Why bad movies keep coming out and what to do about it

Unlike the babbling brook of Hollywood – with its suppression of truth, fake heroes and warmongering – a masterpiece, or just a good movie, is unforgettable.

As an inveterate film fan, I turn to the listings every week and try not to lose hope. I search the guff that often passes for previews, and I queue for a ticket with that flicker of excitement that brings to mind matinees in art-deco splendour. Once inside, lights down, beer in hand, I feel hope recede as the minutes pass. How many times have I done a runner? There is a cinema I go to that refunds your money if you’re out the door within 20 minutes of the opening titles. The people there have knowing looks. My personal best is less than five minutes of the awful Moulin Rouge.

The other day, I saw Blue Jasmine, written and directed by Woody Allen. The critics’ applause was thunderous. “A work of brilliance . . . Pure movie-going pleasure . . . Smart, sophisticated and hugely enjoyable . . . Brilliantly funny”. One journalist called it a “miracle”. So I queued for a ticket, even conjuring the wonderful scene from Annie Hall (1977) when Allen, standing in a cinema queue, meets his hero Marshall McLuhan, he of “the medium is the message”.

Today he might as well call up Hans Christian Andersen’s parable about a naked emperor, which applies to his latest “work of brilliance”. By any fair and reasonable measure, it is crap. Every character is cardboard. The schematic “plot” is crude. Two adopted sisters are thrown together implausibly. There is a wannabe politician whose name should be Congressman Stereotype. The script is lazy, dated and patronising. Clearly, Allen wrote it during a night sweat. “If Cate Blanchett doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination,” wrote the Times critic, “then I will eat a Chanel hat.” Actually, Blanchett deserves a Lifeboat medal. She tries and fails to rescue this wreck.

PR has subverted much of our lives, making unconscious acolytes of those who once might have operated outside the pack. The drumbeat of crap movies with big promotional budgets, mostly from the United States, is incessant. The US market share of cinema box-office takings in Britain is more than 70 per cent; the small UK share is mainly for US co-productions. Films from Europe and the rest of the world account for a tiny fraction.

The hype of public relations – Edward Bernays’s euphemism for propaganda – is now regarded as truth. The medium has become the message. David Cameron, a former PR huckster for a media asset-stripper, saw the hyped Fifth Estate, and declared: “Benedict Cumberbatch – brilliant, fantastic piece of acting. The twitchiness and everything of Julian Assange is brilliantly portrayed.” Neither he nor Cumberbatch has ever met Assange; nor has any of the makers of this fiction. Based on a dodgy, axe-grinding book, this DreamWorks juggernaut is a perfidious, unethical exploitation of a man fighting for his freedom, if not his life.

Not surprisingly, Cameron’s government is slashing at the British Film Institute, keeper of the world’s greatest film archive and one of this country’s most liberating institutions. Like the National Health Service, it would not be established today. If you yearn to avoid Hollywood’s “babbling brook of bullshit” (to borrow from Richard Lewis in Curb Your Enthusiasm), join the BFI. As a long-time member and supporter, I am often to be found in one of its acoustically excellent cinemas, seeing films past and present, classics and unknowns, that are reminders of how pleasurable an hour or two in front of celluloid can be. For more than 30 years, my own films have had their premieres here.

The antithesis of Blue Jasmine and The Fifth Estate has just ended a run at the BFI. This is Nothing But a Man, one of only two fiction features directed by Michael Roemer, a German Jewish refugee who grew up in Kent before emigrating to the US. Made in 1964 and set in the Deep South with an almost entirely African-American cast, it is the story of Duffy (Ivan Dixon), a tormented young black man whose life is consumed and distorted by his refusal to accept his “boy” status. Aware that only collective action can beat racism, he is constantly looking for solidarity and failing to find it.

Is Duffy’s anger the product of an obstinate nature or a principled struggle against The Man? In keeping us guessing, Roemer (he wrote the script with Robert M Young) ensures the anger is real, almost a presence in the cinema. Yet it is masked behind smiles; almost everyone in this remarkable film smiles as a way of trapping, if not containing despair. The jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who plays Duffy’s wife, Josie, is superb at this emotional and political sleight of hand. There is hope, too, but not a driblet of sentimentality.

None of the main cinema chains in the US wanted to show Nothing But a Man. No major distributor picked it up. Like The War Game by Peter Watkins, which the BBC banned for 20 years, Roemer’s film did the rounds of church halls, youth centres and later video recorders. The point about the film is that it is as timeless as its director is ageless. At 85, Michael Roemer still teaches at the Yale School of Art and worries that he could not make “commercial” films that people wanted to see.

He need not worry. A film is judged by how or whether we remember it. Unlike the babbling brook of Hollywood – with its suppression of truth, fake heroes and warmongering – a masterpiece, or just a good movie, is unforgettable. Join the BFI.

Film canisters within the acetate vault at the BFI. Image: Getty

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.