British Cinema: Realism and its Discontents

English 295.401
Jim English
CINE 260.401 Office: FBH 311
Fall 2009 Hours:  T 2-3, Th 1-2
TR 10:30-12:00, FBH 16
jenglish <at> english.upenn.edu

No other national cinema has as vexed and enduring a commitment to the aesthetics of realism as the British. From the rise in the 1930s of the British Documentary Movement, which defined its project as the “creative presentation of actuality,” through the working-class realist films of the British New Wave in the 1960s, to the current domination of global television programming by “reality formats” originating in the UK, British screen culture has been shaped to an unusual degree by a preoccupation with the real, the ordinary, the undistorted and unadorned. This has been seen by some as Britain’s primary source of artistic distinction, industrial resilience, and political bite in a global market long dominated by the fantasy factories of Hollywood. But others have seen it as the British cinema’s great curse, a failing both artistic and political that assures Britain’s continued minor-league status on the field of world cinema. Who, after all, wants to go out to the movies just to see “ordinary reality”?

Most of Britain’s important directors have jumped straight into this zone of dispute, using their films consciously to advance, obstruct, or refract the legacies of “British cinematic realism.” We will study twenty such films, as well as reading some of the major statements in British film criticism and theory. Although we will sample a few classics of the 1950s and 1960s, our principle focus will be on films made since the mid-1980s, as British cinema has struggled to represent, and to adapt itself to, the new realities of a multiracial, multicultural, multisexual society.  Except where noted, all films are available for self-screening in Rosengarten Reserve and assigned readings will be found in our coursepack (cp).  Reading is fairly light, but will be included in the midterm exams, which will be roughly biweekly and unannounced. Written work for the class will consist of a term paper drawing on your individual research, which will be submitted in draft as well as final form. In the latter weeks of the semester there will be no assigned reading so that you can get on with your independent researches.  There are no prerequisites for this class, and no expectation that you will have any previous background in contemporary British cinema or culture.

9/10    Introduction

    I.  Aesthetics of the Real: The Documentary Look

9/15    Elton and Anstey, Housing Problems (1935)
           Ken Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966)
             "Documentary" from BFI ScreenOnline

9/17    Peter Watkins, The War Game (1966)
             "The War Game" from BFI ScreenOnline

9/22      Colin MacCabe, "Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses" (cp)
             Handout: Lukacs, Brecht, McCabe (cp)
             John Caughie, "Progressive Television and Documentary Drama" (cp)

9/24      Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People  (2002)


9/29      Paul Greengrass, Bloody Sunday (2002)
             Michael Walsh, "Thinking the Unthinkable: Coming to Terms with Northern Ireland" (cp)

10/1     Alan Clarke, Elephant (1989)

    II.  Ordinary Britons: Social Realism and Social Class

10/6     Tony Richardson, A Taste of Honey (1961)
                "Social Realism" from BFI Screen Online

10/8     Ken Loach, Kes (1969)


10/13    Mike Leigh, High Hopes (1988)
                Leonard Quart, "The Religion of the Market" (cp)
                Paul Giles, “History with Holes: Channel Four Television Films in the 1980s" (cp)

10/15    Peter Cattaneo, The Full Monty (1997)
                Peter Todd, "British Film Industry in the 1990s" (cp)
                Geoff Brown, "British Film Culture in the Nineties" (cp)
                Claire Monk, "Underbelly UK: The 1990s Underclass Film and the Social Realist Tradition" (cp)

10/20    Danny Boyle, Trainspotting (1996)
                Karen Lury, "Here and Then" (cp)
                John Hill, "From the New Wave to Brit Grit" (cp)

10/22    Lynne Ramsay,  Ratcatcher (1999)

    III.  Other Realities: Black British Cinema and the Realist Tradition

10/27    Menelik Shabazz, Burning an Illusion (1981)
                   Topic Paragraph and Annotated Bibliography Due Today  [Assignment Guidelines]

10/29    John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs (1986)
                Manthia Diawara, "The Emergence of Black British Film Collectives" (cp)
                Stuart Hall, "New Ethnicities" (cp)

11/3    Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
             Susan Torey Barber, "Insurmountable Difficulties" (cp)

11/5    Udayan Prasad, My Son the Fanatic (1997)

11/10    Chadha, I’m British But (1991)
                Sarita Malik, "Beyond the Cinema of Duty?  The Pleasures of Hybridity" (cp)

11/12    Chadha, Bhaji on the Beach (1993)
                E. Anna Claydon, "Masculinity and Fantasy in Bhaji on the Beach" (handout)

    IV.  British Realisms, Global Economies

11/17    Michael Winterbottom, In This World (2002)

11/19    Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat (2006)

11/24    Reality TV (in class)
                 Draft of Research Papers Due Today

11/26    Thanksgiving

12/1      Ken Loach, Bread and Roses (2000)

12/3         TBA

12/8      Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

12/10        Research Papers due December 16th, 2:00 PM
                 [here is a helpful online guide to using quotations in your writing]
                     [and here is a guide to standard U Chicago endnote format]