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Excerpts from a discussion of

The decorations in the Regret Rien present a parable about the difference between superficial and deep meaning-making–in life and art. Like Salvador Dali or Alfred Hitchcock (or the critic or viewer who gratefully decodes the meanings they offer), Aubrey thinks that you create significance simply by putting something in a frame and spotlighting it. Hitchcock tacks a few stuffed birds on the walls of Norman Bates' office and "morbidity" appears; Aubrey hangs up a bird cage to indicate "the Sparrow," a cat to indicate "the street," a gas mask to indicate "the war," an accordion to indicate "the music of Paree" and he thinks he's created those meanings. It's the semantic equivalent of a heat-and-eat meal: instant, effortless, and ultimately insubstantial. It takes no time or commitment on the part of the artist to create, and no energy or involvement on the part of the viewer to consume (which is why it results in no growth or nourishment).

Aubrey has not learned the lesson the film he is in teaches–that meaning (the meaning of a life, a family, a place, a relationship with another human being) can only be created with time, effort, care, sensitivity, and beat-by-beat responsiveness. Meaning must be made, it cannot simply be indicated (which is why the meanings in Leigh's work are so different from and take so much more than effort to comprehend than the metaphors and symbols in Hitchcock, Lynch, the Coens, Stone, and similar artists). As all of Leigh's work is devoted to demonstrating, meaning cannot merely be willed; it must be worked into being. It cannot simply be declared; it must be earned. It isn't made abstractly and quickly, but slowly and arduously.

The entire stylistic enterprise of Leigh's work contrasts with that of American film in this regard. While the transcendental or visionary truth of Sternberg, Welles, or Hitchcock is instantaneous (like Aubrey's cat and accordion set decorations, you simply "see" the meaning and it exists), the practical, social truths of Leigh's works are a product of work and duration. They take time and effort to make in the first place and they keep changing from second to second. They take time and work for a viewer to apprehend and time to keep up with. Knowledge is slow and arduous. It's not something you suddenly "get" (as in visionary film), but something that is gradually and progressively achieved.

Like Aubrey's notion of set decoration, the insistently metaphoric methods of most American films elevate the truth of ideas over the truth of experiences. Meanings are rendered in a kind of intellectual shorthand in which "this means that" in a strictly intellectual way. A sled means a lost childhood; a cavernous livingroom means loneliness; ominous music and shadowy lighting mean spiritual emptiness and nostalgia. Leigh is committed to a more spatially involved and temporally extended sense of truth. Truth is not the product of a viewer's or a character's mental relation to a series of sounds and images (the heart of the metaphoric-symbolic method), but is the result of the viewer's and character's complex, gradual process of interacting with a series of people and events extended across space and time. Leigh' characters do not interact in term of glances, and his viewers cannot take in his meanings at a glance. His meanings must be lived through and lived into.

Aubrey's off-the-peg sense of selfhood and just-add-water understanding of meaning seem all the shallower insofar as they are juxtaposed next to the complexities of identity and involvement that Wendy and Andy display. The difference is comically summed up in the semantic contrast between Aubrey's "Marry me, Wendy. I love you" and their more challenging illustration of what real love and marriage involve. What Wendy and Andy are (both as characters in a movie and people living a life) is achieved gradually and tentatively, in the time and space of interactions as complex as the ones I have described. Their individual identities and relationship with each other are not brought into existence instantly, effortlessly, and unilaterally by means of a prop (a pineapple), a costume (a sports jacket), or a pickup line ("You know, you look fantastic"), but are lived through and worked into existence one beat at a time.

Wendy and Andy show themselves capable of doing the same thing Leigh's style does: imaginatively entering into and sympathizing with alien points of view (even ones as odd as the lady with the stuffed dog and the ration stamps). Aubrey is trapped in his own view of everything. As the comical misunderstandings in his interactions with Wendy illustrate, he doesn't really listen to, respond to, or understand any point of view beyond his own (a point Leigh makes wittily by having Timothy Spall insert a "delay" before most of his responses, as if he were perpetually out of synch with the world).

There is no play in Aubrey's understanding of himself or others. While Wendy, Andy, and Natalie's relationship to each other and everyone they meet freely flows and changes from moment to moment, holding many emotions and thoughts in suspension, Aubrey is locked into static forms of selfhood and formulaic ways of interacting. Like Peter, Sylvia's boss, Keith, or Beverly, Aubrey reduces interactions with others to mechanical "routines." Leigh comically summarizes the shallowness of Aubrey's conception of conversation in terms of his singles' bar approach to interaction, in which he apparently employs the same pickup lines with every woman he meets: "You know you've got beautiful hands, legs, hair, blah, blah, blah." As is always the case in Leigh's work, since Aubrey is playing a role that is inherently false, and playing it badly and mechanically, there is no depth to his performance. In this world where surfaces are everything, everything is on the surface....

–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.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.