Show Hide image

The NS Interview: Mike Figgis, director

“Pride is such a dangerous thing for a film-maker”

Do you remember your childhood in Kenya?
I lived there until I was eight. Coming to a council house in Carlisle was a culture shock. One week, I was in Nairobi; the next, I was in a snowstorm.

What were your early years in Hollywood like?
At first, I sailed through. The first film I made there [Internal Affairs, 1990] was a success, so I went, "What's the problem? This seems easy." But the second was a disaster and I started to get cornered. It was the cliché of the British film-maker who gets caught, like in the Martin Amis novel Money.

Would you describe your work as political?
No, not with a big P. I think you try to reflect some reality about the time that you live in.

What has been your proudest moment?
The corny answer would be, "When I was at the Oscars and Nicolas Cage won . . ." and so on. But I was thinking, "Wow, this is insane." With a complete lack of respect, they rammed Christopher Reeve off the set in his wheelchair while some supermodel licked a man's beard. Pride is such a dangerous thing for a film-maker.

Do you think of yourself as experimental?
I don't do things for the sake of experimentation - it's more for the joy of freshening things up. Film is very repetitive and very conformist. I wouldn't say anyone is pushing the boundaries of film right now.

Are you dissatisfied with the film industry?
Totally. I'm bored and frustrated. If you go into something like the Hollywood system and you have artistic pretensions but, at the same time, you want to make a film that's commercially successful, you realise it's a complete shambles, like British Rail.

What's the problem?
No one communicates and money is wasted. And they change studio heads like we change governments - we don't reform the government, we just change the scapegoats. And they are the same.

Why doesn't anyone shake it up?
They don't want to blow the whistle because they're making a lot of money out of this, and that's the truth.

Do you enjoy exposing the industry?
I love economics. I love going to a film studio and asking: "What's the weekly wage bill? Oh, is that why Tom Cruise costs so much? Are
the economics of film-making in such a mess because we're paying for things we don't need to pay for any more?" Film could be cheap. You're paying for executives, you're not paying for Tom Cruise.

You've directed Lucrezia Borgia for English National Opera. What made you want to do it?
I wanted to do a very traditional opera, with all the corny elements - the high drama, the tragedy, the death.

How did it compare to working in film?
Opera has its advantages - you work for a concentrated period, then you have a performance where the audience boos, claps, whatever. There is a pay-off. I had forgotten it was so terrifying.

Do you read reviews?
I don't. Roman Polanski once said that if you believe the good ones, you are duty-bound to believe the bad ones, too.

Has British film-making got a future?
It has the convenience of a common language with America. As Ricky Gervais said [at the 2010 Golden Globes]: "Now Best Foreign-Language Film - a category that no one cares about." He was absolutely right. If it's got subtitles, forget it.

You shot Kate Moss in a series of commercials for Agent Provocateur. Why?
I had done a lot of commercials. I knew that if you wanted to sell a pair of knickers, someone famous had to wear them. It became a defining moment in the fashion industry. There's a lot of bullshit about art in advertising. It's obsessed with perfection, a fake perfection, designed to make people buy things that they don't want.

Do you think the proposed cuts to arts bodies will damage British art?
I feel sorry for the smaller organisations that need funding; I wouldn't make light of the dam­age the cuts will cause them. But I have a strong belief that artists will come through and find a new language.

Do you vote?
I didn't vote last time, as I wasn't here. Like a lot of people, I felt dissatisfied with the choices.

Is there a plan?
Yes. Your challenge is to work it out.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
No. I love memory, good and bad.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely, but in a good way - it's good for everybody to be reminded of the idea that we are not permanent.

Defining Moments

1948 Born in Carlisle. Moves to Nairobi
1964 Plays keyboard in the R'n'B band Gas Board along with a young Bryan Ferry
1980 Founds the Mike Figgis Group fringe theatre company after being rejected by the National Film School
1988 Directs his first film, Stormy Monday
1995 Receives an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Leaving Las Vegas
2011 Directs English National Opera's new production of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia opened at ENO on 31 January 2011. Tickets at www.eno.org or call 0871 911 0200. Lucrezia Borgia is on Sky 3D, Sky Arts 1HD, Sky Arts 2 HD at 7.30pm on Wednesday 23 February, and live in 3D in cinemas nationwide. See sky.com/arts

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain