The Scottish film book From Limelight to Satellite, Paul Schrader on The Comfort of Strangers, plus
the best releases ofthe year.
INDEX: 19 LISTINGS 25
Reeling in the years
In terms of cinema culture in this country, one of 1990’s lasting achievements is likely to be the Scottish Film Council’s major publication on the moving image in Scotland, From Limelight To Satellite. Trevor Johnston finds himselfimpressed by a book that surveys the past, present and future of our native film and television production but manages to keep the moaning to a minimum.
David Bruce, the current director of the Scottish Film Council, in his essay here titled Hollywood Comes To The Highlands hits upon a slightly frivolous but nonthelcss useful metaphor that might stand for the situation of film production as a whole in this particular corner of the world. Chronicling the abortive fortunes of the Post-WWII Scottish National Film Studios. he notes that ‘the need for Scotland to have a film industry of its own was partly symbolic, a sign of virility, like the national football team at the World Cup‘.
Well, following the model of the oft-cuffed soccer eleven, the Scottish film (and lately television) seems to regard itselfwith that familiar blend of breast-swelling pride and mild inferiority. It seems as if the divine right to take their place on the Mondial stage and the globe’s movie and TV screens is taken as read, but it‘s so often the case in both fields ofendeavour that the Scots repeatedly fail to muster the skills and manpower to match the scale of their creative ambitions.
The end result is usually, for football pundits and Scots film commentators alike, the great search for any number of excuses. We‘re told that we’re only a small country, that the continentals have more natural flair, that Hollywood/Channel 4/British Screen is manned by philistines who couldn’t spot a likely blockbuster if it ran up their collective trouser leg, that central government eXpenditure only puts aside the tiniest pittance to support film culture north of the border, and so on. We’ve heard it all before.
To be honest, the thought of a Scottish film book made me slightly dread that I was going to hear it all again, but full credit to editor Eddie
Dick and his various able contributors for ensuring that From Limelight To Satellite‘s collection ofessays throughout its varied pages favours clear-sighted analytic realism over the natural Scots proclivity for the sentimental bleat.
Glasgow University‘s John Caughie sets the tone with his opening salvo Representing Scotland: New Questions For The Scottislt Cinema, which gets right in at the core of the matter to ponder how a so-called ‘Scottish film culture‘ can actually begin to materialise in any significant sense at a time when the production of film and TV images is at a low ebb and the country’s funding, exhibition and educational structures are merely surviving on modest resources. Significantly linking the ‘critical and theoretical questions of the new forms and discourses‘ with the ‘material and practical questions of the structures from which new forms and discourses will emerge, and of the ways in which they will find new audiences‘ the fact that ‘it is increasingly difficult to ask one set of questions without also asking all the others‘ is in itselfcause for keen interest, perhaps even hope, for what the next few years might bring.
In a similar vein, Scottish Television's Gus McDonald’s Fiction Friction is extremely hard headed about the fate ofour independent and network television production, and his listing of nationwide audience figures for a plethora of diverse Scots offerings makes dismaying reading, with even the epochal Tutti Frutti making precious little impression on the ultimate taskmaster of the UK ratings. It‘s not easy to swallow but he does avoid special pleading and these are important words and numbers.
Still, by singling out these two pieces for particular attention, it‘s all too easy to convey the impression that From Limelight To Satellite makes for a depressing (though not self-indulgent) couple of hundred pages. For the
‘lmpertect anarchist' Bill Forsyth's Local Hero
most part, the effect is entirely different, for alongside Janet McBain‘s valuable cataloguing of every Scots production from 1888‘s appropriately-named Scotch Reel to the latest would-be blockbuster The Big Man, the book serves to remind us of the not unsubstantial achievements of this small country‘s cinematic past. Neil Blain offers a guide to the strong Griersonian documentary tradition, Andrew Noble gives us an engaged personal response to the Bill Douglas trilogy, while Allan Hunter has elicited some fascinating insights from the horse‘s mouth in his illuminating chapter on our best-known director, Bill Forsyth.
Still, any such compilation (a little like our old friend the national football team) is bound to have is weaker spots and here they arise in the shape ofJohn Millar’s uninspiring eulogy to celluloid hero Sean Connery and Philip Schlesinger’s vaguely impenetrable Scotland, Europe and Identity.
On the whole however, From Limelight to Satellite is a hugely welcome addition to the cineaste’s bookshelf, and perhaps the best thing I could say about was that it filled me with enough admiration for the often gutsy array of film talents involved that I couldn’t help but start to conjure up further chapters for those deserving of more substantial wordage in their own right. The ongoing resourcefulness of producer Paddy Higson and documentarist Murray Grigor surely merit such recognition, and I might also have liked something on master animator Norman McLaren‘s formative years . . . Could be we might just need a sequel.
From Limelight To Satellite, edited by Eddie Dick, is a co-production between the Scottish Film Council and British Film Institute Publishing available in paperback at £12. 95 and hardback at £35.
The List 21 December 1990— 10 January 1991 17