enables a spatial reading of these histories and 
discontinuities, while attempting to avoid the imperial histories of 
national cinemas.®" 

The continuing imbrication of road-spaces in histories of colonization 
is one clarified by Gibson.®' Gibson recounts stories of the roads snaking 
through the area between Rockhampton and Mackay in Queensland. The 
space of the road becomes the site of peak intensity within that 
landscape; a site peopled with myriad deranged transients and victims 
caught by surprise, sleeping in their cars. The badland of the late 
twentieth century is where dark side-roads taper off into the bush from an 
old highway that is in notoriously bad condition. In Gibson’s account, the 
white fears of the side of the road are rehearsed in the badland of 
contemporary and past memory. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

52 Katie Mills, 'Revitalising the road 
movie genre’, in Cohan and Hark 
(eds). The Road Movie Book, 

p. 322. 

53 Ibid, p. 323. 

54 Ibid. 

55 Cohan and Hark, The Road Movie 
Book, p. 14. 

56 Sharon Willis, 'Race on the road: 
crossover dreams', in Cohan and 
Hark (eds), The Road Movie Book, 
p. 289. 

57 Mills, 'Revitalising the road movie 
genre', p. 289. 

58 Laderman, Driving Visions, p. 20. 

In popular culture the road bears a long tradition of figuring not only 
colonization itself, but also other social movements of white and black 
resistance. In 1965, the Freedom Riders set off from the University of 
Sydney to Moree and Walgett and other towns practising overt racial 
discrimination. In 2005 they set off again with a different group of 
students. This Freedom Ride owes a longer history to the romance of the 
road, its association with movement, freedom, mobility, taking to the 
streets, taking over the streets and leaving the streets behind. Roads are 
always contested postcolonial places, neither entirely resistant (Freedom 
Rides) nor entirely dominant (‘bitumen all the way’ ), but both and more. 

The road’s relationship to colonization and postcoloniality is reflected 
in debate about the road movie genre’s political potential - is it 
conservative or liberatory or both? In her reading of Living End (Gregg 
Araki, 1992), Katie Mills argues that the American road movie genre is a 
‘site of deviant discourse’ that allows marginalized groups (such as queer 
communities in her reading) a ‘territory of enunciation’ or a ‘shared 
“public” forum’. Here Mills positions the genre as a ‘forum’ in which 
many different kinds of stories can be told. She sees potential for the 
genre not to be an ‘archive of hegemony’,®^ which reinscribes white 
hetero-masculine dominance, but to form a canon which is revitalized®^ 
by alternative filmmakers. According to Cohan and Hark, who are also 
positive in their reading of the productive inventiveness of the American 
road movie genre, Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) was one of a 
group of road movies in the 1990s - Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 
1994), Kalifornia (Dominic Sena, 1993) and Wild at Heart (David 
Lynch, 1990) - which attempted to postmodemize the genre.®® While it 
may be true that these films share the capacity to revitalize the genre, 
such an argument echoes the line of assimilation: difference is brought in 
to the genre to shore it up, rather than challenge its dominance. In a more 
critical reading of the genre, Sharon Willis reads road movies like Boys 
on the Side (Herbert Ross, 1995) and To Wong Foo, Thanks for 
Everything! Julie Newmar (Beeban Kidron, 1995), as films which 
highlight the genre as a ‘vehicle for mainstreaming’,®® taking the 
marginalized, that is, into Mills’s ‘public forum’ and assimilating and 
erasing their differences.®^ 

Laderman brings both elements of the road movie genre debate 
together, focusing again on American cinema and finding that the road 
movie genre is both conservative and liberatory. He argues that the road 
movie’s ‘generic core’ is a ‘tension between rebellion and conformity’ 
such that ‘the road movie’s overt concern with rebellion against 
traditional social norms is consistently undermined, diluted or at least 
haunted by the very conservative cultural codes the genre so desperately 
takes flight from’.®® In Laderman’ s account the road movie genre can do 
both things: express liberation for the marginalized, escape from the law, 
from family and from society, and also express the containment of the 
individual within; it is a circuitous route which makes the genre a 
profoundly ambivalent and troubled site. Here we read the road film 

433 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

59 Corrigan, 'Genre, gender, and 
hysteria', p. 144 

60 Ibid., p. 145 

largely in postcolonial terms and in that sense we take from the genre 
certain characteristics that Sen’s films share with it. 

Sen’s first feature-length film, Beneath Clouds follows his shorf films 
in departing from the road film, while also occupying fhe same road 
space. In this film, which could be read as an expanded version of Tears, 
two young Aboriginal people (also named Vaughn and Lena) make their 
way on foot from rural New South Wales to the city of Sydney. Lena is 
leaving her country town while Vaughn has escaped from a juvenile 
detention centre. They are young and without material resources, and are 
forced to undertake the arduous journey on foot. Sen uses this zero-point 
of slowness to create a plane, stretching from the sheer drudgery of 
walking the highway through to a high-speed escape towards the end 
of the film, laying out points of intensity across it. They rarely get to 
choose when to slow down or speed up, instead taking opportunities as 
they arise and moving forward as best they can. 

The film has similarifies with the road film genre. In his landmark 
essay, ‘Genre, gender, and hysteria: the road movie in outer space’, 
Corrigan writes that the road movie usually displays a ‘quest motif which 
propels the usually male characters along the road of discovery’.®* Lena 
seeks her Irish father, available to her and the audience through artful 
black and white photos and postcards, contemplated in moments of 
reverie. Vaughn seeks his mother, who is dying, and escapes 
incarceration to do so. Both of these quests remain unfulfilled or 
aspirational, fulfilling another aspect of Corrigan’s sense of the genre, 
that family units ‘break apart, preserved only as a memory or desire with 
less and less substance’.®* In Beneath Clouds this breaking apart takes 
place outside of the filmic frame, in the form of elaborated backstory. 
Memories of the familial for Lena and Vaughn are not positive, and this 
is revealed as the characters discuss their backgrounds throughout the 
film. Despite the saturation of domestic spaces with the threat of violence 
(‘You show some respect girl, or I’ll knock some into ya!’ ) or with 
disease and death (Vaughn’s mother’s blood-stained sheets and oxygen 
tank) or rejection (‘I don’t fuckin’ have any’ )Peneath Clouds 
nevertheless adopts the familial as central to the motivating forces that 
set its characters on the road. Both are heading towards lost or absent 
parents, but one of them, Lena, is searching out her white parent, an Irish 
father. Misrecognized by Vaughn as a whitefella, Lena replies: ‘Is that 

The film is also outside of certain genre conventions in the way that the 
relationship between Lena and Vaughn develops. The characters do not 
begin or complete the film as ‘buddies’ as in certain Hollywood films, 
particularly outlaw films, or as a couple, as in many others. They only 
hesistatingly enter into the symbolic terrain of ‘mateship’, as the central 
characters in Philip ^oycC sBackroads (1977) do. It would be difficult to 
assign a label to Lena and Vaughn’s relationship: it is uncertain, 
argumentative and often close to breaking down, playing out racial 
conflict between whites and Aborigines. Lena provokes Vaughn along 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

61 See Birch, 'Surveillance, identity 
and historical memory' for a 
different reading of the 
character’s interactions in this 

conservative white lines. She argues with him about Aboriginal and 
white history, suggesting that Aborigines relinquished the land: ‘Youse 
were the ones that gave it up’. Vaughn responds with: ‘We didn’t give it 
up, it was all them diseases and shit they brought in, that’s what fucked us 
up’. Here the dispute over Aboriginal and white history echoes the 
arguments between Gary and Jack in Backroads. The scene between 
Lena and Vaughn also takes into consideration what has happened to 
whites in the process of colonization, that in fact it was they who ‘lost’ 

Vaughn: [looking at a picture of Lena’s Irish father] He’s fucking 

white alright. What’s them stones for? 

Lena: They’re special places. 

Vaughn: What? 

Lena: From a long time ago. 

Vaughn: Like sacred place? 

Lena: Sort of. 

Vaughn: What the fuck? Never heard of a white fella having 

no sacred site. 

Lena: Well they did a long time ago. 

Vaughn: Well what happened to em? 

Lena: Who? 

Vaughn: Them white fellas. 

Lena: I dunno, just changed I s’pose. 

Vaughn: How come you know all that shit? 

Lena: I read stuff, different books an’ that. 

Vaughn: Yeah, well wouldn’t believe ever}Thing you read. 

All written by whitefellas an5rway. 

Lena: Not all whitefellas are the same. 

Vaughn: Don’t make no difference where they come from . . . they’re 

all fuckin’ white and they all took our fuckin’ land. 

Lena’s ‘white’ femininity in the film demonstrates her point that ‘not all 
whitefellas are the same’. Her ambivalent claim to whiteness is 
articulated in terms of being different to Vaughn. She corrects him, she 
challenges him and she abuses him: ‘You’ll never win Vaughn. . . . 
You’ll end up like the rest of them, just wasting your life away . . . you 
may as well give up now, Vaughn, you’re just a fucking loser.’ She refers 
to the countryside around them as ‘this dump’ while romanticizing the 
misty hills of Ireland. She is suspicious of Vaughn’s friends who offer her 
a lift and reacts with contempt towards the Aboriginal man who hits his 
partner in the backseat: ‘Stop the car, stop the fucking car. You’re an 
arsehole do you know that?’ Later, while Lena moves with ease in to the 
white public space of the bar, Vaughn is stared at suspiciously. Lena 
recognizes that no white people will offer Vaughn help and tells him as 
much. Lena’s fair-skinned Aboriginality is articulated through rejection 
and correction of Vaughn, and results in her increased social mobility 
along the road.®’ 

435 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

62 Corrigan, 'Genre, gender, and 
hysteria', p. 146. 

Aboriginal mobility is contrasted with white mobility throughout the 
film. Interestingly, Vaughn defers to Lena’s judgement when he is 
offered a ride by a white driver (Arthur Dignam) and Lena defers to 
Vaughn in order to access vehicles driven by Aborigines. White mobility 
is constructed throughout the film as synonymous with safety, speed and 
simplicity, but it is also threatening (the white men who attempt to abduct 
Lena) and fearful (the white lady who drives off when she sees Vaughn). 
Lena and Vaughn are granted access to privileged white mobility when 
they are offered a ride in the black Mercedes driven by the elderly white 
man. Here we see that whites traverse the road-space with an 
unthreatened comfort, immersed in a ‘sound-bubble’. A police car 
overtakes silently and disappears, neutral and unthreatening here, when 
throughout the film they have always loomed up as a threat to Lena, 
Vaughn and other Aboriginal characters. 

Near the beginning of the film, the vehicle that delivers Vaughn’s 
sister (Less) to him already shows a differential access and relation to the 
road-space for Aboriginal people. As with the cotton chipper’s vehicle - 
which is deemed not to be road-worthy by the police officer (‘If I see you 
driving this piece of shit again I’ll fine your arse’ ) - this vehicle 
embodies a tenuous and fraught relationship to the road-space. 
Aboriginal characters inhabit vehicles in Beneath Clouds that are under 
heavy surveillance (‘Black Beauty’, the cotton chipper’s car), are used 
without the driver’s knowledge (Vaughn’s milk truck) or are made 
available through gestures of white philanthropy (the country 
gentleman’s black Mercedes). Often aceess is imaginary (as with 
Vaughn’s WRX), illegal (Vaughn was in prison for car theft) and more 
often denied (as with the white woman who drives away upon seeing 
Vaughn). In most cases, access to vehicular transport involves innovative 
action in difficult circumstances: it is never a relationship of speed and 
simplicity as embodied in commercialized car culture. Yet this resistant 
practice is infused with the very primacy of that dominant conception. 

Corrigan points out that in the road movie ‘the camera adopts the 
framed perspective of the vehicle itself.®^ Given that mueh of the film 
eoncentrates on the movement of these characters on foot, this 
perspective does not apply in relation to Beneath Clouds. Also, at one of 
the few moments in the film in which the perspective of a vehicle (‘Black 
Beauty’ ) is shown, it is simultaneous with the arrival of a police car that 
is about to bring that vehicle to a halt and initiate a confrontation. Where 
it is adopted, this framed perspective proves to be fleeting and thwarted. 

It is in its relationship to speed that there is a primary difference 
between Beneath Clouds and other films that more clearly belong to the 
road movie genre. There is a eult of speed-freedom in the road movie, 
something which David Lynch has addressed in The Straight Story 
(1999), in which he slows his protagonist down by granting him a 
lawnmower to travel on instead of a stylish set of wheels. Beneath Clouds 
does not, as road films tend to, emphasize an equation of speed and 
freedom, an equation in which the second term (freedom) is in fact 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

63 Collins and Davis, Australian 
Cinema After Mabo, p. 168. 

negated in the first (speed). Instead of speed, Beneath Clouds offers a 
drastic slowing down, which is akin to an inscription. As in his earlier 
films, this feature film requires that characters be brought to a halt, 
slowed down. This film is more like a machine that writes something 
onto the body of the road, and it does so in fits and starts - at the pace of 
the hitchhiker, not that of the road warrior or the speed freak. 

The climax of the film is reached on the road. What takes place is a 
confrontation between Vaughn, the occupants of ‘Black Beauty’ and two 
policemen. The tone of the film changes and we can assume that, from 
the film’s perspective, the immediate seeds of this confrontation are sown 
the moment that Lena and Vaughn enter the vehicle. The presence of the 
firearm (real or not), the loud hip-hop music, and the use of particular 
phrases (‘Nigga please!’ ) has already associated Vaughn’s milieu with a 
‘gangsta’ subcultural practice. The car is called Black Beauty, written in 
large letters on the rear windshield, a phrase which unites the car both 
with the horse (an earlier road model) and with the black consciousness 
movement’s promotion of black pride and black beauty. The joke is that 
the South African government in the 1960s listed Black Beauty - the 
book about the horse - as a banned item because of that particular 
association. While there is a comic incongruity in the fact that the trio of 
would-be gangstas are returning from a fishing trip, the characters’ 
engagement with particular forms of Aboriginal masculinity appears 
filled with a foreboding even before the arrival of the police. It is a 
discomfort that a white audience might share with Lena here, but the 
context is also one in which Vaughn is trying to avoid apprehension and 
taking the ride seems eminently risky. Aboriginal masculinity figures 
here, as it does elsewhere in the film, as threatening to Lena, which is not 
to say that white masculinity is not also threatening (for instance, 
in the potential kidnapping scene). The ‘threat’ that these men pose is 
one of assertive, black power, invoked partly by the rhetoric of 
African-American culture - ‘Nigga please’, the gun and the car. 

Collins and Davis refer to ‘a certain macho suicidal tendency that 
historically characterizes stories of Aboriginal resistance’.®^ Lena might 
agree with this reading: ‘I know you always got a choice’. The elderly 
woman in the back seat does not appear too bothered or threatened by the 
‘gangstas’. Indeed, her story of Gin’s Leap (the story of the massacre on 
the rock as the car passes it) evokes a different kind of threat that is 
historically linked to colonial violence (genocidal rather than suicidal). 
While Aboriginal masculinity may be perceived as a threat to whites (and 
Lena), a history of massacre, as well as the next scene’s confrontation 
with white police, contextualizes this threat as linked to whiteness. After 
all, these ‘gangstas’ have been out fishing; it is white police in the next 
scene who threaten them with incarceration, arrest and a beating. 

From the quiet look that the elderly woman has at the massacre rock 
looming above, through her questioning of Lena about her heritage 
(‘Where are your people from?’ ), to the gun talk and violence, the film 
seems to be pushing the characters towards a logic of finite social and 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

historical realities and identities, but at the same time it is looking 
outwards towards the sky, the land, the road. Indeed the juxtaposition of 
the images of the rock with those of the power station and power lines 
evokes a link between a colonial history of dispossession and modernity. 
A terrain of conflict and modem state-power is being woven together as 
the car moves forward. The massacre rock is also a site of haunting, and 
the elderly woman’s questions may appear to coincide with a suppressed 
knowledge. The audience is offered few diegetic clues to explain why she 
asks Lena that question (‘Where are your people from?’ ) at that moment. 
It links Lena with a history of dispossession and violence and, as Collins 
and Davis observe, it asks Lena to identify either with those who 
committed the massacre (the whites) or those who survived it. What this 
scene also invokes is a point of white critique for the audience. Whites 
who may have (mis )identifled with Lena’s ‘white’ femininity are here 
invited to recognize their complicity in this history: the film has shown us 
where Lena’s people are from, but do whites know where our people are 

This all happens at a point when Lena and Vaughn are making 
progress with the most forward motion yet: this is an apparent 
contradiction of the road-space being evoked, that speed should be 
wrapped in surveillance. All of the indeterminate and determinate 
elements of the events leading up to the confrontation are bound up in a 
single speeding vehicle that is conspicuous before the gaze of the state, 
and promptly comes into conflict with it. 

After being pulled over, Vaughn is asked to step out of the vehicle by 
one of the officers. Vaughn refuses to give a name, and following an 
altercation the officer violently assaults and begins beating Vaughn. 
Lena, in stepping out of the car and picking up the baton, is restating the 
indeterminacy of the situation. While there is a lack of dialogue 
characteristic of Sen, it seems that Lena feels she has to do something. 
That something is also immediately practical: she draws the attention of 
the officer from Vaughn at an opportune moment for them all. Indeed she 
succeeds in being both blameless and successful in preventing the 
apprehension of Vaughn and the others, offering them an escape route. 
The reprieve is short, but allows Vaughn to reach his mother’s house, 
where he finds only an empty blood-soaked bed. In the final sequence, 
Vaughn’s apprehension appears inevitable. Indeed, as he leaves his 
mother’s house, police cars arrive on the scene. Vaughn faces them, a 
tenuous pedestrian figure in the middle of the road, and is able to say 
goodbye to Lena at the train station. 

The road is the place in which the film is played out, with interludes 
that occur off the road but always in relation to the road. Beneath Clouds, 
like Tears, Vanish and Dust, does not declare an outside (‘freedom’ at the 
end of the road). Rather the film’s engagement with the road combats its 
logic from within, slowing down and occupying it differently. The film 
opens with a sequence of time-lapse shots of clouds cut through with 
electricity transmission towers. This imagery sets up a persistent tension 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

64 Carter, The Road to Botany Bay. 
p. 338. 

between the materiality of static networks (like colonialism) and the 
dynamic space of the cloud-filled sky, but the churning cloud-mass is not 
so much representative of transcendence for the characters as of an 
indeterminacy between film and the road-space which cannot be easily 
reconciled. As Carter reminds us: ‘[e]veryone saw the clouds. But the 
meaning of these events, the historical significance of their spatial 
appearance was another matter’.®^ Beneath Clouds points to this 
indeterminate space between viewers and the viewed, scene and the seen. 

439 Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Adam Gall and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey • Ivan Sen and the art of the road 

British cinema institutions 

The opening and closing plenaries at the 2005 Screen conference were 
devoted to cinema institutions, an aspect of cinema regularly in the 
background of research but rarely foregrounded as it should be. The 
conference opened with presentations by Christophe Dupin and Geoffrey 
Nowell-Smith of Queen Mary, University of London, based on their 
AHRC-funded research into the history of the British Film Institute (BFI) 
from 1933 to near the present day; and it closed with presentations by 
Julia Knight and Peter Thomas - then at the University of Luton, now at 
Sunderland - on their work (also AFIRC-funded) on independent film 
distribution in Britain since the foundation of the London Film-makers’ 
Co-op (LFMC) in 1966. 

The BFI has been at the centre of film culture in Britain since 1950, if 
not earlier. Indeed the very phrase ‘film culture’ seems to have originated 
in the BFI’s Education Department around 1970. No aspect of cinema in 
Britain has been unaffected; preservation and access, exhibition, 
distribution, production, education, information and documentation, and 
research. There was, however, one significant absence from the BFI’s 
remit. Founded to ‘encourage the art of film’, it concerned itself very 
little with what came to be known as ‘artists’ film’ - that is to say film 
produced non-industrially in a modem art framework. Support for this 
work became the province of the Arts Council, though there were 
inevitably border disputes with the BFI, particularly in the 1970s and 
1980s, when each organization was seeking to expand its own area of 
operations. The history of British film culture is in part the result of the 
interplay between various ‘quangos’ (quasi-autonomous non- 
government organizations), and between the quangos on the one side and 
independent or commercial organizations on the other. 

The papers at the two plenaries were all case studies, designed to throw 
light on a particular aspect of this little-understood area of institutional 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



history. Those on the BFI concerned themselves with moments of crisis 
and change in the organization, first around 1950 and then again around 
1970, while those on the artists’ organizations examined the effect of 
funder-sponsorship on the development of an artists’ film and video 
culture in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. 

As Christophe Dupin shows in his paper, the BFI was effectively 
re-founded in or around 1950, and by stages turned itself from a sleepy 
organization with a vaguely educational remit into a very visible 
presence on the national film scene, with a large membership attracted 
into its orbit by a revamped Sight and Sound and by the newly opened 
National Film Theatre in London, followed in the 1960s by Regional 
Film Theatres elsewhere in the country. However, as Geoffrey 
Nowell-Smith argues, this much expanded BFI proved unwieldy and 
unable to respond to the pressures of the radicalized post- 1968 culture. It 
entered a severe crisis in 1970, from which - ironically - it was rescued 
in part by the efforts of the same man who had led the reforms of 1950: 
Denis Forman. The resurgent BFI of the 1970s and 1980s then 
successfully absorbed many of the criticisms made during the crisis and 
was able to assume a leading role in what was by now the ‘film culture’. 

Peter Thomas and Julia Knight change tack and take the view from 
below - or at least outside - the quangos. Thomas argues that the 
success of the self-starter, volunteer London Film-makers’ Co-op in 
event-management, audience-building and cultural advocacy from 1966 
led to a situation in 1978 where it had made itself largely redundant. As 
the Arts Council began to provide event-management and audience- 
building directly to the LFMC’s artist-filmmaker membership, the 
LFMC risked being reduced to a cheap means of making funded films. 
Knight continues the story of this competition between artists’ 
organizations and funders’ direct provision by examining the confiict 
between the Arts Council-founded and BFI-supported Film and Video 
Umbrella and the LFMC and London Video Arts. 

The articles which follow are abbreviated and revised versions of the 
papers given at the Conference. 

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Peter Thomas 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Introduction • British cinema institutions 

The postwar transformation of the 
British Film Institute and its impact on 
the development of a national film 
culture in Britain 


1 Cyril J. Radcliffe, Report of the 
Committee on the British Film 
Institute: Presented by the Lord 
President of the Council to 
Parliament by Command of His 
Majesty {london: HMSO, 1948). 

2 Commission on Educational and 
Cultural Films, The Film In 
National Life (London: Allen & 
Unwin, 1932), p. A. 

Among the few studies available on the early history of the British Film 
Institute (BFI), the Radcliffe Report (1948) is generally acknowledged as 
the first, and perhaps the most important, turning point in the BFFs 
history in that it signalled the rebirth of the Institute in a modernized form 
that still, nearly sixty years later, provides the template for the BFFs 
activities.’ This essay first looks at the circumstances of the BFFs 
creation in the early 1930s to try to explain the failure of its ‘first life’ 
(1933-1948); it then examines the process of its postwar transformation 
(of which the Radcliffe report was only the most ‘public’ stage); and, 
finally, it explores the early work of the new regime and its long-lasting 
impact on the development of a film culture in Britain. 

In the late 1920s a number of educational, scientific and religious 
organizations began to recognize that film, beyond its purely 
entertainment value, was ‘a powerful instrument for good and evil in 
national life’ (the expression was in vogue in those circles).^ It is in 
this context that a group of educationists from the British Institute of 
Adult Education launched, in November 1 929, an active campaign to 
encourage the use of film as a visual aid in formal education as well as to 
raise the general standard of film appreciation among the public. They set 
up an independent (and, to their great disappointment, unofficial ) 
Commission on Educational and Cultural Films to find ways of achieving 
these aims, for instance through the establishment of a ‘permanent 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



3 Ibid. 

4 This was the BFI's general brief. 
From The British Film Institute: 
First Annual Report, Year ended 
30 September 1934 (London: 
British Film Institute, 1934), p. 8. 

5 The Board of Governors consisted 
of three representatives of the 
educational sector, three 
representatives of the trade, and 
three representatives of the 
'genera! public'. 

central organization’.^ Its comprehensive report, The Film in National 
Life (1932), indeed recommended the creation of a national film institute 
funded by public money and incorporated under Royal Charter. By 
that time, however, the ever philistine British film trade had become 
aware of the Commission’s activities and its representatives immediately 
showed their hostility towards a project which in their view could 
interfere with their short-term commercial interests. The trade 
associations demanded to be included in the negotiations on the future 
film institute, and from then on their representatives ensured that it would 
remain an innocuous body with as little influence as possible on the 
development of commercial cinema. 

The situation was made worse by the fact that the government, beyond 
its usual lack of interest in the cultural possibilities of film, was then 
confronted by a severe economic depression, and therefore rejected both 
the financial arrangements and the Royal Charter advocated by The Film 
in National Life. As a compromise, it was decided in Parliament that a 
small proportion of the profits from the Sunday opening of cinemas 
should be redistributed, via a Fund administered by the Privy Council, to 
organizations contributing to ‘the development of the film as a means of 
entertainment and instruction’, with the proposed Institute firmly in mind 
but without naming it.'* This financial arrangement quickly proved far 
from ideal. Not only was the grant it received ridiculously small (less 
than £8000 on average in its first ten years), but it had to be renegotiated 
with the Privy Council every year. Another essential drawback of this 
financial setup was the fact that it allowed the trade to claim its stake in 
the control of the BFI on the grounds that it would be funded from a tax 
on cinema receipts. By the time the Institute was officially founded 
in September 1933, it had already become an unofficial, semi-private 
(it was registered as a Company Limited by Guarantee), underfunded 
organization, run jointly - or rather competitively - by the trade and 
the educationists, through their nominated representatives on the 
Governing Body. While the trade strictly prevented the Institute from 
interfering with commercial cinema, the educationists imposed upon it 
their narrow-minded view of film. 

As a result, the bulk of the BFI’s work in the first fifteen years of its 
existence was concerned with the promotion of film as a modem means 
of instmction. It did this through the publication of numerous leaflets 
on school projectors; through lists of teaching films; through its two 
in-house magazines. Sight and Sound and the Monthly Film Bulletin', 
through the organization of lectures, conferences and summer schools for 
teachers around the country; and, finally, through its constant lobbying of 
the Board of Education, Local Education Authorities and Teachers 
Associations. At the same time, the Institute was somewhat removed 
from the early manifestations of a British film culture which had been 
emerging in Britain since the late 1 920s (in particular through the 
work of the Film Society, the journals Close-up and Film Art, and the 
state-funded documentary film movement led by John Grierson). If the 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film Institute 

6 James Chapman, The British at 
War: Cinema, State and 
Propaganda, Z559-/545 (London: 
IB Tauris, 1997), pp. 26-36. 

7 Quoted in the Minutes of the BFI's 
Board of Governors, 7 June 1945. 

8 The BFI's full membership 
stagnated at around 1000 during 
the war, while only 18% of all 
Local Education Authorities were 
corporate members of the BFI in 

9 Arts Enquiry, 'Interim draft of the 
factual film in Great Britain' 
(unpublished confidential 
document (October 1944), p. IV]. 

10 Arts Enquiry, The Factual Film: a 
Survey Sponsored by the 
Dartington Hall Trustees {London: 
Oxford University Press for PEP, 
January 1947). 

11 For the notes of these three 
meetings and the related 
government papers, see the 
National Archives, File CAB 

BFI failed to recognize the importance of these cultural practices, in 
return it was largely excluded from them. 

The outbreak of World War II did not help to improve the status 
or effectiveness of the organization. Most of its already limited staff 
(nineteen in 1939) were mobilized, and its headquarters were heavily 
bombed during the Blitz. The newly formed Ministry of Information also 
made sure that the Institute would be totally excluded from the 
government’s film propaganda, after several of the Ministry of 
Information’s officers severely criticized its conservatism and 
incompetence.® In the war years, the BFI seemed to retreat even more 
into its strictly educational brief, which it saw as its vital contribution to 
the national effort. A clear indication of this evolution was the 
resignation, in June 1945, of the Institute’s Secretary Olwen Vaughan, 
who had been one of the only staff members with a genuine interest in 
film as an art form, after ‘it had become evident to her that the British 
Film Institute would become increasingly concerned with educational 
films and visual education in the period of reconstruction’.^ 

Even before the war ended, the Institute had become such a marginal 
organization that the very justification for its existence began to be 
publicly questioned. The first serious attack on the BFI was formulated 
by the Dartington Flail Trust. During the war, this independent body 
carried out a comprehensive Arts Enquiry which severely criticized the 
BFI’s limited achievements and lack of influence, in particular in the 
field of formal education, which had been its main activity.® Beside the 
BFI’s constitutional and financial weaknesses, the survey put the blame 
on its inadequate staff and chronic lack of initiative. In the first draft of its 
report, circulated confidentially in 1944, the Enquiry went so far as to 

An organization is required to replace the British Film Institute, which 
will have a more workable constitution, wider terms of reference and 
more adequate facilities. Because of past history, we regard it as 
essential that this should be a new organization with a new name.® 

When the Report was published two years later under the title of The 
Factual Film, its conclusions were somehow more positive.’® The 
Enquiry recognized the need for a national film institute, but with a 
reformed constitution which would guarantee its independence from 
interest groups, a permanent and adequate financial basis, and a complete 
redefinition of its brief towards the promotion of film as an art form. 
Although the Government did not officially endorse the Arts Enquiry’s 
conclusions, the document was circulated among the government 
representatives who debated the future of the BFI, and it formed the basis 
for their discussions in three crucial inter-ministerial meetings between 
January 1946 and January 1947.’ 

These meetings were initially triggered not only by the need for the 
government to rethink its film policy from scratch following the Ministry 
of Information’s replacement by the Central Office of Information, but 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film institute 



12 The Government departments 
represented in these meetings 
were those with an interest in 
film, that is, the Ministry of 
Education, the Home Office, the 
Board of Trade, the Treasury and 
the Privy Council as the authority 
responsible for the BFI. 

13 On Sight and Sound's early 
contribution to the development of 
a film culture in Britain, see 
Melanie Selfe, 'Encouraging a 
national film culture; the changing 
role of Sight and Sound. 
1935-1945’ (unpublished MA 
dissertation. University of 
Nottingham, 2003). 

14 Patrick Gordon-Walker, 'The 
future of the British Film Institute' 
(memorandum to the Treasury, 

7 October 1946, National 
Archives, File CAB 130/9). 

also by the fact that the Local Education Authorities and the teachers’ 
associations, obviously unhappy with the BFFs progress on visual 
education, had set up (with the Ministry of Education’s approval) the 
National Committee for Visual Aids in Education, a new body which 
took over the Institute’s educational duties in 1 946. With this in mind, the 
civil servants present at these meetings initially doubted seriously 
whether there was a need for a film institute at all.’^ Yet by their third 
meeting, they had come to the conclusion that there was no case for 
abolishing the BFI. Instead, they suggested that the BFI refocus its 
activities on the development of public appreciation of film as an art form 
(the concept was still very new, especially in government circles), 
through the maintenance of the National Film Library, film criticism, a 
network of film societies, the compilation of a critical catalogue of films 
and the collection of information about film. As for financial 
arrangements, they did not rule out an increased grant from the 
Exchequer, but they concluded that any such change would require an 
‘authoritative public investigation’ of the work of the BFI. 

The decision to give the BFI a second chance despite its main 
responsibility having been transferred to another body can be explained 
by the Government’s recognition (to some extent) of the cultural, artistic 
and historical value of film after the war, and by the fact that the BFI 
itself had, albeit on a very limited scale, started encouraging the 
increased interest in film appreciation from the late 1930s (the term was 
first used by the BFI in its 1938 report), via film criticism published in the 
pages of Sight and Sound and the Monthly Film Bulletin, as well as 
through conferences and pamphlets designed for the training of 
teachers.’^ Its main achievement was the setting up of the National Film 
Library (later known as the National Film Archive) in 1935. Although its 
initial remit was partly educational and its resources greatly inadequate, 
by the early 1 940s it had turned its full attention to the preservation and 
distribution of films illustrating the history of cinema as an art. Largely 
due to the dedication and professionalism of its founder and curator 
Ernest Lindgren, the growth of its collections and more generally its film 
appreciation work helped the BFI to maintain a certain level of 
credibility and was successful in convincing the government of its worth 
in the field of ‘cultural cinema’. Towards the end of the war, film 
appreciation was progressively endorsed by the Institute as a whole. It 
played a crucial role in the postwar development of film societies by 
initiating the English and Welsh Federations of Film Societies and by 
setting up the Central Booking Agency. It organized its first summer 
school on film appreciation in 1944 (an annual feature in the BFFs 
calendar until the 1990s). In April 1945, film historian Roger Manvell 
was appointed lecturer, and in that year alone he and other members of 
staff delivered over a hundred lectures around the country. A year later, 
the Institute introduced for the first time the idea of a ‘national cinema 
repertory theatre’ which would provide a centre for film appreciation in 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film Institute 

15 Report of the Committee on the 
British Film Institute. 

16 Although the Radctiffe Report 
recommended an annual BFI 
budget of at least £100 000, the 
Institute would not reach this 
figure until 1957. 

17 It is not unlikely that there were 
political motives behind the 
reshuffle, as Cecil King was known 
to be close to the Labour party, 
while Bell was a former member 
of the Conservative Party Central 
Office and there had been 
allegations that Dickinson was 
linked with British fascists. 

The setting-up of the Committee of Enquiry into the Future 
Constitution and Work of the Institute (Radcliffe Committee) by the 
Lord President of the Council, Herbert Morrison, in November 1947, 
answered the demands of the inter-ministerial group. Its conclusions, 
published in April 1948, amalgamated the recommendations of the 
Arts Enquiry and the governmental meetings. They also acknowledged 
the significance of the work done of late by the BFI on film appreciation. 
The Institute was confirmed in its new brief to ‘encourage the 
development of the art of film and foster public appreciation and study 
of it’, through the administration of the NFL, a first-class information 
service and various film appreciation activities. Among these, it 
recommended the possible creation of a ‘specially-built cinema ... for 
the showing of films to audiences of, say, 300 to 400 people’, putting the 
project of a national repertory cinema back on the agenda.’® In contrast to 
the conclusions of the inter-ministerial meeting of January 1947, the 
Radcliffe Report strongly recommended the development of regional 
BFI offices in order to spread its influence in the regions. In terms of the 
BFI’s constitution, the Report insisted that the Governors should be 
appointed directly by the government rather than by specific interest 
groups. It also once again recommended a direct grant from the 
Exchequer as its main source of finance. 

Within fourteen months of the publication of the Report, all the 
constitutional and financial recommendations were implemented. The 
mode of appointment of the Governors was changed, the Memorandum 
and Articles of Association were revised to incorporate the new brief and 
the allocation of a Treasury grant was voted in Parliament, even though it 
was far from reaching the amount recommended in the Report and 
expected by the BFI to support its expansion plans for the 1950s.’® 

Another crucial aspect of the BFI’s transformation was the renewal of 
a significant proportion of its staff. Cecil King, the new Chairman, found 
in the BFI an organization undermined by corruption and inefficiency. Its 
two top executives, the Director Oliver Bell and the Secretary R.W. 
Dickinson, were held responsible for the situation, and they were 
replaced by two bright young civil servants: Denis Forman (former chief 
production officer at the Central Office of Information) as Director and 
R.S. Camplin as Secretary.’^ 

Once appointed, the new Director made the necessary adjustments to 
the staff according to the past successes and failures of the Institute, 
while also taking into account its new focus on film appreciation. Even 
more importantly, he brought in a new generation of film enthusiasts who 
were to lead the way towards a more modem approach to the film 
medium. With their support, Forman elaborated between the summers of 
1949 and 1950 the embryo of an integral and nationwide strategy towards 
the development of a film culture in Britain, either by reorganizing or 
creating from scratch a number of film-related activities including 
preservation, distribution, exhibition, film criticism and film education 
(still referred to as film appreciation). 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film Institute 



The first of these activities to be modernized was Sight and Sound. 
After taking on board ex-Sequence contributors Gavin Lambert and 
Penelope Houston, the magazine quickly became a reference in film 
criticism, attracting articles not only by critics but also by leading 
filmmakers. Between 1950 and 1959, the magazine managed to treble its 
readership from 5500 to 15,000. As for the BFI’s other magazine, the 
Monthly Film Bulletin, it abandoned its reviewing of educational films to 
make space for the feature films of the month. It also dramatically raised 
its standard of film criticism. 

Forman’s second task was the strengthening of the distribution arm of 
the National Film Library by appointing the BFI’s first distribution officer, 
with the objective of making more films of all kinds available to film 
societies and other specialized user groups. As it became clear that the 
projected National Film Theatre was unlikely to materialize immediately, 
BFI officers decided not to wait any longer. They organized a 
comprehensive, forty-one-week cycle of repertory programmes of films 
from the National Film Library for students of film. The programmes were 
screened at the Institut Frangais and various London venues in 1950/51. 
This first season was such a success that it was repeated the following year. 

Another task was the modernization of the services provided to the 
rapidly expanding Film Society movement. The BFI officers understood 
the key role these local groups of film enthusiasts played in spreading the 
idea of film as an art form through their screenings of classic or foreign 
films to local communities around the country. Although the Central 
Booking Agency had been in place since 1945, the services it provided 
were dramatically improved and rationalized under Forman, in order to 
respond to the growing demand. By negotiating the film bookings with 
commercial distributors on behalf of the societies, and by providing 
programme notes and other literature to accompany the screenings, the 
BFI managed to exert a certain control over this key development. 

Another cornerstone of Forman’s strategy was the development of film 
education. In 1950 he appointed a teacher, Stanley Reed, as the BFI’s 
first full-time film appreciation officer. This new activity followed two 
complementary directions: the training of teachers and youth leaders in 
film appreciation work through numerous lectures (as many as 239 in 
1952) and courses up and down the country (not to mention the now 
established annual summer school), and through the preparation of 
suitable teaching materials, including film extracts, leaflets, catalogues 
and a new monthly publication entitled Film Guide. 

By the end of 1951, the first phase of Forman’s holistic project was 
completed. Two further areas, which appeared as natural extensions of 
his strategy, were yet to be organized: the BFI’s own permanent cinema, 
and the support of experimental film production at a time when film 
experiment was practically non-existent both within and without the film 
industry. If the BFI’s Treasury grant had not allowed it to expand into 
these two areas, the 1951 Festival of Britain was to give it the opportunity 
to do so. 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film Institute 

18 The BFI was initially entrusted 
with a budget of £120,000 to 
commission a series of 
documentaries. Following the 
Festival budget cuts in 1949, the 
BFI was able to salvage a mere 
£11,000 out of the initial sum 
towards the production of a 
handful of experimental shorts. 

Shortly after the publication of the Radcliffe Report, Herbert Morrison 
had given the BFI the task of organizing the film activities of the Festival 
of Britain as part of its new prerogative. This decision led to two 
developments. First, the Institute was asked to build a small state-of-the- 
art cinema, named Telecinema, to be included in London’s South Bank 
Exhibition. Secondly, it was given a token sum of money to sponsor a 
handful of short experimental (mainly stereoscopic) films, to be shown in 
the Telecinema.’® The success of the cinema and its experimental 
programmes over the summer of 1951 (it attracted nearly 500,000 
spectators) was such that Forman, with Morrison’s support, started 
campaigning to retain the Telecinema as a permanent venue. However, 
things were made more difficult by the Conservative election victory in 
October 1951 as the new government saw both the Festival and the BFI 
as symbols of the Labour era. The money to fund the Institute’s future 
cinema had to be found elsewhere and Forman, pragmatic as ever, found 
an unlikely ally in the film trade. After lengthy negotiations, he obtained 
enough money from the Eady Levy (a mere £25,000 ) not only to turn the 
Telecinema into the National Film Theatre, but also to set up a small 
Experimental Film Fund which would go on to fund a number of ‘Free 
Cinema’ films in the mid-1950s and would be revived as the Production 
Board a decade later. Despite being a minor activity (and not one 
envisaged by the Racliffe Report), film production proved to be a crucial 
piece in the puzzle, in that it conferred on the BFI a new dynamic attitude 
towards film at a time when most of its activities were turned to film in its 
historical dimension. 

The NFT was also a crucial feature in Forman’s cultural project in that 
it supported the growth of a new generation of film enthusiasts through 
its two-fold policy of repertory screenings illustrating the history of film 
as an art form, and screenings of current foreign films which Londoners 
had never seen before, not to mention screenings of the BFI’s own 
experimental productions. Thanks to the new associate membership 
created to accommodate NFT-goers, the total BFI membership increased 
dramatically from about 2500 in 1952 to over 40,000 by the end of the 
decade (see figure 2). 

Throughout the 1950s, the BFI’s growing influence also manifested 
itself through its new role as a forum for the British film intelligentsia. 
Writers, critics and filmmakers (from Kenneth Tynan to Dilys Powell 
and Lindsay Anderson) met at the BFI and made a regular contribution to 
the BFl’s project by writing articles, reviewing films, giving lectures or 
programming film seasons at the NFT. 

By 1952/53, the cultural model designed by Denis Forman and his 
colleagues was in place (see figure 1 for its administrative structure). It 
would not be fundamentally challenged until the late 1960s. What James 
Quinn and Stanley Reed, Forman’s successors, did was to consolidate 
and expand this model: the former by setting up the NFT on its present 
site and launching the London Film Festival in 1957; the latter by taking 
the BFI’s brief and methods out of the metropolis and into the regions 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film institute 



Fig. 1 

The Departments of the 
BFI, 1954. 

Fig. 2 

BFI membership numbers. 




through the establishment of a network of Regional Film Theatres. This 
expansive cultural policy was not, however, implemented as easily as it 
may sound. The BFI’s two usual obstacles were its recurrent financial 
difficulties, caused by the stagnation of grant-in-aid until Jennie Lee’s 
appointment as Arts Minister in 1965 (see figure 3), and the 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film Institute 

Fig. 3 

BFI annual budgets. 

19 'BFI Report; Confidential', in Oz. 
no. 15(1968). 

1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 

ever-unhelpful attitude of the trade, which, despite the BFI’s 
constitutional changes, still managed to have a number of influential 
representatives on its governing body. 

By the late 1960s, the postwar model was in a serious existential crisis. 
A new generation of film enthusiasts, critics and filmmakers started 
publicly questioning the BFl’s apathy and its hegemony over film culture 
in Britain (it was even nicknamed the ‘Rank organization of 16 mm’ 
Indeed, what was considered modem in the late 1940s had become 
conservative in post- 1968 Britain. The generation of cinephiles who had 
taken part in the BFI’s revolution of the late 1940s to early 1950s - 
Stanley Reed, John Huntley, Penelope Houston, Leslie Hardcastle, even 
Ernest Lindgren - were still in post in 1970. By then they had become a 
symbol of the film culture establishment, and their idea of a film culture 
was considered out-of-date by many. Little wonder there was a crisis 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Christophe Dupin • The postwar transformation of the British Film institute 


The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its 


1 \'>janBu\.\er, 'To Encourage the Art 
of Film': the Story of the British 
Film Institute (London: Robort 
Hale, 1971), pp. 49-53. The book 
was published too soon after the 
events to deal with their 
aftermath, and since Butler there 
has been no book-length study 
of the BFI. 

Around 1970 the British Film Institute (BFI) was engulfed by crisis at 
every level. There were tensions within the Board of Governors, between 
governors and management, within the management, and between 
management and staff and among different staff factions. Outside, a 
group of BFI members was agitating vociferously for change and 
threatening, if necessary, to have the entire Board of Governors 
dismissed from office. Meanwhile Whitehall dithered anxiously, 
hoping that some vigorous inaction would save the Minister from 
the embarrassment of having to intervene. 

In the end the crisis was defused. The governors were not dismissed. 
The Minister discreetly accepted the resignation of the Chairman of the 
Board. Equally discreetly, the Director took early retirement due to ill 
health. Although a little blood had been spilt - notably in the form of the 
resignation of the charismatic head of the BFI’s Education Department, 
Paddy Whannel - by early 1972 order had been restored. This was not, 
however, a victory for the forces of conservatism, since the BFI which 
emerged from the crisis was in fact profoundly changed, and in many 
respects in a progressive direction. 

Memory of the crisis is still alive in the minds of the surviving 
participants, but it has left little trace in the public record. The only 
history of the BFI, Ivan Butler’s To Encourage the Art of Film, deals 
in a cursory and complacent manner with the dramatic Annual General 
Meeting in December 1970 at which the governors narrowly escaped 
dismissal, but says nothing about why the crisis erupted in the first 
place, or of its aftermath.’ The autumn 1971 issue of Screen gives the 
point of view of Whannel and his colleagues who resigned alongside 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



2 Scree/?, vol. 12, no 3 (1971). See 
also Colin McArthur 'Two steps 
forward, one step back: cultural 
struggle in the British Film 
Institute', Journal of Popular 
British Cinema, no. 4 (2001), pp. 
112-27 . 

3 The relevant boxes in the BFI 
Paper Archive are 19, 51 and 71. 
From the Balcon Collection, K/48. 

4 Lee's confusion sounds 

implausible, but is attested by 
surviving witnesses of her 
meeting with BFI staff after her 

5 Source. BFI Annual Reports. 

him.^ The correspondence columns of The Listener (outlet of choice 
for the establishment faction) and Time Out (for the rebels) contain 
some spirited polemic for historians to pore over, but for the most part 
the material about the crisis lies, more or less undisturbed, in the BFI’s 
Paper Archive, largely in the boxes where the BFI’s own records are 
lodged, but also in Sir Michael Balcon’ s papers in BFI Special 

What was the crisis about, and what caused it? Very crudely, it came 
about because the BFI as recreated under Denis Forman after the 
Radcliffe Report (see Dupin, in this issue) had grown, but had not kept up 
with changes in the surrounding culture. From 1965 onwards it had 
benefited from large increases in government funding; the National Film 
Archive was getting new vaults to house the greater number of films it 
was able to preserve; the National Film Theatre was about to open its 
second screen, NFT 2, for specialist programmes; the Experimental Film 
Fund had become the Production Board, with a budget that made 
possible the financing of feature-length films; and an ambitious 
programme was underway to open Regional Film Theatres (RFTs) across 
the country, from Newcastle in the north-east to Newport in south Wales. 
Flowever, as to what culture these activities should promote and how 
they could be concerted to good effect, there were few in the Institute 
with much of a clue. 

The source of the expansion was the Labour government elected in 
1964. One of its first acts had been to appoint a Minister for the Arts in 
the form of Jennie Lee, widow of the leader of the Labour left in the 
1950s, Aneurin Bevan. Lee’s mission was to bring art to the people and 
she eagerly threw money at the BFI to activate its embryonic plans for 
the RFTs. Whether her idea for the RFTs was that they would show art 
films or films about art was never clear, but the BFI was happy to lap up 
the money without asking too many questions.'' The BFI’s government 
grant for recurrent expenditure rose from £126,000 in 1964/65, to 
£180,000 in 1965/66, £230,000 in 1966/67, £280,000 in 1967/68 and 
£345,000 in 1968/69, a sizeable proportion of the increase being for 
regional activity. It also received substantial capital grant: some for the 
Archive, but mainly for the regions. Meanwhile its self-generated income 
also rose, but more slowly. Overall, the Institute’s total turnover rose 
from £250,000 in 1964/65, which was 50% government grant and 50% 
self-generated income, to £650,000 in 1969/70, of which two-thirds was 
grant and one-third self-generated.® Meanwhile over the same period 
staff numbers rose from just over 100 in 1964 to nearly 200 in 1969, 
topping the 200 mark in 1970. One way or another, the organization had 
more than doubled in size in six years and had also become much more 
heavily dependent on government. 

Meanwhile, however, it had neither adjusted its governance nor its 
management to take account of the greater range of its activities, nor had 
it responded (other than negatively) to changes in the surrounding 
culture. It was managed by a Director (Stanley Reed) and a small and 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith • The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its aftermath 

6 Balcon Collection K/48. 

rather clubby Executive Committee, responsible to a Board of 
non-executive governors drawn in large part from the film trade, who had 
neither the time nor the inclination to provide detailed oversight of BFI 
affairs, which were increasingly complex. Management style had 
become inappropriate to the enlarged scale of operations. Newly created 
tiers of middle and junior management felt themselves cut out of the 
decision-making process and were angry when decisions taken turned 
out to be ill-informed. Most important, the management was unaware - 
or, when aware, foolishly dismissive - of what was happening at the 
grass roots among BFI members and other people active in the film 
culture. The activists were only a minority, but if there was ever a time 
when it was foolish to dismiss the views of the active minorities - the 
minorites agissantes - the years around 1968 were it. 

After four years of uncontested and self-satisfied expansion, the alarm 
bells began to ring in 1968. In June, without giving any notice of his 
intentions, a young filmmaker called Maurice Hatton published in The 
Times an Open Letter to the Minister lambasting the BFI for squandering 
its resources and calling for it to be abolished and replaced by a new, 
more active body for which Hatton proposed the name ‘Cinetec 
International London’. Jennie Lee was not amused and issued a curt 
rejoinder to the press expressing her regret at Hatton’s abuse of protocol 
and her confidence in the BFI’s governance and management. 

Over the next eighteen months dissatisfaction began to grow among 
the minorities and soon coalesced into an active movement of dissent. 
The BFI Annual General Meeting in December 1969 was well attended, 
bad tempered, and by all accounts badly handled by management and by 
the Chairman of Governors, Sir William Coldstream, Head of the Slade 
School of Fine Art and a former filmmaker as well as a painter of some 
distinction. Alarmed, the governors initiated a review of BFI policy and 
governance. The moving spirit behind the Policy Review, as they called 
it, was Dr David Kerr, a Labour MP who was a keen supporter of the 
Archive and was in the process of tabling a Private Member’s Bill calling 
for Statutory Deposit of all British films in the Archive, analogous to the 
Statutory Deposit of books in the British Library. 

The governing body now split in various directions. Kerr thought the 
main problem was insufficient and amateurish oversight by the governors 
themselves. Michael Balcon, the Chair of the Production Board, 
privately admitted to concerns about the role of film industry members of 
the governing body, who seemed to him (he was one himself) 
insufficiently supportive of the Institute and its purposes.® Some 
governors were concerned with financial transparency. Lindsay 
Anderson, supported by Karel Reisz, wanted the review to concentrate on 
policy, and in particular on the editorial policy of Sight and Sound, which 
in his opinion was no longer doing its best by British cinema (or at least 
the part of British cinema represented by Anderson and his friends). 
Receiving only lukewarm support, Anderson resigned, dragging Reisz 
with him. Meanwhile the Board was expressing concern about what was 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Geoffrey Nowell-Smith • The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its aftermath 



going on in the BFI’s Education Department and set up a subcommittee 
under Professor Asa Briggs, Vice-Chancellor of the University of 
Sussex, to look into it, along with Reisz (later replaced by Helen Forman) 
and Paul Adorian from Associated Rediffusion. 

The review rumbled on, ineffectually, through the summer of 1970. 
Meanwhile two things were happening, one inside the BFI and one 
outside. Inside the BFI, a group of twenty-nine middle-ranking staff 
wrote a letter on 15 May to the Director calling for more democracy and 
improved communications. Outside, Hatton and a group of fifteen or so 
other activists formed themselves into something called the BFI 
Members’ Action Group (or Committee) and took legal advice on the 
powers which the BFI membership had to influence Institute policy. It 
turned out they had no powers at all, except that they could propose a 
motion at the AGM calling for the dismissal of any or all the governors. 
Since this was the only option open, they notified the BFI of their 
intention to propose motions to that effect and issued a manifesto entitled 
‘Why we want to dismiss the Governors’, backing this up with a press 
campaign conducted mainly through the pages of Time Out. 

The gathering storm spurred the governors into action. On 22-24 
October they held an away- weekend at Balcon’s country home in Sussex, 
during which they rejected Kerr’s more radical proposals for partly 
devolving the Archive and the NFT from the rest of the BFI and rallied 
behind Stanley Reed in his efforts to hold the Institute together. They 
appointed a subgroup to write a report formalizing their majority view, 
but three governors - Balcon, Jocelyn Baines and George Hoellering - 
announced their intention of producing a minority report. Governors also 
urged Briggs to accelerate production of his subcommittee’s report on 
the Education Department. 

Meanwhile the twenty-nine staff signatories of the letter to the 
Director, angry at not having received more than token acknowledgment, 
wrote again on 16 November, requesting it be tabled at the next meeting 
of governors. For good measure, they also circulated it as a memo to all 
staff. This provoked a counter-letter from twenty-one other staff on the 
same grades, dated 5 December, expressing disagreement with the 
twenty-nine and guarded confidence in the management, thereby 
providing the management with a more amenable internal interlocutor. 

As the date of the AGM (14 December) approached, panic set in 
among governors and senior management. Nobody knew what the 
constitutional position would be if the motion to dismiss the governors 
were to be passed at the meeting. The Department of Education and 
Science was evasive, and so were the BFI’s lawyers. The lawyers were 
also unable to say whether BFI staff were entitled to vote. The 
management was afraid that, if they were, they might vote the 
wrong way. 

The Action Group showed no sign of wishing to hack down. It was a 
heterogeneous group, mainly London-centred. I was a member of it, but 
not very active, being the only one who did not live in London. Five of 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith • The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its aftermath 

7 The total number of 'Full 

Members' of the BFI (the category 
entitled to vote) was 14,060. The 
main benefit of Full rather than 
Associate membership was the 
inclusion of a subscription to Sight 
and Sound in the membership 
package, so it is not surprising 
that the majority of voting 
members were broadly content 
with what the BFI had to offer. 

the group - Maurice Hatton, Steve Dwoskin, Mark Forstater, Roger 
Graef and Simon Hartog - were independent filmmakers. Peter 
Sainsbury and Nick Hart-Williams were from The Other Cinema. 
Sainsbury was also founder-editor of Afterimage, along with Simon 
Field. Ian Cameron was an independent publisher and founder-editor 
with Victor Perkins of Movie. Perkins had worked in the BFI Education 
Department, as had Peter Wollen. Wollen, Jon Halliday and Ben 
Brewster were on the board of New Left Review. Phil Hardy and Claire 
Johnston were freelancers. Nicholas Gamham had been a BBC producer 
and was now a university lecturer, as was I. The group’s interests were 
varied and ranged from popular cinema (particularly American), to 
political cinema, to the artistic avant garde. What united the group, 
besides our age (all between twenty-five and thirty-five ), was a sense that 
the BFI represented a stifling orthodoxy which failed to pay attention to 
any of these areas; that its middle-of-the-road policies were an expensive 
failure; and that not only was it out of touch with the live elements of the 
film culture but that it abused its monopoly position actively to keep the 
culture stagnant and restrictive. 

Given the diversity of interests among the group, it was not easy to 
agree on a common platform and the manifesto finally agreed on was 
something of a compromise. It called for; 

1. A halt to the uncontrolled spread of the Regional Film Theatres. 

2. More coherence to NFT programming, with input from the Education 

3. An end to the abuse of the BFEs privileged and monopoly position as 
film distributor and publisher of Sight and Sound. 

4. A change in Production Board policy away from attempts to produce 
feature films. 

5. Less emphasis on preservation at the National Film Archive and more 
on availability. 

6. A less hierarchical membership structure. 

7. More coherence and more democracy in the way the BFI was run. 

8. More emphasis on research and less subservience to the industry. 

At the meeting each member of the group proposed his or her own motion 
to dismiss a particular governor. These were put to the vote and were 
defeated by 189 votes to 90. The Group then called for a postal ballot, at 
which it was even more heavily defeated: 4425 votes were cast; 225 for 
bloc removal of all the governors and 3852 for retention, and 348 mixed 
ballots with people voting to remove some governors but not others.^ 
Fortified by this result, the management and governors decided to 
make no concessions to the twenty-nine radical staff, but did offer some 
sop in the direction of the moderate twenty-one. 

From the point of view of the rebels, worse was to come. On 
14 January, Professor Briggs delivered his report on the Education 
Department. No copy of this report survives in the BFI archives, nor have 
I been able to find a copy anywhere else, but it is not difficult to 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Geoffrey Nowell-Smith • The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its aftermath 



8 Lindgren's memo is dated 20 
August 1971. Copies in BFI Paper 
Archive Boxes 19 and 71. The 
resignation letter is in Screen, 
vol. 12, no. 3(1971), pp. 2-8. 

reconstruct its contents. It proposed scaling down the Department’s 
activities, reducing it to a support and advisory role, and cutting the 
umbilical cord that linked it to the Society for Education in Film and 
Television, then publisher of Screen. It is hard to say, without having 
read it, what thinking lay behind the report. Perhaps not very much. Yet it 
is not hard to suspect a strong current of anti-intellectualism 
and a distaste for the new ideas being canvassed, for example, in 
the joint Education Department/ SEFT seminars - most notably 
the explosive conjunction of Marxism and semiotics. 

The governors accepted the report and the management was charged 
with its implementation. Paddy Whannel refused to give ground. 
Negotiations between Whannel and director Stanley Reed foundered 
acrimoniously and had to be conducted via a third party, Ernest Lindgren, 
Curator of the National Film Archive. In August 1971, Whannel 
announced his resignation, together with that of five other members of 
department staff. Their letter of resignation was circulated as an all-staff 
memo and subsequently published in Screen. In response to the memo, 
Lindgren sent out a memo of his own, giving the management point of 
view. In it Lindgren picks up on a phrase which was only just beginning 
to come into currency: T will only say,’ Lindgren writes, ‘that when this 
letter, in its last sentence, argues that the purpose of the British Film 
Institute is “to play a central role in creating a film culture” it is going 
against governors’ policy and I believe this to be the crux of the whole 
dispute’. He goes on, ‘The proper role of a public organisation in a 
democratic state is to provide the information and the facilities to enable 
people to make up their own minds about the nature of film and its 
purpose in society’. Finally, ‘It is not the job of the Institute ... to 
develop and promulgate one particular film culture’.® 

Fine sentiments, but hypocritical - or, more likely, insufficiently self- 
aware, precisely because the Institute did develop and promulgate, 
although not very effectively, a particular culture. Since this culture, 
however, was that of a handful of canonical classics, plus some more 
recent art films, preferably erotic in a tasteful way, and simply seemed 
natural to Lindgren and his peers, the irony of the situation was not 

In the autumn matters improved. The new Chairman of Governors, 
Denis Forman, held a meeting with SEFT and other educationists and 
succeeded in allaying their fears about the future of Screen. He was also 
in the chair at the next AGM when the Action Group again put forward 
its motions to dismiss the Board. This time the group succeeded and the 
motions were passed by a small majority, but the result, predictably, was 
overthrown in a postal ballot. Forman also obtained ministerial approval 
for a manoeuvre to ease some of the trade representatives off the Board of 
Governors and for an innovative scheme to have at least one governor 
appointed following a poll by members. The first governor thus 
appointed was a member of the Action Group, Nick Gamham. Inside the 
BFI, the dust soon settled. Reed’s retirement, shortly followed by that of 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith • The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its aftermath 

Lindgren and the enforced departure of the Head of Film Services, 

John Huntley, meant wholesale renewal of senior management. By the 
mid 1970s the new Executive Committee contained only two survivors 
from the former Executive: the Controller of the NFT, Leslie Hardcastle, 
and the Editor of Sight and Sound, Penelope Houston. Members of the 
twenty-nine who were promoted included Clyde Jeavons, who became 
Deputy Curator of the Archive, and Brenda Davies, who joined the new 
Executive. Colin McArthur, who was made Acting Head of Education 
after Whannel and the others left, was later promoted to take charge of 
Huntley’s former empire, bringing to the BFI’s film distribution arm a 
commitment to the very concept of film culture that Lindgren had sought 
to banish. Meanwhile the Education Department, although renamed 
Educational Advisory Service in order to reflect its supposed 
downgrading, continued the work pioneered by Paddy Whannel and the 
group he had formed around him in the 1960s. 

All this, of course, was fiercely contested and the 1970s continued to 
be a turbulent time in the BFI - as indeed it was in the surrounding 
culture. However, the turbulence was highly productive and the battles of 
1970 proved to have been well worth fighting. 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Geoffrey Nowell-Smith • The 1970 crisis at the BFI and its aftermath 


The struggle for funding: sponsorship, 
competition and pacification 


This essay analyzes the interaction between an artists’ cooperative and a 
state arts funding bureaucracy over a fifteen-year period. Given the 
divergent aims, operational philosophies and internal structures, it is not 
surprising that their viewpoints differed, and that they frequently failed to 
appreciate each other’s position. Likewise, the kinds of documents they 
produced, and the extent to which they have been preserved, differ, 
sometimes quite radically. Taken separately, the document collections 
tell largely separate stories, even where they deal with the same events. 
The conflict is frequently worst where the documents are dealing with the 
same events because, fundamentally, the conflict was over who would 
control cultural production and provision, and what means would best 
deliver it. While these perspectives cannot be unified, aspects of them 
can be described and considered. The following account gives more 
attention to the artists’ co-op, partly because it was the first of the 
organizations to concern itself with experimental film, and partly because 
this conflict, and the co-op’s activities before it, are rarely written about 
and sometimes poorly understood. 

October 1966 was a significant month in the London ‘underground’ 
movement. On 1 1 October, an underground newspaper called the 
International Times (IT) was founded by, amongst others, John ‘Hoppy’ 
Hopkins and Jim Haynes. It had an editor but no editorial policy - 
whatever was sent in was printed. As the paper was not expected to pay 
for itself, a bootstrapping operation was devised whereby a series of 
benefit events supported the paper and publicized its existence, while the 
paper publicized the events. At the first of these on 15 October, a band 
called Pink Floyd got its first public notice, and the London Film-makers’ 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



1 A title possibly related to the 
Spontaneous Underground at the 
Marquee Club earlier that year, 
where an unknown band called 
The Pink Floyd Sound became a 
fixture at the weekly variety 
performances. See Barry Miles, In 
the Sixties (London: Jonathan 
Cape. 2002), pp. 98-106. 

2 'Underground Film Festival 
Supplement', The International 
Times, 31 October to 1 3 November 
1966. Source; British Artists' Film 
and Video Study Collection 

3 David Curtis, 'English avant-garde 
film: an early chronology', in 
Rodney Wilson (ed.), Perspectives 
on British Avant-Garde Film. 
Hayward Gallery catalogue 
(London: Arts Council/Hayward 
Gallery, 1977), p. 10. 

4 Ibid. See also Michael Maziere, 
'Interview with David Curtis', 
available at http;// 
Curtis.html (22 October 2006]. 

5 Peter Thomas, Interview with 
Peter Gidal, 17 October 2005. 

6 LFMC; Notice of Film-Makers’ 
General Meeting, 13 March 1968, 
p. 2. Source: BAFVSC. 

7 LFMC, Application for Assistance 
to the BFI, Summer 1975, pp. 7-8. 
A list of events is provided. 
Source: BAFVSC. 

Co-operative (LFMC), formed earlier that week as an open-access film 
distributor and freewheeling underground exhibition group, had its first 
show. In the next month LFMC held its first major film series, the 
‘Spontaneous Festival of Underground Film’’ (which received four 
pages of coverage in IT, written, of course, by LFMC),^ and then filled 
the rest of the year with a series of open screenings in which anything that 
turned up on the night was projected. At Christmas, the IT events shifted 
to a fixed venue, the UFO Club, where the LFMC provided projections 
throughout the six months that the UFO survived,^ alongside lightshows, 
bands, jugglers, performance artists, food stalls and so forth. 

By mid-1967, as UFO was being ejected from its venue, IT founder 
Jim Haynes was working with others to found the first UK Arts Lab. 
When it opened in September at Drury Lane, it had a theatre, coffee shop, 
gallery and a cinema run by LFMC member David Curtis, who had 
previously been projecting films at the UFO.'’ A film workshop formed 
which later merged with the LFMC, bringing production, distribution 
and exhibition together in the same organization. A new activist 
philosophy was propounded whereby the filmmaker would operate and 
be responsible across all the areas from making to showing. It is a central 
feature of this period that many of the artist filmmakers not only made 
films, but also built and maintained equipment, and organized and 
promoted shows. Later they carried equipment, knocked holes in walls to 
get equipment out of difficult buildings, did DIY renovations to new 
sites, and lobbied for funds. 

The LFMC was a resource for the activist milieu that had created it to 
answer their own needs. Its distribution collection was an important 
resource for programmers and budding event managers, and guaranteed 
the availability of films that might otherwise be dispersed across their 
various makers. The cinema exposed the work, and an equipment 
collection was created in the workshop. The LFMC existed and grew 
because it was to the advantage of its activist membership that it do so.® 
At the point of merger it was made clear that LFMC was to be a 
filmmakers ' organization - owned by, and run for the benefit of, 
filmmakers. These are some of the points ratified by the vote: 

1 . The co-op should be a service run by filmmakers (and filmmakers 

i. ... all decisions should be rejected or endorsed by reference to 
the film-makers. 

ii. there are no policy decisions to make - the co-op is a service. 

2. There are no taste decisions - ALL films submitted will be accepted . . . 

3. Whoever is prepared to take responsibility for a sphere of activity will 
be responsible for making all of the decisions in that field, and will 
announce them in the NEWSLETTER. Should any controversy arise, 
a vote will be taken at a meeting.® 

In this way, by 1975 the LFMC had organized or supplied the films for 
over sixty events at festivals and galleries across the world.' This level of 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Peter Thomas - The struggle for funding 

8 Jim Haynes, 'Newsletter V, 28 
October 1 969, available at http: / / 
newsletters/N.1 %20ArtsLab 
280ct69.pdf [22 October 2006] 

9 Ibid. The letter also contains an 
abbreviated list of the lab's 
achievements. See also Richard 
Witts, Artist Unknown: An 
Alternative History of the Arts 
Council {London: Little Brown 
Books, 1998), pp. 473-4. 

10 Hugh Willatt (Secretary-General, 
ACGB), Arts Council of Great 
Britain: New Activities, Council 
Paper 433, 10 October 1968. 
Source: Victoria and Albert 
Museum, Arts Council of Great 
Britain (VAM/ACBG): Records, 
1927-1997; ACGB/35/146 Box 
N.2. Unless otherwise stated, all 
documentation relating to the 
New Activities Committee, 

FACOP, the Drury Lane Arts Lab 
and IRAT is from this box. 

11 Dennis Andrews, Minute Paper to 
Hugh Willatt on the National 
Artists' Assembly, 27 October 
1969, p. 1. The New Activities 
Committee, which then contained 
several FACOP members, paid for 
the Assembly. 

12 Times Literary Supplement, 5 June 
1969. This appears to be free 
publicity for FACOP’s conference 
of 8 June. See also David Bieda 
(for FACOP), Letter to Michael 
Astor (Chair, New Activities 
Committee), 28 May 1969. 

13 See John Lifton and Robert Dodd, 
'Presentation of the Case', 

14 Michael Astor, undated report to 
Hugh Willatt, pp. 3-4. Note also 
the Arts Council’s fine collection 
of FACOP documents. 

15 See IRAT: Information Bulletin 2, 
July 1969; 'The New Arts 
Laboratory Project’, undated; 

Biddy Peppin, Letter to Hugh 
Willatt, 26 June 1969. 

16 Minutes of the Fourth Meeting of 
the New Activities Committee, 

20 February 1969, p. 2. 

17 Hugh Willatt, Letter to David 
Curtis, 20 May 1969. Source: 

18 Malcolm LeGrice, 'Patronage 
Seminar', Circuit, nos. 10/11 
(July-August 1969), p. 3. 

activity, conducted by the filmmakers themselves, did a great deal to 
raise the profile of experimental and avant-garde film. 

The Drury Lane Arts Lab folded under the pressure of its debts in 
October 1969.® Jim Haynes’s farewell letter notes that, despite two 
years of considerable multimedia achievement, no support was received 
from an Arts Council which gave £37,000 annually to the kitchens of 
the Royal Opera House.® The Arts Council was, in fact, groping towards 
a way to support such projects. Since one of the problems was that 
many applications from the underground related to mixed media 
whereas Arts Council panels were single media, the Council created the 
New Activities Committee (NAC) to assess such applications.’® Despite 
this, an artists’ group. Friends of the Arts Council - Operative 
(FACOP), referred to by Arts Council observers as ‘the London 
extremists’,” was formed to assess the Arts Council’s activities.’^ 
FACOP’s central demand in 1969 was for the Arts Council to be 
replaced by an ‘Artists’ Council’, which would be democratically 
elected at meetings - such as those organized by FACOP.’® This idea, 
and FACOP’s periodic infiltration and railroading of the Arts Council, 
infuriated its Chair, Michael Astor, but he comforted himself that such 
an ‘Artists’ Council’ would ‘bring together and identify the extremists, 
the nihilists, those who are given to raving in public and one or two 
more serious political activists’.’'* He offered them £50 from his own 

At this time FACOP was organizing activities from the Institute for 
Research in Art and Technology (IRAT), also known as the New Arts 
Lab, housed in a derelict fire station found by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins. 

IRAT applied to the Arts Council for support in order to fit out an 
exhibition/concert space which would accommodate a cinema, 
theatre, carpentry workshop, electronic and cybernetic workshop, 
video workshop, the LFMC, and a metal and plastic workshop.’® 

While the Council considered IRAT’s application to be high quality, 
inexpensive and backed by a strong team,’® as had been the case with the 
Drury Lane Arts Lab the year before, no help emerged, although 
Secretary General Hugh Willatt did write a supportive letter to the 
Greater London Council.’^ What this demonstrates is not that the Arts 
Council was monolithically suspicious of the underground, despite areas 
of hostility. Rather, as LFMC member Malcolm LeGrice observed in his 
report at a FACOP seminar, there was a deep split in the Arts Council 
between those who favoured a remit which emphasized the provision of 
traditional forms of art to a wide public, and those who were committed 
to a new mission of supporting contemporary and experimental 

In the midst of all this, the LFMC received its first substantial 
donation; not from the Arts Council, or from the British Film Institute 
(BFI), which they had also approached, but from an ‘underground 
millionaire’. Victor Herbert, the wealthy businessman who donated the 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Peter Thomas - The struggle for funding 



19 Jim Haynes, Thanks for Coming! 
(London: Faber & Faber, 1984). 
Miles, In the Sixties, p. 133. 

20 Michael Maziere, Interview with 
Malcolm LeGrice, available at 
LeGrice.html (22 October 2006] 

21 Malcolm LeGrice, Letter to Keith 
Lucas (BF! Director), 8 April 1975. 
Source: BAFVSC. Maziere, 
Interview with Malcolm LeGrice. 

22 Hugh Willatt, Letter to David 
Curtis, 2 February 1973. Source: 
BAFVSC. Maziere, Interview with 
David Curtis. 

23 Maziere, Interview with Malcolm 

24 Peter Sainsbury (BFI Production 
Board), Letter to William Raban 
(LFMC), 17 April 1975, p. 1. 
Source: BAFVSC. 

25 Undated LFMC application to BFI 
Production Board, Summer 1975, 
p. 11. Source: BAFVSC. 

26 See Studio International \/o\A%, 
no. 978 (November 1975). 

27 David Hopkins, 'Programme of The 
First Festival of British 
Independent Film'. Independent 
Cinema West, February 1975. 
Source: BAFVSC. 

£500 that started the International Times'^ gave LFMC £3000 for 
printing and processing equipment.^® 

Throughout the early 1970s, as the LFMC built up its distribution 
collection and gave exposure to work in and out of the UK, and as its 
members used the workshop to make films which have become the 
mainstay of UK avant-garde film retrospectives, lobbying continued for 
support and recognition from national subsidy bodies. In 1972 artist- 
activist Malcolm LeGrice accepted appointment to the BFI Production 
Board, and in 1973 activist David Curtis accepted appointment to the 
Arts Council’s new Artists’ Films Sub-Committee (AFSC).^^ LeGrice 
lobbied the Production Board to support production by funding 
workshops rather than individuals, which, FACOP-style, would allow 
works to be made without being constrained by the Board’s interests.^^ 
At the same time, the AFSC awarded small grants for productions whose 
real expense was often deferred by the LFMC workshop. Little of this 
touched the LFMC until another premises crisis arose in 1975. The 
urgency of this allowed for a change that opened the way to substantial 
BFI support. 

LFMC had made an unsuccessful application to the Group Support 
Fund for less than £5000, but the Production Board believed that the 
workshop equipment which it had applied for ‘could not be efficiently 
utilised without there also being a paid operator/instructor’ When the 
negotiations were over, the Production Board committed £16,000 - half 
as much again as the entire Group Support Fund - to meet the ‘real 
needs’ of LFMC, including the need for paid staff. While this began a 
series of annual grants that continued until 2001, and clearly addressed a 
pressing need, it also changed the Co-op. Voluntary organizers who had 
taken responsibility for distribution, workshop and screening activities 
became paid staff, while the volunteer secretary and treasurer roles 
atrophied. The role of the volunteer organizers was part of a wider 
volunteer effort, and, as no one was being paid, the organizer roles were a 
characteristic of a general, cooperative, volunteerist ethos. The 
successful application to the BFI Production Board had affirmed, under 
‘Future Developments’: ‘We want to expand’.^® But what if the increased 
labour demands of this expansion coincided with a decrease in 
volunteerism? Furthermore, as LFMC had never previously been in a 
position to pay staff, now that it had staff it was locked into a subsidy 
system to maintain them. 

1975 was a good time to expect expansion. In February, the First 
Festival of British Independent Film, held in Bristol, was a substantial 
success; and in November the dedication of an issue of Studio 
International to avant-garde film and video was both a real achievement 
and the source of several seminal, much reprinted essays.^® Though 
LFMC work was prominent in the Festival of British Independent Film, it 
was through the prolonged lobbying of the organizers. Independent 
Cinema West, that the Festival had received BFI and Arts Council 
funding,^^ and the Festival programme itself included work from many of 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Peter Thomas - The struggle for funding 

28 Minutes of the Artists' Films 
Committee, 2 May 1977, p. 2. 
Source: VAM/ACGB/54/60, 

Box 3. David Curtis (AFVSC), Letter 
to Stuart Marshall, 30 October 
1981. Source: VAM/ACGB/56/ 
96, Box 2. 

29 Felicity Sparrow (LFMC 
Distribution), Letter to Stan 
VanderBeek, 27 September 1978. 
Source: Lux, distribution 
ringbinder. William Raban, Letter 
to David Curtis (AFVSC), 24 
October 1981, p. 1. Source: VAM/ 
ACGB/56/96, Box 2. 

30 See programme of Perspectives on 
the British Avant-Garde, Flayward 
Gallery, 2 March to 24 April 1977. 
Source: BAFVSC. 

31 Felicity Sparrow (LFMC 
Distribution), Letter to Chris 
Garratt, 7 July 1977, p. 2. Source: 
Lux, distribution ringbinder. 

32 Minutes of LFMC General 
Meeting, 1 0 December 1 977, p. 1 . 
Source: BAFVSC. 

33 Minutes of the Artists' Films 
Committee, 23 January 1978, p. 1. 
Source: VAM/ACGB/54/60. 

Box 4. 

the other radical workshops then in existence. These disparate groups had 
formed their own body, the Independent Filmmakers’ Association (IF A), 
the previous year. The term ‘Independent’ had come to signal a broad 
coalition of groups of filmmakers and kinds of filmmaking, from 
campaign and community groups to the avant garde, and the Bristol 
festival was a celebration of this. The beginnings of support and 
recognition from key funders was seen as part of the success of this 
broader coalition. 

Until 1976, the Arts Council’s Artists’ Films Sub-Committee had 
largely confined its support to production awards and bursaries. From 
1976, however, it turned its attention to the wider public exposure of the 
work it had subsidized. The Film-Makers on Tour scheme (FMOT) was 
piloted in 1977, making selected AFSC-funded filmmakers available 
with a night’s programme for £10. AFSC-funded filmmakers received 
£30 plus travel to accompany a programme of films which was made 
available to venues. While the intention was to increase exposure and 
find new audiences, the most obvious effect was the simultaneous growth 
and migration of the Art College market from LFMC to FMOT.^® 
LFMC’s distribution wing had been organizing small shows for its 
members and for college venues, charging between £25 and £60 and 
taking a ten percent rental charge.^® With the FMOT, the hirer group 
which had been developed and serviced by the LFMC began to transfer 
its allegiances to a subsidized Arts Council scheme, which brought 
considerable cost advantages while still retaining access to the same 
filmmakers and prints, many of which were still in the LFMC distribution 

In 1977 the Arts Council organized a massive retrospective of UK 
artists’ film at its own Hayward Gallery. Nearly all the UK works at the 
‘Perspectives on the British Avant-Garde Film’ exhibition were made at 
and distributed by LFMC. LFMC, however, was not mentioned in the 
exhibition programme. As the introductory notes to the catalogue make 
clear, the retrospective was of work supported by the Artists’ Films Sub- 

At the same time, the LFMC, sponsored by the British Council, had 
organized a show in Paris, and was looking forward to future British 
Council collaborations and more programme packages.^* In late 1977, 
however, as the international touring version of the Ha 5 rward show, 
heavily sponsored by the Arts Council and the British Council, reached 
contract stage, the LFMC and its members perceived that they were 
being pushed into the background and their historic functions were being 
taken over. A series of fractious meetings was called in December to deal 
with ‘the position of the Co-op’s Distribution Office in view of the Arts 
Council’s heavily subsidised screenings of films’.^^ These meetings at 
least managed to persuade the AFSC to lift its price to venues and to 
increase the payments to filmmakers.^^ 

Much of the discussion was focused on the ‘Perspectives on the British 
Avant-Garde Film’ touring exhibition. LFMC had believed that the 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Peter Thomas - The struggle for funding 



34 Felicity Sparrow (LFMC 
Distribution), Announcement of 
Meeting 9 January, undated; 
Announcement of Distribution 
Meeting 6 March, 16 February 
1978. Source; BAFVSC. 

35 Minutes of LFMC General 
Meeting, 10 December 1977, p. 2. 
Source: BAFVSC. 

36 Simon Field, Letter to Stan 
Brakhage, 9 October 1978. Source; 
Lux, distribution ringbinder. 
Minutes of the Artists' Films 
Committee, 18 December 1978, 

p. 2. Source: VAM/ACGB/54/60, 
Box 4. 

37 Thomas, Interview with Peter 

38 Mike Leggett, LFMC General 
Meeting 28.10.78. Discussion 
Paper, p. 1. Source; BAFVSC. 

39 Felicity Sparrow (LFMC 
Distribution), Letter to Chris 
Garratt, 10 August 1977; David 
Finch (LFMC Distribution), Letter to 
Tim Cawkwell, 25 August 1982. 
Source: Lux, distribution 

40 LFMC; Application for 
Accumulated Deficit Grant, 13 
February 1981, p. 2. This is an 
internal AC document, not the 
application from the LFMC. 
Source: VAM/ACGB/58/7. 

41 Minutes of the Artists' Film and 
Video Committee, 28 April 1980, 
pp. 6-11. Source: VAM/ACGB/ 
54/60, Box 6. 

42 Guy Sherwin, Proposal for a 
Modular Film Exhibition 
Programme - For Discussion, 
June 1980 and June/September 
1980. Source: VAM/ACGB/55/ 
28. Minutes of the Artists' Film 
and Video Sub-Committee, 27 
October 1980, pp. 2-3. Source; 
VAM/ACGB/54/60, Box 6. 

package would be distributed only to continental Europe, and were then 
dismayed to find it competing with their own well-established slot at the 
Edinburgh Film Festival.^'' During the meetings in December 1977, 
LFMC Distribution began to fear that they would become merely a 
distributor of US films in the UK,^® and were again dismayed to find that 
the next Arts Council touring package was of the US avant-garde 
filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, possibly LFMC’s most popular distribution 

In the early 1970s, LFMC distribution had been challenged by Gate 
Cinema’s attempt to acquire the cream of US avant-garde cinema, but as 
most of those filmmakers were members of various co-ops, LFMC could 
deploy co-op solidarity to block the Gate’s supply Very little of this 
could be mustered to deal with the AFSC. Though this may not be a 
complete explanation, it is the case that shortly after the entry of BFI 
capital into the LFMC and Arts Council capital into the promotion of 
LFMC films, the urge to omnivorous volunteerism which had created and 
sustained the LFMC visibly subsided. In 1 979 an artist-activist lamented 
‘a drift by many filmmakers toward being simply producers, whose 
responsibilities end by placing the film can in the Co-op cupboard’.^® 
Some filmmakers were abandoning even that responsibility, and were 
keeping the films at home, available for FMOT screenings.^® All this ran 
counter to the foundational philosophy of the LFMC, which was 
predicated on breaking down the segmentation within the film industry 
between production, distribution and exhibition, and the cultural 
hierarchies between artists, producers, critics and theorists. In the 
cultural politics of hard interests, however, when the BFI started paying 
for co-op services to be provided, and when the AFSC offered alternative 
promotional opportunities and income streams, the question of what the 
LFMC, as a cooperative, was still for, was a deep one. 

In 1980, when the LFMC faced a massive rent/deficit crisis as a result 
of their funded expansion, the renamed Artists’ Film and Video Sub- 
committee (AFVSC) provided one answer to the question of LFMC’s 
value to its community: 

The cinema there is the main venue for showing films produced with 
the film awards and bursaries [from the AFVSC] and their equipment 
is used in the actual production of these films. [If the LFMC closed 
down] There would be an immediate reflection of this in greatly 
increased costs in artists’ applications.^® 

However, by 1980, even the AFVSC began to observe a creeping 
passivity in the experimental film milieu, particularly evident in a lack of 
applications for exhibitions.^’ Committee member and LFMC artist- 
activist, Guy Sherwin, suggested that the existing schemes were not 
engaging, and proposed a flexible programme where anyone could pitch 
a short programme of work of their choice. Extra prints would be made 
so as not to interfere with existing distribution, and existing distributors 
could be paid to service the packages on the AFVSC’s behalf This 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Peter Thomas - The struggle for funding 

43 Subsidized Exhibitions; April 
1983/84 (packages and venues), 
undated, 1984, pp. 1-3. Minutes 
of the Artists’ Film and Video Sub- 
committee, 19 April 1983, pp. 2-3 
and 20 June 1983, pp. 8-9. 
Source: VAM/ACGB/54/60, 

Box 9. 

44 Minutes of the Artists' Film and 
Video Sub-Committee, 5 March 
1984, pp. 4-5. Source: VAM/ 
ACGB/54/6Q, Box 9. 

could potentially give the lead back to the artists themselves, and 
reform the linkage between maker and audience. Although several 
excellent paekages emerged, the response was relatively slight and slow, 
espeeially compared with the energy that had once existed. Opening 
for applieations in mid-1981, this ‘Modular Scheme’ was collapsed 
into the ‘Umbrella Scheme’, later Film and Video Umbrella, only months 
after the first Modular package became available in early 1983.''^ 

Under the Umbrella Scheme, touring packages were programmed by 
an AFVSC appointee and conditions for distributors were less 

What is especially ironic about this final scenario of filmmaker 
passivity is that the activities taken over by AFSC schemes largely 
originated in the activist milieu, and were indeed carried out for the 
AFSC by the aetivists who were formed in that milieu. The desire for 
wider exposure of work was general at the LFMC, as was the urge to 
pursue subsidy, but in this ease the outeome was the evisceration of that 
milieu and ethos which had been the souree of the films, the ideas, and 
the energy. 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Peter Thomas - The struggle for funding 


Agency vs archive: London 
Film-Makers' Co-op and LVA 
vs Film and Video Umbrella^ 


1 This articlB is based on research 
conducted as part of a three-year 
AHRC-funded research project 
(2002-2005) examining 
independent/artists' film and 
video distribution in the UK from 
the 1 970s to date. A version of the 
article was given as a paper as 
part of the 'Cultural Consecration 
and its Discontents: the Arts 
Council V. Film and Video Artists’ 
Organisations, 1975 to Present' 
panel, which was the closing 
plenary session of the Screen 
Studies Conference, July 2005. 

2 LVA was renamed LEA (London 
Electronic Arts) in 1994, but for 
the sake of simplicity and to avoid 
any confusion, the organization is 
referred to as LVA throughout this 

3 Comedia Consultancy, 'London 
Video Artists Management 
Review, November 1988', p. 15. 

The London Film-makers’ Co-op (LFMC) and London Video Arts 
(LVA)^ were both set up - in 1966 and 1976, respectively - by artists for 
artists, and were thus shaped by the artists’ own concerns. With regard to 
their distribution activities, as Peter Thomas notes in his discussion of the 
LFMC in the preceding article, this led on the one hand to the 
implementation of open acquisitions policies whereby any artist could 
have their work in distribution simply by lodging a copy of it with one of 
the organizations, and on the other to trying to ensure that this work then 
reached audiences. Flowever, as the size of the distribution libraries grew 
over the years, the former tended to undermine the possibility of 
achieving the latter. The organizations were unable to keep up with the 
cataloguing of new work being deposited with them and often lacked the 
funds to produce a catalogue of the hundreds of works that they now 
housed, while workers were often familiar with only a small portion of 
the work they distributed. As one LVA worker described it: ‘Eventually 
there were too many titles to make sense of it. In reality, most tapes sat on 
the shelves, not even catalogued’.^ For the same reasons, by the 1980s 
there were fairly frequent complaints from filmmakers that they hardly, if 
ever, got bookings via the Co-op. 

Although other factors had contributed to this state of affairs, the 
distribution workers at both organizations recognized that, despite the 
worthy ideological stance informing their open acquisitions policies, 
they needed to promote curated programmes or packages of work. This 
was the only way they could reach audiences with at least some of the 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 


4 Letter from Felicity Sparrow at 
LFMC to Chris Garratt, 10 August 

5 See Minutes of the Arts Council 
Artists' Film and Video Sub- 
Committee, 5 March 1984, p. 7 
and Minutes of Arts Council 
Artists' Film and Video Sub- 
Committee 13 March 1985, p. 7. 

6 Undated letter from Jeremy Welsh 
at LVA, written in response to 
Artists' Film and Video Sub- 
Committee meeting on 13 March 
1985, p. 2. 

7 LVA 1984-85 Revenue 
Application to the Arts Council, 
p. 3. 

8 Ibid, p. 5. My emphasis. 

9 The rejections were based mainly 
on the argument that the 
proposed programmes and 
packages were not particularly 
imaginative or inspiring. See 
Minutes of the Arts Council 
Artists' Film and Video Sub- 
committee, 5 March 1984 and 13 
March 1985. 

10 Such as the Channel 5 (1985) and 
Channel 6 (1986) shows at 
multiple sites across London, 
coordinated by Jeremy Welsh at 

11 Letter from Felicity Sparrow at 
LFMC, 14 October 1977. 

work they distributed and, thereby, raise awareness of artists’ film/ video. 
Both the LFMC and LVA, however, were hampered in doing this, albeit 
in different ways. 

The LFMC had a policy which disallowed the promotion of any 
individual works or artists over any other. Hence it was limited - at least 
until the 1990s - to curating shows outside of its own cinema space, or 
for other organizations. In 1977, for instance, the LFMC organized a 
show in Paris. In the same year they also wrote to a filmmaker requesting 
additional prints as they ‘ [are] particularly useful when we compile an 
anthology of British Co-op films for sending abroad’ A few years later 
in 1981, as Thomas also notes, LFMC member-artist Guy Sherwin 
proposed a flexible ‘modular’ scheme to the Arts Council, whereby 
anyone could suggest a short programme of work for touring to venues. 

In 1984 and 1985 LVA, for its part, in the face of ongoing criticism of 
its exhibitions policy from the Arts Council® and a perceived ‘directive to 
“go national’”,® put together proposals to transform itself by merging its 
distribution and exhibition activities into a ‘promotional bureau’ which 
was entirely separate from its other activities.' While they intended to 
continue promoting individual tapes, they stated that ‘an increasing 
emphasis will be laid on programme packages intended for touring, sale, 
and ultimately, broadcast’.® Although the Arts Council rejected LVA’s 
proposals on both occasions,® LVA went ahead with some reforms during 
this period. It introduced a two-tier distribution model which actively 
promoted only a proportion of its library, consigning everything else to 
an archive, and it concentrated more effort on curated gallery shows and 
events.’® It did, however, manage to launch a one-off touring exhibition. 
Genlock, in 1987-88. 

Although the Arts Council did not support LVA’s plans to transform 
what was rapidly becoming an archive into a promotional agency, it 
nevertheless agreed with the need for curated shows and packages to help 
develop audiences. In fact, it engaged in this area of activity itself, often 
drawing on the ideas developed within LFMC/LVA circles and 
employing their former distribution and exhibition workers. During the 
late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance, the Arts Council set up the Film- 
Makers on Tour (FMOT) scheme, instigated Sherwin’s suggestion of a 
modular scheme, and launched an Animateur scheme to address the 
needs of venues. To encourage take-up by exhibition venues, all the Arts 
Council schemes were heavily subsidized to reduce hire rates, thereby 
undercutting the LFMC and LVA pricing structures. As a distribution 
worker at LFMC noted, the subsidized rates of the FMOT had an almost 
immediate impact on its promotional activity and the arranging of shows: 
‘The AC has undermined the Co-op in this activity as we don’t arrange 
shows anymore as people can get them in this package deal with the 
AC.’” Although the Arts Council eventually withdrew the FMOT 
scheme, in late 1983 it merged the modular and Animateur schemes into 
a single in-house curatorial initiative called the Film and Video Umbrella 
(FVU). FVU had a specific remit to select and promote touring 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Julia Knight - Agency vs archive 

12 Part of the reason for merging the 
two schemes was financial. The 
modular scheme purchased its 
own prints so as not to interrupt 
existing distribution activity, but 
this proved an expense the Arts 
Council did not wish to sustain. By 
contrast, the FVU had to hire 
whatever was available. 

13 Internal memo from Rodney 
Wilson to Ian Reid, Arts Council of 
Great Britain, 28 February 1990, 

p. 2. 

14 Cited in LVA three-year plan, 
undated, covering the financial 
years 1988-89, 1989-90 and 
1990-91, received by the Arts 
Council 3 January 1989, p. 3. 

packages.’^ In order to expand its activities and allow it to benefit from 
the Arts Council’s national touring fund, however, the Arts Council 
relaunched the FVU in 1988 as an independent revenue-funded curatorial 
agency. Very soon thereafter, FVU employed both LVA’s former 
Shows/Distribution worker and a former LFMC cinema organizer. 

At one level, it is possible to argue that all this paved the way for a 
clearly defined division of labour, and introduced a complementary 
relationship between the newly independent FVU and the artists’ 
organizations. On the one hand, the LFMC and LVA could maintain their 
collections as extensive and valuable resources for use by curators 
(including those at the FVU), and deal with the distribution of individual 
titles, but could, at the same time, concentrate their energies in a more 
focused way on workshop, access, training and exhibition activities - for 
which they seemed to be able to attract funding more readily. On the 
other hand, FVU was funded to do the labour-intensive work of selecting 
and compiling packages, marketing, building relationships with venues, 
arranging tours and publicity, and providing contextual information to 
help build up audiences. 

The Video Umbrella was, however, fairly quickly perceived to be 
highly effective at increasing the overall exposure of artists’ film and 
video. In February 1990 the Arts Council reported that, ‘The Umbrella 
has been recognized by the London Funders Group (BFI/GLA/LBGS/ 
C4) as the best model for future investment in independent sector 
distribution/exhibition initiatives’.’^ Whilst any investment in the 
distribution of artists’ film and video was to be welcomed, this 
privileging of the curatorial model suggested that there would be little 
funder support in the future for maintaining the extensive and important 
collections built up by the LFMC and LVA. Furthermore, the funders’ 
endorsement of FVU belied the early curatorial ideas and initiatives of 
the artists’ organizations. This, in turn, laid the basis for some quite 
hostile conflicts, and, from the end of the 1980s - when FVU became an 
independent revenue client - through to the mid 1 990s, allowed a more 
general competition to emerge between the LFMC and LVA on the one 
hand and FVU on the other. 

One of the problems that beset the relationship was that the LFMC and 
LVA had a very different rationale for their existence to the FVU. The 
LFMC and LVA were set up by artists for artists to support them in their 
creative practice. Thomas cites the LFMC policy statement in his article; 
similarly, in LVA’s mission statement it was stated that; ‘LVA is run for 
artists and . . . aims to be a national centre for the advancement and 
encouragement of the innovative use of video and electronic media for 
artists’.’^ At the level of distribution, this meant that it saw itself - and 
this is still true of its successor organization, the Lux, today - as existing 
to represent and protect the interests of the artists whose work it 
distributed. Importantly, this informed the royalty split that both artists’ 
organizations set up, which was weighted heavily in favour of the artist. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Julia Knight - Agency ws archive 



15 The LFMC had also levelled very 
similar complaints against the 
Arts Council-initiated and -funded 
Film-Makers On Tour scheme. 

16 This exchange is documented in a 
series of letters between the two 
organizations dated from February 
through to July 1990. 

17 Letter from Moiry Sweeney at FVU 
to the LFMC Executive, 12 July 

18 Letter from Jeremy Welsh at FVU 
to Tony Warcus and Tom Heslop 
at LFMC. 9 March 1990. 

Both organizations also endeavoured to safeguard or maximize the 
financial return to artists wherever they could. 

The Umbrella on the other hand had been brought into existence by a 
funding body, with a specific remit to get work into exhibition venues, 
and, typically, it aimed to book packages into between eight and twelve 
venues over a six- to nine-month period. As with earlier Arts Council 
initiatives, however (and as it reiterated time and again in various 
correspondence throughout the 1980s and 1990s), FVU had to make its 
packages available to venues at a subsidised rate if it was to persuade 
them to take the risk involved in booking experimental work. To be able 
to offer that subsidized rate, the Umbrella was dependent on distributors 
and artists letting it hire their work for the tours at discounted rates. Thus, 
the curatorial model developed by the Umbrella only worked if both the 
artists and artists’ organizations were willing to accept a lower financial 

LVA appears to have seen the longer-term benefits of participating in 
Umbrella tours and gaining exposure, and was, therefore, initially willing 
to do such deals. It quickly created a problem for the LFMC, however, 
since for the most part, it was unwilling to reduce its prices. As a result its 
work was rarely included in the FVU packages. This, of course, meant 
that, as the Umbrella gradually raised the profile of other experimental 
work, LFMC work became increasingly marginalized. 

On a rare occasion, however, when LFMC work was not only 
included, but comprised all the films in an Umbrella package, it resulted 
in a particularly heated conflict between the two organizations. In April 
1990, FVU was due to release the ‘Metaphors, Monologues and 
Landscapes’ touring programme of LFMC films. A few weeks before the 
tour was due to start, the LFMC wrote to FVU complaining it had not 
been paid for a previous tour and asserting that the LFMC would lose 
bookings for the films while they were tied up in the forthcoming 
Umbrella tour.’® It then threatened to withdraw the films until the 
outstanding debts were cleared.’® The Umbrella responded by arguing 
that Regional Film Theatres ‘are not prepared to pay’ LFMC rates’^ and 
had only booked the package because of the subsidized rate that the 
Umbrella offered. It also pointed out that: ‘[as] all of the films for this 
package are coming from the Co-op . . . you get all the rentals from the 
tour. I find it hard to believe that you will get more money from 
individual bookings of some of these films than you would get from a 
whole tour.’’® The exchange went on over a period of several weeks, 
clearly took up a lot of time, and became increasingly irate, with threats, 
abuse and accusations flying back and forth, until the two organizations 
finally agreed to negotiate a contract for their future dealings. In the end, 
the Umbrella model won out as artists increasingly favoured receiving a 
guaranteed lump sum royalty from a tour. In fact, artists were becoming 
increasingly inclined to deal directly with the Umbrella. 

Around the same time, a further area of conflict emerged as a result of 
the favouring of the curatorial model when LVA renewed its attempts to 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Julia Knight - Agency vs archive 

19 David Curtis, 'Report on 
Assessment Visit to LVA 
29 November 1988, p. 2. 

20 Letter from Jeremy Welsh to FVU 
Board, 30 January 1991, p. 1. 

21 Letter from the Directors of FVU to 
David Curtis at the Arts Council, 
20 November 1995. 

distribute its own touring packages alongside FVU. Due to the LVA’s 
previous difficulties in attracting funding for such activities, combined 
with the subsequent loss of a key distribution worker who was not 
replaced, its relatively low levels of distribution income and its wider 
spread of activities, LVA had been unable to develop distribution 
significantly. That changed, however, in 1989 as a result of a serious 
management review the previous year. The review of LVA was set in 
motion by one of its funders. Greater London Arts, and was undertaken 
by the consultancy company, Comedia. Comedia delivered its report in 
November 1988 and stressed that LVA needed to devote its energies to 
marketing the organization generally, and marketing tape distribution in 
particular. The main proposal to emerge from the report was to recruit a 
Distribution and Marketing Manager whose role would be to develop a 
marketing strategy and to concentrate on a small number of ‘saleable’ 
tapes. As the Arts Council was quick to note, this was the single biggest 
change proposed by the consultancy,’^ and it enabled LVA to attract the 
necessary funding to enter the touring package market, directly 
encroaching on FVU’s core revenue funded activity. 

This had an almost immediate impact. FVU noted in internal 
documentation that in 1990 the touring market was ‘flooded’.^” While it 
expressed some concern that there ‘ [is] a limited market for the uptake of 
touring exhibitions’, it did not, at this stage, regard it as a serious threat, 
judging that LVA was limited in the extent of its activities by the range of 
its commitments. The Umbrella did, however, take it as an indication that 
it needed to put some resources into selling itself if it was to retain its 
leading position. Flowever, in 1995 FVU felt that the issue had become 
serious, when it discovered that, over a twelve-month period, the Arts 
Council had directly funded the production of four new LVA touring 
packages. In a letter to the Arts Council, FVU noted that this was only 
two fewer packages than the Umbrella itself was expected to produce, as 
its core activity, over a comparable period.^’ As with the LFMC conflict, 
this resulted in a fairly irate series of letters, this time from the Umbrella 
to the Arts Council, again over a period of weeks. The Umbrella’s 
concerns were primarily twofold: first, that the potential competition 
presented by the Arts Council’s direct support of LVA’s packages could 
seriously impact on FVU’s own performance in what was a fairly small 
market - and on which they were measured strictly against pre-set 
performance targets; and secondly, that LVA packages did not seem to 
be measured against comparable targets. 

Whilst the Umbrella clearly felt they were not being treated fairly by 
the Arts Council, it is possible to argue that LVA’s more concerted move 
into the touring package market was at least in part fuelled by the 
perception that FVU was, in its turn, encroaching on its territory as a 
distributor. This had happened to a degree in the late 1980s but became a 
more overt issue for the two organizations in the early 1990s when the 
Umbrella started to concentrate on video. The issue arose in part due to 
the greater flexibility of video over celluloid. With the film tours, it was 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Julia Knight - Agency ws archive 



22 Letter from the Arts Council to 
FVU, 23 December 1992. 

23 See, for instance, Minutes of the 
LVA Council of Management 
Meeting, 8 March 1989, p. 3. 

24 See Minutes of the LVA Council of 
Management Meeting, 11 May 
1989, p. 4. 

25 'Notes on Audience Figures 1996/ 
7'; FVU document for the Arts 
Council, undated. 

26 This may be the result of a general 
lack of clarity about what 
distribution is, or simply a sloppy 
use of terminology. However, it is 
evident from correspondence and 
contracts from the early-to-mid 

1 990s that some of the artists FVU 
was hiring work from directly for 
inclusion in its packages were 
paying careful attention to the 
wording of their contracts, 
precisely to ensure that FVU was 
not authorized to 'distribute' their 
work, but was being licensed to 
exhibit it in a particular context for 
a particular period. 

27 Comedia Consultancy, 'London 
Video Artists Management 
Review, November 1988', p. 3. 

28 Indeed, one of the concerns voiced 
by Greater London Arts when they 
initiated the Comedia consultancy 
to review LVA's activities in 1988 
was precisely 'that distribution of 
tapes was not being maximized 
and as a result was not generating 
enough earned income’; letter 
from Felicity Sparrow at GLA to 
Alison Malone at LVA, 19 April 
1988, p. 2. 

fairly clear-cut that the prints were on loan and at the end of a tour they 
had to be returned to the distributor. With video, however, because of the 
ease of duplication, tours could be lengthened with little physical 
inconvenience to the distributor, and packages could in theory also be 
made available for sale. This made it possible for the Arts Council to 
increase its performance targets for the Umbrella. In the early 1990s it 
stipulated that FVU’s annual grant was conditional upon it not only 
launching a minimum of seven new touring projects in the coming year, 
which should be ‘substantially toured . . . benefiting an average of ten 
venues each’, but also continuing to tour five projects from previous 
years, ‘benefiting eight venues each’.^^ A couple of years later, the Arts 
Council also encouraged the Umbrella to apply for funding - which it 
was awarded - in order to develop VHS packages for sale to the 
educational sector. 

Even before these increased requirements, as early as 1988-89 LVA 
felt FVU was effectively taking on the role of a sub-distributor, and was 
starting to refuse to send FVU all the tapes it requested.^^ LVA was also 
concerned about the ways in which the newly expanded and independent 
FVU would affect it.^'* Once the Umbrella was required to keep old tours 
in circulation for longer, however, and once it was invited to expand into 
the educational sales market, it is possible to argue that FVU was not 
only engaging in distribution but was functioning to a much greater 
extent as a direct competitor to LVA for the supply of certain material. 
Indeed, by the mid-1990s FVU had started to produce a programme 
booklet which, along the lines of a distributor’s catalogue, provided a 
guide to material which, as they put it, was ‘in active distribution’,^® and 
it started referring to itself on occasions as ‘distributing’ a particular 
work or artist.^® 

That the Umbrella and the artists’ organizations should start to come 
into competition during this period is unsurprising when set against the 
wider context of the looming grant-aid crisis. Comedia summarized the 
situation in its 1988 report for LVA: 

Grant funding is either static or declining. Flowever well LVA 
perform, it is likely to find its funding following this pattern of 
stagnation or decline. Whatever arts organisations may feel about this, 
they will have to respond pragmatically to survive by concentrating on 
earned income.^’ 

As a result the funders - especially the Arts Council and the BFI - did 
everything in their power to encourage their revenue clients to start 
generating more earned income in order to supplement the dwindling 
grant-aid.^® In this climate, all three organizations - LVA, LFMC and 
FVU - began to develop, augment and actively market their activities in 
order to try to increase the number of hires and/or sales from the work 
which they toured or distributed. 

The Umbrella and LVA, in particular, drew up proposals that began to 
blur the previously quite clear-cut distinctions between them. On the one 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Julia Knight - Agency vs archive 

29 FVU/ACGB Report May 1989', 
p. 5. 

30 David Curtis, 'Summary of 1st 
Annual Assessment Meeting with 
Film and Video Umbrella. July 13, 
1989', Draft, p. 1. 

31 David Critchley, 'Report on the GLA 
Annual Review Meeting held at 
LVA on 29.11.88.', December 1988, 
p. 4. The importance of television 
sales was reiterated again just 
after the appointment of LVA's 
new Distribution and Marketing 
Manager in autumn 1989. The Arts 
Council requested an action plan 
for 1990 indicating two or three 
main priorities for the year ahead 
and suggested that 'your success 
in selling 20 tapes to international 
television would do more to 
enhance LVA's reputation amongst 
both artists and the world video 
market than to achieve 200 rentals 
to galleries and colleges . . . Sorry 
to be heavy, but the issue is 
important and our funding is 
specific on purpose.' Letter from 
David Curtis at the Arts Council to 
Mike Maziere at LVA, 15 
November 1989. 

32 London Video Arts Assessment 
Meeting, 19 October 1987, p. 3. 

hand, LVA spent the first half of 1989 planning how to implement the 
recommendations of the Comedia report; namely, to employ a new 
Distribution and Marketing Manager whose remit was to develop three 
areas: tape packages for hire or sale to edueational institutions, galleries 
and so on; television sales, both domestic and overseas; and the 
identifieation of a small portfolio of between ten and twenty ‘saleable’ 
tapes to be prioritized and aggressively marketed each year. At the same 
time, FVU, also during the first half of 1989, submitted plans to the Arts 
Council to expand its core activities quite explicitly into distribution: to 
take on a small number of artists - between twelve and twenty - each 
year; to tackle television sales for those artists; and to move into VHS 
sales of tape packages, especially targeting the educational sector.^® 

The Arts Council was quick to respond to each organization with 
appropriate recommendations that prevented them from becoming mirror 
images of each other. The Umbrella was told that the move into 
distribution proper was ‘premature’ for the newly independent 
organization, and it was suggested it should concentrate on the core 
activity of touring programmes for which it was funded,^® while LVA 
was told to prioritize television sales above all else,^’ as ‘TV sales are the 
single most important money earner, and . . . non-TV exhibition cannot 
compete in that respect’. At the same time, it was indicated that any 
commitment by LVA to producing an annual catalogue - the 
comprehensive listing of a traditional distributor’s holdings - was 
‘impractical and wasteful of resources 
While the LFMC and LVA had originally been set up by artists for 
artists, by the 1980s the Arts Council as a funder was clearly playing a 
key role in influencing their direction and development. Ironically, 
however, while both the Arts Council and the BFI tried to encourage their 
revenue clients to become more self-sustaining, the funders’ favouring of 
the curatorial agency model had, in fact, the opposite effect. It led to 
LVA restructuring itself and the LFMC eventually undertaking internal 
reforms to enable both organizations to field curated packages more 
actively. As a result LVA and the LFMC ended up in the mid-1990s 
competing alongside FVU for national touring funding. While these 
curatorial initiatives did have significant successes in developing 
audiences, they did not significantly increase earned income for the 
organizations since the subsidy facilitated reduced hire prices. Hence the 
organizations’ dependency on grant-aid did not decrease: rather, they 
became more dependent as the increased levels of activity required 
additional resourcing. 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Julia Knight - Agency ws archive 


Annette Davison, Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema 
Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, 221 pp. 

K.J. Donnelly, The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television. London: 
British Film Institute, 2005, 192 pp. 

Carol Vernallis, Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. 
New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004, 341 pp. 


1 Simon Frith, Screen, vol. 41, no. 3 
(2000), p. 335. 

The last time a collection of screen music-related books was the subject 
of a Screen review, the reviewer Simon Frith was moved to note each 
work’s ‘self-defeating . . . need to draw attention to their subject’s 
neglect’ as well as the very limited manner in which the authors seemed 
‘to be engaged with each other’.’ Judging by the books grouped together 
in the present review, the scholarship in the area is now much more 
collegiate, and the requirement on the authors to self-diagnose academic 
isolation seems to have become unnecessary. Annette Davison, K.J. 
Donnelly and Carol Vernallis share a plethora of critical references on 
music -image relationships, from Theodor Adorno to Philip Tagg and 
many points in between. 

A substantial canon of academic writing on music in narrative film 
now exists, and it can no longer be claimed that music video is a 
scholarly blind spot (as Vernallis admits). Of the various media formats 
discussed in the books under review, only television music remains 
relatively under-represented academically (though Donnelly’s two 
chapters on the subject begin the process of addressing this absence). 

In this context, the authors’ task would appear to be to present 
alternatives to existing work, or to bring new objects of study to critical 
light. All three studies make claims for their own originality by 
referencing a model of ‘classical’ narrative film music practices: a 
conceptualization of the soundtrack’s role as fitting in with classical 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



cinema’s perceived storytelling priorities. For all the books’ individual 
merits, the regular recourse to notions of the classical, even in the service 
of its refutation, raises interesting questions about the possibility (or 
impossibility) of doing without such a concept entirely. Thus, these 
works reveal the ‘classical’ to be a category as problematic yet insistent 
in writing on music -image relations as it is in other areas of screen 
studies enquiry. 

As its title suggests, Davison’s Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood 
Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s engages with 
classical film music theory most explicitly. Indeed, about a quarter of the 
book is devoted to the explication of, first, Classical Hollywood Cinema 
as it has been conceived academically, and second, the classical scoring 
practice associated with it (which Davison sees revived in the so-called 
‘post-classical’ Hollywood of the mid 1970s onwards). This provides the 
ground on which Davison makes her key claim: 

The central argument of this book is that, by operating as a signifier of 
classical - and, indeed, New Hollywood cinema - the classical 
Holl5rwood score offered those making films outside and on the 
margins of Hollywood cinema in the 1980s and 1990s a further means 
by which they could differentiate their cinemas from Hollywood’s, 
through the production of scores and soundtracks which critique or 
refer to this practice in particular ways (p. 59). 

There follow close analyses of four films whose soundtracks, according 
to Davison, refer to the classical model at the same time as they offer an 
alternative. Through her sequencing of the case studies, Davison outlines 
possibilities of alternative practice that range from a total deconstruction 
of the classical soundtrack’s conventional storytelling functions (as 
witnessed in Jean-Luc Godard’s Prenom: Carmen [1983]) to the 
identification of a scoring practice that mimics certain aspects of the 
classical in its collaborative nature, yet provides a utopian alternative to 
it (as seen through David Lynch’s Wild at Heart [1990]). In between, she 
explores the notion of the soundtrack as a ‘liberating’ force (Derek 
Jarman’s The Garden [1990]), and the potential for a compromise to be 
found between classical and alternative models (Wim Wenders’ Wings of 
Desire [1987]). 

Davison’s reading of each film is imaginative and very well detailed. 
She demonstrates a particular facility for identifying, and ascribing a 
significance to, different types of sound on the same soundtrack. This is 
done with particular success in her readings of The Garden and Wings of 
Desire. Her analysis does not seek to hide her evident musical training, 
but, in nearly all cases, remains intelligible and persuasive to non- 
musicologists such as myself (who will just have to accept the occasional 
use of musical notation as pretty pictures). 

It is questionable how much of the extremely comprehensive scene- 
setting undertaken by Davison in the book’s early sections is necessary 
for an appreciation of the individual film analyses. Nevertheless, her 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

summaries of discussions about classical and post-classical Hollywood 
cinema and the classical film score are exemplary, and they are 
conducted with a thoroughness which is understandable, perhaps, in a 
book which takes its place in the publisher’s Popular and Folk Music 
series rather than in a screen studies collection. 

There remains a mismatch, however, between the concentration on 
Hollywood as an institutional, industrial and ideological force in the 
early chapters of the book, and the auteurist bent of the analysis that 
follows in later chapters. For example, the chapter on ‘New Hollywood 
cinema and (post-?) classical scoring’ concludes with statistical 
information about US cinema’s growth in the overseas market during the 
1980s. Yet this detail seems unnecessary in the light of the subsequent 
interpretation of the various non-Hollywood soundtracks as imaginative 
responses to mainstream practices on the part of individual filmmakers. 
The division between descriptions of Holl 5 rwood as intransigent^ 
institutional, and the implicit understanding of art-house cinema as a 
space for the free expression of the auteur (made explicit in the 
celebration of Lynch in the final case study) is made too complacently 
and means that Davison does not fulfil her promise to engage ‘with 
institutional issues in relation to film soundtracks and scores’ (p. 6) in 
every case. In this respect, the book does not fully realize the potential of 
its many excellent parts. 

The critical tone of Donnelly’s The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film 
and Television also fluctuates somewhat from section to section, 
although the reader is prepared for this by the author’s early claim that 
the book is ‘a rumination, an investigation of some of the elusive and 
fascinating aspects of screen music’ (p. 3) rather than a more strictly 
hypothesis-based account. 

Nevertheless, more concrete justification is given for the book’s 
attention to a pleasingly eclectic range of material, which includes the 
work of canonized auteurs such as David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, but 
also makes room for a discussion of the soundtracks of Space: 1999, a 
whole range of horror movies, and the role of music in television 
continuity segments. Donnelly characterizes screen music as something 
more intangible than is claimed in the more classical accounts focusing 
on the score’s overt storytelling functions. Inspired, in particular, by the 
increasingly complex sound design of films produced for release in 
cinemas, Donnelly argues: 

While film music traditionally has been conceived as part of narration, 

working for film narrative, in some ways it would be better to see it as 

part of the film’s repository of special effects (p. 2). 

Determined to explore screen music’s more ‘unruly’ qualities (at least 
when set against a narrative yardstick), Donnelly riffs around notions of 
music’s ‘ghostliness’ in an imaginative manner. Particularly in relation 
to cinema, he sees the haunting activities of the soundtrack as 
constituting a kind of sensuous possession of the viewer. Donnelly 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Review 



(somewhat contentiously given the medium’s technological advances) is 
less willing to admit to the possessing capabilities of television 
soundtracks, but concentrates instead on another kind of ‘haunting’: the 
habitual use of familiar music in television that evokes the spectre of its 
‘lives’ elsewhere as much as it applies itself to a particular televisual 

It is the notion of screen music as always indicating another place that 
most usefully ties the different strands of Donnelly’s eclectic study 
together. Through this interest in the ‘elsewhere’ of screen music, 
Donnelly successfully probes areas outside the reach of classical 
narrative film music theory, which attends to the here and now of the 
soundtrack’s involvement in a particular fictional scenario. However, the 
value of the insights which ensue from this successful escape from a 
more classical approach is sometimes taken for granted. Donnelly’s 
analyses as a whole lack the attention to detail which is one of the virtues 
of Davison’s case studies. The author anticipates this criticism early on 
by acknowledging that the book ‘provides a “long shot”, allowing the 
sort of synoptic view unavailable to detailed analysis, rather than the 
predominant “close-up” of many preceding film music studies’ (p. 3). 

The loss, in terms of analytical depth, that this critical strategy 
necessitates, is not always compensated for by the book’s commendable 
breadth. For example, a relatively sustained analysis of Lynch’s Lost 
Highway (1996) is not as convincing as it might be due to an 
unwillingness to provide sufficient evidence for its claims. On the film’s 
heavy use of pre-existing pop songs, Donnelly comments: 

Are these song appearances simple ‘comments on the action’? I don’t 
think so. It is more as if the action emanates from the songs 
themselves, particularly from their grain of sound and rhythmic 
aspects (p. 28). 

This assertion is allowed to fend for itself, in the absence of more 
particular commentary about the interaction between the action and song 
in each specific case. The value of investigating screen music’s less 
‘submissive’ qualities in relation to narrative principles would be better 
advocated through a detailed interpretation that also engages with the 
possibility that the soundtrack fulfils more conventional stor 5 Telling 
functions. Characterizing the ‘elsewhere’ of screen music surely 
becomes more interesting if its relationship to other spaces is 
acknowledged and its own territory is mapped in detail. 

Vemallis’s Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural 
Context combines the imaginative facility that fires Donnelly’s book with 
the attention to detail that characterizes Davison’s. Her study is 
extremely comprehensive in fulfilling its promise to take ‘the music of 
music video most seriously’ (p. x), thereby ‘attempting an analysis that 
takes musical codes, processes, and techniques as providing means by 
which video image can be structured’ (p. 209). On one level, as Vemallis 
admits, this is a belated consolidation of the initiatives taken in Andrew 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

2 Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the 
Distraction Factory: Music 
Television and Popuiar Culture 
(Minneapolis, MN; University of 
Minneapolis Press, 1992). 

3 David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and 
Kristin Thompson, The Classical 
Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and 
Mode of Production to 1960 
(London: Routledge, 1985). 

4 George M. Wilson, Narration in 
Light: Studies in Cinematic Point 
of Wew (Baltimore, MD: Johns 
Hopkins University Press, 1986). 

Goodwin’s foundational music television study Dancing in the 
Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture} In its 
implementation, however, Vemallis far exceeds this brief. There are 
chapters on narrative and editing, as you might expect from a study 
whose aim it is to deconstruct the form of the music video; less expected 
is the attention to aspects such as supporting performers, props and the 
sensual qualities of (aural and visual) space, colour, texture and time. 

Even in the more predictable sections, Vernallis explores relationships 
between song and image which expand a critical understanding of the 
music video’s possibilities. For instance, in the chapter on editing, she 
goes far beyond the standard notion that videos cut their images to the 
rh}Thm of the song, to suggest: 

Obviously, editing can reflect the basic beat pattern of the song, but it 
can also be responsive to all of the song’s other parameters. For 
example, long dissolves can complement arrangements that include 
smooth timbres and long-held tones. A video can use different visual 
material to offset an important hook or a different cutting rhythm at the 
beginnings and ends of phrases. And, of course, these effects can 
switch from one-to-one relationships to something that is more 
contrapuntal (p. 49). 

These kinds of expressive possibilities are then illustrated through a great 
range of examples, all analysed with an interpretive richness that makes 
the inclusion of three extended case study chapters at the end of the book 
almost feel like too much of a good thing. 

In her afterword, Vemallis claims that her book ‘attempts to lay out the 
basic materials of music video, much as David Bordwell and his 
colleagues do for cinema in The Classical Hollywood Cinema or Film 
Art’ (p. 286). Experiencing Music Video will certainly prove useful as a 
textbook, and some of the unnecessary repetition between chapters may 
be explained by an expectation that the book will be consulted in separate 
chunks on individual weeks of a course rather than as a whole. However, 
I feel that Vemallis is selling herself short with her comparison. There is 
an imaginative and idiosyncratic, yet disciplined, interpretive impulse 
behind her analysis which The Classical Hollywood Cinemci explicitly 
rejects. Her book has more in common with the poetic categorizations of 
sound theorist Michel Chion or, casting the net more widely, the sensitive 
responses to the intricacies of a filmed fictional world demonstrated by 
George M. Wilson’s Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of 
View} Both Wilson and Vemallis seize on ‘moments’ which the authors 
then seek to explain in relation to their fictional world, whether that be a 
setting stimulated by dramatic possibilities, as in the case of narrative 
film, or musical parameters, as is the case with the music video. As 
Vemallis states, hy attending to the smallest of moments, ‘it will be 
possible to work toward seeing how the video builds toward this moment 
and moves away from it’ (p. 202). 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Review 



On a number of occasions, even an attentive and immersed critic like 
Vemallis cannot resist the temptation to compare song-image 
relationships in the music video with the perceived ‘typical’ conventions 
of classical cinema and classical narrative film music. This necessitates a 
diversion from the book’s primary, and most laudable, aim to fully 
understand the influence of the music of the music video. 

In all three books, the acknowledgement of a body of film music 
writing that can be categorized as ‘classical’ provides evidence of a now 
mature field of study. This literature is not always integrated seamlessly 
with the authors’ own arguments. All three works provide illuminating 
insights into types of screen music that are not accounted for adequately 
by classical theory. However, the arguments work best when engaging 
carefully with the specific relationships observable and audible in their 
chosen objects of study, rather than looking over the shoulder towards 
models of classical narrative film music, or assuming the value of an 
analysis simply because it does not fit the classical mould. In the kind of 
text-based criticism pursued by all three writers, the most generous kind 
of critical activity can also be the most myopic. Vemallis ’s book, in 
particular, shows the rewards of a close reading of particular moments, as 
it produces insights which may inspire the reader to understand, in new 
and surprising lights, not only that moment, but others they encounter 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch (eds). Rethinking Disney: Private Control, 
Public Dimensions. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005, 
341 pp. 


1 Eleanor Byrne and Martin 
McQuillan, Deconstructing Disney 
(London: Pluto Press, 1999). 

2 Janet Wasko, Understanding 
Disney: The Manufacture of 
Fs/ifasy (Cambridge; Polity Press, 
2002 ). 

3 Sean Griffin, Tinker Belles and Evil 
Queens: Walt Disney from the 
Inside Ouf (New York, NY; 

New York University Press, 2000). 

4 Andrew Ross, The Celebration 
Chronicles of Life, Liberty and 
Pursuit of Proper Happiness 
(New York, NY: Ballantine, 1999). 

Rethinking Disney is a collection of eleven diverse essays which belongs 
alongside other reeent re-evaluations of the media corporation and its 
output. The detailed textual analyses of Eleanor Byrne and Martin 
McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney^ Janet Wasko’s multi-perspective 
Understanding Disney, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens by Sean Griffim 
(himself included in this volume) and The Celebration Chronicles,^ 
Andrew Ross’s sociological report on Disney’s planned community, 
taken together represent a contemporary reappraisal of the scope, 
integration and complexity of Disney’s multifarious activities. 
Consequently, this collection addresses Disney’s involvement in film and 
television, but also theme parks, publishing, sport, new media, 
architectural design, real estate development and theatrical stage shows. 
Coeditor Mike Budd’s introduction sets out the collection’s remit to offer 
an investigation into conflicts over private /public demarcation of 
activities, spaces and spheres as exemplified by the Disney corporation. 
This includes the construction of private theme-park districts as public 
spaces; expansions of the fantasy space of animated features into public 
shopping malls and sports centres; the privatization and militarization of 
public areas; or the degree to which a private corporation acts like a 
publie government agency, receiving public funding while evading 
public scrutiny. As Dick Hebdige highlights early in the collection, 
‘Disneyfication’ encompasses an increasing range of social, cultural and 
economic trends: pervasive merchandizing and commercialization; the 
theming of cultural zones and districts; the Bowdlerization and 
sanitization of history; the homogenization and gentrification of urban 

Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



districts. The authors in this collection reflect the term’s diversiflcation, 
while arguing, at the same time, that Disney’s activities typify wider 
tendencies within North American society. 

Given the importance of synergy to Disney’s success - 1930s Mickey 
Mouse Clubs’ promotion of ‘educational’ toys; 1950s and 1960s theme 
parks advertised through Disney television programmes; contemporary 
Disney Stores; product placement and burger bar tie-ins - in many 
studies the corporation’s media output loses centrality within a matrix of 
cross-promotional texts, products and experiences. Here, Maurya 
Wickstrom identifies a process of mimetic exchange running throughout 
Disney’s operations, whereby commodities and human bodies come to 
resemble one another. From animatronics to puppetry to cell animation, 
inanimate objects are brought to life, while living humans voluntarily 
embody Disney characters, be it cast members wearing oversized Goofy 
costumes, young girls in Disney Princess dresses, or mimes and dancers 
performing The Lion King stage show. In the latter example, Wickstrom 
argues, discourses of ‘magic’ surrounding the musical, journalistic 
narratives of quality artistry overcoming commercial corporatism, and 
theatrical designs evoking a ‘primitive’ fetishism, are a distraction from 
the overwhelming commodity fetishism of recontextualizing Disney 
branded characters, all for sale in nearby Disney Stores. Both notions 
coincide in the ‘purchasable fetish’ represented by Beanie Babies 
reproducing the design of masks and African body costumes, 
consequently imbued with a consumer- friendly aura of otherness. If the 
originating text. The Lion King film (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 
1994), receives little attention, such an analysis nevertheless resonates 
with the anthropomorphizing tradition within Disney’s feature 
animations, nature documentaries and live action films. 

Elsewhere, Disney’s origins as a producer of narrative cinema are seen 
to permeate the corporation’s non-media endeavours. In one of several 
articles exploring Disney’s forays into real estate development, Stacy 
Warren argues that company employees apply the same scripted, 
storyboarded approach and philosophy to urban planning as to animated 
features and theme parks. In an essay resembling an ironic travel account 
of a transcontinental voyage across ‘the most meticulously themed 
environments on the planet’ (p. 60), Susan Willis illustrates how the 
various zones of Disney’s Animal Kingdom park are constructed through 
fictional frameworks of narrative and genre. Conflicting stories of big 
game hunting and environmentalism merge in the ‘spontaneous’ chase of 
poachers which concludes Africa’s safari adventure ride. Here passengers 
‘are center stage in a drama that coalesces contradictory strands of 
narrative into one fun-filled eco-friendly package’ (p. 55). The 
incompatibility between a commercial themed zoo and the park’s 
discourse of animal rights, environmentalism and ecology forms the 
subject of Scott Hermanson’s later article. In Animal Kingdom’s 
fabricated Asia, animals constitute national-geographic signiflers, cast- 
members directed by food and pheromones, all within a ‘Third World 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

5 Henry A. Giroux, 'Memory and 
pedagogy in the "Wonderfui 
Worid of Disney": beyond the 
politics of innocence', in Eiizabeth 
Beii, Lynda Hass and Laura Seils 
(eds). From Mouse to Mermaid: 
the Politics of Film. Gender and 
Cw/fure (Bioomington, iN: indiana 
University Press, 1995). 

Never-Never Land’ (p. 59) devoid of industrialization or globalization. 
The enclosures, where animals appear to be in natural surroundings, are 
landscaped to conceal the moats, walls and bollards which keep them in 
place. While constituting a meticulously controlled experience, Willis 
identifies ruptures in the park’s storytelling hermeneutic: for example, in 
the narrative-free Tree of Life sculpture, a wooden structure carved with 
some 400 animals, and in DinoLand USA, which situates the surrounding 
wildlife in a wider historical context of extinction. For Hermanson the 
studio’s historical association with fantasy lands populated by animated 
creatures conflicts with Animal Kingdom’s dedication to constructing an 
authentic encounter with nature, while the experience itself draws heavily 
upon culturally constructed ideas of the natural derived from screen 
representations, amongst them Disney’s 1950s and 1960s wildlife 

Situating Disney’s film and television production alongside the 
company’s non-media interests proves extremely revealing. Frank Roost 
discusses Disney’s urban development and real estate ventures, 
identifying such activities’ integration into Disney’s media promotional 
strategy. The company’s involvement in re-developing Time Square - 
home to a Disney Store, the theatre showing The Lion King and ABC’s 
Good Morning America (1975-) studio - results in increasing use of 
New York City to publicize Disney’s feature film premiers. Investment in 
The Golden Girls (1985-92), a sitcom about four women retiring to 
Florida, functions to raise Disney’s state property value. The ABC 
studio’s large window overlooking Time Square promotes both the tourist 
location and many Disney products the site advertises. Just as Un indien 
dans la ville/An Indian in the City (1994), Flerve Palud’s film about a boy 
from a remote tropical village visiting his father in Paris served to sell 
Disneyland Paris, so the same formula was used in Jungle 2 Jungle (John 
Pasquin, 1997) to popularize Time Square as a tourist destination. The 
insect city in A Bug’s Life (John Lasseter, 1998), dirty and populated with 
undesirable creatures, represents Time Square before its Disney- 
orchestrated makeover. Similarly Hercules’ (Ron Clements and John 
Musker, 1997) depiction of Thebes (‘The Big Olive’ ) as a crime-ridden, 
pestilential city, saved by a heroic figure ironically associated with Disney 
branding, merchandizing and commercialization, justifies and celebrates 
Disney’s efforts in ‘cleaning up’ New York City. Roost even identifies 
subliminal images in Home Improvements (1991-9) promoting the 
architectural design of homes in Celebration, the Disney-built town. 

Despite the promise of its title, and while consistently emphasizing the 
interconnectedness of Disney products. Rethinking Disney nevertheless 
contains some familiar arguments. For example, Hebdige, in a generally 
provocative article, reiterates Henry Giroux’s® claims concerning 
Disney’s exploitative construction of ‘innocence’ and the dubious 
ideological ends it serves. Condemning the studio for fostering a cultural 
disposition which ‘actively rewards states of arrested development, 
denial, disavowal, and unacknowledgement’ (p. 43), Hebdige attacks the 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Review 



juvenilization and Disneyfication of the corporate workplace, 
contemporary modern art and Greek mythology. Reproducing similar 
criticisms, Lee Artz draws parallels between the studio’s corporate 
practice and its animated features. Disney films, Artz argues, favour 
global capitalism, promote selfish individualism, discriminate against 
social democracy and justify the same hierarchical structures involved in 
their own creation. Some detailed film analysis supports these claims: the 
naturalization of hierarchies through animated character design, the 
construction of non-central characters as witless and submissive to 
authority, and recurring endings where elitist hierarchies are restored 
unchanged and unchallenged. The attention paid to recent Disney 
features is certainly useful, but in arguing the studio’s ideological output 
remains unaltered since Snow White (1937), Artz ignores contemporary 
developments in Disney’s film content, not inconceivably themselves 
provoked by such well-worn film and cultural criticism. 

More original papers emphasize the limitations of Disney’s cultural 
and economic power, the complexity of Disney films and the conflicting 
meanings surrounding Disney consumption. The focus of Stacy Warren’s 
article is the frequent failure of the Disney Planning Storyboard, showing 
how environmental groups, residents’ associations and anti-Disney 
campaigners successfully scuppered Disney’s development plans on 
several occasions. Warren’s account suggests both the corporation’s 
mismanagement and self-defeating arrogance, alongside the 
effectiveness of public resistance to the Disney version. Radha Jhappan 
and Daiva Stasiulis’s essay on Disney’s Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel and 
Eric Goldberg, 1995) provides detailed analysis of both cinema feature 
and made-for- video follow-up (Tom Ellery and Bradley Raymond, 
1998), a significant market rarely considered by Disney critics. In 
contrast to its default status within mainstream culture, Jhappan and 
Stasiulis argue that Pocahontas decentres and racializes whiteness, 
questions the historical dichotomy between European civilization and 
native savagery, and attempts - with some success - a sympathetic and 
respectful depiction of Native Americans. While concluding that the 
Pocahontas films ultimately present a Eurocentric revision of history, the 
authors nevertheless recognize the texts’ evident diversions from classic 
Disney concerning representations of gender and ethnicity. Questioning 
orthodox understandings of Disney as unwavering promoter of 
traditional heterosexist patriarchy, Sean Griffin provides a compelling 
history of gay and lesbian events at Disney theme parks. From the 
unofficial invasion of territory of the late 1970s, through depoliticized 
1980s fundraisers, to recent non-confrontational - and corporately 
lucrative - ‘Gay Days’, Griffin illustrates the ongoing discourse between 
Disney management and gay and lesbian communities concerning such 
occasions’ definition, framing and construction. Articulating ‘the 
balancing act between using and being used by corporate capitalism’ 

(p. 147), Griffin argues that Disney ‘Gay Days’ and the meanings they 
bear remain extremely open. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

6 Peter Hollindale, 0 / 
Childness in Children's Books 
(Gloucestershire: Thimble Press, 
1997 ). 

As Warren writes; ‘From virtually every theoretical position - 
whether neo-Marxist, postmodern, deconstructionist, postcolonial - it is 
almost taken for granted that anything the company does will result in a 
blandly homogenized sugary-sweet facade masking the ruthless and 
fundamentally undemocratic corporate activities and policies that are its 
underpinning, all willingly swallowed by a politically gullible public’ 
(p. 231). With some exceptions, contributors to Rethinking Disney 
largely conform to this perspective, resulting in some revealing critical 
negotiations. Artz, for example, raises, only to dismiss, notions of the 
active Disney audience, emphasizing the apparent geographical 
uniformity in interpreting Disney features. Similarly, the possibility of 
polysemy or ‘resistant readings’ within Disney texts is rejected, allowing 
Artz to assert; ‘there is no doubt about the intent, the themes, and the 
dominant meanings preferred’ (p. 76). In a revealing study exploring 
Disney’s Winnie the Pooh products, Aaron Taylor focuses on the 
character’s dualistic identity resulting from the company’s introduction 
of ‘Classic’ Pooh merchandise based on Shepard’s original illustrations. 
Despite dismissing ‘fidelity criticism’ and acknowledging ‘the various 
cultural, corporate, and artistic voices laying claim to Winnie-the-Pooh’, 
Taylor nevertheless evokes a sense of ‘cultural dilution’ (p. 183) 
resulting from Disney’s corporate integration of Milne and Shepard’s 
characters and designs. Frequently the figure of the child consumer 
surfaces in such criticism, be it Dick Hebdige’s discussion of a return to 
idealized origin implicated in the brand loyalty Disney inspires; or 
children’s ‘automatic desire to enact what they find compelling’ (p. 102) 
in Wickstrom’s mimetic exchange, or the little-brained bear of children’s 
literature irretrievably corrupted by the Disney cultural machine. The 
implied child of these accounts functions to justify the critical tendencies 
Warren identifies, evoking an infantilized, passive, easily manipulated 
audience whose trusting innocence/ignorance of consumer capitalism is 
exploited by a cynical parental corporation. Despite the image of two 
young children on Rethinking Disney’s front cover, Disney’s relationship 
with child consumers, Disney products as children’s culture, or the 
‘childness’® of Disney’s milieu remains largely unexplored, a recurring 
tendency within studies of Disney which this collection does little to 

Rethinking Disney contains many well-researched analyses of the 
Disney Corporation’s complex network of interconnected business 
interests. Interrogating the pervasive synergy which characterizes its 
operations, scholars of film and television will find this collection 
extremely useful in illuminating the machinations of a contemporary 
multi-media corporation expanded well beyond the straightforward 
provision of screen entertainment for paying audiences. Original in its 
multi-disciplinary approach, and pushing the envelope in terms of what is 
considered ‘Disney studies’, Rethinking Disney nevertheless remains 
largely traditional in perspective, while some - seemingly obvious - 
avenues of enquiry remain unexplored. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Review 


1 Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: 
an Autobiography (London: 
Heinemann, 1986), and Million- 
Doilar Movie {London: Heinemann, 

Andrew Moor, Powell and Pressburger: a Cinema of Magic Spaces. London: 
IB Tauris, 2005, 250 pp. 

Ian Christie and Andrew Moor (eds). The Cinema of Michael Powell: 
International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker. London: British Film 
Institute, 2005, 295 pp. 

Sarah Street, Black Narcissus. London: IB Tauris (Turner Classic Movies 
British Film Guide Series), 2005, 102 pp. 

Mark Connelly, The Red Shoes. London: IB Tauris (Turner Classic Movies 
British Film Guide Series), 2005, 96 pp. 


The centenary of Michael Powell’s birth in 1905 has been marked by a 
number of books relating to his work, his collaboration with the exiled 
Emeric Pressburger (bom in Hungary in 1902) and individual films. 
Critically neglected following the sensationalism that surrounded 
Peeping Tom (1960), Powell’s reputation was restored through some 
pioneering work by Ian Christie in the 1970s and 1980s and by 
expressions of indebtedness by filmmakers, including Marfin Scorsese. 
The publication of Powell’s two- volume autobiography A Life In Movies 
and Million-Dollar Movie provided rich, if erratic, material for the 
restoration of his critical standing.’ 

Andrew Moor is in little doubt about the continuing fascination and 
relevance of the films of Powell and Pressburger. For him, as he 
announces in his introduction to Powell and Pressburger: a Cinema of 
Magic Spaces, the questions their films pose are those we more 
commonly associate with postmodernism, postcolonial studies and with 
cultural geography. How, he asks, do cinematic ‘representations of 
journeys, border crossings, and other geographical shifts relate to, or tell 
us an 5 hhing about, more interior, psychological “journeys” and changes 
in identity?’ (p. 1). Moor’s sustained and coherent investigation of the 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 

©The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved. 



films, starting with The Spy In Black{\9'i9) and ending with The Tales Of 
Hoffmann (1951), meaningfully explores the central importance of the 
construction of ‘magic spaces’ within an aesthetic which is often seen to 
sit uncomfortably within prevailing notions of British cinematic realism. 
Though insisting on the stylistic variety of their films. Moor argues that 
what characterizes the partnership’s output was not just their concern to 
experiment, but to produce films that were thematically complex. As Ian 
Christie, John Ellis and others before him have insisted, the result has 
been to place their films in an uneasy, oblique relationship with what is 
often regarded as British national cinema. Yet, for Moor, much of the 
interest and significance of Powell and Pressburger lies precisely in their 
ability to ‘perturb the apparent tidiness’ (p. 12) of British national cinema 
through what he concludes is their ‘particular line of romantic 
international nationalism’ (p. 228), especially evident in the films of the 

The strength of Moor’s book is in his analysis of individual films. 
Noting both the importance of Powell’s early exposure to European 
filmmaking and the uneasy exiled situation in which Pressburger found 
himself, he is nonetheless at pains to recuperate their films within a 
broader concept of British cinema that extends beyond an aesthetic 
devoted to ‘quality realism’. Though never reluctant to incorporate the 
wider resonances that actors such as Conrad Veidt and Anton Walbrook 
brought to their films, not least in delineating the complexity of 
identities, the influence of Shakespeare and Kipling and ‘Englishness’ is, 
for Moor, especially important to an understanding of films such as The 
Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944). 
The critical commentaries on these two films, and on A Matter of Life and 
Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), are exceptionally sensitive 
and illuminating, a riposte to those contemporary critics who found the 
films ‘baffling’, and a lifeline to students encountering them for the first 
time today. Moor’s ability to relate these films to cultural dynamics, not 
least emergent postwar masculinities and femininities, and to the quest 
for idealism which he sees as central to Powell and Pressburger’ s films, is 
powerfully cogent. 

He seems less sure when dealing with The Red Shoes (1948) and The 
Tales of Hoffmann, two so-called ‘art films’ where Powell and 
Pressburger ‘flaunt their own romantic credentials’ (p. 198). Though he is 
surely right in arguing that these two films ‘occupy ambivalent cultural 
positions’ (p. 199) in the sense that they valorize a high-Romantic 
concern with ‘Art’ without becoming art-house films, his reading of the 
two films comes close to suggesting a sense of exhaustion and retreat, not 
least in Hoffmann ’s ‘eradication of external reality’. An examination of 
Oh . . . Rosalinda!! (1955), the last film in a loose trilogy, might have 
revealed more about Powell and Pressburger’s views on the complex 
relationship between art, cinema, politics and the state during the Cold 
War era. These are interesting films, made in interesting and changing 
times, that found an audience and critical acclaim not least in the USA, 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

2 Donen's comments recalled an 
internal MGM studio 
memorandum from Arthur Freed 
that made a comparison between 
On The Town and Powell and 
Pressburger's film. See Stephen 
M. Silverman, Dancing on the 
Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his 
Movies (New York, NY: Alfred A 
Knopf, 1996), p. 120. 

3 Ian Christie (ed.), Powell 

Pressburger and Others (London: 
British Film Institute, 1978), p. 1. 

much to the annoyance of Stanley Donen who, in 1948, was codirecting 
On The Town with Gene Kelly and found that, unusually, American 
product was overshadowed by all the talk about The Red Shoes, ‘this 
picture from England ’ } 

Though he sketches in some of the background production of the films, 
including the relationship between the Archers and Rank, as well as the 
political and economic landscape in which British cinema operated, 
Moor’s interest is in hermeneutics rather than political economy. As 
such, this commentary will be essential reading for anyone engaging with 
the work of Powell and Pressburger. The one disappointment is that, for a 
book that concentrates on a partnership beginning in 1939 and ending in 
1956 (at the expense of films made before and after those dates), there is 
little evaluation of the distinctive contributions made by either man. 
Though noting, for example, that The Red Shoes ‘differs tellingly’ from 
Pressburger’s original, 1937 script, or citing John Ellis’s comment on 
Pressburger’s ‘uneasy status’ in Britain, Moor shies away from 
developing any views about ways in which their collaboration worked 
and the effect on the films of what Ian Christie in 1978 described as ‘the 
distinct and even contradictory elements within the production 

Christie has returned to this issue in one of his essays in The Cinema of 
Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, 
edited by Christie and Andrew Moor. Arguing that, at its best, the 
partnership created ‘miraculously fused works’ (p. 172), Christie notes 
the ‘schematic’ approach that characterizes Pressburger’s outline 
conceptions for A Canterbury Tale and Colonel Blimp, and the 
undoubted influence of German Weimar cinema on Pressburger’s scripts. 
Christie’s conclusion about the collaboration between ‘Pressburger the 
writer and Powell the practical film director’ (p. 184) is that both partners 
realized that they achieved more through their ‘intimate’ cooperation 
than they could working alone. 

Though this is a book dedicated to Powell as an English filmmaker, a 
product of English Edwardian culture, influenced by writers such as 
Kipling and Chesterton, with the exception of Laura Mulvey’s 
psychoanalytic reading of Peeping Tom (1960) the essays concentrate on 
those films he produced in collaboration with Pressburger and tend to 
valorize the wider cosmopolitan influences evident within the Aims. As 
John Ellis puts it, ‘Powell was a European film-maker whose misfortune 
it was to be British’ (p. 11). The creative alliance with Pressburger 
perfectly suited Powell’s own uneasy relationship with an often brutish 
British sensibility and enabled Powell to develop an aesthetic that 
appeared out of kilter with British cinema culture. In his illuminating 
analysis of the first four minutes of The Spy In Black, Charles Barr asserts 
that the partnership gelled instantly, despite the delay in the screen 
credits that announced joint responsibility for writing, producing and 
directing until 1942. In fact, as the essays here tend to suggest, this shared 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Review 



credit is more a tribute to the satisfaction both partners felt with their 
alliance, rather than an accurate reflection of distinctive creative inputs. 

The international perspective on Powell (and, inevitably, it seems, 
Pressburger) comes from American and European scholars in a series of 
distinctive and enlightening essays. Lesley Stem ruminates on the 
cinematic manipulation of time in A Matter of Life and Death, and Tom 
Gunning cleverly and effectively dices with I Know Where I’m Going 
(1945), a film that provokes lasting emotional investment from viewers, 
as a love story. Jean-Louis Leutrat notes the sense of smell as one of 
cinema’s ‘limit points’ and analyzes the intmding presence of perfume in 
Black Narcissus, while Natacha Thiery offers real insight into the 
centrality of women characters in The Archers’ films and their 
dramatization of women as ‘subjects of desire’ (p. 225). The essays from 
British scholars are no less intriguing, including Andrew Moor’s 
suggestive possibilities of potential queer readings of Powell and 
Pressburger’ s films. Robert Shall examines typologies of masculinity, 
and Nanette Aldred offers a particularly useful review of Hein 
Heckroth’s contribution as production designer, not least on The Red 
Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Philip Home examines A Matter of 
Life and Death and engagingly unearths even more evidence of what he 
refers to as the Hungarian connection. Christie reflects in detail on the 
extent to which A Canterbury Tale drew upon contemporary sources, 
propaganda influences and ideological preoccupations, and asks how this 
inflects our own understanding of the film. Though Graeme Harper’s 
challenging and perceptive essay examines Powell’s solo effort Age of 
Consent (1969), his main emphasis is on They’re A Weird Mob (1966), 
the other ‘Australian’ film that was scripted by Pressburger under the 
pseudonym of Richard Imrie. In the process, he opens up some fresh 
perspectives on the European-ness of Powell and Pressburger’ s films. 

There are some disappointing omissions in the book. There is nothing 
on Powell’s earlier films produced before his collaboration with 
Pressburger, nor, despite the contributions of composers Allan Gray and 
Brian Easdale, is there an5hhing on music within their films. However, at 
a time when publishers seem less inclined to publish them. The Cinema 
of Michael Powell is an important reminder of just how important edited 
collections can be. 

It is a measure of the recurrent interest in the films of Powell and 
Pressburger that two of the recent British Film Guide series published by 
IB Tauris are devoted to Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes 
(1948). Sarah Street’s excellent monograph on the earlier film offers not 
just impeceable analysis, but a concern to place Black Narcissus as an 
open text that continues to have contemporary relevance, not least 
through the film’s focus on femininity and sexual desire, its complicated 
take on colonialism, as well as its articulation of recurrent cinematic 
tropes that signify a profound sense of displacement and instability. It is a 
film. Street argues, whose ‘cultural importance . . . exceeds its stature in 
the canon of Powell and Pressburger films’ (p. 60). Without explicitly 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 - Review 

downgrading Powell’s claims as an innovative director, Street’s analysis 
of the film accentuates the significant contributions made by production 
designer Alfred Junge, costume designer Hein Heckroth and, perhaps 
above all, cinematographer Jack Cardiff. She is also at pains to 
acknowledge the extent to which Powell and Pressburger’s screenplay 
‘kept fairly close to [Rumer Godden’s 1939] novel in terms of structure 
and intent’ (p. 12), but is sensitive to some important changes, not least in 
Powell’s visualization of the East, a visualization that Godden 
considered inauthentic. Street’s impeccable research, uncovering for 
example the ways in which the Catholic League of Decency damaged the 
film’s reception in the USA, remains subservient to the clarity of her 
analysis. Noting the resurgence of interest in Powell and Pressburger in 
the 1970s and 1980s, not least from Martin Scorsese, Street devotes some 
space to ways in which lesbian and feminist directors in the late 1980s 
and 1990s have appropriated Black Narcissus within avant-garde films. 
In the context of the book as a whole, this seems rather like special 
pleading, since the film’s continuing fascination extends far beyond its 
sexual politics. This is minor criticism of an illuminating, authoritative, 
exceptionally well-written and compelling analysis of what many regard 
as one of the most significant films to challenge accepted notions of 
British cinema based on the realist canon. 

In his monograph on The Red Shoes, Mark Connelly also stresses the 
‘unBritish’ quality that is said to characterize the films of Powell and 
Pressburger. Connelly offers a useful, if slightly ill-disciplined, account 
of the context in which the film was produced. What he says is very 
useful, though in the context of this short book, his ebullient praise for the 
work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff seems over-lengthy. He makes a 
number of interesting points about the film itself, arguing convincingly 
for the vampyric quality embedded in Anton Walbrook’s performance as 
the Svengali-like Lermontov, and offers a tellingly effective account of 
the relationship not just between the Red Shoes ballet sequence and the 
wider narrative, but between the film’s complex modal interweaving 
between realism, surrealism and fantasy. 


Screen 47:4 Winter 2006 • Review