Thursday, June 26, 2008

A few lessons from Mike Leigh

I just finished watching three of Mike Leigh's earlier features: Nuts in May, Abigail's Party, and High Hopes. Though the first two seemed significantly earlier than the last, I, in truth, know little about his sensibilities— stylistic or thematic— outside of the now five features I've seen directed by him (Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies being the other two). I learned a great deal from these features as far as sheer filmmaking goes, and think that they would be beneficial to LDS cinema.

My first observation may be a complaint at first, but it slowly turns into a helpful stepping-stone for our infantile/non-existent 'national cinema.' Though High Hopes—a rumination on (then) present-day 70's London in light of social, familial, and economic responsibility in the shadow of Marx's grave— mutes the tendency more than the others, all three features work in terms of caricature rather than nuance or individuality. I've written at length about my thoughts on character 2-dimensionality, as has Benjamin in Princess Mononoke, so I won't detract from it further here other than to say that it hinters our ability, as the audience, to connect with the script and the story.

But then again, it was because of this lack of connection that I found the films so charming (admittedly the first two more than the third). I found myself, on the other hand incredibly wrapped up in the ideas the films were presenting.

Nuts in May follows two eccentric Brits on their holiday to a campground in, what I must assume, is the month of May. Their conversations consist mainly of what food they will eat and when as well as how it will aid digestion, etc. (no meat, only free range chickens, only raw milk, and the like), when it isn't about their sight-seeing guidebook. The meat of the film comes as private and public obligations collide and are brought into question with each other. The two protagonists argue about who should hold the guidebook, and how one leaves the other behind, never waiting, while the topics with other campers focus on the volume of music, disturbing the peace, jealously, social etiquette, safety and camp rules. The thing that sets this film apart, aside from its 'zany' tone, is the lack of simple answers or side taking. Though there is caricature rather than characterization, there is a lack of melodrama—no one is right and no one is wrong, and there are no good guys or bad guys. Everyone is crazy to some degree or another, and so every caricature is the straight-man for the other 'nuts' at different times.

But this is only the first part of the lesson I think we could learn.

In the entire film, there was not one set. And I believe it was made for BBC. In Abigail's Party a filmed play essentially, there was one set, unless you count the 10 second shot of the interior of the bathroom, then there were two sets.

Both films seem to be more complex than most films you see in the multiplex—though the complexity comes from the moral construction and intellectual discourse found in both, not from the plot or characterization—but were made on what I'm assuming are minuscule budgets.

The films knew their boundaries and flourished within them (might I add BECAUSE OF THEM), rather than aiming for some more popular standard and failing. It seems that a major flaw with the 'LDS' films I've seen is the attempt to cover-up the lack of budget with camera showiness (meaning focus-flipping and unrestrained/untrained movement rather than adventurous compositions or daring mise-en-scene) or post-thingamajigging.

I think the strongest foundation for 'LDS' cinema may very well come from TV, despite my spite for the medium. Without BBC or Canal+, think how many films we wouldn't have.

We need stronger, more morally centered and morally inquisitive scripts (where there are no sides, but conundrums). And we need directors who are willing, able, and proud to work within a small budget. All the more reason we need thoughtful, low-budget LDS producers


Adam K. K. Figueira said...


I find your point about needing more low-budget producers intriguing as well as liberating. We (and by "we" I mean people I know) tend to look at the extravagant things that come out of Hollywood and say to each other and ourselves "That's moviemaking." Then we use the term "low-budget" as a pejorative.

I'm never sure how to feel when I find out that half of a film's XX million dollar budget was the salary for a single actor or actress. Your point seems to stand in contrast to one made in a forum at the LDS Film Festival this year that one of the essentials for a successful LDS film is at least one "big name" actor. I find that contrast helpful, because some of my favorite performances are from "big name" actors who were unknown at the time.

But then, if I'm not mistaken, what we're striving for here isn't so much financial profitability and mainstream exposure, which is how the author of the above mentioned comment defined success, as it is artistic refinement and spiritual utility.

I know we need some money to produce and distribute films of any kind, but it ought to be restricted to what's actually required for our production, not extravagant extras and ridiculous salaries. This reminds me of the counsel not to esteem one flesh above another.

That we "need" low-budget producers seems right to me for the present time. We should have "enough and to spare" (Doct rine and Covenants 104:17) but we should also be wise stewards and maintain humility.

Isn't the spirit of the Gospel the spirit of the potential of the common man? I think this is one reason the "Fit for the Kingdom" series has gotten so much positive response.

Jeff Denison said...

I am so pleased you're writing about Mike Leigh. He is one of my cinematic heroes. Topsy Turvey is one of my favorites and I believe might be worth a look though it doesn't quite fall under the category of "low budget" it by no means is a blockbuster.