Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


December 19, 2007

Class-Conscious Cinema

English film director Ken Loach believes class, not country, is at the heart of his art.

Michael Gluckstadt

Ken Loach is easily the most revered and reviled English filmmaker today. The model of a prophet without honor in his own country, Loach and his films are often praised around the world, only to be met with disdain at home. His most recent offering, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, tells the story of the Irish Republican uprising and subsequent civil war in the 1920s, and holds nothing back in its depiction of the brutality employed by the British forces. In Cannes, the film won the 2006 Palm D'Or. In Ireland, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time. Meanwhile in England, it prompted one Daily Mail headline to wonder, "Why Does Ken Loach Hate His Country So Much?"

Ken Loach
"Different class interests and the conflict that that engenders is the heart of society. Everything, everything, comes down to class."

Ken Loach

Loach's politics are left-of-left-of-center. As a staunch socialist, he views the world through the lens of class and is against a hierarchical organization of society. As a devolutionist, he rejects the notion of a British culture imposed on non-English members of the UK. And as a stubborn man of principle, Loach refuses to let the slightest comment pass without examination. Gelf set out to interview Loach on the topic of British cinema, but since he doesn't believe in a unified British culture, Loach soon steered the conversation in other directions. While remaining calm and soft-spoken, he casually derided the entire Hollywood system, called Hitchcock a sellout, and discussed how his politics are inseparable from his filmmaking. (The following interview was conducted by phone and has been edited for clarity.)

Gelf Magazine: With cultural tests given to assess the "Britishness" of films with National Lottery funding, there is a particular British preoccupation with the way the country is depicted on screen. How much of a role does national identity play in your films?

Ken Loach: It's a complicated issue. First of all, "Britishness" is less precise than "Englishness." Our culture is English rather than British—English in the language, the writers; the cultural identity is more accurately described as English. Scottish culture is distinctive, and the notion that it is part of British culture comes out of being colonized by England. For me, "Englishness" is more precise than "Britishness." Of course, all the cultural influences that you have when growing up come from your native culture. It is inevitable that it will determine who you become. And who you become determines what kind of work you do, as a writer or film director. Your cultural influences determine how you see the world. And my cultural influences are inevitably English.

"You take your perceptions with you, because that's who you are. You can't detach yourself from it anymore than you can detach yourself from your hand."
GM: But many of your films are set in the British Isles outside England: Ae Fond Kiss… and Sweet Sixteen in Scotland; The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Hidden Agenda in Ireland. Does being British have any impact on your filmmaking choices?

KL: British is not something I identify with. Britishness is to do with the empire and the unification of the four countries—England, Scotland, Wales and parts of Ireland. I think the cultures in the four constituent parts are very different. So again, I think Englishness is much more precise. And that shapes you, shapes your perception, and your way of working. It shapes the way you see things and the way you use language. You take that with you to whatever country you're in. When I'm in Scotland working with [longtime writing collaborator] Paul Laverty, who's Scottish, I'm an Englishman working in Scotland. If I go to Nicaragua, I'm an Englishman working in Nicaragua. When I'm in Los Angeles, I'm an Englishman working in the States. You take your perceptions with you, because that's who you are. You can't detach yourself from it anymore than you can detach yourself from your hand.

GM: So you've made it clear that you don't consider yourself a British filmmaker, but do you think that there is something that can be described as a particularly British cinema?

KL: Again, I'm stuck on this word "British." Northern Irish culture is very different than English culture because of its long and different history. Is there an English cinema? Yes, I guess there is, but our cinema culture is so distorted by the oppressive relationship with the States. It's very difficult to detach it. There are things that are distinctive about the way English writers and filmmakers work, but it's very difficult to disentangle the North American influence.

GM: There is quite a clear socialist thread in much of your work. You've even been quoted [in the documentary Carry On Ken] as saying that there is a right-wing way of making films, where you turn a bright light on actors and turn them into objects, and a left-wing way of making films where you show them as people. What effect does your politics have on the way you make films?

KL: It's all part of the same way of looking at the world. I don't put them in separate compartments. Everybody sees the world according to their own perspective. If you're a film director, that determines what films you want to make, what stories you want to tell, and how you present the characters. Political attitudes are implicit in that: whether you support a hierarchical society or an egalitarian one; whether you support a capitalist view of the world with a class-based society or you have an idea of another way of organizing things. It depends on how you see things.

GM: And Hollywood films represent the hierarchical way of looking at the world?

KL: They certainly do. Hollywood films are commodities. The investment is calculated very precisely to maximize profits for the corporation which makes it. That's very clear. It is about making commodities, isn't it?

GM: Is that why you haven't gone over to Hollywood?

KL: Why would anybody want to go? Maybe if you want to make money, but why would anyone want to go if you want to make films?

GM: It worked for Hitchcock and other English directors.

KL: If they want to make commodities, that's fine. When you say "worked for them," in what sense?

GM: I think they had successful careers there.

KL: I think you have to look a bit deeper than that, don't you? Do you think Hitchcock couldn't have made films in England?

GM: I think they would've been very different.

KL: In what way? He was already interested in creating suspense. Some of his actors were English: Cary Grant, for example. What couldn't he do in England?

"If it's fame and wealth you're after, go to Hollywood. Status is something else."
GM: I suppose the scale of his productions would've been different.

KL: How do you mean, the scale? More people in the frame? Wider shots?

GM: Part of it comes from the benefits of a higher budget and the Hollywood production methods that were available to him in America. I don't know that he would have been able to film something like The Birds in England. So many of his grand finales, like in Saboteur and North by Northwest, for example, have a distinctly American feel and setting.

KL: When it comes down to it, it's about his salary and his pay. If you break a film down to its constituent parts, he could've had good actors. He could've had good cameramen, locations as varied as he wanted. There's nothing that he couldn't have done if he chose to stay. But the pulling power of the empire is very powerful because that's where the riches are. That's what it's about. It's not about the quality of his filmmaking. It's about his desire for fame and wealth.

GM: So is it good thing or bad thing for English cinema that English directors who are primarily concerned with wealth and status are making their way over to Hollywood?

KL: Status in whose eyes?

GM: I'm sorry; didn't you just say that's why Hitchcock left?

KL: Fame and wealth, not status. If he had all the tools to make films here, why would his status as a filmmaker be any different in the eyes of people who care about films?

GM: Having movies produced and distributed by the Hollywood machine certainly raised his exposure. More people know of his work, making him a more prominent director than he would have been had he remained in England.

KL: In terms of fame, yes. If fame is what you're after, then that's where people go. There's an argument for saying that films done by the Hollywood studios are less interesting. Take a director whose early work I like a lot, Milos Forman. Some would say that his American films have been less interesting and less original than his early films. In terms of status, I would argue that among people who care about cinema, his status was not necessarily improved by going to Hollywood. In fairness, Czech and Eastern European filmmakers were subject to intolerable pressure in their own countries, and those who remained were often unable to work, like Jirí Menzel. But the general point remains: If it's fame and wealth you're after, go to Hollywood. Status is something else. You've got to disentangle some of the issues in what you're saying, because fame and status get turned into the same thing, when they're not.

"You try to be an observer of the social scene and describe what you see. The bones beneath the skin. The mechanisms that produce these conflicts."
GM: So to return to the original question, is it positive or negative for English cinema that filmmakers who are interested in wealth and fame are going over to Hollywood, instead of devoting their considerable talents to the English cinema?

KL: European cinema would be richer, not necessarily financially but imaginatively richer, if fewer people went away. I'm sure the same thing was true when the British had an empire. Talented people would leave and come to the center of the empire, having a massively unfortunate effect on the indigenous culture. Now the center of the empire is in the States and it's very debilitating for other cultures and other countries. And I don't think it should be so.

GM: But there is celebration among the English, especially in the press, when Atonement, Helen Mirren, or another "one of ours" does well in Hollywood, particularly with respect to the Academy Awards. Is that just an English hang-up?

KL: Well, you've heard of Uncle Tom? He was very pleased to be patted on the head by the boss.

GM: In a different direction, what about television? BBC and other British programming really used to dominate the States in terms of quality. Now they've been surpassed by many American shows on networks like HBO and Showtime, which adhere to the originally British model of subscription programming.

KL: I don't know. I don't watch much television, to be honest, apart from the football. If we're getting television from all over the world that's great, but if we're just being invaded by another culture, that's not good. Fair exchange of films and programs and documentaries across the world—that'd be wonderful. That's what communication should be. But if it's just a one-sided invasion by one culture, then clearly it's not good.

GM: I don't know why you don't watch television, but I would say you're missing out on some quality programming.

KL: It's time, really. I find watching fiction on the small screen not very interesting. I'd sooner go to the cinema.

GM: There are some shows that I really think you would enjoy. For example, HBO's The Wire is a show with a documentary style that draws very much from your sensibilities. There are many parallels in it to Sweet Sixteen—institutional failures, the bare-bones capitalism of the drug trade, and a young character very similar to Liam.

KL: I'll keep a look out for it, but as I said, I don't watch television much, as it can take an immense amount of time, and I find that if I watch television, I don't read.

GM: There's one relatively minor scene in Sweet Sixteen that I think is particularly resonant. A woman who is a complete stranger to Liam yells at him for dealing drugs to the mother of a baby. That scene seems to me an indictment of Greenock as a city, the family structure, and the working class. Which of those levels—city, family, and class—are most important in your films?

KL: Well, class is essential to everything. Everything is rooted in class. People's day-to-day experiences are expressed through their families and where they live. But different class interests and the conflict that that engenders is the heart of society—that's the motor for society. Everything, everything, comes down to class.

GM: So do you share more in common with similar class-minded filmmakers as opposed to countrymen?

KL: Yes, I enjoy and learn from many filmmakers from other countries. I guess when you're a writer, painter, or filmmaker, you try to be an observer of the social scene and describe what you see. The bones beneath the skin. The mechanisms that produce these conflicts.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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