Art cinema and social realism

This is England, and Meadows’ work more generally, can to some extent be located within the various traditions of social realism in British cinema. The history here runs from the documentary movement of the 1930s, through the ‘social problem’ films of the 1950s and the ‘kitchen sink dramas’ of the 1960s, on to the so-called ‘Brit grit’ of the 1990s. Such films are often taken as emblematic of British cinema more broadly, although it should be emphasised that social realism (however we choose to define it) remains somewhat marginal within the wider context of film production and exhibition in the UK. Such films are still few and far between: they are often independently produced, on limited budgets, and only rarely provide big hits at the box office.

There are elements in Meadows’ work that recall the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, and the television work of Alan Clarke, for example; and in some respects, his work was made possible by the international success during the 1990s of popular films set in working-class locations – albeit films as diverse as The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Trainspotting and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Even so, there are some significant differences and departures here: Meadows is a social realist, but he is also rather more than this.

As critics such as Samantha Lay and David Forrest have suggested, Meadows can be seen as part of a broader movement in British film in the last couple of decades that owes as much to art cinema as it does to social realism. This more ‘poetic’ realism is represented in the work of directors like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Pavel Pawlikowski and Joanna Hogg – whose studies of marginalised children and young people in films like Ratcatcher, Fish Tank and The Unloved will feature in other essays in Growing Up Modern. As David Forrest suggests, these films are less concerned with overt political messages, and largely avoid the didactic approach of directors like Loach. Many of them address social issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, poverty and migration, but they are far from the ‘campaigning’ films of the 1950s and 1960s. The emphasis in this new ‘new wave’ is more on imagery and emotional mood. The films frequently take pauses in the ongoing narrative, featuring long, contemplative treatments of urban space, captured with an almost lyrical style of camerawork. There is a kind of poetic ambiguity here that seems to reach beyond the logic of narrative, theme and character, and indeed any explicit political messages. (In some ways, there are interesting parallels here with Italian neo-realism, which also sought to combine social realism with elements of art cinema.)

Thus, there are elements in This is England, and in its subsequent television incarnations, where the narrative is effectively suspended in favour of a more meditative or impressionistic approach. Cinematography and music play a much more vital role than action or dialogue here. One of Meadows’ distinctive trademarks is the montage sequence, seen in the introduction of the skinhead gang described above; and while these montages are sometimes used in an almost celebratory way (an informal football match, a karaoke night, an anarchic fight), they can also have a quiet, meditative quality (shots of dilapidated housing or desolate landscapes, or short flashbacks to previous scenes). These sequences are sometimes accompanied by pertinently chosen, more or less well-known songs of the period; but Meadows also makes use of instrumental music, sometimes composed specifically for the score (his use of the work of the pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi is especially notable in this respect). These sequences are not so much about the onward progress of the narrative, or even the dilemmas of the characters: rather, they are an expression of a kind of authorial voice.

Of course, this is by no means an absolute distinction – between ‘social realism’ on the one hand and ‘art cinema’ on the other. There are certainly lyrical, contemplative moments in the work of directors like Loach and Leigh, and of course in the older tradition of British documentary (for example, the work of Humphrey Jennings). As I have suggested, the film This is England is also explicitly political in its analysis – although in this respect it is perhaps exceptional among Meadows’ films. Nevertheless, I am by no means implying that his other work is not political: it is rather that it is not didactically so. Meadows by no means flinches from showing the destructive consequences of Thatcherism, but he isn’t setting out to recruit us to a particular political position or movement. If we compare, for example, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) with Meadows’ This is England, the difference is obvious: while both are about people living in poverty, Loach is didactic, and even propagandist, in a way that Meadows very rarely is. His politics can be found not in a straightforward message, but rather in his sympathetic, complex, rounded view of working class lives.

Meadows’ own position here is an interesting, and perhaps paradoxical, one. In writing this essay, I’ve been struck by how frequently I have referred to him as a kind of individual creative ‘auteur’ – much more than in writing about the directors of other films in previous essays in this series. To some extent, this is understandable: the government funding that Meadows has largely relied upon to make his films is clearly not without its own constraints, but he has never worked within the context of a major commercial film company. (The one exception to this, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002), was his only film to use ‘bankable’ stars, and is generally regarded as his least artistically and commercially successful.) Even Channel Four, which funded the television series, is essentially a publisher-broadcaster, which has a remit to support independent production. In this context, as compared with that of mainstream commercial cinema, the emphasis is much more strongly on the distinctive creative vision of the individual author.

Furthermore, a great deal is often made of the regional location of Meadows’ work, and its autobiographical elements. He has purportedly developed his own system of film-making ‘rules’, which may not be as restrictive as those of the Danish ‘Dogme’ directors, but which nevertheless result in a style that is markedly different from what can loosely be called ‘mainstream’ cinema. This is very much a ‘DIY’ (do-it-yourself) aesthetic. Meadows’ films are largely set in or near the locations in which he grew up. He mostly works with an established group of actors, many of whom were childhood friends, or discovered as amateurs through regional workshops. The cast effectively live together during the period of filming, and much of the dialogue is developed through improvisation. Meadows likes to shoot his films exceptionally quickly, and actually prefers to operate with a comparatively low budget – and indeed he has continued throughout his career to make ‘no-budget’ short films on video (or even on mobile phones) alongside his features. A good deal of the filming is done in people’s houses, and most of the settings are decidedly untidy and ‘lived-in’. We might sum this up by saying that Meadows is following the injunction to ‘film what you know’, although that might be to misrepresent him as somehow merely spontaneous or instinctive.

Social realism and ‘art cinema’ are in some respects combined here. On the one hand, we can see Meadows as a film auteur, an individual artist with a unique personal vision. Yet we can also regard him as a distinctively working class film-maker. Sheldon Hall has argued that in this latter respect Meadows is ‘a native insider rather than a sympathetic visitor’, and I would entirely agree with him. Again, the comparison with Loach is pertinent here. Unlike many of the Oxbridge-educated radical film-makers who emerged in the 1960s, Meadows is not a cultural tourist: he is an insider, and despite the glitzy appeals of metropolitan film culture, he appears to have largely remained one.


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