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.

Excerpts from a discussion of
Bleak Moments

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One of the subtlest aspects of Leigh's work is how it delays judgment. Understanding is incremental. Mainstream movies employ quicker ways of knowing. They generally provide a hook on which to hang the interpretation of a character or scene as early as possible. If it is done stylistically–by means of a lighting effect, a mood-music orchestration, a tendentious framing, a "black hat" bit of action–the meaning can be indicated almost instantaneously. See this? Hear that? Get it? Got it.

Leigh replaces what might be called knowledge as insight with knowledge as acquaintance. Rather than seeing (or being told) something about an experience up front, the viewer is required to live through a complex, unglossed experience, piecing an interpretation together step by step. One might say that while Hollywood attempts to create a feeling of God-like omniscience in the viewer, Leigh makes us realize the all-too-human partiality and incompleteness of each of our continuously revised understandings. We understand Leigh's characters and situations not with the instantaneous insight that movies usually provide, but the way we understand things in life outside of the movies–gradually, hesitantly, provisionally. Understanding out of time is replaced by understanding in time; shorthand knowing gives way to longhand. The gradualness and tentativeness of the knowing process affect its final status. Leigh's truths stay localized, his forms of knowing gradual and evolutionary, no matter how many times we see the movies. The experiences in Leigh's work must be undergone for a long time before they can be understood (if they can be understood at all).

Leigh provides shifting, partial views of characters and situations that allow for different (and even conflicting) understandings. This is what is potentially misleading about most critical descriptions of Pat, Peter, the boss, and the waiter. They look back on them and their scenes from a certain imaginative distance, but these characters are actually encountered by a viewer of the film far less clearly and summarily. I vividly remember my own experience viewing Bleak Moments for the first time with a friend. I was mystified to the point of bewilderment. After the first scene with the boss, I whispered in her ear, "What's his problem?" Following a scene with Peter: "Is this guy as weird as I think he is?" After a scene with Norman: "What a bizarre movie. What's going on?" The questions weren't rhetorical. I didn't know what to think about what I was seeing. I was lost. Even after the movie was over, I still couldn't have described what I had seen or say what the film was "about." I remember my best guess was "something to do with failures of communication and linguistic problems," since there was so much stammering, inarticulateness, and misunderstanding–and so much blathering on about language by Peter. When it came to how I felt about the characters, I couldn't make up my mind about any of them. Was I supposed to like any of them? Was I supposed to hate any of them? Was I supposed to blame Peter for the disastrousness of the date? Or was I supposed to blame Sylvia? How was I supposed to feel about Norman–was he hopeless or promising as boyfriend material? Was Sylvia actually propositioning him in one of the final scenes, or was I just imagining that? If so, did he realize it and deliberately reject her overture, or was he oblivious to the whole thing? The characters and situations resisted all of the standard psychological and moral can openers in my interpretive Swiss Army knife. They defeated being narratively sorted into any of the customary categories–good or bad, right or wrong, victim or villain.

You are not really responding to Bleak Moments if you haven't changed your mind about Hilda, Peter, Pat, and everything else at least a few times in the course of watching it. Leigh's narratives are structured to stay just a little ahead of us, to prevent us from figuring out characters and interactions prematurely, to force us to stay open. As he put it to an interviewer: "Whatever film you watch, assuming you've seen a film before, you immediately go into one program or another, or plug into an expectation system. If the film is any good, these expectations are constantly confounded."

Throughout his career, Leigh has spoken to interviewers about his process of shifting the view and adjusting the viewer's relationship with his characters and situations. As early as 1975, he was arguing: "When people tell me that I'm just producing slices of life, they don't realize that it's all based on a very particular kind of story-telling. What I do is to invite the audience to go through a process of identifying, reacting to, reacting against, sympathizing with, caring for, getting cheezed off with, a complex set of interactions between people...."

–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.