Kennth Loach's Looks and Smiles movingly informs British working class
Suggested headline: Kenneth Loach's LOOKS AND SMILES is moving testament of British working class life
LOOKS AND SMILES
Directed by Kenneth Loach.
Written by Barry Hines.
B/W cinematography by Chris Menges.
Starring Graham Green, Carolyn
Nicholson, and Tony Pitts.
Plays tomorrow at 8:10 pm
at the Museum of Fine Arts.
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
PERHAPS THE MOST DUBIOUS legacy of Margaret Thatcher's 10-year rule has been the extreme polarization that has marked almost every level of British society and politics. Thatcher's heavy-handed attitude towards organized labor has stirred considerable resentment, and her attempts to privatize government services and roll back the British welfare state have been bitterly opposed. But the arts world has not ignored the issue: British cinema in particular has witnessed the rise of a whole new wave of filmmaking. in the work of directors such as Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, and Alex Cox. As might be expected, many of their films have responded to Thatcherism with angry criticism and savage satire.
Looks and Smiles, however, is one film that takes the opposite track. It is a 1981 film by Kenneth Loach, a director with impeccable leftist credentials, and it presents a straightforward, linear story about the lives of three white working class youths in the industrial city of Sheffield, England. Loach and screenwriter Barry Hines eschew invective or polemics and refuse to engage in any introspection or social commentary. Indeed, except for one character's brief outburst against the army's role in Ireland, the film does not mention politics at all.
Instead, Loach and Hines draw on the power of direct observation and simple narrative to tap into the "collective unconscious" of the British working class (to borrow a phrase from Vincent Canby). The film tells its story without looking forward or backwards, and Chris Menges' black and white cinematography captures the quiet desperation of modern British working class life in crisp detail without engaging in any overt manipulation. These qualities impart the film's images and characters with an unmistakable sense of authenticity, and that authenticity is brought home and crystallized by the extraordinarily honest performances from the three lead actors.
Graham Green plays Mick Walsh, the film's protagonist. Mick is a good kid who happened to be born at the wrong time in the wrong place. He wants to learn how to be a motorcycle mechanic, but bad luck, inexperience, and tough economic times prevent him from getting a job. At a disco one evening, he happens to meet and dance with a young woman named Karen Lodge (Carolyn Nicholson). Her future doesn't seem very bright, but she hangs on by working as a clerk in a local shoe store. Rounding out the trio is Alan Wright (Tony Pitts), a buddy of Mick's who joins the army and ends up policing Northern Ireland.
The descriptions of Mick, Karen, and Alan immediately point out some limitations of the film. All the characters in the film, while imbued with individual flaws, are basically good, well-intentioned white folk. For example, Mick steals a car and breaks into a bar late at night to get some cash, but he is presented as "reformable" in that he still believes in the work ethic and follows most of society's basic rules. None of the characters seem beyond hope, as they are all trying to reconstruct their lives, and the film leaves out any mention of racial tensions and other "messy" issues that Britain needs to address. One might argue that all of these kinds of simplifications serve to conveniently make the film more palatable to liberals and leftists reeling in the aftermath of Thatcher's election.
Similar criticisms were properly leveled at films like Sir Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987) and Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning (1988). However, what separates Looks and Smiles from the dismal failure of those two films is that Looks and Smiles always remains true to its chosen subject and intended goals. The other two films get caught up in distracting melodramas that undermine and trivialize the issues of racism that the films ostensibly tackle. While the scope of Looks and Smiles is limited to white and reformable working class youths, its success within that environment is entirely genuine and undeniably honest.
A good example of that success comes near the end of the film in a scene where Mick, Karen, and Alan sit in a restaurant and chat (in their usual heavily-accented English) about Alan's experience's in the army. Alan seems quite happy with his life in the military and urges Mick "to think about it [joining up]." Karen quickly exclaims that she'll never be able to see Mick if he joins up. Alan leans over to Mick and whispers something in Mick's ear as Mick smiles broadly; Karen, excluded from the buddy-talk, turns her head away in annoyance. After a few seconds, Alan gets up and leaves. Karen gets upset at Mick, saying that he'll "have to decide one way or the other" between building a life with Karen or following Alan into the army. Mick says he knows and looks down unhappily. The film then moves on to its concluding shot.
This description is obviously abbreviated, but it is sufficient to show how the scene epitomizes the film's numerous strengths:
First, the dilemma facing Mick is a real one. He has to wrestle with considerations that are at once personal (his feelings for Karen vs. his friendship with Alan), economic (risky job searches vs. job in the military), and political (the morality of joining the military).
Second, Mick's predicament is firmly linked to the working class milieu that the film explores. Unlike Sir Richard Attenborough or Alan Parker, Loach and Hines are not outsiders talking about conflicts that took place far away or long ago. Their film is local, timely, and directly relevant to the conditions Loach and Hines saw around them.
Third, the performances are unerringly real. When Karen turns her head away, or when Mick looks down, there is no sense that a director just off camera is telling them what to do. Their performances are so unpretentious and unassuming that it doesn't seem as though "actors" are playing "characters" here. (It should come as no surprise to learn that the three leads were not professional actors when the film was made.)
Fourth, and most important, the scene shows how the film does not trivialize, preach, or analyze its characters and situations. It simply presents a narrative for viewers to do with what they will.
The film that emerges is a moving, unsentimental portrait of white working class youths as they live with and deal with the grim realities facing them. Loach's and Hine's refusal to point an accusing finger at any one government or person enables them to concentrate entirely on the characters and their lives. That strong focus is why the film can humanize its characters so effectively.
Yes, the film is limited in scope, and yes, Loach went on to direct a heavy-handed and absurd political drama in 1986 called Singing the Blues in Red. (That film just finished a run at the ICA.) Nevertheless,
By the time that Looks and Smiles ends on a pregnant freeze frame, one can't help but reflect on how the film's title -- initially so bright and attractive -- now seems bittersweet and ironic. In truth, that transformation of perspective is a muted metaphor for the severe disillusionment facing British leftists and idealists in the face of Thatcher's resounding popularity. By enabling viewers to experience for themselves a piece of that disillusionment and by giving potent expression to contemporary social realities, the film transcends its limitations and redeems both itself and those it so unflinchingly observes.
(Editor's note: Looks and Smiles is being shown as a part of a tribute to the films of French producer Marin Karmitz and his production company. The MFA film calendar has a complete listing for the films in the series, many of which have not found any other means of distribution in the United States.)
Suggested headline: BINGO, BRIDESMAIDS & BRACES fails to live up to its potential
BINGO, BRIDESMAIDS & BRACES
Co-produced and directed by
With Diana, Josie, and Kerry.
Plays Thursday and Friday at 6:30 pm
at the Museum of Fine Arts.
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
THE BASIC IDEA IS SO SIMPLE that one can't help but wonder why documentary filmmakers don't pursue it more often: make a film that interviews interesting people at a young age and then follow along at regular intervals as the kids grow up and become adults. The contradictions, affirmations, and vicissitudes of life are just sitting there, waiting for someone to capture them in all their complexity. That's what Gillian Armstrong has tried to do in Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces, a film that traces the lives of three young working class Australian women. Unfortunately, the film's editing is too scattershot to reveal any universal value in the changes and growth of these three women.
In 1976, Armstrong made her directorial debut with a 25-minute short film called Smokes and Lollies. In it, the three women, who were all 14 years old at the time, revealed their romantic dreams about husbands, weddings, and motherhood to Armstrong's camera. All three said they wanted to wait until age 18 to get married.
Four years later, in the 47-minute-long 14's Good, 18's Better, Armstrong interviewed the same three girls again. Armstrong found that Diana was both married and pregnant and her husband was being convicted of an assault charge. Kerry had broken off an engagement at age 17 and firmly believed in the importance of a career. Josie had become pregnant at age 15. and was struggling to survive as a single mother of two small children.
In 1988, Armstrong once again decided to interview the three women, who were then 26 years old. Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces includes footage filmed for the previous two films as well as new footage, so Armstrong's latest film is a full-length feature documentary. The unfortunate reality is, however, that the film is muddled. Armstrong has obviously gained the confidence of the three women, and her filming technique is certainly capable of handling the interviews and other shooting. Where the film goes astray, however, is during its construction in the editing room -- it simply isn't a coherent whole. There doesn't seem to have been much thought given to organizing and presenting the wide-ranging material as a coherent, integrated whole.
For example, the film often jumps repeatedly and rapidly from one time frame to another without warning. At other times, the women offer articulate and fascinating insights into their lives, but they do so in voice-overs while the images on the screen typically show them washing dishes or sending the kids off to school. The se images are exceedingly uninformative images often have little or nothing to do with the voice-overs.One might argue that Armstrong constructed the film in this way to avoid the stigma of a "talking head" documentary. That may be true, but a director of Armstrong's experience and capabilities cannot fail to be aware of the alternate techniques that exist in documentary filmmaking. If she doesn't like those alternatives or considers them inappropriate to her subject, perhaps she should have experimented with the form and devised new techniques of her own.
Clearly, one has to make allowances for the fact that Armstrong did not consciously set out in 1976 to make a series of films about the three women, and one can only admire Armstrong's willingness to forego big budget commercial film offers to make this documentary.
Nevertheless, the conclusion about Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces is inescapable: the finished product has a certain intrinsic value, but that value is unnecessarily diminished and undermined by the film's haphazard construction.
On both nights at 8:15 pm, Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces will be followed by High Tide, Gillian Armstrong's 1987 feature film starring Judy Davis. High Tide is a successful, if slightly oversentimental, narrative film about the reunification of a 12-year-old girl with the mother who deserted her years before.