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03.24.09

happy

YES, I AM TRYING TO GET A JOB WRITING FOR THE NEW YORKER, HOW COULD YOU TELL? I guess the liberation of being able to write at length after seven years of 500 word pieces is showing - every time I sit down to write, I end up producing a dissertation. As for The New Yorker, I'm only partially joking, though that magazine - one of my favorite weekly reads once upon a very long time ago - is one of the many cultural casualties of the last eight very fractious years, for me.

The following DVDs actually came out last week, but March Break parenting duties prevented me from doing much more than sitting around and thinking about them. Here's what came out ...

MIKE LEIGH'S BRITAIN is the one I have in mind whenever I try to imagine anything happening in that country. It's an urban place, full of streets that curve and meet at staggered intersections, flats stacked up in old houses connected with narrow staircases, decorated with out-of-date music posters and filled with flat pack furniture. The countryside barely exists in Leigh's films, which is fine by me - I've never lived outside of a city, and my mental landscape is full of busy roads and homes packed cheek by jowl.

To prepare myself for Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh's latest film, I went back and watched the Criterion edition of Naked, my second favorite film by the director. Leigh's films are populated with unhappy people, but Naked takes us to the world of the aggressively morose, beginning with David Thewlis' Johnny and his toxic sarcasm. I'm fond of the film - perhaps "fond" is a bad choice of words - because it too closely echoes a period in my life when I could identify with Johnny too well. I remember meeting Thewlis after it came out and telling him that, and his look of dismay, tinged with pity, still sticks with me.

My favorite Leigh film is actually Career Girls, which is probably the greatest film about the '80s ever. It's all there - the Doc Martens and Morrissey t-shirts, the curled-up Penguin classics with the orange spine, the milk crates of LPs and the pseudo-class warfare between students and everyone else. It would be a great film if it were just the flashbacks to Lynda Steadman and Katrin Cartlidge as poor, neurotic students, but it gains a penumbra of real light and hope when we see them as women, mostly free of the ungainly shell of their student selves.

More than anything else, Leigh is known as the unofficial chronicler of British miserabilism - that aspect of the country's social and cultural character that undercuts and betrays the motto "mustn't grumble." What other country could come up with a word so perfectly descriptive as "whingeing," or a children's show as basically splenetic as Thomas the fucking Tank Engine? Even the titles of his films allude to this downbeat mood, from the obvious (Bleak Moments) to the ironic (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet.)

Knowing this, I sat down to watch Happy-Go-Lucky expecting the same excursion into the curdled, the deluded and the hopeless, and got something very, very different. The title is nothing more or less than a description of Poppy, the protagonist, played with almost unrelenting perfection by Sally Hawkins, who won a Golden Globe for the role, and was widely considered to be robbed of an Oscar nomination.



The title credits roll over Poppy cycling through London, a nearly-blissful expression on her face. After a quick browse through a bookstore, she returns to find her bike stolen, and wisfully expresses her regret that she didn't have a chance to say goodbye. The next major scene begins with Poppy and her friends in a disco, dancing to "Common People," Pulp's perverse anthem to working class resilience and resignation. For a second we're tempted to see Poppy and her friends as characters out of Jarvis Cocker's gallery of sordid council flat culture, but we'd be wrong - Poppy is the first Mike Leigh character that doesn't give off a scintilla of desperation.

Her optimism and good cheer is apparently without a flaw or inconsistency, and stands out in startling relief in the context of her longtime flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her friends, co-workers, family and, especially, Scott, Poppy's driving instructor. When Eddie Marsan's Scott enters the picture, you can finally feel that you're back in a Mike Leigh film; seething and paranoid, and prone to spouting conspiracy theories, he's Thewlis' Johnny minus the dark charisma, and he's driven to distraction (no pun intended) by Poppy's unrelenting barrage of giggles and one-liners.

Frankly, it's not hard to sympathize with Scott; Poppy is a truly wearing creation, and her insistence on responding to everything, even pain, with a giddy laugh and a joke actually starts to suggest something more than just depression and despair - the keynotes of most Leigh characters - and it's not long before we're on the lookout for hints of some deeper, more profound damage.

We think we're going to see it when Poppy and her sullen younger sister head off in Zoe's car to visit their other sister, married and pregnant in a seaside town. Now the paragon of domesticity, she badgers Poppy, the eldest of the three, to start getting serious with her life, and speculates aloud that she must be very unhappy to be still living the same way she was when she left school a decade earlier. It's a testament to Hawkins' performance as Poppy that she sounds neither defensive nor disingenuous when she insists that she's quite happy with her life, thank you, and considers herself "a very lucky lady."

It's one of the many times in the film where Leigh confounds our expectations. With Poppy's cheery disposition as a red flag, bullish viewers will keep expecting something to happen to breach her optimism and infect or destroy her worldview but it never happens - not when she visits a clinic seeking relief for a back ache, not when she encounters an apparently disturbed tramp in a dodgy vacant lot at night, or when she spends the night with a handsome social worker she meets at the school where she works as a teacher.



The only time the film conforms to our expectations is when Scott falls for Poppy, and if this were any filmmaker other than Leigh, we'd expect an awkward farce on the way to the pair becoming a couple in an "opposites attract" storyline as old as screwball comedy. It doesn't, however, and Scott's feelings for Poppy go from vaguely creepy to thwarted to furious by the time the film is over.

Leigh famously begins his films without a script, and builds his stories out of improvisations with the actors as they burrow deep into their characters, so it's not surprising that Scott and Poppy's relationship plays out very much more like real life than some forced, vaguely comedic romance starring Ben Stiller. It would also explain why the film plays out like a series of vignettes that an actual plot when Poppy and Scott aren't onscreen together, and that Poppy remains as much an enigma at the end as at the beginning.

It's almost as if Leigh was so impressed, even intimidated, by what he and Hawkins had created with Poppy that he was afraid to really challenge the character or assault her the way he'ds habitually harrowed his protagonists in other films. Denied any sense of movement in the character during the film, you speculate on where she'll be once life finally muscles her along from her apparently blissful stasis - I couldn't help but imagine her becoming Alison Steadman's gratingly chirpy mom in Leigh's Life Is Sweet.

Recalling Jane Horrocks' bitter, bulimic teen in the earlier film, with her barrage of politically correct contumely, I finally realized that Leigh, so often described as a product of English kitchen sink realism, is anything but. Horrocks' Nicola was as relentlessly negative as Poppy is positive, and both characters are as stylized as anything you can imagine outside of anime.

There's nothing realistic about a movie, really, and a truly realistic film would be basically unwatchable, so while Leigh's films are set in a world so painstakingly commonplace that it seems almost like documentary, most of his characters enter the frame with their personalities sculpted in deep, kabuki-like relief. (The scenes with Scott and Poppy in the car, Scott barking out "En ra ha!" while Poppy's bubbling chatter fills the spaces between his every pause are purest Leigh stylization.)

Browsing online forums, it's obvious that the film hasn't provoked indifferent responses. Viewers have either loved it or hated it, based entirely on their responses to Poppy, either positive ("Sally as Poppy is so much fun to watch, cheerful, very loveable, cute, so funny and just amazing to watch...") or negative ("The idea of Poppy being a teacher gives me the creeps"), and I can't help but wonder if Leigh had meant her and the film, right down to its title, to be a provocation against both casual viewers and the expectations of his fans. As a fan, I felt duly provoked, but only because I'm one of those people who'd find Poppy, in real life or movies, simply unendurable.

THE SEVENTIES WERE A GREAT TIME for sitcoms, though Barney Miller rarely gets mentioned in the list that inevitably includes M*A*S*H, All In The Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It lasted eight seasons, though the first four are its best, and the transition from the '70 to the '80s did the show no favours.

The series debuted in 1975, and hit its stride during the era of Carter's malaise and the "Ford To City: Drop Dead" bankruptcy of New York City. The lower Manhattan precinct house where the show was set playd like a microcosm of the city itself, in crisis, with Hal Linden's Capt. Miller as the last sane man left alive. The third season, just released on DVD, is possibly the best, as the show had settled into its single set groove, its best cast was in place, and the national mood synced up perfectly with its mood of comic despair.

During the course of the season, which ran from 1976 to 1977, Miller and his detectives at the 12th Precinct had to deal with a power blackout, a quarantine, a divisive election, a prophet of doom, a smog alert, a bus hijacking, cutbacks and a police strike. Characters openly obsess over nuclear armegeddon and the city's apparently irreversible breakdown, and the flotsam from the sexual revolution is as likely to end up in the squad room's holding tank as any shoplifter or purse snatcher.

It's also the season that featured "Hash," probably my favorite episode of the whole series. Detective Wojciehowicz (Ron Gail) brings a box of brownies baked by his freaky girlfriend for his co-workers to enjoy, improving the general mood of the station house before Barney discovers that they're laced with hashish. He sends most of the men home with uncontrollable cases of high spirits, with the exception of Fish (Abe Vigoda,) who's merely rendered spry by the drugs. "I feel good for the first time in my life and it turns out to be illegal," he complains.



In the episode set on the election day that brought Jimmy Carter into office, we learn that Harris (Ron Glass) - the hip, dandyish black detective - is a Republican, an apparent demographic curiosity that he explains as his attempt to "confound expectations." It's not played for laughs, or as some character flaw, and never gets mentioned again for the rest of the season, and I couldn't help but wonder - contrary to everything I know about the '70s from actually living through it - if some things might have actually been better then.

Even though it was filmed in ABC's Television Center on Prospect Avenue in Los Angeles, Barney Miller felt like a last remnant of live television as it was made in New York twenty years earlier, right down to the odd cut to a camera shakily following the action, and a loose acting style that, as one fan has put it, seems "more Off-Broadway than Studio City." The New York setting probably helps, but there's also the stagey single set of the worn out precinct house squad room, and the cast's impeccably sharp timing, embodied most particularly by Vigoda and Jack Soo's Yemana. I'm grateful that Sony has - sparingly, to be sure - been releasing these season sets of the show, and even more grateful that I don't have to live through the '70s again to watch them.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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