Saturday, 15 August 2015

the "Chronic Outsider"

Mike Leigh refers to himself as a "chronic outsider". Will Self, the writer, called Leigh "a great artist". Both these statements are probably true. Mike Leigh was born in Salford in 1943, and since the age of 17 has lived in London and for the entirety of his working career he has been largely ignored in his own country. This is unsurprising and people should not be shocked how the country's artists' are treated, if they are not writing, directing and saying the things that are moderate enough for people not to get too concerned about, they are just ignored. If they gain unwanted attention then they, whoever that will be, shall be denigrated, criticised, and in the midst of this it will mainly be propaganda and lies. Mike Leigh, however is ignored.

He called his 1977 play, Abigail's Party, a play about "vacuous lifestyles".  When he says this one thinks of Chekhov, and we can not help thinking about characters such as Astrov, Chebutykin or Vanya.  

"Those who live a century or two after us", says Astrov in Uncle Vanya, "and despise us for leading lives so stupid and tasteless, perhaps they'll find a way to be happy, but for us-there's only one hope for you and me, and when we're resting in our graves we may have visions. Even pleasant ones perhaps. Yes, my dear fellow in our whole district there are only two decent, civilised people-you and I. But ten years or so of this contemptible, parochial existence have completely got us down. This poisoned atmosphere has poisoned our blood and we've become as second rate as the rest of them."

The two men, Astrov and Vanya, have led "vacuous lives", but that is not to say they are not people without substance, this is not the case, and the same applies with many of Mike Leigh's characters, in fact a common theme in his films, just like we see in Chekhov, are wasted lives. Abigail's Party is the only one of Mike Leigh's works I can think of where "high culture" is briefly shown. And we see this through Lawrence. He plays Beethoven's 5th Symphony, dying from a heart attack during this process, he also, quite vitriolically showcases his Shakespeare books to his guests. When Beverley, his wife, insists on putting a record on of Demis Roussos, the Egyptian Greek pop singer, Lawrence calls him "that caterwauling Greek". During the play which takes place in a single scene, Lawrence remains the "chronic outsider", the cultural differences remaining apparent to everyone. He asks one of the guests at the party if they "know James Galway". Galway was an Irish flute player. He then proceeds to speak to the same guest, Sue:

"I think that musicians and artists are very lucky people. They are born with one great advantage in life...Most people just drift through life without any real aims. They are weak. You've got to get up and do something about it...people always seem to be against you...but it's certainly an uphill battle"

Here Lawrence's passion for high culture is blended in with the idea of wasted lives, and as Leigh says, "vacuous lives", it is clear Lawrence admires and at the same time envies the artist; he is an estate agent, and it is not even implied but it is clear he is, along with the other characters in the play, unhappy with life. But Lawrence in particular resembles Astrov more than the others, because he has, perhaps something about him the others do not have. He is vitriolic, he is passionate; the characters in Abigail's Party are uncomfortable in their own peculiar way. Lawrence though knows he is leading a "vacuous life", the others don't. He attempts to prompt stimulating debate and conversation, and it is not even his failure when he fails; it is theirs. He is aware of his contemptible position in life, the others are happy to lead their lives of insignificance without realising it. The irony of course is that Lawrence knows all this

Shortly after he asks Tony, another guest at the party, if he knows Shakespeare, without much of a response, he once again turns to Sue, as she is the only one that seems to be capable of any sort of culture outside the Demis Rousoss' and Tom Jones' of the world. Shakespeare is, "part of our heritage of course. It's not something you can actually read", and he puts the book away. That last sentence is important, because, as is clear, nobody is interested and nobody reads Shakespeare in these circles certainly, regrettably Mike Leigh would never visit matters of culture again.

Mike Leigh's best and most iconic work of the 1980s is Meantime. The director has a talent for being political and not being political at all. In Alan Bleasdale's Boys From the Blackstuff the word Thatcher is used sparingly, if at all. Yet it worked, as was clear the men it portrays have their souls tormented, their spirit broken and their lives totally shattered. To watch the series and not to feel empathy, compassion or anger, would merit a serious case of psychopathy. People watching it know, whether they say it or not, are battered and bruised as a direct result of Thatcherism, these people, the working classes that is, would be designated by the by the Prime Minister as "the enemy within", however, that was still to come. The Boys from the Black stuff was made between 1980-82.

Meantime, shall we say, is a little less subtle than Bleasdale's emotional drama. The Leigh film is set around the Pollack family and every one of them are unemployed and it is clear none of them will get jobs; in fact barely anybody works, and one would come to realise there is little work available. It is in this 1984 drama where we see the real insignificance of people's lives. There is no hope, not even a glimmer of it, their lives are so vacuous and empty that there appears to be no solution but more of the same cycle of unemployment and misery. This is a product of Thatcherism: no hope, only poverty, squalor and destitution.

If there is any hope in the film it comes from Mark Pollack. When he is at the job centre, he shows he is something more than a working class victim of Thatcher's tireless class war:

Job centre employee.  Done any work in the past two weeks?
Mark. Yeah. I've been working for the police. Giving them various information on robberies, and murders, no, that was the week before last. This week I'm spying on dole office workers, determining their movements between twelve and two in the afternoon.
Job centre employee. You don't make our job any easier you know.  
Mark. We are not talking about your job, we're are talking about our jobs.
Job centre employee. Can I have my pen please?
Mark. Our pen!

Mark is astutely aware, much unlike the others in the film, of the putridity of his situation, and he is rebelling against it. When his brother is offered a job by his aunt, he makes sure he doesn't succeed. He tells him "don't go" and when Colin asks why not, he responds by saying "it ain't good for you". Some families inevitably in time of extreme hardship pull-together, help each other out and whatever else. The Pollack family do not do this; it is not their way. Mark calls his parents by their first names; he disregards and disrespects them that much. His mother is incapable of affection, as is his father, the only geniality that exists is between the two brothers. Mark, resembles Lawrence, he is the only one not just in the Pollack family but in the whole film, who knows what is happening, and it is true, only he is capable of doing anything productive in their lives, for the others, if their was any hope, it has gone, never to return. Such are the perversities of Thatcherism. 

His relationship with his father is more hostile than any other characters in the film. He calls him "dad" once, every other time her refers to him as "Frank", which of course is his name. In one scene, which I think captures the spirit of Mark's astute ideas, which we seldom see, well they are hardly ideas, but we can interpret them to be as such:

Frank. You want money, get out and earn it.
Mark.  What, like you?
Frank. I've done my stint mate, don't you worry.
Mark. What, on the never-never?
Frank. What's that supposed to mean?
Mark.  You don't own nothing.
Frank.  Of course I do.
Mark.  What?
Frank. You're sitting on half of it.
Mark.  What, this chair?
Frank. Yeah.
Mark.  How can one chair be half of a three-piece suit?
Frank.  Always gotta have a chat in here, eh?
Mark.  You don't own this chair, you own this flat, you don't own nothing.  

Frank owns nothing and Mark knows it. Nobody owns anything in the Pollack family, nobody works in the family, in fact the only person that works is John, the husband of Mark's aunt. But again that is the theme of his 1991 film Life Is Sweet, which is a contrast between the lower-middle classes and the working classes. Auntie Barbara and John represent the middle class, and Frank and his wife, Mavis, resent them because they have what they want. There is just no spectrum of hope; and the other thing dragging Mark back is the environment he belongs to; the thing who put them in this sorrowful state in the first place, of course is Thatcherism.

The "chronic outsider" in Life Is Sweet, if it is anybody, can only be Nicola. Her sister, "Nat" works, as do her parents, she however, does not and neither does she want to. She has an eating disorder, she wastes her life by moseying around the empty house through the day, but unlike Mark, she has a supportive family. In Meantime Mark's parents do not smile once, Nicola's can't stop smiling, they are lower-middle class but by no means well off. Nicola comes out with phrases almost like a child, calling people Tories, capitalists, racists. We never really see her go out. She languishes in that room of hers. She is capable of so much more but is so lethargic, it seems impossible for her to achieve anything. She wants to but is unable to do so.

We rarely see Nicola being serious about herself and the world. We see this a few times. The person she spends time with outside of the family is someone I will refrain from calling her boyfriend, but we see him twice, and they have sex. He is not somebody that perhaps is an ideal match for a girl such as Nicola, or indeed any girl but he attempts to challenge her ideals and views. This does not entirely help her a great deal because he is hardly subtle, sensitive or pleasant about it. In fact he calls her obnoxious names and hits her on her head:

Nicola's Lover. What do you care about?
Nicola.  Eh?
Nicola's Lover. You got these fucking books upstairs: women who love men too much, men who hate women, women who love and women in love, women's ruin the female eunuch, have you read any of that crap?
Nicola. What's it to you?
Nicola's Lover. Have you?
Nicola. Course.
Nicola's Lover. And what have you learned from it?
Nicola. That I'm a feminist.
Nicola's Lover. And what's a feminist?
Nicola.  Oh come on.
Nicola's Lover. No, no, no, what does it mean?
Nicola.  Stop being antagonistic.
Nicola's Lover. I'm not being antagonistic, I'm trying to have an intelligent conversation with you. Are you capable of that? Eh? I don't think you are, are you? Really bit vacant, ain't you? Bit of an air-head. Nothing going on. Bit dumb. Bit dizzy. Dimbo bimbo. Dumb blondster, ain't you?
Nicola isolates everyone around her. We see Nat at the pub with her friends, she engages in banter with her parents; her mother, Wendy, helps Aubrey, an absurd but joyous Mike Leigh creation, with the opening of his new restaurant; Andy, her father, goes to the pub with an old friend, not a very pleasant one, it must be conceded, but with Nicola, there is none of that. Instead, she spends her days eating copious amounts of chocolate only to regurgitate it. Lawrence was stuck in a hapless environment, where he was trapped; Mark was from a family that impresses no one and thus was his downfall. With Nicola, the circumstances are somewhat different. She has loving, benevolent, caring parents, a concerned sister, but still, she is isolated, alone, caged, unable to escape and create a better world, a better life for herself. She is lost, trapped, ensnared, and is so irrational, nobody can possibly speak reason to her. We see her life ebbing away before our eyes.

Life is sweet is a comedy, we may even call it a dark comedy, but like the other two Mike Leigh works highlighted, it is a comedy of sorts. The best and most important scene in the film however contains no comedy. It is revealing, emotional, thought-provoking and insightful. In this short scene, we understand Nicola, empathise with her, some of us may even cry tears for her. After the scene is over, once alone, she cries; she wants help but is incapable of asking for it. We want her to give in and confess her feelings to her mother, however, this never happens. But after the pivotal scene, there is hope, perhaps. She could change, could she? In this scene then Nicola's mother, whilst doing the household chores, enters her daughter's room:

Nicola. I am happy
Wendy. You've lost all your friends. I don't see them knocking on the door anymore.
Nicola. I don't want friends, they disappoint you.
Wendy. I mean you say you want to change the world. You're supposed to be political but I don't see you doing anything about it.
Nicola. I am political and shut the door.
Wendy. How are you political?
Nicola. I read the paper, I watch the news. I'm more political than you.
Wendy. Oh blimey Nicola. We can all watch the telly. You should be out there helping the old aged-pensioners or going on marches or whatever.
Nicola. Marches are a waste of time, it's boring.
Wendy. If you put your money where your mouth is you should be joining one of these socialist what's it groups. Or the nuclear disarmament whatever but you don't.  All you do is sit here in this room staring at the walls and tweaking and twitching
Nicola. And you're so perfect?
Wendy. No. I'm not perfect but I haven't given up. I'm still out there fighting and I tell you what Nicola, every time I look out that window and I see that rusty old caravan sitting there do you know what it says to me? It says to me there's a man who hasn't given up either. Who's still out there fighting, looking for his dream.
Nicola. Well it says to me there's a man who's getting greedy.
Wendy. Greedy? Your Dad? He's the most unselfish man I've ever met. Do you know he's up at six o'clock every morning, slogging his guts out in a job he hates, which is more than you do and he still comes home at the end of the week with sod all.
Nicola. I'm not prepared to be exploited
Wendy. Exploited? You're not prepared to work full stop.
Nicola. You've accepted Nat as a plumber and you didn't like that at first.
Wendy. No I didn't. I didn't like it but I can see now I was wrong because she's happy
Nicola. I don't know what I want to do yet.
Wendy. Oh don't you? Well you had your chance Nicola. When you were seventeen when you were at the college doing your three A levels you were going great and then suddenly you stopped. You stopped eating, you stopped everything, you ended up eight weeks in the hospital.
Nicola. Well you put me there. I didn't want to go.
Wendy. Oh for God's sake Nicola you were at death's door.
Nicola. You were trying to control my life.
Wendy. You were dying -
Nicola. No I wasn't.
Wendy. Yes you were.
Nicola. I'd know if I was dying.
Wendy. Doctor Harris told us you had two weeks to live. You didn't know that did you?

We can pose an argument and claim all working class families are dysfunctional. The Pollack family are dysfunctional, no other argument will do. This family however are different. They do not have a lot of money but they are happy, barring Nicola. They do not have much but nevertheless are happy. It is clear the Pollacks are victims of Thatcherite thuggery but Nicola and company are also victims to the perversities of the nation state. The workers of the family, who get paid a pittance, do not believe in idleness and meanwhile, have their well-earned money robbed by the state, translated benevolently as taxes. But for Lawrence, Mark and Nicola, they are everywhere. We read them in Chekhov, Beckett, Kafka, Gogol, Steinbeck. They are victims; perhaps Joyce's Stephen Dedalus was correct when he said "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake". They are, after all, “chronic outsiders”.