Thursday, April 18, 2024

Ken Loach: His Last and First 10 (Part 1 of two)

If it is indeed true that The Old Oak is Ken Loach’s last film, then he could’ve picked no stronger note to go out on. The film shows how far he’s come since the documentary-influenced telefilms he made in the Sixties, but it also reflects the themes he’s returned to again and again in the last six decades, and it shows how his cinema has been and remains an eloquent modern variation on Italian neo-realism.

For The Old Oak is both distinctly modern and yet is a thinking person's tearjerker in the manner of the Italian masters. It is structured by scripter Paul Laverty so that the emotional material appears throughout but most distinctly surfaces in the second act and then, well… I’ll leave out any spoilers from the impeccable ending.

Laverty has worked with Loach on 14 features, since Carla’s Song in 1996. His storyline revolves around pub owner T.J. (Dave Turner), who lives in a small British town that was devastated by the closing of its coal mine decades before. T.J. looks like a gruff sort, but he has no problem with the new arrivals in the town, a group of Syrian refugees, who are as poor as many of the town’s citizens. 

T.J.’s regulars loathe the Syrians, but T.J. soon has struck up a friendship with aspiring photographer Yara (Ebla Mari). Recounting the history of the town’s ties to its labor union, he remembers his mother’s favorite expression — “When you eat together, you stay together” — and soon sets up with Yara and his more open-minded regulars a three-times-weekly free dinner in the back of his pub. The positive feeling created by the event is not shared by T.J.’s regulars; what results from their actions unexpectedly leads to a very moving finale.

Throughout, Laverty’s storyline is abetted by Loach’s realistic depiction of the small town. The cast also do a superb job, with Dave Turner delivering a nuanced performance as T.J.

Loach has abandoned using documentary visual techniques but definitely retains his hold on the particulars of an environment. What is most important in The Old Oak, though, is the message, which is intertwined with the storyline and apparent in dialogue — as when one frequenter of T.J.’s pub laments the hatred manifested toward “the poor bastards below us.” Yes, some of the film fits together so early that one might deem it a fantasy but, Loach seems to be arguing, what transpires is an achievable fantasy (and is spurred on by one man deciding to take action).

Oak is a new and timely tale, but its themes have been present in Loach’s work since the beginning of his career. As Oak is playing at the Film Forum in Manhattan, and the theater is starting a 21-film festival of Loach’s work on April 19, I wanted to also provide brief reviews of 10 of his earliest films, including three that will be in the Film Forum fest and seven that are found on the Ken Loach at the BBC box set. 

The films can also be found on various streaming websites, but I’d rather tout their appearance on the big screen. (Contact me privately for the online location of some of the films if you don’t live in NYC, but the BBC box is the first, best starting place.) 

Loach started working as a director of TV episodes on the BBC in 1964 and by 1965 had entered the heady world of the BBC teleplay. (The fertile ground out of which emerged great talents like Dennis Potter and Alan Clarke.) 

The earliest surviving Loach teleplay is “3 Clear Sundays” (1965), which aired as part of The Wednesday Play. That series found producer Tony Garnett working hand in glove with Loach developing a series of landmark plays, best described as telefilms, since the best of the Loach-directed entries contain much exterior shooting. (All the titles mentioned below were part of that series, until it became Play for Today.) 

“Sundays” is an anti-capital punishment piece that offers an intriguing look at the criminal milieu, but unfortunately the play has a hackneyed gimmick throughout, in which plot developments are sung in the style of old British pub songs. The hero is a simple-minded gent, whom we know is going to be entrapped by someone — it turns out to be two higher-ranking crooks with whom he shares a prison cell. 

The single best moment finds one of these crime chiefs saying about the government, “They’re worse than us.” (Thus, introducing a future Loach theme about working-class villains being bad but never as wildly corrupt as those who run society.) 

One of the best-known Loach teleplays is “Up the Junction” (1965), based on a book by Nell Dunn (who also scripted) about three working-class girlfriends and their ineffectual male companions. “Junction” is a fascinating counterpoint to the well-loved and much-lauded “kitchen sink” films of the Sixties, in that it presents both the “swinging” side of British youth (whenever the girls visit a local rock club), but it also shows the other side of its young heroines’ lives, replete with their factory jobs and houses that have no bath or inside toilet.

Watching Loach’s “kitchen sink” dramas, one is thrust right into the lives of the characters; his work in this regard has no “angry young man” antihero protagonist — some of his lead characters do have rebellious attitudes but there is none of the heroic bravado of Burton in Look Back in Anger or Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

I’ve noted before that one of the best “commentaries” on the kitchen sink films is the “SCTV” sketch “Look Back in a Bloody Rage,” where it is emphasized that “putting a bun” in a woman’s “oven” is the central theme of Sixties British cinema. (Leading to a punchline where it is inserted in the post-kitchen sink A Clockwork Orange). Getting pregnant is indeed a major plot point in Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving, A Taste of Honey, and even the non-sink Alfie

The aftermath of the abortion.
Loach flipped that clichĂ© on its head by including the trauma-of-pregnancy plot element into his films but also emphasizing that an unexpected pregnancy is only one of many different predicaments a working-class young woman can find herself in. “Junction” was criticized for its brutal depiction of a woman suffering great pain after having an illegal abortion — what was obviously being protested here was not the after-effects as portrayed, but the fact that a drama was reflecting the life-threatening chances that working class young people had to take to get themselves out of an all-too-common problem. 

One very interesting aspect of Dunn’s script for “Junction” is the repeated discussions of death that the characters engage in. (Reflecting their knowledge that it’s always around the corner for those not born of privilege.) The telefilm also has a great musical soundtrack comprised of songs performed live (including two Beatles songs sung by the girls), plus two songs by the Kinks, The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me,” Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and various tunes sung in the rock club by a local band. 

Two notes relating to “Junction”: Avoid the theatrical film made from the same material, which is quite dull compared to the telefilm. Also, for those wondering, the Squeeze song is set in the same town and features some of the elements that the girls undergo in the telefilm, but the finale of the story told by Difford and Tilbrook is different from Loach’s film. 

The next Loach teleplay, “Cathy Come Home” (1966), is one that garnered 12 million viewers on its first airing. (10 million had watched “Junction.”) It remains one of his most devastating films, as it presents a grueling downward spiral undergone by a lower-class young woman (Carol White, who had starred in “Junction”). All she and her boyfriend/soon-to-be-husband are guilty of is making some bad decisions, but they also are the victims of governmental edicts and endless amounts of red tape as they are forced to move from living in an apt to living with his mother, to squatting, to living in a mobile home, to residing in a temporary homeless shelter. 

As noted above, Loach was strongly influenced as a filmmaker by the Italian neo-realists and cites Bicycle Thieves as the film that transformed his view of cinema. “Cathy” functions very much like a neo-realist film, with raw, emotional moments occurring in what is otherwise a realistic depiction of modern society. As had been done in “Junction,” Loach and scripter Jeremy Sandford added here the voices of real people to whom the fictional events we’re watching have occurred, as well as other voices reciting the brutal facts that underlie the reality of the situations we’re watching. 

The devastating climax of "Cathy."
The extras were all real people in different real settings, and some of the supporting players were non-actors. Loach also began urging his actors to improvise their scenes around this time. The result is a film that has a very raw edge to it, but it is overwhelming in its effect, like the work of John Cassavetes and the filmmaker whom Loach is often compared to/linked with, Mike Leigh. 

Loach’s next telefilm was “In Two Minds” (1967), a sad, often disturbing account of a young woman’s depression and schizophrenia. The script by David Mercer finds us being told about the young woman by a psychiatrist and then several scenes in we find ourselves in the girl’s POV for a while, then out to a fly-on-the wall perspective, back to POV, etc. 

Sadly, this particular film’s realism seems fake at times, thanks to the not-great performances of some of the supporting cast, whose characters (most prominently the mother) lecture the young woman with not-exactly-subtle speeches. Regardless, Anna Cropper gives a dazzling performance in the lead role, and the end — in which, post-shock therapy, she is reduced to being a case study for a psych class — is truly wrenching. 

Poor Cow (1967) was Loach’s first theatrical feature. It stars Carol White (from “Junction” and “Cathy”) and is another Loach-Nell Dunn collaboration. Here the lead character is in prime “kitchen sink” territory but her journey does refreshingly include some very happy moments, in between her suffering in an abusive marriage and her becoming a model for a sleazy “camera club” of horny guys pretending to be high-fashion photogs. 

The film features intertitles by Dunn that read like dialogue. One reads “Never marry a thief,” which could be amended to “an abusive, very bad thief,” for her husband ends up in jail, which is a relief to every viewer of the film. Entering at that point is the guy who becomes the love of her life, her husband’s caper-mate, played by Terence Stamp (qualifying as Loach’s first work with a “movie star”). The relationship she has with Stamp is idyllic to the point of being unrealistic (he sits around his flat singing her “Colours” by Donovan) but again it is a welcome interlude in her life and in the film, and serves as an example of Loach depicting joy as well as sorrow. (The sorrow returns, because Stamp’s character is as bad a thief as the husband and is soon hauled off to jail.) 

At one point our heroine notes that she needs “different men for different moods.” While older viewers must’ve found this notion distasteful and immoral, younger viewers surely understood that she was the equivalent of the “angry young men” in other kitchen sink films. (Although a female making that kind of decision about her love life was roundly condemned by society at that time, and that is depicted in the film.) 

Returning to television, “The Golden Vision” (1968) is a pleasant but not major work by Loach that intermingles footage of players and coaches from a real football club with fictionalized accounts of a group of football fans who live their life around the games. Some amusing moments occur as a result of this single-mindedness. The best include a Best Man trying to speed up a wedding so he can get to a football match and another gent talking through a strip show about how great the players on his team are. 

One of the best-known of Loach’s early films is his second theatrical feature, Kes (1969). It has a slower pace than his telefilms (reinforced by fades to black between scenes) and is a perfect character study of a young boy’s alienation from his family and classmates. The plot, in short, revolves around him stealing a kestrel from a nest and training it as a falconer would.

The scenes in which the boy trains the bird are jubilant and convey a sense of liberation (although the bird is of course tied with a rope while flying). The home and school scenes have an air of imprisonment — although a football match run by an egomaniacal phys-ed coach is one of the best-ever depictions of why gym class is such a stone drag to any kid who is not enthralled by the notion of throwing or catching a ball. 

Loach utilizes no distancing techniques here — he places us directly in the boy’s life in both its joyous and godawful moments. There is a sense that the boy has no real future offered to him by his school or the job prospects his school promotes. Without giving away the unforgettable ending, one does come away believing that his experience with the kestrel will make him a different sort of adult than he was going to be. 

Although all of Loach’s work has a political aspect to it, in 1969 he turned specifically to the plight of the worker in the workplace with “The Big Flame.” The film is shot in the same docudrama style as “Junction” and “Cathy” but is devoted to an account of Liverpool dock workers who are trying to surmount the odds by turning a strike they’re having into an opportunity to run the shipping business on the dock. 

This particular account does not include much about the worker’s home lives — we see their beleaguered wives, but the focus is on the workers. What is most important, given Loach’s preceding telefilms and his future theatrical features, is the fact that he offers us a triumph (in which the workers indeed do a better job of running the docks) followed by a fall (in which the bosses separate the two heads of the workers from the rest of the group and chaos results).

Norman Rossington (Hard Day's Night)
 in "The Big Flame."
The last sequence is not unhappy, however, and reminds one of Chris Marker’s belief that the younger generations will take over the fight against the Establishment. We watch the message of the Liverpool dock workers being spread by a proselytizing worker with only a few listeners taking note of him in a nearly abandoned field. The last image is of three children listening intently to the man’s message. Perhaps the future will indeed offer better things?

The next telefilm, this time on Play for Today, a rescheduled version of The Wednesday Play, was another account of a worker’s strike, “The Rank and File” (1971). We are told in an opening title that this film is based on real events that took place in 1970 in Lancashire. Similar issues to those in “The Big Flame” are introduced, but here the focus includes the pressure put on the workers’ families by an ongoing strike and various negotiations with the bosses and the British Trade Union Congress, which one worker notes is “there to break strikes!” He’s not wrong. 

"The Rank and File."
(Note the sign.)
Loach used a more kinetic style of editing in the meetings scenes, producing an intense can’t-escape-it feeling for the negotiations, which are often dispiriting events in which the workers are handed empty promises by the boss. It is the Trade Union Congress that gives them the biggest screwing, though, and while the end isn’t as openly tragic as the one in “Big Flame,” there is still an amazing scene where one older worker near to retirement, who had participated in the strike (as had all the workers), is told his pension has been nullified and he’s being fired and rehired in a different position which offers him no pension at all. 

The only way for Loach to end the film was with the voice of one worker, seen over photos of the real workers who conducted a strike in 1970 and their children (again, those who can rise up in the future). “The only question is one of political leadership and the foundation of a party that will lead the workers to power…. I go along with Trotsky — that life is beautiful, that the future generation cleanses [us] of all the oppression, violence, and evil. And enjoy it to the full.” 

The last “first” item I will cover here is Family Life (1971), Loach’s theatrical remake of “In Two Minds.” It was a project that producer Tony Garnett really wanted to happen, since he felt that “Minds” didn’t cover the material well enough. The film is indeed a bleak one, as here there are only a handful of short scenes in which our schizophrenic antiheroine (Sandy Ratcliff) is happy. (She is at least given a boyfriend in this version of events, but he is not able to save her.) 

The film is very austere and was not a financial success. It did, however, allow Loach to work with non-professional actors yet again and to encourage them to improvise in their role. The main “villain,” the girl’s mother, was in fact played by a non-pro who seemingly was quite adept at lecturing her about the way kids act “these days.” 

Young Ken.
The most interesting thing about the picture is that it doesn’t work quite as well when it introduces new material into the story. However, when it settles in its third act into redoing the events from the end of “Two Minds,” it is riveting and disturbing to watch. 

Loach directed more than two dozen fiction features and shorts, and several documentaries (and even political party broadcasts) in the 52 years between Family Life and The Old Oak (which debuted in the U.K. in 2023). We can only wish him a mellow retirement (he’s 87) and, like the children in his strike telefilms (and Old Oak), continue to learn from his work as time passes.