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Fiction vs. Reality in the Films of Michael Winterbottom

Written by Jim Holden.

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British cinema has been associated for a long time with realism, and therefore with ideas of the 'real'. From the documentary realism of the nineteen thirties to the kitchen-sink dramas of the early sixties and seventies and beyond, British cinema has been proud to be known for showing the gritty, hard-working side of cinema. But now, in the postmodern twenty-first century, can there be such a thing? Can the British films show ‘true’, ‘honest’ folk of the real world without appearing to be twee pastiche? I believe that one way in which it is now possible is shown by the films of Michael Winterbottom.

Winterbottom is a filmmaker who embraces the new whilst not forgetting the past. His filmography is an eclectic mixture of styles, spanning postmodern pop culture, period dramas, politics and borderline-porn. What this great variation means is that Winterbottom, as a British director, is something of an enigma. A passionate, relevant filmmaker who relishes moving from genre to genre and style to style, Winterbottom’s films present a problem for anyone looking to make an auteur of him.

It is not just that he moves between genres, but the themes of his films are also widely diverse. Winterbottom confronts many different issues with in his work, the majority of which are very personal to him. He himself has said that, “I don’t think there has to be a strategy: whatever seems the most interesting story at that moment is what you should try and make”. This gives the impression that Winterbottom will make any film of any kind, as long as he has some personal interest in the project. As his films jump from genre to genre, so too does the ground shift within the individual films. The majority of his films blend genres within themselves, but it has become more apparent in his more recent features. We can also see emerging in the films of the last few years, however, perhaps something of a guiding principle that goes beyond merely “whatever takes my fancy”.

Real sex in <i>9 Songs</i>
Real sex in 9 Songs
9 Songs (2004) is an intriguing film in Winterbottom’s career, as it is - at least on the surface - unlike anything he (or anyone else for that matter) has attempted before. Thematically, the film is a love story of sorts, but it is also a portrait of sexuality, borderline pornography (all the sex in the film is real), and a musical to boot. The music in the film is an integral part of the narrative, and the film as a whole. Not only do the two main protagonists meet at a music venue, but each of the tracks used represents or alludes to the characters’ state of mind or current feelings about their relationship. It is an interesting way of bringing songs into the story and to make them become part of the film. This technique is a bold move from Winterbottom, and he creates a raw, contemporary, realist look at love - even though a lack of believable drama or characterization does ultimately let the film down.

The use of live music in 9 Songs is something that was used to a different effect in 24 Hour Party People (2002), a semi-biography of Tony Wilson, who helped create the Manchester music scene in the late nineteen seventies. The film is full of live performances as well as music clearly playing an important role in the film in general. Apart from the use of live music in these two films, what 9 Songs also shares with 24 Hour Party People is an engagement with the idea of the ‘real world’. Although 24 Hour Party People plays more self-consciously on this, there is a common thread here - one that also runs through many of Winterbottom’s other films. 9 Songs is an attempt to capture, through snap-shots, a real love story. By focussing only on the music and the couple having sex, Winterbottom shows the audience his two lovers doing the things that really do occur in all relationships but are usually left out of cinematic romances: instead of fading out when the couple fall into bed, we see their lovemaking in detail; instead of having the latest Hip New Band merely strumming away inconsequentially in the background of a party scene, we watch the numbers in full, with the focus that real people really give to live music.

Considine and Coogan as Gretton and Wilson in <i>24 Hour Party People</i>
Considine and Coogan as Gretton and Wilson in 24 Hour Party People
What 24 Hour Party People creates is an account of a true story, but told in a knowing, postmodern way. It is the story of Tony Wilson told by Wilson himself. He, apart from being a character is also the narrator of the film, and he frequently steps out of the narrative to tell the audience some information directly to camera. Not only that, but by the way Steve Coogan plays Wilson, the audience is often aware that this is Coogan’s own interpretation of him. What all of this means is that when watching the film, we are aware that it is based on a true story, but also that we are watching a fictionalized, filmic version of that story. In the hilarious opening scene Coogan, as Wilson, has just been hang-gliding and casually addresses the camera head-on to say:

“You’re going to be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film. Although that did actually happen, obviously it’s symbolic - it works on both levels. I don’t want to tell you too much, don’t want to spoil the film, but I’ll just say ‘Icarus’. If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t, it doesn’t mater. But you should probably read more…”

What Winterbottom sets up here is the playful nature of the story about to unfold. By having Wilson as a guide throughout the film, it does make it fantastical, in terms of traditional film, but it also creates a level of intimacy and authenticity to the story, that draws you in and makes the story seem completely true.

This idea of blurring the real and the fantasy of cinema is a key theme in Winterbottom’s work. In a similar vein to 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story (2005) blurs the real and the imaginary-real. But by a reverse approach to 24 Hour Party People in this film it is the segments with the actors playing themselves that it is the realist part of the film. Based on Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. , the film follows both a line of straight adaptation as well as a fictional behind-the-scenes look at how this literary adaptation is being put together. In this part of the film, many actors play variations of themselves, playing on their screen personas, therefore giving the audience a ‘realist’, but fictionalized, look at movie stars at work. This, in terms of A Cock and Bull Story is presented as real, but, the audience is also aware that this is a fictional account. The actors, particularly the well-known Coogan, are playing exaggerated variations of themselves, therefore making these segments of the film virtually as fictitious as the rest. It is done in this way to create a fictional real: the audience knows it is staged, but are led to believe, because they are watching Steve Coogan playing ‘Steve Coogan’, that this is the truth and the real.

Coogan and Brydon as themselves in <i>A Cock and Bull Story</i>
Coogan and Brydon as themselves in A Cock and Bull Story
What 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs and A Cock and Bull Story all do is attempt to create one element of the film as the real. 9 Songs tries to show an ordinary and therefore real relationship, but the film's true realism comes from the live concerts, as these concerts really took place, on a particular day and with a famous band. Although 24 Hour Party People also shows much live music, these are faked recreations of real gigs, and the real in the film therefore comes from the true story of Tony Wilson (complete with acknowledgments of the points at which the events depicted do consciously stray into rock 'n roll legend). Similarly, A Cock and Bull Story shows an interpretation of the real (the making of the film), but one that is completely fictitious. It is thus real in a postmodern sense, as it assumes the viewer knows they are watching fiction, but makes it as real as possible, so much so that these two opposites virtually collide and become one.

Winterbottom therefore creates, because of the realist techniques and tendencies in his work, a conscious lack of sentimentality. Although, as the critic Robert Murphy points out, “a lack of sentimentality makes his films seem difficult and harsh”, I feel this harshness adds to the level of the real in his work. 9 Songs, for example, is difficult to watch since it appears to be so voyeuristic, but this is to add to the level of intimacy and authenticity between the couple and to show the relative truth of the relationship. Similarly, 24 Hour Party People is not sentimental, or even very nostalgic, about the period it presents, because it does not need to be. It instead shows, a fictional account of a real event, meaning there is no need for sentiment, because the audience is aware that they are watching a film that is self-consciously blurring boundaries.

This technique of blurring themes and levels of reality is key to unlocking Winterbottom's films. Going hand in hand with the idea of realism and fantasy combining is the interlocking and dissolving of fact and fiction. Winterbottom’s films In This World (2002), Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and The Road to Guantanamo (2006) are all politically motivated and socially aware portraits based of real events. Although The Road to Guantanamo is partly a conventional documentary, and partly a fictionalized drama, it is in the same vain as the other two films, and is even more politically motivated, as it follows the actual story of some of real the victims of Guantanamo Bay’s approach to the ‘War on Terror’, with the real people themselves appearing throughout.

Real world problems in <I>In This World</i>
Real world problems in In This World
In This World is a perfect example of Winterbottom’s approach to themes, as it blurs the real and the fantastic, the fact and the fiction, and the idea of narrative and documentary filmmaking. It also taps into an another recurring theme of Winterbottom’s, that of the need for social awareness. In This World follows two young Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan and are trying to reach London, by using the aid of people-smugglers. Shot on digital video with a very small crew, the film looks and feels like a documentary, aided by the use of non-professional actors. The film, although an entertaining and moving insight into people-smuggling, is also a primarily political work, and raises many issues surrounding asylum seekers and the terrible choices they are forced to make. It also subversively places the audience firmly on the side of Jamal and Enayat, the two young asylum seekers, as the story is told from their perspective.

In a career that seems to so forcefully deny continuity, the idea of the real is, for Winterbottom, a clearly recurring theme. The postmodern theorist Fredrick Jameson once wrote, “it no longer seems possible to present the ‘real’ interests of people or a class.” This is something that Winterbottom’s films do frequently present, though they do so in a manner that does not ever pretend to be anything other than filmed events - be they of ‘real people’ or actors. He does not present the true real but a cinematic fictional version of the real. This may be a postmodern tendency, but it is one that does give - at the very least - a glimpse of the real in his fictional films.

This article was published on November 21, 2006.