The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom

English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom celebrates his 58th birthday today. He directed his first film in 1993 and has been a prolific filmmaker ever since, directing 29 movies in less than three decades.

The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom Source : Revolution Films

The border and its transgression is a recurrent motif in Winterbottom's work. It brings together formal and thematic properties of the work with a sympathetic and appropriate critical framing in its examination of the political aesthetics of the films. Intimacy is the figure through which these films-Go Now (1995), The Trip (2010), Code 46 (2003), 9 Songs (2004), Butterfly Kiss (1995) and The Killer Inside Me (2010) explore the borders between individuals and the variously violent, intense, moving and erotic transgression of these boundaries.

The over-determined relationship between nation and cinematic genre is discussed in With or Without You (1999), Jude (1996), The Claim (2000), A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and 24-Hour Party People (2002). Winterbottom's films interrogate and trouble the borders between genres and the destabilizing effect this has on the conceptual integrity of regional and national borders and of a bounded national culture represented in and constituted by such genres as the heritage or costume film.

The depictions of the War on Terror in Winterbottom's work examines the way in which anxieties about national border security in response to economic and political migration and the spectacular terrorist attacks of September 2001 shaped policy and international relations as well as the thematic preoccupations of popular film and television. Through an analysis of The Shock Doctrine (2009), In this World (2002), A Mighty Heart (2007) and The Road to Guantánamo (2006), this chapter explores the ways in which Winterbottom's films offer an alternative perspective on the narration of the War on Terror and its ramifications within news media and popular culture, inviting us to consider both the potential and the limitations of politically critical cinema.

The characteristic features of Michael Winterbottom's films is a self-conscious and sophisticated attention to the film image as well as to the mediating processes of contemporary culture. Rather than simply adopting and refining the formal and narrative conventions of mainstream film and television, this body of work displays a restless, playfully heterogeneous and experimental audio-visual style in its representation of this world (as well as a variety of fictional and dystopian worlds such as the technologically advanced and socially unequal future depicted in Code 46).

As one reviewer writes, ‘Cinematic realism embraces an abundance of styles and production methods; Michael Winterbottom seems determined to try them all'. In working through the formal and technical permutations available to filmmakers, Winterbottom's films make visible the dominant aesthetic conventions of contemporary film and television not from the oppositional perspective of a Godardian ‘counter-cinema', but from the financially precarious, semi-independent position of a director working on the margins of mainstream commercial cinema.

This stylistic promiscuity is not gratuitous or empty - although it is sometimes deployed lightly and to ambiguous or comic effect - but that it is a sign that Winterbottom and his collaborators are casting around for modes of expression that are adequate and appropriate to the themes explored in the films. I suggest that Winterbottom's work demonstrates a consistent concern with the political potential of popular film. This concern has perhaps been most evident in the recent sequence of films that have depicted the consequences of the global War on Terror conducted by the US and its allies: In This World, The Road to Guantánamo and A Mighty Heart.

With his focus upon characters caught at the uncomfortable borders between social classes, nations, regions, cultures, and bodies, or in the heterotopic spaces of prisons and internment camps, the majority of Winterbottom's films depict spaces, landscapes, relationships and individuals that are largely peripheral to mainstream cinema. In this respect his work follows in a certain tradition of (British) realist cinema which turned the camera lens towards working-class communities and experience, but what makes the films of Michael Winterbottom a valuable and challenging focus for thinking through the relationship between politics and contemporary cinema, is the distinctive ways in which they are preoccupied with transnational régimes of visibility.

A number of his films are difficult to locate in generic terms, borrowing elements from different types of film with 9 Songs perhaps the most radical example in its matter-of-fact collision of explicitly sexual art cinema with the concert documentary (although, there is a logic to this abutment of classes of film since both genres similarly offer spectators the thrill of vicarious participation through the appearance of documentary authenticity). I Want You (1998), meanwhile, is shot like an American neo-noir film from the 1980s or early 1990s with chiaroscuro lighting, non-naturalistic colour filters and a vivid colour scheme dominated by saturated reds, yellows, blues and greens.
Spaces and characters are colour-coded and many shots are almost monochromatic. Schematically, this story of fatal love, violence and Oedipal desires, a femme fatale and a love-struck dupe in the context of a small town corresponds well to the framework of the neo-noir film. Winterbottom is working in a place where it is not easy to make films. Now, with digital he has been able forego his long preparation, brief shoot format and improvise more at the same time.

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Reference: The cinema of Michael Winterbottom, Bruce Bennett, 2014.

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