When viewed in retrospect, the vast and versatile oeuvre of British director James Scott (b. 1941), the son of the famous abstract painter William Scott and sculptor Mary Scott, may be best described as a body of work that keeps developing over time. Often interwoven with the social and formal conflicts and contradictions of the times in which they were created, together the films establish a unified artistic expression and reveal a director of exceptional perception and skill. As his first film The Rocking Horse dates from 1962, Scott’s work stands as a mirror to the continuously changing cinematic landscape and its artistic debates, consisting out of documentary work (he made Love’s Presentation  together with a young David Hockney), short films (for A Shocking Accident  he won an Academy Award and an Oscar in 1983), television (he directed the Inspector Morse episode “The Last Enemy” in 1989), and fiction narrative features.
Scott’s work is mostly unknown to a younger audience and relatively under-appreciated in the Anglophile cinematic world. While he deserves the proper recognition for his rich oeuvre, it is difficult to identify a particular style to the whole of Scott’s work since it is characterised by eclecticism and fragmentation. There is a certain self-awareness inherent to his practice. This is predominantly rooted in his desire to connect with the spectator and it ultimately creates a greater freedom of interpretation. It allows his films to transcend an objective representation of an experience, and thus to convey a more comprehensible “truth” deeply connected to the real. As a result, his cinema is simultaneously dismantling the essence of cinema – while at the same time revealing its very core, as cinema moves into a disorientating and fragmented centre.
Scott’s earlier films, that he made when he still lived in the United Kingdom, are particularly intertwined with the cultural tensions of the post-war British society and take in an important position in the development of the artistic counter-cinema that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Take for example his exceptional and radically different art documentaries that he made during the ‘60s with canonical artists such as David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj and Richard Hamilton, that fits within the emergence of a cinema subculture that created an artistic counter language to what was deemed traditional at that time. These documentaries are crucial works within this transition, as they are not static documentaries meant merely to entertain and simply show the artist’s work, but were made for proper artistic purposes, to enhance the artist and the artworks featured in the films’ images.
During the 1970s, together with artists such as Mary Kelly, Marc Karlin and Humphry Trevelyan, he co-founded the Berwick Street Film Collective in London – making socially engaged cinema focused on the position of the working class. Nightcleaners (1975) might be the most prominent and fundamental work produced by the collective, a political documentary portraying the campaign to unionise female nightcleaners who were underpaid. The film simultaneously identified a much broader issue surrounding the representation and inclusion of these working-class women and immigrants in the UK and laid a foundation for more engaged political documentary work. After continuing to produce and direct films throughout the 1980’s, Scott moved to Hollywood and returned to painting in 1990.
When I met James during the International Film Festival Rotterdam at the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 seemed to be something far away. Now, a year later, our lives have changed dramatically and our contact is reduced to email. James: “We were beginning to hear about the first cases of COVID-19 in China at this time in January. Since then, it has spread around the world and turned life upside down. Life is hard, but the pandemic is forcing us to reassess our lives in a positive way. New forms of communicating, of working and of relating to each other. New priorities.”
After you stopped making use of cinema in 1990, before returning to the medium in 2002, what made you decide to return again to the medium of film now?
My last feature film, Loser Takes All based on the novel by Graham Greene with John Gielgud, Robert Lindsay, and Molly Ringwald, was distributed by Harvey Weinstein through Miramax in 1988. He attempted to insert himself as creative producer, behaving like a thug and throwing his weight around. I refused to let him do this and as revenge he backed out of his distribution agreement, threatened me with lawsuits, and finally re-cut, re-filmed and re-scored the music, destroying three years of my work and turning it into a slight romantic comedy. Apart from that he bad-mouthed me in the industry and made it impossible for me to get work or finance new projects. At the time I was not aware of him as a sexual predator and he did not sexually harass Molly (see New Yorker reference). But when I learned about the allegations of rape many years later, his criminal behaviour did not surprise me. Later in Los Angeles, in 1991, I painted a large, raw, double portrait of Bob and Harvey, with the title Brothers.
But I never stopped making use of cinema. After having my career virtually terminated by Weinstein, I took a studio in Santa Monica and began to paint. Painting opened up brain cells and nervous connections that had been dormant for many years and soon I began to work on a theme titled The Last of England, based on the famous painting by Ford Madox Brown that was painted in 1855. It depicts a young couple with their baby, emigrants about to depart from England for Australia. I explored the psychological state of becoming a US immigrant and leaving England, the country that had been my home for over forty years. But during this time, I was never without a movie camera and began to build up a library of footage. Returning to my roots, I began to follow one of my early influences, Stan Brakhage, and particularly his film Window Water Baby Moving (1959). In 1995, my third child Paloma was born and while filming her birth I also discovered a rebirth of my own love of cinema. As my Last of England painting and sculptures proceeded, I began to conceive of a film that connected my graphic and sculptural work with my film footage.
Looking back, how do you think cinema changed over the years that you have been active as an artist? The conversation surrounding art has changed drastically since the 1960s – did the perception of art change?
Cinema changed in many ways as did all the visual arts. Chiefly, the debate which had dominated the post-war period, abstraction vs realism lost its relevance. The new issues revolved around the status of subject matter, and post-modernism. Linguistics, and politics now became part of the debate around conceptualism. My first films about art and artists took up this theme since most of the artists had become famous for pop-art, the reworking of advertising, media, and Hollywood.
And to add another contradiction, I have always felt that the element of entertainment in cinema was, like poetry or beauty, an essential factor that could not be forgotten. In a word, emotion, the direct appeal to the heart and to the senses. It is the humanity of the subjects, be they workers or cleaners or artists, that is of paramount importance.
Do you think realism and entertainment are fundamentally different?
Realism has always been an essential element in my work. My early love of the work of experimental filmmakers such as Brakhage, Warhol and Buñuel testify to that. I believe that “realism” is not static, but a question of perception. It is an active thing. It is a process where viewer and film stand in direct relation to each other, participating and setting up a feedback loop creating the “reality” together. It is for this reason that cinema has such an incredible potential to reach out and create change both socially and within the individual. Bringing joy and touching a person’s heart is the essence of that reality. It opens up the viewer to the full power of their own imagination, their own possibility and thereby it becomes a healer and a changer of the paradigm.
Do you believe these radical possibilities of film, that a work of art, could be described as realist, no matter how experimental, if it helped audiences to grasp reality in any way?
Sadly, the reverse of this role is when films become simply consumer objects working on the level of “spectacle”, of shock and awe. In this mode, films become “product”. Ideas and stories become a bland indistinguishable “content”. The size of the budget is its only measure. Two, three, four hundred million. Its success confirmed by its gross receipts. Production values, spectacular effects, extreme violence, define its message. Although violence is a reality in life, the representation of violence in blockbuster cinema often becomes simply an exploitation of fear and anxiety. This is a cinema where realism is never possible. Where healing and intimacy are denied. Where the spectator becomes an alienated statistic, stunned by extremes.
When we were talking about Catherine Breillat together at IFFR, I realised she is doing something in film which I have always wanted to approach but never managed to successfully find a way to do so. Namely, how to show violence as well as sexual passion without being just exploitative. So many films are violent or contain scenes of sexual passion which I find awkward or uncomfortable and yet violence and sex and love and passion are so central to all stories and to cinema. In my first film, The Rocking Horse, it is the story of a one-night love affair between a biker and an art student which ends with the biker slashing the canvas where the artist is painting herself and the biker together. He then leaves her. And in my first feature, Adult Fun, there are some violent scenes too. But I always question how the audience relates to seeing violence on the screen and in many ways the negativity of that is sometimes self-defeating as far as communicating to an audience. I always am looking for an expression of hope, and bringing a smile to a person’s face can be profound.
In relation to the question above, do you think you managed to change cinema or push it to evolve in another direction? You were of course one of the founders of the Berwick Street Film Collective, that formed a radical deviation from traditional filmmaking in the UK during the 1960s. Do you look on that time period differently now?
It was always my ambition to challenge the mainstream cinema of the day. The fact that films such as Nightcleaners, Love’s Presentation, Richard Hamilton (1969), are still playing today over 50 years later and are now being discussed by new young audiences, must in some way testify to their relevance to today’s cinema and to current issues as well as the past. So much has changed in half a century, and yet in some ways, so little. Of course, technologically, it was a completely different time, yet emotionally and politically very little has changed. And as our generation looked to the pioneers of cinema that came before us and applied that knowledge and experience to the issues of the day that then confronted us, it is my hope that in some way I have contributed to a generation whose work in cinema is now being carried forward. I am excited to see that this is happening and that I am still able to be a part of it.
What I find very interesting is that your latest short art documentary about Derek Boshier, Fragments, from 2020, feels so incredibly similar to your first art documentary about David Hockney, Love’s Presentation from 1966. Yet there is a time period of around 55 years in between the making of these two gems. Love’s Presentation was shot on actual film, while Fragments was shot on an iPhone. Do you think that the medium you shoot with dictates a certain style or pushes you to work in another way?
What you say makes me think of the phrase “to go full circle”. Towards the end of our lives we come back to concerns that we had when we were starting out. When I began the Boshier film, using my iPhone, I did not think of it as anything very special or different. It was as though I had only made my last film yesterday. Yet in the period between my first film, The Rocking Horse (1962) and Fragments, there is almost 60 years. And in that period I have made documentaries, political films, films on artists, independent feature films, TV films and dramatic films as well as comedy films. I have edited, written, produced, directed and worked with actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Rupert Everett. Natasha Richardson, Molly Ringwald, John Gielgud and a host of others. Sometimes I feel that the revolution in technology with the advent of digital media has at once made it easier, but in some ways, too easy.
To answer the last part of your question more specifically, the ease, the lightness, the sensitivity of the iPhone made it possible to directly enter into the actual artistic process. Following the artist’s thoughts in real time, following Boshier’s hand, his brush, his pencil, as though the camera itself was directly taking the artist’s thoughts and inscribing them onto the film, was like participating directly in the actual moment of creation. I think this is the essence of what I have, as a filmmaker, been trying to capture over all these years. There is something utterly unique in the way the human creative process functions, be it within an artist, a scientist, a poet, a mathematician, an actor or a musician. The way that the human brain takes the raw data and comes up with an idea. I think that this is so remarkable and almost incomprehensible that it is the one thing that through all my years I keep coming back to. It leaves me with a sense of wonder and awe. In the face of adversity in life, social, economic, the forces of nature, the spirit of human survival is unfathomable. To enter into this with the tools that are now available is an incredible privilege. From the smallest microcosmic idea to the macro exploration of space, it is the creative function of the human brain that drives us forward. Our ingenuity can help sustain us, while equally it can destroy us. For me the manifestation of this activity in “work” itself, is sacrosanct, whether it be the work of a cleaner, a construction worker, a doctor or an entertainer. There is a kind of dignity in work. And lack of work, unemployment, is the first step towards human alienation. And that brings me full circle!
Do you believe that with advancing age and more experience, you’ve come to understand the medium of cinema better in any way?
Named ‘the Seventh Art’ at the start of the Twentieth century, I was excited by the possibilities of the medium. That it crossed boundaries from popular art, to visual art, music, performance, drama, literature to become one of the most complex and sophisticated means of expression that ever existed. I believed that cinema was the art form that would change the world. Yes, I was naive! While I truly understood that it was a popular medium and could reach a public that was far more diverse and less exclusive than any of the other arts, I failed to realise that, like any form of production in a capitalist society, its ultimate goal was to make a profit. It took me many years before I began to understand that for cinema to find its true role it would have to face this fundamental contradiction. In other words, it would have to question its very origins and identity before making a meaningful intervention or become an agent of change. Perhaps the two films of my own that began to challenge the very nature of this contradiction were Love’s Presentation, the first of a series of films with contemporary artists, later Nightcleaners, which I made with the Berwick Street Film Collective. Although diverse in subject, each film began as an intervention into an established genre. But each film had to begin by questioning the very nature of that genre in which it found itself. For example, Richard Hamilton begins with the direct statement, “I do not like art films”.
On the one hand, cinema is never static, as its meaning changes every time it is watched or placed in a different context, yet on the other hand, cinema is static in a way, because its imagery never changes. Which is interesting in relation to the idea you bring up in Love’s Representation, namely that film is similarly reproducible like the prints Hockney makes in the film. Is this part of where your fascination with cinema comes from?
My fascination with cinema is in part based upon its power to reproduce an image, a story or an emotion, endlessly. Walter Benjamin concludes his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with this sentence: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. “ And the title Love’s Presentation brings attention to the poetic form itself. At the end of the film, two young men together look out towards us (the spectators) over a gulf in time. Much as with the Richard Hamilton film, the couple in the Arnolfini portrait gaze out at us through, as Hamilton says, “not only void of space but a void of time”. And as Cornel Wilde looks at a portrait of Patricia Knight on the wall, “we cross a gap from the wall to the plane of the picture to the person examining at the picture.” For me, we are returning back to ourselves, the spectators.
In relation to reproduction and making reprints, do you think cinema makes you a witness to the decay of life – both mentally and physically – through the passing of time? As cinema is essence both beyond time, a medium that transcends the boundaries posed by the passing of time, yet simultaneously a medium that is physical and thus decays with the passing of time.
Death is the ultimate subject that we cannot deal with in art. As Oldenburg said in The Great Ice Cream Robbery (1971), “my work is about ‘death’ and that is harder to deal with than sex.” If this is what you mean by “decay” then clearly this is a strong element in much of my own work. The passing of time is in itself a living death. The act of recording life in the most straightforward and unadulterated way seems almost to be a defiance of death. Perhaps the very first photograph that records human beings, a man standing having his shoes polished in a Paris boulevard (Daguerre, 1838), is the essence of this desire to nail down something that is continually fleeting. I think of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), or even the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge or Eugène Atget.
Do you think cinema in essence can be truthful at all?
In this sense of defiance, cinema is perhaps the greatest liar. It claims the power to maintain the eternity of life. One of my early movie memories that has stayed with me all these years is the ending of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). It made an unforgettable impression on me at the time because after the intensely romantic story, the two main characters Jim and Catherine drive gaily in their car to their collective death. It is almost as though the illusion of the story was abruptly broken and another reality took precedence. Death is the unquestionable.
Cinema is a possible way to counter the loss of memories, yet it simultaneously presents a way to alter memory and time and to manipulate, because cinema is never impartial. How do you feel about this attribute of cinema now?
As in language, there must be a continual process of renewal within cinema. This is the process of poetry. Without this process of renewal, as in a marriage or a relationship, cinema can die. Possibly to be replaced by video games, the Eighth art. (In moments of crisis, such as we are now living through, “virtual reality” finds a new definition.) And, as with any form of communication, cinema can also be used to lie, obfuscate, manipulate, influence or destroy. One of the great propaganda films of all time is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). It is central to the debate between style and content. Ultimately cinema is a tool, which can be used in the service of progressive issues, or the reverse. Its message is in the hands of the filmmaker. I agree with what you say, it is never impartial. “Balance” is not an attribute of the medium.
In a text you wrote for the compilation of your work for the BFI, you mention that your art documentaries “focus on a collaboration with the artist in exploring the roots of their respective creative process” – a clear deviation from the conventional art documentaries made at the time. Do you think that your films, when placed together, reveal a similar creative process of your own art as they reveal the process of another artist simultaneously?
Very much so. I am reminded of a phrase from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “…where did thots come from…” (“thots” – Joyce spells the word “thoughts” phonetically, in the way a Dubliner would say the word). It underlines Joyce’s intense desire to discover the origins of the creative process. In so doing it points to the importance of language’s ability to contain ideas. It is the giving of names to things that in some way ropes them in and allows us to hang on and make sense of them. It links also to my interest in the work of the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, in his naming and classifying organisms, animals, plants and minerals. In some ways, I see most of my films following in this ambition. Instead of looking at an artist as an isolated piece of history with a fixed body of work, interviewing them and using the talking heads to explain the work itself, I wanted, as an artist myself, to be present on the actual journey. For the film itself to become that journey. To be a witness to “the thot” and explore from where it was coming.
One of the aims of the Tyger Burns, the 2020 IFFR program that your latest short Fragments was a part of, was to show that all the films included a similar concern, as they are all consequences of a burning desire to create that is still there. Are you currently working on something new?
I am at a point in my life where I am looking back trying to make sense of what I have contributed. Who I have touched. What I have failed to do. You are at the polar opposite setting out on a journey. Your life is in front of you. But I am blessed to say that the same burning desire to challenge and to create has never left me. I have two projects which I would say were not new, but old, because I started them both many years ago, my film on Antoni Tàpies and the second part of Every Picture Tells a Story (1984), the film about my father. A third project is new which is Vanishing Point. It is the six- hour, three-part document that I began in 2009 and now want to compress into a two-hour, three-screen installation.