What critics and reviewers have said about Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh

Click here for best printing of text

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

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....

Caveh Zahedi, the writer-director of A Little Stiff, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, I Was Possessed by God, and In the Bathtub of the World, writing in a review published in Filmmaker Magazine

Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh is quite simply the best book of film criticism I have ever read. Let me hasten to add that I have never read any of Carney's other books (he has also written books on John 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 certainly haven't read "everything else out there," I feel the exact same way. Ray Carney's new book has undeniably rocked my world.

I had read interviews with Carney before, as well as various articles he'd published on independent film over the years. (For more information on his work, visit his web site at: www.Cassavetes.com.) And I had been both grateful for and impressed by his searing intelligence and virulently anti-Hollywood perspective. But I had never actually bothered to read any of his books for fear that they would be too academic. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. This book has changed my way of seeing film (and myself!) more radically than any of his excellent interviews and reviews ever did. I realize that this is starting to sound hyperbolic, but I just can't say it enough. Read this book. Read this book. Read this book.

Carney starts the book with an introductory essay which alone is worth the cost of the book. In it, he lays out the most far-reaching critique of Hollywood filmmaking that I have ever come across. The problem with Hollywood filmmaking, according to Carney, isn't just that it shies away from edgy topics, as filmmakers like Spike Lee or John Waters seem to believe, or even that it fails to give adequate represention to the full spectrum of "cultural diversity," an undeniable fact that most American independent filmmakers seem content to remedy simply by making films that substitute more culturally diverse characters for the typical WASP hero, a substitution that is, in its essence, no different than what network television has been doing for decades. Rather, the problem with Hollywood (and by extension, indiewood) filmmaking is ontological—in other words, it is the very model of the human subject which mainstream cinema proposes that is flawed.

The mainstream cinematic model of the human subject is of an essentially unitary transparent consciousness with the ability to engage in acts of volition which are the result of fully conscious choices. According to Carney, such a model has become normative because it flatters the ego and the vanity of most movie-goers, who would rather believe in the fantasy that most films provide them with — namely that they have the power to radically transform their lives in any way they choose and, in so doing, win the brass ring, or the girl, or whatever the object of their desire happens to be. Carney points out that this mainstream narrative film ideology is part and parcel of the ideological assumptions of American capitalism. Work hard and you'll get whatever you want. It also fits in perfectly with a certain school of New Age thought (i.e. pray hard and you'll get whatever you want) which explains why so many Hollywood movies (from Field of Dreams to Forrest Gump) tend to be so New Age.

Against the hegemony of this Hollywood model, a model which because of its basic dishonesty does little to help us actually solve the real problems of our day-to-day lives (as opposed to, say, the problems of a hitman or a person on a sinking ship), Carney proposes a counter-model, brilliantly embodied in the films of Mike Leigh. In Leigh's films, characters are not transparent one-dimensional subjects who know exactly what they think and want and simply proceed to go about getting it. They are opaque to themselves as well as to the viewer. They are deluded about who they really are, and have a difficult time (as do we all) separating their fantasies about themselves from the truth about themselves. And their actions are not only frequently at odds with their own conscious goals, but their goals are multivalent, contradictory, and not fully conscious. In other words, the model of the human subject that Leigh's films propose is one that is much closer to the truth, one in which we can actually recognize ourselves, assuming, of course, that we have the courage to look at ourselves squarely, which most moviegoers (and one must remember that most moviegoers are teenage boys) seem unwilling to do. But not Mike Leigh. His gaze is unflinching, and his characters resemble us like few characters in the history of cinema.

After Carney's formidable introductory essay, in which he lays down the basic parameters of his subsequent discussion of Leigh, he then proceeds to devote an entire chapter to each of Leigh's feature-length films from Bleak Moments until Naked. These chapters are not only an invaluable aid to fully understanding and appreciating these decidedly very difficult films, but having read them they strike me as almost indispensable. I watched each of Leigh's films in chronological order in order to write this review, and the experience of watching them was but a pale imitation of the experience of watching them again after having read the corresponding chapter in Carney's book. Carney's book simply opened the films to me, and opened them at a level of depth that I never would have attained otherwise. Which is, it seems to me, what film criticism should ideally do, but so rarely does.

But Ray Carney's book does more than merely shed light on the films of Mike Leigh. It sheds light on the deeper psychological and philosophical issues that Leigh's films are attempting to shed light on. And it is this aspect of Carney's book that I find so invaluable. In this sense, the book is more than mere exegesis — it functions as a kind of holograph of the films themselves. In other words, reading Ray Carney's book on Mike Leigh is similar to the experience of watching a Mike Leigh movie. Or to put it in different terms, 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 escapist culture's present-day insanity.

Andrew Hamlin, in a review in MovieMaker
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.

* * *

From a review in Focus magazine:
New Leigh Book Makes a Splash

The philosopher William James somewhere says that all authors cry out for nuanced appreciation of their work, but in fact all they really want is shameless, groveling praise. If James is right, and he probably is, Professor Ray Carney, director of the Film Studies program, might be said to have the best of both worlds. His recent book on British director Mike Leigh, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World, published in paperback by Cambridge University Press, is eliciting both intelligent appreciation and profuse superlatives.

Writing in a recent issue of Filmmaker magazine, indie director Caveh Zahedi, creator of A Little Stiff and I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, called Carney’s book "quite simply the best book of film criticism I have ever read.... His writing blows everything else out there away, even to the point of many times seeming like simply being in a class of its own...different in kind more than degree." Zahedi went on to say that: "[Carney’s] new book has undeniably rocked my world. [It] 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."

Another writer, Andrew Hamlin, seconded the motion in a review in MovieMaker: "No other study sheds such a revealing light on Leigh’s background, his influences, his emotional groundings, and, of course, his unique cinematic sensibility.... [It is a] powerful and multifaceted analysis which welcomes, like Leigh’s work, the vibrant eye and the uncalcified consciousness."

Carney says the book, which has chapters devoted to most of Leigh’s major works, from Bleak Moments and Meantime to High Hopes, Life is Sweet, and Naked, took approximately five years to write in-between teaching assignments, administrative responsibilities, and other publishing projects (he is a frequent contributor to many film magazines). Mike Leigh provided his own personal viewing copies of several films which were not generally available so that discussions of them could be included. More information and excerpts from the book are available at Carney’s personal web site: www.Cassavetes.com.

Ray Carney, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 13 illustrations, paperback, 290 pages. This book is available directly from the author for $20.

Mike Leigh is a maverick British independent who, for nearly 30 years, has been producing eccentric, unique, and almost uncategorizable works. Though his career dates back to 1971, with a film called Bleak Moments, Leigh has worked in obscurity for most of that time, coming to the attention of an international audience only with his recent productions of Naked, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls, and Topsy-Turvy.

Working in a similar way to that of Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Tom Noonan, Leigh begins with a small group of actors around whom he builds his films during months of private rehearsal. There is no script at the start. It is written as he goes along.

The films–which include Abigail’s Party, Meantime, Home Sweet Home, High Hopes, and Life is Sweet–are brilliant, outrageous, iconoclastic–and hilarious. Leigh's work has been both ridiculed by some and celebrated by others as among the greatest filmmaking of the twentieth century.

This study argues, among other things, that part of the misunderstanding of Leigh's work has been the result of misclassifying him as a British "realist" in the tradition of Osborne and Loach, when in fact his films are far stranger and more artistically daring. The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World makes the case for regarding Leigh as one of the great artists of the century.

This is the first comprehensive critical appreciation of Leigh's work ever written, and it offers insights not only into this unusual filmmaker's strange and often baffling movies, but into film itself as a way of knowing and understanding the world. This book offers nothing less than a radically new way of understanding both life and art.

* * *

This book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted and specially autographed editions). Advance copies may be ordered now. If you order prior to publication, your "first edition" copy will be mailed to you the day the book becomes available (and before it is generally available in bookstores).

To obtain a copy directly from the author (please stipulate if you would like an inscription or autograph on the inside front cover), please send $20 (US Postal Money Order only) with your name and address, and the title of the book you are ordering, to the following address. (Domestic US orders only.)

Ray Carney
Special Book Offer
College of Communication
640 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Credit Card
Now you can buy Ray Carney's works online using Visa or MasterCard.

If you pay by credit card using the PayPal button, please note in the item description or comments section of the order form the exact title of the item or items you are ordering (be specific, since many items have similar titles), as well as any preferences you may have about an autograph or inscription and the name or nickname you would like to have on the inscription.

If you are confused by the PayPal form, or unsure where to enter this information, you may simply make your credit card payment that way, and separately email me (at the address below) any and all information about what item you are ordering, and what inscription or name you would like me to write on it, or any other details about your purchase. I will respond promptly.

The PayPal form has a place for you to indicate the number of items you want (if you want more than one of any item), as well as your mailing address.

If you place your order and send your payment by mail, please include a sheet of paper with the same information on it. I am glad to do custom inscriptions to friends or relatives, as long as you provide all necessary information, either on the PayPal form, in a separate email to me, or by regular mail. (Though I cannot take credit card information by mail; PayPal is the only way I can do that.)

If you want to order other items from other pages, and are using the PayPal button, you may combine several items in one order and have your total payment reflect the total amount, or you may order other items separately when you visit other pages. Since there is no added shipping or handling charge (shipping in the US is free), you will not be penalized for ordering individual items separately in separate orders. It will cost exactly the same either way.

These instructions apply to American shipments only. Individuals from outside the United States should email me and inquire about pricing and shipping costs for international shipments.

Clicking on PayPal opens a separate window in your browser so that this window and the information in it will always be available for you to consult before, during, and after clicking on the PayPal button. After you have completed your PayPal purchase and your order has been placed, you will automatically be returned to this page. If, on the other hand, you go to the PayPal page and decide not to complete your order, you may simply close the PayPal window at any point and this page should still be visible in a window underneath it.

If you have questions, comments, or problems, or if you would like to send me additional information about your order, please feel free to email me at: raycarney@usa.net

Top of Page

© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.