Brit Teen Unrealism
Brit Teen Unrealism
Both Billy Elliot and Ratcatcher only want audiences to have a good time, the first through indulging escapism, the second by overindulging misery. These movies desecrate the admirable grasp on social observation and dramatic expression that that earlier Brit new wave (inspired by postwar documentary renaissance) achieved so beautifully. Neither of the new films evinces much belief in human endeavor beyond the filmic conventions of struggle-and-triumph that now have nothing to do with political awareness but are, more likely, a rehash of tv commercial and art house cliches.
Nothing was cliche about Finney's first lead movie role?still one of the best film performances of the last half of the past century. Since all critics drag out comparisons to "the young Brando" (even for the girl in Girlfight), it's time for a new look at Finney's marvelous, clear-cut embodiment of working-class unrest. Robust, sensual and smiling, Finney added more than a British accent to Brando's earthy breakthrough. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning boasted a less sentimental social perception than On the Waterfront (which survives on its spiritual and kinetic emphases). Finney's Arthur would seem a more likely model than Brando's Terry Malloy for this era's urban malcontents, because when first seen watching the factory clock, Arthur's political disillusionment has reached the point of rejection. He wasn't simply a materialistic, thuggish homewrecker but a spirited, recognizable punter. Virile and exuberant, Arthur has no goals?even falling in love (with the amazingly, gorgeously common Shirley Anne Field) means falling into a social trap. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney's charisma captured and complicated a universal tragedy; the movie still seems fresh because that entrapment has never stopped.
We wait for the day some hiphop filmmaker or socially aware Brit updates Arthur's tale to include the vague discomfort felt by the WTO hoodwink. (The best we've gotten is the story Jarvis Cocker tells in Pulp's great single "Common People," or Om Puri's memorable portrayal of the petit bourgeois father's anguish in My Son the Fanatic.) For now, Billy Elliot and Ratcatcher are unacceptable. As depictions of underclass British teens, these films offer only a less pernicious version of the degradation in Kids and Gummo. Nobody runs toward the camera carrying one of Harmony Korine's dead kittens, but fat, filthy vermin get tossed about like soccer balls. Or else little Billy tap-dances and practices jetes to glam rock (T-Rex's "Cosmic Dancer") while his father and brother are involved in the 1984 miner's strike. What fatuous, pseudo-sociological pathos!
Perhaps that's why Billy Elliot is poised to be more popular than either George Washington or My Son the Fanatic. Following the regressive paths of Flashdance and Footloose, this inferior slice-of-British life offers nothing new or imaginative. Yet, when the public makes up its mind to be sold a bill of goods, to have its gentlest feelings raped raw, there's nothing a critic can do but holler, "Foul!"
You get the essence of Billy Elliot in the print ad. The shot of Billy (Jamie Bell) in boxing gear surrounded by little girls in tutus is a high-concept advertising coup. A bad story idea, though. Very Alan Parker in its contrived, cute poverty and coyness about masculinity vs. femininity, boxing vs. ballet. Director Stephen Daldry is as disingenuous about sexuality as Sam Mendes was in American Beauty. We're supposed to think the laddish Billy an odd duck, as if T-Rex or Morrissey sprang from nothing (thus, negating both artists' versions of "Cosmic Dancer"). Straight Billy's dismissal of a girlfriend is puzzling, while his dedication to a gay friend is patronizing. The adult figures?Julie Walters' tough-broad dancing teacher who gets Billy an audition at the Royal Ballet School in London and Gary Lewis (so fine in Peter Mullan's Orphans) as the gruff but loving dad?are mere caricatures.
Jamie Bell's likably tough and he dances in character?a kid's version of Gene Kelly's knockabout agility. Despite what look like Fame outtakes, Bell never actually gets a full-fledged, expressive dance number, and Billy's eventual professional debut (substituting adult dancer Adam Cooper) dashes what little interest the story had stirred. One reviewer called this "Delicate, gritty and deeply moving." Ha! How gullible critics can be when gender and economic conflict are reduced to sentimentality. They can't tell Cockney from cockeyed.
Who, besides Parks Commis-sioner Henry Stern, would want to see a movie called Ratcatcher? In one of the maddening perquisites of lefty cultural journalism, director Lynne Ramsay's feature about an impoverished Scots family living amid garbage, pollution, cruelty and alienation has been praised as "audacious." It's more like Boutique Socialism, derived from Trainspotting, which was at least comical. Those Scots junkies had a more plausible sense of struggle than this clan of miscreants; the makers of Billy Elliot and Ratcatcher only seem to believe in struggle as a middle-class virtue special to BBC aspirants.
That's the maddening difference between these movies and the British new wave (and the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach). Apolitical Ramsay and Daldry are fond of the exploitable aspects of class deprivation. In Ratcatcher, the exhausted parents and wayward kids are all drudges who suit a dank, grimy visual scheme. Ramsay's glum use of actors doesn't perceive the inner vitality that gave the British new wave its convincing humanism?and that is also a distinguishing feature of the more esthetically rigorous Orphans and George Washington. From the opening shot of a stubborn boy twisting in window curtains to an ambiguous drowning in a muck-filled canal, Ramsay overcultivates circumstances that deserve a plain regard?or principled disgust. She lacks the gift of documentary veracity that David Gordon Green displayed in George Washington. Ironically, during the single, bearable sequence of Ratcatcher (when an autistic boy ties his pet rodent to a balloon and it floats to a green cheese paradise), Ramsay betrays her debt to Terrence Malick by using Carl Orff's Musica Poetica on the soundtrack. For Ramsay "poetry" is mostly a decadent pursuit (as it is for Jane Campion)?a presumably feminine affectation. Unfairly, the genuine poetry of Orphans and George Washington affords male social-minded filmmakers like Green and Mullan no condescension. They get pilloried or ignored.
It's probably easier for comfortable Americans to respond to the foreign, immiserated Scots life in Ratcatcher; the exotic view requires no self-examination of our own social problems. Last week I hesitated to mention George Washington's poetry comprised of signs of love?afraid that saying so would embarrass the film. But a work of art has to be an emotional risk or else it's insufficient, dishonest. (That's what ruins the well-intended but safely calculated Remember the Titans.) There is no risk in Ratcatcher other than its space flight mousecapade. All Ramsay's damnable audacity means is she's unafraid to include the formulaic female degradation of a teenage girl character who lets herself be victimized by neighborhood louts, only showing her gentle side to the mute protagonist.
Ramsay doesn't argue the ideologies that pin down women as well as men (as examined in Brit new-wave movies A Taste of Honey, Darling, Room at the Top). Instead, Ratcatcher muffles its male hatred in a perverse, uncritical view of social hierarchy. A mulish father saves a boy from drowning then crawls, muck-covered, back to his bed?just in time for Council coordinators to visit and note his sloth. For Ramsay, that's just the way men are. For liberal apologists, that's just how the poor are.
So it's class snobbery after all that explains Ratcatcher and Billy Elliot's acclaim. (The films' success in England is no different from our own misappreciation of American Beauty.) Anglophilia is all that buffers the misery some critics and viewers would rather pretend doesn't exist.
Originality irritates most moviegoers. A Room for Romeo Brass is the most unsettling of the recent Brit teen flicks because it doesn't bother with conventional, self-satisfied accounts of working-class life. Director Shane Meadows follows the friendship of two young neighbors (one biracial kid, the other with scoliosis) in a semi-improvisational style seeking to be surprised by what desires and idiosyncrasies the actors unleashed. Meadows keeps you on the edge of discovery?a bracing if not always satisfying experience.
A Room for Romeo Brass isn't anthropologically inclined, but it's incisive about growing up and family relations. It's scarily spontaneous in the way it deals with boys' responses to dangerous role models, the nightmare of bad influences and the threat of sociopathy. The performances are believably funny and frightening, especially Paddy Considine as Morell, the awkward neotenic loner whose fantasies and reflexes are misdirected?it's the kind of uncontainable real-life freak Scorsese used to know how to place. Morrell is the most harrowing British screen character to inspire ambivalence since David Thewlis' Johnny in Naked.
Though it's not certain where Meadows' esthetic is headed, Romeo Brass has raw power (unlike his Twenty-four Seven, in which admirable contemporary realism went nowhere). Here, Meadows confronts the barely charted territory of boys' transient affections, isolation, and the various insane power plays of domestic authority. Because the boys in Billy Elliot and Ratcatcher are either pacified or beat-out, you would think England had no more Angry Young Men?just commercials and music-video directors. Meadows channels discontent into revelation.
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