the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Naked (1993)

The Idle Poor

Mike Leigh is the filmic step child of John Cassavetes. This contemporary Englishman has re-invigorated the life-work of the late American. Their artistry centers around using the actor as muse. Cassavetes pioneered the notion of free-wheeling improvisational fiction features in which the performers spontaneously created dialogue and whimsically dictated the plot. The result was a gritty, meandering realism which gravitated to subject matter generally not covered by mainstream movies (e.g. race issues in Shadows, pornography & homosexuality in Killing of a Chinese Bookie….) Cassavetes' characters were generally down and out desperadoes beating their heads against a harsh unforgiving society. Mike Leigh offers a present-day parallel world across the Atlantic. He features lower-middle class people ensnared in dead-end jobs and emotional chaos. He avoids the usual glamorization of poverty and violence. The cast of a Mike Leigh film could pass for the occupants of the last car of an off peak New York City subway train or background extras in a Hollywood film about a nondescript urban area in decay. The grittiness of Leigh's work differs from Cassavetes' in that the former has sharpened the focus of the improvisation. The actors are free but they are always under Mr. Leigh's watchful eye. Whereas anything can happen in a Cassavete's film anything Mr. Leigh wants to happen can happen in his work. Cassavetes was a anarchist. Mike Leigh is a progressive dictator who believes in anarchy. 

 Naked is Mr. Leigh's latest film. It is typical of his work in terms of casting and structure but unusual in the degree of pessimism. Mr. Leigh never paints a pretty picture but this film lacks his gallows humor. His other movies have characters who approach life with a lighthearted resignation. (e.g. Life is Sweet, High Hopes) They have made peace with their foes and woes. In Naked almost every performer seems to be engaged in a fight to the death with an amorphous nemesis. These are people who have failed to come to terms with themselves. The communal agony is relentless. The central character sets the tone for the film. He is a misanthropic vagrant. The only thing he despises more than work and society at large, is himself. Anti-heroes can be charming or detestable unfortunately Mr. Leigh's protagonist can only be viewed as pathetic. The film opens with the leading man raping a woman then stealing a car and ends with him stealing money then abandoning his girlfriend. In between are a series of random encounters with characters less empathetic and more confused than the protagonist. This is an in-depth journey through the modern urban wasteland guided by a rebel without a clue. The overall effect is a resounding sense of pity. Pity for the man himself and pity for everyone who has contact with him. It is no wonder, prior to the film's screening at the New York Film Festival, Mr. Leigh openly warned against "enjoying" the movie.

It is a challenge to interest an audience in the plight of those who are so blatantly unagreeable. Mr. Leigh might have taken a lesson from Agnes Varda's Vagabond. This film presents a protagonist of the opposite sex but with a similar Weltanschauung. Varda uses a radical technique in painting the life of this young wanderer. She makes her a sphinxlike waif. Ironically her deafening silence augments the significance of her chance encounters. The film is about the strangers she meets and in turn about the audience itself. The woman is adored, abused, adopted, hated, betrothed, rejected, glorified, vilified… Her demise leads the audience to an uncomfortable position of becoming one of faceless crowd she encountered. In order to fully digest the film one must decipher her vacant stare. Discussing the work inevitable leads to a revelation about one's own private world view. (It is akin in spirit to the Henry James story, A Turn of the Screw.)  Since Varda's anti-hero is a homeless young woman aimlessly stumbling through a nondescript modern landscape, any commentary on her plight necessitates treading into the realm of politics. This film generates heated debates about society's values. Vagabound was successful because the protagonist was a mirror for everything polite people never discuss. By leaving her blank the audience is left to drawn their own conclusions. The film is a endless search for definition which haunts people as they leave the theater. The audience is driven by a need to come to terms with her. The movie only paints ambiguous vignettes and ends with her untimely death. Varda's successfully delivers a film which casts an uneasy pall over the society's conscience.

Naked wanted to generate the same social introspection but Mr. Leigh's protagonist was an overwhelming obstacle. Whereas Varda's woman is a cryptic tabula rasa, Leigh's man is psychotic wind bag. He endlessly pontificates on everything. One of the few gainfully employed characters takes matters into his own hands. Our anti-hero is picked up by a professional posterman who has a specific route filled with decrepit walls swathed in garish advertisements for concerts, plays, movies… Our protagonist berates him with opinions about everything and then asks to participate in the activities. The busy worker stoically obliges and suffers through his half hearted attempt at mounting a poster. After a few moments our anti-hero carelessly throws down the tools. It is difficult to know if he was overwhelmed by the chore or if he had a sudden epiphany that the task was work. Nevertheless the verbal harangue proceeds unabated. The worker ignores the chatterbox and diligently goes about his business slapping up several more posters. He then turns and gives our anti-hero a well deserved thrashing. Finally the babble stopped! The worker might have been excessive but given what the audience had endured up to this point their could be little doubt that his actions were justified. This scene captures the main failure of this film. The anti-hero is obviously intelligent, truly complex and thoroughly unbearable. His endless verbiage snuffs out any real debate about the larger societal issues. Instead of meditating about his predicament the audience is left wishing their were others who possessed the courage of the poster man.

The supporting cast does little to evoke any soul searching. They are an equally troubled lot. Their relationship to the anti-hero is revealing. They are at a loss to counter the his endless chit-chat due to their own inebriation or critical need indiscriminate companionship. The desperation is particularly acute in the portrayal of the female characters. They are all hopeless victims who tolerate outrageous excesses from their male counterparts. The leading misogynist is not the anti-hero but a rich land-lord. Mr. Leigh is generally unsympathetic to the upper class and has been known to be excessive in his portrayals (e.g. the yuppies and wanna-bes in High Hopes). The land-lord shows that this bad habit continues. This rich, psychotic, sadist is a gratuitous addition to the story. He seems to be a third wheel who possess much flash but little substance. There can be little doubt that horrible rich people exist but Leigh seems to draw parallels between his lavish lifestyle and the character's malevolence. The result is a contrived stereotype.

 It is a credit to Mr. Leigh's skill as a director that the land-lord is alone in being inauthentic. The darkness of the film should not hide the fact that it possesses marvelous performances from all members of the creative team. The actors and actresses were outstanding. The cinematography aided greatly in presenting the story. The bleached images and frenetic camerawork were a perfect compliment to the melancholic action.  Naked might not be palatable but it is a work of integrity presented by a director with vision. Hopefully his next outing will be on a sunny day. Maybe even in a rich neighborhood.

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