Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Top 10 British Film Directors

God, it was hard thinking of any ten, let alone a top ten. I toyed with Alan Parker, Ridley and Tony Scott et al but they're virtually yanks now. And only ever really made glorified adverts anyway. John Boorman and Neil Jordan were close contenders, but never quite fulfilled their early promise.

1. Nic Roeg
2. Derek Jarman
3. Michael Powell
4. Ken Russell
5. David Lean
6. Lindsay Anderson
7. Michael Winterbottom
8. Peter Greenaway
9. Bill Douglas
10. Terence Davies

It's almost tragic that now when thinking of British cinema inevitably the words 'crap' and 'gangster' come to mind when it was – at least up until the 1970s – a vibrant, social and imaginative force rather than an embarrassment.

Nic Roeg has never really got the full credit he deserves. He's an endlessly creative and innovative film maker who has made some of the most visually exciting films ever made – in particular, the four films he directed from 1970 to 1976, are extraordinary – Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don't Look Now. But even his 'minor' films are worth watching: The Witches, Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance, Track 29. He started off as a Director of Photography in the 1960s with Far from the Madding Crowd, Masque of the Red Death, Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451 and Lawrence of Arabia – these alone would have secured him a place in cinematic history.

His directorial debut, Performance, was co-directed with Donald Cammell, who seems to get more of the credit than Roeg amongst film critics – presumably because he's more of a cult figure. He even stylishly and pretentiously committed suicide by shooting himself in the head but was alive for 45 minutes before dying. He asked his wife for a mirror so he could watch himself die and asked her, 'Do you see the picture of Borges?'* Let it be known he also directed pop videos for U2**. Oh, he was also good-looking and had starred in a Kenneth Anger film. Film buffs adore him. Nic Roeg, on the other hand, looks like your bald uncle, retired plumber or school teacher. Though he did manage to marry steamy Theresa Russell.

Time has shown Roeg as the superior director. Donald Cammell's other films before he died were mediocre to say the least, whilst Roeg has continually pushed the limit with his imagery, cut-up editing, steamy sex scenes and Altman-like juggling of genres.

Performance (1969) starred a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) living in a basement in Notting Hill. His house is invaded by gangster on the run James Fox. Only superficially a gangster movie, it's also experimental and intellectual, and about identity, drugs and London at the end of the 1960s. Senses of Cinema say it's moving between the worlds of the Kray twins and the Rolling Stones. Full of amazing imagery, editing and music, lashings of sex and violence, Anita Pallenberg and even a not too bad performance by Mick Jagger, it's a great trip that Warner Brothers didn't know what to do with and promptly buried it whereupon it was destined to become a cult movie.

Walkabout (1971) was about as far as Roeg could go after Performance – literally. Largely filmed in the Australian outback, it told the story of two school children who go wandering in the desert and are befriended and helped by an Aborigine youth. Again, full of beautiful, mesmerising and mysterious imagery. A teenage Jenny Agutter is one of the children, and not since Helen Mirren in Age of Consent (Michael Powell, 1969) has a young woman swimming nude been so erotically observed.

The highly disturbing Don't Look Now, 1973, came next (not to be confused with Dylan's Don't Look Back). I still have nightmares about Donald Sutherland in the nude, no, I mean the evil little pixie woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. Never has Venice looked so haunting. Again, there's the extraordinary imagery, narrative-slicing editing and explicit sex scenes. This was followed by The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), starring another rock star, David Bowie, as an alien who lands on earth. Once again noticeable for its amazing, surreal imagery, sex scenes and a good performance by Bowie as an alien (he didn't need to act). Roeg would employ another musician as an actor on his next film Bad Timing (1980) – Art Garfunkel, with more lashings of sex and narrative splitting-editing.

His output has declined since the 1980s (though he made three films in 1995), and Puffball (2007) is the only film he's made in the 00s. He had a retrospective of his work at the Riverside studios in Hammersmith in 2008.

*A reference to a scene in Performance where Jagger is shot in the head and the bullet travels through to reveal a picture of blind Argentinian writer Jean Luis Borges.

** Cult directors last films can be disappointing. Sam Peckinpah's last piece of movie making was a pop promo for Julian Lennon.


Wolfgang said...

I'm thrilled to see Nicolas Roeg top any list of British directors - he simply is best British director since Hitchcock (who is curiously omitted here). One criminal oversight is your failure to include John Schlesinger - surely Billy Liar, Darling and Midnight Cowboy count for something? You can't have it all I suppose. Still great to see Roeg nab number 1 though, he has been overshadowed by lesser talents (particularly Cammell) for far too long.

Barnaby said...

I guess my criteria for the list was Brit directors who had largely worked within the UK (though I realise Roeg moved around a bit). Is it unfair to dismiss Hitchcock's British films as 'minor'? John Schlesinger (who directed Far From the Madding Crowd, for which Roeg did the cinematography for), likewise, made his most well-known films in the States, though to tell the truth I find most of his stuff rather mawkish. I've just remembered Alan Clarke and Stephen Frears though, I'll have to consign them to 'bubbling under'.

Glad you like Roeg!