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Julia, We Don’t Live in the 1980s

By Max Dunbar.


Classless: Recent Essays on British Film, Carl Neville, Zer0 2010

It’s hard to claim that British filmmakers are that interested in Britain. From Downton Abbey to Wolf Hall, UK film, drama and novels are increasingly centred around the past: as a recent Guardian editorial had it, the past is safe. Even where the contemporary is represented, there is little sense of time. From a cultural viewpoint you can look around and get the impression that the financial crisis, the new austerity and the rise of the Islamic far right had never happened. Absence of time is matched by absence of place. As Carl Neville points out, British film is centred around London: London is where significant things happen. You never really see Edinburgh in Trainspotting or Shallow Grave, but at the start of Renton’s brief career in London ‘the first shots of his work and bedsit are presaged by an almost comical number of establishing shots of such a clunkily generic nature that it’s hard to determine whether this is a parody’. And perhaps that should be ‘the better part of London’. I remember watching Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, which centres on a primary teacher in a sink school, and being struck by the location shots of the average London that the average Londoner knows.

Classless is more concerned with identifying the ideological character of recent British cinema, the ways in which it is tied into the dominant neoliberal orthodoxies of Blairism’. The whole book is written in this sub-Chomskyan style. The verbosity. The lumbering sarcasm. The giggling contempt. Danny Boyle’s children’s film Millions is ‘a neoliberal propaganda piece par excellence.’ From the chapter on Slumdog Millionaire: ‘In X Factor Britain, we’re all just a step away from celebrity and there is no greater accomplishment than being able to sing and dance… It’s fitting that as the disparity between rich and poor increases to unprecedented levels and class mobility disappears, Bollywood becomes the model for Brit Feel-good.’ It’s a shame Neville didn’t include Happy Go Lucky: ‘Poppy’s quest to spread ‘happiness’ illustrates that she acts as a corrective balm or opiate for the despair caused by capitalism and thus is an unconscious agent for the reinforcement of neoliberal hegemony’ – etc. The bullshit just writes itself.

I haven’t seen many of the films Neville talks about. I can probably assume that Stephen Frears’s The Queen is not a piece of revolutionary socialist realism. Let’s look instead at the Trainspotting chapter. There are many legitimate criticisms of the film. While Trainspotting the novel was a complex study of friendship set against smack-drenched 1980s Edinburgh, Trainspotting the movie is a pop video that in ‘its speediness and euphoria… is more akin to the effects of Ecstasy or cocaine than heroin.’ It is the Richard Curtis aesthetic applied to the other end of society.

Neville’s real problem is the moments of laughter and camaraderie in the film. ‘A good time can also be a form of propaganda,’ he tells us, and elsewhere writes that ‘The extent to which E culture acts as a mass-mollifier and a soporific, the ways in which it mutes or channels legitimate angers, the degree to which it was reactionary, will have to be considered elsewhere.’ Trainspotting shows the positive as well as the desolate of smack culture: as Renton says, ‘People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.’

Irvine Welsh said about the adaptation of his book that ‘People are sick of the kind of representations of the world that we live in as a kind of bland Four Weddings and a Funeral sort of place…[but] to see Trainspotting just as a kind of reaction to social oppression, to social circumstances, is to rip some of the soul out of it and to make the characters into victims.’ Quite so. Welsh’s books are gritty as hell but also full of surreal and magical aspects – mystical curses, body swaps, talking animals. He argues that the realist school of working class writing is itself condescending because it assumes that working class people can only write about themselves and their own circumstances. Neville is having none of this. ‘Welsh’s complaint is that in realism the poor are being portrayed as victims (but the poor are victims); that they will be portrayed as divested of agency (but the poor have been divested of agency).’ Got that? In one line Neville reduces an entire culture to a pair of outstretched, begging hands and imploring eyes.

Renton is no hero and his betrayal of his friends at the story’s climax sticks in Neville’s throat. The fact that Renton compensates his friend Spud, the film’s moral centre, means only that ‘the important thing is that you put a bit back, offering alms for the deserving poor.’ Redistribution of wealth? No: ‘the final attempt to absolve Renton/the viewer.’ Neville’s problem is that individual change is possible, through work, luck, treachery or talent – just ask Welsh himself, who went from a Leith council estate to Millionaire’s Row through his writing. Does this too mean betrayal? In interviews in Aaron Kelly’s comprehensive study of Welsh, the novelist talks about the conflict between wanting to smash the system and assimilate into it – what he calls the antagonism in every working class head. Neville can’t be bothered to explore these issues.

Neville’s condescension to the poor is matched by a condescension to the reader. After the fall of the markets, after the return of the aristocratic elite to power where it forces the rest of us to repent for the mistakes of the financial elite, does anyone still believe the myths of the end of history and the classless society and Cool Britannia that Neville works so hard to dispel? You feel like a nineteen-year-old female undergraduate, listening to a middle-aged tutor explain at tedious length and too close proximity the things you already know.

In the end, I wish Neville good luck in fighting the dominant neoliberal orthodoxies through the medium of film criticism. Personally, I’ll paraphrase another Welsh hero, and admit that I’ll stick to booze and books to get me through the long dark night of late capitalism.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 21st, 2010.