All entries for Sunday 17 December 2006
December 17, 2006
24 Hour Party People (2001), dir: Michael Winterbottom
Above: Michael Winterbottom
Michael Winterbottom is one of Britain’s most interesting film directors working today. A director like Ken Loach has developed a certain typical ‘feel’ to his films. Loach combines this with an underlying politics linking in to his filmmaking methods. By comparison Winterbottom maintains a political edge to his films which is less didactic than that of Loach. Perhaps that is unsurprising as he cites Lindsay Anderson as a strong influence. Winterbottom frequently gains the title of being ‘eclectic’ or a ‘genre-hopper’ which seems to be a negative criticism.
Not a Genre Monkey
It should by now be clear to reviewers that Winterbottom isn’t a genre filmmaker and if his films touch upon genres, just as this one touches on the rock movie genre, then it is because there is a deeper project at stake. He takes up projects and he is usually giving them a political twist. This twist may be within the aesthetic approach of the film itself rather than a direct aspect of the content. The latter approach based directlu upon content is more in the nature of the social realist approach. This is the kind of approach espoused by directors like Loach.
Above: Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson founder of Factory Records
Ignoring the aesthetic and intellectual influences
It is interesting that none of the reviews this article has linked to below comment upon his aesthetic approach even though these are from the more ‘intellectual’ end of the media. Perhaps this is unsurprising because a seemingly recurrent theme in Winterbottom’s films is the media. The way Winterbottom deals with the question of ‘point of view’ is also interesting. In 24 Hour Party People there is little in the way of point of view from a subjective perspective. Although the story is told by Steve Coogan, who’s character Tony Wilson is the founder of Factory Records, the cinematic narrative moves around. Not only does Coogan / Wilson break the ‘fourth wall’ by frequently addressing the audience directly, often the narrative comes from a Coogan who suddenly speaks from the future about the on-screen diegesis.
Winterbottom and the Media
Welcome to Sarajevo is one of Winterbottom’s films that effectively acts a critique of the media. Through the finding of a small boy in the chaos that was war-torn Sarajevo a TV reporter breaks through the professional patina of the media. The reporter starts to take a personal interest in what he is reporting thus the irony of presenting viewers with the spectacle of News which is inherently voyeuristic is highlighted. The voyeurism of ‘Bad News’ is reliant upon spectacle in war footage or else the aftermath of natural disaster.
Increasingly of course, the rise of ‘citizen reporting’ by amateurs with digital video is creating a different news aesthetic. Perhaps Winterbottom will return to that aspect of media in a future film project.
A Brechtian Aesthetic
Whilst Welcome to Sarajevo was in more of a humanistic mode 24 Hour Party People creates a more Brechtian approach. The distanciation effect or verfremdungseffekt through the breaking of the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience isn’t just a ‘postmodern’ vanity – indeed the film adds layers of irony by effectively critiquing postmodern irony itself. It enables the audience to take a more critical stance in considering the content of the film.
Rather than being an uncritical sycophantic or hagiographic film about pop and rock heroes being ‘done down’ in some dramatic way, the film carefully eschews drama and personal point of view to take a more detached view. Here Steve Coogan becomes an excellent casting choice. How much Coogan represents the ‘real’ Tony Wilson is entirely irrelevant. His irony and quick wittedness are perfect for a film which is constructed as a critique, not of Factory Records or the Hacienda Club or even youth culture in general, rather it leads the more critical mind to be analysing the workings of the system itself.
The Rock Movie Genre
The rock movie genre really took off in the 1960s. There were of course films about Elvis Presley first of all. But the rock movie really took of with A Hard Days Night by Richard Lester with the free flowing camera work that came to characterise the MTV pop-video. Sid and Nancy by Alex Cox was more of a standard biopic although it was hard hitting and critical. Not least of the kind of entrepreneurial opportunism of a character like Malcolm Maclaren. MacLaren is the sort of character who is implicitly critiqued off-screen in 24 Hour Party People, precisely because the whole of the Manchester (Madchester) scene was set in motion by the raw energy of the Sex Pistols, the band which brought Maclaren fame and fortune.
What Winterbottom’s film seems to be examining among other things is the inevitable tensions between the creation of a youth culture which is dependent upon naivety combined with lashings of energy and enthusiasm and the workings of industry and business. Here, as we see, Factory Records and the Hacienda Club cannot sell out. There is quite literally nothing to sell, instead the idealism is eroded and eventually heavily compromised by the real forces of chaos and anarchy in society the ‘lumpen’ criminal classes.
There is no such thing as a utopian 24 Hour Party in which the workings of the system can somehow be ignored in some utopian space. The criminal classes eventually come to control the door and the massive drug fuelled scene in the Hacienda. The drug scene itself can be seen as a part of the reaction of young people to a ‘no future’ type’ of a culture in which the living is done for today not tomorrow.
Tony Wilson and Factory Records
The story is based upon Tony Wilson who is a young ex-Cambridge graduate who has found a post in Granada TV. He is a part of the regional magazine programme doing cheesy features on various aspects of the region.
Wilson is incredibly frustrated and eventually manages to get a music programme on the TV devoted to the ‘New Wave’ punk music. From here he eventually manages to get some bands to agree to start a record label with no contract. They are free to walk away at any time. The success of this leads to the establishing of the Hacienda Club. As a cultural space it was fantastic for a time, as a business it was a flop and running it bled Factory records dry.
When Factory Records was seeking an injection of new capital to produce a new record the entrepreneurs from London Records offered Factory Records £5 million. It was then that the audience really find out the meaning of the agreement not to have a contract. There is nothing to sell and of course Factory Records becomes history.
Exposed underlying contradictions in society
But this film isn’t so much about the nasty music business. On the contrary it is represented as a straight business like anything else. If anything, it is the drug gangs who are most in line for Winterbottom’s critical eye. But even they are seen as a certain kind of response to the post-industrial crisis of Manchester.
Nevertheless a telling critique of them comes in the ironical explanation provided by Coogan who explains that the cycle of capital has broken down precisely because they are parasites and don’t reinvest in the business they are bleeding. Instead they spend it on drink, guns, houses, fashion and women.
Winterbottom places the audience in a triangular frame. Idealist youth / business / anarchic lumpen criminal elements make up the sides of the frame. Winterbottom doesn’t give the audience any kind of didactic answer. He has posed a question of whether this will always be the case. It is up to us as audience to come up with a solution to the dilemma.
An Analysis of History
Winterbottom’s position here shouldn’t be confused with the cyclical version of history which keeps surfacing within the film. W. B. Yeats is frequently referenced and he was a believer in this idea. In brief it is the notion that what arises will be sucked back down as his famous line Things fall apart the centre cannot hold elaborates.
Winterbottom poses us with a more complex dialectical situation. Either the synthesis of the contradiction will move forward onto a higher plane or there will be a negation. In this case the idealism of Factory records and the cultural movement around it fades away. It goes down as a cultural moment, a fascinating experiment. Perhaps if Walter Benjamin were written about it he would describe it as a rupture or fissure within capitalism providing an opportunity to envisage another kind of society. In its heyday Factory and the Hacienda were remarkably free and utopian but it became a victim of its own success, unable to move forward.
Although Winterbottom’s critique is about a period long gone, the question is posed with every youth ‘New Wave’, will it sell out or will it collapse under its own internal contradictions? With the continuing hype around the Web with business and utopian discourse continuously clashing it is an ever present question.
Overall it is a film worth seeing for a range of reasons, and on the linked reviews below it is a clear that the film has been considerably underrated by the critics and reviewers with its theoretical and critical influences and antecedents carefully ignored – but then many of the best films are underrated. It happened with Lindsay Anderson’s films too.
I just loved the ridiculously priced office table :-).
Who’s Who in the Film. Helpful to track down the role an various characters portrayed in the film
British Council Brit Film pages on Winterbottom
Seen the film, read all this and the above links, seen the film again? Now you can contribute in a really informed way to this BBC discussion page on the film.
Here is a link to a Realplayer interview with Steve Coogan on Channel 4. Currently I can’t get it to play but you might have better luck (technical ability).
Link to the official Cannes site. A press conference with Winterbottom be accessed here.
Alternatively you can contribute to discussion in the comments box below.