‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’ – A Shabby Appropriationist Take on a Revolutionary Artist
Wittgenstion said of his Tractatus that what was important about it was not what it said, but what it showed. This is certainly so of Louise Osmond’s cosy movie. See here@
It’s a very English work in:
Its avoidance of theory as if of something indecent;
Its swamping of the political in streams of familial gossippy chitterchater;
Its sidelining of Loach’s revolutionary message in favor of cosy portrayals of the suffering poor.
A great deal of Versus is taken up with chats with friends and colleagues of the kind you get in the ‘extras’ on DVD edns. of movies. No-one (including Loach) was asked as to just what his politics are or where they came from. There was no mention of books or movies that had influenced him. He lived through a period when anyone concerned with the political aesthetics of moviemaking must have encountered such issues as the criticism of realism, the question of montage, how a movie constructs its own viewers. From this chatty biography no-one would have gathered such. It showed no more concern with film theory than the stereotypical enthusiast showing his holiday movies to friends.
Was Loach involved with any political groups? If so, which, and why? Zilch on this. A section of Versus was about the controversial play Perdition, written by Jim Allen, directed by Loach. This dealt with the explosive issued of alleged support for Zionism by the Third Reich (once again being raised by Ken Livingstone); one might have thought that there would be some serious discussion of this issue and the question of Left anti-semitism. There was none whatsoever.
But it was in its shameful travesty of Loach’s oeuvre that this documentary really showed its rottenness. The focus was totes on Loach’s (very fine) depictions of ways in which the poor and vulnerable have been screwed (Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow, Kes, I Daniel Blake); his revolutionary movies were dealt with in a manner so cursory as to be contemptuous.
In 1969 the BBC screened The Big Flame – a near-future political fiction which shows the Liverpool Docks occupied by workers, the army been called in and the occupation’s leaders imprisoned after a show-trial. The sections shown were mainly of the army’s arrival and the trial. There was little depiction of the functioning of the dockland soviet.
In 1975 he made a major TV mini-series Days of Hope. This starts with a young man signing up in the Imperialist War, shows the army being used against strikers and ends with the General Strike and its betrayal by the TUC leadership. This received a slot of max 15 seconds, the name of the series was flashed up for such a brief period (1 sec or so) that unless one was prepared for it by the clip on screen it would have been missed.
The conformist character of this documentary was most vilely shown in its treatment of his great work Land and Freedom (1995). Loosely based on Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia it shows a young man in Liverpool watching a movie at a CPGB meeting and travelling to Spain to defend the revolution. He soon learns that as well as the Francoists the Spanish workers and peasants have the Communist Party as their enemy. This movie has a long, really wonderful and moving, scene when the residents of a liberated village discuss whether to go with the CP’s line of putting the project of land redistribution on hold and defeating the fascists; or follow the anarchist/trotskyist position that the social revolution and the crushing of fascism are inseparable. What makes the scene so remarkable is that it is a protracted, passionate, realistic political discussion. It makes you realise that what is so striking is the absence of anything like it in just about any other movie. None of this gets any mention. Land and Freedom is summed-up and dismissed with the banal remark that it’s about ‘the fight against fascism’ – precisely the kind of Popular Frontism which the movie excoriates.
Versus is an early move in the predictable project of the Brit elite and its hacks of domesticating Loach. He is been turned into a lovable, eccentric rebel of the kind so acceptable to the poshboys. This documentary is a piece of propaganda whose purpose is to remember him as the maker of touching portrayals of the downtrodden poor (who, of course will ‘always be with us’). This kind of teary sentimentalism is entirely acceptable to the elite. What they do not want is constructions of ‘the poor’ collectively taking action to end poverty by dispossessing the exploiters and building a new order.
A few weeks after screening this, the Oxford Brookes Documentary Film Society will be showing Loach’s iconic tearjerker Cathy Come Home. Another move in the cosying of Loach’s work. Another chance for the bleeding-hearts to wank off on pitying the vulnerable.