Change of spots

12th May 1995 at 01:00
This year's Disney re-release is 101 Dalmatians (U), backed by the usual marketing exercise which makes it uncertain whether the burgers are selling the dogs, or vice versa.

Aside from that, it is a significant film. Made in 1960, it was adapted from a novel by Dodie Smith and used a new method of photocopying the animation cels, which may account for the much freer style: the emphasis is on line rather than volume, pooches and humans suggesting characters from a breezy cartoon in Punch or The New Yorker, rather than the heavily painted surface of earlier Disney cartoons. The old order in Burbank was also changing and from now on Walt was to have less say in the creative affairs of his company.

The story is told by the pet dog belonging to an American songwriter who lives in London. Deciding that his master needs a mate, Pongo pairs him off with the owner of a suitable dalmatian bitch and the two couples settle down happily. Then the dogs produce pups, and these become the victims of a plot by the wickedly fashion-conscious Cruella de Vil. The film develops into a conventional race to rescue a ton or so of dalmatians from Cruella before she can turn them into fur coats.

This is all great fun, both for children and for accompanying adults. The latter may, however, be disappointed at the film's portrayal of London life according to a purely American stereotype: streets, some cobbled, of quaint houses in a mixture of architectural styles, a brief glimpse of Big Ben and a couple of cockney accents which sound as if they were being inexpertly read from a phonetic approximation to London English. Yet the opportunity was there to capture the look of a city which had an even more distinctive feel in the Fifties than it does now.

Disney can look after its own classics. Recently, I wrote here (April 21) about the work of independent distributors, including the British Film Institute, in giving a new cinema release to old films. Meanwhile, a controversy was blowing up over the role of the BFI and the National Film Theatre in preserving cinema culture. The accusation is that NFT programmers have given in to market forces and are sacrificing quality to audience numbers; as a result, instead of concentrating on the cultural heritage, they are trying to compete with commercial cinema, notably by offering members previews of major West End releases.

The dilemma is a familiar one. There is no point in screening films to empty theatres and if the BFI is to survive it has to bring in audiences. But there must also be a point where making money conflicts with the need to cater for a variety of tastes. The ethos of the 1980s was strongly against state subsidies, advancing the populist argument that if people want something enough, they will pay for it; art that had to be subsidised was elitist, and probably not worth saving. In any case, when scholars themselves are no longer willing to make value judgments about "cultural products", then the values of the market are more or less irrefutable. There is no doubt that the atmosphere of austere dedication to masterpieces from world cinema which used to permeate the air at the NFT became less evident from the mid-1980s onwards.

This month's NFT programme provides evidence for both sides. On the one hand, there are films from the Archive, as well as provision for minority tastes (lesbian and gay films, experimental work, computer animation); and, in the Junior NFT slot, seven Russian children's films (in English versions). On the other hand, there is a distinctly downmarket, even tacky feel to the month's leading events: the cinematic oeuvre of Ed Wood Jr (hailed even by his admirers as "the worst director in the world"), to coincide with the release of Tim Burton's much-hyped film; a season of Japanese manga animation; and the start of "celluloid jukebox", a three-month celebration of popular music and cinema.

Something has surely changed. Nowadays, Londoners who want to see "classic" cinema should head across the river to the Barbican where, as well as the new releases, they are showing films such as Chabrol's La Femme infid le (May 26), Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (May 27), The Seven Samurai (May 28) and Nagisha Oshima's Empire of Passion (May 30), followed next month by a programme of British film music of the Forties. Or else they can drop in at the Museum of London, which is continuing its long-running series of films made in London studios. You can't help feeling that both these venues are filling a gap.

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