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British Cinema: Realism and its Discontents

ENGL 295.401

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 a dozen 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.   Likely films will include Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, Ken Loach’s Kess, Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things, Mike Leigh’s Naked and Secrets and Lies, Gurinder Chadha’s Bahji on the Beach, Guy Richie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Newton Aduaka’s Rage,  and Lyn Ramsey’s Ratcatcher.  All films will be put on reserve for self-screening in Rosengarten.  Written work for the class will consist of three or four midterm exams and one term paper, which will be submitted in draft as well as final form.  There are no prerequisites for this class, and no expectation that you will have any previous background in contemporary British cinema or culture.  

    The course syllabus is available here.

fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major