Kes (United Kingdom, 1969, Ken Loach)
Having just watched 12 Godard films in a row, it was quite a queer sensation to look at a Loach. Oddly enough, at first I felt that the Englishman was abnormally naturalistic, prosaically true to life when he should be jump cutting my head off and blasting my face with intertitles. It didn't take too long, however, before I was drawn into the mundane facts of the matter, in all their power. (Mind you, I could have used subtitles, so thick did I find the dialect.)
KES is a bloody good movie. It's impressive how fully formed Loach was early on. I'm not familiar enough with his work to say, but I suspect that there is little absent from KES that appears in his subsequent output. The performances he draws from unknown "actors" are remarkably affecting. * These he presents with an unflinching bare-knuckle candor, in bare-bones proletarian environments, not one spoonful of fairy-tale frosting to be had. It takes a strong back to carry the weight of what Loach loads on the film-goer. Nothing fancy. Just very, very sad facts.
What a heartbreaking story. On the other hand, as Frank Zappa sings: "Broken hearts are for assholes." If a person's heart is broken by the tragedy of KES, that person is probably missing the point. There was never any hope. Brief moments of human contact not brutal for a change. Flickers of compassion that allow folks to drop their guard for an interval. But never any actual optimism, a sense that progress is being made, that's there a decent chance for happiness. No. It's tough going all the way and plays out accordingly. This is, of course, to the credit of the film and I presume the novel upon which it is based.
It is because Loach so respects the working-class lives he presents that he is able to show the complexity of simple people. The protagonist of KES is terribly sympathetic. He proves to be more intelligent that anyone suspected but even more, he finds within himself an ability to nurture and honor another living being without ever having been so nurtured and honored himself. Yet the isolation he experiences is not simply due to the cruelty of others. The lad is intellectually and socially dim-witted to the point of being off-putting. And everyone around him is just as much a person whom we can fault and forgive.
With this in mind, the portrayal of the British educational system and by extension the whole welfare state is clearly critical in the film, but not dogmatically. The teachers and the occupational case worker are not unreasonable, not just sadists out to inflict punishment and humiliation. Those of us who work as teachers today would do well to be honest with ourselves when speculating how we might have conducted ourselves in this vocation back in 1969, out in some English county organized around a mine.
* FROM WIKI: Loach makes great efforts to help the actors express themselves naturally and honestly. He believes that shooting in order, from first scene to last, helps the actors to find a response to their circumstances. Many actors in his films are often not given the full script at the beginning of a shoot, but rather they experience the story just as a fictional character might do. He will often give actors their scenes a couple of days in advance so they can learn their lines, but they still won't know what comes after that. If a scene involves shock or surprise for a character, the actor might not know what is about to happen. In Kes the boy actor, discovering the dead bird at the end, believed Loach had killed the bird, which he had become fond of during the filming (the crew used a dead bird found elsewhere). What is more, in the scene where Mr Gryce is searching the schoolboys, the small first year holding everybody else's cigarettes was under the impression that he was to give the headmaster a note and leave the office. Subsequently, when he is searched and found to be "a right little cigarette factory", he is caned alongside the other boys; hence, his look of shock and tears of pain are real.
Monica believes this is exploitative. I'm thinking about it. Tarkovsky was really tough on those horses in Rublev too...
As many socially conscious filmmakers had before him--perhaps, most famously, Sidney Lumet in America--Ken Loach got his start in television, honing his craft in this medium at a time when many programs were broadcast live, requiring the cast and crew to be particularly well-prepared and capable. This allowed Loach to ply his trade on the run, and develop skills that would transfer well to the sort of low budget film-making that soon would be his future.
Enter Kes, the his second feature film, is an adaptation of Barry Hines' novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, wherein Hines recounts the medieval practice of attributing categories of birds to human social classes. So, emperors should own eagles, peregrine falcons are for princes and kestrels are for knaves, the working classes.
Clearly in Kes we are meant to see that the film's protagonist, a plucky and appealing Yorkshire teenager named Billy (David Bradley gives a remarkably sincere and convincingly naturalistic performance), is the bird that he captures and trains. Like the kestrel, Billy is constantly being manipulated, trained, herded, and eventually, it is implied, broken by the system that he bucks so hard against. Also, like the bird, Billy does have (a very few) people in his life who have his best interests at heart, even if they are too limited or flawed to make his life measurably better. And, in an interesting mirroring effect, those involved in the "training" of the boy, such as his teachers (an empathetic Colin Welland, who is the only trained actor in the cast, and bullying Brian Glover are terrific in very different roles), his principal (an at his wit's end Bob Bowes, in an excellent cameo), his employer and even even the employment counselor, are much like Billy themselves. That is, they are generally speaking well-intentioned, yet ultimately ill-equipped for the job.
Billy is a loner, partly due to familial circumstance, which sees him often left to his own devices by his carousing mother (Lynne Perrie) and brutish brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher), and partly due to his own social ineptitude, which leads to predictable scenes of bullying by a larger, fierce classmate. Billy may gain our respect by refusing to back down, but the boy is, despite his pluck, as in most matters, in well over his head. The fight between the two ends, symbolically and appropriately, with the two wrestling on a huge pile of coal, something that will figure large in each boy's future, it would seem.
Throughout, Billy's central source of joy, of escape is in this relationship with the bird. He doesn't see larger patterns, a macro-cosmic metaphor at play. He is simply at play, being a kid, indulging a passion. The rest of the time, Billy is simply trying to survive the attempts of the adult world and its systems of control to force him into the life everyone in Yorkshire is born for, life in The Pits.
Yet, we are trained by conventional cinema to hope that the boy will find an escape hatch, an elevator to the stars that will allow him to escape the inevitable plunge into mines. After all, Billy is an appealing figure, a tough little terrier who refuses to buckle under any sort of pressure, a kid with a passion, and the will (if not the intelligence) to see things through. And therein lies the grim truth of Kes. While we want to cheer for Billy, the film makes it plain that, despite his many positive attributes, he simply does not have the wit or wisdom to rise above the tremendous limitations of his circumstance. When Billy is ultimately betrayed not by an agent of the system that has been trying with only moderate effectiveness to batter and bully him into submission, but by his own brother, we see just what a bleak world it is when you betray and are betrayed by your own kith and kin.
The film's naturalism is essential to its effectiveness. Kes has an elegiac feel largely because it refuses to indulge in the sort of standard liberal cyn-ematic sentimentalism that is typical of such treatment of the working poor. Instead, Loach and his cinematographer Chris Menges opt for a realistic, grainy, rough documentary look, which makes us in the audience feel as though we are voyeurs, bearing witness to what Godard had famously proclaimed cinema to be: truth 24 times a second.
While Mike Leigh has arguably surpassed Loach as the best practitioner of British social realism with a left wing bent, there is little doubt that, without the prior success of Loach, which all began with this great film, Leigh would have had a much harder slog of it getting financing for his particular brand of social realism. Regardless, there is little doubt that Kes is a terrific film, an honest and unvarnished look at the life of working people, that has been rightly identified by the British Film Institute as one of the top ten films that you should see by the age of 14.
And now here's the original trailer for Kes: