A rounded image: but modern culture is solipsistic, fixed on looking inward at our own preoccupations. Photo: Fleur van Dodewaard, part of the ‘Sun Set Series’ (2011)
Show Hide image

On narcissim: the mirror and the self

People from Tiger Woods to the Obamas are routinely denounced for their narcissism. But what does the word really mean and are there good as well as bad types of self-love?
Sylvia Plath said that writers are “the most narcissistic people”: whatever the truth of that statement, one can assume at least that her use of the term was correct. Freud bequeathed the modern era a tangled concept in narcissism, and literary culture has shown itself as apt as any other to misappropriate it. Yet it is the fashion to see people increasingly as one of two types – a narcissist, or the victim of one – so perhaps it is worth asking precisely what is meant by the word, which has come to encapsulate a cultural malaise.
 
Alongside the struggle in the modern era to define and enshrine narcissism as a psychiatric condition, the term has been appropriated as a shorthand for the general idea of self-obsession. This is a diverse concept with a large vocabulary of its own, but that vocabulary is increasingly abandoned in favour of a word whose ill-defined connotations of mental illness give it a strange force. What we think narcissism is, and how much of what we see seems to answer to it, depends in reality on the moral status we accord the self: the very forcefulness of “narcissism” lies in the fact that it illuminates the person saying it as much as the person against whom it is said. And indeed narcissism, classically, is a business of echo and reflection that can give rise to a narrative of maddening circularity, of repetition and counter-repetition, in which self and other struggle to separate and define themselves.
 
 
Surface intention: Obama allows himself to be used as a channel for reflecting on the American story.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House/Polaris/eyevine
 
“Narcissism describes a culturally induced kind of subjectivity,” writes the psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto, “a new way in which modern subjects secularise ideals, sex objects and knowledge, a culture in which people believe less and less in psychoanalysis.” A narcissistic culture, in other words, will pillory what it calls narcissists and disown certain cultural products as narcissistic in order to avoid self-revelation and obstruct the pursuit of personal truth.
 
In US politics, where “narcissism” has come to signify the very elision of power and personality that has been fundamental to the nation’s ascendant culture of self, the effect is of a hall of mirrors: “The authors blame John Edwards’s narcissism for his downfall and describe Bill Clinton as a ‘narcissist on an epic scale’,” a book reviewer recently wrote in the New York Times. “Do a Google search on ‘Tiger Woods’ and ‘narcissist’ and you get tens of thousands of references . . . Rush Limbaugh calls President Obama a narcissist, it seems, every 24 hours.” Mitt Romney, himself a known narcissist, also favours this analysis of Obama, and avidly posts evidence for it on his website. The book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin is often cited in support of these diagnoses. Unfortunately it appears that Mr Vaknin, too, is a narcissist.
 
Narcissism, in the case of Obama and other political leaders, is a catch-all term for nearly every quality a person might require in order to become, for instance, president of the United States: ambition, determination, vision, self-belief. But Obama, in the eyes of his critics, also qualifies as another kind of narcissist. “Perhaps not surprisingly for a man whose principal accomplishment before becoming president was to write two autobiographies,” writes one journalist, “Obama has seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about himself. And it’s not just Obama, but the first lady, too.”
 
Michelle Obama’s narcissism is illustrated thus, in a long quotation from a talk she gave to students at the University of Mumbai: 
 
I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I mean, my parents – I had two parents. I was lucky to have two parents, and they always had a job, but we didn’t have a lot of money. But it was because of working hard, and studying, and learning how to write and read. And then I got a chance to go to college. And then college opened up the world to me. I started seeing all these things that I could be or do – and I never even imagined being the first lady of the United States. But because I had an education, when the time came to do this, I was ready. So just remember there is nothing that you guys can’t do. You know, you have everything it takes to be successful and smart and to raise a family, right? What do you say?
 
The writer continues: “The poor students in Mumbai might have had something to say, but the first lady never let them say a word. Instead, she continued on with her monologue before permitting a question. She then answered that question by referring to her favourite subject: herself and Barack Obama.”
 
This second narcissist, who spends all his time “talking about himself”, is in a way a more complex figure, and one that is harder to isolate, particularly in a culture (America) where fame and autobiography are so intertwined. As in Michelle Obama’s telling of it, fame (or power, or success) is the happy ending in the American story of life; that story is usually a narrative of ascent. Generally speaking, the Obamas have been lauded for talking about themselves – they have demonstrated an impeccable grasp of autobiographical form. They have in many ways revived and reshaped it by salting the ascent with just enough reality (or “honesty”) to make the American story seem true again. It’s a delicate illusion to manage, and one that is threatened by the notion that the autobiographer isn’t advancing the common story of life after all but is simply talking about his “favourite subject”, himself.
 
George J Marlin, the author of Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative (“reflections” seems to be an unintended pun), claims that Obama “uses the ‘I’ word more than all the presidents have used it collectively in the 200-and-some-odd years of our nation”. The conservative, it seems, more readily than the democrat, sees autobiography as a form of bad manners (“the ‘I’ word”); and indeed, one reading of the myth of Narcissus itself is as a story of unmannerliness and its consequences.
 
Christopher Lasch, in his celebrated book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), wrote: “The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life.” The guilt of the “old” narcissist might constitute nothing more than this conservative aversion to self-disclosure. The old narcissist processed his self-obsession by inflicting his certainties in a way that nonetheless left his “self” concealed: the “new” narcissist, by contrast, presents an agonised face to the world; his “self” is confessed and given over to others, leaving him free to ignore the social contract and do as he likes.
 
Malignant Self-Love is written in the “survivor” mode of American letters, the author having survived both his own confessed narcissism and that of his parents and gone on to found Narcissus Publications, an outlet for his own works. Yet Vaknin’s definition of narcissism is accurate enough: the narcissistic personality “is rigid to the point of being unable to change in reaction to changing circumstances . . . Such a person takes behavioural, emotional and cognitive cues exclusively from others. His inner world is, so to speak, vacated. His True Self is dilapidated and dysfunctional. Instead he has a tyrannical and delusional False Self. Such a person is incapable of loving and of living. He cannot love others because he cannot love himself. He loves his reflection, his surrogate self. And he is incapable of living because life is a struggle towards, a striving, a drive at something. In other words: life is change. He who cannot change cannot live. The narcissist is an actor in a monodrama, yet forced to remain behind the scenes. The scenes take centre stage, instead. The narcissist does not cater at all to his own needs. Contrary to his reputation, the narcissist does not ‘love’ himself in any true sense of the word.” 
 
What is compelling here is the notion that the narcissist’s “inner world is, so to speak, vacated”. D W Winnicott’s interjection of the maternal figure into the theory of primary narcissism attributes that vacated inner world to an initial absence of recognition: “The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein . . . provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”
 
The widespread notion of a “healthy” degree of narcissism, according to this definition, is not quite the essential dose of vanity or self-regard we’re so often told to allow ourselves; perhaps, rather, there is an extent to which a person needs to be another person’s projection, their construction, an inner space that is and ought to remain vacated in order for the social dynamic to function.
 
“Liberated from the superstitions of the past”, Christopher Lasch continues, the new narcissist “doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant . . . his sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy. He extols co-operation and teamwork while harbouring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.”
 
Lasch’s “new” narcissist isn’t so new any longer: he has become a parent. It might be said that social media such as Twitter and Facebook – those shrines to the self – are among the new narcissist’s offspring, and they are often seized on as evidence of our own “culture of narcissism”. The notion of networking as a façade for “antisocial impulses” is compelling, but in fact the most striking thing about the representation of self in these forums is its triviality. This may be one consequence of parental over-approval, the outpourings of a generation whose parents abstained from criticising them and instead hung on their every word and deed. The belief that you are very important, in other words, could be genuine – of course the world wants to know what you had for lunch.
 
Talking about your “favourite subject”, in this context, is not just permissible but mandatory: displaying the culturally approved degree of self-love is a sign of narcissistic “health”. In its “healthy” guise, narcissism bears no relation to Vaknin’s vacated inner space, for the defining characteristic of contemporary “healthy” narcissism is banality. The psychoanalytic literature concurs in finding mental activity in itself to be narcissistic: thinking is an act of libidinal appropriation, in which the self removes its attention from the object. The “I” word, in fact, is as dirty as it ever was, when caught in the act of pursuing its own truth. Instead, the duty of the contemporary “I” is to confess itself in public, to dismiss itself by surrendering to an agreed social narrative as rigid in its permissiveness as it once was in its conservatism. According to that narrative, if you’re not your own “favourite subject”, there is something wrong with you. “Health” requires it, and thinking is unhealthy. Hence what looks like a series of consequences – that in a culture of relentless disclosure we have become obsessed with rights of privacy – is in fact a set of concurrently held and contradictory beliefs. Self-disclosure is one thing; selfexamination quite another.
 
When Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 went up in smoke in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire, there was unseemly jubilation in the right-wing press: Tracey’s tent represented the cardinal sin of “confessional” art. Emin is an artist who is often called narcissistic, and there are many ways in which she – and more specifically, the tent – illustrates the contemporary misappropriation of the term. The problem with confessional art, in the eyes of its critics, is that it conflates the trivial and the serious; the more the self is trivialised, the more abhorrent to culture this conflation will seem. In other words, the tent was shocking not because it disclosed what was private and personal, but because it was called “art”. More than that, its disclosures were not “healthy”. And finally, the tent was not tragic. This was very annoying, and made its incineration seem like a piece of poetic justice. Had the tent been self-loathing, it might have fitted in to the narrative of ascent: a girl regrets her chequered past and goes on to become a famous artist, selling her work for vast sums. But like Louise Bourgeois, Emin reprised feminine skills of needlework in order to represent a subjection in which self-discipline and self-care survived; a female art signifying not tragedy, but dignity. The tent is a piece of storytelling – it is commemorative, for keeping. A “confession”, on the other hand, is something to be thrown away in the hope of absolution. The “confessional” work, strictly speaking, is an admission of abnormality made out of the desire to become normal.
 
Emin has had great play in and on the contemporary obsession with narcissism, outwitting it at every turn. Her exertions demonstrate how hard it has become to serve the autobiographical impulse and raise the question of why the “I” word is such a locus of contradiction. Paradoxically, in a climate of unfettered disclosure, the artist is abhorred for examining herself. 
 
Recently I participated in a literary event at which a number of memoirists read from their work. It was striking how many of them assured the audience that “this is not about me”. It seemed that the only legitimate excuse for writing autobiography was to present it as a kind of war report – I was there, I witnessed it, but this is not about me. And there was nothing shamefaced about it: what these writers were saying, in fact, was that their work was “serious”, that although it looked like autobiography (triviality) it was actually diligent documentary (art). Tracey Emin’s statement is the reverse: “This is all about me.” What Emin has understood, as the Obamas have understood, is the notion of autobiographical occasion, whereby the self is not merely declarative but representative; is, in other words, the best example of what it is trying to say.
 
There are places in the social narrative where the form has to become autobiographical in order to advance itself; history passes to the individual for a while, as when a black man becomes president of the United States of America, or a working-class woman becomes one of the most powerful artists of her era. The story of how this came to be is not the story of one exceptional person: rather, that person is able to express and illustrate change through their own being. Self-portraiture was the best way for Rembrandt to describe the ascent of the self and the new relationship with worldliness and death it betokened. At the other end of history, Emin’s tent documents not just the changed status of the female body, but the contemporary problem of “the personal” itself, a representation she has pushed to the limit by making it co-extensive with “Tracey Emin”.
 
To return to Sylvia Plath . . . Literary culture has a far less comfortable relationship with self-analysis and self-portraiture than the visual arts, which is the mark of its conservatism. The openly self-analysing writer will be pilloried for talking about his or her “favourite subject”, for bad manners in using the “I” word. The literary reverence for the idea of “imagination”, as well as for history and for tales of “otherness”, is perhaps another iteration of what Virginia Woolf observed to be the culturally sanctioned “important” (male) subjects for the novel. The more “other” a text, the less it can be believed to be narcissistic; if the personal is trivial, the impersonal is “important”. 
 
Freud described narcissism as a tactic, a libidinal position, as Sergio Benvenuto puts it, “taken, for example, when a human being is in physical pain. Classical neurotic suffering drags narcissism along, because being neurotic in Freudian terms means not knowing what one desires. This uncertainty, or puzzling state of gaping desire, hauls along narcissistic constellations.”
 
A writer may indeed be someone driven by “classical neurotic suffering”, but, to quote Benvenuto again, “The symptom of narcissism is fascination . . . for Freud, our narcissistic love for ourselves is never natural, or primary.” Personal truth – the self-portrait – is in fact the opposite of narcissistic. Rather, the narcissistic artist is tactically seductive and charming, and imagination can be one such tactic. Writers may be narcissists, dragging along evolving literary constructions, but the central preoccupation of the narcissist is the avoidance of self-exposure while garnering attention and praise.
 
Whether or not “narcissism” is misunderstood and misused, its usage is puritanical: it is intended to inflict shame. Often the so-called narcissist’s self-exposure – the very thing that makes him vulnerable – has already been rewarded, if only by the attention of his critics; hence their anger. The accusation becomes an echo chamber, as in Ovid’s telling of the myth, where Narcissus and Echo can only say, “Who are you?” to one another, in a conversation that can never progress. This reflexive relationship leads both parties into upset and madness: Echo runs away, and Narcissus, driven by thirst, goes to the waters wherein his mother was once trapped and seduced, and where he was conceived. He becomes fixated with this source of self, on whose surface his own image floats: he doesn’t recognise the image and mistakes it for a being that might reciprocate. Yet he is thrilled at last to feel something, to feel love. When he tries to approach the image, it disappears. When he retreats, it comes back again.
 
It’s a pretty concept, and one that does indeed describe the struggle of creativity. The eventual result of this impasse is transformation. What is human in Narcissus dies and distils itself: his self-absorption bears fruit and is bequeathed to the world, becoming a flower that grows at the water’s edge, where he himself began.
 
Rachel Cusk’s most recent book is “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £8.99)
LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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?