If you were a carpenter: the case against I, Daniel Blake
Have you seen the new Hollywood “state of the nation” blockbuster — The Big BS — directed by that stubborn, arch-conservative director?
You know the one: it’s about a genial, hard-working entrepreneur, called Duck, who, going against the compelling advice of health and safety experts, re-opens a nineteenth century diamond mine just outside a blue-collar town in the mid-west?
He plans to create thousands of “jobs for local people”, and rightly make himself “a billion dollars or two”, only to discover that a sizable percentage of the local folk he salutes in public are “too lazy and stupid” to turn this sparkling opportunity into dollars and cents.
Before Duck can even launch his darkweb bid to become a senator, funded by a misnamed and foreign agency (this is where the cocaine-demented script editor demanded an irony strand for the big ticket reviewers), the ungrateful proles are trying to start a goddamn union down at the pithead. A day later, the Mexicans are decapitating old women on croquet lawns, and Duck’s bold plan is quickly unravelling towards its violent and disgusting finale — all thanks to lefties and liberals and foreigners — when a blue-eyed American baby is deliberately kebab-skewered in both eyes at a charity barbecue.
The director, once a paying supporter of Ronald Reagan and now an energetic nonsense factotum for the Trumpist rebellion, makes his point early on in the movie, by constructing (badly) a scene in a storm-billowing marquee at a traditional wedding, when the concrete, pseudo-Christian morality of Duck’s golf club members is expected to be naturally superior to the sluttish, high-interest antics of a trailer park family.
The Big BS is an indefensible film in both its art and its politics. Politically, it is guilty of a brazen and topsy-turvy attempt at quasi-fascistic national moralising. It contains an ugly, inaccurate caricature of working-class life. It tells a big lie. It warps reality. It obscures the selfish, destructive rapacity of ultra-capitalism in contemporary life in all its human and robotic horror and it obscures this nightmare with a conceit about the bravery of economic rapacity. It is racist and hateful. It contains a monologue by a guiltless banker soundtracked by uplifting “country” music.
Artistically, meanwhile, The Big BS is an hour-and-a-half of screen-glowing junk. It is neither entertaining nor psychologically probing. The script, for want of a better word, is nothing more than a pamphlet of demented cliches sewn together with pages of corrupt “history” and chatroom conspiracy. The directing is so arrogantly shambolic that the story (the journey, if you insist) comes to resemble an unhinged William Burroughs cut-up (and not in an accidentally poetic way). The smug actors are keenly incompetent and lazy: they don’t even call-in their performances; they simply consider picking up a smartphone. It is a bad, loopy, and powerfully boring film.
The Big BS does not work as propaganda (because it is incompetent) and it does not work as art (because it is incompetent). And the fact its politics do not square with mine (leftish, liberal) is irrelevant. If The Big Lie had been a great film, something on a par with a Coen brothers masterpiece, despite its reactionary politics, I might have given it a five-star review. Why? Because a movie is a work of art. And art is art. The fact Wagner had silly ideas and was loved by prominent Nazis does not make his music bad. Unlistenable, perhaps, if we think about the context, but not automatically bad.
Now, the Big BS does not exist; I have just invented it.
But turning to the real film under review, I, Daniel Blake, the latest by British director Ken Loach, we find the same, basic ailment which ruined my fake movie: a compound of bad art and incompetent propaganda. Only because the propaganda in the real film is worthy, and the director is not keen to disguise it, many people seem to find it harder to identify, never mind critique, the bad art.
It so happens that it is difficult to refute the central political argument of I, Daniel Blake: a heartless government is mistreating its most vulnerable and powerless members. Millions of ordinary British people are suffering, economically and socially and emotionally, and these millions of ordinary British people, especially those who are not angrily nationalist or bigoted, have not been so unrepresented by any political party since before the universal franchise. This is a national tragedy.
And nothing new. The experience of working-class people in Britain, as in many other places, is a long history of struggle: for rights, for respect, for recognition, for opportunity. That struggle continues. What seems worse now, even compared to the meltdowns of the 1980s, is that the British working classes seem weaker and more powerless than ever; and with the entirely unelectable Jeremy Corbyn version of the Labour Party, that will remain the case.
Under recent Conservative governments, boosted by the shameful and outplayed Liberal Democrats, Britain has become less generous, more divided, more isolationist, and morally uglier. In this hyper-individualistic society, individuals, especially poorer and less powerful individuals, such as Daniel and the young mother he befriends, will be lost in the fumes. The bleakness of the film, as a result, is only interrupted by occasional scenes of emotional torture.
But this understanding of contemporary British reality does not mean I, Daniel Blake is a good film, just as the misunderstanding of modern America (deliberate or otherwise) inherent to The Big BS made that a bad film. They are bad films because they are bad films. The Big BS has a bad heart and bad art while I, Daniel Blake has good intentions but remains a stinker.
Now is the point at which I acknowledge that almost nobody in the world seems to agree with my assessment of I, Daniel Blake.
The film has been critically acclaimed (93% at Rotten Tomatoes) and has been nominated for, and won, several major awards. But I found the film to be so bad, and the reviews to be so laudatory, that I can only guess that something else, other than a commentary on the art of the film, is going on.
It seems at least possible that I, Daniel Blake is being judged in terms of its understandable desire to be propaganda, rather than art; could reviewers and prize-givers be rewarding the good moral intentions of the film-maker, Loach, rather than the work he has created? Might that account for the breathless admiration for a bad film?
Propaganda is often used in a derogatory way to define biased or misleading information which had been distributed to promote a political point of view. But any information produced for any political reason should be seen as propaganda, unless proven otherwise. The Roman Catholic origin of the word is illuminating: congregatio de propaganda fide (congregation for propagation of the faith).
Loach is a socialist. His films are often designed with a strong political point of view. He shouts for the underdogs. He does not demand religious faith, but the function of his films is similar: his audience is expected to congregate in order to propagate. Loach has made some very good films (Land and Freedom, for example). And take a moment to compare his work to the cynical Hollywood drivel monsters which spew forth, expensively, at a rate and omniscience which can only debase popular culture.
The vast majority of Hollywood films are bad art. We should welcome and celebrate diversity in cinema and I do not regret paying money to see a Loach film. But that still does not mean it is not bad.
The original problem with I, Daniel Blake seems to be that Loach assumes, perhaps even without realising it, that good-heartedness and moral rightness are enough, and there is no further obligation to attempt to make a great film. Like a documentary maker, or a reporter, he can organise the evidence, present it, and let the viewer decide. But that isn’t enough.
To test the point, imagine if another type of artist, a musician for example, had had an idea for a symphony and, more or less, stopped right there, job done. This music will explore the relationship between human beings and communication technology and end with the death of the main protagonist. The musician has a good idea but feels there is no need to work on the score or the song or the instruments or the performance; the idea is enough; the intention is sufficient. Just palm out a few chords, do not rehearse, and off we go. The results will be … unsatisfying?
Or suppose a poet simply said the first words which came into their head. In fact, some “poets” do do this and the results are uniformly excrement.
Every artist has crutches and it is perhaps unjust to reduce Loach films to their many cliches, even though their cliches are different to the cliches of Hollywood (or my invented blockbuster), but these cliches do explain, in part, the weakness of the finished piece.
Loach films rely too much on the type of non-acting which would justly be failed in any sixth-form drama assessment. This non-acting too often takes the form of hamstrung non-dialogue. And the fact this non-dialogue, spoken during the non-acting, straining as it is to deliver its propaganda message in as unfiltered manner as possible, too often produces cringeworthy sentimentalisations of working class lives, which feel like the result of a fiction workshop in a (well-meaning) middle-class living room.
It can only be an irony that the central character of this film is, like Jesus, a carpenter: a tradesman who relies on painstaking craft and rigid quality control. Presumably he does not improvise his wardrobes (if he wants them to be any good). And so when we get to the scene which a very generous reviewer might call a climax, and which lends the film its mock-defendant title, we find we are left with a work of art which lacks craft, grace, or, dare I say it, beauty.
If you compare I, Daniel Blake with the astonishing and hypnotic Arabian Nights triology, which deals with related social problems on a much bigger and more provocative canvas in Portugal (which has, arguably, taken a much harder economic and social blow than the UK), you understand that I, Daniel Blake is a film which is too smug and too narrow.
And, in a way, it is perhaps the artistic bravery of Loach which creates the movie’s fatal flaw. Although the improvised acting and wearying dialogue make the film dusty and clunky, the central quest itself — the Catch 22 of applying for two types of state benefit — never transcends everyday life.
It doesn’t, therefore, work as propaganda. The only people in need of consciousness-raising about poverty in modern Britain will remain ignorant. If they watch this film, they will ask why Daniel does not start selling his wooden fish to earn some income. Or why he doesn’t become a lodger with the young woman, to share costs. Or why Daniel doesn’t just work illegally, to survive. Or why he doesn’t just tell a white lie at the job centre. I suppose the response would be because Daniel is a human being, and he is acting like a human being. Fair enough. But where does that leave the art?
Conservatives, and Thatcherites in particular, if we consider the political views of the majority of British people today, cannot be diverted from their radical mission by the suffering of good individuals, because, perversely, their ideology obliges them to not care about individuals they do not personally know. They should care about their own family, and the economy, and the flag, and tradition, and the Queen. Similarly, the many fans of this film who live in closed worlds as closed as those which they seek to influence (left-wing, urban, educated) will find it difficult to explain what they have taken from the film which they could not have taken from a reasonably good Guardian opinion piece. The congregation will propagate, of course: among themselves.
There is also something very simplistic about Ken Loach’s latest film (again, in contrast with the loving, testing oddities of Arabian Nights) and not only because it is a simple story. This simplicity (fake simplicity?) is both self-regarding (look how generous we are; look how much potential we contain) and self-hating (look how mean we are; look at how much potential we contain). This idea is interesting and could lead to great drama. It doesn’t here.
Because if there is no need for muscular acting, or a whipsmart script, or an enchanting story, or anything we might think of as the transcendence of moving images of real people behind glass, what is the point of a fiction on film?
And more importantly, if there is no need to create a great work of art, or to at least try to create a great work of art, rather than a bit of propaganda, then the adventure, in the end, becomes like many of the much more empty, and much more expensive, Hollywood vehicles made by people also desperate, for their own economic and moral reasons, to get in our heads.