Friday, November 7, 2008
[This post is a contribution to the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon, running from November 4-9 at The Cooler.]
Mike Leigh's Meantime is a brutish, nasty movie about brutish, nasty people, a thoroughly unpleasant cinema of abjection that burrows deep into the unpleasant, aimless lives of its protagonists like a maggot digging its way into rotted flesh. The film centers on a family who live an entirely government-supported existence: terminally unemployed, accepting the dole week after week, living in squalor, doing nothing all day but watch TV and wander the streets as hooligans. They get drunk when they have the money, and otherwise they simply cause whatever trouble they can or find something, anything, to pass the seemingly endless bland hours that face them. For father Frank (Jeff Robert), this existence is the proof of his incompetence and failure, an entire lifetime spent to get him to this dismal place. To make matters worse, his two sons promise to be only a continuation of his own failure: Mark (Phil Daniels) is a snide, nasty thug, an aging juvenile delinquent who doesn't seem to be outgrowing this phase, while Colin (Tim Roth) is "slow," with no hope of finding his way off this miserable path. Leigh documents, with unflinching honesty, the drudgery and ugliness of this life. The film expresses with its every image the hopelessness and worthlessness that these people feel, discarded and left to rot, with no hope of finding any work, the dole keeping them alive at just barely the level of subsistence.
The film opens in a very different milieu, however, as Frank and his wife Mavis (Pam Ferris), together with the boys, go to visit Mavis' sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband John (Alfred Molina). John and Barbara are more successful, living in a nice suburban house and dreaming of redecorating in various ways. The scene seethes with barely contained hostility, as Frank and Mavis can't hide their contempt and jealousy, while Barbara scurries around making sure that the good china isn't used. Mavis tries to serve the tea for her sister, and is told nastily that she's using the wrong tray probably because she doesn't have the luxury of being so picky about how she serves her food at home. Leigh handles the scene with a claustrophobic intensity that carries over to the rest of the film. Close-ups are frequent, highlighting the twisted leers and shifty eyes of the protagonists as they trade barbed quips. All these characters seem to be constantly trying to hurt each other, testing out new lines designed to cut deeper and deeper, to draw blood, to pass their own pain onto others. Leigh emphasizes the tight spaces in which these people live, even in the supposedly luxurious suburban home. The camera rarely pulls out for long shots except for a few exteriors, mostly switching between extreme close-ups and cramped medium shots filled with multiple colliding bodies. In one scene, tension builds up over the use of the family's one bathroom, and Leigh simply peers down the hallway with a static shot as the family members pace outside the bathroom door like vultures, waiting to pounce whenever the door is opened.
Mundane incidents like this drive the film, all of it captured with Leigh's direct, confrontational style. The film is every bit as grim as his later masterpiece Naked, with a similar streak of pitch-black humor, but it doesn't have quite the same fatalist poetry. For the most part, Meantime is more grounded, less prone to apocalyptic rants and grandiose philosophical pronouncements. The result is that the film is not as artful as its later counterpart, and purposefully so. If Naked is a fully realized artistic statement on poverty, homelessness, and depression, then Meantime is the unmediated reality behind the art, its semi-documentary ugliness spewed up onto the screen like the aftermath of a particularly nasty bender. The film pauses to visit with other denizens of this rundown community of apartment blocs, including in one harrowing scene a confrontation between the oafish skinhead Coxy (Gary Oldman) and the shy, mumbling Hayley (Tilly Vosburgh). For the most part, though, it keeps its focus on the nuclear family at its core, and especially on Colin. Roth gives a phenomenal performance as this quiet, withdrawn young man who barely realizes what's going on around him. Colin is only slightly less cognizant than the other people in the film, only a few steps further along the path of generalized abjection and ignorance that surrounds him on all sides.
This is all, to say the least, a bit much to take, and only Leigh's morbid humor and insistently probing camerawork keep the film from being suicidally depressing. There is only one scene, towards the middle of the film, where any of these people show the least sign of self-awareness or intelligence, the least shred of dignity or beauty. It is a surprising scene, even a shocking one, because it represents a sudden awakening, one that would fit nicely with the philosophical dialogues of Naked but which seems out of place in these squalid surroundings. The unlikely source of these musings is a manager (Peter Wight) at the family's apartment building, coming to investigate their complaints about shoddy windows. When he comes in, Barbara happens to be visiting, and a mysterious chemistry seems to develop between this man and the visitor, and the two of them begin chatting, increasingly ignoring everyone else in the room as though they weren't even there. His poetic language inevitably recalls David Thewlis' Johnny in Naked, as the manager talks about the artificiality of the concept of money and the necessity of establishing more meaningful relationships between people than the mercenary bonds of economics. He seems almost desperate to find a connection, to get his audience to have a conversation with him, to tell him about something deeper than household repairs. Only Barbara engages him, though, and despite the obvious attraction between them she seems befuddled by his line of thought, feebly defending the idea of money and the necessity of "fiscal policy," a concept she learned in college but obviously knows little about beyond its name. Still, this brief interlude is practically magical in the context of a film where nobody speaks to anyone else about anything of importance. An actual conversation about actual issues becomes an earth-shattering event, one that the family venerates with a respectful and awed silence.
This is a fleeting moment, but one whose impact lingers throughout the remainder of the film, an unspoken subtext underpinning everything these characters do. This bleak, unforgiving movie is in many ways a trial run for the even greater Naked, another film about people with no prospects, no future, and no hope of redemption. Leigh is undoubtedly a downer, and his films engage with political and social realities only to the extent of documenting the ways things are and why: he sees no way out for these people and thus offers no solutions. This unwavering commitment to actuality, to giving center-stage to the forgotten and ignored, is Leigh's greatest strength. These are people who, in mainstream cinema as in life, have no voice and no representation, and Leigh's humanist attention to these downtrodden sectors of society is the only attention they're likely to get.