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Visionary and Pragmatic AestheticsConsciousness and Expression in Film
Two Paradigms: Hollywood and Leigh
Hollywood 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. Its a "can-do" vision. Will-power, diligence, pluck, resourcefulness can solve any problem.
Leighs 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 Abigails Party and Whos 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 dont 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 doesnt suggest that there is anything in particular they can do to break free. Leighs 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.
Leighs 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 scene.
Rather than competing in the realm of action, Leighs figures are placed in situations in which their ways of feeling and thinking are compared. Its 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 Leighs 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 boys boss, and the painfully unromantic relationship of a man and woman he visits in the course of his job contrast with the young peoples 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 Lets get going, but the film is already goingsomeplace they dont realize." The drama doesnt 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, Leighs fundamental organizational device is the paralleled scene. The films are virtual echo chambers of compared and contrasted imaginative positions. Its important to note, however, that the comparison process involves the viewers comparisons of ways of knowing and feeling, not the characters. In The Kiss of Death, for example, it isnt 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 Leighs vision of life that most of his characters are so closed up inside their own points of view that they dont even realize that there is a difference between their point of view and another characters.
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 characters mind, but the viewers. This de-centering of the drama away from the main characters consciousnesses is, in fact, one of the defining aspects of Leighs work (which resembles some of Alan Clarkes in this respect)and is something about which I shall have much more to say in the pages that follow.
Since Leighs 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 counter-actions which eventually allow a winner or loser to be determined, but as dramatic externalizations of characters points of view. Leighs "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 Steadmans character responds to a medical emergency one way in Abigails 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 Leighs 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 Leighs 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. Leighs subject is the possibility of personal transformation. In this respect, his work is essentially as spiritual as that of Dreyer or Tarkovsky.
The Hollywood films emphasis on a characters 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 selfhood, but Leigh shows how much it leaves out. Leighs 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 Leighs work is not created by what a figure decides to do, but what he is independent of his decisions. Sylvias failure to connect with Peter in Bleak Moments, Keiths conflict with his neighbors in Nuts in May, Glorias clashes with Dick and Mandy in Grown-Ups, and Beverlys painful interactions with Su in Abigails Party are not traceable to these figures intentions and desires.
Thus the drama in Leighs 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 arent aware of it, even when we dont 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 characters 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 characters 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, Leighs films are depictions of the life that streams beneath awareness.
One of the main sources of drama in Leighs 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 Abigails 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 Leighs films force us to see characters the way others see us (and the way we see others)as outsides viewed from the outside. Its 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 Leighs work, if we can accept it, is always against our own complacent belief in the infallibility of our knowledge of ourselves.)
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 characters own view of himself; no other view is possible. While the self is one thing through and through in Hollywood movies, Leighs 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. Leighs 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. Hollands Opus, Forrest Gump, My Best Friends 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 dont 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 Hitchcocks 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.
The subjectivization 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 Schindlers 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.
Identification is effortless and automatic. The viewer can frictionlessly slip inside the characters skin. The character is always comprehensible in terms of the viewers 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 multiculturalists.
The imaginative transformation simplifies experience (not to mention, makes it intelligible in foreign marketsyou dont 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. Hollywoods universe of insides is replaced by a world of outsides. Needless to say, its not that Leighs characters dont have consciousnesses; but that their consciousnesses must always be translated into practical forms of social interaction. Leighs 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 characters 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. Leighs characters cant 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. Leighs characters are not their thoughts and feelings, but their social interactions, movements, gestures, tones of voice, and facial expressions.
Leighs characters 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 Leighs 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 Leighs work is to remember intricate verbal and social interactions: Sylvias joking, playful, embarrassing, clumsy conversations with Norman and Peter; Marks razzing of Colin and verbal sparring with Barbara; the dramatic skits Cyril and Shirley improvise together; Wendys 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 Cruises Forrest Gump with David Threlfalls 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 audiences 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 films voice-over narration). Leighs 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 Hitchcocks work with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant or Capras 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 Leighs 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 Wildes witticism that it is only superficial people who do not judge by surfaces. (Leigh is not interested in discussing a characters 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 Leighs work.
The difference between an idealized and an unidealized presentation of experience is what an American viewer registers as the "rawness" of Leighs characters or the "roughness" of their interactions. Leighs 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 Leighs 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 actors 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 characters megalomania and loneliness with a directness and immediacy that the compromised, mediated personal expressions in Leighs work never attain. The smoothness and completeness of idealist expression is replaced in Leighs work by the halting, rough particularity and imperfection of actual physical and verbal expression.
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 others minds, imaginatively expanding and visionarily merging, and the viewer switches into the same resonantly empathetic, imaginatively expansive appreciation of them.
Leighs 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 dont encourage the viewer to see things through their eyes. His music and visuals doesnt allow the viewer to participate in unmediated states of feeling and thought.
The viewer has to work much harder to come to grips with Leighs 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 Peters ungainliness charming or dismaying? Are Sylvias jokes a way of reaching out to others or holding them at a distance? Are Normans stammerings and hesitations soulful or shallow? Even once we do bring their significance into focus, the problem is that performed meanings wont stand still. Created in time and extended in space, they melt and transmute, continuously shimmering with changing resonances.
Based as they are on a screenwriters 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 Leighs 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, its 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 Leighs 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, Merles conception of selfhood comes first, as a response to Isabels declaration that it wont 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 they should!"
For the purposes of the present argument, I would suggest that the Hollywood understanding of identity is very close to Isabels, while Leighs is closer to Merles. Translated into the terms of the preceding discussion, Isabel defines selfhood in terms of consciousness, while Merle defines it in terms of expression. Isabels 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 Isabels 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 free.
Open-endedness and unlimited possibility dont 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. (Its 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 achievement.
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 imaginative appropriations.
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 figures specificity. He understands that while peoples intentions are more or less the samewho doesnt 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.
Precisely because we cannot escape our personalities, we are not open-ended, free, and able to live our dreams in Leighs world. We cannot be or do anything we imagine. We are not infinite in possibility, but fundamentally limited and constrained. Leighs 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 Isabels 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 Leighs 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 Leighs 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 dont). While Isabel and Hollywood films devote themselves to the idea of escaping the inherent limits of character, such a concept is meaningless in Leighs work. Leighs 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. Leighs 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.
Leighs work dramatizes the individuals capacities of creative performance within inescapable limitations. His characters cant ever melt and swoon into a cloud of possibility the way Isabel Archer can; they cant 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.
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