Directory of World Cinema
Edited by Bob Nowlan & Zach Finch
Bristol: Intellect, 2015
Paperback. 369 pages. ISBN 978-1783203949. £25
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
In their Introduction to this volume of Intellect's Directory of World Cinema series the editors state that their 'aim is to provide a valuable resource for people beginning to explore interests in Scottish cinema, as well as for those who have been pursuing such interests for some time' [9-10]. Published in 2015 but going to press prior to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, and the subsequent United Kingdom General Election of the following year which resulted in the spectacular success of the Scottish Nationalist Party in that election, this book plots the highly distinctive path of Scottish cinema. The editors are already planning a second volume, which indicates the continuing vibrancy of Scottish cinema, as well as the resurgence of interest in Scottish political and cultural matters.
The book's structure provides the reader with some useful introductory sections, including the aforementioned editors' Introduction, an 'Industry Spotlight' on production, 'Marketing Mix' on finance, 'Location' on Gaelic film-making, and 'Cultural Crossover' on radical and engaged cinema, before providing analyses of the careers of eight key directors. There are then four sections which each include an introductory essay followed by reviews of key films. These sections are entitled: 'Mythic Visions: Critique and Counter-Critique'; 'From Social Realism to Social Art Cinema and Beyond'; 'Comedy, Fantasy and Horror'; and, 'Documentary'. The book concludes with a wide list of 'Recommended Reading', a useful list of 'Scottish Cinema Online' resources, a 'Test Your Knowledge' section with 60 questions, 'Notes on Contributors', and a 'Filmography' (although I do not believe that all of the films mentioned in the book are included here). In addition to the editors, there are twenty-six contributors all of whom offer well-argued insights.
The book warrants a careful, close reading as each contributor has much to say, and each says it in a useful manner. Certain currents run through the volume, particularly the importance of documentary film-making and John Grierson's contributions to both documentary film and their concomitant influence upon fiction film-making. So Grierson's 'social realism' impacts upon Ken Loach's five films made in Scotland, and has become a staple genre of British film as well as Scottish, before extending out into the 'poetic and magical realisms' of Lynne Ramsay and Peter Mullan . Ken Loach is an interesting director to single out as he is English but has produced a significant body of feature films in and about Scotland, working closely with screenwriter Paul Laverty, and producer Rebecca O'Brien. In the analysis of Loach's work Christopher Meir makes the point that, 'Somewhat paradoxically, despite being an Englishman, one could thus make the case that Loach is the single most important director working in contemporary Scottish cinema' . Also of great interest are the co-productions made between the Danish film production company Zentropa and Sigma films under the Advance Party Initiative, with the most successful of these being Andrea Arnold's Red Road (2006).
In terms of overall contribution to Scottish cinema, 'Bill Douglas is widely acclaimed as the greatest art film-maker in the history of Scottish cinema to date, as well as a major figure within mid- to late-twentieth-century European art cinema' . Douglas's impact is thus keenly felt across a wide range of Scottish films. In more contemporary terms it is argued that ‘Bill Forsyth is the single most important indigenous film-maker in the history of Scottish cinema' . As would be expected in the analyses of key directors, auteur traits are keenly felt and discussed, including some singular film-makers such as Douglas, Forsyth, Murray Grigor, Loach, David Mackenzie, Peter Mullan, Lynne Ramsay, and Margaret Tait. The latter is particularly interesting as her work, and the one feature-length film she made, Blue Black Permanent (1992), were situated at the intersection of amateur and professional film-making. Zach Finch remarks, 'It can be hoped that Tait and her work may inspire not only film-making, but also reforms in distribution and exhibition practices that would allow for a wider range of artistic visions' . The opportunities opened up by digital technology provide for such avenues which were not available to Tait, but who still managed to produce remarkable filmic outputs within the constraints of her times.
In respect of Scottish cinema studies, Bob Nowlan's essay in the section 'Mythic Visions : Critique and Counter-Critique' provides a most useful analysis of how attitudes to Scottish film-making have changed over time. The edited collection, Scotch Reels : Scotland in Cinema and Television (1982) is singled out as an influential text in respect of cultural responses to Scottish cinema. However, later responses such as those in the edited collection, From Tartan to Tartanry : Scottish Culture, History and Myth (2010), have taken issue with the narrowly perceived accounts of tartanry and kailyard (rural Scottish 'cabbage patch') . Thus myths have been critiqued and counter-critiqued with a result that 'Film-makers today are far less constrained by, and film scholars today are far less worried about, Tartanry, kailyard and Clydesidism' .
The section 'From Social Realism to Social Art Cinema and Beyond' demonstrates how Scottish cinema has always been prepared 'to forthrightly engage with difficult, disturbing, complex and challenging dimensions of life-experience [which are] symptomatic of a mature, confident, dynamic and progressive culture' . Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996) is picked out as 'the single most important film to have emerged from Scotland as well as one of the most important British films ever made' , and an image from the film adorns the book's cover. Within this section, reference is also made about how Scottish directors such as Lynne Ramsay have taken their place on the worldwide cinema stage with films such as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011).
While the majority of the book concentrates on auteur cinema, Zach Finch in 'Comedy, Fantasy and Horror' discusses genre films as 'those "forgotten traditions" of Scottish cinema' . Ranging from the Ealing comedies of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore (1949) and The Maggie (1954), these films, it is argued, offer more complex social and cultural critiques than are perhaps first imagined. Fantasy films also provide an opportunity 'to defamiliarize the familiar in order to make larger social and philosophical arguments' . Scottish horror films, by contrast, are analysed as falling into two broad groups: those taking place primarily in cities, particularly Edinburgh or Glasgow; and those set in the Highlands and Islands, such as The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). As such, these films can be seen as reflecting 'the dark side of urban life, and the return of the repressed peoples and cultures in remote locations' .
Overall, this is a detailed and impressive book. All of the contributors have pertinent points to make. The differing points of view and readings provided work to enhance the overall impact of this book. Ranging from clearly expository essays and analyses of individual films, to theoretically inventive and enriching readings, the Directory of World Cinema : Scotland provides the reader with a wealth of information and analyses of the diverse film cultures of Scotland and about Scotland, demonstrating the vibrant and important contribution this small nation's film-making prowess has made, and continues to make, upon the world.
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