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Working Class Act 

The socialist realism of director Ken Loach

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
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Photo by Joss Barratt

Ken Loach has been taken to task for romanticizing the proletariat. But it’s hard not to fall in love with the working-class Glaswegians in his new film, My Name Is Joe, with their gruff, understated kindness, boozy irreverence and fabulous verbal agil-ity. Such a one is Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan), a 37-year-old recovering drunk in a poor Glasgow neighborhood where the banter is scabrous and the accents thick enough to merit the subtitles that the film’s distributor has sensibly insisted on. Joe has no permanent job, no family but the football team of young hooligans he coaches, and no assets but an iron will to get a life. And he’s doing pretty well, especially after he meets and beds Sarah (Louise Goodall), a local health worker who’s monitoring the toddler son of Liam and Sabine (David McKay and Anne-Marie Kennedy), a struggling young junkie couple known to Joe through the football team.

For so long as it’s framed as a love story between two wounded souls groping for common ground, My Name Is Joe is light on its feet, full of seething energy enhanced by Paul Laverty’s lively script. The movie’s first half is lush with sexy grace notes: Joe and Sarah exchanging their first guarded confidences over pizza; Sarah, while counseling a client that cold cabbage leaves stuffed down her bra will relieve sore nipples, lighting up as she catches sight of Joe in the doorway; Joe and Sarah, so hot for one another that a carefully prepared dinner grows cold on the plates. They make a wonderfully passionate, ambivalent pair, and it’s a pity that in the middle of the movie we lose them to a melodrama whose every plot twist yells for attention. Trying to protect Liam from a drubbing by a local drug-pushing clan to whom Sabine owes a small fortune, Joe gets in over his head doing "a couple of small jobs" for the pusher. The rest is a mechanical action picture with an all-too-literal message about the difficulty of escaping the crushing restraints of class.

Gazing around a three-quarters-full movie theater after a recent screening of My Name Is Joe, Loach quipped a touch wistfully that this was the biggest audience any film of his had ever had in the United States. Many a true word: Loach is the least transatlantic of English filmmakers, a take-no-prisoners Marxist who regularly beats up on the U.S. as a running dog of capitalist imperialism (don’t get him started on Hollywood) and makes no secret of his gloom about the prospects for social justice at home or abroad. No wonder he’s condemned himself to tiny North American audiences consisting mostly of lefty fellow travelers. Uplift has never been Loach’s bag, which may be why, even as he makes America nervous, he’s been the toast of Europe, which has always been greedier for the glum romanticism of neo-realist filmmaking. His films have been showered with prizes at Venice, Berlin and Cannes, where last year Mullan deservedly won Best Actor for his performance as Joe. In England, Loach ranked for many years alongside Mike Leigh as a dogged champion of his beloved working classes. Sometimes too dogged — the stolid naturalism in some of Loach’s social dramas (his recent stirring but preachy Spanish Civil War movie, Land and Freedom, for one) lacks the sophisticated aesthetic that powers Leigh’s best work. But Loach’s films also lack Leigh’s sporadic savaging of his subjects. As an empathic chronicler of the indignities that successive British governments have heaped upon the underclasses, Loach has no rival.

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He also has, in the chipper new climate of Tony Blair’s Britain, next to no audience. In 1965 Loach made Cathy Come Home, a devastatingly graphic telefilm about a young homeless woman trying to hold her family together against the odds of simultaneously hostile and paternalistic social-service agencies. Unsparing in its depiction of the harsh conditions under which such women were forced to scratch out a living, the docudrama made all of England, including Parliament, sit up straight — for about five minutes. Loach has been boxing Britain’s ears ever since, and the fact that he had to make the film all over again with his 1994 Ladybird, Ladybird (which critics lauded and nobody else saw) is testimony not only to the wasting economic "reforms" of Thatcherism, which spawned a new "yupoisie" that remains blithely heedless of the suffering on its own doorstep, but to Loach’s obstinate tenacity. In the eyes of many of England’s hip, commercially motivated young filmmakers, men like Loach, an unreconstructed socialist with a vicar’s contempt for consumer culture (he even looks like an addled parish priest), are fast becoming killjoy fossils — even though the export-friendly The Full Monty, and even Trainspotting, owe more to Loach’s pioneering socialist realism than their makers would care to admit.

Loach couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of him. Marginality is his muse, for better and for worse. For if his dissidence has made him an incorruptible and indispensable gadfly, it has also predisposed his work to occasional sanctimony and a tendency to spot repressive state apparatuses under every bed. Which makes some of his films easier to admire than they are to like: The worst offender was Hidden Agenda, a hopelessly reductive IRA action drama — ironically, the nearest thing to a Hollywood movie that Loach has ever made and which even he acknowledges was a mistake. The more recent Carla’s Song had its heart in the right place but its soul stranded on a bully pulpit. From the beautiful Kes (1969) — still Loach’s best-known movie in this country — through the delightful comedies Riff-Raff (1992) and Raining Stones (1993), Loach’s best films have been small in scale and pepped up by talented writers with a strong comic feel for the vernacular wit of Britain’s many local dialects.

So it is with My Name Is Joe, and Americans may take the movie to their hearts, in part because they are more likely to understand a class narrative if it’s delivered through a filter of drugs and alcohol. If you can avoid the noisy distractions of the plot, Mullan’s evocation of Joe is full and rich, and for once in a Loach movie, not fully reducible to class. Joe Kavanagh is a good, kind, loving man with terrible judgment and a dark side that booze and adversity bring out. It terrifies him, and when he falls off the wagon, as fall he must, we listen with equal parts horror and pity to his voice, thickened with a meanness born of fright and rage. Joe may be sleeping with the class enemy, but it’s a sign of Loach’s political maturity that not every state employee has to be a heartless monster, and that Alcoholics Anonymous, far from being the false consciousness for which many Marxists deride it, may even be a help at the individual level. Up to a point: If booze and unemployment were the two banes of Glasgow’s old working class (and, by the way, the lifeblood of its thriving music and performing cultures), at least it was a class united by common burdens and a common enemy, and bolstered by steady jobs and strong unions. In the Glasgow where Joe and his mates must survive, the working class is corroded from within not only by poverty and unemployment, but by a parasitical drug culture that saps the community’s limited resources.

Now that Barbara Kopple has gone Hollywood, no filmmaker in this country, aside from Spike Lee and the occasional committed documentarian, is paying sympathetic dramatic attention to the plight of the poor as they try to stay one step ahead of the circumstances that trap them in dead-end lives. Loach may be one of the few filmmakers today to identify the causes of the imminent death of the traditional working classes. And what’s true for Glasgow will be true elsewhere. My Name Is Joe ought to be compulsory viewing in Michigan and Ohio, but I doubt it will be. When life gets harder, the people vote for Patch Adams.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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