movies are basically devoted to achievement. Characters are defined in
terms of their ability to do things (anything from freeing the hostages
to getting the girl)frequently by being pitted against each other
in tests of wit or prowess. Hollywood understands life as essentially
a matter of competition, achievement, and reward. A narrative organized
around a series of problems for characters to solve or goals to achieve
appeals to American viewers for at least two reasons. First, it makes
the story easy to follow. Characters' progress (or failure to progress)
can be measured in an almost step-by-step way. Second, it ties in with
one of the basic myths of American culture: the faith in the virtues of
doing. For someone who subscribes to the ideology of capitalism, this
narrative form is fundamentally encouraging. It's a "can-do" vision. Will-power,
diligence, pluck, resourcefulness can solve any problem.
Leigh's films are
organized along different lines. In the first place, he rejects struggle
and competition as sources of value. His work is more interested in characters'
ability to interact sensitively, than in pitting them against each other.
(When Abigail's Party and Who's Who depict characters competing
for attention or jockeying for power, they are clearly offering nightmare
visions of life.)
Beyond that, the problems
he dramatizes are not the kind that have solutionsparticularly practical
ones. He asks questions that don't necessarily have answers. Bleak
Moments explores the situation of flawed characters interacting in
imperfect ways, but never in the least suggests that there is a way out
of their situation. Hard Labour presents another group of figures
who are trapped in various ways, but doesn't suggest that there is anything
in particular they can do to break free. Leigh's work suggests that there
are situations and aspects of our personalities that can never be fixed
or escaped. The best we may be able to do is to understand them.
Leigh's movies are
not about performing a task or achieving a goal. The drama is generated
out of states of being more than acts of doing. The subject is less what
characters do than what they are. Since what you are is not something
that can be altered by an action, the films are not really about events.
The interest of Nuts in May is not anything Keith does at one moment,
but what he is throughout. In Life is Sweet, what Aubrey and Nicola
do in a given scene is far less important than what they are in every
Rather than competing
in the realm of action, Leigh's figures are placed in situations in which
their ways of feeling and thinking are compared. It's not how your actions
conflict with mine, but how your way of knowing differs from (or overlaps
with) mine. You see, feel, and understand life one way; I see, feel, and
understand it in another.
The most obvious illustration
of how this comparison and contrast of points of view creates drama is
the films in which characters are matched up with others whose points
of view are more or less opposite their own. Many of Leigh's films pair
figures who are, in effect, each others' anti-types: In Meantime,
a middle-class do-gooder, Barbara, is paired with a lower-class layabout,
Mark, who utterly resists being patronized. In Grown-Ups, Ralph
Butcher, the lost-in-space teacher, is forced to deal with his most uncontrollable
former students when they move in next door as adults. In Nuts in May,
Keith, the yuppie camper who has reduced all of life to a routine, is
plunked down next to lower-class campers whose rowdiness resists his systems
of organization and understanding.
Oftentimes the contrasts
are not so blatant. Many of the groupings involve characters whose perspectives
and attitudes differ quite subtly. The drama of The Kiss of Death,
for example, is generated by differences in the sexual attitudes of boys
and girls of a certain age in which the various figures' points of view
are similar in some respects and different in others: the sexual cluelessness
of two boys is compared with the sexual knowingness and seriousness of
two girls; the chaste, marriage-mindedness of one of the girls is compared
with the moral "looseness" of the other girl; the romantic seriousness
and earnestness of one of the boys is compared with the erotic sniggering
of the other. Even minor characters briefly factor into the comparison
and contrast process: in the same film, for example, the "dirty minded"
attitudes towards sexual relations of one boy's boss, and the painfully
unromantic relationship of a man and woman he visits in the course of
his job contrast with the young people's attitudes.
The "plot" is less
a matter of external events than the interplay of alternative points of
view. That can confuse audiences accustomed to action-centered presentations.
An action-based plot gives viewers a road-map to navigate by. Differences
in feelings and points of view are harder to follow than events. Many
American viewers are left scratching their heads at what is "going on"
in a Leigh scene, or what they are supposed to be "getting" from it. As
Cassavetes once said about his own work: "The lights go down and the audience
says ŚLet's get going,' but the film is already goingsomeplace they
don't realize." The drama doesn't wait on external conflicts and struggles.
The opening scenes of Nuts in May present a married couple, Keith
and Candice-Marie, on a vacation in the country, checking into a campground.
The drama is already unfolding in how they sing together as they drive,
how they interact with each other and the camp manager as they check in
and set up camp. In High Hopes, when Cyril and Shirley have a conversation
prior to going to sleep (or Rupert and Laetitia Booth-Braine and Valerie
and Martin have parallel conversations), the drama is taking place at
the speed of light, even with the characters flat on their backs.
As the triple bedtime
conversations in High Hopes suggest, Leigh's fundamental organizational
device is the paralleled scene. The films are virtual echo chambers of
compared and contrasted imaginative positions. It's important to note,
however, that the comparison process involves the viewer's comparisons
of ways of knowing and feeling, not the characters'. In The Kiss of
Death, for example, it isn't that Trevor, Ronnie, Linda, and Sandra
notice the difference between each others' ways of feeling and thinking,
but that a perceptive member of the audience does. In fact, it is an essential
aspect of Leigh's vision of life that most of his characters are so closed
up inside their own points of view that they don't even realize that there
is a difference between their point of view and another character's.
The most important
point to note is that, entirely different from the situation that prevails
in most mainstream film, the consciousness of the central character or
characters is not the organizing center of the work. The drama is played
out not in the character's mind, but the viewer's. This de-centering of
the drama away from the main characters' consciousnesses is, in fact,
one of the defining aspects of Leigh's work (which resembles some of Alan
Clarke's in this respect)and is something about which I shall have
much more to say in the pages that follow.
Since Leigh's films
are narratives, there are "doings" in them"events" that superficially
resemble those in a Hollywood moviearguments, power struggles, schemes
in which one figure attempts to get the better of anotherbut these
"actions" function not in the conventional Hollywood way to generate counteractions
which eventually allow a winner or loser to be determined, but as dramatic
externalizations of characters' points of view. Leigh's "plots," such
as they are, are less something that happens to the characters, than expressions
of what they are. Gloria disrupts the Butchers' household in Grown-Ups;
Keith clashes with Honkey and Finger in Nuts in May; Barbara tries
to give Colin a job in Meantime; and Andy purchases the caravan
in Life is Sweetnot to create actions or counter-events,
but to open windows into the souls of the figures involved. Events reveal
the characters' strengths or shortcomingsas when Alison Steadman's
character responds to a medical emergency one way in Abigail's Party
and an entirely different way in Life is Sweet. Behavior is event
and character is narrative. What someone is is what happens to him.
When the problem is
not outside but within a character, there is no need to give him or her
an external problem. What the character is is more than enough for him
or her to deal with. The "plot" of most of Leigh's works is not something
inflicted on you by someone or something else, but what it is to be a
certain kind of person, to have a particular way of thinking and feeling.
What you are is what you have to deal with.
That is a further
reason why there are almost never any particular actions Leigh's characters
are asked to take in the course of his films. Action can never be a solution
to an internal problem. There is nothing to do when the problem is how
you feel and think. You can adjust your actions in response to someone
else, but how can you adjust your identity? How can you change what you
are? As in classic drama, the only possible "solution" is an act of insight.
Leigh's subject is the possibility of personal transformation. In this
respect, his work is essentially as spiritual as that of Dreyer or Tarkovsky.
The Hollywood film's
emphasis on a character's ability to do things is related to its definition
of identity in terms of volition. The characters played by Michael Douglas,
Jody Foster, Meryl Streep, and Harrison Ford are the choices they make.
They are their decisions. If they decide to do something daring, they
are daring; if they decide to be careful, they are careful; if they decide
to do something mean, they are mean; if they decide to be loving, they
are loving. They are their intentions, plans, and acts of will. The drama
in these films is generated almost entirely by characters' moment by moment
thoughts, feelings, wishes, and plansand the conflicts between them.
What Michael Douglas wants and intends (and how it conflicts with what
Glenn Close or Demi Moore wants and intends) is the motor that drives
Fatal Attraction or Disclosure. Characters are their surging,
shifting states of consciousness. Identity is awareness.
On the face of it,
that may seem a natural or even inevitable definition of self-hood, but
Leigh shows how much it leaves out. Leigh's work demonstrates that reducing
selfhood to consciousness represents a stunningly superficial definition
of who we are. The realm of choice, volition, and will only skims the
surface of what his characters are. Identity does not emanate from volitions,
but from structures of character that antedate and underpin our superficial,
momentary thoughts, feelings, and volitions. Sylvia, Peter, Keith, Beverly,
Aubrey, and Nicola will still be who they are, no mater what they are
thinking or intending or attempting to do at any particular moment. When
what one is is constituted by an entire body of lived experience, the
relative importance of passing states of consciousness pales.
Leigh lowers the center
of gravity of identity. He moves what we are from our heads and hearts,
from the realm of thoughts and desires, to a deeper place. Identity is
not the reflection of high cognitive functions, but something beneath
them that might said to be the source of them. The drama in Leigh's work
is not created by what a figure decides to do, but what he is independent
of his decisions. Sylvia's failure to connect with Peter in Bleak Moments,
Keith's conflict with his neighbors in Nuts in May, Gloria's clashes
with Dick and Mandy in Grown-Ups, and Beverly's painful interactions
with Su in Abigail's Party are not traceable to these figures'
intentions and desires.
Thus the drama in
Leigh's work is not the result of choices and decisions. He sees life
in other terms: You have your personality and I have mine. How do our
ways of knowing interact? Our relationship is based not on our wishes
or wills (a superficial and evanescent connection), but on deep, abiding
structures of feeling. While American film understands life ethically,
Leigh is pre-ethical. A better way to put it would be to say that Leigh
defines ethics not as a series of choices, but a pattern of behavior.
Morality is not located at the level of the will. It is not traceable
to our intentions, feelings, or decisions. It is what we are, even when
we aren't aware of it, even when we don't intend it.
The result is not
moral nihilism: Leigh wants us to judge, and to judge firmly, but to judge
on the basis of a character's whole character and the details of his or
her actual expressive performance, not on the basis of an intention, idea,
or desire. We are not saved or damned on the basis of what we want and
believe (a very simple thing)but on the basis of what we are (a
far more complex matter).
In mainstream film,
characters are their thoughts, desires, and volitions. If you think good
thoughts, feel good feelings, have good intentions and goals, you are
good (and vice versafor bad thoughts, intentions, and goals). A
character's understanding of himself is unassailable. You can know what
you are, and you are what you feel you are. If you are good you know it;
likewise if you are bad. In Fatal Attraction or Disclosure,
when Michael Douglas acts a certain way (nasty, cunning, clever, trusting,
innocent), he knows it. He understands his own goals and intentions as
well as a viewer does. First-person truth is trusted the way many people
innocently trust first-person truth in their own lives. (I want to be
so-and-so; I intend to be so-and-so: I believe myself to be so-and-so:
therefore I am so-and-so.) It is unassailable. The intentional self and
the actual self are the same. There is only one self and we can know it.
Leigh pulls the realms
of thinking and being apart. Your behavior can show you as something entirely
different from what you think you are or intend to be. Character is deeper
than consciousness (in fact, is usually opposed to it). What we are goes
beyond our capacity to know it. The structures of personality that Leigh
is exploring are almost never knowable by the person defined by them.
While American films are implicit celebrations of knowing, Leigh's films
are depictions of the life that streams beneath awareness.
One of the main sources
of drama in Leigh's work is the fallacy of self-knowledge. Peter sincerely
believes he is taking an interest in Hilda in Bleak Moments, even
as he patronizes and talks down to her. Beverly honestly thinks she is
the soul of kindness and consideration in Abigail's Party, even
as she bullies and harasses her cocktail party guests. Melody sincerely
feels she is "bonding" with Stan in Home Sweet Home, even as she
repeatedly insults him and misunderstands virtually everything he says.
Aubrey truly imagines himself to be sexy, cool, and hip, and Nicola is
genuinely convinced that she is the only member of the family who cares
about others, even as scene after scene of Life is Sweet demonstrates
that they are very nearly the opposite of their ideas of themselves.
At the same time,
these characters are not hypocritical. They are not trying to deceive
anyone. (If that were the case, we would be back in the mainstream view
of personality where a character knows what he or she is doing and adjusts
his or her performance accordingly.) These figures are both deluded and
sincere. Feeling is not being, and to feel, think, or believe something,
however sincerely, is not enough. Feelings of love may be expressed in
hurtful ways. Attempts to help someone may be mistaken. We can drop the
lifeboat on the heads of the people we sincerely intend to rescue.
One might say that
Hollywood movies let us indulge in the luxury of seeing everyone the way
we see ourselvesas insides viewed from the insidewhile Leigh's
films force us to see characters the way others see us (and the way we
see others)as outsides viewed from the outside. It's the difference
between judging from intentions (the way we see ourselves), and judging
from actions (the way we see others). For ourselves, our grand ideals,
noble motives, and emotions are us. For others, what we are can be completely
unrelated to or in contradiction to our own understanding of ourselves.
Our behavior and expressions can admit of other interpretations than our
own. (The real threat of Leigh's work, if we can accept it, is always
against our own complacent belief in the infallibility of our knowledge
Is it any surprise
that most viewers prefer the Hollywood vision? Its equation of identity
with consciousness not only simplifies life and art, but reinforces their
fantasy of self-knowledge. Hollywood characters are their own views of
themselves. There is only the character's own view of himself; no other
view is possible. While the self is one thing through and through in Hollywood
movies, Leigh's characters always have at least two selveswhat they
are to themselves and what they are to others.
The more general way
to understand this situation is to see that while American film idealizes
experiencein both the vernacular and philosophical senses of the
term, Leigh de-idealizes it. American film understands experience as mental
events (depicted in the characters and evoked in the viewers); Leigh understands
it as expressive events (which require complex acts of interpretation
on the part of both characters and viewers). The ideal view dives beneath
phenomenal reality to anchor understanding in intentional depths; the
other navigates treacherous, turbulent expressive surfaces. Inner states
count for so much in American movies (and are so reliable as sources of
information) because they are, in effect, all there is. Leigh's films
imagine a wholly other world, external to our desires, beyond our hearts
and minds, and not necessarily accessible to them.
From classic Hollywood
melodramas like Citizen Kane, Now, Voyager, Casablanca,
and Psycho to more recent works like Mr. Holland's Opus,
Forrest Gump, My Best Friend's Wedding, Face/Off,
and The Truman Show, mainstream American film is fundamentally
a depiction of inner worlds. It focuses on states of vision, feeling,
and thought. The importance of social interactions is played down and
the importance of imaginative reactions played upwhich is why moments
of looking, being looked at, thinking, and feeling are the most important
events in these works. For both their viewers and their characters, these
films are about seeing and feeling thingsparticipating in states
of insight and emotionnot about socially and verbally interacting
in a practical way with someone else.
The whole stylistic
enterprise of these films is devoted to providing windows into characters'
souls. Musical orchestrations and expressionistic lighting cue us into
characters' emotions; close-ups let us look deep into their eyes and savor
the expressions on their faces; blocking and framing techniques and editing
rhythms and juxtapositions let viewers vicariously participate in characters'
emotional and intellectual states; most of the dialogue gives involves
expressing opinions, beliefs, fears, doubts, hopes, plans. It would be
only a slight exaggeration to say that every effect is directed towards
the end of making consciousness visible and audibleto keep both
the viewer and other characters focused on internal states. When characters
meet, mind meets mind. Your emotions meet mine; your intentions are pitted
against mine: your ideas, goals, plans are compared with mine.
These films implicitly
suggest that life is less a matter of behavior than feeling; less about
expressions than intentions. In this sense, Hollywood characters might
be said to be transparentboth to a viewer and to each other. The
viewer can look into their hearts and take in the essence of their souls
in a glance. (If they don't simply tell him what they are thinking and
feeling, the stylistic effects do.)
The comparison of
inner states is more important than (and usually takes the place of) practical
interactions. If a character shows us how he is feeling or thinking (by
saying it in a line of dialogue) or if the style of the film shows it
(with a close-up, lighting effect, or musical orchestration), the character
usually need not do anything at all to express it in his or her actual
world. "Interaction" is almost entirely imaginative. In all of the important
or memorable scenes in Hitchcock's work (the most extreme example of this
idealizing tendency in mainstream film), the characters might as well
be brains in vats communicating through mental telepathy. But Hitchcock
is only the most obvious example. In shot after shot in virtually every
mainstream movie, what is presented is states of feeling and thinking.
Experience is equivalent to states of subjectivity. The most intense,
important, and meaningful moments in life consist of thoughts and feelings
(which need not be spoken or otherwise expressed). Life is visionaryin
both the optical and the imaginative senses of the term.
of experience in mainstream films is one of the reasons that viewers are
so easily able to equate themselves with the characters in these filmsbecoming
the victims in Schindler's List, the unsung heroes in Saving
Private Ryan, the romantic lovers in Titanic, the nebbish with
a heart of gold in Manhattan, the tough guy in Terminator,
or the hipper-than-hip swingers in Boogie Nights. The lives of
the characters in these films do not remotely resemble those of the viewers,
but the inner states are the same. As long as what we are is equivalent
to our basic thoughts and feelings, there is no difference between us
and the characters played by Kate Winslett or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
effortless and automatic. The viewer can frictionlessly slip inside the
character's skin. The character is always comprehensible in terms of the
viewer's own ways of thinking and feeling. Their motives are our motives.
Their ideas are our ideas. Their generic thoughts and emotions give us
versions of our own understandings of ourselves. Leigh asks us to go out
of ourselves, to leave our own ways of understanding behind and inhabit
genuine othernessin a far deeper sense than is dreamt of by the
The imaginative transformation
simplifies experience (not to mention, makes it intelligible in foreign
marketsyou don't need subtitles or familiarity with cultural customs
to understand emotions). While practical performance involves complexities
of timing, tone, timbre, and the mastery of local expressive conventions,
emotional states are more or less universal. We all have the same glands.
The nonspecificity of idealist presentation contributes to the genericness
of its effects. When an experience is made equivalent to its imaginative
and emotional value, its uniqueness is diminished, its outlines simplified,
its complexity attenuated. In being taken up into the mind, reality is
softened. Differences between figures that would be gray and fuzzy in
expression become black-and-white when translated into ideas and feelings.
Even the most imperceptive viewer notices how in Hollywood movies characters
are simpler and their conflicts more clear-cut than outside the movies.
Most American viewers
are so accustomed to the idealization of experience that they fail to
see how it skews the understanding of life. If something is everywhere,
it is invisible. Leigh shows what it looks like for a film to proceed
differently. His work rejects ideal relations to experiencefor both
characters and viewers. It de-idealizes every aspect of experience and
expression. Hollywood's universe of insides is replaced by a world of
outsides. Needless to say, it's not that Leigh's characters don't have
consciousnesses; but that their consciousnesses must always be translated
into practical forms of social interaction. Leigh's characters' insides
are never directly visibleneither through their words, their actions,
nor the visual and acoustic styles of the works they are in. The viewer
does not have access to the character's consciousness. He is held in the
realm of expression and behaviornot empathizing with feelings and
thoughts deep within a character, not identifying with the character,
dropping into the character and "becoming" him or her, butas in
documentary filmstanding outside of it, off to one side of it, scrutinizing
opaque, impenetrable surfaces. Leigh holds us on the surface, and more
than that, implicitly tells us that surfaces are all that matter.
Contrary to everything
our culture tells us (and everything we may want to believe), Leigh argues
that experience is not reducible to subjectivity. Consciousness never
stands free of its warped, partial, imperfect, shifting expressions. Leigh's
characters can't simply "think" or "feel" their goals, purposes, and relationships,
but must express them in a thousand practical details. Feelings must be
converted to actions. Emotion must be exteriorized by being shared. Leigh's
characters are not their thoughts and feelings, but their social interactions,
movements, gestures, tones of voice, and facial expressions.
must perform their thoughts and feelings in front of, in concert with,
and in response to other characters. They must enact their impulses in
the world. (In Leigh's favorite phrase, they must move from abstractly
thinking about something to "getting on with it.") That is why to think
back on most of the great scenes in Leigh's work is to remember intricate
verbal and social interactions: Sylvia's joking, playful, embarrassing,
clumsy conversations with Norman and Peter; Mark's razzing of Colin and
verbal sparring with Barbara; the dramatic skits Cyril and Shirley improvise
together; Wendy's subtly different tones and styles of conversational
interaction with everyone she meets.
For a shorthand formulation
of the difference between the two understandings of identity, compare
Tom Cruise's Forrest Gump with David Threlfall's Trevor in The
Kiss of Death. Both figures are well-meaning, physically clumsy, and
fairly inarticulate. Yet in the case of Forrest Gump, we are never
allowed to forget that beautiful intentions underpin his homely expressions.
Fine sentiments and pure ideals lurk beneath the homespun surface and
instruct us to disregard the surface and care about the depths. As far
as the audience's view of him goes, he might as well be made of glass:
he is all inside. We look past his humble exterior and admire his tender
soul (a move into the interior assisted by the film's voice-over narration).
Leigh's Trevor, in contrast, might be said to be all outside. He is his
expression of himselfhowever halting and imperfect. His inside is
inaccessible. What you see is what you get.
The difference between
the two expressive traditions is reflected by the different kinds of acting
in the two bodies of work. American acting plays down surface expressions
and plays up indications of "deep" thoughts and feelings. In the most
virtuosic examples of this kind of actingas in Hitchcock's work
with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant or Capra's with Gary Coopersurface
expression is diminished almost to the vanishing point while cinematic
style picks up the expressive burden. Acting becomes a kind of pantomime:
The actor stands still with a fairly neutral expression on his face while
musical orchestrations, lighting effects, plot events, scripted remarks,
or intercut close-ups of looks, glances, and stares suggest thoughts or
feelings surging just beneath the surface. Even much more complex and
nuanced forms of American acting, like the performances of Brando, Dean,
and Clift, are significantly still built up from the inside out. What
is in the depths is clearly more important than what is on the surface.
American acting is almost always based on depths rather than surface expressions
precisely because it has internalized the set of understandings I have
described: namely that there is a realm of subjectivity that anchors and
is ultimately more important than the relatively "superficial" details
of social or verbal expression.
The acting in Leigh's
work reverses these priorities. It puts a premium on surfaces (nuances
of voice tones, facial expressions, gestures, body language)more
or less letting the depths take care of themselves. It is more about outsides
than insides, less about states of thought and feeling than about the
enactment of such states. Selfhood is not (as in the Method) something
hidden deep within us, anchored in secret dreams and unspoken desires,
but is a concept that summarizes to the overall effect of the intricate
network of expressions we employ. Leigh would undoubtedly agree with Oscar
Wilde's witticism that it is only superficial people who do not judge
by surfaces. (Leigh is not interested in discussing a character's internal
stateshis motivation, thoughts, emotionswith the actor during
rehearsal. The issue is not what the character would think or feel in
a certain situation, but what he would do.) Even the casual viewer picks
up on the difference when he notices the importance of generalized stylistic
effects in American film (lighting, editing, and sound effects that suggest
subjective states), and their relative unimportance in Leigh's work.
The difference between
an idealized and an unidealized presentation of experience is what an
American viewer registers as the "rawness" of Leigh's characters or the
"roughness" of their interactions. Leigh's characters feel lumpy, their
expressions muddy, and their interactions bumpy in comparison with those
in Hollywood films because it is almost impossible for practical social
expressions and interactions to achieve the purity and clarity of abstract
statements of subjectivity and stylistic indications of consciousness.
Characters in idealist films can "speak" their thoughts and feelings (in
both the verbal and stylistic senses of the term) more clearly and powerfully
than Leigh's can, because their "speech" is freed from the compromises,
fallibility, and imperfection of speech as it is encountered outside of
the movies. In Psycho Hitchcock can lay in a little spooky-dooky
music on the sound track, throw a spot on an actor's face, or use expressionistic
camera angles to create states of feeling that have an unworldly purity,
clarity, and intensity. In Citizen Kane Welles can use short lenses,
outsized sets, and shadows to express the title character's mega-lomania
and loneliness with a directness and immediacy that the compromised, mediated
personal expressions in Leigh's work never attain. The smoothness and
completeness of idealist expression is replaced in Leigh's work by the
halting, rough particularity and imperfection of actual physical and verbal
Just as the characters
in a mainstream film commune visionarily with each other and their surroundings
(effortlessly taking in meanings simply by glancing at someone or something),
the viewers of mainstream films take in the characters and their situations
in a visionary way. Idealist film not only allows characters to read each
others' minds, it makes the viewer a mind-reader. The conflation of visionary
forms of interaction is, in fact, the central narrative project of Hollywood
filmwhich not only allows characters to relate to each other in
terms of states of thought and feeling, but encourages the viewer to relate
to the characters in the same way. The viewer encounters the on-screen
experience in the same idealized, visionary way the characters do, expanding
imaginatively within the character and situationidentifying with
the character, "becoming" him or her, feeling what the character feels.
The viewer leaves his real identity behind and sympathetically lives through
a group of figures for the time of the film. He effortlessly shares their
states of thought and feelingseeing what they see, knowing what
they know. He frictionlessly inhabits other consciousnesses. (The conflation
is facilitated by the use of subjectivity editing conventions and mood-music
orchestrations.) In the final scene of Casablanca, Bergman and
Bogart read each other's minds, imaginatively expanding and visionarily
merging, and the viewer switches into the same resonantly empathetic,
imaginatively expansive appreciation of them.
Leigh's work requires
an entirely different and more demanding mode of viewing. Viewers are
denied the chance to commune visionarily with his characters. They cannot
expand imaginatively within his scenes. They cannot vicariously live through
("become") his characters. His figures repel identification. His camera
placements don't encourage the viewer to see things through their eyes.
His music and visuals doesn't allow the viewer to participate in unmediated
states of feeling and thought.
The viewer has to
work much harder to come to grips with Leigh's work also because things
are much less clear than in the other kind of movie. Visionary stylistic
effects, the staple of American film, are fairly simple and static in
their significance. The import of a spooky orchestration on the soundtrack,
a beautiful female face, a key-lighted shot can be taken in almost effortlessly.
Meanings mapped on the body are invariably cryptic, multivalent, and changeable.
In Bleak Moments, is Peter's ungainliness charming or dismaying?
Are Sylvia's jokes a way of reaching out to others or holding them at
a distance? Are Norman's stammerings and hesitations soulful or shallow?
Even once we do bring their significance into focus, the problem is that
performed meanings won't stand still. Created in time and extended in
space, they melt and transmute, continuously shimmering with changing
Based as they are
on a screenwriter's moral and thematic abstractions, and interacting with
other characters in terms of their own abstract intellectual states and
emotions, American characters have the experiential thinness of figures
in an allegory or a dream. They and the interactions between them are
as smooth and featureless as the ideas in which they originated. There
is, as John Cassavetes once put it, no behavior. Everything is somewhat
generalized and abstracted. The characters lack details (which is why
you can almost always take them in at a glance). Nothing could be less
like Leigh's presentations. Details are everything in his work. There
is nothing but specific, local expressions. There is no avoiding particularsfor
the viewer or the characters.
Given his non-volitional
understanding of experience, it's not surprising that Leigh once told
an interviewer that in order to understand someone, it would not be sufficient
to hear the person talk about his or her ideas and feelings. He said that
he would need to know what the person did for a living, where he or she
was born, and what his or her family was like. It would be a mistake to
attribute Leigh's comments simply to a typically British class awareness.
Leigh was making a statement about the nature of identity. Without actually
coming out and saying it, he was telling the interviewer that, in his
understanding of identity, our dreams and desires are not the most important
things about us.
The famous colloquy
between Madame Merle and Isabel Archer that takes place in chapter nineteen
of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady can provide one final
additional perspective on the two understandings of selfhood. In the excerpt
that follows, Merle's conception of selfhood comes first, as a response
to Isabel's declaration that it won't matter how her lover dresses or
what kind of house he lives in:
"When you've lived
as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that
you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope
of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're
each made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our
'self'? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything
that belongs to usand then it flows back again. I know a large part
of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've got a great respect
for things! One's selffor other peopleis one's expression
of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books
one reads, the company one keepsthese things are all expressive."
This was very metaphysical;
not more so, however than several observations Madame Merle had already
made. Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her
friend into this bold analysis of human personality. "I don't agree with
you. I think it is just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed
in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing
that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary
a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes
which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid
For the purposes of
the present argument, I would suggest that the Hollywood understanding
of identity is very close to Isabel's, while Leigh's is closer to Merle's.
Translated into the terms of the preceding discussion, Isabel defines
self-hood in terms of consciousness, while Merle defines it in terms of
expression. Isabel's identity (or at least the identity she aspires to
have), like the identities of characters in Hollywood movies, is a more
or less direct reflection of her wishes, dreams, and desires. (In fact,
there is really very little else to her.) Merle, in contrast, like Leigh,
says that subjectivity only matters insofar as it is externalized in forms
of practical performance.
The point of invoking
Isabel is to suggest the seductiveness of the idealist position. The Hollywood
equation of the self with its volitions, intentions, and choices, like
Isabel's equation of the self with its desires, ideals, and aspirations,
is a vision of virtually unlimited possibility. It imagines the individual
to be fundamentally unbounded and undefined. The self is open-ended and
free. The motto of these films is no different form the get-rich-quick
maxim: Anything you can see you can be: anything you can conceive and
believe, you can achieve. Where identities are so thoroughly mental, there
are virtually no constraints on what you can be. Characters in American
film are capable of being or doing almost anything. They truly are American
Adams, freed from the limits of history, memory, and social contingency.
Hollywood and Isabel imagine our identities to be responsive to our consciousnesses,
and consciousness itself to be fundamentally open-ended, unbounded, and
unlimited possibility don't come without a price, however. Insofar as
a character can be anyone, he or she must to some extent forfeit being
someone. The idealist position manifests itself as a characteristic blankness
or vacancy in the acting and the verbal and physical expressions of the
characters in Hollywood films. Leigh himself has commented that the figures
in American film strike him as "ciphers." Hollywood characters are blanks.
They are Everymen (or Everywomen). George Bailey, Mary Hatch, Jefferson
Smith, Rick, Ilsa Lunt, Charles Foster Kane, Marion Crane, "Top Gun,"
Forrest Gump, "The Terminator," and Truman Burbank are as unindividualized
as comic strip figures. They are not someone but anyone: generic placeholders
performing generic functions in generic narrativesthe archetypal
mother, crusader, cynic, megalomaniac, etc., etc. The psychological indefiniteness
and sociological vagueness of these characters and their situations is
the flipside of the sense of possibility. (It's why it is so easy for
someone in the audience to become them.) The nonspecificity is dictated
by the refusal to place fundamental limits on personal expression and
Leigh (like Merle)
has a different vision of what we are. His characters are not general
but particular, not anyone but someone, not Rorschach inkblots for viewers
imaginatively to fill in, but particular individuals with specific traits
and attributes who resist imaginative appropriationby other characters
and by the viewer. Characters' acts of resistance to other characters'
imaginative appropriations of them constitute the plots of most of the
films. In a similar vein, Leigh creates characters who resist the viewers'
Leigh devotes weeks
of his rehearsal process to working with his actors to arrive at definite
forms of movement, speech, and expression precisely because he believes
so strongly in each figure's specificity. He understands that while people's
intentions are more or less the samewho doesn't want to be successful,
happy, or good?their ways of expressing them are different. In Life
is Sweet, Andy and Aubrey are more or less identical in terms of their
desires (i.e. to work for themselves). But their characters are as different
as night and daywhich makes all the difference in the world.
we cannot escape our personalities, we are not open-ended, free, and able
to live our dreams in Leigh's world. We cannot be or do anything we imagine.
We are not infinite in possibility, but fundamentally limited and constrained.
Leigh's characters have particular identities which stand between them
and their visions of themselves. They are not open-ended, but tangled
up backward into their past (their social background, upbringing, personality,
and memories), forward into their future (their obligations and responsibilities),
and outward into everything around them (their job, family, and personal
forms of expression). Leigh characters are particular individuals, grounded
in specific sets of circumstances, mannerisms, ways of talking (including
the specific, local accents that drive many American viewers up a wall
in Four Days in July, for example), and ways of knowing that they
can never escape. Each has distinctive pacings, rhythms, memories, and
physical attributes. There is no realm of thought, feeling, and intention
free of these contingencies. There is no realm of ideas, feelings, or
intentions that is not inflected by what we are. Contrary to Isabel's
dream, there is no realm of consciousness that is sprung free from social
contingency and psychological particularity. We and all of our expressions
are fundamentally mediated and compromised. That acknowledgment of our
limitations is what American viewers can find depressing about Leigh's
work. His characters' expressive possibilities are radically constrained.
They can never be anything other than what they are.
Leigh, like Merle,
tells us that though we may dream in the subjunctive, we must live in
the indicative. Ideals can only be expressed in compromised, imperfect,
unideal forms. But that is not a situation to be regretted, according
to Leighor Merle. It is a stimulation to creative performance within
the limits that contain us. Trevor can never be other than Trevor in all
of his goofy, clumsy imperfection, but he can be the most sensitive, responsible,
interesting Trevor possible. Colin will never be able imaginatively to
leap outside his own limitations (or even to imagine this possibility
as Isabel does), but he can work within them. Shirley and Wendy cannot
escape the families of relationships that hedge them round. They must
work with what they haveas Leigh does as a directorworking
within the limits of the personalities and expressive possibilities of
the particular individuals available.
The specificity of
the characterizations and the performances is critical to the meaning
of Leigh's work. These characters cannot be anything because they are
so clearly something. Character sets an absolute limit on what each can
be and do. Sylvia, Peter, Gloria, Keith, Beverly, Shirley, and Wendy can
never be fundamentally different from what they are, even if they wanted
to be (which they don't). While Isabel and Hollywood films devote themselves
to the idea of escaping the inherent limits of character, such a concept
is meaningless in Leigh's work. Leigh's characters have "character" in
the root sense of the word. Their figures are more or less permanently
etched in a hard surface. Characters in American movies might, in contrast,
be said to have "personality"in the sense of the word that is applied
to the host of a television game show: a superficial, ephemeral congeries
of attributes. In the latter case, identity is malleable; in the former,
it is fixed. Leigh's figures can never escape what they are. They are
locked in emotional and intellectual boxes they can never get out of.
They must be themselveswhich would be a terrible limitation if they
did not have extremely complex and creative selves to be.
Leigh's work dramatizes
the individual's capacities of creative performance within inescapable
limitations. His characters can't ever melt and swoon into a cloud of
possibility the way Isabel Archer can; they can't transcend the social
forms of expression that define them. There is no unconditioned realm
of consciousness into which they can withdraw. Like ballerinas, they cannot
leap outside the music that both energizes and constrains their performances.
They must find a way to express themselves, uniquely and creatively, within
social and psychological forms and structures that inexorably limit who
they are and what they can say and do.
For more discussions of
Leigh's work, see the Mike Leigh pages in the Independent Film Section
of the site, or click here.
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To
obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces
that are not included on the web site,