Questions of Realism
Dignifying the Vulnerable
When we muse over realism in cinema do we not often find ourselves thinking of vulnerability? We might call to mind numerous instances in the first, famous movement of the real in film, neo-realism. In films like Germany, Year Zero, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. we have the properly socially vulnerable. This tradition of vulnerability has continued in more modern variations, from A Woman Under the Influence, to Rosetta, to Sweet Sixteen.
We do not tend to think of action films or even horror films as concerned with vulnerability, even if in the former the heroes are often hurt (think of the damage done to poor Daniel Craig in Casino Royale and Skyfall), and in the latter the victims are often killed. We tend to watch the movies within a generic comfort zone: the characters' pain is frequently our pleasure. This suggests that vulnerability is socio-specific, and we often of course refer to society's most vulnerable. Even when the characters in realism act violently or appallingly, the film is interested not in how awful they are or how violent they might be, but in their humanity. Again we don't usually refer to the humanity of the action hero, nor of the horror protagonists. But in realism we do, and so it is useful to keep in mind a couple of comments on neo-realism to help us here. The first comes from director Roberto Rossellini who says he finds "whatever is astonishing, unusual and moving in men, it is precisely that great actions and great deeds come about in the same way, with the same resonance as normal everyday occurrences. (Cahiers Du Cinema: the Fifties) The second from critic Andre Bazin: "I am prepared to see the fundamental humanism of the current Italian films as their chief merit." In each instance they see realism as a movement of ethics, a moral system as much as an aesthetic wave. Bazin's additional remark here is very interesting. "They offer an opportunity to savor, before the time finally runs out on us, a revolutionary flavor in which terror has yet no part." ('An Aesthetic of Reality')
This is an interesting remark for various reasons, and comes from a writer not known for his revolutionary fervour; more his spiritual optimism. Perhaps Bazin sees in neo-realism an ameliorative hope over a didactic disaster. We should remember neo-realism is a post WWII movement. Film from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the twenties and thirties depicted revolution over evolution. It wasn't the common dignity of man that mattered, but man's subordination into great States. If we see in Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will the crowd; in neo-realism we see the individual. There will be street scenes with many people, but it is the solitary that usually proves central.
Let us start by thinking of Germany Year Zero, by Rossellini, and Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. by Vittorio de Sica. In Germany Year Zero we see a young boy wandering around Berlin just after the war, and trying to help his family make enough to survive. The film's first few minutes emphasise this very astutely as we see the boy digging graves apparently to make some money, trying to get some horse meat as a horse lies dead on the street, and picking up coal falling from a truck. When he gets home we see an overcrowded apartment and an argument over the electricity. If pre-war cinema frequently suggested the importance of the crowd, of the people as a collective force; films like Germany Year Zero point up the crowded: the idea that there isn't enough food and housing for all unless people stick together and work together.
This notion of overcrowding proves the film's theme and story as Germany Year Zero horrifically explores what happens when a Nazi perspective finds it ways into the boy's head. Under the influence of a schoolteacher still sympathetic to Nazi ideology, young Edmund puts poison in his sick father's tea, convinced he is a burden to the family. But it is also constantly in the film's mise-en scene: as the film gives us a visual sense in which there isn't enough to go around. Berlin is reduced to rubble, so houses are scarce, and this is where Rossellini acknowledges the importance of dwelling on place over narrative momentum. In many films the location is a setting, whether filmed on location or in a studio, the space is only as vividly present as the story would seem to need. But for Rossellini he wants to show not what will push the story along, but what will expand our sense of the man, woman or child at the film's centre. As he says: "I have tried to express the soul, the light that is inside these men, their reality in its absolute uniqueness, attached to an individual with all the meaning of the things that are around him. For the things that are around him have a meaning, since there is someone who looks at them..." (Cahiers du Cinema: The Fifties) Some might see Edmund with his bright blonde hair as too neat and tidy a figure for Rossellini's despairing tale, but we could see him instead as a spiritual figure of light caught in a spiral of moral darkness. We would not at all say that Edmund is a bad boy; he is a good one in a bad environment. Rossellini's purpose is to suggest the deprivation of the milieu and the possibility in the human soul. The film does not end well, but from another perspective it ends the only way it can if a person is to protect their spiritual dignity in the face of social scarcity. One reason why Rossellini is so highly regarded, and a director who goes beyond the movement of which he was a key figure, resides in him seeing in people something far in excess of the limits evident in the immediate environment.
In this sense Germany Year Zero is a much 'deeper' film than Bicycle Thieves. De Sica's film is more strongly plotted and more sentimentally narrated. We don't possess ambivalent feelings for the father and son as they search for the dad's bike after it has been stolen. We feel for their plight; we don't fret over their behaviour. Even when the father steals someone else's bike near the end in a moment of desperation, we do not believe he has lost his soul (as Edmund does when he kills his father); we believe he has very temporarily lost his head. It is the difference between an irrevocable act and an revocable one. There is nothing Edmund can do to bring his father back; in Bicycle Thieves all the dad has to do is promptly hand the bicycle he steals back after getting caught. The father and son are vulnerable figures in the Rome milieu, but their story is mundane; Edmund's exceptional.
Yet the mundane nature of it would be part of De Sica and his screenwriter Cesare Zavattini's point. As Zavattini says: "the cinema's overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world. And, incidentally, it is what distinguishes "neo-realism" from the American cinema." This is where Zavattini will talk of "social attention", believing "that the world is getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage himself in tracing the roots of this problem." ('Some Ideas on the Cinema') This is central to our own argument and to the notion of vulnerability and realism. It coincides with Bazin's comment about a fundamental humanism that can counter revolutionary terror. Things will get worse, as Zavattini notes, if we keep ignoring what is in front of our eyes. This is the human vulnerability of the people, and also of course the ways in which the poor will exploit each other to survive. In the scene where Antonio's bike gets stolen, we watch as one man stand next to the dad as he puts up posters, his bike standing against the wall, while a teenager comes and steals the bike. The man is there for a reason: to block the dad when he tries to chase after the boy who has stolen his bicycle, but he does so as if an innocent citizen just enquring about what has happened. We sense not only the corruption of isolated individuals, but a corrupting milieu. We can see this in how the sequence is filmed. Another filmmaker might play up the suspense in the theft, turning it into a sequence of manipulation. It is the case that the scene cuts far more than we might hope in a film claiming to attend to the real, but we still believe we are in a film about poverty rather than a film about suspense. As we watch the dad put up the posters, we cut to the teenager milling around, and then see him crouching behind a car as he prepares to steal the bike. But the soundtrack employs no music, and we attend to the sounds of the city. We think not at all of the ingenuity of the criminals, but of their sneakiness, the way in which their activities undermine the social. Numerous American films will show the position of the criminal over the victim, which might seem a little ironic considering one reason the US puts so many people to death is because the politicians insist that they are on the side of those who suffer.
While in Bicycle Thieves it is a stolen bike that points up how vulnerable is the father's place in the world, in De Sica's Umberto D. the old man looks like he will lose his home: a modest room in a boarding house. This is where we often see realism as antithetical to the American dream and American modes of narration. It isn't that there aren't numerous examples of American films showing characters with their backs against the wall (from The Grapes of Wrath to 99 Homes, Wanda to Wendy and Lucy), but the general idiom of American film is to follow characters who want something and often show them getting it. Even Wendy and Lucy shows the central character determined to get to Alas, however straitened, and in The Grapes of Wrath the characters journey westwards - a Depression era context meeting a Western narrative mode. There is at least in each instance the search, if not quite the success. Umberto D., like Bicycle Thieves, wants to emphasise the social milieu to the detriment of movement: the characters are going nowhere slowly: energy is much less significant than vulnerability. In American film it is usually the other way round.
This is partly why the young and the old are the subject of neo-realist and usually realist narratives: they indicate people weak next to the social forces impinging upon them. In Umberto D. by the end of the film Umberto is a homeless man in the park playing with his dog; he is a man capable of love and affection towards animals, but lacking the love and affection from other humans that could help him have a passable standard of living. The film concludes on the vulnerable, but then in different ways so do Bicycle Thieves and Germany Year Zero. As we watch Umberto trying to find a home for his dog, so we accept that the dog's vulnerability is really a reflection of his own. He is a man who cannot fend for himself and thus can't fend for others too. There is love between Umberto and his four-legged friend, and this is what De Sica would seem to believe our lives should be predicated on. As the film follows Umberto wandering in a park it shows numerous other people with a standard of living far beyond Umberto's own. Others are neatly attired; clearly with homes to go to and park places merely within which one takes leisure. De Sica's style here might not always seem so realistic, but the moral tenor is unequivocal. Stylistically the film favours many shots that realism would seem inclined to eschew: high angle and low-angle shot/counter-shots between Umberto and the family with whom he is trying to place Flike. But we should remember that for Bazin, Rossellini and Zavattini style comes out of a certain moral content, an insistent need to see the world of values. "The moral, like the asthetic, problem" Zavattini says, lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fiction from it." ('Some Ideas on the Cinema') We might not believe the images in Umberto D. are quite as realistic as we would have hoped, but the value the film searches out is very much evident - the film wants to acknowledge the basic dignity of man, and not the signficance of his actions.
Yet we can see that De Sica is a less ambitious filmmaker than Rossellini, with De Sica interested in the sentimental side of his characters' lives, while Rossellini is more fascinated by the deterioration of an individual's soul. They both acknowledge the importance of the social effects on people's lives, but De Sica asks for our sympathy; Rossellini asks us to go beyond the sympathetic and to comprehend the metaphysical. He is interested in the problem of our being in the world and not just immediate society. Our pity for young Edmund is tempered by his action: he acts appallingly in appalling circumstances, and we have to acknowledge the awfulness of the act as well as of the societal situation that can produce it.
This question of opening up realism to ever more complex ethical inevstigations, contained within ever more rigorous realism, can be found in the modern cinematic era of the real in film: an era that will incorporate Woman Under the Influence, Loulou, Rosetta and Sweet Sixteen. Woman Under the Influence extends vulnerability in the area of mental health, with Gena Rowlands, fragile housewife Mabel coping with a crumbling mind. Again social forces are very pertinent, but these aren't chiefly those of the wider society, but the narrower one: the family. Director John Cassavetes even cast Rowlands' mother as her mother in the film. "It was difficult", Cassavetes says, "because she had to not like her. She had to love her but not like her, so it was very difficult, because the relationship is both like and love." (Cassavetes on cassavetes) And of course Cassavetes is the director also married to his leading lady, while he casts as her husband the actor he worked with on Husbands, Peter Falk, who had become a good friend. This is realism as about family and also about creating a familial environment, It coincides with an interesting comment Bazin makes in 'An Aesthetic of Reality'. Here he proposes the idea of amalgamation. This "is specifially the rejection of the star concept and the casual mixing of professionals and of those who just act occasionally. It is important to avoid casting the professional in the role for which he is known. The audience should not be burdened with any preconceptions." This cast including Cassavetes' wife, her mother and his best friend is especially interesting in the context of amalgamation: Falk was at the time one of the biggest television stars in the world, known as the detective Colombo. Yet Cassavetes casts him with no hint of the actor's celebrity elsewhere, as if what interested him was the claustrophobia of the family and familial atmsophere, to the detriment of the socially visible, the celebrity dimension Falk could have brought to the material. Instead of playing up Falk's celebrity he searched out his nature. "Peter was a struggle. A little like Nick [Mabel's husband], he's a tremendosuly introverted, closed-in man. I never saw a guy capable of so much restraining himself to that point where Nick gets to when his wife is gonna be committed..." (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) As Cassavetes discussses Falk and his character, the two seem to merge into one. When talking about casting his wife, Cassavetes says "as the shoot goes on all these things that are happening are revelations to me also. I'm seeing Gena do this, and Gena as my wife now suddenly is becoming Mabel Longhetti and those pink socks are becoming something...those nice long legs are becoming Mabel's nice legs..." (Cassavetes on Cassavetes)
This is realism moving into the realm of the psychological over the sociological. Of course society still matters, and few would deny that Cassavetes' film is working through some of the same social problems with the family so evidently explored by the anti-psychiatry movement of the sixties and seventies, from R. D. Laing and David Cooper, and people sympathetic to it, from Thomas Satz to Foucault, Deleuze to Guattari. As Laing says: "sanity today appears to rest very largely on a capacity to adapt to the external world - the interpersonal world, and the realm of human collectivities." (The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise) To capture something of the realism of this state of consciousness, the filmmaker instead of opening out the film into the societal, and the crowdedness we have already invoked, moves inward and explores the question of familial dynamics. Cassavetes wasn't alone in this: Ken Loach's Family Life, Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments, Maurice Pialat's The Mouth Agape and We Won't Grow Old Together, (and even the later Loulou) were all films of the early seventies looking at insular lives for various reasons turned in on themselves, and the imposive psychic energy often involved. In Family Life, Ken Loach played up the casting. The mother was a woman involved in the Conservative Association in Walthamstow and the daughter was played by Sandy Ratcliff, who was expelled from grammar school at 12 and later imprisoned for selling cannabis."The relationship...wasn't going to be anything other than what it was because Sandy was a free spirit, true to the sixties, and yet thoroughly able to understand what it was like to be dominated by a woman like Grace." (Loach on Loach)
Not all the filmmakers adopted the same approach, but all of them would seem interested in verisimilitude over style. We need only compare Bergman's decidedly stylised use of red in Cries and Whispers made around the same time as Scenes from a Marriage to see Bergman absorbing his often rigorously connotative style into a more subdued realist method. This was partly because it was also made for television, but the small screen limits meet the limits of these characters' lives as they break up and fall apart over many years.
Now of course the filmmakers we have just mentioned are stylistically and temperamentally quite different from each other, while the neo-realists could be seen as stylistically preoccupationally quite similar: they were after all part of a movement, acknowledged by numerous critics, writers and directors, and making films about the poor. Family Life, Women under the Influence etc arefilms we have chosen here to bulk together to suggest a certain interest in realism that indicates a more interior quest. As Cassavetes says, "I appreciate that there might be some secrets in people that might be more interesting than a 'plot'. All people are really private..." (Cassavetes on Cassavetes). If the neo-orealists wanted to expose social injustice, Cassavetes, Bergman, Pialat and so on want to expose the self. Realism moves inwards not outwards, reflecting Laing's idea of ontological insecurity. The "ontologically secure person will encounter all the hazards of life, social, ethical, biological from a centrally firm sense of his own and other people's reality and identity." (The Divided Self) Now many of the reasons why numerous people are ontologically insecure can be found in social reasons, and Loach and Leigh for example are concerned with these questions, but the emphasis on these films is exploring an aspect of the private self, what Laing would call inner space rather than outer space.
If the seventies films looked for the psychological, many works since have emphasised the social again, but with a very different approach to form from the neo-realists. We can see it as early as 1980 with Pialat's Loulou, with the clash of the social meeting the clash of form in a claustrophobic story of the personal and the social as middle-classs Nellie has an affair with the working class Loulou. The sex is great but the worldviews are very different, with Nellie still working with her ex in an advertising firm, and Loulou unable and often unwilling to find work. The film's form reflects the differences, with the rough cut editing style and improvisatory need to capture the nature of very different actors making the film restless and nervous in its method. We see some of this energy in later Loach films like Raining Stones, Ladybird, Ladybird and Sweet Sixteen, and taken to a new level in the Dardennes work, especially Rosetta, but also The Son and The Child. Superficially we might be inclined to call this documentary-like, but that seems too easy. It is more that the fimmaker seeks to eradicate a certain distance between the filmmaking and the subject, while in neo-realsim we still see this gap at work. When De Sica cross-cuts between the thief and the victim in Bicycle Thieves, when we see the boy walking along the street near the beginning of Germany Year Zero, when we watch the maid making coffee in Umberto D. we still have the filmmakers' sensibility very much apparent. We know what the filmmaker thinks or wants us to think, the deployment of shot/counter shot/ transitions shots or the music will cue us. We know the boy is trtying to find a way to help his family out, and know that the maid is pregnant but isn't enterely happy about the fact. But this more modern realism, which of course we find to varying degrees in the seventies films we have mentioned, wants to close that gap. We might think here of a remark made by the French filmmaker Jacques Doillon saying "we always insert a point of view between the actor and the spectator. I hate it." (The Cinema in France) Or another by Michael Roemer in 'The Surfaces of Reality': the director "should at no time interpose himself between audience and action. He must be absent from the scene." Loach too often allows music to impose itself as point of view, but often the camerawork indicates a strong sense of happenstance. This doesn't mean it is accidental; just that it isn't overly set-up or thought through. Speaking of his early nineties film Riff-Raff, Loach said: "the fact that we shot Riff-Raff in 16mm and that there wasn't much money helped, because we couldn't sit around thinking, "Where can we put in the production values? Where can we trick it out with pretty shots?" we had to get to the essence of what was happening between the people..." (Loach on Loach)
What is vital to the vulnerability of Loach's more recent work, and also the Dardennes' Rosetta and The Child, is the question of labour. Employment mattered of course in neo-realism: evident in the stolen bike depriving the central character of his livelihood, but it wasn't an alienating problem. When in Bicycle Thieves the father and son eat in a restaurant, they are clearly the impoverished figures as the young boy suddenly understands something about class. But they are still figures in the social world, part of the flux of street life that might leave them without money but doesn't leave them without a social existence. One reason why we invoked the notion of the crowded was to reflect a social milieu: people still belonged. In some of the more recent works of realism, unemployment isn't so much impoverishing in the post-war sense of the term; it is alienating: people no longer feel they belong. As Jean-Pierre Dardenne says, speaking of Rosetta: "to have work, or not to have work, that is the war people are fighting today. Not to work, except by choice, puts you outside society. You lose you points of reference, you unravel, you don't know your place anymore, or even if you still have one." (Enthusiasm) Strictly Film School says similar things when discussing Mike Leigh's Naked, made six years earlier in 1993: "Symbolically, they are exposed - emotionally naked - vulnerable. They have, in different respects, fallen out of society, and are in desperate need of validation. Johnny and Sophie are unemployed. The night security guard has a meaningless job. The woman across the building fears the loss of her youth and beauty." When Leigh says "Naked survived in all sorts of places and contexts as a voice of the time. Particularly for young people" (Leigh on Leigh) it is partly because it captures well the vulnerability of a generation that cannot rely on a sense of community, or the likelihood of a job. Like Seul contre tous (set in 1980 but filmed in and pertinent to the late nineties), La Vie revee des Anges and Le vie de Jesus, Naked was a film that wondered what unemployment could do the soul, how it could rob people of something still deeper than their sense of social self.
We will come back to this notion of the soul and the influence of the great Robert Bresson on some of these films, but for the moment let us think of Rosetta and film form, and how far removed the film happens to be from Bazinian neo-realism. If in Bazin's work realism allows for a window onto the world, in Rosetta it becomes a very partial view. Almost always opening the scenes with closeups rather than establishing shots, Rosetta focuses on the immediate action as the central character isn't only central in the usual sense of the main character, but also centrally within the frame. We can think of the scene quite late in the film when she picks up her drunk mother from the ground at the trailer park where they live, leaves her half lying on the porch, and later looks like she will gas herself. The form here is not at all interested in the broad social sweep we see in neo-realism. We have no long shots contextualising the trailer park, and no cutaways to people observing their actions. This is neo-realistic subject matter meeting with what the French call intimiste cinema: a usually bourgeois set type of filmmaking that attends to the immediate emotional needs of comfortably off characters. Yet the Dardennes go much further: it isn't simply a transposition of one aesthetic applied to social realism: this is cinema as a combat zone. "Rosetta is a warrior who never gives up, who is always prepared to attack. She is a survivor who lives in basic economic conditions: water, a roof over her head, food. She found her own weapons..." (Enthiusiasm) The Dardennes film her as if she is passing through a battlefiedl, and from a certain perspective that is exactly what it is. Filmmakers like Godard (Weekend), Ferreri (La Grand Bouffe; The Last Woman) and Faraldo (Themroc) would take a clich and run with it to absurdity: the idea that bourgeois man is a greedy pig, or that men are emasculated, then the Dardennes rein in the clich and reapply it in the realist context. The notion of the labour market being about the survival of the fittest, the war of the jungle and there is no such thing as a job for life, is turned here into a survivalist aesthetic, with Rosetta moving through the film like it is a tough and rough terrain: your fellow workers are your enemy, and you always have to be on the lookout
Yet we also mentioned Bresson in passing, and for the Dardennes the film is about spiritual impoverishment and the needs of the soul too, as they return to some of the problems we found Germany Year Zero addressing. "I believe in order to talk about spritual and moral confusion, you have to start from material deprivation" (Enthusiasm) Luc Dardennne says, but he acknowledges here the importance of the spritual nevertheless. Though the Dardennes have invoked Emmanuel Levinas in relation to their work, another philosopher comes to mind, Emmanuel Kant's remarks on the dignity of virtue. "In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. If it it has a price, something else can be put in its place as an equivalent; if it is exalted above all price and so admits to no equivalent, then it has dignity." Kant adds, "what is relative to universal human inclination and needs has a market price; what, even without presupposing a need, accords with a certain taste...has a fancy price...but that which constitutes the sole condition under which anything can be an end in itself has not merely a relative value - that is, a price - but has an intrinsic value - that is, dignity." (The Groundwork for the Metyphsyics of Morals) In Rosetta, the Dardennes see that their central character is "possessed, obsessed by one idea, to have a job in order to be like the others and lead a normal life. We decided to give her this fixed idea to the character and to see where that could lead her to, where here her context would drive her..." (Enthusiasm) This drives her to betraying a friend who sells waffles under the counter, and then taking his job. She robs the friendship of its dignity, in the Kantian sense, because she prioritises monetary value. Now of course some could insist she is simply pointing up illegal activity - her friend is robbing the boss and she can prove herself a more honest employee. But that isn't the way the Dardennes couch it: it is closer to a Judas betrayal. Their point is that Rosetta will do anything she can to find employment, and will sacrifice real and burgeoning friendship to do so. In the Dardennes' eyes, a virulently market economy insists that everybody has their price. But where is the place for Kantian dignity, they ask, and find some sort of answer in a Bressonian conclusion where the friend reminds her through the revving of his motorbike of the needs of the soul, while it looks like Rosetta might try and save it by taking her life.
This is the Bressonian side to the Dardennes, also evident in The Child. If Rosetta is a distant cousin to Bresson's Mouchette, with its famous conclusion where the title character rolls down the hill and into the lake to die, The Child has similarities with Pickpocket. In The Child, we have a young man on the make: so determined to see money as the basis for everything, that he sells his only begotten son in a very un-Abrahamesque gesture. He doesn't do it at God's behest, but to the very denial of his spiritual conscience. If Rosetta sees that the most important thing is to have a job, Bruno reckons anybody who is gainfully employed is an idiot. He would much rather make a fast buck than an honest Euro. But where does the buck eventually stop as the Dardennes return again to the Kantian question of dignity? As we watch Bruno get himself into more and more trouble, and greater and greater debt, so we see someone who begins to confront his conscience. The end of the film brings to mind Pickpocket as Bruno breaks down in front of his girlfriend Sonia, just as Bresson's hero wonders by what strange route he finds the woman who understands his spiritual needs, Jeanne. Pickpocket was based loosely on Crime and Punishment, and the woman in the book is of course called Sonia. This is the lineage in which the Dardennes work: a realism, certainly, but not without its metaphysical dimension.
This is generally missing from that other key contemporary realist: Ken Loach. His is a socialist vision rather than a theological enquiry, even if religion has a place in a number of his films, and never more so than in Raining Stones, where a father borrows money from loan sharks to pay for his daughter's communion dress. If for the Dardennes the thread of self to self is a question of the soul, in Loach it seems more lower case and closer to the needs of community. Humour is vital to Loach's work while almost entirely absent in the Dardennes', as the director insists on the purposes of camaraderie: the need for fellow feeling that he believes a society based on monetary gain gives little space to explore. This is the humour of the everyday, of banter and wisecracks, evident at the beginning of Sweet Sixteen when the two teenagers are selling cigarettes in the pub and the barman tells them to get out, reffering to the pair of them as Simon and Garfunkel, and the kids shoot back a variation of "here is to you Mrs Robinson". This is what Loach might call honest humour as opposed to a moment later in the film where central character Liam meets a big gangster in the local community. He asks if Liam knows what initiative means, and the gangster's henchman laughs as if waiting for Liam to show his ignorance. Liam fires back that it means laughing at your boss's jokes. The laughter demanded of authority doesn't much interest Loach; it is the laughter that defies it that matters. But of course rarely are Loach's films comedies (Angel's Share the most obvious example of one that happens to be). His films usually suggest laughter in the dark, and Sweet Sixteen offers the darkest of ironies. By the end of the film Liam has just turned sixteen at the same time he has turned into a murderer: he has stabbed his mother's brutal boyfriend and we see him on the beach in emotional disarray, his sister speaking to him on the mobile and announcing what a waste.
There is vulnerability aplenty in Sweet Sixteen, but the film wonders what happens when someone with hopeless prospects tries to better himself within the context of a failed family upbringing. His mother starts the film in prison, a long-term heroin addict (claiming she is now clean) with a dealer for a boyfriend. She issomeone who can't see the lover's failings, just as Liam refuses to see his mother's. This is Loach using classic Marxist false consciousness within the context of the familial, and Liam is a street smart teen who nevertheless can't see past his own blind spots. It is his sister and his best friend Pinball who are there for him, but he betrays Pinball appallingly, and will not listen to his sister when she suggests she cares for him far more than his mother can or will. Written by Paul Laverty the story has many contrivances and goes for a mythic mephistophelian narrative that shows young Liam acquiring status to the detriment of his humanity. He is a tough cookie all right, evident when we see him doing everything he can to get his drugs back from three thugs, but we also see the cookie crumble: he does everything for his mother and is heartbroken when near the end of the film after she is released from prison it is clear she loves her boyfriend far more than him. Throughout the film we see him making tapes for his mum, telling her about his daily life and how important she happens to be to him. Loach's film is a gangster tale contained by the emotional fragility of a teenage boy.
Loach's style is quite different from the Dardennes. The english director frequently uses non-diegetic music to give a jaunty tone to some of the sequences, and the social issues are often evident in the dialogue. In Sweet Sixteen for example the gangster boss makes it clear that kids like Liam aren't often given the opportunity to make it very often; he should takes the ones he is given, even it means slicing up his best friend. Loach's camerwork is half-Bazinian/half hand-held immediacy. "[cinematographer Barry] Ackroyd's camera style helped refine Loach's naturalistic yet pictorial, semi-factual/semi-fictional, unassuming, anti-melodramatic style of storytelling. In return, Ackroyd perfected his very British style of standing back and quietly listening while remaining close to the face and inside of the subject, and applying it to feature length fictional narrative cinema." (Mytherapy) Indeed, Ackroyd states "that the limitations of his own equipment helped him create a very different look. He did not have enough money for the full kit of lenses, so he bought a second-hand AATON camera and three stills-camera lenses, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Without the standard required kit of wide-angle lenses, I had lenses that were more varied. He hand held the long lenses, creating a more dynamic kinetic that provided more choice for the editor and director. " (Mytherapy) Yet the style still fits within a tradition of realism. The Dardennes in Rosetta wanted to deviate from that tradition by removing much of the social context as mise-en-scene, by staying veyr close to Rosetta and allowing the film to be dictated by her movements, even the actor's breathing, "We mixed her breathing with the sounds of her struggle" the brothers say in Enthusiasm, after the interviewer says "her breathing gives the film its rhythm."
Yet we see in even so radically a formally self-conscious work as Rosetta this need for capturing the self, to find the dignity of the individual out of the texture of the quotidian. We opened by suggesting vulnerability is central to realism, and we now conclude with the notion that dignity happens to be no less important. But aren't they closely associated? What many a realist sees is that social conditions are such, whether individually, familially or societally, that the emotional and economic vulnerabilities make it difficult to sustain one's dignity in the face of structures that are determined to undermine it. We might think again of Bicycle Thieves, with the central character so desperate after losing his bike that he tries to steal one himself, and we watch the film cut between the father escaping on the bike, and his son watching a group of men chasing after him. This is where the man's economic vulnerability meets with the endangering of his dignity, yet it is a moment that we see again and again in realist cinema: a sense that society has not been structured around the vulnerability of the self and the dignity to which we should all be entitled, but around values that prioritise power and money, class status over class consciousness. It is no accident that realism is so often political, but we must nevertheless find within it a purpose greater than politics. As even that most political of filmmakers, Loach, says about his recent film I, Daniel Blake. "It should transcend propaganda. It goes beyond the benefits system being cruel, it's about how we are with one another." (Sight and Sound) How we are with one another and how we are with ourselves, is central to realism in film, but it is as if the filmmaker knows that underpinning social structures are often antithetical values that have to be eschewed so that more searching one's can be discovered. This is why theft is rarely frowned upon in realist film: whether it is the stealing of some turf from a Conservative association in Loach's Raining Stones, or selling extra waffles under the counter in Rosetta, robbery initself is no great crime. Yet loan-sharking in Raining Stones happens to be, or the landlady renting out Umberto's room for an hour to make extra cash while he is elsewhere in Umberto D. Even Antonio's bike theft is seen as no serious crime; more a social problem that means the poor are preying on each other. As Loach says, "There's nothing wrong with nicking a sheep off the moor to sell to a butcher in [Raining Stones]...that's fair game. But don't prey on your own kind." (Loach on Loach) "It's about different kinds of morality" Loach says. It is finding a particular morality that can allow the poor a purposeful existence that underpins so much of what we call realist cinema, but it is also about a basic health, physical and mental, to which we should feel we are all entitled.
© Tony McKibbin