Another class?

10 February 2011

It was refreshing to read Nick Roddick’s monthly column in the March issue of Sight & Sound, titled “A question of class”. In it, he insightfully observes a current tendency in British filmmaking to neglect or under-represent class, particularly, as he argues in his article, the middle classes.

“Class is the elephant in the room of British culture,” he writes, “ubiquitously present yet rarely talked about. And it can blind us to things that seem self-evident to non-British viewers. Andrea Arnold’s films, for example, are treated as social realism not because they are realistic (they aren’t) but because of where they are set. The elephant makes it difficult for us to see anything else.”

These words recalled my own sentiments regarding Arnold’s Fish Tank, and a letter I had published in Sight & Sound in December 2009. In that, I challenged as “glib and tenuous” the comparisons the film was receiving at the time to Ken Loach’s work – comparisons the magazine itself was perpetuating. In an attempted rebuttal, another reader responded to my remarks by drawing a more direct comparison between Mia, the young female protagonist of Fish Tank, and Billy Casper, the hero of Loach’s Kes, and the comfort each finds in their relationship with, respectively, a tied-up horse and a kestrel. The argument went that if we accepted Billy’s love of falconry (and, the reader assumed, we do), we have no reasonable grounds on which to then dismiss Mia’s seeming affection for an animal whose entrapped solitude she so obviously relates to.

Problems arise, though, when you consider both examples in the context of each film. Billy’s interest in falconry is the main focus of Kes, and as such is not only invested in in narrative terms, but is given nuance and credibility by having the social community of the film jar with such a hobby; Mia’s situation, on the other hand, seems perfunctory and incongruous because, if for nothing else, it isn’t given enough attention, isn’t woven into the wider narrative.

The reason why Loach’s films fit more comfortably into “social realism” is precisely because of an interest in the social forces that govern his characters’ lives; an interest, in a word, in class. Fish Tank is mostly all veneer: as I wrote in my follow-up to the reader who contended my original comments (which was also published, in the March 2010 issue), “Grim'n'gritty camera work and a council estate milieu might help with 'context' and 'tone', but they do not amount to genuine social analysis.”

Roddick’s article doubles as a commendation of Joanna Hogg’s latest film, Archipelago, which is also Film of the Month in the same issue. “British cinema,” writes Roddick, “seems more comfortable plunging into the past or visiting the artificial garrets of Bridget Jones Land. Which makes all the more striking those rare post-war moments when British middle-class characters have been able to play out real dramas in settings for which the filmmakers do not feel the need to apologise”. Hogg’s film, for him, is one of these.

I haven’t seen Archipelago yet (it’s released March 4), though the sentiments written about it – “tiny nuances of gesture and oblique conversation by which we, the British middle classes, negotiate our way through life, smothering unpleasantness in the process” – reminded me of one of my favourite films of 2010, Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Leigh’s film doesn’t necessarily “do” anything with its characters, much less account for them in class terms, but it does stand out for its emotional authenticity and committed performances, which give it an emotional charge even when nothing is happening. Sometimes, it’s encouraging to simply view on screen characters interacting convincingly with one another. (Edit: I have seen Archipelago; thoughts here.)

It’s encouraging, that is, but for lasting profundity, maybe it’s not enough. Another Year is one of those “observational” dramas that places its characters in an everyday setting and then watches their situation unfold. But it never genuinely challenges this situation; it seems more content to present it – not without complexity – and then allow the viewer to ponder any questions that might arise from it.

This point is key: though those viewers with an explicit interest in class and its artistic representations may well find in Another Year issues to discuss, Leigh’s film doesn’t ask any questions itself. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a certain group of people – and if you’ve ever spent time in the company of people like Mary, Tom, Joe and Gerri, you’ll know what I mean – but its fundamental aims limit what it can tell us about their existence. That is to say, of course, “it’s brilliant as it stands, but to be even better…”

Another Year would have to be a different film entirely to address further concerns; and Mike Leigh is not incapable of making such a work. This point brings us back to Fish Tank, though. A friend of mine recently saw Arnold’s film for the first time, and saw in it the same limits I had. In challenging my original remarks concerning Mia’s care for that tied-up horse, though, he defended it on the grounds that Arnold is limiting her viewpoint to that of her protagonist.

That may well be the case, but if it is, then we might ask in return, what’s the point? Because Mia herself is without the class consciousness that would allow her to see and understand why her council estate life is mostly miserable, we should not excuse Andrea Arnold for the same limits. If a fundamental re-think would have precluded a more challenging film from Mike Leigh, however, I’m not sure the same is necessarily true of Fish Tank. Indeed, much of my frustration with that film came from the misdirection its material was given. Its makers could have told us much more about the economic plight of its characters, and they needn’t have made a “different film entirely” in order to do so.

Potential remains of Mia’s story; the point is Arnold does very little with it. In Kes, Ken Loach built a convincing social fabric in which to place Billy Casper so as to tell the film from his point of view – and allowing in the process a charming film full of humour. In Fish Tank, however, the grimness and grit are what I like to call “fashionably miserable” – the film lacks charm and humour because of its own artistic limitations. As a call to arms against a gross distribution of wealth in Britain, it falls disappointingly short.

We shouldn’t be too harsh on Andrea Arnold, though we should always challenge the critics who fail to see obvious artistic limits because of Nick Roddick’s elephant in the room. It’s important for films that aspire to any sort of seriousness – which Fish Tank and Another Year undoubtedly did and Archipelago apparently does – to then be investigated seriously by critics.

I only hope that when a filmmaker like Andrea Arnold is met with almost unanimous praise from professional critics, it isn’t an indication of some wholesale cultural crisis, of some severe lacking on all our parts – artists and critics alike – with regard to class consciousness and the social forces that govern our lives. But I’m not holding my breath.