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Speaker spotlight - Professor Justin Smith

Professor Justin Smith from the University of Portsmouth explores the medium of film ahead of his discussion following the screening of the cult classic, The Wicker Man (1973) – presented by Reproduction on Film as part of the history of science, religion, sex and reproduction.

CSF: What is it about the moving image – be it film or TV – that fascinates you?

JS: It is like space exploration. The moving image provides evidence of life in other worlds that look remarkably like our own. It grants us the illusion that we can know what it’s like to be someone else. It feeds that desire. Film is, above all, a medium of desire.

CSF: How has film and TV defined our culture historically and in the present day?

JS: Film was the foremost audio-visual medium of the first half of the 20th century, enjoying unrivalled and unsurpassed popularity. It sold dreams very cheaply. TV was the dominant medium of the second half of the 20th century. It sold audiences to advertisers. The digital revolution has changed both media and their institutions dramatically. We are living through these changes now. One potential outcome is the end of something called public service broadcasting.

CSF: What are the primary elements that make something popular or a cult classic? Do other sections of society have an influence on audience enjoyment, eg politics, education, religion, etc?

JS: That which is popular must have universal general appeal. If that appeal endures it becomes a popular classic. That which is cult has an unusually powerful appeal to certain groups or individuals, which accords it a paradoxical sub-cultural cachet. Often it is, contrarily, unpopular, although cult classics seldom remain as unpopular as cult fans would like.

CSF: In the past century, which films and TV series do you think have had a major influence on our cultural identity?

CSF: This very much depends on the measure of influence. If popularity is the criterion then we might suggest: Gone with the Wind, Dr Who, Star Wars, The Simpsons.  In terms of a film’s ability to effect changes in attitudes perhaps Casablanca, All The President’s Men, Roots, Shawshank Redemption.

CSF: How does the British film industry differ from others? And makes British films quintessentially British?

JS: It makes films for no money. Yet the best writers, directors, actors and technicians mean that it often punches above its weight. Because the British industry has suffered from a lack of infrastructural investment for decades, it has produced, against the odds, some remarkable one-off successes. And perhaps its creative talent has enjoyed a greater freedom to innovate – to make small films that matter, rather than blockbusters that sometimes don’t. As a former head of Film4 put it, ‘We do what Holly wouldn’t’.  

CSF: Why do you think that is?

JS: It’s because British cinema has always been cursed by sharing a common language with Hollywood whose films have always been more popular with British audiences. If they spoke Spanish in the USA it might all have been very different.

CSF: What do you think The Wicker Man is about? Are there deeper meanings?

JS: It’s an elaborate conceit – a quest narrative with a tragic structure, a comic carnival of characters, and a cod-mythology of Pagan symbolism. Its resonance is two-fold. Firstly, the only character who doesn’t know it’s a joke is the tragic hero himself – a policeman who is made a ritual sacrifice; Edward Woodward’s performance in the death scene remains shockingly powerful.  Secondly, the film traded on the contemporary counter-culture for whom alternative religion, hedonism and anarchy held equally attractive, if implausible, sway. 

CSF: Finally, which is your favourite film of all time? You can only choose one.

JS: Withnail & I. There are plenty of films that make me laugh just as much, but Richard E. Grant’s closing soliloquy from Hamlet never fails to make me cry. As a fan once told me, ‘It’s about those who fit in, and those who don’t’, (Withnail, that is, not Hamlet).