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Excerpts from a discussion of
The Kiss of Death

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It is difficult to know with any degree of certainty anything that Trevor and Ronnie are feeling and thinking in The Kiss of Death. Most of their behavior and expressions do not illustrate definite states of thought or feeling (and certainly not the states of focused purposefulness that motivate characters in the other sort of film). Expression becomes slightly mysterious–as much for the characters in the film as for the viewers of it.

Mystery in this sense is an entirely different thing from the mystifications of Hitchcock or the Coen brothers. The questions their work raises are ultimately answerable (and invariably are answered in their films' final scenes). The questions Leigh's work raises are not puzzles to be solved but indications of a density of experience that must be lived into. There is no hidden depth, no unexpressed desire, no secret identity or relationship to be ferreted out. Leigh is not concealing Trevor's and Ronnie's thoughts and feelings, but doing something much more radical: he is liberating their characters from being organized around (and understood in terms of) fundamental thoughts and feelings. It is not that intentional depths are veiled (in the Charles Foster Kane or Norman Bates way), but that they don't exist. There is no secret intention or thought to be discovered. Trevor and Ronnie's lives are not organized around central, controlling motivational states. Even they couldn't tell us what they are doing most of the time.

Consciousness is dislodged as a unifying center. Characters played by Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson would almost always be able to tell us what they are thinking or feeling or why they are saying or doing something at any moment. It is not only that Leigh's characters misunderstand their own motives and goals (though they repeatedly do); in most scenes they don't have any particular motives, plans, goals, or ideas behind what they are doing. They are not trying to be what they are or to do what they do. Their identities are not only beyond their abilities to control or change them, they are beyond their ability to be aware of them. Leigh rejects stylistic or verbal presentations of underpinning thoughts and feelings, not merely to make things hard on a viewer, but because he doesn't believe in the existence of underpinning thoughts and feelings as explanatory centers.

While stylistic effects or verbal statements of a character's goals and intentions offer resolving "deep" views, the forms of acting and performance Leigh presents leave the viewer studying behavioral surfaces without access to intentional depths. The viewer cannot escape from the confusions of expression into the clarities of intention. There is no release from the turbulent, turbid, mixed messages of the actual, which is why we can never know figures like Sylvia, Pat, Mrs. Thornley, Trevor, or Ronnie the way we can know Norman Bates, Charles Foster Kane, or the Hal 9000 computer.

The emphasis on intentional states in Hollywood film reflects a unitary conception of personal identity–as if people were one thing through and through. Apparent vagaries of behavior and expression are harmonized by being traced back to a central, unifying thought, emotion, or purpose. Leigh simply does not believe that our identities are unified in this way. In his view, a central unity does not necessarily underlie the heterogeneity of our experiences and expressions. Leigh's most interesting characters do not have fundamental, overarching "motives" or "goals." They do not have "plans." They do not have "visions" of what they "want" or "need." There is no realm of deep "feelings" or unexpressed "intentions" to discover. There is no substructure of essential "thoughts," "purposes," and "desires" that can clarify the genuine vagueness, open-endedness, and unformulatedness of their interactions. Leigh denies that life is organized (and comprehensible) in terms of essential states of consciousness.

The very point of Leigh's narratives is to create situations where game plans do not apply. They suspend the characters in an unresolved middle ground of feelings and relationships that maximize the possibilities of unpredictable, unbalanced, unprogrammatic interaction. Characters don't have purposes and goals; as in life, they discover what they are doing only after they have done it–if they discover it at all. They just can't see very far–which can be sad in a serious moment or endear them to us in a comic moment.

The Kiss of Death is organized around the interactions of fairly confused and unreflective young people who do little more than "hang out" together. Trevor and Ronnie, as friends, and Trevor and Linda and Ronnie and Sandra, as potential lovers, feel their way toward or away from each other in an awkward, hesitant emotional dance in which there are frequent missteps, lots of stepping on toes, and no way of seeing beyond the present position. Given who they are and what they are doing, they really can't know what they want from each other (or whether they want anything at all). If Trevor and Ronnie knew what they were doing, what they wanted, where they were heading, or how to get there–if they had clear purposes and definite goals–they wouldn't be nearly as interesting as they are. They would become the kind of characters played by Charlie Sheen or John Travolta. The Kiss of Death would become Saturday Night Fever.

In the sequence that culminates in Trevor and Linda's "kiss of death" scene, for example, it is impossible to know exactly what Trevor wants out of the encounter or what his intentions are not because his feelings and intentions are concealed from a viewer, but because they are concealed from him. To put it more accurately, Trevor doesn't have definite feelings and intentions. He doesn't know what he wants from the encounter.

In fact, there are few surer signs of limitation in Leigh's work than for characters to think they do know who they are, what they want, where they are headed, or what they are doing. To assign a destination to desire is to stunt life and limit possibility. If you think you know what you are doing, you are almost always wrong. Pat and Peter have clear goals and purposes; Norman, Sylvia, and Hilda don't. Mr. Thornley knows what he wants; Naseem and Ann feel their way step by step. Keith lives by a game plan; Ray, Honkey, and Finger don't even know what they are doing while they are doing it. Barbara is on a mission; Colin isn't. It is evidence of Linda and Sandra's limitations in The Kiss of Death that they do have clear-cut purposes and goals (attempting to use sex to manipulate and control Trevor and Ronnie). All of The Kiss of Death is devoted to frustrating their designs for living....

–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.

–Caveh Zahedi, creator of A Little Stiff and I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore,
in a review in Filmmaker Magazine

 
 

Mike Leigh’s work is difficult to pin down. Echoing what Ray Carney says of Leigh’s more blinkered characters, examining these films becomes a lot murkier when you bring too many ideas and film-critical categories to bear. Although not without its strengths and serendipities, Garry Watson’s book suffers from intellectual larding while, like one of Leigh’s more far-sighted characters, Carney and Quart’s gets in amongst the rough-and-tumble....

The Carney and Quart book was the first critical study of Leigh’s work and every subsequent book on Leigh must negotiate its rigor and insight. I have yet to read a book that better approximates my experience of watching Leigh’s films.My one regret is that, apart from the important BBC plays Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party (1977), I have yet to see many of the early works wherein Carney locates the wellspring of Leigh’s improvisatory power and vision.

Animating this study is a distinction between two types of Leigh characters that resonates culturally, politically and spiritually across his work. For Carney, there are those like Rupert and Laetitia Boothe-Braine in High Hopes (1988), Nicola in Life Is Sweet (1990), and Sebastian in Naked (1993) who, mired in a mental image of themselves, pigeon-hole others in prejudices, effectively foreclosing on generous and responsive solidarity. Then there are those like Cyril and Shirley in High Hopes, Wendy in Life Is Sweet, and Louise in Naked who have all the foibles, strengths, and self-doubts of their humanity, and are open to the flows of human interaction. Alison Steadman’s giggly and affectionate Wendy still epitomizes the principle of social cohesion in Leigh. It is perhaps unsurprising that Steadman and Leigh were married, while the positive response to the density of experience recalls the thick descriptive methodology through which a Leigh film is arrived at. Evoking the Dickensian and Lawrentian views of human sensibility (as Watson points out), Leigh feels that the individual mindset has consequences for the wider culture, and by this light the generous impulse in Wendy and other Leigh characters has been eroded by consumerism and social mobility in postwar Britain. Not as overtly political as Ken Loach, Leigh has nevertheless chronicled the domestic consequences of the decline of the social consensus imagined by writers from Dickens to George Orwell.

One of the most unexpected aspects of Carney and Quart’s book is the way it puts mainstream American cinema in perspective by comparing it with Leigh’s cinema.With his focus on characters as mannered and tic-ridden “outsides” (as opposed to Hollywood’s granting us access to Forrest Gump’s inner kindness despite the goofy exterior), Leigh charts that elusive quality, the “ordinary” moment—the everyday drama of interaction they never show in Hollywood because it occurs between the heroics.

In doing so, Carney shows, Leigh pulls apart the Enlightenment model of agency and volition on which most American movies depend. Recalling classes he has taught—he is Director of Film Studies at Boston University—Carney describes how Americans are often perplexed by a cinema in which nothing seems to happen. But Leigh’s drama of transformation is rooted in the layered rehearsal of interpersonal dynamics observed with the patience of a European Ozu. Whilst British Leigh commentators have been preoccupied with the writer-director’s purchase on the sociological landscape, Carney convinces us that Leigh and Ozu share a feeling for the interplay of performance and mise-en-scène which moves beyond David Bordwell’s pioneering Ozu dichotomy between modernism and tradition. Leigh’s conception of experience (unlike that of Hollywood) is durational rather than deadlined, heterogeneous rather than hurried. Carney’s examination of space and time in Leigh reveals, as Bordwell has done elsewhere, that the mainstream model of experience conceals as much as it reveals....

 
–Richard Armstrong, a review of Gary Watson, The Cinema of Mike Leigh and Ray Carney and Leonard Quart, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World, published in Film Quarterly, Dec 2005, Vol. 59, No. 2, pp. 62-63
 
  No other study sheds such a revealing light on Leigh's background, his influences, his emotional groundings, and, of course, his unique cinematic sensibility....[Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh is a] powerful and multifaceted analysis which welcomes, like Leigh's work, the vibrant eye and the uncalcified consciousness.
  -- Andrew Hamlin, in a review of Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World, published in MovieMaker Magazine.
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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.