AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
MIKE LEIGH –
ABOUT HIS STUFF
by Harlan Kennedy
THE GHOST, THE FREEMASON,
When the Holy Ghost descended on a breakfast party for the disciples 2,000 years ago, in the form of "cloven tongues of fire;' everyone started speaking in different languages. Even more than at most social occasions, conversation broke down. A frantic sign-language took over; forks were waved to aid the dialogue of the deaf. The event was much talked about at the time, and went straight into the New Testament (Acts 2, i-xv). But what was its message for secular metaphor-seekers? That language is a brittle, superficial bond between people who have darker, weirder, more exotic ways to commune with each other.
Welcome to the world of British filmmaker Mike Leigh. In movies like Bleak Moments, High Hopes, and Life Is Sweet – his three features to date, although he's turned out some 25 stage and TV plays and film miniatures – Leigh descends like the Holy Ghost on his characters. They keep throwing residual sparks of language at each other, but the true flickering beacon of communication, or noncommunication, is the behavioral semaphore Leigh perfects in improvisation sessions with his cast.
A worried mother alternates cooing bromides with nervous giggles that sound like water vanishing down a plug-hole (Life Is Sweet). A socially derelict old lady, threadbare of clothes and wits, is entertained by a social-climbing daughter whose banshee laughter chills the blood (High Hopes). And in one of modern cinema's most hypnotic scenes, a schoolteacher and a young spinster construct a rope bridge of fidgetings and throat-clearings, nervous laughs and frayed cultural sallies ("Have you, er, read, er, McLuhan?") to reach across a yawning gap of shyness and embarrassment (Bleak Moments); after about a thousand feet – of film – the rope bridge breaks.
Mike Leigh makes some of the saddest, funniest films in the English language. Three years ago his second feature film, High Hopes – made 18 years after his first, Bleak Moments – won the International Critics Prize at Venice. It also made the leap from British to American cinemas, whereupon everyone thought Leigh's international career was off and running. Offers from Hollywood next? Chance to direct RoboCop 3? Maybe take over Columbia Pictures?
High hopes. Leigh is still a cottage industry and "Why?" is one of the seminal questions in British film culture. Despite a frank desire to widen his movie audience, Leigh's ambition is spiked by several factors. Wider British audiences elude him, one suspects, because there are stubborn trace-elements of superciliousness in his satirical approach to character. (Also because Leigh doesn't bother to pump up the visuals – his TV-reared pictorial sense – for the big screen.) World audiences elude him because his characters for the most part are parochially, obsessively British, their nuances of class or region as forbiddingly particular as a freemasons handshake.
Leigh himself is self-aware enough to know one other, radiantly simple reason why he's not working for a Hollywood studio (though offers did come his way after High Hopes): Hollywood wants a script before it antes up the money. Leigh, when he begins a project, doesn't have a script, or even an idea on the back of an envelope.
His creative methods are probably unique, though passing characteristics are shared with filmmakers like Cassavetes and Altman. The actors each contribute their own character, pitching a choice of personae – usually modeled on real-life friends or acquaintances – in the preliminary discussions for play or film. Leigh says yes to the ones he likes and a plot starts to be constructed. The actors then belt out improvisations during rehearsal that are slowly honed into a script. (Hence Leigh's preferred credit: not "written and directed" but "devised and directed by Mike Leigh.")
This initial building process can last as long as two months, during which it's open season for The Method. What wine would this character drink? What music would he like? Would he pick up an ashtray here or scratch his nose there? But once the cameras roll or the curtains part, the script and "stage directions" are virtually sacrosanct.
Leigh's stageplays (Goose Pimples, Smelling a Rat, Greek Tragedy) are precision comedies of misadventure with every exit and entrance plotted in adlibbings with the cast. His TV plays and films (Nuts in May, Meantime), similarly devised, are slices of careworn British life nuanced as fastidiously as a Pinter play. And his large-screen movies translate this hi-fi "naturalism" to a Britain resonating slightly more loudly – but not much – to the political gusts and gabblings of the time. Thatcherism, its spirit and inheritance, is a key presence in Leigh's last two films, though the only character to bear the former Prime Minister's name is the parrot in High Hopes.
Mind you, the parrot is as articulate as anyone else in Leigh's movies. Which brings us to the kingsize paradox in his work: Although his plays and films are about the failure of language to unite people, they are inordinately dependent on words and the spaces between. While his stories and characters are "antitheatrical" – he gives us inconclusive plotlines propelled by inconsequential characters – they are markedly theatrical in their artful exploitation or frustration of theatrical expectations.
Silence, mumbling, semiarticulate asides, mannerist tics physical and verbal: Leigh's work is performance-centered, even when the performances are giving us blank looks rather than blank verse.
LIFE IS SWEET (... INNIT?)
His newest film foregrounds the struggle between theater and cinema, and shows why TV has long been Leigh's most fruitful middle-ground. The family at the center of Life Is Sweet behave like human beings trying to escape the card-indexed fatuity of a sitcom. Mum (Alison Steadman) is a clucking worrier with a job at a baby-clothes store; Dad (Jim Broadbent) is an accident-prone chef who dreams of the open road (he's bought a mobile snackbar); daughters Nicola (Jane Horrocks) and Natalie (Claire Skinner) are, respectively, an anorexic misanthrope who speaks in shopworn isms ("Fascist!", "Sexist!") and a tomboyish plumber with a sweet face and spaced-out vocal drawl. Leigh mocks them even while gradually raising them to supra-sitcom level – mainly through pushing Nicola to pitches of near-maniacal intensity and watching fissures of humanity spread through her concerned family's features. It's a dangerous game to invoke rusty tropes of TV or theater in order to show you can transcend them. But though we're aware throughout Life Is Sweet that we're skirmishing with the front-doorbell-and-wacky-family realm of TV comedy, the four-wall settings and talking-heads style are symbiotic with a film about boxed-in souls living boxed-in lives.
Few British filmmakers have bettered Leigh, over the years, in conveying the sense of an island culture whose people spend their lives in self-willed social quarantine – not from alien nations but from each other. In its fiercest scenes, Life Is Sweet makes jealous territorialism an emotional map of the world. In this enhanced microcosm, whether a sulking girl wants her dinner en famille in front of the telly or alone up in her room takes on almost geopolitical resonance. And when Mum, peering through the front window at the secondhand snack van Dad has bought, cries, "You're spoiling my view," we know she's only talking about a decrepit slum street. (Like mine.) Never mind. Her territorial dreams, for that moment of audience-character bonding, are our dreams.
Leigh is a merciless observer of the British. He knows that no other country is richer in people whom emotional throttlement has steered towards terminal oddities of behavior, and who jealously guard their little patch of selfhood. Many Britons are social paranoiacs to whom the hand of friendship might as well be the hand of Freddy Krueger.
It's typical of Leigh that in Life Is Sweet this theme, however parochial, is developed more deftly than his attempt at a larger, lingua franca leitmotif. Food, a globally communicable subject, is refracted through a near-global variety of human lenses. There are Dad's dreams of hitting the road with his burgers-'n'-fries van. There is the pretentious Franglais restaurant opened one night by family friend Timothy Spall, with a menu rich in horrors ("Pork Syste," "Liver and Lager"). And there is daughter Nicola, who has given up food almost completely save for her frantic, emetic midnight snacks, which noisily climax in a plastic bag.
Life Is Sweet attempts to consume the consumer society. But the symbolist dinner-gong sounds too loudly. We get – we overget – the point. Everyone is gobbling; everyone is hungry for more. And the "midnight feast" ethos – secret, self-regarding, orgiastic – is runaway greed plus runaway guilt: the legacy of the yuppie Eighties.
Happily, it's also runaway solipsism, which allows Leigh to shade in his primal, best-loved idée fixe. In these struggles for connection over the slain body of normal rapport – language or love, family solidarity or marital togetherness – defeated victims either retreat into hermetic solitude (Nicola) or try to restore damaged lines of contact with the semaphore of the desperate (Beverly in Abigail's Party, Valerie in High Hopes).
The dilemma would be tragic if it weren't hilarious, and hilarious if it weren't tragic. No wonder Leigh's work slaloms between the two extremes, with despair never far from the surface.
ANYONE FOR DEMIS?
But the tone has lightened in the 20 years between Bleak Moments (1971), Leigh's feature debut, and Life Is Sweet. Bleak Moments is an essay in repression filmed in a style of dazzling dismalness. A shy young spinster (Anne Raitt), who resembles the Charlotte Brontë portrait on the cover of a paperback classic brandished by her schoolteacher suitor, plays hostess-with-the-leastest to a series of waifs and strays: her mentally retarded sister; a gushing, toothy girlfriend from work; an inarticulate hippie who rents her garage to print a radical magazine; the tongue-tied schoolteacher.
What isn't said is so much larger than what is said that the between-lines script, if dropped on the actual script, would crush it to pulp. An afternoon tea scene with the main characters ranged round a living room ends in a prolonged coda of total silence. Cutting from one nontalking head to another, Leigh gives us 24 consecutive closeups in which tiny, distraught facial movements spell out a psycho-emotional story no dialogue on earth could capture.
Bleak Moments, true to its title, is 105 minutes of depressive human microscopy. You would have to have seen Leigh's subsequent work to realize there might be a smile under the stun-gun miserablism. But already it's clear that Leigh has a clearheadedness about character. No one in the film gets any special pleading; no one is reprieved by a moment of psychological soft focus.
If Bleak Moments is about shyness verging on the psychopathic, Leigh's stage and television work in the Seventies and Eighties explores deeper fault-lines in human relationships and probes them with an increasing use of comedy. In the TV film Nuts in May ('76) a middle-class camping couple – the priggish amateur botanist Keith (Roger Sloman) and the dim, well-meaning Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman) – fall foul of the working-class hippies and drifters sharing their Dorset campsite. The story begins as farce, turns into tragicomedy, and ends as a lesson in the incompatibility of human dreams, even when those dreams are taken out of the house and allowed the freedom of the great outdoors. In Grown-Ups ('80) and Meantime ('83), the best of Leigh's later TV work, "ordinary" people experience extraordinary breakdowns in human communion: A mentally disturbed girl bursts apart the lives of a dainty Canterbury couple. A slow-witted youth retreats into a mysterious Trappist silence while his fly, garrulous brother revs into destructive overdrive.
No character in a Leigh drama knows what makes anyone else tick. (Nor even himself or herself.) In his stageplays, the comedy of never-the-twain-shall-meet is broadened still further. Loud, befuddled foreigners are played off against cautious, crafty Brits: like the Arab businessman in Goose Pimples who mistakes a North London apartment for a brothel. And for Greek Tragedy Leigh went to Australia, literally, to devise a culture-shock comedy of Greek-Australian life in an ethnic Sydney suburb. He deftly captures the alien timbres, though the subtext sound still seems to be that of the British battering at the doors of psychic silence.
But the cult classic among Leigh's nonfeature films, spotlighting the transition between the tongue-tied near-nihilism of Bleak Moments and the wilder deaf-and-dumb comedy of High Hopes and Life Is Sweet, is Abigail's Party ('77). Born as a stageplay and reborn the same year on telly, it shows how social occasions are devised by the Devil not to heal rifts and wounds but to widen and pour salt on them. Beverly (Alison Steadman) is one of Leigh's immortal hostess heroines. When not topping her guests up with arch conviviality and archer emotional concern, or gurgling the praises of Demis Roussos, she is coming on to a girlfriend's taciturn husband and taunting her own spouse into a last-scene heart attack.
Horribly funny as an ABC of social pretension and cultural tiny-mindedness, Abigail's Party is also as unnerving as a Strindberg play in its exposure of social and marital fracture-lines. Like Bleak Moments, it consists of people sitting round a room failing to connect. But it anticipates High Hopes and Life Is Sweet in its passionate flirtation with caricature. It's as if Leigh realizes that something more than a "bare, forked" minimalism is needed to do justice to the panache with which people set up lines of potential interaction (a party, a camping trip, a new restaurant) only to abuse or destroy them.
The catch-clause to this new flamboyance is that it tends to highlight Leigh's theatricality. Enmeshed in their own idiosyncrasies, at sea in their self-regard, his characters increasingly become "turns." Party-piece mannerisms – Beverly's flouncing, square-shouldered walk; friend Angela's pedantic, adenoidal "niceness" – eat up spontaneity. And language, which had fallen cinegenically into virtual desuetude in Bleak Moments, is back with a vengeance. Its use: not for real communication (Heaven forbid) but for smearing the lubricant of reflex catchphrases – "Shall I top you up?"; "Let's face it, Ange" – over the cracks in social rapport.
Abigail's Party does showcase two special Mike Leigh skills. One is the way he approaches tragedy through comedy: using eggshell-cracks in the hilarity to presage or insinuate doom. (Yet he never stops us laughing.) The other is the range of social observation. Far from making plays and films solely about working-class retards muttering into their beards, as some Leigh observers insist on observing, he ranges gleefully over the socioeconomic spectrum.
He also finds the actors to help him do it. Alison Steadman, aka Mrs. Mike Leigh, is his prima donna assoluta. She combines a lethal flair for mimicry – ranging through nuances of class or region like a soprano shinning up and down scales – with another Leigh essential: the ability to seem blinkered. Like the filmmaker's other regular trouper Timothy Spall, whose spherical face and wounded O of a mouth suit him for hedgehog-like roles of self-protective moroseness, Steadman's heroines are myopic, embattled spirits. They keep pushing on, never mind the pains of life (usually inflicted by themselves) nor their total inability to understand life.
High on a list of great unwritten theses would be "Mike Leigh and Samuel Beckett: The Comedy of Carrying On Regardless:' Modern tragedy still bears the imprint of the Absurdist movement. Where tragic heroes and heroines used to struggle towards the light of salvation or the enlightenment of reason, late 20th century humanity has been clobbered by the Holocaust and the Heaven-dwarfing power of The Bomb. No God. Not much Reason. Best just to carry on up the hill, full of daft hope, baring our incomprehension as we go.
DO YOU STILL HAVEALL YOUR ORIGINAL FEATURES?
High Hopes is Leigh's best film to date, ludicrously local and totally global. At its heart: a pair of dented hippies called Cyril and Shirley (Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen) who nurse their lost Marxist dreams in a dummy London bedsit. The Past, for them, is Karl Marx's gravestone in London's Highgate cemetery (they often visit); the Future is the hyena forces of social self-improvement inspired by Mrs. Thatcher. These include Cyril's sister Valerie (Heather Tobias), a suburban climber who sports loud colors and a louder laugh; and, next door to Mum (Edna Dore) in her gentrifying terraced street, a yuppie couple (Lesley Manville, David Bamber) who quaff "Champers" and scour the property pages. In the film's most deathless scene, they also ask the old dear, who persists in clinging to her home, "Do you still have all your original features?"
In Life Is Sweet we sense too many episodes flying out of the field of gravity. Since the film's centrifugal heart is anorexic Nicola and her kaleidoscopically concerned family, we wonder what Leigh is doing space-launching semifarcical scenes of failed entrepreneurialism, like the opening of the restaurant or Dad's burger-van price hagglings with the local spiv. We know there's a thematic connection: food. But there's too little tonal connection. In High Hopes the broad comedy seems all-of-a-piece with the warnings of social apocalypse. Leigh's perspective is hilariously epochal: he plays off the dimwitted humanists and idealists of a more sober age against the high-farce arrivistes who have arrived on the Mayflower of the new entrepreneurialism.
If the titles themselves don't say it all – from Bleak Moments to High Hopes – the films certainly do. Mike Leigh is finding a movie language so rich in tones and half-tones of mock naturalism that yesterday's tragicomic minimalism can sit on the same screen as today's comic surrealism (post-Monty Python, post-Airplane!). The juxtaposition of opposites takes skill and can still misfire, as in parts of Life Is Sweet. It can also raise charges of condescension or theatricality. But as the world prepares for the giant leap of a new millennium, few other filmmakers seem better equipped to make us laugh and weep at the small, stumbling steps we still make in our daily lives.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEPT-OCT 1991 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.