While Ken Loach is well-known for his political position as a socialist, someone who was entirely supportive of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party, and consistently condemnatory over austerity measures, looking once again at his 1970 film Kes, we see a filmmaker who offers a vision very far from the propaganda merchant he is often perceived to be by the British press. "The tired cliches about different classes flow unstoppably in Ken Loach's The Spirit of 45" (Telegraph) offers the headline to a Charles Moore article. Toby Young says, "I'm no expert on the welfare system, but several aspects of I, Daniel Blake don't ring true," adding, "perhaps I'm missing the point of I, Daniel Blake. Maybe it's not supposed to be a realistic portrait of what life is like for people at the bottom of society. Maybe it is just intended to signal to all Loach's admirers what a compassionate fellow he is." (Daily Mail) Moore is an old Etonian who went to Cambridge and is famous for, amongst other things, writing very fondly of Thatcher. Young is distantly related to Robert Moorsom who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, while his father was a Labour life peer, a sociologist well-known for coining the term meritocracy. Both Young and Moore make their living as Right-Wing mouthpieces and wouldn't be inclined to see in Loach's work much of political merit.
But what if they have a point? We may or may not dismiss their political position, and hardly expect them to be sympathetic to Loach's, and we cannot expect from either of them much aesthetic nuance in their attacks, but when we look at earlier Loach works like Kes, Family Life, and Looks and Smiles, and contrast them with Sweet Sixteen, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry, I Missed You, there is a determinism in the later films missing from the earlier ones, a sense in which Loach's screenwriter for the last twenty-plus years, Paul Laverty, has turned Loach's nuanced mise en scene into a more programmatic form of melodrama. Our argument with films like I, Daniel Blake isn't at all political; indeed one might say the more narratively focused and manipulative the work, the better it is for the message to get through. Yet it would be remiss to claim Loach as an important filmmaker and attend more to his work's political success over its aesthetic subtlety. It would be no less remiss to suggest that Loach's films have completely changed from the earlier work to the more recent ones. There is still interest in prioritising the details of people's lives even if they are now contained by an undeniable political agenda. As Laverty says of I, Daniel Black: "you're always trying to find shortcuts and situations that are revealing of a much bigger picture. To do it economically and also memorably, and also dramatically. So the big challenge in this one was to dramatize a bureaucracy, which is quite hard to do. You have to forget what you've learned, and then create the characters, but you're informed." (No Film School) In Kes, the political purpose is harder to locate, and all the better for the difficulty of its location.
Our aim here is really twofold: to indicate how Loach in Kes creates a consistent ambiguity of situation and character, and secondly to suggest that what runs through the film is a naturalistic violence that gives to the realism an edge which is then softened by the natural environment, one that surrounds the industrialised town in which the film is set. In an afterward to a 1999 edition to the book upon which the film is based, the author Barry Hines (who also co-wrote the script) says, a question I am asked, particularly in the south of England, is how I know so much about the countryside if I come from Barnsley. It's an ignorant question but understandable, because many people still have a vision of the north filled with 'dark satanic mills', mines and factories, and not a blade of grass in sight." Hines wryly acknowledges that "when I try to explain that the mining village in which I was born and brought up just a few miles from Barnsley was surrounded by woods and fields, I can tell they don't believe me." (A Kestrel for a Knave) The word often used to describe these liminal places is 'edgelands', Marion Shoard's term for parts of the country that are between town planning and rural land. This is vital to the story's relationship with nature. The naturalist aspect comes from Zola, where he says "the experimental novel is a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century; it continues and completes physiology, which itself leans for support on chemistry and medicine; it substitutes for the study of the abstract and the metaphysical man the study of the natural man, governed by physical or chemical laws, and modified by the influences of his surroundings; it is in one word the literature of our scientific age, as the classical and romantic literature corresponded to a scholastic and theological age." Zola reckons too that, "after having explained the experimental considerations common to living beings and to inanimate, Claude Bernard passes to the experimental considerations which belong specially to living beings. The great and only difference is this, that there is presented to our consideration, in the organism of livings beings, a harmonious group of phenomena. He then treats of practical experiments on living beings, of vivisection, of the preparatory anatomical conditions, of the choice of animals, of the use of calculation in the study of phenomena, and lastly of the physiologist's laboratory." ('The Experimental Novel') Man is an animal and ought to be treated as such and studied in the context of the environment that produces him. This needn't imply a negative judgment but more a statement of fact. An artist's purpose isn't to find the characters' souls but to indicate the nature of their circumstances. Thus much of the constant cruelty and misery evident in Zola's work stems from the characters' biological histories and the milieu in which the characters are brought up. In Loach's terms, the naturalist elements come up against the natural world and the film shows how the central character Billy Casper feels worthless in one and released in the other.
Out of this combination of open nature and oppressive nurture, Loach keeps this entangled and complicated, suggesting that a character's violence and aggression is almost inevitable in an environment where everyone is feeling pushed and prodded into narrow social conditioning that they cannot escape within that milieu. By indicating that Billy (Dai Bradley) isn't just a victim but also an oppressor, by showing that he is very much the person others prejudicially proclaim him to be, Loach keeps his aesthetic fluid and his message vague but enormous; in his more recent work, it is clearer but shrunken. Laverty says, "It was a political decision to go for the weakest and the humblest. Civil servants talked of low-lying fruit. They're easy to pick off. They didn't go against the corporations and the people who have got armies of lawyers and accountants to set up their systems and bogus headquarters. That's the mirror image of what's happened to Daniel Blake. The government doesn't target those people. They target the lowest." (No Film School) Here he proposes that the powerful put down the weak but Loach's work at its best has consistently shown that the weak persecute the weaker still. It is partly why in Loach's cinema there are very rarely people of absolute authority government ministers, bankers and the media he is interested in a Zola-esque inevitability that, if a person is from a consistently impoverished environment, one cannot expect them to treat others well when they are fighting for a share of those resources.
Here we can think of the scene where various kids are hauled into the headmaster's office for various minor to non-existent misdemeanours. As they wait before going in, another kid joins them. While the others are scruffily attired, the little boy wears a neat grey V-neck jumper and a tie. He is probably a teacher's pet and a bit of a swot and he only joins the queue because he has a message to deliver to the headmaster. Before going in, the other boys give him their fags; that while they will all be searched, the little boy won't be since he is only there to deliver a message. But the headmaster has no yen for nuance and as far he is concerned anybody who ends up in his office is there for a good belting. All the kids are asked to empty their pockets and at the end of the line is the little boy who while trying to explain why he is there gets asked too to empty his pockets. "A regular little cigarette factory aren't you," the headmaster Gryce says as he puts the fags on the table and they all go on to receive a caning. But it would be wrong to assume this is simply a terrible case of injustice, though it happens to be; we should also acknowledge that it is the case of relative injustice: some are a bit more deserving of the unjust justice than others. It was Billy who put his arm around the little boy's neck as the others persuaded him to hide the cigarettes. Billy may be a skinny, underdeveloped fifteen-year-old but the boy he holds around the neck is smaller and younger. Billy isn't just a put-upon teen in a tough school; he is one of the teens who push others around as well, given a chance. Speaking about the question of evil, Loach reckons "I think 'evil' is a confusing word, really. People do bad things, or bad things happen, there will be destructive, violent tendencies and movements and events; but history is cause and effect, isn't it? Everything comes from somewhere." (High Profiles) Loach believes that socialism explains behaviour much more coherently than general notions of evil, saying too that "Marxism is the fundamental analysis of how societies develop, how class interests develop, how they express themselves, how they conflict - and also how capital has worked, how it developed from feudalism and so on. It's been endlessly refined, but that's the template you can put on society and everything fits. It does fit." (High Profiles) Billy does bad things too but we can see the logic at work since the milieu expects people to assert themselves as well as they can in situations that indicate fairness is secondary to forms of aggression. When Gryce harangues the kids as they come into the office, there is no indication that he is interested in justice nor even punishment as a deterrent. If he were interested in the former he would have listened to the little boy explain why he was there and the boy wouldn't have been belted. If he was interested in the latter he wouldn't bother belting the boys because he knows it won't make any difference. He will continue to use the cane "knowing fully well that you'll be back for it time and time again. You smokers will go out of here with your hands ringing, but will it stop you from smoking? You're already looking forward to smoking at break..." Corporal punishment won't make any difference to the boys so who does it make a difference to? The answer will be that it makes a difference to Gryce. He can offload his anger and frustration and add to the general aggression in the milieu without adding anything to fairness or justice.
It is in such an instance one sees the naturalistic violence that runs concurrently with but isn't the same thing as Loach's socialist logic, even if the two dovetail in a way that brings out Loach's singularity as a filmmaker. When Zola discusses naturalism in 'The Experimental Novel', he says that the writer is both observer and experimentalist: he looks carefully at a certain set of conditions and then offers an experiment within these conditions to see what happens when he "sets his characters going in a certain story so as to show that the succession of fact will be such as the requirements of the determinism of the phenomena under examination call for." The novelist 'proves' his thesis the way a scientist shows that his method generates certain results. But there is also in Zola's work a fascination with violence and a drive towards our own demise. As Louis-Ferdinand Celine believed, "the present unanimous sadism proceeds above all from a desire for nothingness profoundly installed in man, and especially in the masses, a sort of almost irresistible amorous unanimous impatience for death." ('Homage to Zola') Kes manages to combine an interest in the social conditions that make clear a socio-economic injustice, one that reveals the cruel logic of capitalism, but it also simultaneously shows a naturalistic impulse towards harm and pain. Anybody who watches Kes and sees only the socially unfair and has nothing to say about cruelty hasn't been watching the film too closely.
We can think of another scene. After the football game, the PE master Mr Sugden (Brian Glover) insists Billy can't go home until he's had a shower. Sugden well knows that the boy is unlikely to have a towel since he didn't have a pair of shorts with him before the game and he had to borrow a pair about three sizes too big for him. Billy is probably aware that his protestations count for nothing and sure enough Sugden forces him to borrow a towel and take a shower. But it isn't enough to push Billy into the shower against his will; Sugden keeps him there after the other boys have left and turns the main water supply onto the cold as Billy tries to dodge from one cold shower head to the next. Sugden (who was on Billy's team) thinks it serves him right: Sugden accuses Billy of letting in a goal he could have stopped and this is Sugden teaching him a lesson. However, as in the scene with Gryce, there is little sense of a person in authority teaching the youngsters right from wrong; they instead illustrate might is right as a disposition. This isn't Freud's superego at work as those in positions of authority inculcate into the young a value system that can create an ethical distance between people's desires and their duties. It is instead a perversion of the superego as the manifestation of the id. The teachers are as impulsive as the kids but with the power to turn that impulse into a justification. Gryce and Sugden present themselves to themselves as people who have to force errant kids to see the error of their ways, while what we are seeing is an even greater error and errancy as people with power pretend they aren't practicing sadistic behaviour.
It is this consistent interest in violence that gives to Loach's work a problem that his socialist politics cannot wish away, even if one might insist that the more equitable the social system the less opportunity there will be for such hierarchical aggression. Yet in Kes and Raining Stones, Riff Raff and others too, there is also a need to dispel energy as violence, to take one's frustrations out on others who are usually lower down the chain. Would a properly socialist aesthetic only punch up, seeing those at the bottom fighting against those further up the social scale? That is a high hope. Rather than viewing Loach's work as a late example of socialist realism, better to see it instead as socialist naturalism, with the need for a better society clearly evident, but contained within it an impulsive approach to existence that we cannot say is either a product of a society that has not yet achieved the fundamental socialist principles Loach seeks, or will be unable to do so because of the sort of death drive and aggression Celine sees and that Zola's work so consistently presented. When Loach is asked about the failures of Marxism, he says, "but then it ceases to be Marxist, doesn't it? Like Stalinism, which destroyed the Russian Revolution in its infancy." (High Profiles) We might wonder if the continuation of aggression in societies based on the equitable suggests that our nature won't allow for such equality, or that if society achieves for any length of time a sense of fairness it may eventually impact enough on our established character. Whatever Loach's personal views on such utopian possibilities, the reality of his work, like Zola's, indicates a struggle greater than merely taking on and overcoming bourgeois society. When Zola says what matters is "the introduction of observation and experiment in literature" ('The Experimental Novel') he means that the wishes of man are secondary to the reality of that condition. He is against abstract systems and believes that one observes the world with due diligence, removing from it mystification and superstition, romanticism and metaphysics. Many will claim that such a hope contains an epistemological optimism that anyone from Celine to Heisenberg would call into question but let us say that nevertheless it has validity. If Kes is both empirical and experimental in the Zola-esque sense, it means that Loach has set his film in a mining village and wishes to understand what chance a young boy has of being happy in such an environment given the variables involved. He and his brother Jud have been brought up by their mum, with at least one absentee father (there is the suggestion they have different dads), living on a housing estate where everybody there is deemed suspicious ("they're all alike off that estate"), and where the school staff take for granted that kids such as Billy are hopeless cases, evident in the headmaster's speech. It is also a village where work opportunities are limited unless a school leaver is keen to go down the mine. The town may be surrounded by woodlands that shows a broader world, and this is where of course Loach emphasises Billy's capacity for escape as he becomes fascinated by the kestrel of the title. People saw potential hope in the film partly because of this, that Billy's skill with the bird shows a way with animals that indicates he might be able to get job in a zoo. But for Loach this "misses the entire point, because if it's not Billy who's going to be exploited as unskilled labour, it's going to be someone else who's in that predicament." (Loach on Loach) Even if the variables Loach shows us allow for the possibility of isolated hope, Loach insists instead that he must emphasise a broader social despair. The type of empiricism he practises, the type of naturalist realism he insists upon, would seem a cop-out if he showed an opt-out, even if mining towns will be surrounded by nature. The variables indicate a pessimistic conclusion rather than an optimistic one and Loach would be cheating on his empirical observations if he offered a happy ending. Yet perhaps most central to this empirical observation is a consistent underlying violence that proposes the bird must be treated with the aggression meted out by those in the community when a bird enters into that community as well. One might wish that the bird fulfils its function as a symbol of escape but Loach's naturalist, impulsive aesthetic makes clear that the kestrel is just the weakest creature that becomes implicated in the brutality of the urban environment.
One sees such aggression even in the comic Billy reads. Sitting down on a hill that looks down on the colliery, smoke belching out of the chimneys, Billy becomes engrossed in a cartoon hero. The comic's first line goes "Desperate Dan is stronger than all." Another character has spilt grease so that Dan can't fight back but once he discovers what is happening he promptly punches the other character into "the middle of next week." This brief scene, with close-ups of the comic sketches, is there to tell us about Billy's need for escape, one he finds more fruitfully with the kestrel, but it also proposes that, from a certain point of view, Desperate Dan is more plausible an escapism than Billy's love for the bird. Desperate Dan shows that might is right, that mimicking the violence of Dan makes more sense than trying to nurture a bird albeit of prey. Next to the preying of humans upon other humans, the kestrel takes on an innocuous form. When Loach says that viewers proposing that Billy could get a job in a zoo misses the point, it resides in this just being a variation of the physical hierarchy Loach examines. Yet the question lying at the centre of Loach's work is to what degree is violence inherent in character or a clear product of the environment? Loach reckoned, speaking to Richard Porton in 1998, "political optimism comes from the long term, the hope that class forces will change and that there will be a dynamic situation. In personal terms, the characters are in the here and now, which is very shitty and very dark." (Cineaste) Here we have Loach's pessimism within his optimism, which makes him distinct from a socialist realist who is more inclined to channel the physical force of the proletariat into working class labour and revolutionary zeal. The working class is ennobled and proud in anything from literature to painting, sculpture to film. This would incorporate the paintings of Alexander Gerasimov and the films of Sergei Bondarchuk and Grigory Chukhray. There were noble paintings of Lenin and Stalin; peasants working the field, happy in contributing to the feeding of the state; revolutionaries protesting or rebelling. In Bondarchuk's Destiny of a Man, taken from a Sholokhov short story, and Chukray's Ballad of a Soldier, the films chart various acts of stoicism and heroism showing the great Mother Russia. There were many competent, even brilliant artists, writers and filmmakers during the Soviet years, but their socialist realist work was to promote a belief in the Soviet bloc. Loach's work need promote nothing; in this sense he is an agitational rather than a propagandistic director. Even when he makes films about active political struggle (Land and Freedom, Carla's Song, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) he emphasises contradiction and conflict, evident in the well-known and lengthy scene in Land and Freedom when the various figures of the left gather in the village hall and discuss the intricacies of social progress. There is no unanimity and even more than a hint of animosity. If the Right-Wing press, if Young and Moore, attack Loach as a propagandist, we are likely to find more disinformation in their prose than in Loach's cinema. When the Telegraph says Loach's films show "a dark, miserable land run by toffs and rapacious bankers", the paper should well know that Loach's films don't usually show who runs the country but only focuses on those from the unemployed to the working poor and up to the lower middle-classes. Social workers, teachers and prison officers appear often but not bankers, lords, ladies and politicians. They may implicitly be the targets but they are not usually explicitly on the screen. This suggests that finally Loach's work isn't chiefly about the class struggle but more the struggle within people who are put down and kept down, people trying to put food on the table and put shoes on their children's feet. When we look at the plots of many a Loach film one finds small-scale stories: a boy wishes to master and feed a bird, a father wishes to buy a communion dress for his daughter (Raining Stones), a boy wants to buy his incarcerated mother a caravan for when she gets out (Sweet Sixteen), a man wishes to kick the booze (My Name is Joe). Speaking of Raining Stones, Loach reckoned, "it's about people who are beaten down but not broken...It's also about different kinds of morality. There is nothing wrong with nicking a sheep off the moor to sell to a butcher or nicking the turf off the conservative party bowling green. That's fair game. But don't prey on your own kind, as the loan shark does that's unacceptable." (Loach on Loach) The brutality of the elite isn't generally shown in Loach's cinema; it is more the brutality of those who probably started near the bottom and who want to get closer to the top the loan shark in Raining Stones, the gangster in Sweet Sixteen, the building site manager in Riff Raff who sacks a key character for seeking safer working conditions. Often there are people clearly doing the bidding for those higher up but the properly wealthy remain absent presences in Loach's work.
One wonders whether this rests on Loach's interest in the pressure cooker atmosphere of poverty over the revolutionary struggle. By focusing not on the class struggle as a binary system of rich and poor but as a fight where the impoverished try and survive while retaining their dignity, Loach shows people fighting amongst themselves in often the most vicious terms. You don't go to a Loach film looking for positive representations; you go to understand better why the ostensibly negative representations are inevitable given the nature of people's circumstances. Someone may see a Loach film and feel either that he has created the put-upon poor or the fecklessly impoverished but to take either stance to feel pity or contempt would be to miss the point as clearly as those wishing for Billy to work in a zoo. Returning to Zola's essay on experimental literature, we may say Loach sets out the givens of an environment and sees the options available within those givens. As Zola says: "the observer in him gives the facts as he has observed them, suggests the point of departure, displays the solid earth on which his characters are to tread and the phenomena to develop. Then the experimentalist appears and introduces an experiment, that is to say, sets his characters going in a certain story so as to show that the succession of facts will be such as the requirements of the determinism of the phenomena under examination call for." ('The Experimental Novel') The experiment rests on laying out the methodology and seeing the options available for characters within it. By analogy to Loach's earlier remark about stealing turf or a bit of meat we can see how this plays out in Kes we notice to what degree a character acts well or badly given the environment they are caught within. In the first twenty minutes of the film we see Billy steal three times: a chocolate bar in the newsagents where he works; a bottle of milk from a float during his paper round, and a book from the local bookstore. None of these would be troublesome thefts from a Loachian perspective. It instead shows Billy's resourcefulness. But when the brother kills the bird it is close to the loan shark terrorising the family in Raining Stones. However, Jud and the loan shark's actions aren't inexplicable; it makes sense that if the family can't pay off their debt, or if Billy has failed to put the money down on the horses and the horses go on to win, that the characters are going to seek retribution. Nevertheless, we also sense that the loan shark enjoys terrorising people and that Jud is looking for any opportunity to offload his rage. The director's stance seems to be that people making sure their lives are okay no matter the illegality involved is acceptable, but that those looking to make other people's lives a misery is not. Perhaps this rests on the socialism Loach seeks within the naturalism he insists he must acknowledge. The thefts are what happens when people with too little seek just enough; the aggression of the loan shark and Jud is what happens when a naturalist streak, a violent impulse, courses through our lives and may or may not survive a properly fair society. Certainly, so often in Loach's films violence is presented as a response to frustration but there is more to it than that. If Loach's 'experimental cinema', in Zola-esque terms, shows us consistent aggression that indicates it is more than merely a product of the environment but might also be a condition of man, then this is also partly how Loach avoids the sort of propaganda Young, Moore and others insist upon seeing. Loach is not a socialist realist; the naturalist streak defies it.
Finally, we should also note that Loach's aesthetic resists the propagandistic, even if music is often used more insistently and manipulatively than Loach claims. He may say that "I think it's too easy to view a film as an opera where the music underscores the emotions." But he also reckons "But I think music can sometimes steer the audience in a way of looking at a scene." (Loach on Loach) In Kes, the music usually comes in when Billy's in nature or with the bird, emphasising a freedom the urban sounds deny him, yet one nevertheless feels it as an intrusion on the observational style Loach adopts. When the music is diegetic, it seems consistent with the visual aesthetic; when non-diegetic it imposes upon that visual aloofness a misplaced manipulation. When Jud and the boys' mother spend an evening at a local club we hear the band play in a manner consistent with the long lens cinematography Loach and his cameraman Chris Menges utilise. The non-diegetic music however works more like an audio-close up, taking us into a situation rather than observing it. Visually, Loach acknowledged the influence of the Czech cinema of the time on his work. Menges was employed as an assistant on Loach's compromised first feature, Poor Cow, and then worked as Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek's assistant on Lindsay Anderson's If...."That was a very positive experience for Chris in that it confirmed what he himself was thinking about in terms of how light should be photographed, about which lenses were sympathetic and which weren't, and about how to contain the action." When interviewer Graham Fuller asks Loach to be more specific, the director adds: "...it meant we could dispense with the idea that the actors having to hit their marks and that liberated them to move about at will." (Loach on Loach) It was a relationship with the image he would offer even when working with other cameramen, most especially Barry Aykroyd, who became Loach's main cinematographer in the 90s and 2000s. In such an approach, the actors aren't presenting the performance to the camera; instead, the camera seeks it out. During the sequence in the changing room before the kids go out onto the field, we watch while the camera pans across from one aisle of the changing room to another as Sugden browbeats a boy over using the word stimulating. Throughout, the camera remains at one remove from the situations as it eschews close ups and shot counter shots. As Sugden and the boy are in discussion, we remain throughout on Sugden's face in the medium distance while the boy, closer to us, remains with his back to the camera. Even if another filmmaker would choose to shoot the scene in a long take, the director might have been inclined to choose an angle more favourable to the audience's eye, one that would show both Sugden and the boy in side-elevation so that we would at least see part of both faces. Later, when the English teacher Farthing (Colin Welland) starts asking the boys questions, it initially opens on Farthing before cutting to the boys. Though the teacher asks more questions the film doesn't cut back to Farthing as he speaks but holds on the kids, and especially Billy, as the film only returns to the teacher when Billy exists his seat, goes to the blackboard and starts to explain to the other children the kestrel's existence. Again, Loach doesn't offer the viewer the privileged position they expect but an observational angle that shows rather than tells: one that suggests the lives it presents are not at the mercy of the action but that the action comes out of close observation of the lives.
It is in such a visual aesthetic we are close again to Zola, a sort of cinematic equivalent to the prose the French writer insisted upon. "We naturalistic novelists submit each fact to the test of observation and experiment, while the idealistic writer admits mysterious elements which escape analysis, and therefore remain in the unknown, outside of the influence of the laws governing nature. This question of the ideal, from the scientific point of view, reduces itself to a question of indeterminate or determinate...our human efforts is each day to reduce the ideal, to conquer truth from the unknown." ('The Experimental Writer') If Loach were a propagandist he would in Zola's terms be idealistic, but while it is definitely the case that Loach doesn't condescend towards the poor, it is partly because he does not, in his best work (and even usually in his worst), put them in pitiful situations that indicate their nobility and suffering. He instead focuses on their resourcefulness and spirit. They are not passive recipients of our pity but active agents of a very demarcated destiny. If there is a Dickensian side to Loach he is more inclined to focus on the Artful Dodger over Oliver Twist. He is aware that the lives he shows are limited and cannot expect from them either ready moral worthiness or a miraculous escape into a better existence. The nature of the premise insists on resolutions within those restrictions, such is the experiment Loach practices that is consistent with those of Zola's. However, there is also in both writer and filmmaker an interest in impulses that cannot be controlled and perhaps even extend beyond the parameters of the experiment. If Zola insists on the importance of natural science, and Loach on that of political science, then both also consistently show characters who cannot not only escape their predicament but cannot escape too their predisposition. It may be that Billy would be too fertile himself to work in a zoo, and might wish to escape so narrow a set of confines, and feel the animals should escape likewise. Would it be so hard to imagine a Billy who would open the cages and let the animals go free in a gesture of impulsive freedom that incorporates more than his own newfound, albeit more salubrious, entrapment? There is a self-destructive quality to many of Loach's characters. We have the title character's alcoholism in My Name is Joe, the truculent pride of Liam in Sweet Sixteen, Stevie's futile rebelliousness in Riff Raff, Maggie's anti-authoritarianism in Ladybird, Ladybird. Celine reckoned that "...one can obtain everything from an animal through gentleness and reason, while the great mass enthusiasms, the durable frenzies of the crowds are almost always stimulated, provoked, maintained by stupidity and brutality." ('Homage to Zola') When Jud kills the kestrel it is a terrible deed but it isn't an unmotivated one. His cruel act is a reaction to Billy's earlier impulsive decision to eschew putting money down on the horse. Sure, a punter reckons he thinks it might not be a good bet but Billy seems keen to keep the money for himself no matter. He just wants to be as sure as he can that the bet won't come good and Jud will not come after him. The horse wins and the enraged Jud eventually goes after the bird when Billy escapes his clutches. The film ends horribly but it would be erroneous to insist that Billy hadn't been partly responsible for the bird's demise. He well knows Jud is capable of violence and we're inclined to fret after Billy chooses to forego placing the bet. It is an avoidable tragedy: it is Billy's impetuous actions that lead to the bird dying. This is socialist naturalism at work, and runs through much of Loach's oeuvre. 'He's a hopeless case,' says Billy's mother and Chris Darke notes, "and she's not wrong". (Film Comment) There are indeed plenty of other hopeless cases too and much of the merit in the director's work rests on refusing false hope in his delineation of character and situation, aware that a better society needs to be in the offing but that human failings will hardly disappear immediately with it.
© Tony McKibbin