The Limitations of Meritocratic Cinema
There was a curious letter in The List recently where the writer Barry Dubber insisted British cinema was selling itself short. "American story writers like myself are not wanted by the BFI because we see as our main objective films for the public, not for awards, mostly set in the States and certainly using the American or universal style in stories. That's where our style has got to go if we hope to be treated as a serious filmmaking nation instead of a joke." Does Barry Dubber exist, or is this a sly dig at the wannabe scriptwriter who cares nothing for cultural roots but obsessively about the big Hollywood payday? When Dubber adds that the BFI wants to please 'the arthouses instead of the public at the multiplexes', we might feel left in no doubt. It is as if Dubber invokes the multiplexes as one might call forth a municipal library. Power to the people; and yet the profits will go to the multinationals.
And yet films are being made here in Britain which fail dismally as art but would also fail in Dubber's eyes too. (He has an aversion to 'bleak nightmares'.) It seems inarguable though that some of these films are certainly working as entertainment: Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Little Voice and now Billy Elliot. And if we must have entertainment that simplifies our lives, then is it not better it be the semi-realistic warmed-over pseudo-Loach films, over the anonymous "slick, snappy and fast' movies that Dubber demands? Perhaps, for the moment this triumph over adversity sub-genre is as close as British cinema gets to a radical agenda that can still make money. The other money-making sub-genres (the period film and the middle-class comedy) remain in the conservative tradition, conservative in the fundamental, representational sense. The Madness of King George to Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth to The End of the Affair all remind us of Alasdair Gray's shrewd comment on art and literature: "Great poverty is so disgusting that even the poor hate to be reminded of it...from the earliest days we have lifted our eyes up to the wealthy." (Edinburgh Review) But in lifting our eyes up to the wealthy, have we allowed the wealthy to look down their noses at everybody else? In Sense and Sensibility, the servants are background extras; in The End of the Affair, Ian Hart's private detective is foregrounded but chiefly as a bumbling and ignorant foil for Ralph Fiennes' upper middle-class writer. In one scene, the film garners a big laugh when Fiennes corrects Hart's confusion of Lancelot and Galahad. Yes, occasionally a period film is also a fully conscious rendering of working-class frustration Jude, for example but it's as if the genre lends itself best to pretty visuals and bourgeois expectation. The films are cool and refined examinations of period minutiae; very much at odds with the gaudy colour schemes and broad language deployed in the triumphalist poverty genre. The middle-class comedies aren't much better: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Jack and Sarah, Bridget Jones' Diary, Notting Hill.
Yet while Billy Elliot and co are clearly, representatively, countering bourgeois expectation, are they still nevertheless conforming to bourgeois assumption on an ideological level? Usually, the films are driven either by a narrative of short-lived escapist communal achievement or by a personal achievement and actual escape. In Brassed Off, it's a brass band competition victory, in Full Monty, a strip show. In the Highland set The Match, we see the victory of no-hopers against the football team that has beaten them every year in the last hundred. A similar team of lost causes scores a victory in the rugby film Up 'n' Under. In Little Voice, the personal achievement is tentative L.V. can sing beautifully but she can't quite rise to the occasion in her hometown nightclub. However, the impression given is that she might elsewhere away from the manipulation and bullying of her mother and her mum's lover, and away from the coarsened environment of Scarborough. Billy Elliot also works with the idea of youthful sensitivity up against tough love. Billy eschews boxing for ballet but his father is having none of it. "Ballet ballet's for girls" his father insists. Eventually, though, Billy gets his wish and by the end of the film in a coda he's in his mid-twenties and performing in London as a professional dancer in 'Swan Lake', his county Durham father tearfully and proudly observing from the crowd.
The triumphalist films have been listed in roughly chronological order, and we may notice the increasing personal optimism working alongside an ever increasing political pessimism. John Hill may have said of Ken Loach's work that it "has always been pessimistic about the prospects for radical political change in Britain" (Sight and Sound), but Loach's pessimism comes out of a hard stare at the milieu, and through a realisation that little can grow in so arid an environment. A film like Billy Elliot shares Loach's general pessimism (the film all but ends on the failure of the miner's strike), though offers a personal victory. If anything, it is the aridity of the environment that points up the will, skill and energy of its titular character. We could almost say that Billy Elliot's ability to work as entertainment lies in its clever reworking of Loachian tropes not to reveal social despair within social decency, but to emphasise individual optimism against the odds.
This is clearly the case if we contrast Stephen Daldry's film with Loach's Kes. In each instance, personal preoccupation allows for escape from societal expectation: Billy Casper in Kes finds tranquillity with a kestrel; Billy through dance. But while Loach's Billy Casper has a brother who remains consistently belligerent to Billy's kestrel obsession and eventually kills the bird, Billy Elliot's brother, Tony, end up siding with Billy's ambition, even gains a vicarious pride and purpose out of it. There is a simultaneous and yet very different optimism/pessimism going on here. The brother in Kes kills the bird and leaves Billy bereft, and also leaves the audience angered at the limitations of the milieu. Thus, from Loach's political perspective, suggesting the need for social change. Billy Casper's brother might be presented as cruel, but his cruelty is comprehensible. Billy has failed to put his brother's money down on a horse and the horse goes on to win. In Billy Elliot, the brother's irritation rests on 'muddled' notions of masculinity and class. He reckons ballet is for poofs, and regards Billy's dance teacher (whose accent is strongly regional and her husband unemployed) as a middle-class meddler. While the brother in Loach has a tangible reason for killing the bird, however despicable the act, in Daldry's film we're to assume the brother is simply walking around with a false, even socially blinkered consciousness. He may strongly support the miner's strike that the film is in sympathy with, but his character is chiefly there to represent traditional masculinity that needs to lose a pair, so to speak. Loach illustrates an inextricable situation Billy fails to put money down on the horse and the brother insists on revenge. Daldry also shows us two opposing perspectives: Billy's dance ambition and the brother's provincial masculinity. However, for the brother in Billy Elliot to move from the unsympathetic to the sympathetic he must simply side with Billy's values over his own. The situation is personally resolvable and not part of a broader social dilemma. And sure enough, he is as excited as everybody else when the family waits to see as Billy opens the letter next door to find out if his brother has got into a London ballet school. In the realistic Kes, the family remains indifferent to Billy's bird obsession, and focused on their own difficult lives vividly illustrated in Loach's realistically-oriented mise en scene. In the expressionist Billy Elliot, the central character transcends his environment, even incorporates the lives of others within his own perspective. We see it in the sequence where Billy enters the gym and the blueish light offers the dance teacher and Billy in silhouette, and again when the camera circles around Billy as the dance teacher instructs him. When at the audition for the dance school, a member of the school board asks him how feels when he dances, he says, "I sort of disappear", as if the world around him becomes of no significance. It would be unfair to the film to say that is what happens to the social milieu around him. It keeps the mining strike present throughout and it was filmed in the village of Easington Colliery. But Billy's ambitions are the thing, and the miner's strike is always an aside next to Billy's focus. When his dad tells a group of miners that his son has got into dance school, the miners just nod; the strike is now over. they have lost and will return to the pit on the bosses' terms.
They are defeated but narratively that is ok - because the feelgood factor rests on Billy's success; not their failure. The best the father and brother can hope for is vicarious escape: for the father and brother as they follow Billy's ambitions. They become, if you like, arrested Billy Caspers, now with a familial interest rather than a purposeful drive. Loach understands the characters' motives and questions the environment that partly creates them, knowing that such beliefs are valid within the context of a culture that makes a certain type of sensitivity difficult to sustain, and a few bob lost at the bookies a cause for such consternation. In Billy Elliot, the film clearly sees the brother and father's limited perspective as fundamentally wrong, that they must side with aesthetic sensitivity over coarsened masculinity. But while they must return to the grime of the pit, to the 'insensitive' milieu, Billy goes off to ballet school. Billy may have the feelgood effect on his family but they still have the feelbad lives. We might be left wondering whether Billy's brother is now walking around with false consciousness if we define false consciousness as a mindset at odds with the environment in which one lives. The father and son can see a better life outside their own; not within it. And this is not a million miles away from the ideology of many a sold lottery ticket.
"Nearly all sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win...as soon as the question arises...the most savage competitive instincts are aroused. (The Sporting Spirit) So said George Orwell in 1945, suggesting sport had nothing to do with socialism and everything to do with the survival of the fittest. While the notion of sport is central to many 90s British films (Twenty-Four Seven, Fever Pitch, Up 'n' Under, The Match etc.) the most successful haven't centred so much on sport but sublimated it retained its competitive and tension-building possibilities but removed the problem of making it too niche driven. As Brassed Off and Little Voice director Mark Herman said of his recent adaptation of a football novel, "one reason we changed the title to Purely Belter is because The Season Ticket has that football connection." (The Big Issue) The films usually demand a general audience admire a specific performer and the will to win versus the humiliation of failure, but reconfigure the performance from sport to show business a point literalised in Billy Elliot where Billy gives up boxing and takes up ballet. The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Little Voice and Billy Elliot, however, do not all share the same ethos within the will to win. In both The Full Monty and Brassed Off, the emphasis rests on the older generation: the films are embattled examinations of a triumphal moment against general failure. Little Voice and Billy Elliot suggest a more long-lasting and singular triumph out of a similarly failed community. It is almost as if The Full Monty and Brassed Off represent the bridge between Loachian, milieu-impinging realism, and a star-is-born social transcendence. That is, the idea of competition in The Full Monty and Brassed Off is presented as both a product of and a move beyond the constraints of the milieu but both retain a group ethos and a belief in their communities whatever the limitations. Little Voice and Billy Elliot indicate the need to escape their milieu for personal progress.
Adam Mars-Jones more or less says as much in his Billy Elliot Times review: "British and American films make different assumptions about how far society determines individual lives...if it shows people ground down by daily pressures, their dreams evaporating, then it's not only British but made for home consumption." Mars-Jones adds that some sequences in the film resemble more Flashdance than Kes as it aims itself at more than the British market. Billy Elliott, then, maybe moves further than any British film before it, in encroaching on American turf whilst still remaining clearly within a working-class community. One needn't thus say British society is so class-constrained that people born into the working class must inevitably remain there, but British films have usually suggested class progress comes with psycho-sociolological turbulence evident. Mike Leigh's work is all about the subtle, problematic shifts in upward mobility. We have the sister living in suburbia in Meantime while the rest of the family occupy a rundown high-rise dwelling and sign on. There is the mum in High Hopes, humiliated by her wealthy neighbours in her newly gentrified neighbourhood. The working-class films of the late 50s/early 60s, meanwhile films like Room At the Top, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life were also fascinated by the notion of personal integrity at odds with social improvement. At what cost does Joe Lampton rise in Room at the Top, how much will Frank swallow from the wealthy in This Sporting Life? It isn't as if, though, films like Billy Elliot propose class conflict isn't any longer relevant; more that it is no longer psychologically relevant. When Billy attends his London audition he belts a perfectly pleasant toffee-nosed kid for putting an arm around his shoulder. What has changed isn't class conflict but the way the conflict is dramatised: Billy Elliot melodramatises and expels conflict so that it is no longer a permeating sub-textual problematic. It is just another element to be confronted, then hurdled. We might wonder if the school will accept him after such dubious behaviour.
However, because Billy Elliot still wants a realistic aesthetic categorically setting itself in the middle of the 1984 miners' strike its monomanical triumphalism leaves less a sub-text to be explored than loose ends to be puzzled over. On the bus down to London for Billy's ballet school interview, his dad tells the boy he has never been to London before, and presumably we are meant to see this as a sign of a stunted life: that Billy will see as a lad what it has taken his father forty years to see. This ties into the film's single-minded theme of Billy's great opportunity, but we might just as readily ponder over the father's accent. It is an unequivocally Scottish one and could hint not at a limited life but one more interested in north of County Durham rather than south of it. In a Loach or Leigh film, in a work where sub-text isn't an easily extracted viewer judgement, but a complicated process of viewer intuition on the basis of the film's variables, this would add texture. In a film that denies texture for immediate assumption, the moment comes across as confusing not complex. It might work perfectly well for an audience who has no notion of British accents, mores, and geography, but for those who do the film still falls too readily into the realist category for it to have the neutralised quality of mainstream American film where subtext is usually singular.
But if we think again of Mars-Jones' comment, this singular subtext has never been British cinema's style. British film is generally closer to neo-realism than classic Hollywood realism, closer to the specific of a life over its narrative demands. Yet out of this semi-respect for British realism, and the slavish need to escape immediate environs for the global cinematic splash, a type of genre is undeniably evolving, a genre where the young man is no longer harbouring anger (Look Back in Anger, This Sporting Life), no longer cynically selling out (Room at the Top, Nothing but the Best), nor youthfully disaffected (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Kes). The character is instead expressionistically superior to the milieu in which they find themselves. In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the central character Colin throws a race in a refusal to conform to upper-class expectation; now in Billy Elliot, Billy is so absorbed in his own world that his enthusiasm draws others into his exuberant universe. One of the examiners on the auditions panel at the ballet school is especially impressed when Billy says that when he dances he's completely preoccupied by the specific action. A deliberate riposte to young Colin in the earlier film?
Orwell says in the same essay "that it would be useful to inquire how and why the modern cult of sportism arose." That is a bigger question than this piece would care to answer, but it might be fair to re-couch Orwell's musings. To ask why the cult of sportism and competition deployed in so many of these recent works appear so at odds with the themes and subjects of sixties cinema. Does it perhaps lie in the sixties films so often rejecting the aristocratic and the nineties films accepting the meritocratic, meritocratic in the sense that it has become commonly used rather than how Michael Young originally wished it to be deployed? "I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair. The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033." (Guardian)
While the earlier films' characters refused to side with the wealthy, by the same reckoning they also rejected their backgrounds. They became alienated by vacillating between two positions. In the nineties films, generally classes are separated less by class divides than united by meritocratic assumption. There is the scene in Billy Elliot quoted above where Tony yells at middle-class" ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson. Tony plays the traditional working-class card of Billy's roots, of the iniquity of Billy being taken away from his family home for life in London. But now we can see the source of his false consciousness: he believes in a basic, halcyon working-class decency but the film indicates instead a meritocratic pragmatism. From the striking miners who contribute to Billy's trip to London, to the upmarket board that interviews him for a place in the ballet school, meritocracy is shown to be the great equalizer. if you have a gift, follow it; and if there are problems along the way ie, the toffee-nosed kid you deal with them quickly and move on. Imagine, however, the film from Tony's point of view: fighting with other miners for a lost cause, finding your bother's gift lies in something for which you have no feeling; and come the conclusion you're back down the pit for a while longer before probable unemployment, and the closest you get to an exciting life is vicariously following your brother's? Such a position would no longer be that of the sixties gifted against aristocratic superiors, in the tradition of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but instead the nineties 'mediocre' at odds with the nineties meritocratic.
Yet to some degree that has been the position several recent British films have adopted and nevertheless still come away with feelgood endings. The Match, Up 'n' Under, Brassed Off and The Full Monty are about triumphal mediocrity as opposed to the triumphal meritocracy of Billy Elliot, Little Voice, and also perhaps Shallow Grave, Shooting Fish. and Trainspotting. The quality of the latter, shouldn't blind us to the meritocratic aspect: that Renton is smarter than the others and deserves to escape his milieu. The former films emphasise humanist collective values; in the latter, talent and intelligence are foregrounded. In some ways, though, the former films are as if shadowed by the latter as though the mediocrity of The Full Monty etc. is being commented upon by the 'gifted' works. In fact, the triumphantly mediocre films all utilise a character at one remove from the mediocrity presented, a kind of 'mediocratic' slummer. In The Match, it is a former professional player who refuses to join the team; in Up 'n' Under a gifted female rugby player who joins in. In The Full Monty it is central character Robert Carlyle's son, and in Brassed Off it is the father-figure Pete Posthlewaite. They are like condescension buffers, characters the film can cut to when what we are witnessing doesn't meet with our own 'value system', and yet which leave us inside the film rather than patronisingly superior to it.
But clearly what the triumphal genre in all its forms does is sub-textually vindicate meritocracy. If L. V. in Little Voice and Billy in Billy Elliot are unequivocally talented, then by the same reckoning we are aware that the triumphal mediocrity films deal with varying degrees of meagre talent from the competent brass band in Brassed Off to the generally incompetent strippers in The Full Monty. And here might be a good place to return to the notion of competition. From the perspective of both the triumphally gifted and the triumphally mediocre, we are implicated in a meritocratic value system, in the sixties films usually the issue of talent wasn't too important. If one were talented this was taken as a given. In This Sporting Life, the rise to the top is abrupt and of little narrative importance it doesn't become central to the film's drive. It is instead vital to the socio-ethical focus. Whether a film had a potentially competitive theme like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or This Sporting Life, or not Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving, or Billy Liar, it didn't matter.
More important were the questions thrown up by the situation the characters found themselves in. For the young boy in Loneliness... it was about escaping establishment values; in Billy Liar, the importance of flight from his office environment, and in A Kind of Loving, the central characters' determination to avoid living with his royalist, Conservative mother-in-law. These were less about moves towards something than as away from something, The narratives were less triumphantly competitive than tentatively individualistic. Critics of the time may have felt that Kitchen Sink films lacked "the unique quality of an individual life, and, according to Peter Harcourt, "settled instead for a pictorial demonstration of what is already known to be there" (Sight and Sound), but even then one sensed not so much the filmmakers' political assumptions but the expression of their socio-ethical doubt. The nineties films generally remove the socio-ethical and focus instead on the drama of singular purpose.
Thus we can see the sixties films rejecting the nanny state beliefs of Queen and Country, of aristocratic superiority ameliorated by Beveridge's social benefits, for something searching and unknown. Most of the recent films play like extended versions of the earlier mentioned lottery flutter. Whether it be Billy Elliot getting into ballet school, L.V. performing at a nightclub, the brass band in Brassed Off maybe winning a competition, or The Full Monty team willing to strip naked, the sense of purpose, competitiveness and a binary notion of will they or won't they all superimpose themselves on any socio-political interrogation. Here meritocracy isn't only the great equaliser. It is also the great assumption. We can all engage on some level with the competitive instincts the films seem to say.
Yet can we? Noam Chomsky reckons meritocracies, "in so far as they exist at all, are simply a social malady to be overcome much as slavery had to be eliminated at an earlier stage of human history." For it is in social democracies, as James Kelman suggests in an essay from whence the Chomsky quote comes, that "a twenty-year-old will begin his or her working life at a salary some two or three times that of a woman or man who has spent thirty years working on a factory production line." (Edinburgh Review) The cheerful coda in Billy Elliot is more or less a fictional embodiment of this fact. The father and son are at best we can surmise still working down the pit, while Billy earns his meritocratic wage in London. That the ending could have been played for a politically inflected anger, rather than triumphal optimism might have removed a few million from the film's box-office takings. But it would have been more likely to have added something to British film culture. It would have interrogated the images it creates with more vigour. This isn't to ask for a left-wing message; merely to have avoided an un-interrogated neo-liberal one. It seems the future will not be so kind to these films as they have been kind to their audience. Works like Nil By Mouth, Under the Skin, Beautiful Thing and Ratcatcher, perhaps Wonderland and I Want You, better define both working-class lives and the possibilities available to British film.
© Tony McKibbin