#904. Riff-Raff (1990, Ken Loach)

screened Friday, January 19, 2007 on DivX in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #552 IMDb

Seeing reality with a vengeanceThe three films I've seen of Kenneth Loach (Kes - TSPDT #350, Sweet Sixteen, and now Riff-Raff) are as easy to like as anyone's. On paper, his philosophy and approach ought to make him rank among my all-time favorite directors. He has a tremendous empathy for his down-trodden working class characters, and at his best he renders himself an invisible, highly attentive observer of their lives. He is one of the major practicioners of documentary film techniques in narrative cinema, playing scenes as naturally as he can while making them eminently watchable. Through direct observation he is able to bring out social realities that inspire viewers to think about the injustices of the world, and with any luck even take steps towards making positive changes. Like I said, on paper he's fantastic. So what holds me back from giving him my highest praise?

Let's look at Riff-Raff, which by and large is a wonderful film. From the very start we're immersed in a milieu of unionless construction workers getting started on a new site. They're from all parts of England as well as Africa and the Carribbean, but they're all there to do an honest day's work. Loach does a magnificent job of dropping us amongst them as they alternate between the job at hand and making off-hand banter with each other at any chance. The authenticity he achieves is marvelous. In fact if this movie was just about what transpires on the construction site, I don't think I'd lose any fascination.

Where I have trouble is when Loach introduces a subplot (though at times it feels like a parallel plot of equal importance to the construction site) involving one of the construction workers (Robert Carlyle, a magnificent performance) and his girlfriend (Emer McCourt), an aspiring and not-very-talented singer who's more than a little unstable. At first it's not entirely apparent why we're following this plotline. Perhaps it illuminates a more personal side of Carlyle's character that the construction scenes don't. But it also exposes how minor a character he is in the construction sequences, not nearly as charismatic or central to the goings on of that site as Ricky Tomlinson as a cheerful, seasoned salt-of-the-earth type, or a trio of African-British workers discussing their homeland with vivid nostalgia. These are some of the best scenes of the movie, and they lead organically to revelatory moments: a white worker overhearing the Africans casually rests his body on an unstable support and nearly falls to his death; Tomlinson's warm recollections of his past leads to an inspired monologue about the unacceptable working conditions of his comrades.

Going back to the other plot with Carlyle and his girl -- what I like about it, at least for the first half of the film, is that it keeps me off balance in my expectations of where the film is going. There are some lovely dialogues between them about their dreams and insecurities, mixed in with a rather conventional failed audition scenario. At best this narrative sidepath attests to Loach's avowed eschewing of straight narrative at the expense of naturalism or reality, in favor of a more organic development of moments.

But to my mind, the last act of the movie belies such claims, as Loach resorts to a number of melodramatic incidents and a sense of almost fatalistic despair and futility creeps in. I won't spoil the ending, but to me it seems to abort the insight steadily accumulated over the course of the film in favor of a dangerously bogus catharsis. I've seen this other hardcore social realist films, this failure to end without resorting to some kind of hands-off-the-steering wheel statement on humanity - Jia Zhangke's The World comes to mind. The end of Riff-Raff also resorts to the use of dramatic music to heighten the tension, something that Loach typically opposes -- so why is he resorting to it here? One film whose ending doesn't resort to any of this is Mike Leigh's Meantime (TSPDT #755), the ending of that film, by which a young man becomes a skinhead, is all the more tragic because the big event is treated as just another development among the banal details of life, and for that reason it gets under your skin. In fairness it's hard for any realist movie to walk the line between realism and drama. In the scene where the white worker almost falls to his death while bantering with his African co-workers, the supervisor treats the incident dismissively and chastises them all for not being focused on their work. This leads one of the Africans to mutter to his white co-worker, "They treat us all like Africans here." What's funny is that this moment makes me groan less for its realistic properties than for its dramatic. It may be realistic for him to say that, but dramatically, did he really need to underscore the point of the scene so bluntly? Doesn't it pigeonhole the scene instead of letting it breathe openly?

My point is that when we're talking about realism we really are talking about a form of drama, and by that I mean a code, an ethos. It's evident that my own taste in dramatic realism is one that eschews scenes that feel contrived to drive a point home or elicit a certain effect from the viewer at the expense of distracting them from the real, unadorned textures of life. In other words, a film that doesn't process reality for the viewer, that doesn't tell them how to think or feel.

Of course there is no such thing as a movie that doesn't tell a viewer how to react in some way. That's something that hasn't been looked at enough with a filmmaker like Ken Loach. Only by questioning what is meant when we call him a "realist" filmmaker and whether he consistently lives up to that definition can we know what we're really after when we look for reality in the movies.