Thursday, 14 August 2008

Happiness Is A Warm Gun

As I said on Tuesday, it's Anger Week here on the international network of computer people (abbr. InterNetComPeeps), and on that day I figured I should offer an alternate perspective by jumping up and down on the spot about yet another book about how the Republicans have spent the past eight years secretly carving chunks out of the planet so that it resembles a big Space Dollar Sign. Though these books are ten a penny, if they're written by Thomas Frank they are essential reading. His humour and intelligence set them apart from the rest.

However, seeing posters for Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky in almost every Tube station in London (that I have visited), it has now become too much effort to appear jolly or attempt to hold off the tidal wave of heated commentary and subsequent opprobrium that has replaced the internet's usual blend of celebrity schadenfreude, leaked pictures from Transformerators 2, and George W. Bush blooper updates.

Time to add a little drop of Grouch Juice to the ocean that is the internet. A couple of weeks ago we were unfortunate enough to watch Happy-Go-Lucky (which is coming to DVD in the UK next week and opening in the US soon), and though I will admit we were watching it on a flight that was running nearly two hours late, with the seats in front of us pulled so far back they were almost inside our heads, and the air conditioning drying my eyes out so much they squeaked when I blinked, I'd like to think that I was still able to objectively assess Leigh's experiment in testing audience patience to destruction.

I may have said in my overlong Dark Knight post that seeing it in such uplifting conditions may have influenced my feelings towards it, but I've enjoyed several movies in similarly cramped and unpleasant circumstances, such as Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, Breach, Kung Fu Hustle, and, on the last two transatlantic flights I've taken, The Brave One and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Chronicles in particular is a beautiful movie, with autumnal colours lovingly captured by Godlike Genius Caleb Deschanel, and the intricate detailing on Phil Tippett's character designs apparent even on a tiny screen, so Dick Pope's bright photography was going to be perfectly fine.

I've sat through some stinkers on planes too, but nothing of the magnitude of Happy-Go-Lucky. I can sit through real dreck, really dire films made by people with no understanding of how to tell a story or approach a subject from a new and interesting perspective, and merely shrug. Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, might not be as bad as Cassandra's Dream or the flabbergasting 21 (a film that is 100% recycled and utterly dishonest), but it made me angrier than any movie I've seen in a long time. Yes, even angrier than Southland Tales.

It seems pointless to give a rundown of the minimal plot, which is summed up with pith at IMDb, but it's worth looking at several key scenes. The movie follows the adventures of a primary school teacher called Poppy, whose relentless upbeat twitterings are exhibited in the first few minutes as she parks her bike outside a bookshop, wanders in, makes insipid, content-free comments to the shop owner (who is either rude and dismissive or probably busy doing something and unhappy to have someone come in and ruin his concentration, depending on your interpretation of the scene), and finally walks out to find her bike gone. Her response? "Oh, I never got to say goodbye!" This, my friends, is not the reaction of a sane person.

I'm not saying looking on the bright side of life is not a healthy way of approaching this setback. I'm saying that the human being, built as it is, would react to the theft with a mixture of emotions, the majority of which would be negative, and not a sentimental anthropomorphisation of the lost object. To react like that instead of being flushed with anger that someone had made a conscious decision to steal an object that belonged to you, with all of the feelings of frustration, disappointment, and violation that go along with that anger, would take a conscious effort to suppress those negative emotions which, as I'm sure anyone who reads this post will have experienced, flash up instantly with no cognitive effort involved. If Leigh is saying we should replace those feelings with acceptance, then I agree, it almost certainly is healthier than stewing over it indefinitely, but if he is saying we should never feel like the nasty feelings and must suppress them immediately, he doesn't understand human beings, and is touting a pure fantasy, and a cloying one at that. In fact, he does say that explicitly.

Q. How much of Poppy’s happy-go-lucky philosophy do you take on yourself? If someone stole your bike, would you shrug your shoulders?
Mike Leigh: Oh, yeah actually I suppose I would if I’m honest. If they’ve nicked something, there you go basically. What are you going to do about it? But I wouldn’t want to make too much of that.

Thankfully he then follows that up by admitting he also shares character traits with Scott, the furious driving instructor, otherwise I would have to think of him as some kind of saint. In a revealing Guardian Q&A that I shall be going back to later in this post which has expanded way out of control like a big blob of Oobleck, host Sarfraz Manzoor asks:

SM: I found Poppy slightly annoying at the beginning - sort of unnecessarily and overly perky. Even when her bike gets stolen that doesn't faze her.

ML: Why is that "unnecessarily, overly perky"? She's cool, philosophical. The bike gets nicked, but what else can you do about it, life goes on. So defend your statement.

[Audience laughs]

SM: Initially, I thought she came across as a bit one-note - as in she's perky and nothing fazes her. But over the course of the film, she does become more complicated and reveals different levels.

ML: As far as I'm concerned, you could be forgiven, especially with the scene where they've gone clubbing and they're being silly having had a few drinks, you could be forgiven for thinking at that point, "Can I actually spend a couple of hours with this person?"

SM: You almost agree with me then?

ML: I am agreeing, but I'm saying that it's pretty much straight away that you start to get the hang of what she's actually about, and I don't think there's any real reason to go on thinking that [she's one-note]. When she gets into the car with Scott - I mean, he's so ludicrous that she just deals with it, her sense of humour takes over.

SM: He's a fascinating character - he comes across as somebody who's just a joke but ends up like the love-child of Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillips.

ML: I don't know them.

SM: Probably better off that way.

Beyond his snippiness (yes, the audience laughed, but the rest of the interview features other instances of him losing his patience with his adoring fans), and his ignorance of those hateful columnist scum mentioned by Manzoor, which must be a joke, the fact that he says there is nothing you can do about having your bike stolen startles me. You could report it to the police, obviously. Will that get results? Almost certainly not. Will it be a waste of your time? Very probably. However, we're talking about the loss of property, the violation of your space by some ne'er-do-well, and you're just supposed to shrug it off? Though I understand that forgiveness is far healthier than seething over a slight and becoming a bitter jerk (I speak from experience), doing nothing is a dereliction of your duties to yourself and those around you. Though the odds are against the return of your property, there is still some chance your actions following the theft will generate some chain of events that might be beneficial to many, not just yourself. Perhaps Leigh thinks this because, oh well, it's just a bike. If you can afford to just lose one, congratulations. How about if your car was stolen? Or your house broken into and an item of personal significance was taken? What about if Leigh finished a movie and the only print of it got stolen? Would he shrug then?

As for the later points he makes after fronting on Manzoor, he admits to making Poppy hard to like in those opening scenes. In this interview he reiterates the point that Poppy is meant to be irritating at first, and he succeeded at that by making her seem like a parody of a human whose personality is one step away from some awful form of mental aberration, but finding her lovable by the end of the movie? I think not. Here is the trailer. If this annoys you, avoid avoid avoid.

We're not the only ones driven to distraction by Poppy, played, by Sally Hawkins, with an impressive method dedication that eradicates every vestige of actual humanity from the character. While the majority of press and user reviews appear to have fallen under her spell, there are still some, like us, who were of the totally opposite opinion. Many of Poppy's exploits drove us to paroxysms of fist-clenching fury, and if that wasn't bad enough, Leigh throws in a few more caricatures for good measure, my least favourite being her older sister Helen (played by Caroline Martin). Settled down and pregnant, lumbered with a mortgage and immature husband (this immaturity expressed as a wish to play on his Playstation, a machine that is demonised throughout as if responsible for the dreadful state of The Youth Of Today), Helen is quite obviously miserable, and takes this out on Poppy.

In one of the most poorly performed and written scenes of the year, the sister needles Poppy with talk of babies and mortgages and responsibility and growing up, talking of them as duties that all adults must face. When Poppy laughs that off and says she's perfectly happy as she is, her sister screeches, "You don't have to rub it in!" and storms out of the room. Thank you, Mike Leigh and his repertory of actors, for illuminating the malaise of those who follow the mandatory rules of life laid down by The Man in such elegant and eye-opening terms. It is truly a lesson I would have to have been in some kind of suspended animation to have not absorbed. This is the great British artist Mike Leigh at work? I could have sworn it was an amateur dramatics group run by pre-teens.

That angered me enough, but the final scene was the one that, in retrospect, irked me the most. As the anti-plot reaches its natural denouement, Poppy realises that her driving instructor Scott (an excellent performance from Eddie Marsan) has been stalking her, his addled, paranoid brain unable to see that her depthless chirpiness is an automatic and unthinking state of mind and not a come-on. He rails against her for "leading him on", Marsan's performance lending conviction to a pretty basic speech, not helped by his character seemingly being a lazily constructed (but brilliantly performed) hybrid of the unpleasant men played by David Thewlis in Naked and Mark Benton in Career Girls. Though I was glad something had finally happened, and was pleased to see what seemed to be some reflection in Poppy as she ponders his reaction to her personality. Sadly, after about 30 seconds of shots of Poppy looking ruminative, the film ends on her reverting to type, merrily rowing a boat with her equally silly flatmate and blithering on about her usual content-free nonsense, unchanged and determinedly jolly to the last oompah-oompah drenched frame.

Before I continue to discuss the movie in Shouty Mode, I have to address the opinion of its many fans. Lots of people have been warmed and uplifted by the film, and of course that's great for them, and it makes me happy to know others are happy. Obviously. However, critics of the movie have been painted as unduly negative and riven with fashionable cynicism, nothing more than cranky-pants who have forgotten the simple pleasures in life. Daring to suggest that the film is muddled, poorly made, vapid, cloying and pointless is considered evidence of a malfunction of the joy chips that Leigh and Hawkins have kickstarted in the rest of the audience. While I will admit to a mostly negative worldview, and a personality that just last night Canyon compared to Cartman (it was his rant against Family Guy that triggered the comparison, though I wish I had been able to articulate my feelings for that show so eloquently), I am capable of joy, and sometimes my critical faculties can be so overwhelmed by the experience of a work of art or popular culture that I turn into a leaping, gurning Poppy-esque parody of a human being.

Disliking Happy-Go-Lucky and the character of Poppy might well be a matter of personal taste and disposition, but that doesn't mean I can't have an objective, unemotional response to her and the movie as well. Though I'm a believer in a lot of what McKee says about story structure, I'm not so firmly wedded to it that I blindly think all stories have to follow some formula to be considered artistically valid. Happy-Go-Lucky might start with what could be seen as an inciting incident (the theft of her bike), and it might feature a showdown with an antagonist who exactly mirrors her, but otherwise the plot, such as it is, meanders back and forth, sometimes for little apparent reason. Again, though I could see little point in that other than the possibility that Leigh was being purposely obstreperous, it's certainly not a strike against the film.

However, Poppy's ultimate reaction to Scott's meltdown, to ponder it for a couple of minutes before blithely returning to her default position of chirpy simpleton, was a step too far. Once more, I'll stress that the antagonist doesn't necessarily have to learn a lesson at the end of a movie, or undergo much in the way of change, but it certainly helps, and doesn't have to be a big, "My God, this adventure has shown me how to love!" revelation either. What Poppy does is remain the same throughout, even when faced with evidence that her behaviour, innocent though it may seem, might have a negative impact on the world. Scott's psychosis is certainly not Poppy's fault, but a moment of reflection earlier on in the story might have shown her that purposely goading the man, making unfunny quips, and ignoring his instructions - the instructions of a very volatile man who is excessively anal about the following of said instructions and has shown a propensity for intemperate flashes of hostility - would eventually lead to a confrontation. She also upsets her sister, disrupts a flamenco class, and generally pesters people who are just trying to go about their day without being hassled by a hippy with a mouthful of witless, useless banalities.

Some fans of the film have commented on Poppy's wisdom, but I saw very little evidence of this. Again, I'll stress that Poppy doesn't have to learn. That said, surely an actual human being would finally realise upon being confronted by Scott that having a happy outlook is one thing, but having blundered along, oblivious to the consequences of a persona that might be negative as often as it is positive, is an entirely different matter, just as the expression of any other personality type would potentially have a range of consequences between positive and negative. That she laughs it all off as less than an inconvenience shows monstrous arrogance on the part of Leigh. We're being asked to side with someone who is oblivious to the feelings of those around her, other than to note that they are different from hers and must be altered immediately, preferably through the insistent and reflexive use of trivial, wit-free quips and cloying, unthinking platitudes. How is this laudable? I'm all for a bit of cheering up now and again, but if this half-wit tried to make me smile with her eye-rolling and intrusive questioning I would be calling the constabulary in a trice.

Such an confounding ending and ultimately impenetrable character reminds me of the far superior Morvern Callar, with Samantha Morton at the height of her power as the blank and amoral eponymous heroine. However, whereas Poppy is compelled to interact with everyone she meets, Morvern is utterly uninterested in the world, preferring to grab any advantage life gives her while hiding from almost all interaction, ears filled with headphones, becoming little more than a self-sufficient anonymous clubber on the continent. She's a perfect encapsulation of modern isolationist tendencies in some anti-social section of The Youth Of Today, and remains an enigma even after repeated viewings (or readings). Though I think Hawkins deserves praise for her total commitment to the role, on an aesthetic level I'd much rather watch Morton's icy, enigmatic performance than sit through the endurance test that is Happy-Go-Lucky. Morvern Callar is a true work of art by a true artist, one who is sadly undervalued.

Now that I think about it, Lynne Ramsay's movie is the perfect antidote to the forced chirpiness of Leigh's film, with its perplexing and compelling main character. Plus, that soundtrack, inspired by the tracklistings contained within Alan Warner's remarkable book, is a lot better than the upbeat comedy farty noises that pass for a score in Happy-Go-Lucky. Can + Boards of Canada + Lee Hazlewood > random cloying hurdy-gurdy any day of the week. I wish it had been on Virgin Atlantic's roster of films so that I could cleanse my mental palette.

Just as Morvern Callar appears to be a character study of a person whose motives and emotions are as mysterious to us at the end of the movie as they are at the start, Happy-Go-Lucky could be taken merely as a portrait of an alien being, the eternal optimist, a Pangloss wearing lipgloss, a hypothetical state of mind given form but no reason just to show what would happen if someone had a brain malfunction that made them perpetually chirpy.

There's even an argument that the movie is a study of psychosis. If I were to be uncharitable about her, which I intend to be, Poppy certainly seemed to be unhinged, being unable to comprehend the consequences of her actions or the ramifications of things that happen to her, like a sociopath overdosing on Prozac. Scott is paranoid, racist, and so socially stunted by his own self-loathing that he cannot understand what others are thinking. Leigh has had characters like this in his movies before, so there's a possibility he thinks all men (of a certain class and background, which I will charitably leave hanging in the air for fear of offending his fans) are prone to fantasising about women and/or the Illuminati, but I'm willing to grant that he does think this behaviour is evidence of mental health issues and not just what men are like (Neil LaBute, take note).

The tramp that Poppy meets midway through the movie, in a scene that many people thought was superfluous, is another broken human who cannot function in society. It's debatable that Poppy's attempts to communicate with the tramp are successful, which is a good thing. Having her even partially cure him would turn it from a character study into a weird Camden-based messiah tale. Poppy heals the sick and teaches man and woman to embrace happiness! I would have hated to see her Sermon on the Mount, filled as it would be with tic-like eye-rolling, reflexive chuckling, and exhortations to just cheer up, it might never 'appen, innit! We can be grateful for small mercies.

However, though that alternate interpretation is a potentially interesting take on what is otherwise a Sesame Street song about happiness dragged out to feature length, I'm unsure about whether Leigh really is trying to paint a picture of what a fractured, unfriendly society has done to us and the differing ways our brains have tried to cope with it, as only a handful of characters show any signs of mental malfunction. That is, unless you add Poppy's elder sister and husband, who have turned their back on pure anarchic, heedless joy for that most poisonous of mind afflictions, Leigh's pet peeve since Abigail's Party, class-jumping aspiration! Look at them in their grotty suburban home, with their grotty suburban mortgage, arguing about Playstations and resisting Poppy's stream of unconsciousness which would save them from their pit of misery! Burn the bastards at the stake!

These alternate explanations, giving Leigh the benefit of the doubt, might work if Leigh didn't insist on claiming that Poppy's manner was admirable. While I am not so desensitised by playing Grand Theft Automatic on my Gamebox and listening to that modern Gangster Ramp stuff with the witches and ho-bags that I can't see the benefit of maintaining a brighter outlook, Poppy's blinkered viewpoint is not an option anyone should consider. Being a flighty gurning happiness machine might work out okay if you're a primary school teacher, but I don't want a policeman or a doctor to be incapable of serious interaction.

::rolls eyes:: I dunno, getting mugged for your phone? Who needs 'em anyway? More trouble than they're worth, eh? Hur hur! All that money you'll save, not paying for calls, save up and buy yourself a nice sweater, innit! Hur hur! Or a wheelchair, seeing as how you've been terribly injured by your attacker. Still, mustn't grumble! You can still play basketball in one. I seen it on the telly! Ooooh, it was dead exciting! Hur hur!

::rolls eyes:: Yeah, we got your x-rays back, and look, it's your bones! The left bone's connected to the right bone! Hur hur! Look at 'em! Look at how many there are! Millions of bones! Wow! Bloody brilliant, innit. So yeah, that smashed-up one there, that's called a vertebra. Ooh! Big word! Hur hur!

And yes, I appreciate she does have the nous to recognise evidence of abuse in a bullying child, but whereas many critics have pointed this out as evidence of a greater wisdom and maturity in Poppy than we had previously assumed, it's not backed up by any other displays of seriousness anywhere else in the movie, and tends to suggest it was slotted in as a means to prove her capacity to be high-functioning and capable of constructive compassion, as a pre-emptive riposte to arguments that she's just a halfwit who doesn't understand the hardships and cruelties of the world. Even if I bite, and accept that, she's still reckless and thoughtless in other contexts, as I complained earlier, like the miserable life-hating bastard I am.

Plus, the other alternative explanation for that scene is that Leigh added it so that she could meet someone in a professional manner who she could have a cloying and sappy relationship with, the alternative being meeting someone at one of the nightclubs she goes to with her raucous friends, which Leigh would never have countenanced for fear of making Poppy seem like one of those tawdry working class hussies having a drunken shag like the Daily Mail says they do. And hey, Leigh surely wouldn't want to come across as someone making uncharitable comments about entire classes of people that are dissimilar to his own, now would he.

Of the many comments Leigh has made about the film, the one I find the most interesting is this, from that Telegraph article linked to earlier:

It's about education: how we learn and how we teach. It's about responsibility. About trust, about men and women, and about commitment. I felt it would be a good time to make a film that would be, in some way, anti-miserabilist. These are tough times we're in; we are destroying ourselves and the planet, but there are some people who care enough about the future to be teaching kids.

Ignoring the fact that I don't think the human race has become so suicidal and reckless that it has decided not to even bother teaching kids anymore, thus making anyone who decides to do it part of some dying breed, the movie does hint at some interest in exploring what education is, and Scott has some things to say about it that, when stripped of their crazy conspiracy trappings, might amount to a rare moment of insight, but I do think a lot of his grumbling about modern education concerns gaming and gadgetry, and how kids are reacting to them. There are numerous other problems with modern education beyond that, which is the sort of feeble argument trotted out by the handbag-clutching readers of the Mail who have no understanding of what the technological age can offer. There is a place for Leigh's Ye Olde Worlde thinking, and I would never argue it doesn't. However, saying "those games is bad for the kids" is not an intellectual position, at least as expressed in Happy-Go-Lucky. There are grave problems with education in England, but lumping the blame almost exclusively on gaming is a dead end, and is intellectually lazy.

Speaking of which, remember the obvious connection I made earlier between Scott and David Thewlis' character Johnny in Naked? As you can imagine, I was not the only one who thought there was a similarity between the biblical rants spouted by both misanthropic characters, and this poor chap tried to ask Leigh about it at a Guardian Q&A.

Question 10: The taxi driver, Scott ...

ML: He's not a taxi driver, he's a driving instructor. Loads of people keep calling him a taxi driver, but there's nothing that suggests he is that. It's a very strange thing. You're about the 70th or 75th person who's said that. However, please continue.

Q10 add: Well, the way Scott made reference to 666 conspiracy theories, it just made me think of Johnny in Naked talking about a similar thing. Just wondering if there was a connection at all.

ML: There is, only in so far as they're talking about the same thing. But the huge difference between Scott and Johnny and Brian, the night security guard in Naked, is about as massive a difference as between Poppy and Beverly in Abigail's Party, I would say. Johnny, and indeed Brian, understand what they're talking about. They've made connections, they've got ideas on the go, and they're perceptive. Scott is none of those things. He doesn't understand anything that's in his head at all. It's all this stuff slopping around in the tank of his brain but he hasn't added it up at all. It's a very superficial experience for him, which isn't the case at all for Johnny.

But how are we supposed to know that? One biblical rant sounds much like another, and never really seem to be connected or unconnected, sounding more like a series of shouty quotes from old books linked in with some contemporary references. Scott sounded no more or less connected than anyone else, and the movie gives no hint that Scott is having a "superficial experience". While many critics and Leigh fans are quick to praise him for his method of generating plot and character by getting his actors together and thrashing out ideas prior to writing a script (though only a few seem to think the actors should get more credit for their contribution, weirdly enough), that process is not available for us to view.

While Leigh can bat away criticisms by commenting on the true feelings of his characters, it seems to me he is not remembering the events of the movie, but remembering the inner life of the characters that he and the actors have constructed. Though I understand the movie is open for interpretation, I can see no evidence in the movie that would lead me to believe what he is saying is correct, and not just a way of avoiding critical comment (or a inaccurately retrieved memory). Even worse than that, his rude comment to this questioner beggars belief. [Italics mine]

Question 5: I was looking at Poppy's character in that scene with her sister and brother-in-law. Should she have gone down the path of being a proper adult, having a family and so forth, do you think she would have any similarity to Beverly in Abigail's Party?

ML: I think Poppy's extremely grown-up, but she's being measured about it. There's no way, as I read her, or indeed as Sally Hawkins read her, that she's somebody that's going to stay juvenile forever. She's not. She's simply a mature but measured person who's taking life steadily and enjoying it and being fulfilled. It's only her sister Helen's perception of her that she's not being responsible, that she's not being sensible. I hate to say this, and don't take it personally, but it's really a silly question, and I say it with the greatest respect. [Translation: "You're an idiot. I say it with all due respect, and please don't take it personally, but you're a drooling imbecile who can never understand my art."] She won't stop being an intelligent, sensible person with a sense of humour, politics, life and a sense of values and a love of children - none of which is Beverly. Beverly hates children, and hasn't got any of the perception or applied intelligence or education or the ability to care that Poppy has. They're absolutely chalk and cheese.

There are two options: Leigh is lying and being a bit of a jerk about it, or Leigh and Hawkins really attributed these inner feelings to their creation during rehearsals. If it is the latter, that's perfectly fine, and I'm curious to see the DVD extra that shows them creating Poppy. However, in the film, there is no hint that she is going to mature. Saying that she is and treating his audience like fools for not reading his and Hawkins' minds and understanding that is sheer arrogance. If he wants us to interpret the movie any way we want, let us do that. If not, then don't be so rude about it. Cheer up Mike, it's all gonna be alright in the end, innit? Hur hur.

Still, it was not such a traumatic experience that I have not become immune to happiness in film form. Just yesterday I suddenly remembered my deep and abiding love for Theodore Flicker's satirical hodge-podge The President's Analyst, with James Coburn playing Dr. Sidney Schaefer, on the run from various evil-doers after giving up his job as the psychoanalyst of the President of the United States, and coming across a wide selection of 60s cultural icons, all of which are mercilessly lampooned. Coburn, who could portray joy with more enthusiasm than almost any other actor (and not just because he had an incredibly bright and wide smile) is the perfect person to play the doctor who tunes in and drops out, set free to just go crazy on stage with his beloved gong.

Now that's happiness I can get behind.

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