In January 2010, Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the first in several stops on the festival circuit before its theatrical release in June of that year. With a cast including three mid-level American stars (Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba) and, by the director’s accustomed standards, a reasonably large budget, it managed to acquire more than the usual critical “buzz” a Winterbottom film would expect. For, although recognised as a filmmaker who felt no loyalty to a single film genre, this was Winterbottom’s first true foray into the mode of film noir and, as somebody whose films had been characteristically located in cities and terrain across the globe in periods past, present and future, The Killer Inside Me was set in the distinctive 1950s southwest United States. Additionally, the director’s previous efforts at adaptation had favoured high-end, British literature as source material; this time, he was working from a screenplay based on a novel by that most hard-boiled of pulp-fiction writers, Jim Thompson. This was a project fertile for critical discussion but, with some intelligent exceptions, such intriguing aspects were subsumed by the film’s depictions of violence, reigniting decades-old debates and tainting its release in controversy. A lukewarm critical response did not aid its fortunes and its middling box-office performance hastened the end of its theatrical run.
Perhaps rehashing tired arguments about screen violence is an easier route to locate the discussion of The Killer Inside Me than considering many of the more interesting features of the film and its director, but for Winterbottom it should have been expected, as he has long fallen into the too-hard basket for a sustained critical analysis. One might say that he is a victim of certain prejudices that characterise the critical worth of particular filmmakers: that they should be readily identifiable with a national cinema; that they confine themselves to close planes on the genre spectrum; that their films are irregularly rationed as events to be celebrated; and, most importantly, that they are recognisable products of a sole creator, imbued with the director’s ongoing concerns and stylistic approach, creating a coherent body of work for evaluation. This is not Winterbottom and nor does he wish it to be.
Tellingly, The Killer Inside Me does not feature in Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams’ book devoted to the director. Indeed the authors muse in their introduction that “at his production rate, he will likely have completed a further two or three films, probably set in daunting locations, as the book is being readied for the printers” (p. 1). The approximation is a near-accurate one: since the book’s text was written, Winterbottom has completed and released the features Genova (2008) and the aforementioned The Killer Inside Me; he has co-directed the documentary The Shock Doctrine (2009, with Mat Whitecross): and, at the time of this review, is preparing for the screening of his six-episode television series The Trip (2010). Currently he is shooting Seven Days, a production that will be filmed intermittently over five years. Few filmmakers are as prolific as Michael Winterbottom – even those toiling away in the exploitation ghetto rarely maintain such a hectic pace. Yet one wonders if such a workrate has devalued Winterbottom in critical opinion. For rather than treating his latest film as an unmissable event, one is aware that, like missing the proverbial bus, another will be along in a short time. In other words, although the director is appreciated, he and his work are not considered crucial elements in cinema culture.
McFarlane and Williams have, in Michael Winterbottom, attempted to redress this ongoing critical prejudice. The sixteenth in Manchester University Press’ British Film Makers series, it is only the third to deal with a still-working director and (with all due respect to Terence Davies and Mike Leigh) the only entry to focus on a filmmaker with the (hopefully) lengthier section of his filmography still to come.
So Michael Winterbottom is an exploration of a career, an artistry and a sensibility at a moment in time and, trickily, of a filmmaker who dismisses outright the notion of the director being the sole creator of a work. The first chapter, “Authorship”, sets the tone of analytical methodology to follow, by largely admitting that Winterbottom’s oeuvre poses difficulties for those undertaking traditional approaches to authorship. An interview extract is included in which the director not only rejects the need to be seen as an auteur, but believes he is liberated as a filmmaker by not adhering to its precepts. He is a strong believer in the collaborative process and one not bound by any dictum of needing “to make the same film over and over again” (p. 12). It is a forceful and compelling statement and the presence of such an attitude possibly negates any serious study of Winterbottom within the traditional framework of auteurist theory. As a result, the importance of the collaborative process is recognised early and his collaborators identified, their names many in number. But this rather tentative opening chapter then proceeds to discuss his key influences, beginning with a list of favoured art house directors then a pair of key movements in post-war cinema. Reading as a shopping list of shared tropes, stylistics and concerns, these brief, potted summaries may seem reaching but, in a chapter dealing with authorship, they assume the qualities of forensic evidence, necessary to at least locate the director within something resembling a loose framework of traditions and sensibilities. The sifted pieces, combined with a careful study of his films (using 2004’s 9 Songs as the exemplar of the director’s particular fascinations: the “sites” of the street and the body), culminate in the authors refuting the claim that Winterbottom displays little thematic continuity throughout his work. If the auteurist “fingerprints” have not been comprehensively discovered, at least these recurrent concerns provide the foundations for further discussion.
McFarlane and Williams leave the frameworks of traditional auteurist theory aside and for the remainder of the study attempt to locate and discuss Winterbottom’s work within more flexible contexts of analysis. The subsequent chapters group individual films under several filters of study: traditions of realism, literary adaptation and conventions of genre. With the exception of 24 Hour Party People (2002) (which is briefly discussed as a realist film then, at length, in its relation to the film musical), there is little overlap in the chapters, which can be quite liberating, allowing for a focused approach on each text. Occasionally, one chapter subject will find itself explored in another, as a Winterbottom film will often require, such as The Claim (2001) which is Thomas Hardy adaptation reworked as a American western.
These are the most successful sections of the book, with each following a similar structure: the form or context is explained, its traditional history is laid out and appropriate works of the director discussed. Augmented with movements, films and filmmakers that were noted in the first chapter for comparison and contrast, the theme is developed and finally concluded. This allows for some interesting alignments: Winterbottom’s realist traditions with those of Roberto Rossellini; The Claim on common ground with Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); his Hardy adaptations against the Merchant Ivory tradition; and Code 46 (2003) sharing science fiction concerns with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). Apart from some inspired analysis, this selection (and there are many more) shows the eclectic cast of characters and works that fall into Winterbottom’s orbit.
Yet the approach of individual case studies occasionally overlooks some aspects. Naturally the playful self-referentiality of A Cock and Bull Story is well covered as Winterbottom questions the very notions of authorship and the filmmaking (and film viewing) process. This seemed almost the logical conclusion after some acknowledged similar mischief in his other Steve Coogan vehicle, 24 Hour Party People. Yet 2006’s The Road to Guantamamo, with its use of documentary interviews and dramatic recreations, also blurs the lines between the real and the imagined, albeit with far more dramatic intent. A chapter alone on the filmmaker’s flirtations with postmodernism would have found ample material to work with. The chapter “Melodrama, Sex, Beaches and Other Interests” rounds up his less inclusive works but still finds homes for them within the Winterbottom oeuvre. One such film, Go Now (1995), has its relationship to British realism acknowledged, but it is primarily discussed in relation to its use of the melodramatic form. Having already traced his realist roots back to Rossellini and European forms via a circumvention of the modern British tradition, Go Now appears orphaned. However, upon its first release (when no one was to know of his career trajectory) the director was seen by many viewers as another member of the loose fraternity of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and co. Branching out in broader directions has left Go Now as an odd duck in his filmography, but its then-sense of belonging to a particular form of British cinema should not be cast aside in light of his future realistic dispositions.
These are minor quibbles for discussing the work of a most difficult subject. The concluding chapter pays attention to the industrial side of Winterbottom and his production company, Revolution Films. Skating across the subject as almost an afterthought, this story is worthy of its own thorough study: somehow, Winterbottom and his producing partner have managed to create a unique business model. Without relying on either the drip-feed of government assistance or (with some exceptions) the backing of Hollywood capital, they find the finance to complete at least a film per year without any of them being a major box-office success or a favourite of the critical consensus. At a time when the likes of Lynne Ramsay and Terence Davies struggle to bring their visions to the screen and many fear for the future of the British film industry with the recent abolition of the UK Film Council, the Winterbottom economic model is unique in its success. Although this most intriguing aspect of the Winterbottom career is, along with any comprehensive biographical detail, paid minimal attention in this book, one can see how an in-depth discussion would have been an uncomfortable fit with the authors’ critical approach. For a willing publisher, this remains an ideal story to be told.
Although it is a brief volume (of its 152 pages, 24 comprise a generously comprehensive filmography and index), Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams’ Michael Winterbottom is a worthy addition to Manchester University Press’ essential British Film Makers series. For although it may seem among the less assured and complete entries, it has taken the most difficult and elusive of subjects and grounded him within a framework of ideas. With hopefully a long career of surprising choices ahead, one would hope that the authors revisit Winterbottom’s work in years to come to see how their chosen critical approaches evolve and develop in conjunction with an ever-expanding filmography. And if this is their final say on the director, they have provided a crucial foundation for future scholars confident enough to also take on this subject.
Michael Winterbottom, by Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2009.