Julian Petley / “The Lost Continent”/ All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema

Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady (1945), a Gainsborough studio costume melodrama.

As Charles Barr pointed out, “the preference for a certain kind of realistic surface, for an ‘everyday’ verisimilitude, has been a recurrent factor in English film criticism and has inhibited response to a wider range of films with an allegorical or poetic dimension.” Repressed side of British cinema, for example lusty Gainsborough Productions of the 1940s. Margaret Lockwood as The Wicked Lady. “Bad taste,” sex, violence. Dead of Night (1945). Peeping Tom. Commonly perceived tendencies in British cinema: hostility toward stylization, hegemony of “documentary spirit,” elevation of “contents” over “forms,” isolation from wider European art trends (especially modernism) from 20s onward. Andrew Higson: “The dominant discourse of British film criticism ‘writes’ British cinema into film cultural memory as a realist cinema, thus effectively blocking off other ways of conceptualizing the institution and working through the question of national cinema.” This essay will concentrate on how the “writing machine” constructs a certain historical memory of British cinema. Realistic can mean two things, 1) “realistic” – lifelike, faithful representation of reality, 2) “naturalist” – searching out and detailed observing of elements of social environment frequently excluded from systems of representation. Cinematically, often means working class “problem” subjects. Films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Poor Cow (1967). This chapter focuses on films more or less realist in first sense. Rachael Low: “The germs of all types of films were present from the beginning.” See first 3 volumes, The History of the British Film: corroborates sheer heterogeneity of early British cinema. Fantasy, melodrama, detective, crime, horror, along with more literary and respectable. Orwell: “The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned upon.” [Times have changed.]

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