Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A working-class dream dies and is replaced by another.

The miners’ strike of 1984 is defeated. Coal miners and mining – an occupation, a community, a world and its meanings – disappear. Margaret Thatcher crushes the militant centre of British working-class life and politics, and changes the face of Northern England. The pits empty out; men are made redundant. The jobs will not come back. Something flowers, though, in the midst of this defeat. A boy from a family of striking miners begins to dance. He achieves his dream against his family, his community, the childhood he’s been given, and the boundaries within which he has been taught to leash his talent. He leaves the dying for the new; he becomes a professional ballet dancer. This is the story told by Stephen Daldry’s 1997 runaway blockbuster, Billy Elliot.

There is a plausible hard-left way of looking at this. Thatcherism ushers in a new world. The textures and horizons of working-class solidarity, and also of a whole way of life, are eliminated, and replaced by individual achievement. The boy in the film accomplishes his dream in a manner worthy of Hollywood. The space that once belonged to working-class solidarity is emptied out, and all that can replace it is the celebration of individual success. Millions fail, but there is a boy who succeeds, who dances, who wins against the odds. And this personal success redeems the bitter experiences of his community, personal and collective failure and defeat. Somehow things are put right. The miners lose the strike, their work and the shape of their lives, but it’s all right because a boy dances. This is how a hard, unblinkered leftist might well see the film.

And none of this is untrue. Billy Elliot does offer us such apparently mawkish consolations, and it sentimentalizes and softens defeat. As an evocation of a particular moment in recent British history, it is in many ways false. It is a fantasy of individual accomplishment ultimately redeeming collective defeat. But is this sentimental evocation of a lost working-class world, then, really a disguised celebration of the triumph of capitalism, an apologia for Thatcherism? There’s more depth to the film’s portrait of a changing Britain than this. The fable of a working-class boy who wants and manages to escape his world is more complex than it might appear at first. To understand this, we need to go back to an earlier film, made years before Thatcher murdered coal mining and miners, in an era when that working-class life was too real to be sentimentalized into fantasy.

In Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), Billy, a boy from a mining family befriends a kestrel, masters it, teaches it to fly back to him and perch on his wrist. For a brief while, assisted by a caring schoolteacher, Billy’s pleasures in the bird take wing, he discovers there can be more to life than the mining pit he’s destined for. But soon his brother, brutal and brutalized, kills the bird to punish the boy for a small misdemeanour, and this destroys the dream. The oppressions of a mining town’s family and community life, which the boy’s relationship with the bird symbolized an escape from, return, reinforced and inescapable. Class persists, and people are fixed in it through the compulsion to labour, to know their place and stay there.

People in the village are not necessarily bad, but not necessarily good either. They have no time to love one another, to cherish one another’s dreams and desires. Work is too grinding, school prematurely hardens boys of Billy’s age into the men they must become. Softness is despised, and life has to go on but is rarely happy. One moves from tedium to tedium, frustration to frustration, defeat to defeat, and little moments of tenderness and hope – like Billy proudly bearing the kestrel on his wrist – are easily ground to dust, leaving no trace. The film ends with the boy sobbing, controlling his tears, and burying his beloved bird. ‘Not going down t’pit’, he yells defiantly at his brother at the start of the film, but he almost certainly will, and he’ll stay there through his life. This, of course, is the Ken Loach of Cathy Come Home, grimly social-realist, deliberately eschewing dramatic resolution and climaxes that square the circle. We are offered neither the dramatic consolations of hope, nor those of despair, and we are denied also the satisfaction of catharsis.

In the late 1960s, when Loach made the film, there was virtually no other life imaginable for a young boy brought up in that time, in that community, despite the contemporary, and anodyne, reassurances of general social dynamism and class mobility. The working class that Loach loves and feels for as a socialist can also be, as he recognizes and shows us, a space of immense cruelty, heartlessness and humdrum routine. Contra left-wing certitudes, it is not a necessary space of revolutionary upheaval and transformation. It is, rather, a world where people in working-class communities subdue their dreams and transgressions, perform and repeat the social roles ascribed to them. The thankless, repetitive chores of their labouring existence circumscribe, limit, and brutalize them. Loach’s late-sixties style is founded on a political aesthetic where cinema performs the function of social criticism with sober senses, and precludes the illusory completeness – and nobility – of drama.

Death confers the finitude that casts life into a whole, unchangeable pattern, and memory transforms lived life into the structures of drama. Three decades on, Stephen Daldry makes Billy Elliot, and the times have changed. Nostalgia is the founding aesthetic now, and the light of a generous, but resigned, posterity glows upon the working class that once eked out its existence in the pits. Daldry quite evidently glances backward at Loach; his eponymous hero shares a name with the older director’s creation. Very little remains of the world of the heavy-drinking, unionized male miner that Loach castigated. It was a life that Thatcher snuffed out in 1984. On the other hand, the dream of escape has been realized – ironically for most, in the form of a total destruction of livelihood and community; happily for a few, in the form of the individual talents and slices of good fortune that pull them into a new existence. As a consequence, both – the world of the mining community and the world of the dreaming boy – can be retrospectively romanticized. The miners are reasonably gentrified, clean and well dressed and well fed. Their poverty and despair are invoked but never convincingly shown, their need is never shown, and nothing ever leads to real dehumanization. People are basically tender towards one another. They sacrifice themselves for their loved ones, but the sacrifice is never truly made, for no one is truly destroyed. Scabs are chastised, but not ostracized or cruelly humiliated, by their striking workmates. And then there’s the boy who wants to dance, who pursues his dream and fulfils it, and in some measure redeems the failed strike. This redemption is conveyed poetically in the film: the last, soaring moment, the aging father, once so hard and proud, now soft and wobbling with joy as his son leaps into the stage’s shimmer, to the notes of Swan Lake.

The misery and the suffering have been real, but art is ultimately redemptive. The workers are dead, they are redundant, society has no use for them – they live through their children, the generation that redeems their failure, not through the accomplishment of the collective dream that they once shared, but through its displacement on to the terrain of individual talent and genius. There is no such thing as society, as Thatcher once famously declared.

But there’s more depth to the film. Its sympathy with the striking miners is serious. If the movie describes, at some level, the success of Thatcherism, it nevertheless celebrates, and pays homage in a number of ways, to the struggle against it. And there is a tension between the two motifs in the film – the boy’s struggle to break free of his world and that world’s struggle against its annihilator, capitalism.

In one scene, the boy reads out a letter from his mother, written to him while she way dying, to his ballet teacher. It says, in brief: Billy, I’m proud of you, be what you are, live your dream, remember that this is what I want for you. It is, for me, a deeply unsatisfying scene. It’s an effective tearjerker – my eyes filled up – but it’s too easy, kitsch, Hollywoodish, it takes too little effort to produce a scene like that. It’s been done all too many times before, if usually with much less sensitivity. But it does effectively describe the boy’s dream, the content of it, its relationship to his life, his family, his world. He wants a way out of the certainties and limits of a coal miner’s life. When forbidden to dance by his father, he kicks strike posters in anger (while in the background T. Rex’s Children of the Revolution blares). He lashes out at the chains that bind him to his class and prevent him from moving away – and up. And in the process, he lashes out at the solidarity that gives working-class identity political meaning, because this is an identity and a politics that belittles and excludes his desires and dreams.

Another moment describes this working-class existence in different terms. Billy’s father decides to scab to pay for his son’s dance education. Here the choice is a bitter one, between his duty to his comrades and to shared working-class life, and on the other hand to his son and to the future. Once again the resolution is perhaps too easy: he leaves off scabbing, and is welcomed back into the fold, sobbing in his elder son’s arms. Workers accepting a strayed comrade back so easily? No blood spilt? This is far too easy. A strike can be just but unkind, and the miners’ strike was brutal on all sides. And Billy’s future is nevertheless financed; the whole mining village pitches in for his benefit, which, again, is less than plausible. But it’s a moving moment all the same – the father cannot scab, even for his son – but his decision is not a tragic and hopeless one, he doesn’t have to compromise the principles he has lived by all his life to help his son up the ladder. When push comes to shove, he finds a way of saving his son from the bleakness of his own future, and does this without betraying his comrades.

And then, of course, redemption happens – Billy makes it to the Royal Ballet School, and becomes a great dancer. This is rose-tinted fantasy. But it is also moving, and it works. It’s fantasy, but a fantasy worthy of the history it explores. And after all, it explores only one human possibility within the historical tragedy of the miners’ strike, which may be softened but is never belittled or diminished in scale. The film ends, of course, on the crescendo thrill of Billy dancing to Swan Lake, a triumphant affirmation of the worth he wrested in defiance of his upbringing. But it is preceded by a juxtaposition, in successive frames, of images that sit more ambiguously beside this celebratory finale. Billy’s bus, headed to London, tearing him away from the dying world of the miners. Billy’s brother yelling to the boy that he loves him, words lost to Billy, who cannot hear them through the windowpane his nose is pressed against. And finally, a joyless and dark return to work – the strikers, Billy’s father and brother among them – are pressed against each other like sardines in a tin, their headlamps knocking against each other, as the cage they’re locked in pushes them down, once again, into the heart of the earth, a mine that will soon be closed.

Billy realizes his dream, and asserts his claim upon the world in a way his father could never have done. But the horizons of his talent are not all that change in the course of the film. Much more changes, in at least one major life-world. Pre-adolescent boys tentatively explore sexualities that are not straight, and enter professions that their straight male worlds forbid. Billy is not a ‘poof’, but his closest friend, Michael, is. Michael eventually ends up in London, a miner’s child with a lover who is both black and gay, and they sit, at the movie’s close, beside the quintessentially male militant working-class father and son to watch Billy perform on stage. During their childhood, Michael briefly, embarrassedly kisses Billy, and is rebuffed, but not cruelly. And Billy comes to accept Michael for what he is, and – briefly, embarrassedly - returns the kiss towards the end of the movie, as he leaves for London. Men and their sons wear women’s clothes in private. Through ballet, a boy who’s being pressed into boxing discovers a new body and a new way of taking pleasure in it. Billy becomes androgynous through his dance, and his father and brother, contemptuous of poofs and wankers and ballet-dancing men, come to not only accept but also respect him for what he is. Lives, identities and relationships change as an old order ends.

The strike ended in tragedy, in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods, in despair and the apparently permanent victory of Thatcher and the social injustice she embodied and celebrated. Nothing can possibly redeem all this. But still, flowers did bloom in the desert. Within a year, miners were doing the unthinkable, and leading gay parades. At the May Day demonstration in London this year, I personally witnessed the wider historical meaning of this: a rally for workers was led and punctuated by troupes of gay and lesbian activists. And as same-sex couples held hands and kissed and danced, an old working-class man, bent and wizened, grinned toothlessly at me and made a V-sign. Poofs and dykes were no longer the object of militant workers’ hatred. And in the world of cinematic fantasy, Billy danced on stage, and Michael took a gay lover. These redemptions do not outweigh or even balance the tragedy of the strike’s defeat. But neither are they unreal or unworthy.

Billy in Kes reminds those of us who value the rights and hopes of labour that the world of the worker is not pretty or fair or kind, that it is also a world where the weak, marginalized and dissident get screwed over and are thrust into unwanted lives and roles. Billy in Billy Elliot reminds us that a miner’s son can live his dream, and if doing so means copping out of a worker’s existence, it also means work, it also means pain, and it can produce beauty. The final moments of the film can move one to tears. The father, now older and weaker, stumbles through London – an unfamiliar, dizzying world to one who’s never left Durham in his life. Bemused by it all, dragged on by an impatient elder son, he stumbles to an aisle seat at the ballet, and his old head nods and his old eyes shine with tears and rapture as, on stage, his son explodes into music, motion and magic. Kes offers us a vocabulary of grim realism, Billy Elliot one of redemptive fantasy. Both films are recognizably enough made from the Left, though in different registers. Both films challenge some of the Left’s holy cows. That is reason enough to value them both.


remains of the desi said...

wow. excellent post. wish you were here

Anonymous said...

hey, ( this is not connected to your piece - which i enjoyed - ) The email id I was correspoding to ( some bhochka_82yahoo .co.uk thing) they tell me doesn't exist !Is this a conspiracy? Is yahoo going the HSBC way? Are you ok ay? You must have guessed by now - who this is - so write to her !! Soon!

scribbles said...

sorry anonymous, can't figure out and i'm intrigued...who is this??? give me more hints if you want to persist in being elusive...but i've racked my brains and there are too many possibilities :-). so write in with further clues. Soon!

Murmur said...

hahahaha! scribbles elusive nature has met it's match with anonymous! very nice anon.