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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).

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

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