Directors' cuts

Afternoon tea with Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Jeanne Labrune.

3.40pm: I emerge from Green Park tube station clutching my interview notes and walk down Stratton Street to the May Fair Hotel. I know the way after last week's "Film-maker Afternoon Teas", which I attended hoping to talk to Chadian director Mahamad-Saleh Haroun about his new film A Screaming Man -- one of the highlights at this year's BFI London Film Festival. He never turned up. But I seem to have better luck this time round: having taken the precaution of booking more than one set of interviews, I'm about to get two interviewees for the price of one, not once but twice.

3.50pm: I nibble at a scone and sip pearl-jasmine tea, while waiting for my interview slot in the plush interior of May Fair bar. "This is how they lure them here," a woman sitting next to me says. Last week, she interviewed the Irish director Tom Hall who had just stepped off a plane and was surprised to find cameramen and journalists when he'd only been asked to tea.

4.10pm: The film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are ready to see me at last. They've barely tucked into their tea. It's not often that two people have a hand in writing and directing a film; beyond telling me they like to bounce ideas off each other, Epstein and Friedman are at pains to explain how their double act works in practice. They have jointly researched and written Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, whose sexually explicit poem of that title gained notoriety through the obscenity trial that followed its publication in 1955. Epstein and Friedman admit that the nature of poetic inspiration -- a subject that the Cannes winner Lee Changdong turns to in Poetry, also featured at the BFI festival -- interests them less than the poem's social and political charge. One of them claims he doesn't even like poetry.

4.20pm: There's time for one final question as the interview draws to a close. Howl strikes me as a hybrid, generically speaking: its interweaving of colour with black-and-white sequences, of filmed footage with animation, gives the film an experimental edge. To my mind, Howl shares this quality with a number of features shown at the BFI festival this year, notably Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, Errol Morris's Tabloid, and Clio Barnard's award-winning The Arbor (reviewed by the NS's Ryan Gilbey here). Do documentaries lend themselves to experimentation more than other, more straightforwardly narrative films? Epstein and Friedman, though they come to film from a background in documentary film-making, see this distinction as spurious.

4.30pm: I hardly have time to collect my thoughts when someone motions me to another table, where French writer-director Jeanne Labrune is sitting with her interpreter. Tea for two once again gives way to a triangular scenario. We start by musing on the film's English title, Special Treatment, which doesn't carry the sexual allusions of the French original, Sans queue ni tête. But much besides the title may be lost on its new, non-French audience. Special Treatment, somewhat surprisingly billed as a comedy, draws parallels between the professional realms of psychoanalysis and prostitution. The film's basic premise, as well as its reliance on linguistic puns, may strike English-speaking viewers as somewhat heavy-handed, despite wonderful performances by Isabelle Huppert and the Belgian actor Xavier Demestre.

4.45pm: I compare notes with another interviewer who spoke to Jeanne Labrune before me. The idea for the film apparently first came to Labrune by chance when she picked up a book that fell off the shelf and stumbled on the word "la passe" (meaning "trick") used in a psychoanalytical context.

5.10pm: Fortified with more tea, I leave the May Fair bar and drift towards Piccadilly.

5.25pm: My wanderings take me to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard, where Christian Marclay's The Clock is currently displayed. There's no getting away from films, it would seem. Marclay's clever montage of cinematic moments, featuring clocks, watches and the passage of time more generally, is synchronised to show exactly what time it is from the moment you arrive until you leave. Watching countless clock faces makes for nerve-racking, if strangely hypnotic, viewing. Increasingly aware that I should be on my way, seven minutes into a film that goes on for 24 hours, round the clock, I reluctantly pull myself away.

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition