Michael Winterbottom, by Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. Hardcover $84.95. 152pp., ISBN: 978-0-7190-7422-6.
One of the most versatile and politically conscientious directors of his generation, Michael Winterbottom has produced 17 feature films since 1995, ranging from gritty working-class dramas (Butterfly Kiss, Wonderland) and irreverently bold literary adaptations (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Jude) to historical epics (The Claim), rock-music-driven fantasias (24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs), sci-fi (Code 46), and timely stories about the human cost of war in places like Bosnia (Welcome to Sarajevo) and Afghanistan (In This World, The Road to Guantanamo).
As his admirers often note, Winterbottom is remarkable for his ability to adapt to any genre, any medium, and for the breakneck pace at which he writes, shoots, and completes his films, whether they’re higher-profile star vehicles like A Mighty Heartor micro-budget oddities. Alternating between 35mm and digital formats, semi-improvisational approaches and fully scripted projects, Winterbottom’s films are scaled to the scope of the stories and issues he takes on; all are driven by his uncommon passion for extending the language of cinema while engaging a mass audience. His latest project, The Shock Doctrine, based on the book by Naomi Klein, premiered as a work-in-progress at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2009, and he has just finished principal photography on The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of cult novelist Jim Thompson’s West Texas crime drama. Four other projects are on the horizon.
Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams’s bantamweight volume, part of Manchester University Press’s “British Film Makers” series, is the first book-length study of Winterbottom’s whirligig universe, a film-by-film primer that’s a model of concision and (for the most part) clarity. Odd that it should have taken so long for someone to burrow into this indefatigable innovator’s rich body of cinematic work, considering the quality and breadth of his output. Then again, Winterbottom is a tough character to pin down. Reviewers seem awed by his peripatetic pace and impressive generic range, noting their admiration for individual films like Wonderland or 24 Hour Party People, but just as often express bafflement at what exactly the connecting points might be. As the authors point out, “One detects an ongoing struggle to link Winterbottom with a particular style or approach to filmmaking; even the notion of anoeuvre is seen to be at odds with his eclectic use of genre and different modes of realism.”
True enough. These days, anyone writing on a single filmmaker has to contend with auteur theory, whether the idea is to build a case (as Chris Fujiwara did for Jacques Tourneur) or highlight more collaborative processes (as Stuart Galbraith did for Kurosawa and Mifune). Do the films express a coherent vision attributable to the director alone? How do elements like lighting, editing, cinematography, mise-en-scéne, sound, and performance characteristics reflect this sensibility? McFarlane and Williams address the issue head on in the first chapter but choose to hedge their bets, attempting to reconcile “ideas which have led to the name ‘Michael Winterbottom’ being associated with a particular body of work” and then “turning to those factors which tend to dissipate the idea of Winterbottom as the single source of a world view and style.” Reading this, I thought for certain they intended to challenge the entire notion of directorial authorship, while mindful of the “darting intelligence” they’ve sensed at work behind the films.
On this point, though, McFarlane and Williams are resolutely opaque, even contradictory. Winterbottom, they remind us, has assembled a tightly knit creative team, including writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, DP Marcel Zyskind, and producer Andrew Eaton (his partner at Revolution Films), with whom he’s worked since their early days at the BBC, when they mounted the four-part, BAFTA-nominated series Family, based on Roddy Doyle’s teleplays. Clearly, Eaton and Winterbottom have a robust, long-standing creative relationship akin to Powell and Pressburger’s. (A “good marriage” is how Eaton describes the arrangement.) Mat Whitecross, the editor of 9 Songs, is credited as a co-director on The Road to Guantanamo. Winterbottom himself is quoted as saying that auteur theory is bogus, the “ultimate perversion,” since filmmaking is inherently an industrial or collective process. Yet the authors spend the rest of the chapter trying to establish links between Winterbottom and the list of directors he once cited, in a single interview, as influences. Later in the book, they contend that Butterfly Kiss is “deformed by a highly personal vision,” and that Winterbottom’s early melodramas “have just enough points of contact for us not to forget who made them.”
McFarlane and Williams don’t necessarily resolve that conundrum (why should we ascribe authorship to the director alone, rather than “Revolution Films” or “Eaton-Winterbottom”?), nor do they posit a strong, coherent thesis rooted in a particular theoretical methodology. Instead, they first attempt to isolate broad themes (“the street,” “the body”) and recurring traits in his work (like kineticism), locating Winterbottom in relation to British cinematic tradition (Lindsay Anderson was a tutor) and aligning him with a certain strain of realism (Rossellini’s, mostly). In subsequent chapters, they turn to a discussion of his idiosyncratic handling of genre (especially the road movie, in films like Butterfly Kiss and In This World) and why his adaptations of English literary classics are a far cry from the decorous dress-’em-ups of Merchant-Ivory. This skimming approach accounts for the book’s refreshingly cordial tone and lucid, jargon-free prose. It’s also the book’s fundamental weakness, since the analyses lean heavily toward an expository mode that can at times come off as superficial and perfunctory. To be fair, the book is aimed at a general readership, not hard-core cinephiles or scholars of cinema, and the insights, though scattered here and there, are valuable.
In their assessment of The Claim, for instance, Winterbottom’s dour tweak of The Mayor of Casterbridge, relocated to the gold-rush period in the American West, the authors assert that he “de-romanticises the Western in narrative and thematic elements but in the grandeur and beauty of setting, in the glimpses of a gentler civilisation tenaciously making itself heard and seen, it is as though part of him is still beguiled by the old Hollywood-enshrined verities.” It’s an interesting point. Not many classic Westerns, they aver, feature a hero brought to calamitous personal ruin by film’s end, like the guilt-ridden prospector Dillon in Winterbottom’s wintry tale. Code 46, a near-future forbidden-love story, also subverts genre expectation, McFarlane and Williams maintain, employing a minimum of special effects and relying on actual city locations (Seattle, Shanghai) to establish a defamiliarized urban setting. “By concentrating on a world of huge complexes, of internationally kept records relating to everyone’s genetic composition, by the use of technologies that seem no longer fantastic but only a decade or less away, by the minimisation of human agency, [Winterbottom] forces us bleakly to acknowledge the ways in which our societies have distanced us from a norm of instinctive response to an acceptance of wide-ranging controls.”
These are rich ideas worth exploring, but they’re marooned in an ocean of programmatically descriptive text like tiny conceptual islands. To their credit, McFarlane and Williams do present tour-de-force sketches of film plots and the devices Winterbottom uses to achieve certain effects, such as the weld of news footage, re-enactment, and interviews that distinguishes The Road to Guantanamo,a docudrama about the Tipton Three. But they tend to gloss over deeper meanings and resonances. For instance, the relationship between journalism and documentary is something that deeply interests Winterbottom, who has positioned a number of his films as hybrid figures of reportage and critique, but the authors decline to explore this thread except in very cursory terms. A pronouncement such as “Winterbottom’s oeuvre constitutes a contemporary moral voice in troubled times” begs a number of questions: What is the substance of that morality? To whom is it addressed? In what tone? How is it also inflected in a working-class comedy like With or Without You?
About 24 Hour Party People, a rollicking evocation of Manchester’s music scene in the early ’80s (starring Steve Coogan as Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson), they write, “The film invites us to understand micro-historical events in relation to the larger event of Thatcherism and its social and cultural consequences.” But they never bother to develop this thought or explicate any of its referents, even when they turn to a lengthy analysis several chapters later. Equally frustrating are evaluative comments such as “Whatever its echoes and affiliations, Wonderland emerges as a humanist masterpiece of British cinema, bleak in many of its insights but ultimately holding out the prospect of hope for its beleaguered protagonists.” Absent any indication of what criteria they’ve used to reach this conclusion (because it “evokes a strong sense of place”? because it dares to hope?), or why we should share this view (what are the film’s insights?), the sentence hangs as awkwardly as a dangling modifier.
Even for students, the approach here may be too general, too concerned with formal qualities (like the frequent image of tiny figures isolated in a formidable landscape) rather than interpretation. Indeed, the conceptual framework for the book hinges on three fundamental premises: Winterbottom’s emphasis on location shooting, the incessant movement of his characters and cameras, and a sociopolitical concern for real-world issues and historical immediacy. “Generally,” they write, “Winterbottom renders his filmic worlds ‘in motion.'” It’s a point they return to again and again. One of the authors’ primary concerns is also to trace loose formal connections and other thematic correspondences between Winterbottom and the French and German New Waves, European art cinema, and even Altman’s genre-mixing ensemble dramas. Sometimes, the emphasis on precursors and filiations is productive, such as a long passage where they argue that the basic scenario in Winterbottom’s odd, unsettling crime drama I Want You echoes an entire lineage of mood-driven film noirs, from Zinnemann’s Act of Violence to Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa.
Still, one wishes for more. In terms of isolating the formal strategies at play in Winterbottom’s cinema and the consistency of his methods, the book is a fine introduction. The authors are at their best describing structural traits and hinting at thematic lines of approach to Winterbottom’s work, rather than presenting a fleshed-out argument about the worldview (political, familial, ethical, or otherwise) expressed in his films, or tracking the ways in which his from-the-hip observational aesthetic has implications for cinematic practice and perhaps even the new age of multimedia journalism. For that book, we’ll just have to wait.