|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....
Zahedi, the writer-director of A Little Stiff, I Don’t Hate
Las Vegas Anymore, I Was Possessed by God, and In the
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
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.
a review in Focus magazine:
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
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
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.
Leigh is a maverick British independent who, for nearly 30 years,
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
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.
* * *
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