Culture and consensus

Ben Bradshaw, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster struggle to disagree about the future of arts funding.

Last night, I went to listen to a debate, hosted at Kings Place in London by the Cultural Leadership Programme, between the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, and his Tory and Lib Dem shadows, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster. The question the speakers had been invited to address was: "What lies ahead for the cultural and creative industries?"

They were introduced by Liz Forgan, chair of the Arts Council, who acknowledged that "black recessionary clouds are looming". Arts funding bodies had better "prepare for tough times", she warned.

Although there was an invitation contained in Forgan's remarks to each of the speakers to be explicit about what they thought would happen to arts funding in what Bradshaw acknowledged was a "challenging" economic climate, the debate was, in truth, mostly blandly consensual.

Bradshaw, Hunt and Foster all eulogised the contribution that the arts make to the nation's "well-being", as well as to the economy. And each reiterated his party's commitment to the "arm's-length" principle for arts funding (according to which funds should be disbursed by bodies such as the Arts Council without government interference).

The closest they came to disagreement was over their understanding of what is meant by what Bradshaw called the "mixed economy" in the arts -- the combination of government funding and philanthropic largesse that distinguishes the British model from its American and European counterparts. Hunt agreed that ensuring a "multiplicity of funding sources" was essential in straitened economic circumstances, but made a point of saying that the Conservatives would "boost philanthropy" and argued that we shouldn't allow the financial crisis to obscure the contribution made by endowments.

And while he genuflected towards the arm's-length principle, Hunt also argued that all arts "quangos" should "bear down on their admin costs as much as possible" -- a nod to the "bonfire of the quangos" that David Cameron promised last year. Admin costs, Hunt insisted, were out of control, and argued that these should not exceed 5 per cent of each funding body's overall budget -- a claim to which Foster, in particular, gave short shrift, describing the 5 per cent figure as "mythical".

That was as heated as it got. Hunt then had to leave early for another engagement, before anyone could ask him the really important question about Tory cultural policy: to what extent are the Conservatives' positions on the media dictated by BSkyB? Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian a couple of days ago, noticed an alarming pattern:

[T]he Murdochs constantly demand a cut in the licence fee. Last year Cameron nodded dutifully, and called for an immediate freeze in the licence fee. That would have marked an unprecedented break in the multi-year financial settlement that is so integral to the BBC's independence -- preventing it from constantly having to make nice to the politicians to keep the money coming in.

Second only to their loathing of the BBC is the Murdochs' hatred of Ofcom, the regulator that stands between them and monopolistic domination of the entire UK media landscape. They particularly dislike Ofcom snooping into pay-TV, an area that makes billions for Sky. How odd, then, that a matter of days after the regulator published a proposal that would have forced Sky to charge less for its sport and movie channels, Cameron, in a speech on quangos, suddenly singled out Ofcom, suggesting it would be cut "by a huge amount", possibly even replaced altogether.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The film for The Lost City of Z was flown back from the jungle – and it was worth it

Based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film is a beautiful, diligent portrait. Plus: Aquarius.​

Two ravishing new films with a Brazilian flavour are generous not only in length (two and a half hours apiece) but in wisdom and wonder. The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked in 1906 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, only to become entranced by the legend of an advanced Amazonian civilisation. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, delivering his lines in a mesmerising whisper) is drawn repeatedly to the jungle with his aide-de-camp, Henry (Robert Pattinson), interrupting these quests only to fight on the Somme or to return to England to impregnate his patient wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).

Fawcett raises hackles by arguing against the characterisation of the indigenous people as savages and the film repeats this democracy of spirit visually, making no distinction in mystique and allure between the various locations. Devon looks as delicious as Bolivia or Brazil; the mood in the wood-panelled conference room where Fawcett is reprimanded for abandoning one of his party is as treacherous as the depths of the jungle. This creates a continuity between the various worlds, rather than making one exotic at the expense of the other.

James Gray, who writes and directs, retains the unfashionable preference for film over digital which has defined his previous work (moody, mumbly dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers). The picture was shot by Darius Khondji on 35mm, even though that added over half a million dollars to the budget and meant the footage had to be flown thousands of miles from the Colombian rainforest locations to be processed. It was worth it. The dense colours are soaked deep into the grain of the filmstock. They tell a story not available in pixels.

Gray’s screenplay weighs Fawcett’s bravery against his intolerance of ­fallibility, his racial progressiveness against the short-sightedness of his sexual politics. When Nina asks to accompany him, it’s more than he can stomach. “Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time,” he fumes. All at once a man fighting social orthodoxy takes cover beneath its privileges. Nina is framed against the tangled blue flowers of the wallpaper; that’s the closest she will get to his adventures. And yet it is she who invokes Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” to urge her husband on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

The diligent direction hints that Gray was aiming for the level of scrutiny found in Barry Lyndon, an impression supported by a talismanic cameo from Murray Melvin, who starred in Kubrick’s 1975 film. Barry Lyndon pops up, too, in Aquarius: the distinguished music writer Clara (the incredible Sônia Braga) has a poster for the movie in her Recife apartment. She lives alone but not lonely, visited by her adult children and attended to by a long-serving maid, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). A more unwelcome interruption comes in the shape of the property developers who want Clara, the last ­resident in her block, to sell up and move out.

We already know she is formidable. She wears her mastectomy scars defiantly, and the opening scene establishes that her anthem is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. With her black hair scraped severely into a bun, and her lips on the verge of a wicked laugh or a vinegary screw-you sneer, Clara is a tenacious warrior. Yet in these businessmen who hide their desires behind tight smiles and veiled threats, she may have met her match.

Aquarius is a leisurely character study that is also urgently political in its treatment of race, class and commerce. Its Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, who started out as a critic, has a gift for translating psychological states into cinematic language. His
use of dissolves is haunting, his placement of figures in the frame expressive, and his zooms make you swoon. No detail escapes his eye, from restless feet jiggling under the table on a girls’ night out to strands of hair caressed by the breeze at a late-night party.

The film’s main symbol is a chest of drawers, crammed with layers of memory to which only we have been given access. It represents the sort of history that is in danger of being trampled by people who believe every principle has a price tag. The beach outside warns of shark attacks but the deadliest predators come in human form.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution