Saturday, July 01, 2006

Loach: The Coronation Street Of Class Struggle

Just after returning from watching Ken Loach's Palm D'or reaping drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley and like most feel slightly compelled to add one or two words to the flurry of type and hype that has accompanied the movie's release on these shores. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a typical Loach movie betraying many of the core techniques developed in his previous outings. Again he relies on plunging a shallowly crafted personal relationship, this time between two brothers, into a set of tragic circumstances. These circumstances provide an emotional cover for an overly didactic political approach to popularising alternative historical mythologies that challenge the authors of a victors' history. This time the contested historicity is an Irish text book rabid nationalism, that sweeps aside socialist and labour based movements in the process of consolidating the free state.

As in the Spanish Civil War epic Land and Freedom, his pastiche of Orwell's experiences in Homage to Catalonia given a romantic streak that nearly ends on two opposite ends of the barriacades outside the Barcelona telephone exchange, he creates his alternative historical narratives brilliantly. Like the Catalan epic he returns to his routine technique of using moments of extended tense political debate to foreground the various shades of the arguments operating within the historical juncture he is focussing on. In Land and Freedom this was deployed around collectivisation of the village as well as militarisation and in Bread and Roses it was used during the discussions on joining a union. Here he pushes an anti-treaty agenda, one based on the social policy of the democratic programme of the first Dail, to the front during arguments in a republican court that challenge the extortionate income charged by a local gombeen man and later again prior to the Treaty vote itself.

Equally a quintessential part of Loach's work is his use of characters that roll across the screen as near archetypes, each representing different political persausions and social back grounds. Its no surprise again to see Loach fall back on the idea of the "sell out". The reformist who takes the uniform of the new state and falls back in line with wealth and elites. In this new film, it's the Cillian Murphy character's brother who takes the bait - while in his Catalan epic, a college educated American communist plays the same role. Another routine stereotype from Irish folk history here is Dan, the Jackeen train driving union man who brings the workshop's and field's socialism of Connolly down to the rural backwater village where the films terse action takes place.

The routinely wheeled out movie critics of the Irish media really managed to display a tremendous historical ignorance in discussions of this movie. Many accused Loach of brushing over IRA thuggery and painting an anti-imperial propaganda piece that leaves the English nation damned. Loach does neither of these things. Despite the 2-d nature of much of his character development there is marked moments of subtlety in painting the black and tans. He makes it apparent they are the shell shocked victims of a British ruling class who have left them "up to their necks in shit, blood and vomit for four years in the trenches." This is a tension that is completely excorcised from the standard nationalist narratives of the war of independence,. The moment where a young British soldier effectively mutinies and frees republican prisoners is a wonderful adage hinting at disaffection among the lower ranking British tommies during WW1 and the popular slogan "mutiny is the conscience of war" painted on trench walls.

With so many claiming Loach romanticises the irregular movement during the period, it was odd to find myself thinking that the most apt commentater in public yet has been the arts minister John O'Donaghue. O'Donaghue displayed on Newstalk a keen knowledge of the submerged role of socialist ideas and the Connollyite legacy on the anti-treaty side with his argument that Loach was far from a fantasist. On a popular culture level Loach is doing nothing new with this movie. But that noone remembered, Rebel Heart, Ronan Bennet's controversially scripted mini series for RTE back a few years ago is odd and foregrounds the importance of the Loach brand. Dealing with exactly the same theme, of how dreams of a workers republic were betrayed and stunted, the lack of note given to this RTE series is telling in how willing people are to slide back into the myths of Mother Ireland and perhaps explains quite a bit of the muffled response given to Loach's movie by both conservatives and revisionists.

Left wondering why Loach didn't just make a movie on the Limerick Soviet or concentrate on the exploits of Peader O'Donnell or Saor Eire put me in the mind that Loach really is someone who should be placed in the same category as Brecht. These are dramatists of little subtlety, who use their work to foreground a system of exploitation and recuperation that transverses different historical periods. This is a very modernist sense of mass education, popularising the idea of struggle from below and celebrating the undefeated and utterly indefatigable spirit of all under dogs. Mike Leigh summons a darker, microcosmic reflection on the effects of class on people's lives making him sit straddled across the legacy of kitchen sink drama with all the brooding prowess of an Eastenders marriage break up. But Ken Loach's movies are the Coronation Street of class struggle, ordinary everyday good natured folk thrown into moments of severe historical rupture and forced to deal with the constant betrayal of the working class by leaders and elites. That such lessons can be drawn so often, goes some way to explaining the cast iron soap like stereotypes, templates and routines that he resorts to so readily to illustrate them in his work.

Anyone interested in checking out another Loach movie can do worse that headling along to the next fundraiser for the IWU, which is hosting a showing of the excellent Ken Loach film ‘Bread and Roses’ on the struggle for Trade Union rights faced by workers. The night will also include revolutionary music from Ireland and across the globe. The screening is on Friday 28th July, Lloyd’s Bar, Amiens St, Dublin 1. The time was never mentioned on the event listing on this site, so maybe someone out there knows? For the moment I'd say stay tuned to this and someone might add it seeing as I've mentioned the abscene of a time.

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