Michael Winterbottom (British Film Makers)

Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams,
Michael Winterbottom (British Film Makers).
Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7190-7422 6
AU$89 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Footprint Books)

Michael Winterbottom has good reason to feel like an unsung figure of contemporary British cinema. Despite his prolific output (eighteen films in the last fifteen years), eclectic use of genre and diverse subjects (from the road movie and western through literary adaptations and war docu-dramas), his use of 35mm film and digital media, and his courting of politically risqué topics (such as 9 Songs [UK 2004] and The Road to Guantanamo [UK 2006]) his body of work has, at least until now, been largely overlooked for exploration.

Thankfully, Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams’ concise, accessible publication released by Manchester University Press (as part of the British Film Makers series) goes some way to redressing the absence of sustained critical investigation into his work.

A key dilemma in approaching Winterbottom’s filmography, and one that the authors are quick to acknowledge, is the apparent difficulty accounting for his films within a traditional auteurist framework. Unlike fellow British filmmakers Ken Loach, Mike Leigh or even Guy Ritchie, Winterbottom’s diverse body of work provides little evidence of an immediately recognisable and ongoing filmic preoccupation or signature style.

As McFarlane and Williams point out early on in the book:

One detects an ongoing struggle to link Winterbottom with a particular style or approach to filmmaking; even the notion of an oeuvre is seen to be at odds with his eclectic use of genre and different modes of realism. (p. 12)

The task of reconciling this critical impasse is made all the more difficult by Winterbottom’s candid rejection of any auteurist aspirations, regarding the “bourgeois, liberal romantic idea of the creator” as a form of “ultimate perversion” (p. 12). Without dismissing or challenging the notion of auteurism wholesale, McFarlane and Williams instead attempt to locate Winterbottom’s work within broader collaborative and industrial contexts.

Despite the ongoing hesitancy with which auteur theory may serve as a valid methodological approach to the director’s work, the authors ultimately arrive at a form of compromise by referring to “Winterbottom’s oeuvre” throughout the publication, a term which strives to locate a sense of continuity across the films by encompassing the breadth of his creative contributors and affiliations.

This strategy is most evident in the first chapter ‘Authorship’, in which McFarlane and Williams situate Winterbottom within the traditions of British and European Cinema, singling out a number of key directorial influences and isolating two recurring tropes within his work, “the street” (or “place” more broadly), and “the body” for exploration.

One of the most obvious drawbacks with this initial approach is that given the brevity of the publication, the authors aren’t able to explore these affiliations with any real depth. Instead, the associations made tend to isolate instances where a director’s work seems to resonate only within a specific Winterbottom film (ie. Ingmar Bergman and Butterfly Kiss [UK 1995], Nicholas Roeg and The Claim [UK/France/Canada 2000], or Werner Herzog and 24 Hour Party People [UK 2002]).

The subsequent chapter ‘The realist’ also suffers from the reduced size of the publication. Tracing the director’s use of ‘realism’ from the French New Wave and Italian Neo-realist movements, McFarlane and Williams examine In This World [UK 2002], Welcome to Sarajevo [UK/USA 1997], 24 Hour Party People and The Road to Guantanamo as indicative of Winterbottom’s attempt to track his “characters within the worlds they inhabit, immersed in a mise-en-scene that envelops them and, at the same time gives rise to their stories” (p. 30).

However, while the authors make constructive links between Winterbottom’s films (particularly In This World) and the work of Rossellini (Rome Open City [Italy 1945], Paisa [Italy 1946]), deeper questions regarding Winterbottom’s ‘realism’ (a term which is never qualified or positioned within its shifting theoretical, historical or industrial context) go largely overlooked.

For instance, Winterbottom’s eclectic use of cinematic styles encompassing archival footage, interviews, re-enactments, naturalism, reflexive voice-overs and narration, his predilection for both 35mm and digital stock, location and studio shooting,and those films which deploy a combination of approaches, would seem to provide ample fodder for an exploration of the way Winterbottom both constructs and dismantles his forms of cinematic ‘realism’.

When these arguments do arise often they’re mentioned more in passing – such as on In This World’s “re-enactment of imagined historical events” which the authors argue “gives to this fiction a documentary quality” (p. 45) – or else in a later chapter on Genre when they note of 24 Hour Party People how the film’s “blurring of the reality and the re-enactment characterises Winterbottom’s approach to known events, or in the case of Tristram Shandy (UK 2005) of the clearly fictional and what is intended to be viewed as a sort of actuality”. (p. 90)

However, if these early chapters are characterised by a sense of brevity and missed potential, then the following chapters, beginning with ‘The Adaptor’ are by contrast, far more measured and coherent in their approach. Here, McFarlane and Williams largely eschew the debates over authorship and influence in preference of a more sustained analysis of each film and the result is far more even and compelling.

For instance, the comparisons between Winterbottom’s The Claim and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller(USA 1971) offers some astute similarities, such as the melancholic tone, the bleak ending, the stark contrast between warm interior and bleak exterior shots, which they liken to Winterbottom’s deliberate approach in refashioning and de-romanticising the Western genre through his adaptation of [Thomas] Hardy’s novel (p. 60).

Likewise, the enthusiastic analysis of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story engages with the film’s numerous textual influences, generic approaches and playful self-referentiality to confirm the authors’ opinion that while Winterbottom’s film provides “a commentary on the methods and fixations of Sterne’s original” it equally deserves to be recognised in its (and the director’s) own right. (p. 71)

This discussion of adaptation in Winterbottom’s work is carried forth in the subsequent chapter in which McFarlane and Williams focus on the director’s deployment and manipulation of certain popular genres. Exploring Butterfly Kiss24 Hour Party People, and Code 46 (UK 2003), as evidence of Winterbottom’s exploration of the road movie, musical, and science-fiction film respectively, the authors return to some of the key tropes that underline his work, specifically the connection between ‘persons’ and ‘place’ and the sense of movement that is generated in and through that relationship.

In the final chapter ‘Meldodrama, sex, beaches and other interests’ McFarlane and Williams explore the “least successful” works such as Go Now (UK 1995), I Want You (UK 1998), and With or Without You) within Winterbottom’s oeuvre. Avoiding the temptation to isolate these films as aberrations the authors make a number of links back to his broader works, highlighting the stylistic play (Go Now), kinetic sense of movement (I Want You) and sense of location (With or Without You (UK 1999), all “points of contact” the authors conclude “for us not to forget who made them” (p. 118)

Overall, McFarlane and Williams offer an engaging portrait of ‘Winterbottom’s oeuvre’, and for the most part manage to sidestep the dilemmas associated with engaging his work solely through the close-up lens of auteur theory or as a part of a broader collaborative approach. Likewise, the reticence to engage with the more complex issues resulting from Winterbottom’s films (particularly in the chapter ‘The Realist’) is, in the authors’ defence, most likely a consequence of accessibility. The study seems intended for a more general audience rather than being aimed squarely at film scholars or those wishing to approach Winterbottom’s films through diverse forms of cultural theory.

Equally, that this publication occasionally feels more like an overview of potential lines of critical engagement rather than a sustained exploration in its own right, need not be seen simply in negative terms. With no less than five feature films in various stages of production and a publication of interviews set for release by the year’s end, McFarlane and Williams have hopefully opened a door for others to pursue this enigmatic filmmaker.

Josh Nelson,
Melbourne University, Australia

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Josh Nelson

About the Author

Josh Nelson

Josh Nelson has worked at The University of Melbourne since 2002 as a lecturer and tutor within Visual Media (Creative Arts). In 2008 his PhD thesis entitled, 'Ruptures & Regenerations: Violence, Trauma, and Male Subjectivity in American Cinema (1976-2004)' was dually nominated for a Chancellor's Prize. He is currently working on a number of forthcoming publications.View all posts by Josh Nelson →