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October 2004, Week 2


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Paul Ward <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 11 Oct 2004 14:35:03 +0100
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This thread has raised some interesting points about how (and to what extent) we understand and 'believe' what we see on-screen. Leo's 'fiction, pure and simple' comment in one of his previous posts would've made me splutter more if it had not been one of his statements - as other respondents have pointed out, he often deals in large rhetorical flourishes that don't add up to much. (That, and detailed info on media technology, for which we should give thanks!). I'm not going to go too far off-topic here, but I think there are some key things still to be discussed.

Regarding Loach, I am with the people who have more recently stated that his is an important body of work. To merely dismiss him as a 'propagandist' is ridiculous - his film (and TV) work is consistently *argued* from a specific position (and, incidentally, is a prime example of a tradition of British TV/film drama). If you disagree with what he (or any other filmmaker) says then you need to come up with counter-arguments rather than fatuous abuse. And this is a key point here, I suppose: both fiction films and documentaries can represent a certain state of affairs to their audience, but will always do so from a specific perspective. In the case of Loach, he makes no secret of the fact that he is on a particular side. This is not a sign of 'fiction', however, but something that any viewer should recognise as (for want of a better term) a point of view.

Loach does, of course, deal in 'fiction' in the sense that he tells stories that have 'made up' characters (even though they may be based on real people in many cases). The problem then is the age-old dilemma of trying to tease out the differences between (and relative weight given to) 'drama' and 'documentary' in the drama-doc or docu-drama coupling. This is complicated by his consistent use of a naturalistic shooting style (and the naturalism of the scripts, more of which in a moment). It is further complicated when the subject matter is seemingly more 'docu' than 'drama'. 'The Navigators' clearly deals with the issues of worker and passenger safety on the railways, post-privatisation. What I see in this film is not some loony leftie nostalgia for a bygone age, but rather an anger that the railways could go from being a nationally-owned/taxpayer-funded form of transport, to a privately-owned/taxpayer-funded form of transport. As Leo points out, the service is still pretty poor, but now it is taxpayer-funded so that companies can profit (and amazingly they do profit: surely the whole point of a 'free market' philosophy is that if you cannot survive in the market, then you go to the wall . . . . what happens in the rail industry is that companies provide a substandard service, but still make profits because they are pocketing billions from the taxpayer). All of this is the context in which a film like 'The Navigators' needs to be seen and discussed (so, some of the preceding 'off-topic' detail is relevant to a Screen-L discussion).

Leo has also heaped opprobrium on Loach (a number of times) for being 'affluent', as if this (if indeed it is true) would disqualify him from making films about the working class. I think Marx and Engels demonstrated that you could be from a middle-class background and still come to some understanding of the structure and inequalities of a class society. It's called having a class consciousness. The nonsensical logic appears to be that Loach comes from a certain background, this differs from the milieu he is depicting, therefore his view of that milieu is discredited. This is flawed for a number of reasons. First of all, I'd take issue with the idea that Loach is 'affluent'. I've no idea what he earns, I'm sure he is comfortable and makes a living doing what he does, but the bandying around of 'affluent' in this context is clearly meant to imply that he is 'rich' and, by implication, has made himself rich on the back of the honest workers whose circumstances he so inaccurately represents. Secondly, Loach's background is that of a grammar school-educated son of an electrician. He went to Oxford on a scholarship. Hardly the Marquis of Nuneaton, really.

The other thing that is being overlooked here is Loach's fellow workers, the scriptwriters in particular. Their contribution has been ignored, as if Loach is solely responsible for the films and programmes in question. Bill Jesse, for example, wrote the script for 'Riff Raff' (1990). He had worked for years in the building industry, and his script shows a clear knowledge of how de-regulation and rule-bending by construction companies leads to a demoralised and sometimes simply dead workforce. (Before Leo reaches for his Whittaker's Almanac, to quote offical figures that prove construction workers are more safe than I am typing this, we should all note that a significant number of workers are 'off the record' for all sorts of reasons, and this is likely to skew the figures, how many accidents are reported etc.). Similarly, Rob Dawber, who wrote the script for 'The Navigators', had worked on the railways for eighteen years, through the period when they were privatised. The script reflects his experiences and knowledge of the industry and the changes it went through. To continually point to this film as if it is just Loach's (or, more worryingly, that Loach has simply conjured it out of his fevered imagination, and that it has no basis in reality at all) is an insult to Dawber. This is not some demented propaganda, but the story of some radical changes to a key section of British society, a story that has been written by someone who knows far more about the subject matter than anyone who is contributing to this discussion, including myself. The fact that it tells that story from a particular perspective is understandable and, I might add, unavoidable. Mind you, Rob Dawber did write the script after being made compulsorily redundant (after agreement from the employers that all redundancies would be voluntary) and while suffering from work-induced mesothelioma (the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos). A court case proved that his illness could have been prevented had the rail companies spent a few quid on safe removal/better safety for the people being exposed. So, he probably made it all up (fiction, pure and simple!) to get back at them. We could ask him, but he died back in 2001, of mesothelioma-related illness.

Paul Ward
Film and TV
Brunel University

-----Original Message-----
From: Film and TV Studies Discussion List on behalf of rgoff
Sent: Thu 07/10/2004 5:52 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: [SCREEN-L] Response to Dr. E

Dr. Enticknap’s long response to my brief critique of one of his previous
posts provides even more examples of the rhetoric that provoked my critique in
the first place. This list is no place to debate the problems with British
railways nor the environmental viability of various forms of transportation.
And Enticknap’s erudition in these areas far exceeds my own. I do indeed live
in Rhode Island—I have been in the U.S. since the 1980s as a refugee from
Thatcherism. It is some years since I traveled by train in Britain and I’m
sure Dr. E’s criticisms are based on real experiences—but don’t these recent
criticisms then confirm the ills of privatization? I am, however, more
concerned with his continuing vilification of Ken Loach.

I tried to point out something about the content of this director’s film, The
Navigators as I’m not sure Dr. E has even seen it. He seems to think it is
some kind of eulogy to “a golden age of rail travel” instead of a realistic
portrayal of the lives of rail workers. Dr. E expresses little interest in
what the film is about. Instead, he seems more concerned about the expense
of rail travel and either minimizes the dangers Loach is so concerned about or
blames the workers for ignoring safety regulations. Loach’s film attempts to
show the wider context of how workers take risks or are put at risk. The
Navigators is a minor film in his admirable body of work but it is worth
seeing. I thought this was worth pointing out to people on the list. I'm
concerned that no one has so far challenged Dr. E's use of the tired clichés
of the British right e.g., “his(Loach) vision of a Pol Pot-style socialist
utopia” (one has even endorsed this rhetorical overkill--see Ben Halligan’s
recent post). I’m now beginning to question whether I’m on the right list--or
am I on a RIGHT WING list? I also can’t quite believe that Dr. E actually
called me “a Ken Loach, loony leftie, stuck in the '70s myth” !!!

I should point out that I DON’T accept what I “see on the screen as gospel.
Moreover, if I find Loach’s arguments more compelling than those of Dr. E do
I deserve to be labeled as a left wing fanatic? I don’t really care what Dr.
Enticknap calls me but I believe the films of Ken Loach are an important body
of work—to be discussed, criticized and argued about (like other serious works
of film art). I hate to see this worthy filmmaker demonized in this way.

Robert Goff

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