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The Lens: British return?: 'Rage'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2009 - Francois Truffaut once made the oft-quoted statement that the words "British" and "cinema" were incompatible. An extreme view, perhaps, but one that has overshadowed English films for much of the past 50 years.

Producer David Puttnam, accepting an Oscar for "Chariots of Fire" (arguably the most forgettable Academy Award winner of the last 30 years) in 1982, declared "The British Are Coming!," introducing a new wave of British filmmaking that never quite took off. From the days of Alastair Sim to the more recent cycles of gangster films and Jane Austen adaptations, British cinema has been less a national tradition than a series of inconsistent trends.

Is British cinema on the rebound?

In the past few weeks, I've seen no less than nine new films from England, most of them set to open on U.S. screens in the next few weeks, and not a single teacups-and-lace period drama in the bunch. There may not be any reason to call it a movement, although there are a few cross connections in the batch.

Three of them deal with relatively marginal figures from recent history (1960-85), while four more are fiction inspired by events of the recent past. Four (or two, depending on how you look at them) are based on novels by David Peace, a writer I had never heard of. Two feature a talented young actress named Lily Cole. The same two also feature central performances by men in drag.

Most of these films will be showing up on local screens over the next few months, so I'll save any extended comment on them for later. "Bronson" and "The Damned United" - both of which are recommended - will open in October, and Richard Curtis' "The Boat That Rocked," retitled "Pirate Radio," will open nationwide in November. The "Red Riding" trilogy, a set of related films about police corruption, has been picked up for release by IFC and will probably turn up on your cable "On Demand" service soon. Only "Telstar," a biography of record producer Joe Meek, remains without a US distributor.

Which leaves Sally Potter's "Rage," currently available in a variety of formats, and "St. Trinian's," which has its U.S. premiere on Friday.


Sally Potter has never shied away from any kind of formal challenge. Her early film "Thriller" (which had nothing to do with Michael Jackson) was a feminist deconstruction of grand opera themes. Her previous feature, "Yes," turned the banal circumstances of infidelity into a revival of verse drama, written in iambic pentameter.

In between, she's made historical films, musicals, and literary adaptations like "Orlando," all marked by a deliberate, demanding visual style.

For her latest film "Rage," Potter jumps right into the heart of "new media": "Rage," a film about the fashion industry, commerce, communication and crime, is filmed in short, static shots, presented as the work of an off-screen interrogator using a cell-phone camera. And in keeping with the instantaneous nature of that stylistic device, the film is being released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and in installments on babelgum.com  or transmitted via cell phone.

With its relentless, unblinking style, "Rage" becomes a series of "Rashomon"-like perspectives as a dozen or so characters respond to the unseen and silent camera operator "Michelangelo," each using the camera to impress, enlist or persuade their observer of their importance.

The setting is backstage at the launch of a new fashion line where Michelangelo, has gained admittance for what is believed to be a school project - but eventually ends up being leaked onto the internet; the characters, embodied by an impressive cast that includes Judi Dench, Jude Law, Eddie Izzard, John Leguizamo, Steve Buscemi and Dianne Wiest, include designers, critics, models, moguls, a world-wise photographer and, eventually, a Shakespeare-quoting police detective. The camera rarely moves and each character sits, paces or struts in front of a brightly colored digital surface.

The film is, in a sense, a collection of monologues broken up into short episodes and - misleadingly - placed into a structure that resembles a game of "Clue." Some will fault Potter for not giving the film a cozy wrap-up, but her interest lies elsewhere, in showing how people from various walks of life choose to present themselves when they know that a camera is looking.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.

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