Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Film Club Reviews #5: Ten Thoughts Inspired By: Happy-Go-Lucky

happy-go-lucky: adj carefree, easy going, blithe, casual, devil-may-care, heedless, improvident, insouciant, irresponsible, lighthearted, nonchalant.

1. Just think of the ways it could've gone wrong, the cheery lie it could've been, ticking all those lovely Oprah buzzwords along the way; feelgood, life-affirming, heart-warming. This is the danger you invite when making a film 'about' happiness of course. Isn't happiness shallow and delusional? Isn't the greatest art edgy and dark, gazing unflinchingly into the existential doom of it all? Happy films, by contrast, are for undemanding children and maiden aunts, those for whom life is merely a series of illustrated Hallmark slogans.

2. Notice, however, the subtle but crucial difference between happy and happy-go-lucky. One's a fleeting emotion, the other's a state of mind. One's something you aspire to, the other's a question of character. Poppy is thirty, no boyfriend, no kids, no mortgage. She lives with her best friend Zoe in a rented house, works as a primary school teacher. She's managed to avoid most of life's responsibilities up to now while retaining her independence of spirit. How can she carry this on into her 30s and beyond? Isn't it inevitable life will wear her down, that her youthful exuberance will wane? The film seems to ponder her on the cusp of all this. It's both a love letter to and a kind of elegy for a way of life that soon may disappear forever.

3. ''I think the bravest thing you can do in the world today is be happy...The people I most admire are those who’ve got the guts to face life, and deal with it, and live it completely down to their toes, and not escape anything....''

Bjork could be defining Poppy's world-view there. It's brave to be happy in a world that's trying to break your spirit every day, as long as you face life honestly that is. Being mindlessly happy, ignorant of life's complexities, unfairness and drudgery is, on the other hand, the delusional refuge of a prize ninny. Poppy isn't like that, although a lesser actress might have failed to find the moments of soulful doubt needed to offset the irreverence, those brief glimpses of wistful acknowledgment that let us know how hard it really is to keep this blithe optimism going.

4. ‘‘Real happiness comes from things that deserve gravity. There’s no punchline to those things. Moments of happiness aren’t light-hearted. If you watch people fucking, it doesn’t look like they’re trying on a joke.’’

It's a commonplace default position for many would-be intelligent people to view optimism and happiness as a kind of dereliction of duty, a failure to take THE TRUTH seriously. And they have a point of course but maybe there's a counter-argument to be made, as in the quote above by Kristen Hersh, that only taking dark subjects seriously is a pose, a crutch for immature minds. Maybe it's only the truly serious who appreciate what a grave business happiness can be, the pursuit of it, the experience of it, the preservation of it.

5. Don't get me wrong here, though. I enjoy being as grumpy as the next man. I'm not suggesting all the shiny happy people march on the Heartbreak Hotel and burn it to the ground. Oh no, far from it. I worked in a shop once where we had to endure some management consultant from the States trying to instill into us this idea of PMT, positive mental attitude. I couldn't imagine anything worse, still can't. It a fatuous lie, a way for the bosses to keep us in our place, happy with our lot, dreaming the American dream as our souls calcify. Being cynical, angry or fed up are all vital human emotions, it's just they're not necessarily better than the happy ones, don't automatically occupy the moral high ground.

6. I read a few years ago about a survey of American poets which found that the vast majority of them had never learned to drive, completely at odds with the general population. Poets, of course, are renowned for retaining a more childlike view of the world, necessarily seeing it as if for the first time. These two things then, retained innocence and refusal to learn to drive, are surely connected.

Notice we first see Poppy merrily riding through the city on her bike. She's never learned to drive either. But then her bike is stolen and finally she gives in, decides it's time to learn. It says a lot about the position cars have in our society that they've become so linked with our ideas about growing up. Your first car is a milestone, an initiation rite of passage, one of the first wrungs on the ladder of adulthood. Anyone who reaches their 30s and still hasn't learned to drive is viewed with, at best, bemused incomprehension. But instinctively some people avoid them because they don't want to climb that ladder, are perfectly happy where they are thank you very much. They don't want to grow up, or at least not in the way every one else does.

7. So Poppy starts driving lessons with a ball of barely suppressed rage called Scott, whose flimsy grasp of sanity rests on his belief in his abilities as a driving instructor. But Poppy doesn't take him seriously from the start, openly incredulous of his rules and rants. Poor Scott gets more wound-up with every lesson, bellowing En-ra-ha! at every turn, infuriated by her refusal to take anything he says seriously. Here, in fact, her blithe indifference is close to mockery.

It's a mark of the film's emotional intelligence that when Scott inevitably loses it, pulls Poppy's hair, explodes in an irrational, hate-filled rant, we kind of feel sorry for him. It doesn't negate how thoroughly wrong he is, how paranoid, racist and damaged he is, to see the bullied boy he once was/still is, how once we let grievance and self-pity in, it can eat us alive.

8. All this is funny of course. In fact, it's easy to imagine the Poppy/Scott scenes as a 30s screwball comedy set-up. Uptight, life-shy instructor has his world turned upside down when carefree hieress Poppy jumps into his car (by accident of course). Happy-Go-Lucky could be an exercise in seeing how a screwball heroine would cope in the real world. Carole Lombard, say, or Katherine Hepburn, could have played Poppy with that blithe indifference to consequence that is the hallmark of the screwball actress. Which would make Scott the kind of shy doofus usually played by Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, except with bad teeth and panicked eyes. This is what it means for men like this to really have their lives invaded by feminine chaos. Rage and fear are the secret subtext of all screwball comedies.

9. Poppy is concerned about the happiness of others. She's compassionate, wants to help people like the young boy in her class being bullied at home. It's a desire that can make her stray into areas she shouldn't, though, like her encounter with the homeless man. Coming home on her own at night she hears his mutterings and goes to investigate into a dark, deserted clearing behind some buildings.

It's crazy, halfway unbelievable, and ultimately mysterious. It's the heart of the film really. One of those rare scenes that don't tell you what to think. What does it mean? Is this her possible fate? The fate of all good-hearted people, to be broken by life, hiding in the shadows from the rubber knocker man?

10. Mike Leigh's created some annoying women in his career, a gallery of wittering, over-mannered characters going all the way back to Alison Steadman's iconic turn in Abigail's Party (1977). And Poppy could have been another one, to rank with the nadir of this tendency, Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman's epic competition to see who could out-quirk the other with headflicks and facial tics in Career Girls (1997). Seriously, I still wake in a cold sweat some nights thinking about it. But thankfully, the brilliant Sally Hawkins managed to take in all the usual Leigh characteristics while still creating a living, breathing human being, an intelligent woman determined not to take life too seriously, to laugh at it, take the piss, despite being perfectly aware of how truly serious it really is.


  1. Interesting but probably not convinced me to give up on my hatred of Mike Leigh and actually watch another of his movies. For the reason you have explained in point 10 - Leigh depicts working class people, especially women, as hideous, moronic freaks.

  2. I'd say it's the suburban middle classes he usually has a go at to be honest. Look, I'm no Leigh fan either. The only other one of his films I like is Naked and even that was nearly ruined by a couple of absurdly caricatured performances. His much vaunted improv method often leads to self-indulgent performances (Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, etc) but occassionally an actor takes it beyond just 'doing a mike leigh' (much in the way actors often start 'doing' woody allen when they appear in his films) and take the film by storm. David Thewlis did it as Johnny in Naked, a character that stands not only outside any other Leigh film but outside British cinema as a whole. And while I'm not saying Sally Hawkins is anywhere near as good as that, she does imbue the film with her own spirit I think, refusing to let Poppy (that name!) become a collection of condescending mannerisms masquerading as a person.