This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.
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Abigail's Party is a house of mirrors in which reflected images have completely replaced the originals–Beverly, for example, being less a hostess than something much more unsettling: someone playing at being a hostess. In a sense, there is no Beverly. When we look for her we find only an actress playing a part, a ventriloquist's dummy mouthing someone else's words, an impersonation of a person. She has given up her identity, such as it is, to play a role, which she acts out not only in public but, more disturbingly, even in private. That is the importance of the opening minute or so in which she is alone on camera. We watch her "acting" even when no one else is present. She is not performing for an audience–her husband or her guests, but doing something much spookier: For herself. She is validating herself to herself.
In this night of the living dead, there is no Beverly separable from the part she plays. Her identity is completely synthetic–a shaky structure of prefab "attitudes," poses, self-regarding routines, and shop-worn hostess-with-the-mostest affectations. Like some brilliant, performing circus animal, Beverly provides a dazzling "display" of canned phrases, gestures, and tones that simulate states of thinking, feeling, and caring without ever getting within three martinis of the reality.
We can recognize the theatricality of Beverly's performance not only through Alison Steadman's tonal archness in her line delivery, which inserts brackets around each of Beverly's gestures and quotation marks around each of her utterances, but even in the script. There is something artificial, imitated, derivative, or inauthentic about virtually every line of dialogue Beverly utters. It all feels "scripted"–and it is, not by Leigh, of course, but by Beverly.
Beverly inhabits a realm–call it hostess-speak–in which verbal expressions bear no relationship to real feelings (or an inverse relationship, as in the case of the syrupy "please" she intermittently coos in Laurence's direction, which is not in the least a polite request but a snarled imperative and threat). Like the Hollywood air kissing Beverly's speech resembles, social interaction in this world becomes a kind of bad acting in which you "indicate" your emotions instead of actually feeling them. (Real, messy emotion would only get in the way, impeding the smoothness of the performance and embarrassing the audience.) Since each of the participants in the drama knows it is all theater, the fraudulence, the archness, is not concealed but cultivated and proclaimed, as a way of expanding their identities and intensifying their presence.
As that way of putting it is meant to suggest, the problem Leigh is examining is much deeper than what is normally connoted by insincerity. Beverly (like all of the other characters in Abigail's Party) is not covering up her real feelings and thoughts. That would be an entirely more conventional dramatic situation. It would suggest that she knows what she is doing. It would imply that she was simply trying to fool people (a fairly simple situation in life and art), when the real problem is that she is fooling herself (a much more interesting state of affairs). Beverly is completely and utterly sincere; she means what she says; she is not being deceitful. Which is the true problem. There is no reality lurking in the depths; everything is fake. Beverly's ideas and emotions are no different from her jewelry: both are equally cheap knock-offs. Her most private, inner experiences are as performance not only through Alison Steadman's tonal archness in her line delivery,èd as her expressions.
Most films, particularly American ones, cultivate what might be called a "surface-depth" understanding of the relation of falsity and truth. Surfaces, appearances, expressions are potentially delusive or misleading; truth lies in the depths. It is hidden somewhere underneath visible expressions. If you cross-examined Laurence and Beverly in private, and dug for the truth, you could get them to confess to their lies. This simply is not the situation Leigh imagines. He holds us on the surface and, in fact, tells us that the surfaces are all there are. There is no realm of "truth" underneath or distinguishable from the realm of "falsehood." There are no secrets to exhume. There are no psychological depths to mine–or at least none that matter–in Abigail's Party . No one is being deceitful. No one is covering up anything. That would simplify understanding. We could dive down and discover the truth as we do in films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca. The situation Leigh imagines–here and in all of his work–is far more complex. There is no escape from slippery, shifting, multivalent surfaces. There is no realm of unsullied, uninflected reality underneath. Everything is mixed. We must live in the flux....
–Excerpted from Ray Carney, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh is quite simply the best book of film criticism I have ever read.
Now I have to say that I have never read any of Carney's other books (he has also written books on Cassavetes, Frank Capra, and Carl Dreyer), which, for all I know, might be even better. But as a friend of mine put it, 'His writing blows everything else out there away, even to the point of many times seeming like simply in a class of his own...different in kind more than degree.' And although I admit to not having read 'everything else out there,' I feel the exact same way. Ray Carney's new book has undeniably rocked my world.
Ray Carney's book is to what usually passes for film criticism what Mike Leigh's movies are to what, in Hollywood, usually passes for filmmaking: a truly radical critique, a whole different animal, and a solitary voice of sanity that has somehow miraculously managed to make itself heard over the noise and hullabaloo of this culture's present-day insanity.
Zahedi, creator of A Little Stiff and I Don't Hate
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