Family Life (1971)

7 11 2008

A big step-up from Cathy Comes Home but I still have some problems with Ken Loach’s type of cinema. In both films I’ve seen from him, he starts out with some intriguing, if not completely successful attempts at formal experimentation, but at some point in each film, everything drops and Loach comes too comfortable in the realm of shakycam ‘n arguing. This is not a problem for me, especially when the film’s performers are as excellent as they are here, but Loach’s aesthetic seems to be completely lost on me over the certain period of time. Cassavetes could (and did) film people arguing intensely for two and a half hours, but it was still completely captivating. Loach does the same for only a hundred minutes, but has to crawl to reach the finish line.

Loach starts this film in almost the same way as Cathy Comes Home. The first twenty minutes or so, of both films, are extremely impressive. In Family Life in particular, Loach perfects this slightly odd technique of putting the dialogue over completely random and unrelated images. This sounds slightly forced, but it really saves the film from being a talkative bogged down mess, well at least it does so for awhile. Oddly enough, the tonal transition is marked by an extremely long head shot of a character answering a psychiatrist’s questions.

At this point, Loach’s interest in creative montages seem to disappear and straight-forward naturalism takes over. Again, I have no problem with this approach, but I find Loach’s borderline conventional dramatic sensibility creeping into the pacing. Sure, A Woman Under the Influence had prolonged sequences of arguing and/or fighting, but there was just as many sequences like the ones of Peter Falk’s children drinking his beer. Loach’s film isn’t consistently brutal like say, The Life of Oharu, but even that film occasionally offers glimmers of hope. One gets the sense that the protagonist here is on a never-ending downward spiral.

I suppose Loach’s status as a “socially-concious” filmmaker reflects this structure, but it would also be going a bit too far to say his characters are simply pawns for a sociological statement. At the same time, I can’t really say that he seems to care all that much for his characters, either. This is where, how, and why the actors save the film. The lead, Sandy Ratcliff as the emotionally and mentally complicated young Janice is simply amazing to watch. Nevermind the fact that she is (very) beautiful, she also perfectly reinforces the type of frustration that her parents feel. Without her superb performance, her father, played by Bill Dean, would see more like the dad in Broken Blossoms. Instead, he’s a bit closer to one in A nos amours. The film itself is tedious and certainly far from perfect, but it is worthwhile simply for some fantastic performances.

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2 responses

7 11 2008
Jake Aesthete

It’s funny you should mention A nos amours, as “shakycam ‘n arguing” is exactly what that filmed seemed like to me, to it’s slight detriment (and shot much more theatrically than Cassavetes, at that). Since this style doesn’t exactly seem to be your type of thing anymore, i’m actually surprised that you love Pialat’s film as much as you do.

I haven’t seen much Loach, but I think you should still check out more Mike Leigh, since his best stuff is a lot more quiet tension/awkwardness based than extended scenes of arguing…

8 11 2008
Jake Savage

I actually do love this thing when it does right, which is not quite the case here. I think there’s plenty of other formal elements of interest in Pialat’s film anyway. I think a lot of the arguing sequences in that film have a slightly comedic lining to them, just because they’re so ridiculous and come out of nowhere. The “theatricality” (or distance) with which Pialat shoots these sequences sort of supports this.

I’ve been unfairly putting off Leigh without any reason. Bleak Moments is towards the very top of my netflix queue, but for whatever reason, I have yet to get myself particularly excited for his films, even though I’d probably love them anyway.

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