Sunday, February 23, 2014

Breaking Bad




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There's a loose connection between three films I have enjoyed recently, Peter Mullan's deeply perplexing NEDS, Clio Barnard's superb The Arbor, and Steve McQueen's extremely chilly Shame. Essentially they are, all three, films about the overwhelming grip of social and familial forces on individual lives.





In some sense this idea is no news to anyone, in another way though all three go against the grain of most contemporary film making in a way that is quite jolting: the central characters don't really have any choice about what they are doing, or understand why they are doing it. Shame and NEDS may have endings ambiguous enough to be read as vaguely feelgood, a final thaw and breakthrough of repressed emotion in Shame, a moment of atonement and a shift into a different set of social relations in NEDS but in The Arbor, a meta-documentary recast with professional actors, the Rita, Sue and Bob Too playwright Andrea Arnold's' life is overwhelmingly determined by her background, just as the lives of her daughters are. Here there's nothing left at the film's end except the question “what can be done about this”?

 
The cycle of deprivation, the cycle of abuse aren't terms you hear that much any more. Certainly when I was a kid and then when I was studying Sociology, even at O Level, they were commonly understood, broadly accepted. People came from difficult homes, and whether or not that was any excuse wasn't hugely debated, to claim that it wasn't set you on the side of the moralists and the reactionaries.

Back in the 70s, notions of  "cycles", their cast iron grip on lives and the stories of those who had miraculously escaped were common. Folk heroes of a sort  were made out of seemingly unreformable criminals whose humane treatment or exposure to culture had allowed them to set their lives on a different course, report back on and proselytize for the necessary forms of concerted social intervention required to break the cycle. Jimmy Boyle, one of the most notorious, has his story superbly dramatized in A Sense of Freedom, John McVicar less so in the passable McVicar.


Post the 1980s, post the decline in Sociology and certain types of sociological thinking there has been a broad erosion of the generous “common sense” that one's own life is largely determined by continuums of external forces that need to be patiently analyzed and addressed, usurped by Business studies and the obsessive, endless reiteration of life as series of freely determined consumption choices (and the concomitant thrill of self-righteousness and sense of superiority over those who have “chosen” badly.) 

That's right, I blame neoliberalism.
 



In interviews Mullan likes to point out that knife crime in Scotland is no aspect of modern decline, loss of values and so forth, but has been going on for hundreds of years, is part of the long, terrifyingly impersonal reach of the pre-modern, and in the film, the central character John's swerve toward violence, precipitated by his expulsion from and rejection by the genteel middle class he seems to identify with and assumes he is due to join, is set against the backdrop of an abusive,alcoholic father, a wayward brother, sets of assumptions about “his sort” from the established authorities, and the broader culture of territorialism, machismo and gang warfare. 

 

Shame's rather different take, in class terms at least, focuses on the functional, even broadly culturally sanctioned sexual obsessiveness of a man who refuses to look at his own history of abuse despite his more emotionally voluble and vulnerable sisters attempts to get him to face up to what has happened to them. “We are not bad people,” she tells him in one of her numerous answer phone messages “we just come from a bad place”.

In The Arbor the appalling, tragic trajectory of Andrea Dunbar's daughter's life is leavened both by her insight and the extraordinary, unconditional loyalty of some members of her extended family, something predicated on the idea that really, it's all quite understandable: that this is what happens when you are neglected, unwanted by either of your parents, have an alcoholic mother heading for an early grave, are racially abused, sexually assaulted, live in poverty around other desperate people using drugs and booze to fill the days. If anything her aunt and uncle are ashamed that they haven't helped out enough.  
  

The Arbor, then, is the antithesis of something like Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, which seeks to lull us with the fantasy that the special ones, in this case an entreprenuer-of-the-self, feisty dancer will always find a way out and up, floating like an irrepressible, heart-shaped helium balloon above the estate. No one gets out in The Arbor, partly because of the sense that even if they did, what about everyone else, but almost wholly because, as the successful writer "from the slums" (Daily Mail) Dunbar's troubled life, or  the fictional high flier in Shame and promising young swot in NEDS suggest, it's not so much where you're at, as where you're from.





2 comments:

lee woo said...

I think that somehow, we learn who we really are and then live with that decision. See the link below for more info.

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Matthew McKinnon said...

I never got that from "Fish Tank": I thought she was portrayed as an unremarkable dancer whose auditions etc led nowhere.