Everybody hurts

The morose, human dramas of the '70s make a startling comeback in Secrets & Lies and Heavy

Throughout the '60s in England and the '70s in America, the development of film as a form of popular entertainment began to explore areas of realism previously thought to lack a minimum level of escapism. Until then, conventional wisdom held that viewers might willingly pay to be moved by tender love stories or scared by thrillers or delighted by musicals, but a fantasy element was needed to keep the action at a distance: It was detached, palatable, and ultimately fake. The angry young directors of British cinema--Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Joseph Losey, and others--would have none of that. They conjugated a new cinematic grammar, one where murky sets, unglamorous situations, and vitriolic anti-heroes replace traditional, bland champions of the bourgeoisie. As the counterculture movement evolved and expanded--from "mod" London to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury--so did the tone of movies. Eventually there was a glut on depressing, frank, moving film portrayals of people as they really lived. "Kitchen sink" dramas took hold of the culture and by and large refused to compromise their sad, regretful portrait of a world on the decline: Look Back in Anger, Blow-Up, Midnight Cowboy, Scarecrow, Lenny, and Eraserhead, to name a paltry few. The driving idea behind this genre was to remove any distractions that pull the audience away from the film's emotional content; movies not actually filmed in black-and-white often feel as if they were.

As civilization continued to change, so did taste in film style. Arguably, the last two movies "of" the '70s--whose releases coincided with Ronald Reagan feeding a feel-good country to power-hungry excess--were American Gigolo and Thief. Paul Schrader, one of the genre's principal exponents, directed American Gigolo, yet despite its bitter flavor, the setting was uncompromisingly glitzy. Thief did much the same: With its electronic score by Tangerine Dream and slick, wet-street visuals, writer-director Michael Mann gussied up what only three years before would have been a darker, more ominous film. (Mann went on to contribute to the rise of the dominant film technique of the '80s--oily and shallow--by creating Miami Vice.) These films' success rang the death knell of American ultrarealism, and by the '80s, the brickyard style of melodrama had more or less run its course. "Out" were faddy lower-class wannabes singing "Convoy"; "in" were power ties and Giorgio Moroder.

Now in the '90s, as other '70s icons are rearing their ugly heads--everything from the Bradys to bell-bottoms--so is an interest in realism. I hadn't realized how much we had, as a society, come to ache for the kind of vivid depiction of life where communication on a human level is so fresh, but two films--the British Secrets & Lies and the wholly American Heavy--signal a startling comeback to the morose, dour, deeply felt lives of ordinary people. They are the most welcome movie events of the season.

In America we may have given up looking for significance in mere human interaction, but Mike Leigh, the English director of Secrets & Lies, never did. Leigh has been making movies since the early '70s, but he first began to attract attention with his working-class dramas in the past 10 years, first with High Hopes, then Life is Sweet and Naked. Secrets & Lies is the most fully integrated entry into his canon, marching toward a more cohesive theory of the human condition than Leigh has attempted before. Although the tone is far less acidic than in Naked, he still derives sustenance from opening his characters' wounds and seeing how rancid and pusy they will get before someone has the sense to salve them. Watching a Leigh movie is a process:You can't casually observe, miss a few scenes, and come back later; you cannot heal a wound without following the prescribed treatment.

Secrets & Lies is all about wounds and our tendency to embrace placebos rather than the harder courses of treatment. That's true of Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a 40ish housewife and factory worker, and her roly-poly brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), a photographer whose life is empty inside but fulfilling on the surface; they have their own secrets to keep hidden from each other, but many more that they keep hidden from themselves, which Leigh comments on with beautiful understatement. As we watch Maurice at work in his studio, coaxing and cajoling his subjects to smile, or as we witness the bickering and fussy henpecking that goes on a second before the shutter clicks, it becomes apparent--by an insight into the levels that we have to look at all the characters' lives--that Leigh isn't just adding gratuitous scenes. As used by Leigh, photographs preserve a moment in time, but they do not show the truth. Snapshots are just that: slices of real life, not life itself. They are fakes, artificially induced for the sole purpose of propagating a lie. When Cynthia rhapsodizes about her salad days, her perfect legs, and her sexual conquests, she is trying to convince herself of these truths as much as her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook); Leigh wants Cynthia and the viewer to stop being fooled by the superficial calm, and to look to the emotional agony brewing underneath.

To be honest, I have never been able to tell if Leigh is fascinated by his characters because of their drab, inconsequential lives, or despite them. Is he the protective father figure, gently nursing them along toward cleansing and fulfillment--doing his part to assure that the meek really shall inherit the earth--or their exploiter, transfixed not by their prosaic nobility, but by patent tawdriness of the lives, a critic dumfounded by their arrogance in the face of self-imposed adversity? Does he wish them better in their lives, or envy them their realness?

It isn't easy to tell. No character is clothed as a traditional hero. Maurice is just about the only male in sight, and he's hardly a traditional leading man. It isn't just his pudgy, jolly demeanor or his implied weakness that subverts his heroic authority. Leigh hasn't emasculated Maurice; he has merely let him exist totally inside his tedious sensibilities. Maurice represents what we all have access to--a man we can relate to not for his mythic proportions, but for his common touch; he's a real working-class hero. Another of Leigh's specialties is the resentful young woman with undirected venom, so when Roxanne first shows up with her lips pursed until a groove forms, you might expect he's resorting to an old bag of tricks; that would be an unfair characterization of the emotional depths Leigh plumbs in such variety. (He also uses a Schubert-inspired score from film to film--a single violin and cello--but it never ceases to generate an unsettling tension.)

In the end, it hardly matters what he thinks of his characters; what is important is that he sees them as individuals and forces his audience to see them as individuals, as well. I suspect it is the intensity of emotions of people under stress that causes Leigh to concentrate his camera on all manner of lowlifes. (He is interested in both the rich and poor dregs of society; to the extent he believe poverty to breed thrashing anger, he equate wealth with crassness.) Leigh's preoccupation with the textures of everyday emotions is Bergmanesque in its complexity and curiosity; he works out his characters' neuroses as if putting together some infinite jigsaw puzzle. He has a marvelous way of writing--not with a pen or a camera, but with people. The performances make a Leigh film--lines and actions delivered as only those characters could. (Blethyn in particular delivers a wrenching performance. Cynthia is a spring of wounded emotions wearing her chatty coquettishness as carelessly as her tacky Capri pants; she alternately is raw and real--a slap in the face followed by a cool, soft kiss.)

Leigh makes a singular mixture of film components, highly personal and stylized on the one hand, yet utterly submissive on the other. He pulls off some fabulous miracles in the group effort that is filmmaking--operating less as an auteur than orchestra leader; and with the freedom to feel out the inner lives of their characters, he achieves something magical, not in its tone, but in the connectivity between his characters and ultimately the audience. At some point in Secrets & Lies, the room stops being a theater and becomes a confessional; when it is over, Leigh has granted all of us absolution.

If unrest between the classes strikes the central discordant note in a socialist film climate like England, American cinema has developed its own idiom for working-class struggles: the search for identity not in being one of the underclass, but in being one of the mere masses. The search for meaning to life in the Hudson River Valley town where Heavy takes place is less about money and position than it is about connecting with others on some meaningful level. With a narrative of textbook simplicity and a muted visual acumen, writer-director James Mangold has made the most astutely observed, heartfelt movie of the year.

Like the best in modern American realism, Heavy culls its resonance from the attention to detail in the iconography we associate with certain types of characters. I don't know whether horny young guys still buy cheesecake posters like the Farrah Fawcett bathing suit-teeth-and-hairathon that sold a gazillion copies in 1976, but there's one hanging on Victor's (Pruitt Taylor Vince) bedroom wall, and it probably hasn't moved in 20 years. (An aside: I think Farrah's erect right nipple is what really sold the thing.) If the poster were nothing more than a collector's item, then its presence wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But Victor is a fully functional, if painfully bashful, adult, and his stagnancy is arresting.

At first Victor comes across as a sad, miserable man because he has too long been under the thumb of his brassy mother, Dolly (Shelley Winters). As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Victor's tragedy is one of his own doing--his refusal to take chances--and somehow it seems even more pitiable. Victor gets the opportunity to run his own life, but he's lost; when he goes to the nearby culinary institute to cultivate his cooking skills, he thinks himself to be a fish out of water. Victor is a cook, not a chef; he makes food to be eaten rather than admired, and you feel his disappointment in realizing that his dream was just that--a fantasy with no basis in fact.

Food plays a crucial role in Heavy, but like the title of the movie itself, it has the added benefit of taking on a secondary meaning. Victor is certainly fat, but he's also burdened--by his dependence on food, on his mother, and on the sameness in his life. Victor's rut is one of competing lusts that are more alike than different. His yearning for a young new cocktail waitress (Liv Tyler) conflicts with his own emotional reclusiveness, symbolized by his obsession with food. As Victor stares at milkshakes with the same longing as he does the cleavage of the grocery clerk, Mangold gives food the metaphoric quality that Big Night wasn't able to create. Every steak, every candy bar, every hot dog brings Victor solace; food is his crutch, his comfort, his friend, his lover, and his menace--a temptress bewitching him with caloric sorcery. It is sensualized, eroticized, and yet somehow insignificant. The repetition of eating is what really has meaning for Victor--the belief that everything will stay the same. Victor's obesity isn't a condition, it's a symptom of his smothering shyness. (A huge woman sitting next to me at the screening brought her greasy, fried dinner into the theater. Three minutes into the movie, she recognized one of the stars. "That's Shelley Winters!" she exclaimed. "Boy she got fat!" The irony appeared lost on her.)

As good as Heavy is, I simply can't imagine the movie working so well without Vince leading the way. This is the antithesis of a star turn--it depends on Victor's virtual invisibility--yet Vince manages to command the film by being so agonizingly in sync with its emotional frequency. Victor could be overplayed to a point where the pathos seemed wrung out of the viewer rather than coaxed. Everyone seems so oblivious to his pain, he could sob uncontrollably in bed, awash in self-pity, but Vince follows a subtler, more canny approach, with eyes like gyroscopes swimming in milky pools of tears too shy to fall; everything he needs to say he says with his eyes.

What's remarkable is how Mangold, who is 32 and has never written and directed a feature film before, can so totally immerse himself, and us, in his full-blown conception of Heavy. With intentionally dreary visual set design and photography and the near-constant white noise on the soundtrack--industrial sounds are almost always audible in the background--Mangold has set up a system of images and motifs that make the film work almost without dialogue. When Victor says, "I just wanted everything to stay the same," the line is superfluous; Mangold has made Victor's emotional paralysis quite plain: Victor's self-destructive obsession with the status quo is exactly what every repeated image until that point (a plate of eggs, a sinkful of dishes, a dog's bowl, the Farrah poster) pointed inexorably toward, and what Victor must eventually free himself from.

If there are any doubts about how Mike Leigh sees his characters, there are none about Mangold. He admires Victor--and everyone he represents--merely for taking the most courageous step possible: finding the strength in the face of the awesome horizon of a miserable existence to keep getting up morning after morning just to go on living in the seemingly vain hope of finding something better. What Mangold and Leigh understand with such lucidity is that in the best film realism, as in life, it's not the destination that matters; it's the searching.

Heavy. CFP Distribution. Pruitt Taylor Vince, Liv Tyler, Shelly Winters, Deborah Harry, Evan Dando, Joe Grifasi. Written and directed by James Mangold. Now playing.

Secrets & Lies. October Films. Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Opens October 11.

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