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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).
© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.