Ken Loach, famed documenter of the British
working class, has spent his career making radical films that
examine all aspects of the British social system, from government
agencies to the economic strata in which people live their lives.
Some of his most celebrated and award-winning films will screen at BAMcinematek Aug. 2-18.
Loach started his career in 1964, in British television working on a popular police series as well as "The Wednesday Play," a provocative anthology series that he created. The bureaucracy of the medium got to him, and in 1967, he made his first feature film, "Poor Cow."
And it’s been pretty much all fiction films since then, with the exception of the period of Thatcherism (pretty much the entire 1980s) when he made a number of documentaries addressing both political and social issues.
But Loach’s power as a filmmaker lies in the feature films and that is where the BAM series will focus. His features are touchingly, movingly realistic. They recall the cinema verite documentaries of such ’60s icons as Richard Leacock and the Maysles Brothers - he gets that close to his subjects. But since these films are fiction, they more closely resemble the Neorealist movement of post-World War II Italian cinema.
The three early films being shown are classic Loach, focusing mainly on relationships, all of them dysfunctional. "Poor Cow" has a great sense of the time in which it was made. The soundtrack is by Donovan, and the main character, Joy, resembles Lynn Redgrave’s mod young woman trying to live the good life in "Georgy Girl" (1966). Joy, however, is giving birth as the film opens and Tom (John Bindon), the father, doesn’t even bother to show up at the hospital. When Tom winds up in jail for trying to steal a car, Joy takes up with his friend Dave, played by a young and beautiful Terence Stamp ("The Collector," "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"), who also eventually lands in the slammer.
(For his 1999 film, "The Limey," starring Stamp, director Steven Soderbergh bought the rights to "Poor Cow" so he could splice in scenes of the 30-years-younger Stamp for flashback sequences. "The Limey" will be shown at BAM Aug. 7.)
Joy tries to make a go of it alone - she does have a son to support - working in a pub, then trying her hand at modeling, where it seems she has to model underwear for creepy guys with cameras. When Tom comes back into her life, he beats her as he did before, but she’s unable to get rid of him. ("He won’t leave me," she tells a friend.) It’s difficult, if not impossible, for her to conceive of the idea of living alone. She admits she’s scared to be on her own. "All you need is a man, a baby, a couple of nice rooms to live in," Joy says. This is what she’s been raised to think - hell, it’s what most girls were raised to think at the time. Why should Joy be any different?
Loach shoots it all with a documentarian’s hand - he’s like a fly on the wall. We don’t need bells and whistles to be moved by her plight.
"Kes" (1969) follows an alienated boy as he tries to make his way through his teen years. Fourteen-year-old Billy gets into trouble with the law and with his school, and his family has no idea how to deal with him, nor any desire to figure out how to help him. He finds salvation himself, in the form of a small, wild falcon, a kestrel. Here again Loach uses a stark realism mixed with genuine warmth to focus on the travails of the working class.
"Family Life" (1971) draws a stark portrait of a daughter in the process of mental collapse. It plays like a case history: Janice is an ordinary young woman with just a bit of the rebel in her. Her parents see it as something to be psychologically driven out of her, and so they send her to a mental institution. This is not as bad as it sounds - while she is under the care of a compassionate therapist.
When he is tossed from the hospital, however, Janice undergoes shock treatment and more. Instead of coming out of her malaise, she spirals deeper and deeper into mental breakdown. Here Loach uses many non-professional actors, as well as a real therapist as he indicts the medical community’s inability to accept new ways of dealing with mental illness.
While one is hard pressed to find optimistic moments in Loach’s early work (although, they do exist), once he started feature filmmaking again in the 1990s, optimism found its way into his films. (Maybe it was the departure of Margaret Thatcher.) While the plot of "Raining Stones" (1993) revolves around the unemployed Bob’s attempts to get his daughter the communion dress she dreams of (and getting into bed with an oily loan shark in the process), the film is actually a celebration of the dignity of the working classes of the north of England. And there is humor, as well: every plan of Bob’s to get cash seems to fail. (He steals sheep, but can’t sell them.) Here Loach exposes us to the whole person - warts, wit, warmth and all.
And there’s humor to be found in "Riff-Raff" (1991), which stars Robert Carlyle ("Trainspotting," "The Full Monty") as a Glaswegian construction worker who, along with his working class English and West Indian immigrant co-workers, discover the somber realities of their lives and loves while toiling in a slapstick-like work site.
Loach also got very prolific - he followed "Raining Stones" up with "Ladybird, Ladybird," a heartbreaking film based on a true story. Crissy Rock won a best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1994 for her portrait of a mother who loves her children, but can’t manage to keep them. The welfare system takes them away from her when she leaves them locked at home to go for a job and a fire breaks out in the building. Maggie is no saint, but the system seems designed to keep her in her wretched place. And her own emotional instability leads her to lash out in a rage at the system as well as Jorge, the one boyfriend who seems to have a positive impact on her. Loach’s take on most governmental and social systems is that they seem intent on punishing instead of improving people and their lives.
"My Name is Joe" (1998) is another view of people struggling within the system, but here the struggle is an internal one. Joe is a recovering alcoholic, and he is well on the way to changing his life - he coaches a losing, but energetic, soccer team, takes Liam, a young former junkie, under his wing, and he meets and romances a middle class health care worker. But when trouble brews for his young charge, Joe risks his relationship, as well as his own recovery, when he offers to work for Liam’s former dealer. These characters know how the system works and what they need to do to save themselves; Joe’s problem is his own generosity of spirit in trying to take care of all those around him and neglecting himself.
Last month, the 66-year-old Loach received the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award by the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival for his work chronicling the pains and rewards of the working class, but his films have been garnering accolades for years. Five of the films shown in the series - "Kes," "Raining Stones," "Ladybird, Ladybird," the Spanish Civil War epic "Land and Freedom" (1995) and "My Name is Joe" - were shown in the New York Film Festival the years of their release.
Awards from international festivals have always been plentiful for Loach - in addition to actress Rock’s award in Berlin, Glaswegian actor Peter Mullan of "My Name is Joe" received the Best Actor award in Cannes in ’98, and that festival awarded its Special Jury Prize to "Raining Stones" in ’93 and to "Hidden Agenda" in ’90. The controversial "Hidden Agenda" addresses the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, and is one of the few Loach films to boast an almost all-star cast: Frances McDormand, Brian Cox and Brad Dourif.
And the recognition hasn’t stopped with the films in BAM’s series. "Sweet Sixteen," his latest film, took home the best screenplay award at Cannes in May.
These important works get only rare screenings in New York. (The Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a retrospective back in 1993.) The BAM series presents an opportunity to see the work of a compassionate filmmaker completely in touch with real people.
Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of The New York Video Festival also at Lincoln Center.
BAMcinematek will screen "The Feature Films of Ken Loach" at BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) Aug. 2-18. Tickets are $9, $6 seniors, children under 12 and students with a valid ID (Mondays through Thursdays). For a schedule of dates and screening times visit www.bam.org on the Web or call (718) 636-4100.