Alan A. Stone
Directed by Ken Loach
<0>Lions Gate Films 0>
Directed by Peter Sollett
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Fireworks Pictures
Is realism the mission of
film? André Bazin thought so. Bazin was a French film critic
who, in the decade after World War II, cofounded the film magazine
Cahiers du Cinema and made film studies a respectable academic
discipline in France before dying of leukemia at age 40. Trained
as a philosopher in Merleau-Pontys phenomenology, he thought
that the motion-picture camera could be a purifying device, able
to provide a Gods-eye view of the world without the intervening
vanity and artifice of human consciousness. Bazin was by all accounts
a saintly man, and his own benignity surely informed his understanding
of film and what he saw as its realist mission.
The premise of sacred realism disciplined
Bazins aesthetic sensibility. He criticized German expressionism:
the play of light and shadow obscured reality. He was also critical
of Eisensteins montage: the rapid juxtaposition of two different
images to convey a third was, he felt, artistic posturing. In
the films of the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, a colleague of
Bazin, one can still see his influences. But Bazin understood
that realism was not just a matter of how the director filmed
and edited, nor was he doctrinaire. My own impression is that
he admired films with moral ambition. So, like many of his fellow
critics at Cahiers du Cinema, he found much to fault in
Hollywoods studio-controlled productions, although he liked
Chaplin and Welles.
Bazin was an early
enthusiast of Italian neorealism, which had many of the qualities
he prized most: the cinematography was almost documentary in style;
it was shot in the streets; the actors were often untrained; and
the grim reality was leavened by a redemptive humanism. One of
Bazins favorite films was Vittorio De Sicas The
Bicycle Thief. Made entirely with untrained actors, and by
general consent one of the greatest films ever made, it tells
the story of a poor man whose only means of support is his bicycle.
He rides around Rome putting up Hollywood posters, thereby earning
enough income to feed his family. When his bicycle is stolen he
is desperate. His search for it with his small son is a searing
depiction of poverty in postWorld War II Rome. The police,
the church, and the labor union offer no help, and the relationship
between father and son becomes the emotional center of the film.
The father gives up in despair and then, by a miraculous stroke
of luck, he spots the bicycle thief and pursues him into a brothel.
The police are called but it is one mans word against anothers.
In the sad and inevitable ending, the poor man decides to steal
a bicycle as his son looks on in disbelief. When the father is
caught and later released by the police, his son forgives him
and the two are lost in a crowd.
The screenplay for
The Bicycle Thief was written by a Marxist, but unlike
other neorealist films there is no Christian-Marxist resolution.
Doctrinaire Marxists criticized it, but Bazin declared it the
only true Communist film of the decade.
* * *
In opposition to Hollywoods
increasingly unreal and commercial escapism, independent filmmakers
all over the world have been reinventing their own versions of
realism. No matter how grim or perverse these new realists have
become, most of them share Bazins sense of the mission of
film. If they are not looking for God, they are at least looking
for something that does not idealize the human condition but redeems
and The Bicycle Thief came particularly to mind as I reflected
on two small-budget independent films of the summer, both of which
left a lasting impressionBritish filmmaker Ken Loachs
Sweet Sixteen and Peter Solletts Raising Victor
Vargas, the first feature-length film by the young
New Yorker. Both films are about teenage boys coming of age in
lives and circumstances that promise only dead ends. Both used
Italian neorealist methods: they are almost documentary in style,
shot in the streets, and made with untrained actors. But they
present fundamentally different visions of reality: one is a tragedy,
the other a comedy. 0.000000>0.750000>
Ken Loach has long
championed social realism, and his characters are bottom-of-the-barrel
Britons who dream of something better. His most memorable film,
Kes, is about a deprived and blighted teenager whose formal
education is a failure. When he finds and adopts an injured kestrel,
however, he embarks on a project that redeems his life. Loach
is morally purposeful. After studying law at Oxford, he decided
he could accomplish more as a filmmaker than as a lawyer. In the
sixties he made a BBC documentary about a homeless, mentally
ill woman that is said to have changed public policy in Britain.
Several of his films are simply unforgettable, and all of them
make clear his left-leaning politics.
What Vittorio De Sica said about
himself applies equally to Loach: his films are a monument
to the possibility of human solidarity. And Sweet Sixteen
is Loach at his best, depicting the life of a teenager in Greenock,
Scotland, a city built along the River Clyde outside Glasgow.
Once home to a thriving shipbuilding industry, Greenock now has
the dole and drugs. Loach and his writer, Paul Laverty, spent
months around Glasgow talking to young people and developing the
story they would film.
Teenage speech in Greenock includes
the F-word as verb, adjective, adverb, or expletive in almost
every sentence. Loach faithfully reproduces their language. Liam,
the 15-year-old protagonist of Sweet Sixteen, speaks with
such a pronounced burr that what one hears is fecking.
Because the characters speak with accents incomprehensible to
American ears, Sweet Sixteen (like other Loach films) has
running subtitles, so the audience gets both auditory and visual
doses of the F-word. The language was too much for the British
Film Board, which gave Sweet Sixteen an age-18 rating.
Loach was understandably outraged, because the rating means that
teenagers, for whom profanity has become a peer-group requirement,
will not be admitted to the British theaters that show the film.
version of realism opens on a brilliantly starlit night-sky. Liam
(Martin Compston) and his best friend Pinball (William Ruane)
are charging young children a few pennies to look through Liams
cheap telescope at one of the planets. Loachs poor may be
downtrodden, but given a chance they will still reach for the
stars. Most of the poor in Greenock will, however, succumb to
the lure of drugs, to the pint, and to lives without meaning or
direction. Liams own mother (Michelle Coulter, a drug counselor
in real life) is an addict serving time in prison because she
has taken the rap for Stan, Liams stepfather (Gary McCormack),
a small-time drug dealer. Liam hates Stan, and he dreams of making
enough money to take his mother away from Stan and his drugs to
a home of her own in a better section of Greenock. 1.000000>0.000000>0.750000>
When Loach and Laverty were researching
Sweet Sixteen and talking to young people around Glasgow,
they were struck by the attachment of teenagers like Liam to their
mothers. In Sweet Sixteen Loach presents that attachment
as a Greek tragedy of blind love. Liam is determined to rescue
his mother and will do anything to raise the moneyincluding
selling stolen cigarettes and charging children to look through
his telescope. But Stan has his own schemes. He takes Liam to
visit his mother in prison, where Liam is to put a large wad of
drugs in his mouth and pass it to her in a kiss so she can sell
the drugs to other inmates. Stan creates a distraction to permit
the pass-off, but the rebellious Liam refuses to go along with
the plan. His stepfather savagely beats him, breaks his telescope,
and throws him out of the house. Liam, brave and resourceful,
sets out to make money the only way he can: he and Pinball become
drug dealers by stealing Stans stash and selling it at bargain
Made with untrained actors, the
film has home-video moments of self-conscious awkwardness. Liam
is played, however, by a lean and wiry young man who lives the
part. He does not look or move like an actor, but he is entirely
convincing. His skill and courage as a drug dealer bring him to
the attention of the serious players in Greenock. They take him
into the big time but they up the ante: he has to prove he is
willing to kill, and to betray Pinball. Loachs storyline
saves Liam from sociopathic callousness. His willingness to kill
is a test that he is not required to complete. And Pinball, who
has madness in his eyes from the start, knows he has been betrayed.
He confronts Liam, slashes his own face to Liams horror
and disappears from the movie.
Like the father in The Bicycle
Thief, Liam has become a criminal for reasons that demand
our forgiveness: he has done it all to save his mother. On the
day she gets out of jail, Liam, now rolling in money, takes her
to a posh apartment in the best part of town and gives her the
keys. But the next morning she is back with Stan, his drugs, and
his abuse. Liam follows her, and when Stan mocks him there is
a brawl. Liam stabs his stepfather, completing the Greek tragedy.
His mother could not be saved and now, on his 16th birthday, neither
Although the F-word is everywhere
in Sweet Sixteen, sex is nowhere in Loachs version
of realism. Liam is completely chaste, surely an unnatural state
for a teenage male in the real world. But Loach is determined
to preserve his heros childlike innocence. Liam may be acting
like an adult criminal, but in his pure and blind love for his
mother he remains a child. That love both redeems his character
and leads to his destruction.
* * *
Realism has many guises in cinema,
but if it is to succeed, the audience must believe it has witnessed
something authentic. Critics came away from Raising Victor
Vargas feeling they had learned something authentic about
the Hispanic Lower East Side of New York. Ironically, Peter Sollett
set out to make a fairly autobiographical film about his teenage
years growing up in his Jewish-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn.
It turned into Victor Vargas, he explains, because the
best of the would-be actors who responded to his ads were Latino.
Like the man who played the father
in The Bicycle Thiefwhom De Sica asked to go back
to his previous work when the film was completedSollets
featured performers were not professional actors, although they
may aspire to be. Raising Victor Vargas is a collaborative
effort. Most of the lines and the themes for the story were created
in workshops in which the actors participated.
What emerged on this side of the
Atlantic was sex. Indeed, Raising Victor Vargas is almost
entirely about sex, but it too is in search of redemptive innocence.
Victor (Victor Rasuk) and his friends in the Lower East Side use
the F-word and the N-word freely, and attractive teenage females
like Judy Marte are confronted with truly repulsive streams of
obscenities meant as menacing declarations of sexual interest.
If Liams project was saving his mother, Victors project
is having sex with girls like Judy (both use their real first
names in the movie).
Solletts film opens in a
Lower East Side project in broad daylight. Victors best
friend is standing outside screaming for Victor, who puts his
head out of the wrong apartment window and unwittingly reveals
that he has been having sex with Fat Donna. This dalliance will
ruin his reputation in the neighborhood. Raising Victor Vargas
is the story of how Victor regains his honor. He sets out to seduce
Judy, the most attractive young woman in sight. As in Sweet
Sixteen, there are no visible fathers, no schools, no jobs,
not even drug dealing. Victor, it seems, has nothing to do except
to pursue Judy. He is not into drugs, not into crime, and not
into violence: he is nothing but a horndog who tries to charm
young women, not menace them.
His campaign to retrieve
his macho reputation begins at a crowded public swimming pool,
where Victor and best friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) notice Judy
and her best friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz) sunning themselves.
Looking to prove himself, he approaches Judy with Harold in tow
and tries out his best pick-up lines. He gets a cool reception,
but Harold connects with Melonie.
Victors façade of adult
sophistication is easy to see through, but Judy is more complicated.
A beautiful young woman, she is the constant object of crude sexual
intimidation. She is, in fact, a virgin doing a high-wire act
of self-preservation in a culture in which pressures to perform
sexually often precede puberty. Judy decides she can use Victor
as a boyfriend she can control to ward off those she cannot. Along
the way Sollett reminds us that these teenagers are children.
When Melonie succumbs to Harold and takes off her clothes, she
giggles about the ducks on her underpants and he giggles, too.
Victors younger sister uses the F-word, but we see her sleeping
with her teddy bear.
The film is also about Victors
makeshift family. Victor, his brother (played by Rasuks
real brother), and their sister by a different father are cared
for by their grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). The three children
share a bedroom and there is no privacy. This makes things difficult
for the younger brother, who is his grandmothers sainted
favorite and who is constantly in the bathroom masturbating. When
his grandmother catches him, she blames Victor the horndogs
influence and tries to have the authorities remove him from the
apartment. Ms. Guzman, in real life a seamstress and a clothes
designer, balked at this turn in the story line, which she declared
to be contrary to her nature. Sollett convinced her that it was
necessary for the film: it creates the family crisis that must
be resolved. When she cannot get rid of Victor, she lectures her
grandchildren, telling them to remember that she is the only one
they have. In the most telling line in the movie, Victor stands
up to his grandmother and tells her, No, Grandma, we are
the only ones you have. Of course they both are right, and
at this moment all of them appreciate what families in crisis
to his grandmother reveals a sense of self-respect and self-acceptance
behind the horndog identity. He is neither ashamed of himself
nor resentful of his circumstances. When he realizes that Judy
is using him and even laughing at him, he is neither enraged nor
menacing. Instead, he simply acknowledges who and what he is.
The real Victor wins Judys trust and more. She puts aside
her façade of sophistication, acknowledges her innocence,
and instead of sexual struggle and surrender, there is a redeeming
moment of human intimacy.
Sweet Sixteen is tragic, Solletts realism is a comedy
with a happy ending that affirms the possibility of human connection.
And Raising Victor Vargas reminds us that sex, no matter
how much our culture degrades, profanes, and commercializes it,
can be redemptive. I think that Bazin and De Sica might have approved
of both of these films. <
Alan A. Stone is Toureff-Glueck
Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.
Originally published in the October/November
2003 issue of Boston Review