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Think before you act: against the modern cult of spontaneity

Truly living in the moment and being utterly spontaneous would render you unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.

Illustration: Ciara Phelan for the New Statesman

Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others. You’d turn into someone like the amusing but oddly disturbing character Old Merrythought in Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (recently revived to hilarious effect at the Globe in London). Merrythought spends all his time singing and drinking ale, because he assumes there will always be meat on the table come dinnertime. Being so spontaneous would make you, in short, a fantastically annoying and irresponsible flibbertigibbet.

Why, then, is the dream of spontaneity so attractive? It is perhaps because most of our lives are so corralled and timetabled, and our workdays increasingly subject to silent, automated time-and-motion studies conducted by data-harvesting computers for the purpose of what is euphemised as “workforce science”, that we dream all the more of being able to be spontaneous – at least in our free time. Our “free” time, of course, as Guy Debord noted, is just that time which is left to us after the violent expropriation of most of it. And so the idea of spontaneity is a dream of liberty.

But true freedom, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted, is also terrifying. And spontaneity, it seems, is a virtue that we sorely wish to have ascribed to us but don’t actually want to act out rigorously. To be thought of as a spontaneous person is to own a certain kind of devil-may-care cool, to seem open to new experiences. Actually to be a spontaneous person, though, might be a frightful mess. Well, there’s an app for that. Indeed, a whole new class of smartphone apps offers what can be thought of as a kind of mediated, filtered spontaneity – a kind of just-in-time planning that still gives the desired impression of impetuosity. Thus, location-aware dating apps such as Tinder sell the possibility of meeting someone in a nearby bar that evening – almost like people used to do before the age of ambient internet, using only their faces. (According to my informants, a not insignificant number of Tinder users describe themselves as “spontaneous” on their carefully curated profiles.) Meanwhile, a mobile booking start-up called Hotel Tonight recently added a feature allowing users to peek at probable same-day rates a few days ahead. The company announced on its blog, deadpan, that this planning feature was part of “our never-ending quest to empower people to be more spontaneous”.

Consumer spontaneity, you might suspect, is at least very good for business. It seems as though it would be very much in the interest of people selling things if a habit of recklessly spending money at a moment’s notice were considered part of a desirable personality. As it happens, a friend’s Twitter feed was recently interrupted by a “promoted tweet” (that is, advert) from an account calling itself “Be Spontaneous UK”, and chirruping: “Go Brazilian this summer with free Ipanema flip-flops when you pick up our bikini razor now.” Perhaps the purchase of a “bikini razor” is meant to count as an investment in future spontaneity of a vaguely porny kind, though the spontaneity that really counts here is that of immediately clicking on an ad to buy a product. It turns out that “Be Spontaneous UK” is a marketing account owned by Wilkinson Sword.

Probably not coincidentally, either, one finds that recent “spontaneity surveys” showing that Britons really wish they were more spontaneous are predominantly carried out on behalf of companies for which more spontaneity equals more business: train operators and retailers. Or take the advert for Delta Private Jets, described in a recent essay by Ian Bogost, the tagline of which reads: “Perfect moments are often made on a moment’s notice.” Here, spontaneity becomes a kind of meta-luxury.

 

The rhetorical invitation to spontaneity by commercial interests exists in a productive relationship with the modern dualism of psychological science. This is not classical mind-body dualism, but the dualism of more-or-less-allegorical brain systems. In the influential lingo of the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have a “System 1” brain that delivers snap, intuitive judgements through unconscious processing, and a “System 2” brain that does the slow, cold reasoning.

Now, which of those brains is the “spontaneous” one? Why, System 1, of course, the blinking, unthinking brain, the site of “hot cognition”. The weirdly anti-rational weather of our age, indeed, insists that this intuitive System 1 is “who we really are”. Because our rationality can be infected with errors by System 1 biases, or so this story goes, we should give up all hope of being reliably rational.

This is certainly a convenient hypothesis for boosters of “nudge” politics, who seek to make citizens do the right thing (save for retirement, buy healthy food) by exploiting the subconscious biases and errors to which System 1 is prone. The wise folk who design the nudges are pleased to call themselves “choice architects”. As we are led unsuspectingly along their mazy garden path, on which what they consider the “right” choices are the easiest ones for us to make – the healthy meal is at eye level; we are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless we can be bothered to opt out – we casually make the decisions that they have already chosen for us. Thus, through careful engineering of the alternatives presented, the liberal paternalists of nudge ideology want to exploit our lazily automatic behaviour.

This might be a resistible challenge to our autonomy as long as the specific choice architecture and its rationale are made available in an open and transparent way, but that is not the way the field is developing. The British government’s Behavioural Insights Team, aka the Nudge Unit, was part-privatised this year, and hopes to profit from advising foreign governments, local authorities and commercial interests, now that it is immune from Freedom of Information requests from ordinary citizens who might wish to scrutinise its methods. To embrace spontaneity, then, might be to let a cadre of unaccountable behaviour engineers make important economic and political choices for us.

This seems all the more plausible when we remember that to praise another’s “spon­taneity” often carries an infantilising or otherwise condescending undertone. Black musicians of the Jazz Age were routinely praised by white critics for their supposedly innate “spontaneity”, in rhetoric that cast them almost as idiots savants, untrained yet miraculously skilful in the moment. The literary critic F R Leavis, meanwhile, wielded “spontaneous” and its cognates as terms of his highest praise when discussing writers, such as D H Lawrence, who he felt were conduits (as it were almost unreflective) of Life Itself.

In his recent book How to Read Literature, the former boy terror of literary theory Terry Eagleton surprisingly revives this Leavisite virtue as one of the positive qualities he says we should learn to recognise in fiction. Eagleton quotes a passage from John Updike and complains: “There is nothing spontaneous about it.” Casting himself as a kind of prosodic Antiques Roadshow expert, able to spot a fake at ten paces, he cites a passage of William Faulkner and diagnoses the fault thus: it has “an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated”.

Never mind that every “air” in a piece of writing must be fabricated, in the sense that all prose effects must be built from the careful choice and placement of words. It is probably bootless to wonder how a Leavis or an Eagleton could possibly know, absent surveillance footage and brain scans of the target writers at work, exactly how “spontaneous” this or that passage’s creation was. Further, of course, the most “spontaneous” writing is likely to be the worst writing, as long as you agree that writing benefits from thought. Many literary stories of spontaneous composition are myths. Jack Kerouac – celebrated by Allen Ginsberg for his miraculous “spontaneous bop prosody” – did bash out a typescript of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot-long scroll of paper, but the novel had already been through several versions and rewrites for more than two years before that first full-length draft was “spontaneously” composed.

One of the most pleasant things about writing, indeed, is that spontaneity is corrigible: something that seems like a good idea on the spur of the moment, as one’s fingers are banging out a paragraph, can be quietly got rid of in the sober tranquillity of revision, when it becomes clear that it’s rubbish. To elevate spontaneity to a central literary virtue is as anti-intellectual as its diagnosis is whimsically subjective.

 

The invitation to citizens to luxuriate in a pleasurable absence of deliberation perhaps connects, too, the rhetorical fashion for spontaneity with the sudden promotion of “mindfulness” by corporate and state interests. A parliamentary working group was even set up this spring to explore the potential for mindfulness in health, education and the criminal justice system. Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

Mindfulness and spontaneity are both, as psychic ideals, opposed to worry and effort, which we can easily think are what daily life actually requires of us. They could thus be understood alternatively, in an emancipatory way. Perhaps there is a secular version available of the kind of evangelical Protestantism that embraces an ecstatic approach to life, a kind of Dionysian spontaneity that trusts in God’s will. Edward Slingerland’s interesting recent book Trying Not to Try: the Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, for example, contrasts the overscheduled busywork of a modern productivity freak with what he calls “body thinking”, defined essentially in the same way as the System 1 brain: “tacit, fast and semi-automatic behaviour that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference”. This is certainly desirable for a tennis player facing a 130mph serve, or a martial artist, or an improvising musician, but Slingerland wants to argue that social action can become just as virtuously “spontaneous” as well-drilled athletic or artistic action. In support of this thesis, he cites the opinions of several classical Chinese thinkers (including Confucius) on the traditional virtue of “wu-wei” – the principle of non-action. Slingerland characterises it as “the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective”.

It turns out, as you might guess, that in the opinion of all the tradition’s eminences, such grace can be achieved only through rationally deliberate practice. The true and valuable kind of spontaneity for which Slingerland argues must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales. (After an early humiliation when he had the confidence but not the chops to sit with a pro band, Charlie Parker locked himself away to practise for years before he ventured on stage again.) In the matter of respectable behaviour, more­over, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether. “The Way of Heaven”, according to one Chinese sage, even excels in “planning for the future, though it is always relaxed”. It doesn’t sound very spontaneous, does it? Wu-wei leads to gracefully appropriate action, but not thoughtlessly random action.

We do seem to have the idea that authentic virtue is spontaneous – being “spontaneously” kind is considered more real than being kind after conscious reflection, though it is hard to see why. Conversely, one may spontaneously offer a hurtful insult or a violent assault. Spontaneity cannot be a good in itself, yet we feel that it somehow makes a good action better. The obvious explanation for this would be to say that an action performed this way implies a history of doing similar things, which is how it became spontaneous in the first place. This is not, however, the point Slingerland emphasises. Instead he wants to praise spontaneous action precisely because it is allegedly unfiltered by the nasty conscious mind.

“We have a very strong intuition,” he writes, “increasingly confirmed by work in cognitive science, that the conscious, verbal mind is often a sneaky, conniving liar, whereas spontaneous, unselfconscious gestures are reliable indicators of what’s really going on inside another person.”

Well, sometimes, perhaps. But of course the conscious, verbal mind can often write interesting books about how one can consciously and verbally achieve the state of social elegance they recommend to their readers, who must similarly absorb such information consciously and verbally, and then act on it. Indeed, since the kind of trained spontaneity Slingerland values is achieved through rational practice, it seems inconsistent to attempt to valorise the one by means of denigrating the other.

The dream of spontaneity is one of escape, but the truth might be that the more time we spend in a self-built cage, the better we can escape. Other work in psychology reported at the premium end of the self-help spectrum seems to indicate, indeed, that pursuing spontaneity at all costs ensures we will be less happy. As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, has written, the problem with a devotion to spontaneity is that we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable. “It’s ironic that people resist schedules because they want to be spontaneous and savour the moment,” Burkeman writes, “given that your average Zen monk – whose whole job, to simplify somewhat, is to savour the moment – abides by a rigorous schedule”.

Freed from the self-imposed pressure to do an awesome thing spontaneously, so this argument goes, we will actually experience more pleasure. “Stop worrying about living spontaneously,” Burkeman advises, “and you might start having more fun.”

But if more fun is our goal, the lure of spontaneity might creep back in. Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better. And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.

And so it might be that those dedicated to the spontaneous lifestyle will continue to be frazzled and unhappy, however many bikini razors and pairs of Brazilian flip-flops they own – while their masters, whose plans are anything but spontaneous, look on with dark satisfaction.

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?