The Dialectical Image is a film essay about experience and the aesthetic. I say 'the' aesthetic because I am not so much concerned with the variety of aesthetic strategies that one can find in say a given medium, like film, as the kind of experience that the aesthetic offers. So, The Dialectical Image is about ordinary everyday experience and the special kind of experience that the aesthetic can offer. And it is about the connections, the relationships and the differences between these two kinds of experience, especially as they are shaped by capitalism.
The thinking behind this short film goes back to my earlier book Red Kant:Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (Bloomsbury 2014). There I argued that bourgeois philosophy had entombed Kant's aesthetic philosophy in its own world view, but that actually Kant was a much more contradictory thinker, and that those contradictions point forward to Marx and Marxism more generally. Kant actually began to lay the basis for thinking about both experience and the aesthetic experience in social terms, and socialising both experience and aesthetic experience is fundamentally what this short film is about.
By classifying it as a 'film essay', I situate it in a tradition of archive footage-based montage filmmaking that goes back to the Soviets in the 1920s and was also cross-fertilized with German philosophers such as Adorno and Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. While the essay form was typically thought of as a literary product, the image was increasingly seen, especially by Benjamin, as an excellent medium for encouraging dialectical thought. The film essay eschews narrative in favour of association, argumentation, concepts, chapters, metaphor and mood. Hopefully, it stirs things up, stimulates, provokes and gives plenty of scope for the viewer to take what they want from it.
Mike Wayne reviews Allegories of The End of Capitalism: Six Films on the Revolutions of Our Times, by Milo Sweedler, Zero Books 2020
Milo Sweedler’s book is an unfailingly interesting and indeed fun read from start to finish. Focusing on six films which conjure with various images of revolt against capitalism and even with capitalism’s demise, Sweedler offers accessible and intelligent decodings of the films, contextualised by reference to key cultural thinkers and political scientists.
The six films selected are Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011), Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012), Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015), Elysium (Neil Blomkamp 2013) and Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013) by the director of Parasite (2020), the first non-English language film to win best picture at the Oscar.
For Sweedler, what unites this ‘diverse array of films’ (a point I will come back to later), is that ‘each of them allegorizes disenchantment with the neoliberal world order and proposes a vision of the system’s violent demise.’ (p.1). The notion that films are ‘allegories’ suggests that the stories and characters can be read as warnings or lessons of a moral-political kind about our situation. The term was popularised as a means for thinking about film by the Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. He began his career as a literary theorist, which perhaps explains why the term allegory, historically a literary form, crossed via him to film studies when he turned his attention to cinema. Of course, reading popular films in this way has a long pedigree. As early as 1948, Robert Warshow’s short essay ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’ explored this quintessential American film genre as a meditation on the ambivalent feelings around individualism, success, rational enterprise and brutality within American capitalism.
But in the 1970s, popular cinema within film studies was largely seen not as a way into such issues, but as an ideological operation that primarily worked to shore the social order up, valorising it and dealing with any problems within it in as contained a manner as possible. Fredric Jameson’s intervention, while not entirely breaking from that overall assessment of film, began to open up the possibility that film could also express popular anxieties about capitalism. It is this possibility of film giving (not so disguised) expression to the dangers of our times and the often unacknowledged sentiments of millions of people (unacknowledged by the mainstream news media for example as well as the political elites), which has become stronger in the decades since.
Globalisation, in the form of transnational corporations and supranational organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, the World Trade Organisation, trade deals, etc., etc, have made visible the economic power and might of capital. The internet and digital communication tools have in turn facilitated the transnational circulation of images of revolt in response to the power of capital, as the international protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the time of writing, suggest.
Sweedler begins his contemporary focus on the years since the 2011 Occupy movements that connected Tarir Square in Egypt with protests in America, Spain, the UK, Turkey and other places. This is the context in which to read the six films discussed here, only one of which was made by a North American (Tarantino). The chronology of the discussion suggests increasingly stark critiques of the capitalist order, the progression of a deeper and more generalised sense of crisis, the manifestation of large scale revolts, violent assaults on the symbolic representatives of the capitalist order and culminating in the revolutionary overthrow of ‘the system’ in Elysium and Snowpiercer.
It cannot be a bad sign that if you have not seen all the films discussed here, Sweedler’s discussion will likely spark your interest in doing so and if you have seen them, revisiting the films with the benefit of his analysis in mind. Sweedler weaves a range of key thinkers into his discussions, such as the aforementioned Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, Jacques Rancière, Naomi Klein, Mark Fisher and others. But he does so in a way that never feels clunky, but genuinely contextualises the films, making his political readings all the more plausible.
Sweedler’s text is perhaps illustrative of the very high cultural level that thinking about film as a contemporary and important art form has now reached. The detailed micro-attention to and sophistication of his reading of film form are two of the book’s many strengths. For example, he rescues Tarantino’s Django, a film which like much of that director’s output could disappear into a hole marked ‘de-politicised postmodernism’, by his attention to the meaning of the lead character’s changing sartorial presentation in the film, and how the costumes which Django wears, with their intertextual references to film and visual culture, are indeed helping to make politically acute points.
One might quibble with aspects of the book. In his determination to read these films as revolutionary parables, he perhaps plays down their limitations. For we have not quite passed into an altogether different era as the one that characterised film studies in the 1970s. Film still is entangled with ideologies. The two popular films the book concludes with, Elysium and Snowpiercer, clearly are tapping into fantasies and anxieties around capitalism and its overthrow, but only in quite broad brush strokes. They are arguably not attuned to the complexities of situations and processes, such as the emergence and consolidation of class consciousness and action, collective struggle, the contradictions within the system and to the difficulties involved in confronting it. Perhaps the film selection could have been a bit more diverse, going beyond films which, if they were not always made by Hollywood studios, are all English language films and did all circulate widely in and through Hollywood and its distribution system.
This however is a minor quibble. Sweedler’s book is a great read, lively and intelligent and will help people see that film is one way in which we can see the truth of Marx’s assertion that: ‘the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.’
Mike Wayne weighs the influence of Marxism on film culture
Marxist filmmakers, Marxist-influenced culture and Marxist theory, have all had a huge influence on world film culture for more than a hundred years, although it is an influence that is often denied. The struggle for control over the cinematic means of production on the terrain of culture is part of, and develops in relation to, the broader struggle between the classes over the means of production as a whole. In the early part of the 20th century, as capital struggled to find ways of turning the new medium into a profitable commodity, the working class internationally were laying down their own claims to this new means of cultural production in ways that dominant forms of historiography have repressed.
Film developed in the context of urbanisation, spreading industrialisation, mass communications and mass culture. The latter benefited from the decades of labour struggles that had gradually driven down the length of the working day week, thus expanding the scope for various cultural activities.
In America there was considerable establishment anxiety over the role the new mass medium might play in drawing an ethnically and religiously divided immigrant working class together around a common cultural form. Film could potentially speak to this audience as a class in a way that the more respectable cultural forms, such as theatre, where the dominance of middle-class values was assured, rarely did. Writing in The Atlantic, in a 1915 article significantly titled ‘Class Consciousness and the ‘Movies’ Walter Prichard Eaton suggested that:
In the average American village of a few thousand souls, even today, you will not find class-consciousness developed. The proletariat is not aware of itself. The larger the town, the greater the degree of class-consciousness—and the sharper the line of cleavage between the audiences at the spoken drama and at the movies.
Marx had argued that the movement from a class existing in itself (without self-consciousness of its distinct class interests) to a class for itself was absolutely crucial if it was to become a political agent capable of leading the fight for social change. The prospect that film might help the proletariat achieve such a degree of class- consciousness and self-awareness was not outlandish in pre-Hollywood American cinema. The medium had yet to become that powerful promoter of American national identity or mythology that it was to become. Instead the screen teemed with ordinary people facing tough times. This typically proletarian milieu often included extended critical commentary on the dominant institutions of established society that made life for ordinary Americans so hard. Bosses, the rich in general, policemen, politicians, the courts, landlords, government officials and such like, were frequently shown as greedy, petty, corrupt, vain and vindictive. Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp, already being forged in the mid-teens, embodied this popular recognition of class inclusion and exclusion.
But as the American film industry became ‘Hollywood’, i.e a oligopoly of film companies that controlled production, distribution and exhibition and was increasing integrated with finance capital, so the proletarian image began to be marginalised in favour of a middle-class social milieu that stripped out a materialist, realist layer to early film. Nevertheless, the proletarian image could not be entirely banished. It was there in many of the lower budget ‘B’ movies that some studios specialised in and at particular moments, even within the new corporate structures, it would resurface with a vengeance, such as between the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the 1934 imposition of a Catholic-inspired morality censorship code. The Motion Picture Production Code, as extensive a censorship system as existed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, considerably infantilised American film culture, although smart leftist filmmakers could still navigate the system at times and subvert it. That is until the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee used the post-war Cold War as an opportunity to push many leftists out of Hollywood and intimidate those who remained into passivity.
It was not until the Motion Picture Production Code began to break down with the decline of the studio system in the 1950s and more significantly, in the 1960s, that Hollywood films began to break away from the censorious moral-political culture that the bosses and the politicians has clamped down on it. Here culture and politics interacted with the economic changes in ownership and a generational shift in attitudes to transform the terrain. Much of that culture and politics that was most significant came from the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the so-called Third World and its interaction with western political aspirations. An entire genre, the Western, underwent a major transformation as a result. Where it was once a supreme colonial genre and mythmaker about America’s own origins, it was now turned into a critical vehicle examining racism and territorial expansionism which continues into the present, as the recent, and excellent Western, Hostiles (2017) starring Christian Bale, demonstrates. Equally, America’s post-war consolidation as a corporate dominated economy, also became critically re-examined through the Western genre. The small town, the railroad corporations, the outlaw, these elements of the Western provide a manageable microcosm to explore the emerging power of capital, while also being historically distant enough to escape immediate censure and informal censorship.
Projecting into the future, as well as the past, has also been another way in which the Marxist thematics of class power, class struggle, revolt and revolution, have been played out in the commercial cinema. The science fiction genre has been remarkably receptive to the way Marxism has seeped into the collective unconscious. An early example of this was Fritz Lang’s German expressionist Metropolis (1927), but again some of Hollywood’s most interesting and critical films in recent decades explores the same template set down by Metropolis, namely elites who control technology lording it over the proles who must fight back in order to survive, often culminating in fantasies of revolutionary change as with They Live (1988), In Time (2011), or Elysium (2013), or at the very least targeting a techno-capitalism as the enemy, as in Alien (1979) and its 1986 sequel, Bladerunner (1982), or Moon (2009).
But before Metropolis, there was Aelita: Queen of Mars, a film made by Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov in 1924 at the height of the cultural fermentation in the Soviet arts. Aelita in fact sets the template, with its story of revolt on Mars against tyranny expressing the high ideals of revolution, but also and fascinatingly contrasted with the difficult realities of living with the real revolution in the Soviet Union on earth. In many ways, this film is far more valuable as a insight into the realities and contradictions of the revolution as it was being lived than Sergei Eisenstein’s film the following year, Strike. His revolutionary romanticism (set prior to the 1917 revolution) did not leave much room for exploring ambivalence and personal desire in a situation of material scarcity.
Of course, what Eisenstein did bequeath world cinema was the theory and practice of montage. Again one can hardly overestimate the enormous influence which Marxism has had on world film culture via the concept and practice of montage. It is an editing strategy which generates emotional shocks and perceptual conflicts by the orchestration of shots. This has been absorbed into mainstream commercial filmmaking although often stripped of its political intent – e.g. the famous shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). This is because the crucial element which Marxist film practice of montage also insisted on, is the making of connections outside the strict limitations of temporal-spatial unity. Without montage it is impossible to conceive a whole tradition of analytical documentary filmmaking that assembles a vast range of materials, from Industrial Britain (1931) to The Corporation (2003), still less the revolutionary montage documentary filmmaking of the Cubans – Santiago Alvarez being the master of this kind of work – and others.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Latin Americans in particular pioneered experiments in democratising film production, distribution and reception. The tried to break down the hierarchical division of labour which capitalism has imposed on filmmaking and they tried to break down the boundaries between filmmakers and their subjects, whether they were making a documentary film, as Fernando Birri did while making his film Tire Dié (1958) about shanty town dwellers, or as Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés did with his work with the Andean peasantry.
The Latin Americans also pioneered new distribution models, with mobile projectors taking films to remote areas and ‘parallel’ distribution networks in the cities circumnavigating the corporate cinemas and using civil society networks instead to find screening locations and audiences. And they democratised the reception process as well, encouraging debate and discussion – although of course this does go back further to Communist film clubs set up in the 1930s. For Solanas and Getino, film should be conceived as a ‘detonator’ for discussion. In doing so, the consumer-spectator becomes an actor and participant in politics and the space of the screening becomes a liberated zone combating ‘solitude, noncommunication, distrust, and fear.’
Revolutionary filmmakers have also tried to break down the division of intellectual labour between theory and practice, in line with the Marxist emphasis on praxis (the mutually beneficial and critical interrogation of theory by practice and practice by theory). For the Cuban filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, “solid theoretical judgement” is a must for the filmmaker because they are “immersed in a complex milieu, the profound meaning of which does not lie on its surface”. Filmmakers cannot simply go out in the world “with just a camera and their sensibility”. They need instead to “promote the theoretical development of their artistic practice”.
Alea’s own theorisation of film, its relationship to reality and the twin goals of cognitive awakening and emotional engagement, is itself a fine contribution to our understanding of film, called The Viewer’s Dialectic. Similarly, the British filmmaker, Peter Watkins, who like John Berger, found sanctuary from the intellectual philistinism of the British middle class in Europe, has written extensively about film and its place within a wider media system and can be found at http://pwatkins.mnsi.net. His epic (six hour) reconstruction of the Paris Commune, La Commune (2000) is among one of his finest in a long career. Among La Commune’s many virtues, is not only a reinvention of the long shot that captures the swirling dynamics of a revolutionary situation, but also his utilisation of another contribution to film and artistic culture that Marxism has made (via Brecht), political self-reflexivity. This allows film to examine the language and process of construction of the very film we are watching, as well as the role of the media in general in shaping perceptions, attitudes and identifications.
Marxist film theory as developed in academia has struggled to hold its own of course. Marxist film theory cannot do without engaging with what we might call, the ‘bourgeois’ cultural theories (structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, etc). But it is very hard to engage with these currents as an equal, and not succumb to the pressures of the esteem and acceptance which these currents have within academia, to the detriment of developing an independent Marxist film theory. Still, Marxist film theory has survived, especially in such as collective ventures as the Jump Cut journal and has no doubt subtly influenced generations of former students turned critics, and people who have subsequently gone onto make films even in the commercial arena. Marxism has gone to the movies and the movies have gone to Marxism – a dynamic that has profoundly shaped the movies and even Marxism for more than a century.
Sorry We Missed You is director Ken Loach’s follow-up to his excoriating I, Daniel Blake which exposed how the welfare system has been turned into an apparatus of punishment and cruel indignity for those without work. It took a film to expose the moral vacuum at the heart of the Department of Work and Pensions, because generally the mainstream news media are more interested in the fame and fortune of elite individuals.
Some topics stir outrage and existential angst such as our future relationship to the EU, but how this country treats people who have no work or who are too sick to work barely registers in the mainstream media. This is important because whose stories get told help shape our cultural and institutional empathy maps.
Sorry We Missed You grew organically out of the world I, Daniel Blake brings so harrowingly to conscious appreciation. If the latter is about the world of welfare, the former is about the world of work. ‘When we were going to the foodbanks for our research’ says Loach, ‘many of the people that were coming in were working on part time, zero-hours contracts. This is a new type of exploitation. The so-called gig economy…..and gradually the idea emerged that maybe there was another film that might be worth making.’
Sorry We Missed You certainly was worth making. The title of the film echoes Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry To Bother You, set in the telemarketing job sector. That was a surreal comedy and satire, very different in tone and style from Loach’s approach. Sorry We Missed You refers to the card left by parcel delivery services, a whole de-regulated market of casualised labour opened up after the Post Office’s 350 year monopoly was ended in 2006 (thanks, New Labour). But the title also refers more obliquely to the fact that the two main characters, Ricky and Abby, hardly see either each other or their own kids, as they toil away in the underpaid, overworked labour market that is the 21st century version of Victorian Britain.
Like I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You is set in Newcastle where we find Ricky (Kris Hitchen) – a construction worker originally from Manchester – being inducted into the entrepreneurial language and practices of the delivery driver sector, where large corporations like Amazon sub-contract work out to companies in a competitive race to the bottom. Ricky’s boss Maloney chats baloney – the language of choice, be your own boss, be a ‘warrior’ on the road, all the clichés of market discourse that pollute our contemporary language with nonsensical euphemisms and individualistic illusions and self-delusions. Immediately the economic pressures lock and load. Ricky can either rent a van from the company, for £65 a day and get fleeced that way, or buy a new van costing £400 a month plus a £1000 deposit. That means selling Abby’s car, leaving her to rely on public transport to do her home care visits for elderly peoplek.
In Sorry We Missed You, time has become more of a commodity than ever before. Abby (Debbie Honeywood) cannot spend the time she needs to provide the care her ‘clients’ need, while Ricky is tracked and surveilled to make sure he hits every delivery time. Meanwhile time with the kids is in scarce supply, and mediated through leaving messages on their mobiles.
The film is a study in how the economic pressures of capitalism gnaw away at the security and naturally affectionate bonds of the family. We see brief moments when the family has the opportunity to be together and enjoy each other’s company – but the strains are stronger than the ties. It has always amazed me that the Left allows the Tories to claim so easily that they are the Party of The Family. The reality is that they are the party that destroys real, concrete families.
Sorry We Missed You shows that when you are on the edge of things, it does not take much to push you over. In a society where supportive safety nets and social services have been stripped away, it becomes the norm for millions of people to live a life of JAMS – what Theresa May described as the ‘just about managing’ who in reality are clinging to the cliff face, with one hand.
When their son Seb (Rhys Stone) gets into trouble for fighting at school, Ricky cannot make the meeting because of work and Seb is duly suspended. A graffiti artist with a crew, Seb cannot afford the spray paints and gets arrested for shoplifting. A wedge between father and son opens up. Seb is a typical surly teenager, and does not buy Ricky’s belief that if you work hard enough there is a decent job and life available for you.
In other Ken Loach films with this sort of subject matter, and de-politicised characters living ordinary and non-rebellious lives, there is sometimes a secondary character who brings a political perspective and analysis to the main protagonist – and the audience. That is not the case with this film. Seb perhaps latently represents some revolt against the authorities as a graffiti artist, and Abby late in the film tells Maloney some home truths, but Ricky can see no way out of the status quo. The film ends with him driving, but metaphorically speaking, with nowhere to go except continuing on the downward spiral he’s been on throughout the film.
One of the problems with social realism is whether in showing, even in a nuanced way, the awful situation of precarity and social inequality, it engenders a sense of hopelessness and pessimism, and reproduces a deeply sedimented feeling that this is just the way things are. However, we can also credit audiences with the ability to make connections between the story they see on screen and the political context from which it emerges. As with I, Daniel Blake, this film will be widely seen outside the commercial theatre network, and will be screened by various parts of the labour movement. Many of these screenings will involve debates afterwards and that is where the connection between the singular story of Ricky, Abby and their kids and the broader social and political story can and will be made.
The Guardian recently had the wheeze of showing Sorry We Missed You to a range of right-wingers, to see what they thought of it. The MP Anna Soubry was among them. No doubt fortifying herself beforehand with a stiff drink at the House of Commons subsidised bar, Soubry declared afterwards that the film ‘didn’t have the bite and passion that I expected.’ Of course, one would not expect a policymaker who has been responsible for constructing the very economy the film exposes, to think much else.
Fortunately, an empathy bypass is not mandated for everyone else. Sorry We Missed You does precisely what it should be doing – putting the real stories of people’s lives up on the screen in a dramatic form that engages vividly and that traces through the consequences of the social forces impinging on them.
The media who should be doing this have instead been investing in neoliberal reality television programmes. Channel Four did not co-fund I, Daniel Blake because they thought they had ticked the box with Benefits Street! This film, as with all of Loach’s films, charts an alternative reality and an alternative history. We really will be sorry and miss Ken Loach if he decides this is indeed his last film.
Sorry We Missed You is released in cinemas on November 1st 2019. Like I, Daniel Blake, It will also be made available for hire to show at community centres, clubs etc.
Mike Wayne reviews Mike Leigh's new film, a complex, powerful reconstruction of a key historical moment in the ongoing class struggle of the British working class.
Most of Mike Leigh’s films have been small scale, intimate and personal stories rather than the explicitly political territory Ken Loach is well known for. And yet with Peterloo, Leigh has made what is arguably his most accomplished and important work and possibly one of the most significant works of historical film drama on British history.
Admittedly the subject matter instantly lends the work the potential for significance, just because this is an example of a story from history which has not received the attention it deserves, in the popular culture or in our education system. Here was an episode when the British state responded with violence towards the working class, who were struggling to establish something like the substantive and meaningful democracy which the elites today pretend was there all along. It was not of course and neither was it graciously handed down by benevolent elites. They were forced to concede it, under pressure, but they did so having already demonstrated they if they were pushed too far and too fast, they would not hesitate to respond with violence.
In the early years of the nineteenth century the British ruling class were concerned to produce their own ‘hostile environment’ towards the demands for democratic representation that were coming from the labouring classes, especially inspired by the French revolution of 1789. The film begins on the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) where we meet Joseph, a bugler, stumbling around half-dazed, surrounded by cannon fire. Joseph will still be wearing his distinctive red soldier’s coat on a very different battlefield in St Peter’s Field, Manchester (1819) at the film’s climactic scene. This visual linking via Joseph of the two battlefields, is the film’s temporal sleight of hand, as it feels that only a matter of months had passed rather than four years. It is a brilliant compression and one example of the way Leigh eschews naturalism for a more pointed construction of historical and social truth. And here is the true measure of Peterloo’s significance and achievement. Because while at the level of historical content any film that recovers a repressed history is welcome, this film, so richly underpinned by historical research, has marshalled its material into a formal architecture that does justice to the subject matter.
One of the basic dilemmas that confronted Leigh in telling this story was that it is unintelligible unless it is understood as a collective story and a story of different collectives, or classes converging with tragic consequences at a point in time and space. Yet our storytelling conventions and habits are largely built around individual heroes whose goals and actions push things along. As a result our stories do not usually ring true as historical events. Leigh’s solution is to strike a balance between a focus on one family who take us into the film initially and who reappear consistently throughout, and a much wider ensemble of individuals and groups, many based on the real historical figures involved in the period, who collectively develop the political action. The family is Joseph’s, and he returns to it, traumatised by what he has seen. His mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) is politically aware while his father Joshua works in the local mills. The family’s difficulties in surviving exemplify how hard life is and provide the personal evidence of what is at stake. But it is the confidence the film has to spread its dramaturgy much wider than this family unit, which is key in developing the social and historical understanding of what is happening and why.
An early sequence convinced me that I was already watching a breakthrough film, when we are introduced to a number of the local magistrates in a series of vignettes. Here we see them meet out their brutal penalties (flogging, transportation and hanging) for a series of petty crimes committed by the impoverished. The fear and loathing of the local bourgeoisie of the working class is moderated slightly by the national government and the aristocracy there, and in the army. They are that much more secure in their rule and confident in their position to urge caution, although when a potato is hurled at the Prince Regent as he waves to the crowd, they are quick enough to suspend habeas corpus. So the one essential ingredient for the compelling realism of this film, that all the key classes are present and correct, is fulfilled. But there are fine individual portraits within these ruling class social types, even when the range of opinions they express falls within the narrow compass of their prejudices and fears. It is the working-class characters, and to a lesser extent their liberal middle-class reform allies, who represent a range of opinion and perspectives on the issues of the day.
This is a film that is very much about the communication of ideas, whether in the written form (letters, the press) or above all through oral speech. There are a lot of speeches in this film, the content of which has mostly been culled from what the real people these characters are based on did say, according to the historical records. But this does not make the film dull or like a series of lectures. This is because the speeches are themselves intrinsically interesting and powerful and in the case of the working-class characters especially, a treat to hear the eloquence, passion and politics with which they cognise their situation. But the film is careful to always have some little drama playing around the speeches to give them a wider layer of narrative interest. It may be that police spies are watching, or that there are disagreements between speakers or that there is some lively interaction between audience and speakers. But there is also the ever-present potential and actual consequences of communication and speech as well.
This is a film about the dangers of rhetorical overload. The industrial bourgeoisie ramp up pressure for a violent reaction to the working class demands for political reform by their hysterical reports of what the workers are up to. The young working-class radicals are tempted by agent-provocateurs to talk of arming the workers, thereby overstepping the mark and allowing the government to arrest them. Or there are the rhetorical flourishes of the middle-class leaders of a women’s reform group whose words go over the heads of the working-class members of the audience. And when they speak up and talk of their experience during a recent strike, the middle-class leaders quickly move on.
This last scene points to the internal class tensions between the working class and the liberal reformers. This is central to the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Samuel Bamford (a great enthusiastic performance by Neil Bell) a working class radical and the middle class Wiltshire landowner Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear, a superb piece of classed casting). It is Bamford who is instrumental in the film in getting Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd in St Peter’s Field after he impresses him with a speech in London. But they fall out when Bamford suggests that it would be wise to have some small number of men armed with cudgels and swords on the day in case the forces of ‘law and order’ are unleashed on them. Hunt, who does not know the situation in the North as well as he does in London, rejects the idea and subsequently has Bamford banished from the platform on the day as the vast crowd assemble. How resonant that is now, when metaphorically the middle class dominate the public media platforms and the working-class representatives and organic intellectuals are nowhere to be seen.
It is a touch of genius that in a film full of speeches, we barely hear any of Henry Hunt’s on the crucial day. This is because it is no longer that relevant. Of far more importance is the way the local bourgeoisie prepare to set the Yeomanry and cavalry on the crowd. Bamford’s prescience as to the possibility of violence and the need for self-defence raises a question which is all too rare in British political discourse, namely, how to respond to the violence of the British state. There are no easy answers to this question as the history of the North of Ireland shows. Yet it is a question rarely even broached, such is the invisibility of the violence of the British state within mainstream discourse.
Leigh incidentally has said that he regrets not having Irish Mancunians play a bigger role in the film, and while it is a shame both for the historical record and the added layer of contemporary resonance it would have lent the film, we must also recognise the difficult choices inevitably involved in bringing this story to the big screen. The final climactic scene is incredibly shocking even in the absence of the kind of bloody gore we expect from contemporary films. It is shocking because of the evident and appalling injustice meted out to the crowd by a ruling class for whom the workers are deeply inferior. The descendants of that ruling class are all around us and in their basic attitudes towards the working class, they have barely made any progress since the nineteenth century. Leigh’s complex, powerful reconstruction of a moment in the ongoing class war, needs to be seen and debated widely.