Thursday, January 31, 2008
Britain in the nineties produced many remarkable and innovative film directors but none of them have had more of an effect on me than Blackburn born Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom has proven more consistently brilliant and prolific than almost any of his often more publicized peers. If he hasn’t had a break out hit comparable to directors his age like Guy Ritchie or Danny Boyle, he has had a remarkable staying power and nearing his twentieth year of filmmaking Winterbottom’s vision seems as fresh and as vibrant as ever.
Winterbottom was born in the spring of 1961 in the period where the so called Kitchen Sink Drama was really beginning to flourish in England. Like many of the best directors of the sixties, Winterbottom’s own career has adapted the rather unique capability of marked genre hopping while following similar thematic obsessions. Critics of his career often frown upon Winterbottom’s fearless embracing of all types of cinema but they often overlook the distinct patterns that connect even his most seemingly diverse work.
Michael got his start in the same way many of his peers did, namely in the British television of the eighties. His work almost always focuses on the idea of how people relate to each other in the context of the society they are living in, and his earliest television work reflects this from the get go. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his first projects was a documentary on Ingmar Bergman, another director whose obsessions led him towards the sharp bonds and breaks that exist between families and most often couples.
I have unfortunately not seen Winterbottom’s earliest feature films as they are hard to come by in America so I cannot comment on them. I got my first look at his work the way many people did hear in the States with a viewing of his caustic and disturbing road movie Butterfly Kiss in 1995.
Butterfly Kiss is a difficult film but I remember being immediately impressed by how fearless the filmmaking was. Featuring an amazing turn by Amanda Plummer and an eerie washed out color scheme by Seamus McGarvey, Butterfly Kiss served as a harsh announcement that a major new talent had arrived. The fact that the film seemed to divide nearly everyone who saw and reviewed it would also serve as a foreshadowing of Winterbottom’s career to date as he has never gained total acceptance, which has perhaps allowed him to keep following his own very specific and lone path.
Butterfly Kiss’ follow up film was Go Now, a little seen but striking work starring Robert Carlyle as a man who develops multiple sclerosis. Go Now is an extremely important, if often overlooked, film in Winterbottom’s canon as it served as a sign that no matter what issues he might be dealing with the core of the film would always come back to a relationship. Every major film Winterbottom has made since Butterfly Kiss deals with this idea of relationships and how they survive (or dissolve) due to the societal issues that might be surrounding them.
With that in mind, it is much easier to see Winterbottom as a key auteur in modern cinema. His stunning Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude might seem as far removed stylistically from Butterfly Kiss and Go Now but when you center in on the relationship between Christopher Eccleston’s Jude and Kate Winslet’s Sue then it feels much like a small piece of a very well defined but complicated puzzle. The connections between Winterbottoms films aren’t always easy to spot but I would argue that they are indeed there.
Jude was a major work and it would give notice that there were few better directors of women in the modern cinema than Michael Winterbottom. The string of performances that Winterbottom has gotten out of some of the worlds great actresses has been apparent in nearly all of his films since Jude. There is a real sense of security and trust in the way he shoots that seems to put all of his actors at ease, even when they are playing some of the most difficult roles of their careers.
Jude would also continue Winterbottom’s affection for seeking out favorite novels to adapt to the screen. Rarely writing his own films, Winterbottom instead lets his camera and his thematic interests connect his work. Jude’s follow up film, Welcome To Sarajevo would continue this pattern.
Welcome To Sarajevo would garner Winterbottom his first Golden Palm nomination at Cannes and its drastically different almost documentary style harkens back to some of his earliest work for British television. In hindsight I don’t think the film is one of his strongest as some poor casting choices hamper it slightly. Still the film continued his pattern of focusing on strong relations in impossible situations and it is well worth revisiting.
I wrote a long piece here before on Michael’s next film, I Want You, and that can be read here for those interested. That memorable work starring Rachel Weisz was followed by one of his greatest films and perhaps the one that is most closely connected to the Kitchen Sink Dramas he grew up with.
The sharply written ensemble piece Wonderland is a masterful and moving film filled with more nuance and subtlety than most filmmakers would dare to even think about. A confident and brave work with alternating storylines and with some of the most remarkably inventive shooting methods Winterbottom had ever attempted, Wonderland is one of the best British films of the nineties and possibly the first masterpiece of his career.
With Or Without You was a little bit of a let down after Wonderland but it is still an assured and powerful work that would feature Winterbottom reuniting with his Jude star Christopher Eccleston. With Or Without You, with sex being a key motivator, would also serve as a warm up for the most controversial film of Winterbottom’s career, which was just a few years down the road.
After the disappointing reception granted to With Or Without You, Michael would return to Thomas Hardy country with his extremely interesting The Claim. Despite working with a cast featuring Nastassja Kinski, Sarah Polley, and Milla Jovovich, The Claim never quite captured the public's attention. It would garner some acclaim upon release but it is has never garnered the attention that it perhaps deserved.
Two years would go by after The Claim but when Michael Winterbottom returned he seemed to be totally recharged and more confrontational than ever. His projects since have all been marked with a ferociously go for broke attitude that has divided some of his original fans while gaining many more.
The audacious 24 Hour Party People, a work centering on the Manchester music scene and Factory Records in the late seventies, is a simply stunning film. Alive, energetic with its own very distinct sense of rhythm, myth and history, 24 Hour Party People angered a lot of folks with its devil may care attitude concerning what really happened and what is remembered but it is an exhilarating film. Everything from the way Winterbottom uses music (another thing he is expert at), to the look of the film, to the relationships between Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson and the circle that surrounds him are unforgettable. Again Winterbottom takes the relations between very strong and original characters and places them squarely in a very specific and often well known society. Often like aliens in a recognizable world, the characters who inhabit Winterbottom's films seem somehow separate from their surroundings while being completely enveloped by it.
Winterbottom would return to the more political filmmaking of Welcome To Sarajevo with his next work, the award winning In This World. Again focusing on a relationship, this time between two Afghan refugees, Winterbottom manages to make fairly recent history into a totally personal journey. In This World works well as a searing political drama but even more so as a sharp story of a friendship. It would win Winterbottom many well deserved European film awards in 2002.
Michael would turn his focus next to the Science Fiction genre with the stirring Code 46 starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. Centering on a doomed love while mixing in serious ideas about genetic cloning and just what it means to be a human being with a soul, Code 46 stands as one of the most intelligent of all modern Science Fiction films, and Winterbottom directs it with just the right amount of dreamlike realism to make it among the most masterful films of his career.
His next film would prove to be his most controversial and one of his most talked about. I think 9 Songs might be the definitive Michael Winterbottom film, even though it perhaps isn’t his best. Gone is the societal and political struggles that marked his previous work…this is Winterbottom at his purest…just two characters in love, having sex, going to concerts and finally going their separate ways.
Matt, played by Kieron O’Brian, is seen at the beginning of the film flying over the ice covered Antarctic. The audience quickly learns that he is remembering a relationship he had had the previous year with a young American student named Lisa, played by Margo Stilley. The film is his memory of the ways they would make love, bands they saw together and finally the way they split.
9 Songs is an important little film about memory, sex, music and the things that really go into making and breaking a relationship. Much has been made of the explicit sex in the film and the bands Winterbottom filmed for the concert sequences, but what is often lost from the discussion is just how remarkable the little moments in the film are. Bits like Margo Stilley posing in front of the mirror or the two just having dinner in silence are the kind of incredibly real moments you rarely see in film anymore. 9 Songs is also one of the loveliest looking digital productions ever mounted with Marcel Zyskind's color photography and Winterbottom's endlessly inventive camera work being absolutely sublime. For many the sexuality in 9 Songs will keep them away which is too bad as it is a really special film and one of the bravest of the decade. The final shots of the film that conclude with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's haunting Love Burns are among the definitive moments in any Michael Winterbottom film.
9 Songs garnered Winterbottom an equal amount of love and disgust. He seemed unbothered though by even the harshest attacks that the film was hit with and he immediately shot one of the most confrontational films of his career, the crazy A Cock And Bull Story which would again garner him loads of acclaim and an equal amount of disdain. Frankly the fact that Winterbottom would be brave enough to follow up 9 Songs with a work like A Cock And Bull story separates him from almost any other filmmaker on the planet. Anyone else would have retreated into a safe place after 9 Songs...Winterbottom instead charged right back into the war zone.
9 Songs and A Cock And Bull Story (and the documentary The Road To Guantanamo) were artistic triumphs but perhaps even better was his return to conventional narrative filmmaking, the extraordinary A Mighty Heart from last year.
In adapting the story of journalist Mariane Pearl for the screen, Michael Winterbottom creates a grueling, heart wrenching and beautifully realized film that perfectly encapsulates his near two decade film career. Poetic, troubling and equal parts engrossing and hard to watch, the lost relationship at the core of A Mighty Heart can be seen as a perfect extension of all of the passionate relationships Winterbottom has spent his career exploring. A Mighty Heart is a real rare piece of quality fact based filmmaking (with a truly monumental performance by Angelina Jolie) that is much better than many of the films out that are currently being honored this award season.
I'm actually a bit relieved that A Mighty Heart didn't break Winterbottom in America. I would hate to think about him in sanitizing and sacrificing his vision to satisfy a commercial need. I would hate to see him lose his edge and thankfully that edge has never been sharper or better defined.
A Mighty Heart is going to be a hard work to follow up but I suspect Michael Winterbottom will manage it. His next film is entitled Genova and it is due out later this year. After that is Murder In Samarkand which will reunite him again with Steve Coogan.
Michael Winterbottom is one of modern cinema's greatest artists and yet he is rarely mentioned as such. All of his films are marked by ferocious sincerity, authentic vision and an uncompromising nature. Here's to twenty more years of pissing people off, confounding expectations and just being all the way around brilliant.