As a longtime fan of Michael Winterbottom, I looked forward to finally taking some spring break time to read Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century (published by Bloomsbury last October), the British director’s survey of the state of his country’s cinema through interviews with 15 of the best in the business working (though not as much as Winterbottom would like) today. It seemed like a great idea in theory. Who better than Winterbottom – a film artist of boundless curiosity and seamless flexibility – to probe the creative minds of everyone from Ken Loach, Danny Boyle and Mike Leigh, to Steve McQueen, Asif Kapadia and Lynne Ramsay? How many other directors in the UK (or elsewhere for that matter) can go from Manchester music scene (24 Hour Party People), to Gitmo detention camp (The Road to Guantanamo), to 50s noir (The Killer Inside Me), to comedic series (The Trip and its Coogan-kooky offshoots)? And that’s just a handful of films in a 30-plus oeuvre spread out over nearly three decades. Indeed, Winterbottom unquestionably is that rare risk-taking British gentleman seemingly unafraid to fail. (See – or rather don’t see – 2004’s sexually explicit misstep 9 Songs. 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ouch.) Which is a longwinded way of saying that sometimes a great idea, in theory, can quite unexpectedly go very very wrong.
Starting with Dark Matter’s flawed premise – which ironically reveals Winterbottom’s own blindspots when it comes to «dark matter.» The «dark matter» of the book’s title refers to all the «unmade films (that) might help to explain the wider landscape of British independent cinema in the 21st century» – a landscape Winterbottom sees as an «abandoned building site.» (See Michael Winterbottom: why British independent cinema resembles an abandoned building site, published by The Guardian last fall.) His pessimism is prompted by a not-so-distant mythic – and mythical – past (which includes the kitchen sink heyday inhabited by folks like Loach and Leigh) that he diligently lays out in the intro to the collection. Through Winterbottom’s lens, it was a prolific time when maverick auteurs – specifically Bergman, Godard, Truffault, Fellini, Fassbinder, Wenders, and Herzog – were able to churn out masterpiece after masterpiece at a jaw-dropping rate. But what the British director seems to miss in celebrating these cinematic legends is the shared commonality beyond mere artistic genius: They’re all white European men.
Which begs the question. Was this proof of an era of less «dark matter» – or more? What about all the «dark matter» that haunted (and continues to haunt) women and people of colour in the 20th century – all the movies that they didn’t get to make and that we’ll never see? Indeed, one might even argue that now – more than ever – there is actually less «dark matter» for certain (i.e., historically marginalized) groups. In other words, that «abandoned building site» that Winterbottom calls British independent film could very well be abandoned for good reason. Perhaps it’s just in the process of some necessary shapeshifting (as Hollywood grudgingly is) to encompass more POVs if it’s to survive and thrive.
The «dark matter» of the book’s title refers to all the «unmade films (that) might help to explain the wider landscape of British independent cinema in the 21st century» – a landscape Winterbottom sees as an «abandoned building site.»
Besides, the British filmmakers Winterbottom interviews are for the most part doing just fine – often working productively outside the UK. In many respects, the globalization of filmmaking has simply eliminated national identity. (British cinema is alive, just outside of Britain.) We in America likewise had our «golden age» of Hollywood – when white men (mostly refugees from Europe, of course) helmed the talkies and ruled the studios. We can lament the decline of the studio system (Hitchcock! Wilder! Chaplin! Capra!) while acknowledging that it never welcomed the visions of women and BIPOC. (Again, «dark matter» crosses both time and borders.) Not to mention we’ve never had government financing here in the States; which may have created «dark matter» but also creative workarounds – resulting in a thriving indie scene that allowed for the rise of outsider artists. (Especially in the late 80s-early 90s once tech became affordable, when an auteur like Spike Lee could finally demand, as the title of his production company defiantly puts it, «forty acres and a mule.») Rest assured, visionaries will emerge and keep doing what they’re doing regardless of the height of the obstacles. Then again, as a US critic hailing from a very messy melting pot, a nation of immigrants without a cohesive national identity, «American» cinema (outside of corporate Hollywood) just isn’t a thing. Indeed, it’s why we proudly call it independent film.