This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.

Excerpts from:
The Culture of Irony:
Mike Leigh's Challenge to Critics

Over the past thirty years or so, American artists and viewers have scaled back their expectations for the art of film. It is as if, as a result of the pervasive cultural hypocrisies, deceits, and betrayals of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, artists and intellectuals have lost faith in truth. Engagement, seriousness, and sincerity have been revealed to be a mug's game so often that it appears that the only honest stance that remains is to stand outside the established systems of understanding, critical of all and believing in none. The ironic mode has, ironically enough, become the last refuge of the caring heart.

The consequence is the triumph of what Paul Ricoeur called "the hermeneutics of suspicion." Skepticism (or the sterile formalism of academic criticism) fills the void left by faith. In a world where truth-telling is despaired of, one's powers of debunking, revealing, exposing become the measure of one's virtue. Both art and criticism become essentially negative in their function. Art exists to help us see through the limiting systems around us, and art that doesn't make that its main function is viewed as being complicitous with those systems. The bottomless skepticism that informs most ethnic, feminist, gay, and cultural studies approaches to film is another academic manifestation of this tendency. The mass-produced, assembly-line creations of Hollywood corporations may deserve such deprecatory and downright derisive treatment, but what these critics fail to realize is that real art does not yield to such a method. Art as a form of truth-telling is left out.

The best we can ask of our films and filmmakers is to be "smart," "sassy," and "wised-up" (to the tricks, games, and overall fraudulence of the system) in the approved Pauline Kael way. The search for truth gives way to play with cinematic forms and pop culture allusions. The result is the stylistic back-flips and video-store in-jokes of Pulp Fiction, the narrative ingenuities of Fargo, the slick stylishness of L.A. Confidential, the world-weary sardonicism of Altman's work (and the critical praise heaped on them and similar works). It's all about playing with (and not being trapped by) the codes. If all art can do is to reflect on oppressive cultural rules and conventions, then the purpose of art is to negotiate them deftly, to deconstruct them devastatingly, to play with them puckishly, and throughout it all, to avoid taking any of them seriously. This stance appeals to teenage boys above all because it requires no emotional knowledge or commitment. It's easy. It's safe. It threatens nothing and asks nothing of the viewer.

The debased pop version is our culture of irony. The knowing wink, nod, and smirk are everywhere. From Letterman to MTV to life, the point is to be with-it, bouncy, weightless. Hipness, coolness, detachment are the supreme virtues. Art and life are reduced to "styles," "surfaces," "spin," "looks." It's a kind of cynicism or despair, of course, but don't worry. Everything is stupid anyway; it's all just a big joke, lark, goof, game. Don't you have a sense of humor? Art doesn't really matter. Only a fool would take any of it seriously or get upset about it.

Leigh embraces a different vision. His films refuse to conform to the culture of reduced aspirations. They are not "stylish" or "clever." They do not play narrative games or take a viewer on an emotional roller-coaster ride. They are deadly serious (which doesn't preclude them being delightfully hilarious at the same time). They explore real emotional and intellectual problems. They reflect deeply on the world we live in. They ask questions about who we are and offer insights into the ways we hurt ourselves and others: What does it feel like to be this person? Why can't this individual give or receive love? Why is this one so unhappy? Why does this other one treat others so badly? Why can't this one even see that he has a problem? What is it about this situation that causes pain? Could anything relieve it?

While archness, coolness, and detachment are the names of the game in the culture of irony, Leigh's films defeat distancing strategies. They assault and batter us. Their perceptual and narrative shocks deny the viewer intellectual leverage over the experiences they present. They implicate him; they snare him into caring (even as he may resist). In a culture devoted to knowingness, they dare to ask questions to which they don't know the answers, to conduct explorations which they don't know in advance where they will come out.

This is filmmaking not as a stylistic chess game, but as about life and death issues. In this conception of it, art is a means of understanding our most complex experiences. Though art perennially takes a back seat to science as a way of knowing in our culture, an artist working in Leigh's way is doing something at least as important as a biologist, chemist, physician, or physicist. Any difference between the scientist and the artist is, in fact, in the artist's favor in that the artist grapples with a realm far more complex and elusive than the physical world--the world of human thought and feeling.

However, even for the few critics who are committed to the cultural importance of artistic expression, Leigh's work might be said to camouflage its complexity. Most of the great twentieth-century modernists (from Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, to Beckett, Faulkner, and Stevens, to Pinter, Pynchon, and Gaddis) have convinced us that "advanced" art must be difficult or abstruse. Within the realm of film, the highest forms of "artistic" expression are, almost by definition, thought to involve various kinds of stylistic defamiliarization, narrative dislocation, and semantic obliquity. Leigh's work does not justify its existence in such ways. The subject matter seems utterly prosaic--ordinary people doing ordinary things. The narrative presentation is simple and straightforward--no flashbacks, no unreliable narrators, no violations of chronology. The style is unrhetorical in the extreme--no editorial razzle-dazzle or visual and acoustic stylization. Compared to the work of Ackerman, Schroeder, Ruiz, or Fellini, Leigh's family dramas--his stories about mothers, fathers, lovers, and teenagers--just don't seem to qualify for the artistic cutting edge.

Leigh's work is difficult in a different way from the canonical modernist works. The demands are less on our intellect and knowledge (in the mode of The Wasteland, Ulysses, and The Cantos) than on our capacities of awareness. No amount of literary or cultural knowledge will make Leigh's work easier. The only knowledge that can help us is knowledge of life and human emotions (which is unfortunately far less common among critics than the other sort of knowledge). But what makes the films doubly hard is that if Leigh requires us to draw on our knowledge of people and situations we have encountered (in a way that a filmmaker like Hitchcock never does), he asks us at the same time to abandon our customary forms of social and emotional understanding.

Our normal categories of understanding will not suffice. Leigh's characters frustrate conventional psychological and moral judgments; their situations deny formulaic emotional responses. In Nuts in May and Grown-Ups, the low-brows are ultimately shown to be "smarter" than the intellectuals. In Meantime, the filial "odd couple" is revealed to be emotionally more intimate than the more "normal," happily married couple. ClichÈs are shredded; stereotypes and expectations violated. Our desire for clarity, resolution, and catharsis is denied. Villains do not necessarily recognize their faults. Heroes and heroines can be deeply flawed. Virtue is partial and shaded and imperfect. The viewer must enter into a genuinely fresh and unformulated relationship with what is on screen. Since most of our conventional conceptual categories won't suffice, we must give up the comfort of conceptions and return to the rawness of perceptions--reading flickering facial expressions, listening for subtle shifts in tones of voice, responding to interactions with extraordinary sensitivity....

--Excerpted from the "Epilogue" to Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 239-241.

To read more about fads and fashions in criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness" in the Carney on Culture section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and all of the other pieces in this section.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.

© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.