The Nervous Disposition
Mike Leigh is a master of dialogue that is often devoid of semantic content but full of human feeling and nervous exhaustion. There is much conversation in cinema that is brilliant, but relatively unattached to the person who speaks it, and this can create an interesting gap between the words spoken and the person saying them. From Cary Grant to Bette Davis, from Barbara Stanwyck to Clarke Gable, the words can be extricated from actor and character and still retain most of their effects. This isn't at all to undermine such fine technical delivery, and it's no accident that certain actors were given such great dialogue, with the writers and directors well aware that these were actors who could deliver it with lan. Whether it is the opening exchange between Fred MacMurray and Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, or Rosalind Russell and Grant's witty exchanges at the beginning of His Girl Friday in the newspaper office, this is top-notch yet extractable dialogue: the words hold up as quotation It is very different from the sort of conversation we find in Mike Leigh's work, and partly why Leigh's famous improvisatory methods are vital to his film's use of language. There are numerous conversations in Meantime that possess meaning through the meaningful texture of the character, and not the verbal surface of the language used. There is a scene early in the film where Auntie Barbara says to her husband that her nephew Mark has a particular sense of humour that the husband just can't see, and while she makes a fair point we can also understand the husband's bemusement. Mark's is hardly an a priori wit, more a jaundiced perspective, a point of view on the world that he believes is linked to possessing principles, a point he makes to Barbara late in the film.
However, as we may note that Mark (Phil Daniels) is not obviously witty, so neither is he especially politically astute. When he offers his remarks to Barbara, they come clouded in resentment and contempt, and while the film seems to respect their base ("the point about Mark is that he's a proper person and a good egg" Leigh says in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh), we cannot help but feel at the same time their wisdom is countered by Mark's acidity and disregard for Barbara's feelings. The comment comes after Barbara's tried to employ Mark's younger brother to help her with the painting and decorating, believing that the asocial, perhaps autistic, unemployed Colin (Tim Roth) may benefit from some casual work. Mark is more concerned that the wealthier Barbara, the middle-class member of the family, has simply bought Colin off and will use him as a house servant. It is a sour perspective, and throughout Meantime comments are neither well-made nor well-meant, and this could create an exasperated sense of empathy fatigue on the part of the viewer expecting a character either to be good or witty. Yet Leigh's film while fitting into his oeuvre also seems very much of its time, a film of ressentiment, of resentment, that tries to understand exactly what was happening to the working classes as Thatcherite expectation took hold. Bloody Kids, Scum, Rude Boy, Look and Smiles and even the period set Quadrophenia, as well as the slightly later Meantime, seemed to contain a post-punk ethos, a sort of cinematic inversion of Harold Macmillan's claim in 1957 that most of the British public had never had it so good. Through the sort of improvisatory methods Leigh searches out, he also captures marvellously the problem of ressentiment as a verbal incapacitating. The film is political, but tries to find within politics an exploration of self that is undermined by the political but not quite shaped by it. As Leigh says, in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, in a scene where a couple visit Marx's graveside in High Hopes "it's a mistake to decode what's happening in that scene exclusively, in terms of what's happening between them politically." Leigh insists "the characters are like real people, and other stuff is going on that isn't directly related to the main theme in an obvious way."
Leigh's comments on the political here are consistent with how we're reading the dialogue. Just as we're claiming that in classic Hollywood, dialogue is more easily extricated from character than in Leigh's work, so in political cinema, the political dimension can be extricated from the character expressing it. This is partly what critic Judith Williamson once meant when saying in saying in a Sight and Sound review that there was always a keynote speech in Ken Loach's films; that there is a scene that sums up not especially a character's perspective, more the socio-political circumstances. Though Loach's films are more humanly precise than many critics claim, it's nevertheless a fair comment in comparison with Leigh, where any hint of a keynote speech is contained by the nervous system and value system of the character expressing it. For example the most sympathetic character in Meantime might well be the council officer who visits the flat Mark, Colin and their parents share. Yet as he talks about intending to grow his own vegetables, and reckoning a barter system is better than capitalism, there is at the same time a flaky, stoned delivery that can't be subtracted from the message delivered.
We may say this is because the nervous system is what interests Leigh more than the conversationally witty or the politically expressed, and one could do worse than look at the film as an exploration of nervous states, assuaged in various forms but never really overcome. Most of the characters are into fags or booze and sometimes both, and while there is no actual evidence to say that the council officer is stoned during his visit, his manner suggests so. Numerous characters seem to require the immediate fix of cigarettes or alcohol and there is one great moment where Barbara's sister - and the boys' mother - fidgets around in frustration in her chair, clearly looking for some sort of expressive release, and settles for a cigarette instead. In another scene, Colin stands at the laundry about to do the washing for his mum, and asks her for money to buy some fags. The thought of standing in one place for an hour without a cigarette seems impossible. The pub and the dole office are both locales swirled in smoke, as though Leigh finds an astute equational metonym for 'idleness' - nervous energy requires release and cannot find it in employment and settles for it in the cigarette. Most important of all in this context is Barbara, who, after Colin's harsh barb about principles, and after he asks why she doesn't have any kids, gets hopelessly drunk and is crouched in the corner when her husband comes home from work.
Though Leigh insists his characters are real people, we may say they are and they are not: they're more especially nervous systems, and not only here of course but in many of his films. Think of the nervous social butterfly played by Alison Steadman in Abigail's Party, the bulimic, emotionally and intellectually frustrated Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet, David Thewlis's twitchy articulacy in Naked, and Katrin Cartlidge's nervy, mental speedball in Career Girls. It is why the social and the political cannot readily be separated from the character who speaks. It is not that they're so clearly strong characters; more that they have unique nervous energy. Bette Davis's Margot Channing in All About Eve is arguably a stronger character than any Leigh has created, but for all her cigarette smoking she remains a character whose dialogue can be removed from the situation, rather like Oscar Wilde's can. Such extrication is perhaps almost the definition of good dialogue, but that is not at all the same thing as good conversation, and though screenwriting manuals often differentiate dialogue from conversation by saying dialogue is the essentials of conversation with the inessential removed, Leigh, indebted as he admits to Beckett and Pinter, offers conversation as astutely as other writers offer dialogue. "You mustn't forget the influence of Beckett and Pinter on my work", he says in Leigh on Leigh, and we may note an exchange in Pinter's The Dumb Waiter that resembles exchanges in Meantime. Ben "You never used to ask me so many damn questions. What's come over you?" Gus: "No, I was just wondering." Ben: "Stop wondering. You've got a job to do. Why don't you just do it and shut up?" Gus: "That's what I was wondering about." Ben: "What?" Gus: "The job" Ben "What job?" This isn't very different from the exchange in the laundry between Colin and his mum. As his mum explains how to use the machines, Colin says he knows, and Mavis replies that she knows he knows, and goes on to tell him anyway. Afterwards he asks for fag money and she says what does he want fag money for, and he replies 'cigarettes.' She tells him to get his own; and he replies "I ain't got no money". Such conversation is different from dialogue not because it comes straight from life, obviously not, but that it comes from the sort of life that dialogue tends to ignore: interested as it usually is in the heightened wit as mastered by Oscar Wilde, or the expositional demands of narrative cinema. In each instance - in wit and exposition - the dialogue gives the impression of speed and movement. Leigh is interested much more in generating inertia in the repetitive, circular exchanges.
However, within this deadened energy there is at the same time nervous energy, and we've mentioned the ways in which this can be contained without remotely being expelled. To have a cigarette is to contain energy; to go for a walk is to expel it. If Mark is the most agreeable character in the film it is not that he is especially sympathetic and basically good as Leigh claims; more that he is the character who seems most likely to find an outlet for the dead energy within him. When Leigh says in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, "It's not insignificant that you see him walk across Trafalgar Square, which is why we went to the trouble of shooting there," insisting "it's a really important moment because you place him in a familiar worldly environment, away from the stifling flat", one may note it is less the symbolic potential in the scene that counts; more the ambulatory freedom we observe. As Leigh shoots using a long lens, we see that Mark has space in every sense of the term, where numerous scenes in the flat are shot using a lens of short focal length that cramps the characters, and are sometimes accompanied by a fixed framing that adds to the inertia.
In a scene where the washing machine break down, Leigh and his cinematographer Roger Pratt use a fixed frame low angle as the characters move in and out of the shot, trying to get the machine to work. All we see are the lower half of the characters' bodies. Any attempt to fix the machine is contained by the inertness of the framing, so as the characters half-heartedly kick it or slap it, we note less the effort of repair, than the characters' own emotional disrepair. The scene resembles one later in the film where a window collapses and Mavis and her husband Frank squabble over trying to put it back in its place. In another scene of formal inertia, Leigh frames the characters' entrances and exists as Colin spends too much time in the toilet; the cramped flat captured in the cramped framing. In each instance, in the formal restrictions mentioned, as well as the arguments over getting something done in relation to the washing machine and the window, Leigh zeroes in on contained, implosive energy.
Such a fascination with repressed energy can usefully link up with Leigh's famous improvisatory methods. He doesn't work from a script; he works from actors moving towards creating characters: the script comes out of these improvisations. The method can allow for the sense of a character not acting in screen space, but with a history that the narrative action merely symptomizes. As he says in an interview with The Independent, "In all the preparatory rehearsals for my film, I get the actors to live through the years in the characters lives in order to arrive at the point in time where I finally drop anchor." For example, when Mavis and Frank fuss over the window, or when Mark asks Barbara near the end of the film why she never had kids, the dialogue exchange isn't kinetic, it's absorbent. Mark leaves and later we see Barbara slumped in the corner of the upstairs bedroom she is decorating. Just as there is so much repressed energy in Leigh's films, the improvisatory method seems to allow for a higher degree of repressed memory also. "You see it a lot in my films," Leigh says in an interview with The Scotsman "there's a whole kind of sense of the past catching up with the present." Exactly what has Mark tapped into in probing Barbara we may wonder? Leigh remembers, he says in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, "being very aware of - satisfied or pleased about, I suppose - the distilled clear narrative development of Meantime." He was pleased that "it finally tells a story in a very implicit and elliptical way but with a very clear narrative."
Leigh achieves this by combining formal rigour with thematic consistency, and allies it to his improvisatory method that suggests there is more to a character than the immediacy of his actions. Many actors quite literally go through the motions - the series of actions that the narrative requires. The motions in Leigh's work are the accumulation of improvisatory possibilities of which only a handful become the characters' actions in the film. If one reason why in most other filmmakers' movies, the gestures seems consistent to the job to hand, while in Leigh's the job to hand seems to do little more than release the symptoms that sit inside his characters, is this due to the improvisational method adopted?
We don't want to offer intentional fallacies, here. What we have is the final result, but certainly Leigh more than most directors gives us reserves of bodily energy, pockets of neurosis, that creates a strangely rich sub-text to his work. Whether it is Gary Oldman's character ready to give but finally receiving abuse in a lift, as his face registers a handful of mixed feelings, or Colin at the end of the film finally showing signs of resistance, Leigh gives credence to a title that indicates less character at the service of action, than at the service of what the French critics call temps mort - dead time. Meantime is closer to unemployed time, and few films have better caught the problem of wasted lives. "The general feeling in 1983, when we made Meantime", he says in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, was massively different to when we made High Hopes five years later, by which time [Thatcher] was obviously an epidemic." Leigh, then, focuses on the inarticulacies and frustrations of his characters, but there is clearly at the same time a low-key exploration and anger at the political situation hovering over the film, and one that was clearly only going to get worse.
© Tony McKibbin