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Demise Of Tartan Films: What Went Wrong?
News feature on the death of Tartan Films Andrew Stimpson , July 24th, 2008 11:24

Andy Stimpson casts his eye over the amazing body of pan-global work that Tartan Films introduced us to

Old Boy

At the end of June, after years of overcoming hostile censors and beatdowns by enraged republican directors Metro Tartan went belly up.

In doing so, Tartan, the brainchild of flamboyant cineasté Hamish McAlpine has followed in the doomed footsteps of the last great schizophrenically eclectic British film distribution company Palace Video.

McAlpine was forced to stand by with nary a gurgle as his creation drowned under its own flaccid weight. This was not entirely unexpected.

In May Tartan’s US distribution arm folded after only three years and sparked a vulturous frenzy as its substantial back catalogue went under the hammer. A similar event is unfolding now upon these green shores.

The gargantuan Tartan catalogue has constantly mushroomed and it is likely this voracity in picking up films which may have proved the most costly mistake in McAlpine’s dilettantish approach.

Whilst it may boast an impressive repertoire of challenging, groundbreaking, extreme and genuinely brilliant films (as well as a few stinkers) it mostly consists of a long list of well presented but average fare.

Even the most diehard eastern horror nuts are today suffering genre fatigue thanks to the (until now) seemingly infinite parade of ‘J-Horror’ fluff and extreme crime drama chub relentlessly unleashed upon the West by the Tartan Asia label.

Sadly, despite McAlpine’s almost single-handed boosting of the western audiences’ understanding of Asian culture and psychology, there can only be room for so many Korean transsexual boxer flicks on even the most expansive collector’s shelf.

Michael Haneke's Funny Games

Tartan’s latest and highest profile film production, Michael Haneke’s English language remake of his own Funny Games, boasted star power and had critics largely on its side but failed to perform in cinemas. In a way, Funny Games is an apt example of much of Tartan’s fare.

Its appeal is too narrow and it, like Tartan, found itself floundering in the sea of apathetic dross that defines today’s marketplace. When the striking covers of Hard Boiled and Man Bites Dog leapt off video shelves in the early nineties they successfully inducted a virgin audience to the ways of Hong Kong action cinema and the fates of unfortunate Belgian postmen.

Today the film market is saturated with hardcore violence, torture porn, self-aware action movies and Asian horror ‘reimaginings’. Against this backdrop, the remake of Funny Games feels as cynical and pointless as Gus Van Sant’s risible Psycho retread.

If Joe & Jane Public cannot tolerate black and white films and are too intellectually challenged to read subtitles then they should confine themselves to following the films and careers of the cast of Dawson’s Creek. McAlpine failed to recognise this and sought to introduce the bleak and remorseless matt finish of Haneke’s statement on violence to people who simply don’t want to know.

Yet despite Tartan’s personality disorder and ravenous appetite Hamish McAlpine and his staff have left a lasting legacy for film lovers in the UK.

Gaspar Noé's Irréversible

One of McAlpine’s 'greatest successes' as a distributor was guiding Irreversible’s horrific nine minute rape scene past the BBFC uncut. The film would have been rendered utterly pointless had this and other key scenes been damaged and this small victory helped to usher in a new era of liberal and free thinking British censors.

Tartan should be celebrated for facilitating the viewing of many of the last twenty years’ most original cinematic achievements. Much has already been said of the honour roll of Man Bites Dog, Audition, Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, Lars Von Trier’s Europa and the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

These will surely be snapped up by other distributors and remain in print for years to come but what of the other quality on the list? Seek these gems out before they vanish for twenty years.


Old Boy