British Bleakism

British Bleakism is, according to me (ahem), a discrete if not unofficial movement or style within film and TV that is unique to British filmmakers who have a knack for crafting stories that are unrelentingly bleak, dire, doom-laden, and make you feel humanity is doomed, or the human species as a whole is a vile aberration that should’ve been corrected by Nature at some point

A film steeped in this viewpoint in immutable; no editing can change its tone, no music can reduce its potent message of we-all-suck, and no sequel could bring closure because the images and sounds in said Bleak film are far too impressionable. Once you see the lowest moments of the low, it just won’t leave the mind.

A pioneer in this unofficial movement, at least in fiction, was Michael Reeves, whose Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) is an angry, depressing drama of the sadistic urges that can’t be expunged from human DNA. It begins with a scream, and ends with a scream, and life sucks. End of directorial statement.

(One could argue the same goes for torture porn and sado-porn genres, but in rare cases, those genres work with banal archetypes tailored to the young male market, and any drama is manifested by an obsessive detail by the filmmakers on prolonged physical torment that’s heavily sexualized, if not fetishized.)

In the documentary form, British Bleakism probably reached a major artistic high point when a spate of anti-nuclear films emerged during the 1980s, or more specifically after 1982, when Dr. Helen Caldicott told us how we would die slowly from nuclear radiation after a bomb blast in the Oscar-winning short documentary, If You Love This Planet.

This stark NFB film would’ve made the perfect companion piece to our review of Threads (1984), the BBC’s answer to the American’s anti-nuclear TV drama, The Day After (1983), but it’s unfortunately unavailable on DVD (a HIGHLY common problem with most NFB works, if not Canadian films), and my copy, taped from TV when it aired in the eighties, is on VHS tape No. 35, which is currently in deep storage among 2000 other tapes that can only be accessed with a mighty pick ax and flashlight.

That doesn’t upset the context of our review, though, because Threads is very much a companion piece to Peter Watkins' brilliant 1965 docu-drama, The War Game, which won an Oscar for Best Short Documentary in spite of being banned by the BBC.

I actually made a point to avoid Threads (24 years, ahem) because it was reported to be utterly, utterly depressing (it is), and although I did tape it when it had a rare airing in Canada in the eighties, after peeking at the final scene and all that bloody matter, I taped over it.

Folly? Indeed, because while Threads did get a VHS release in North America, it’s only available on DVD in the U.K. It’s as though no one here wants to touch it because it’s still a hot potato of bleakism.

So we’ve reviewed the Region 2 DVD of Threads, as well as Peter Watkins’ The War Game, which comes paired with his superb 1963 anti-war docu-drama, Culloden, from Project X/New Yorker Video. The anti-nuclear films are uniquely British in the way the filmmakers perforate governmental myths, myopia, and absurdities, although their messages are still very much relevant.

Eventually we’ll also cover further British nuclear-themed documentaries and dramas, but for the time being, I think I need a small break from the subject, because British Bleakism is arguably more depressing than a five-film Ingmar Bergman marathon.

Go ahead, you try it.


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Derbecker said...

You could dig up a copy of ZPG if you want to see British post-apocalypse (or at least distopia) portrayed so badly as to be laughable. It might help.

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