Putting the Manifesto before the Movie

Ryan Gilbey

  • Sweet Sixteen directed by Ken Loach
    October 2002
  • The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People by Jacob Leigh
    Wallflower, 192 pp, £13.99, May 2002, ISBN 1 903364 31 0

One afternoon in May 1995, I rang Ken Loach to try to persuade him to play Fantasy Filmmaking. In fact I had to call a number of British directors, and ask each one to imagine the kind of movie he or she would make given a bottomless budget. ‘An unlimited budget would be a liability,’ Loach said. ‘The more you spend, the more restricted you are because the more money you’ve got, the bigger the investment, the more nervous the investor and the more they dictate what the ending should be.’ He wouldn’t be drawn on his dream cast. ‘Casting is often about hiring stars, and I do find stars pretty boring because then a film becomes all about watching those stars.’ Actually, he wouldn’t be drawn on anything much at all. ‘I carry ideas for films around in my head, but I’d never share them and show them the light of day, not until they were completed.’ He had effectively said nothing, and in the process said everything.

Loach wasn’t being stubborn, though stubbornness makes some of his best films better (and some of his worst more unwieldy). The fundamental artifice of film-making appears to trouble him. ‘If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,’ Trevor Griffiths observed (they had collaborated unhappily on the 1986 film Fatherland). ‘He wants the actors to just be themselves so that everything looks as though it has just happened.’ A performer working with Loach would do well not to ask any questions about motivation. On Carla’s Song, he gave the actor Robert Carlyle a run-down of his character. ‘Your name’s George and you drive a bus. Maybe it would be a good idea if you learned to drive a bus.’

Had Loach stuck with theatre directing – an early pursuit – he would by now be bringing his plays to schools, hospital wards, disused factories. His television work, in the 1960s and 1980s especially, was the closest he has come to supplying an uninterrupted stream of rhetoric: the fanfare of the movie screen has always sat uneasily with his chosen subjects. But the urgency of TV has diminished as the channels have multiplied, and cinema, with its swelling audiences, has become the crucial outlet for his arguments.

Loach’s commitment to his position as British cinema’s defender of truth, justice and the socialist way inevitably bestows undue significance on his most trivial deviations from that role. He is pragmatic about his brief and uncharacteristic detour into commercials in the 1980s (‘It was indefensible’), but there is something disingenuous about a filmmaker who expresses concern that critics ‘construct an argument about a film in cinematic language’ but don’t ‘deal with it politically as well’ and yet complains: ‘I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.’ Either they’re worth arguing about, or they’re not. He should take it as a compliment that his work invites a degree of scrutiny out of all proportion with the revenue it generates, just as he should feel satisfied that those commercials look so incongruous on his CV, or that the Sunday Times went to such extraordinary lengths in 1994 to expose some largely run-of-the-mill distortions in Ladybird, Ladybird (real-life people and events were conflated in this movie about a mother fighting to retain her children, while evidence allegedly calling into doubt the woman’s parental suitability was omitted).

Like Robert Altman, Loach is a tenacious filmmaker who gets it wrong as frequently as he gets it right. A season featuring Kes, Raining Stones or his latest picture, Sweet Sixteen, would offer an illuminating education in the constructive rage of political cinema. Alternatively, one that showcased Hidden Agenda, Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses would instruct the viewer in the perils of putting the manifesto before the movie. The key component in Loach’s most convincing work – and, for that matter, in Altman’s, too – is concealment: how comprehensively can the method and the message be obscured by the medium? Those moments in Loach’s films when we can hear the feet mounting the soapbox are as disruptive to the drama as a boom-mike dipping into shot or a cameraman’s reflection in a patio door. Too often, Loach seems unable to think in political and cinematic terms simultaneously; in Hidden Agenda (a retelling of the Stalker affair) and Bread and Roses (a film concerning a strike by Los Angeles janitors) there is embarrassment about soliciting the audience’s engagement in the narrative, as though the need to care about the story and characters were dishonourable in a political context. These are petitions masquerading as movies.

In My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, political points are more convincingly made from psychological perspectives. Both films centre on characters who turn to drug-running in an attempt to improve the lives of the people close to them, and their defining characteristic is the aggressiveness with which they force us to experience, rather than simply observe, their heroes’ predicaments. Political cinema doesn’t demand this – it’s true that Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras fire up the audience, but there’s a refrigerated detachment in Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy. Loach’s films fall somewhere in between: he has neither Pontecorvo’s skills of hyperbole nor Anderson’s archness – which is another way of saying that Loach is nothing without entertainment. Without its gangster-movie tough-talk or its cornball plot devices, Sweet Sixteen wouldn’t be as good a film. It is to Loach’s credit that it engages so enthusiastically with some dog-eared cinematic conventions (the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to do right by his ol’ Ma; the hood whose patronage is imprisonment in disguise). In order to be successful, a Ken Loach film, unlike movies by Fassbinder or Bela Tarr or Fred Keleman, must offer familiar pleasures.

‘The degree to which we experience his films as political propaganda depends on the extent to which the director and his collaborators have been able to integrate the devices of the melodrama of protest with characters and stories that carry conviction and plausibility,’ Jacob Leigh writes in the first chapter of The Cinema of Ken Loach. Sweet Sixteen manages to transform political commentary into dramatic irony by making the action and subtext inseparable. But even now, many decades after the intertitles and alienation techniques of Up the Junction and Poor Cow gave way to the graceful lyricism of Kes, the simplest demand for narrative information can reduce Loach to fingers and thumbs where once he might simply have used an explanatory title card or voiceover.

Leigh singles out as an example of narrative dexterity the scene in Kes when we see Billy’s brutal older brother Jud walking through the woods to the colliery where he will spend another airless working day. Until that point, late in the picture, Jud has been one of the story’s bogeymen, along with the cynical shopkeepers and tyrannical teachers. But the tranquillity of this sequence, and the application of pastoral music formerly associated with Billy, establish a connection between Jud’s past and Billy’s future that a less adroit filmmaker could only have achieved with an explanatory flashback. Leigh explains: ‘Jud maybe once possessed Billy’s imagination and intelligence; possibly the same school and the same social and economic system that produces manual workers for the mines and factories crushed from Jud those qualities that Billy reveals.’ How quickly Loach unlearns his own lessons when turning the camera on blemishless characters like the Justice for Janitors activist Sam (Adrien Brody) in Bread and Roses, or George in Carla’s Song, or for that matter any of the salt of the earth Sandinistas in that movie. These are not people, they’re mirages of purity conjured up to indict an unfair world, just as the sneering, sadistic British villains of Hidden Agenda are Flashman to a man.

Contrast such examples with the scene in Kes in which Billy complains to a teacher about the savage treatment of a younger boy who arrived at the headmaster’s office to deliver a message and ended up being caned when his blazer pockets were found to be stuffed full of cigarettes – cigarettes that had been planted on him by other pupils. What Billy doesn’t reveal is that he was instrumental in the boy’s punishment, having secured the lad in a headlock while his pockets were being filled with contraband goods. Loach chooses not to resolve such contradictions, hoping that in them wider social contradictions will be exposed. This is one of the ways in which his work answers a question that clearly haunts him, and should preoccupy any political filmmaker: what are my films for?

Jessica Winter recently suggested, in the Village Voice, that the cinema provided an opportunity for Loach to pursue by other means the legal studies he had abandoned at Oxford: ‘His body of work . . . amounts to a class action lawsuit against all manner of powers that be, from inept social-service agencies in the UK to oppressive Central American regimes.’ His early television productions – ten were broadcast in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot between 1965 and 1969 – had a crusading urgency that reflected the general profile of the series.

Loach, who had been working on episodes of Z Cars, found allies in the Wednesday Play’s script editor and producer, Roger Smith and Tony Garnett. ‘What we realised,’ Loach said, ‘was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.’ No sooner had he identified a politically receptive audience than he was instructing it, imploring it, not to lapse into complacency. (He’s still instructing and imploring: he has remarked that he is daily galvanised by his anger at the bias and selective reporting of the Today programme.)

Political filmmakers can’t expect to implement quantifiable changes. When that does happen, as in the case of Loach’s most famous Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home, which led directly to the formation of Shelter, it can be offered as another instance of the usefulness of political drama. This doesn’t satisfy Loach, however. Satisfaction, and by extension success, are for him synonymous with complacency. In the 1980s, he had difficulty getting films made; this, and the shift in power from TV to cinema in the era of the blockbuster, gave him the friction he required – the feeling of being an outsider trying to break in. Cinema had become a territory of high-gloss waxwork parades and high-budget events, and other directors were delivering bitter television dispatches about Thatcherism and its repercussions. Stephen Frears’s Bloody Kids, Mike Leigh’s Meantime and Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain revealed more about the Tory menace than anything Loach has come up with to date.

These films make a statement that resonates. The images of delegates attending the 1982 Conservative and Labour Party Conferences in Loach’s documentary The Red and the Blue, intercut with representations of extreme poverty, seem, on the other hand, to exist in a social vacuum where the filmmaker’s satisfaction at having exposed the political divide is an end in itself. Leigh remarks on the film’s consistency with the cinéma vérité tradition – ‘he reveals people on film, as opposed to asserting anything about them’ – but it seems to me that Loach reveals only his own sense of impotence in the face of a distasteful political future. It’s an impotence that he is unable to dramatise, and it’s one that we see again in such supposedly political works as Frears’s later Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, both of which juxtapose heartless Tory soundbites and the images of desolation which contradict them. Political disagreement is reduced to the level of schoolyard naughtiness.

Another notable species of flawed political cinema is the one that flatters the audience with its own polite outrage: an outrage that is stirred up in the comfort of the auditorium – and deposited in the cloakroom on the way out. The most obvious offender in that category is Costa-Gavras, in whose work cinematic conventions have won out, at least for now. What drives Loach’s cinema is a need to overcome the art form in which he has chosen to work. In fact, as Sweet Sixteen demonstrates, he is most effective when he embraces cinema and its traditions rather than trying to transcend them. Mercifully, he isn’t above cinema’s temptations. Here is Peter Mullan being unduly harsh on My Name Is Joe, his collaboration with Loach:

The problem with the social realists is that they want to have their cake and eat it. They maintain that their films are in a social-realist style and therefore credible, but they’re not. Almost all social-realist films revert to melodrama if and when it suits them. Take My Name Is Joe: a young lad throws himself out of a window with a rope around his neck, thus all sins are absolved and Joe might get together with the woman. Absurd, it’s absurd. It achieves nothing except moving an audience to tears.

It’s a measure of what we expect from Loach that a film of such unmitigated bleakness can still be taken to task for its recourse to formula.

There are fewer signs of this tendency in Sweet Sixteen, but the film doesn’t provide answers to what Loach thinks he can achieve so much as suggest that he has stories which need to be heard – which will, through their focus on economic and emotional hardships, tell us something we didn’t know. The film derives much of its suspenseful pleasure from our fear that the Greenock teenager Liam (Martin Compston) may at any moment do the ‘wrong’ thing – or rather, the terrible, unforgivable, irrevocable thing – while at the same time telling us how specious that word is. Liam does plenty of ‘wrong’ things, but most of them are underpinned by good intentions: selling heroin to fund a new home for his soon-to-be ex-con mother; agreeing to kill a stranger in order to get in with the local drug dealer. Loach ensures that our sympathies are jeopardised but never quite undermined, even as we realise that Liam’s perseverance is really masochism in disguise. ‘You weren’t being brave,’ his sister tells him after he has taken an especially nasty beating. ‘You just didn’t care what happened to yourself.’ Like the hero of My Name Is Joe, a recovering alcoholic who refuses even a glass of wine on a date, but disastrously succumbs to drink in the final reel, Liam has a flash of weakness from which he cannot be absolved. Loach makes no attempt to return to us the Liam we had initially warmed to: the film ends moments after the boy has at last done the wrong thing – lashing out violently at his beloved sister – and withholds that feeble sense of closure on which narrative cinema has come to depend.

Loach would be a better communicator, and a more effective campaigner, if he could overcome the lawyer’s urge to take the floor. No one who has attended to the way real people talk, away from the union meeting or the picket-line, would countenance a scene like the one in Bread and Roses in which the wronged janitors attend a fund-raising disco and groove along to the agonising lyrics of the songs: ‘I have to sing about a sad situation/Created by the US and White House legislation.’ Even political activists sometimes dance to Gloria Gaynor.