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New Left Review I/224, July-August 1997

Paul Dave

The Bourgeois Paradigm and Heritage Cinema

Present disaffection with key institutions of the British state—the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster for instance—has brought about what Tom Nairn described recently as a transitional time, one in which ‘former subjects. . .have unintentionally half-mutated into citizens.’ [1] I am grateful to Julia Monk, Mike O’Pray, Robin Blackburn, and Steve Beard for their suggestions on the writing of this essay. He added that ‘in a society still unprogrammed for citizenship. . .the new is condemned to stagnate alongside the old.’ [2] Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass, Introduction, London 1994, p. xi. This situation with its confusions of new and old and its associated sense of historical blockage will be the focus of this essay. Heritage cinema offers us a space in which to test a hypothesis concerning these perplexities, namely that they can best be elucidated within the context of the break-up of the ‘bourgeois paradigm’ which is, according to Ellen Meiskins Wood, the ‘dominant paradigm of progress and historical change.’ [3] Ellen Meiskins Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism; A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, Verso, London 1991, p. 3. Rather than seeing the present situation as Nairn does, maybe the particular narrative of change embodied in the bourgeois paradigm in which the new (bourgeois modernity) is appointed to overrun the old (the aristocratic ancien régime) is in disarray. The structuring oppositions with which the bourgeois paradigm attempts to understand historical change are often presented to us in condensed form in heritage culture. This is particularly evident in contemporary British cinema if we broaden the definition of heritage cinema to include not only period drama but also films which, whilst set in a contemporary context, make reference to heritage themes, styles and preoccupations. Often in these films oppositions of new and old lead us to understandings of the relations between class, capitalism and historical change that lie outside the bourgeois paradigm. To illustrate this argument, I will be drawing on mainstream, art house and avant-garde films including brassed Off (1996), The Madness of King George (1995), London (1994), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Orlando (1993) and Remains of the Day (1993).

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