Crushed by the wheels of industry: critics increasingly see new tech as one of the free market's most dangerous tools of oppression. Image: Ikon Images
Show Hide image

The new Luddites: why former digital prophets are turning against tech

Neo-Luddism began to emerge in the postwar period. First after the emergence of nuclear weapons, and secondly when it became apparent new computer technologies had the power to change our lives completely.

Very few of us can be sure that our jobs will not, in the near future, be done by machines. We know about cars built by robots, cashpoints replacing bank tellers, ticket dispensers replacing train staff, self-service checkouts replacing supermarket staff, tele­phone operators replaced by “call trees”, and so on. But this is small stuff compared with what might happen next.

Nursing may be done by robots, delivery men replaced by drones, GPs replaced by artificially “intelligent” diagnosers and health-sensing skin patches, back-room grunt work in law offices done by clerical automatons and remote teaching conducted by computers. In fact, it is quite hard to think of a job that cannot be partly or fully automated. And technology is a classless wrecking ball – the old blue-collar jobs have been disappearing for years; now they are being followed by white-collar ones.

Ah, you may say, but human beings will always be better. This misses the point. It does not matter whether the new machines never achieve full human-like consciousness, or even real intelligence, they can almost certainly achieve just enough to do your job – not as well as you, perhaps, but much, much more cheaply. To modernise John Ruskin, “There is hardly anything in the world that some robot cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this robot’s lawful prey.”

Inevitably, there will be social and political friction. The onset has been signalled by skirmishes such as the London Underground strikes over ticket-office staff redundancies caused by machine-readable Oyster cards, and by the rage of licensed taxi drivers at the arrival of online unlicensed car booking services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

This resentment is intensified by rising social inequality. Everybody now knows that neoliberalism did not deliver the promised “trickle-down” effect; rather, it delivered trickle-up, because, even since the recession began, almost all the fruits of growth have gone to the rich. Working- and middle-class incomes have flatlined or fallen. Now, it seems, the wealthy cyber-elites are creating machines to put the rest of us out of work entirely.

The effect of this is to undermine the central argument of those who hype the benefits of job replacement by machines. They say that new and better jobs will be created. They say this was always true in the past, so it will be true now. (This is the precise correlative of the neoliberals’ “rising tide floats all boats” argument.) But people now doubt the “new and better jobs” line trotted out – or barked – by the prophets of robotisation. The new jobs, if there are any, will more probably be serf-like attenders to the needs of the machine, burger-flippers to the robot classes.

Nevertheless, this future, too, is being sold in neoliberal terms. “I am sure,” wrote Mitch Free (sic) in a commentary for Forbes on 11 June, “it is really hard [to] see when your pay check is being directly impacted but the reality to any market disruption is that the market wants the new technology or business model more than they want what you offer, otherwise it would not get off the ground. The market always wins, you cannot stop it.”

Free was writing in response to what probably seemed to him a completely absurd development, a nightmarish impossibility – the return of Luddism. “Luddite” has, in the past few decades, been such a routine term of abuse for anybody questioning the march of the machines (I get it all the time) that most people assume that, like “fool”, “idiot” or “prat”, it can only ever be abusive. But, in truth, Luddism has always been proudly embraced by the few and, thanks to the present climate of machine mania and stagnating incomes, it is beginning to make a new kind of sense. From the angry Parisian taxi drivers who vandalised a car belonging to an Uber driver to a Luddite-sympathetic column by the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Luddism in practice and in theory is back on the streets.

Luddism derives its name from Ned Ludd, who is said to have smashed two “stocking frames” – knitting machines – in a fit of rage in 1779, but who may have been a fictional character. It became a movement, with Ludd as its Robin Hood, between 1811 and 1817 when English textile workers were threatened with unemployment by new technology, which the Luddites defined as “machinery hurtful to Commonality”. Mills were burned, machinery was smashed and the army was mobilised. At one time, according to Eric Hobsbawm, there were more soldiers fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon in Spain. Parliament passed a bill making machine-smashing a capital offence, a move opposed by Byron, who wrote a song so seditious that it was not published until after his death: “. . . we/Will die fighting, or live free,/And down with all kings but King Ludd!”

Once the Luddites had been suppressed, the Industrial Revolution resumed its course and, over the ensuing two centuries, proved the most effective wealth-creating force ever devised by man. So it is easy to say the authorities were on the right side of history and the Luddites on the wrong one. But note that this is based on the assumption that individual sacrifice in the present – in the form of lost jobs and crafts – is necessary for the mechanised future. Even if this were true, there is a dangerous whiff of totalitarianism in the assumption.

Neo-Luddism began to emerge in the postwar period. First, the power of nuclear weapons made it clear to everybody that our machines could now put everybody out of work for ever by the simple expedient of killing them and, second, in the 1980s and 1990s it became apparent that new computer technologies had the power to change our lives completely.

Thomas Pynchon, in a brilliant essay for the New York Times in 1984 – he noted the resonance of the year – responded to the first new threat and, through literature, revitalised the idea of the machine as enemy. “So, in the science fiction of the Atomic Age and the cold war, we see the Luddite impulse to deny the machine taking a different direction. The hardware angle got de-emphasised in favour of more humanistic concerns – exotic cultural evolutions and social scenarios, paradoxes and games with space/time, wild philosophical questions – most of it sharing, as the critical literature has amply discussed, a definition of ‘human’ as particularly distinguished from ‘machine’.”

In 1992, Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly, rehabilitated the Luddites in response to the threat from computers: “The term ‘Luddite’ has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naive opposition to technology. But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naive. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws and customs had given them justice in the older world-view.”

Underpinning such thoughts was the fear that there was a malign convergence – perhaps even a conspiracy – at work. In 1961, even President Eisenhower warned of the anti-democratic power of the “military-industrial complex”. In 1967 Lewis Mumford spoke presciently of the possibility of a “mega-machine” that would result from “the convergence of science, technics and political power”. Pynchon picked up the theme: “If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy.”

The possibility is with us still in Silicon Valley’s earnest faith in the Singularity – the moment, possibly to come in 2045, when we build our last machine, a super-intelligent computer that will solve all our problems and enslave or kill or save us. Such things are true only to the extent to which they are believed – and, in the Valley, this is believed, widely.

Environmentalists were obvious allies of neo-Luddism – adding global warming as a third threat to the list – and globalism, with its tendency to destroy distinctively local and cherished ways of life, was an obvious enemy. In recent decades, writers such as Chellis Glendinning, Langdon Winner and Jerry Mander have elevated the entire package into a comprehensive rhetoric of dissent from the direction in which the world is going. Winner wrote of Luddism as an “epistemological technology”. He added: “The method of carefully and deliberately dismantling technologies, epistemological Luddism, if you will, is one way of recovering the buried substance upon which our civilisation rests. Once unearthed, that substance could again be scrutinised, criticised, and judged.”

It was all very exciting, but then another academic rained on all their parades. His name was Ted Kaczynski, although he is more widely known as the Unabomber. In the name of his own brand of neo-Luddism, Kaczynski’s bombs killed three people and injured many more in a campaign that ran from 1978-95. His 1995 manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”, said: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” and called for a global revolution against the conformity imposed by technology.

The lesson of the Unabomber was that radical dissent can become a form of psychosis and, in doing so, undermine the dissenters’ legitimate arguments. It is an old lesson and it is seldom learned. The British Dark Mountain Project (dark-mountain.net), for instance, is “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”. They advocate “uncivilisation” in writing and art – an attempt “to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence”. This may be true, but uncivilising ourselves to express this truth threatens to create many more corpses than ever dreamed of by even the Unabomber.1

Obviously, if neo-Luddism is conceived of in psychotic or apocalyptic terms, it is of no use to anybody and could prove very dangerous. But if it is conceived of as a critical engagement with technology, it could be useful and essential. So far, this critical engagement has been limited for two reasons. First, there is the belief – it is actually a superstition – in progress as an inevitable and benign outcome of free-market economics. Second, there is the extraordinary power of the technology companies to hypnotise us with their gadgets. Since 1997 the first belief has found justification in a management theory that bizarrely, upon closer examination, turns out to be the mirror image of Luddism. That was the year in which Clayton Christensen published The Innovator’s Dilemma, judged by the Economist to be one of the most important business books ever written. Christensen launched the craze for “disruption”. Many other books followed and many management courses were infected. Jill Lepore reported in the New Yorker in June that “this fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.” And back at Forbes it is announced with glee that we have gone beyond disruptive innovation into a new phase of “devastating innovation”.

It is all, as Lepore shows in her article, nonsense. Christensen’s idea was simply that innovation by established companies to satisfy customers would be undermined by the disruptive innovation of market newcomers. It was a new version of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs’s view that it was pointless asking customers what they want; the point was to show them what they wanted. It was nonsense because, Lepore says, it was only true for a few, carefully chosen case histories over very short time frames. The point was made even better by Christensen himself when, in 2007, he made the confident prediction that Apple’s new iPhone would fail.

Nevertheless, disruption still grips the business imagination, perhaps because it sounds so exciting. In Luddism you smash the employer’s machines; in disruption theory you smash the competitor’s. The extremity of disruptive theory provides an accidental justification for extreme Luddism. Yet still, technocratic propaganda routinely uses the vocabulary of disruption theory.

Meanwhile in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote a very neo-Luddite column that questioned the consoling belief that education would somehow solve the probem of the destruction of jobs by technology. “Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labour is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.”

In other words – against all the education boosters from Tony Blair onwards – you can’t learn yourself into the future, because it is already owned by others, primarily the technocracy. But it is expert dissidents from within the technocracy who are more useful for moderate neo-Luddites. In 2000, Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a huge figure in computing history, broke ranks with an article for Wired entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us”. He saw that many of the dreams of Silicon Valley would either lead to, or deliberately include, termination of the human species. They still do – believers in the Singularity look forward to it as a moment when we will transcend our biological condition.

“Given the incredible power of these new technologies,” Joy wrote, “shouldn’t we be asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development, shouldn’t we proceed with great caution?”

Finally, there is Jaron Lanier, one of the creators of virtual reality, who lost faith in the direction technology was taking when his beloved music industry was eviscerated by the destruction of jobs that followed the arrival of downloading. Why, he repeatedly asks in books such as You Are Not a Gadget, should we design machines that lower the quality of things? This wasn’t what the internet was supposed to do.

Moderate neo-Luddism involves critical scepticism about the claims by the makers of the new machines and even more critical scepticism about the societies – primarily Silicon Valley – from which these anti-human ideas spring. At least now there is a TV satirical comedy about the place – HBO’s Silicon Valley – which will spread the news that the technocracy consists of very strange people who are, indeed, capable of building “machinery hurtful to Commonality”. The running joke in the first episode was about the way the technocrats always claim to be working to make a better world. As if.

Luddite laughter is a start. But there’s a long way to go before the technology beast is tamed. For the moment, you still may lose your job to a machine; but at least you can go down feeling and thinking – computers can’t do either. 

@bryanappleyard

Update 11 September 11am:


1The New Statesman has published the following letter in response to this article:

Bryan Appleyard’s article on “the new Luddites” (above) gave a rather misleading picture of the Dark Mountain Project, which apparently represents “a form of psychosis” likely to “create more corpses than ever dreamed of by even the Unabomber”. In reality, we are a network of writers, artists and thinkers, centred on the Dark Mountain journal. We publish two books of new work every year, much of it involving exactly the kind of “critical engagement” with technology for which Appleyard calls.

According to the New York Times, a publication not noted for its homicidal or psychotic tendencies, Dark Mountain is “changing the environmental debate in Britain and the rest of Europe”. We won’t speculate about Appleyard’s mental health or criminal intentions, but we do hope that the editors of the NS require a higher standard of research from him in future.

Dougald Hine, Paul Kingsnorth
Directors
Dark Mountain Project

 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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?