Class lessons: Neighbouring Sounds and The Spirit of '45

21 March 2013

'Neighbouring Sounds', in a London cinema from tomorrow, concerns middle-class responsibilities and fears relating to its past, while in Ken Loach's 'The Spirit of '45', the aims of the working class are viewed through a particular middle-class lens...

Lesson 1. Revolution starts at home

An ambiguous and apparently ambitious debut fiction feature from Brazilian film critic Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighbouring Sounds (O Som Ao Redori) details societal tensions through the microcosm of a middle-class neighbourhood in Recife, Brazil's fifth largest city. With unsettling subtlety, it accumulates information in such a way that its audience is never quite sure where it's headed, though intermittent flourishes, some visual but most aural, carry foreboding. It's a film that lingers longer than one perhaps expects: while always intriguing, it is never quite compelling, and at over two hours it demands an attention that will reward or frustrate depending (more than is nomal) on viewing conditions.

Neighbouring Sounds is an ensemble work that takes pains not to emphasise its characters' interrelation. Likewise, for a film set largely on and around a single street, its geography is fragmented, disorienting. No cues are given as to its temporality; its cohabitants come and go in scenes whose overall purpose is unclear. Its abstract qualities are heightened by the prison-like grid of Recife's contemporary architecture, defined by reflective panes of high-rise glass that, like an Amazon rainforest, prohibit sunlight from reaching the base and ensure a better living to those at the canopy. But beneath those neighbouring sounds of the title - the distant hum of traffic, playing children, a barking dog - lies an unspoken fear of petty crime. Nothing is more suggestive of middle-class self-preservationism than a grilled security gate.

Into this locale enters a small clan of casual security guards, who with smiles and assurances offer to residents the guarantee of a curbside night patrol. At first it's unclear whether these apparent misfits are merely wanting to extort money from the locals. With blessings from the damningly gentle patriarch (W.J. Solha) who presides over and part-owns the neighbourhood, however, the patrol takes up its position each night, protecting the streets from perceived and projected threats.

On this evidence, Mendonça Filho has an uncanny knack of nudging away at his characters' collective anxiety without ever permitting so much as a dialogue exchange hinting as such. Instead, but for a brief flourish involving an otherwise blissful waterfall turning into the stuff of horror, Neighbouring Sounds is an exercise in restraint, which is to say its succession of understated, palpably banal scenarios (one of which involves the masturbatory potential of a washing machine on its heaviest spin) tend to take their toll. With hints to actual or symbolic violence, however, there are shades here of Haneke's Caché, with a building case against white privilege and the burdens it bears (and in its chilly riffs on middle-class responsibility for past colonial trauma). To this extent, more attentive viewers will note the recurrence of photographs from a bygone era, first seen in the film's gripping opening montage, and will do well to bear them in mind throughout the deliberately belaboured narrative thereafter.

Lesson 2. Revolution must be profitable

The social and political burdens carried by the middle-class are also at the forefront of The Spirit of '45, Ken Loach's latest documentary and his first since 1998's The Flickering Flame (he directed the reconstructions in Franny Armstrong's McLibel in 2005). The film screened last Sunday to the independent exhibition circuit complete with post-film panel discussion, via satellite, featuring Loach, National Pensioners Convention secretary Dot Gibson and Owen Jones, who reminded us repeatedly of his credentials as a socialist with wisecracks about his grandparents being Trotskyists and how young he looks (oh how jovial it all was!).

We should state at the outset here that further to Britain's independent cinemas constituting a monopolised network catering fatally and consciously to a middle-class demographic (thereby reinforcing class society and the very ecomomic hostilities they currently face), last week's ticket prices were a disgrace: at my own venue, Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema, tickets ranged from £8.50-£11, with concessions (students, jobseekers, etc.) priced £7-£10 (the range pertains to the frankly archaic theatre-style seating in the auditorium, in which patrons can pay more to enjoy the film from the plush seats in the Circle, or sit in the Stalls with the other mortals). That the same cinema's weekday jobseekers concessions - which grant those receiving benefits entry to a film for £1 before 5pm (fuck those who wish to see films after that time!) - did not apply, is sign enough of its (and others') active contribution to the social structures through which the working class are continually excluded from the arts. Suffice to say, these institutions are the enemy of the working class, and come the revolution, will be abolished accordingly.

The Spirit of '45 pairs archive footage and interviews with political figures and key witnesses to document the postwar politico-economic gains demanded by (and conceded to) the British working class. In response to the human cost of the war itself as well as to the mass unemployment and horrific poverty experienced in the years before it, there was widespread hostility felt toward Winston Churchill's Conservative government; footage in the film shows him overwhelmed by boos and jeers during the 1945 general election, and soon after we see Labour leader Clement Attlee, addressing a hall as newly elected prime minister, promising socialism under his remit. Interviewees recall their joy at such announcements, and Loach and co. complement the celebratory tone by recounting the ways in which the government nationalised what was a fifth of the country's industry, including healthcare, transport, steel, energy and housing. "Not only did the Labour government house people," notes one speaker, "they housed them well."

While the film notes such concessions were top-down, it doesn't to my mind do so enough. Limiting himself to hand-picked Labourists and primary witnesses whose answers have no doubt been cued (no interviewer is present, onscreen or off-), Loach can't help but view the Attlee years with nostalgia, especially when his film fails to disclose the hostility with which Labour itself was eventually viewed. In fact, Attlee's assumption of power appears to have been reluctant, similar to the Provisional Government's tenure during the Russian Revolution; and the inherent and fatal contradictions of implementing socialist experiments through a reformist and immovably capitalist framework brought fierce consequences. The historical leap made by the film, to Thatcher and her government's gradual reprivatisation, does nothing but create a Labour/Tory dichotomy that is in the final analysis a death sentence for any socialist cause. (The film's strongest moments, pertaining to this period, are lifted direct from Loach's prior documentaries.)

In the post-screening discussion - which was positioned too uncomfortably between polite time-keeping and making the most of the satellite link to be an actual discussion - Loach remained astute enough to be the only one present to come anywhere near to suggesting an alternative to Labour. But that post-hoc disclaimers against nostalgia were needed is telling in itself of the film's artistic and political weaknesses. Even if you agree with its cries for alternatives, you ought to be hard pushed to agree with its parliamentarist sentiments. Gibson, who repeatedly gestured to remove imaginary earphones as a shorthand for today's youth, said that "socialism isn't a dirty word". But this is perhaps the precise trouble: diluted by years of impotent trade unionism and conscious betrayals of its political goals by Labour as well as the Conservatives, the British working class looks to too-polite a form of socialism - that which is exhibited in independent cinemas for profit, that which rears its ugly head to walk on eggshells around BBC's Question Time panel every week, that which is afraid to speak of socialism outside of the very parliamentary framework that prohibits it. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband scrapes away at the Cameron/Clegg bench opposite him, trading empty rhetoric.

No mention of the root causes of socialism in the first place; no mention of the international foundations of a politically active working class (this is a national film designed to intervene upon the current crisis as if it is only affecting ideas of Britishness and the British economy, as if national economies exist); no mention, in short, of Marx! Which is perhaps why alongside his previous work such as Days of Hope (1975), After a Lifetime (1971), The Rank and File (1971) and The Big Flame (1969), and even documentaries like The Flickering Flame, A Question of Leadership (1980), We Should Have Won (1985) and Which Side Are You On (1985), Loach's latest film is weak indeed... vital though its resulting debates may be.

But the hisses and boos that greeted images of Thatcher in cinemas across the country last week are those of a middle-class audience for whom politics is a Sunday afternoon pantomime, cathartically airing their sincere but faint disapproval. And the middle class too will be abolished.