Gilbey on Film: Accidental beauty

We shouldn't think films are ever born fully-formed.

Whenever the filmmaking process is divided into percentages (1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration, that sort of thing), it's surprising that such factors as luck or necessity are excluded altogether from the equation. There's a fantasy, one to which I am highly susceptible, that everything which ends up on screen was always meant to be there. Blame it on auteur theory, or simply a child-like faith in the miracle of movies, but there it is.

Occasions when this has not been the case tend to be filed away as freak exceptions. -- think of the devastating final shots of Roman Polanski's The Ghost and Mike Leigh's Naked, both of which were invented on the hoof after shooting had begun. (In fact, Leigh always adheres to this process, as he explained to Amy Raphael in her excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh: "[T]here's a big difference between the sort of ideas you have before you start shooting a film and what sort of creative process goes on when you've shot 99 per cent of the film, your cinematic juices are flowing and you've got the hang of the film you're making.")

But it was helpful this year on two separate occasions to have myself disabused of the whimsical notion that a film is ever born fully-formed. In these instances, my eyes were opened by two female directors, Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold. (Quite coincidentally, both had just shot their newest movies in the old-fashioned and almost-defunct 4:3 aspect ratio, which produces a square rather than rectangular frame.) Back in March, I met Reichardt to discuss her stark western Meek's Cutoff. One of the most contentious parts of this deliberately intense and slow-moving film was its elliptical ending, which leaves the audience to speculate on what might lie in store for the parched, desperate characters trudging along the Oregon Trail. The enigmatic final shots are so integral to the film's mysteries that I was surprised to learn that a different ending had been planned right up to the day of shooting. Reichardt told me:

The film actually ends a little differently than the script. The sun went down before we got our final shot on the last day, and I came back home without an ending to the movie, which is really devastating. I had to rearrange it in my mind. We didn't have the money to go back out there with all the actors and the animals and the wagons, so it had to become something other than what it was designed to be. I have this little prayer I say, where I tell myself that the lack of means is somehow working in my favour. Often it's true, and it can lead you some place good. In this case, it led me to an ending which was more suited to the film.

You have to be malleable. When I'm making a film, I want the script to be as far along as possible. But then all through scouting locations, the script is constantly changing to fit the places where things will happen. Then the actors come along. Things you've imagined being said in a certain way come out of their mouths sounding completely different, and I don't have a lot of rehearsal time so you have to adjust to that. If you knew how it was all going to be, then it wouldn't be such an interesting process. You read about Hitchcock, and how he said that shooting was boring because you knew everything that was going to happen, but then he wasn't working with our kind of budget or locations. I'm a big planner but it's still important to be open to whatever the day offers you when you're there.

I got an even greater surprise last month when I met Andrea Arnold (whose new version of Wuthering Heights I review in the next issue of the NS). I commended her on a particular moment in her 2006 debut, Red Road, which I consider to be one of the most imaginatively suggestive shots in recent cinema: a CCTV operator trains her camera on a suspicious-looking man who darts suddenly into the long grass on a stretch of waste ground, only for a lean fox to emerge a few seconds later from the other side of the undergrowth, creeping across the deserted road and vanishing into the night. The intimation, of course, is that a metamorphosis of some kind has occurred. I may actually have gasped when I saw that in a cinema for the first time, and I think I gasped again when Arnold revealed to me that the shot was entirely unplanned and fortuitous:

It was an accident; it's not like we had a fox there in the grass, ready to be released! When you're making a film, you often get less than you expect because what you start out with in your heart is such a pure thing, and the obstacles during production can be so immense and brutal. But, every now and then, you get so much more than you could ever have imagined. And the shot with the fox was one of those moments. To see it come out of the grass -- it was such a pure moment. I was delighted! I knew it was going in the film, no matter what. And I'd already written into the script the scene where the characters hear the fox noises later on. If you live in London, as I do, then you hear those awful noises all the time; it's just the strangest sound, like babies being murdered, and I wanted that in the film. The CCTV footage was shot before everything else, and it all just tied in beautifully. When that happens, you're, like, [she raises her eyes heavenwards] 'Thank you!' You feel like you've been given a big present.

And so do we, sitting gobsmacked in the stalls.

"Meek's Cutoff" and "Red Road" are available both on DVD. "Wuthering Heights" is released in cinemas on Friday.

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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage