October 31, 2002     


The Misanthropic Humanist

Mike Leigh's empathy as an artist doesn't always extend to journalists, as I learned.


by Rob Kendt


Mike Leigh, I had read, doesn't suffer fools gladly--indeed, according to frequent collaborator Jim Broadbent, he suffers them "not at all." I'm not a fool, but I am an entertainment journalist; the line is a fine one, the confusion understandable. So I can cut the diminutive British writer/director some slack for being so brusque and snotty with me in a recent L.A. interview to publicize his new film All or Nothing, a bleak drama about desperate working-class folks, their faint, frayed hopes, and familial entanglements.


Still, I wondered, after an interview that felt more like he was auditioning me (and not liking what he saw): How can a man whose films and stage works display such an abiding empathy for the vagaries of human folly, and which convey such a palpable longing for human connection, be such an ass in person? There are two possible answers, as I see it. One has to do with his reluctance to discuss his "technique," especially with the press; the other has to do with his worldview--which, like his technique, is often misunderstood and oversimplified.


On the subject of his technique, it dawned on me as I tried to take Leigh over the well-trod subject of his unique creative process--he works with his actors in a months-long exploration/rehearsal to shape the characters, the story, the dialogue, before a single frame is exposed--that as fascinating as this process is, it is finally a distraction. Too much has been made of it, to the point that the experience of seeing a Mike Leigh Film is now colored by our knowledge of his "process."


"This is very academic," he said at one point in our discussion of how he works with such powerhouse actors as David Thewlis, Leslie Manville, and Timothy Spall (the latter two play All or Nothing's lopsided common-law couple). "If you were shown my films without any knowledge of how they were made, you wouldn't be saying what you are."


And on the subject of his aesthetic, his style, what makes Leigh Leigh, he's quite defensive. Indeed, the assumption that commonly creeps into any consideration of his work is that, because actors make a larger contribution to his films than they may to standard scripted films, he is somehow more a traffic cop or curator or pseudo-documentarian than a true auteur. It's a longstanding misconception about "realism": that on the one hand it's "truer" than other, more "stylized" aesthetics, and on the other hand it has a weaker authorial voice, it's somehow less "art" than the stuff that looks and behaves like art we're used to. If Leigh sees this view of his work as backhanded, condescending, faint praise, I can understand his objection.


I had suggested to Leigh that in many respects his actors define the character and tone of his films--thinking of Thewlis in the harrowing Naked, or Jim Broadbent in the brilliant Life Is Sweet, or sad-sack Spall as a lumbering cabbie in All or Nothing. "How come," he responded sharply, "all these films are similar to each other when they don't have all the same actors all the time? My answer is, 'Bingo, there you go.'


"Is what I do a technique?" he continued, looking over to the film's publicist, Fredell Pogodin, for support. "I can say right now, 'I think I am going to paint some daffodils using Van Gogh's "technique." ' Will that give me a Van Gogh painting? I don't think so. I think something else went on as well as his technique."


He's an artist, in other words, and how he makes his art is his own damn business. It's because I wholeheartedly concur with that first point that I'm sorry our interview went so poorly--sorry for both of us, because as injured as I felt, he seemed genuinely insulted by my questions. I'll just say for the record that I consider Leigh among the few true artists working in narrative film right now; I think of him in the same rank as Chekhov and Renoir for his deceptively simple, almost invisible narrative craft, his compassionate but unblinking eye, his sense of emotional proportion; and that while All or Nothing is not his strongest film (for my money, Life Is Sweet and Grown-Ups are his tops), it's a must-see for serious students of the human condition.


Or, as Leigh said acidly as he wrapped up our interview, "I hope all those unemployed actors come see it."