The rituals of a life watching films: Jeremy Cooper on his novel Brian

Novelist Jeremy Cooper tells us how trips to the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) inspired Brian, his study of a man who finds meaning and community in the habit of cinemagoing.

13 November 2023

By Adam Scovell

Jeremy Cooper sorting apples in his byre, photographed in October 2020 by his niece Fran Gleisner

The ritual of going to the cinema is the focus of a new novel by British author Jeremy Cooper. Published by celebrated independent imprint Fitzcarraldo Editions, itself named after the Werner Herzog film of the same title, Cooper’s novel Brian is a paean to the culture surrounding BFI Southbank and the customs and friendships that form around the habit of watching films there. With its unusual mixture of fiction and criticism, Brian is a unique novel as much as a time-capsule of cinemagoing at BFI Southbank, in particular from the days when it was the National Film Theatre.

With Cooper sharing a stage at Southbank with filmmaker Ben Rivers ahead of a screening of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), we spoke to the author about his novel, his interest in film, and how fiction can provide new and interesting approaches to criticism.

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Could you introduce Brian, its themes and how it came about?

On visits to the BFI – then known as the National Film Theatre – maybe once a week from the mid-1980s till 2000, when I left London to live in rural west Somerset, I used to observe and wonder about a small group of regulars who gathered in the foyer before and after the movies. The novel Brian developed from these thoughts, seeded during my first job on leaving university, cataloguing objects for collectors auctions at Sotheby’s.

I was fascinated by the sudden convergence of groups of enthusiasts devoted to a single esoteric subject. This experience was matched by later contact with the Ephemera Society, avant-garde contemporary classical music, and also film. I have come to admire individuals who sustain a fulfilling (if sometimes narrow) existence through the dedicated amateur pursuit of a specific interest, whatever the choice might be. Brian is my projected idea of one such life.

With all of your novels there is a sense of characters re-engaging with life through various passions. What is it about this theme that preoccupies you and did that subject being cinema change the way you addressed it in Brian?

In my most personal novel, Ash Before Oak, pursuit of an interest in nature is presented less as a passion and more as a form of delusional avoidance by the first person narrator. Thus the preoccupied involvement with the natural world is, in that novel, a failed mechanism of evasion. In Brian the ritual attendance each night at the BFI is also a form of avoidance which, in Brian’s case, gradually, precariously works to bring him a secure belonging. In this sense the novel marks, as you suggest, some kind of resolution to a recurring theme in my fiction.

The detail in Brian feels especially important, with a great deal of the word count given over to the narrator’s critique of films. What is the draw of rendering these interests in a fictional form as opposed to a non-fiction one?

I am a film enthusiast not an expert, having given insufficient thought to the subject to write informative non-fiction. Cinema is of secondary concern to me, other subjects taking a central place in my life. Not being a buff myself, a number of the seemingly ‘expert’ details in Brian are in fact invented, while others inaccurately remembered. Most of the detailed information is derived from my NFT information sheets stored in a file over the years, almost all the 166 films mentioned in the book were seen by me in BFI cinemas sometime during the last 40 years. I have never watched a movie digitally on a computer screen, do not own a television, or smartphone etc, and none of the films in Brian were re-viewed in the writing of the novel.

Brian begins his journey into film with Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), though his real passion is Japanese cinema. Was there something within the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Teshigahara and the like that felt right as a subject for Brian’s real cinematic passion?

Woman of the Dunes (1964)

Brian’s interest in postwar Japanese cinema reflects my own, which developed as a result of the themes of concern in my novel The Folded Lie, itself based on long acquaintance with the arguments surrounding article 9 of the Japanese constitution. I found it quite difficult, in fact, to construct Brian’s convincing interest in such films as Woman of the Dunes (1964) and several times doubted the narrative sense of giving him some academic expertise on the subject, deciding to leave this in as a mark of his gradual growth of marginal self-confidence.

What was the research process like in regards to the detail of the films? There’s a series of descriptions of very specific scenes in films, such as those in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976), which feel more than simply recalled but really quite unusually in-depth.

Kings of the Road (1976)

Other than checking of dates and occasional facts, there was, as with all my other novels, no specific research beyond my own library and, in the case of Brian, the hundreds of detailed NFT information sheets. I write about things with which I am familiar and that I care about. My wish was to describe the many movies mentioned in the book in a form which reflected the emotions of my central character, while also communicating something of the films’ original essence.

The quirks of memory are illustrated by the section on Kings of the Road, which, for some reason, sits vivid in my memory 30 years after my only viewing of the film and which I found fitted the character of Brian as he emerged in the writing. My memory of the Wenders film is unlikely to be factually accurate, but that did not seem to matter as told in Brian’s own selective voice.

In spite of the main character’s ritualistic visiting of BFI Southbank and forming bonds with a handful of film fans there, Brian does feel to be a lonely book of sorts, albeit a book in which the loneliness is being addressed through a passion for film. Do you see film-going and a passion for cinema as a kind of tonic to loneliness, or more as a placebo that suitably fills the void?

I feel truthfully that though there are the inevitable times of distress and doubt, loneliness is not part of this, as I never long for company and I am happy with the nature of my sustained friendships. Writing Brian was the means I chose to express the idea that devoted watching of film holds back the danger of Brian’s aloneness descending into despair, just as writing does for me. This can only be effective because film is such a richly absorbing medium, full of varied feelings and thoughts, far from a placebo.

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