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Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach Britain 2016

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2016

ken-loach-001-with-camera-1920x1080-00m-ors

The film was produced by Sweet Sixteen films and funded by the BBC. It involved Loach’s regular collaborators producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty. For a change Ken Loach appears in front of the camera rather than behind it. One strong features of the film is Ken’s explanations and comments, always interesting, often provocative. There are also a number of excerpts from a long interview with Tony Garnett, Ken’s collaborator and a major influence on the filmmaker. Garnett is given the space to talk at some length on Loach and his work and his comments are interesting and pertinent. Much of the film was shot during the filming of Ken’s new film, the winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake. There is a certain amount of biography but the film’s main focus is the television and film work directed [and occasionally produced] by Loach. The coverage is fairly comprehensive, from Ken’s early days in BBC television to the recent series of films that have appeared almost annually in this century.

Whilst Ken Loach shoots his film chronologically, this study uses a varied time frame. There are also edits from filmed material like interviews to location footage. Some of this works well, as with the cut from the account of the suppression of Perdition to fog shrouded streets. However, some of it slightly puzzled me. Why do the team feature Ken’s early work as an theatre actor when we had reach the films of the late 1990s?

The film does address the controversial aspects of Ken’s films. There are extended discussions of a number of cause celebre’s. There is Cathy Come Home (1966) and, interestingly, there are excerpts from a television ‘balancing’ discussion chaired by Cliff Michelmore. There is discussion of Up the Junction and Nell Dunn is one of the interesting voices at this point. There are also features on the television films Rank and File and [particularly] The Big Flame (1969). One does get a sense of both the radicalism of these films and the controversy that they sparked. However, Days of Hope [equally important] is only treated briefly. There is also time spent on Ken’s early film work, especially Kes and Poor Cow. The problems in the early 1980s with television censorship over Questions of Leadership and Which Side are you On? get proper space. And it was refreshing to hear Melvyn Bragg owning up to the actual factors in the suppression of the latter, rather than the euphemisms that were trotted out at the time. There is a particular focus on the suppression of the stage production Perdition (1987) at the Royal Court. The abuse of the term anti-semitic at the time shows that not everything has changed over the intervening years. There is a well judged set of comments on this by Gabriel Byrne. Also welcome at this point in the film are several short clips of Jim Allen, such an important collaborator with Loach and a major writing voice for film and television of the period.

There are quite a lot of other voices in the film. There are only brief comments included from Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty, without whom Ken’s recent output would not have appeared. At times some of these voices felt rather like the ‘talking heads’ found on television. There are some interviews with Loach’s family members, but they are cut with film extracts and do not get the attention they deserve. I felt that the television style was apparent in other ways, so that there is a tendency to have voices overlapping film extracts, but not always with any clear connection. And when we come to the chain of films, starting with Hidden Agenda in 1991, there is not the same depth of discussion. Some of the films sequences felt more like trailers than studies: this is true of the really important Land and Freedom (1995).

Land and Freedom

Land and Freedom

The latter relates to an omission in the film. Derek Malcolm appears briefly at one point and comments how Ken Loach enjoys a greater appreciation in continental Europe than in the UK. But this is not explored. There are several passages where the film includes footage of political events, such as the accession of Maggie Thatcher as Prime Minister. But there is not really an equivalent treatment of the European dimension, with the exception of the events in Paris in May 1968. Whilst Ken’s films are distinctly British there is also an important European dimension, witness that his major Cannes Awards have been for films with that focus.

We do see/hear a mention of the Czech ‘new wave’, when Chris Menges is interviewed. There are also clips from A Blonde in Love / Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965). The distinctive style of this film is well versed as is the influence on Loach. He selected a clip from the above film as his contribution to the BBC’s celebration of the centenary year of 1995. However, there are other influences which are overlooked. Notable would be the influence of a long tradition for social realism and actuality filming in the British Film Industry. Apart from the documentary influence there are filmmaker like the Boulting Brothers or Alberto Cavalcanti in the 1940s and 1950s. These had an influence on British television. Garnett and Loach do comment on the ‘new wave’ in television in the 1960s, but there was much and varied experimentation at the BBC and at ITV in that decade. There is an interesting contrast to be drawn between Loach and  another filmmakers at the BBC [for a very short time]  Peter Watkins.

Equally this film is low on the form and style of Loach’s work. There is the reference to his working chronologically, and a number of actors/performers comment on his approach to their work. The film is scripted by Paul Laverty, though it is not clear how much his work has been changed. Certainly his screenplays allow for lengthy and often discursive sequences, where as this film is long on editing, montages and cross-cutting. And there is no mention of the emphasis that Loach places on the script, a point he has made in several earlier interviews. Then there are the cinematic techniques, the tendency to the long shot and the long take: the tendency to linger on a character or setting after the overt plot significance has passed.

In fact one oddity is that this film is shot in 2.39:1 [some screens will show 2.35:1]. No Loach film has used this ratio. His early films were in television’s 4:3, i.e. 1.37:1. Some of are in 1.66:1 and more recently in 1.85:1. A friend thought that the production picked 2.35:1 because it seemed more cinematic. This however, does not apply to the sequences from Loach ‘s own films. They are uniformly cropped. Sometimes this is more noticeable than others: heads only half seen and similar problems. There is one ironic moment when Garnett comments about some television footage and a grandiose ministerial room, which cannot be seen because the top of the frame is gone. Apart from the mistreatment of film footage this is a grave disservice to the many talented cinematographer who have worked with Ken Loach: Tony Imi, Chris Menges, Barry Ackroyd, to name only those who worked with him a on number of films. Roger Chapman’s cinematography for Versus:… is very good, with some striking shots at times, but the widescreen frame seems anomalous.

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This documentary is actually weak on the whole collaborative form of Loach’s filmmaking. The approach is to treat Ken as an ‘auteur’. I feel this is a misnomer. He is really a metteur en scène, though unfortunately that word has acquired a value judgement since its use by Cahier du cinéma. But it applies in the sense that whilst there are recognisable themes and a familiar style in his films, this develops out of the collaboration. Jim Allen and Paul Laverty in particular have an immense input through their writing. Tony Garnett was mentor, both in terms of drama and in terms of politics. And cinematographers, in particular Chris Menges, contributed to the style that has become a hall mark. There is little from Rebecca O’Brien, his long-time producer. We only see her in the footage of the production of I, Daniel Blake: and most of this looks more like a ‘making of…’ than contributing to a profile.

The BBFC have given the film a 12A with a note regarding ‘infrequent strong language’. My sensitivities may be weakened but all I noted was a final ‘bastards’ from Ken. Given the illegitimacy of the whole political class this seems to me an apt comment. Another slight oddity is a short interview with Alan Parker in which he seems to confuse The Wild One (1953) with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). You would have expected the filmmakers to give him a repeat take. And one publicity listing gave Robert Carlyle as ‘himself’ when he only appears in a clips from Riff Raff (19921) and Carla’s Song (1996).

 

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