Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who's Who

Who's Who is one of six TV films that director Mike Leigh made for the BBC television series Play For Today. It's an acerbic, biting class comedy, nastily funny in its portrayal of the class divisions between employees of different social levels at a stock firm. Leigh satirically observes the profound disconnect between the low-level workers in their middle-class lives and the upper echelons with their full social calendars. Alan (Richard Kane) is one of the lower workers, but he's obsessed with the British royal family and the upper classes. He writes letters to anyone he can think of — the royals, various celebrities, politicians, even famous doctors if they're connected to the peerage — asking for autographs and inscribed photographs, and he files the results in a cabinet where he stores these treasured artifacts. He's infected with a profound class envy, worshiping those with an upper class name or even the slightest whiff of class status. It's his way, perhaps, of coping with what seems to be otherwise a very unsatisfying life, with his staid office job and his dowdy wife April (Joolia Cappleman) who's obsessed with her copious cats. While he sits at work listening to the upper-class managers talking about their busy weekends, their dates and dinner parties, his idea of an important engagement is a TV program he wants to watch, so it's no wonder that he idolizes the upper class and gathers any scraps he can get from that arena of privilege and fame, as though his drawer full of autographed pictures could convey some of that classy aura to him by proximity. He even keeps, in a place of privilege, pinned on his wall, the letters of rejection from the highest members of the royal family: it's obvious that he's deeply impressed by the implication, in these letters from secretaries and royal functionaries, that to sign a letter for a "fan" would lower the queen or the duke or whoever. Even his rejection by the upper class is a reason to celebrate them, to venerate them even more.

Mostly, though, Alan sees those above him in a very rosy light. Speaking about one of his superiors at work, he tells his wife, "he's a very charming man, once asked me the way to the office toilet." In fact, in an earlier scene, the man obviously couldn't wait to get away from Alan, answering his nosy questions with strained politeness and then hurrying away as soon as possible, which doesn't stop Alan from presenting the whole incident to his wife as though he'd had a lovely chat with the man while walking to the train station together. Leigh clearly sees Alan as a hopelessly pathetic character, ridiculous for his aspirations, for his desire for any least contact with those above him socially. He's laughable because he ascribes some kind of sacred importance to the idea of class, buying into the heavily stratified British society with its sharp divisions between different levels.

One of the film's most painfully funny scenes is the lengthy sequence where a society woman visits Alan and April's house to buy a kitten from April. While the woman is there, a photographer named Desmond Shakespeare (Sam Kelly) is also bustling around, setting up his lights and camera equipment for a photo shoot of the cats. In the midst of this chaos, Alan sees the opportunity to present himself as a man of culture, and he hurriedly puts on a dressing gown and fancy accoutrements, then tries to engage the woman in polite conversation even as the photographer keeps scrambling around them, setting up, and April keeps telling the potential buyer about problems with litter boxes, diet, spaying and defecation, despite the obvious fact that the woman couldn't care less, that she knows that she is certainly never going to personally deal with the animal, that it will be her servants who do all that work. The woman nods and laughs with badly feigned politeness at Alan's conversation, and when she leaves he pronounces her "charming," his favored word for the representatives of the upper class, even though in fact she'd been far from charming, even though she'd actually been looking at the house, and Alan, and everything around her as though she was disgusted, and winced whenever she was offered a drink. The whole scene is absurd and funny in its dark, embarrassing way. When Alan asks the photographer, "by the way, you do know there was a famous writer called Shakespeare?" it's just another sign of Alan's desperation for any hint of contact with something beyond his pitiful life, his pitiful desires. The photographer simply deadpans, "yes, I've heard of him," and then later, when he's leaving, is stunned and exasperated by Alan's request for an autograph, disgusted, much as the society woman herself had been, by this particularly blatant and ridiculous starfucker.

To juxtapose Alan's social ambitions with the lives of those he wishes he could be, Leigh intercuts Alan's story with scenes from a dinner party held by the socially connected Nigel (Simon Chandler) and Giles (Adam Norton). The pair invite Anthony (Graham Seed), a boss at the company where Giles and Alan both work, along with two girls, Samantha (Catherine Hall) and Caroline (Felicity Dean). The dinner party provides another study in social divisions, as even within the upper class circles that these people all travel in, there are obvious hierarchies: Nigel, Giles' roommate, is more like a servant than a friend, preparing dinner for everyone and generally getting treated with polite distance. The conversation at the dinner table is shallow and pointless: these people have nothing to say except where they've been on vacation, what other socially connected people they've seen or not seen, whether they like to hunt or ride horses or ski. They talk about who they know, who they've met, where they've been — in that, they're not so different from Alan, who's similarly obsessed with namedropping.

The only point at which the conversation actually touches on something real is when these upper class snobs discuss punk. Samantha, it seems, is a punk sympathizer, at least in her shallow way: she's adopted some of the dress of the punk style, and she giggles at the provocations of the movement. She likes to shock, and in her circles probably the best way to shock is to make some gestures towards a populist movement of noisy provocateurs. She wears a jacket with a few buttons pinned to it, and when she walks in Nigel asks her, "what is it, punk? Where are the safety pins?" Everyone laughs: these people, only a few years into punk's peak period, have already grown accustomed to the movement enough to see it as just another fashion trend, a costume to be appropriated, tossed on lightly. It doesn't seem to be much more than that to Samantha. She likes that it offends people, that it shocks; it fits with her giggly, sexually suggestive persona, her garish makeup and leering smile. It never occurs to her, or to any of the other partygoers, that there might be a class component to it, that the anger and provocation of the punks were in part responses to the very class inequities chronicled in this film. The others only see it as "offensive," parroting Anthony's word for it, none of them seeming to have any clue what punk even is.

Leigh's eye for this milieu is acute as ever. He's always been a potent observer of class, of how people live their lives. His aesthetic here is unobtrusive, alternating between slightly aloof, distanced observation — as in a sequence where Leigh's camera sits at a quiet distance, watching the absurdity of these upper class buffoons trying to iron out the proper seating for a dinner party — and abrupt, in-your-face closeups like the one that pushes uncomfortably up against the shrill, desperate face of April as she tries to impress her potential buyer. This is a darkly funny film about the ugly and pathetic facts of life within a restrictive class system that cleaves people from one another, sectioning them off behind "codes" like the one that Anthony says governs his behavior. If this is control, if this is order, one thinks, then the chaos and anarchy of punk that Anthony so fears starts to look more and more attractive.


Sam Juliano said...

"He's always been a potent observer of class, of how people live their lives."

I'm a huge fan of Leigh, and consider his magnificent ANOTHER YEAR as one of the best films of 2010. His feature films VERA DRAKE, LIFE IS SWEET, HAPPY-GO LUCKY and SECRETS AND LIES are among my favorite films over the past two decades, and I fully appreciate the artistry in NAKED, HIGH HOPES and TOPSY TURVY. Alas I have not seen this film, but this is precisely why I appreciate this beautifully-perceived recommendation. It seems Leigh's strongest assets are here - the examination of class, the darkly funny underpinnings and the improvising. It's biting and acerbic quality is particularly fascinating.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I love Leigh as well, although I probably haven't seen as much of his work as you have. This isn't one of his best, but it's a darkly funny, rather nasty little film, just eviscerating these characters and the social stratas and tendencies they represent.