These are hard times for the little people.
Jan 18, 2007 (Updated Sep 8, 2007)
Review by sadgit
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:high density piece of philosophy, uncompromising realism, raw and poignant
Cons:few likeable characters, violent, brutal, ugly and bleak.
The Bottom Line: it's an acquired taste, but if you can stomache it, its probably one of the most important films out there.
This is an essay length review that contains major spoilers. Please be warned that this review also contains strong language and explicit descriptions of sexual violence.
Recommend this product?
British director Mike Leigh has made various TV plays and films since the 1970's. His works were improvisational, hard hitting and poignant and largely preoccupied with domestic characters at a life's crossroad and in reflecting how the radical changes in society since the 1960's were having a drastic effect on the family, economics and society's interpersonal environment. However in terms of philosophical, topical density and sheer darkness of tone, his 1993 film "Naked" found Mike Leigh surpassing himself to such a degree that he will probably never reach again.
In 1993, the fallout of Margaret Thatcher's time as prime minister had left Britain in decay with a vast chasm between the rich and the poor, and the emergence of a new mass underclass of people that were out of work and were suffering cuts to their benefits and resources of support. "Naked", much like Ken Loach's films "Raining Stones" and "Ladybird, Ladybird" and even the gross-out comedy series "Bottom" was a portrayal of the lives of those people below the poverty line. Lives not only steeped in mere economic poverty, but also social, moral, spiritual and intellectual poverty as well. Much like Ken Loach's films, "Naked" was more than anything about how people in the underclass, particularly those who suffered to urban alienation were particularly vulnerable to crime, violence and victimisation.
With "Naked", Mike Leigh had made a film that says so much about modern British society in the space of 130 minutes. It is probably Leigh's darkest and most brutal film, and as a viewing it borders on morbid inaccessibility and yet somehow remains a hypnotically arresting film throughout. I wouldn't call it a car crash viewing (even though it plays very close to the line) because that would belittle its grand achievements as a potent piece of celluloid.
The central character of this film is a wandering loner man from Manchester called Johnny, played superbly by David Thewliss. Johnny is a fiercely intelligent individual with a keen intellect, a quick wit and clearly has a long history as a bookworm. On a good day he can charm the nightingales out of the trees, but somehow he can't help but let his own demons rule. He is also a bitter and restless misanthrope and is heavily prone to a loose temper and violent behaviour towards women. He is basically an anti-hero and in the opening scene of the film he is committing a rape on a local woman, and then he flees the city with a free ticket to London in the hope of dodging reprisals from any vigilantes.
In London he catches up with his embittered ex girlfriend Louise- a career girl who lives with a stoner flatmate Sophie who is frequently victimised by Jeremy, their rich and sadistic landlord, who is also a serial rapist. Johnny finds it impossible to settle and ends up wandering from one hellish situation to another, trying to find belonging and shelter on the lonely and mean streets of London.
Script, what script?
What rather surprised me about this film was learning that like most of Mike Leigh's films, virtually all the dialogue is improvisational. This seems strange because the dialogue is so witty, sophisticated and literate and lends itself so well to eloquent soliloquy. The improvisational approach is reflected by the directing with the kind of domestic, soap-like long takes of scenes. Yet I still am sceptical, and I still think there must be some lines of it that are scripted, particularly the longeurs. But the point is that for all its sophistication, for all its linear direction of anecdote after anecdote in a seeming progression, and seemingly deliberate lines that hint at a deeper meaning or theme or which convey dramatic irony, the delivery of dialogue is very much one that feels as authentic as authentic gets (give or take a pregnant pause).
Not only that but it is dialogue that stops for no kind of vetting of what is going too far. Every strong swearword is invoked to convey this anti-society where "f*ck off!" is the new "How do you do?", and indeed what we are seeing is very much a f*ck-off society. The dialogue also casually dips into issues as controversial as overturning the concept of religion and God, the doomsday prophecies, Chernobyl, rape, misogyny, Aids and abortion, but it never feels unnatural or cheap, this is simply how these morbid characters think and speak.
Indeed the dialogue is what really gives the film its durability even in its bleakest moments. It is the dialogue that gives it its delicious, acidic bite even in the most depressing of moments. Some of its insults are really quotable, like Johnny's sneering retort to his ex-girlfriend Louise's description of a morning's events "What's that? The greatest story ever told?" or where she asks him how he got here he rattles off the long explanation
"Well basically there was this little dot, right and the dot went bang! and the bang expanded, energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeda the fish, the fish the fowl, the fowl the froggie, the froggie the mammal, the mammal the monkey, the monkey the man. Amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday"
And there are far more quotables to cite later, but fundamentally as this is shot like a documentary, the biggest punch is usually delivered by the dialogue that carries the pain and the confusion and gives those lines its sting.
"Why are you such a bastard?"
"You didn't f*ckin' warn me about him did you?"
"Is it alright if I scream? Is that okay with you all because I'd sure feel better for it?"
The character of Johnny reflects a modern phenomenon and the times we live in today where the wandering young loner man is a figure that has become a very common sight on the streets of Britain. In the 1960's, virtually every man was ensured a place in work and the community and the family institution. But British society has changed much since then and a culture of anomine is becoming commonplace.
However aside from that there is little that is common about Johnny. He is something of an enigma of a character, and this is a classic aspect of Mike Leigh's cinema of treating his characters like onions and gradually stripping away the layers and making the viewer cry in the process. Throughout the film we learn much about how Johnny views the world- after all he is a very philosophical man. But at the same time there is much about him that we are only guessing at.
We know he is unemployed and that he is particularly adept at living on the streets and might have been doing so for a long while before he came to London. His wide vocabulary and fondness for books suggests he might have often sought shelter in Libraries- something that very much characterises the tragedy of his fate since he had massive potential to succeed academically. Indeed his fondness for books hints also at his rejection of the mass media.
One thing that defines Johnny is his tendency to intellectualize popular culture and mythology and ultimately draw them to the bleakest, most hopeless dead end conclusions- that is the nature of depression. It reminds me somewhat of the lyrics of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again" and how those lyrics give an insight into the mind of an intelligent but depressed man who psycho-analysed love thoroughly till it lost all its spark, warmth and hope and reduced it to dust in a particularly chilly wind. There are scenes where Johnny gives articulate outbursts about the state of the modern world and spiritual decay that to me are amongst the most defining dissections of the modern society and pop culture you will ever find. Their massively encompassing relevance to me is matched only by the BBC series Our Friends in the North.
The most frequent remarks made by the older generation about modern society are about how life is not as slow paced as it used to be. Infact life and mass media are both lived in the fast lane these days, and ADD is now as common as muck, and Johnny says this much about modern society and media.
"That's the trouble with everybody - you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you and you're bored with it. You've had the living body explained to you and you're bored with it. You've had the universe explained to you and you're bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills and plenty of them and it doesn't matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it's new, as long as it's new, as long as it flashes and beeps in forty different colours!"
On a superficial level that really defines nineties cinema and the MTV channels where to some viewers, TV and cinema have become a supersonic blur of fast cuts and epileptic seizure-inducing flashy lighting. It nicely sums up the modern generation, as not being a stupid generation, but rather one that gets fed up of learning easily. But it primarily says much about the environment of this film.
Somehow that speech becomes the central answer to the question of why Johnny continually fails to connect with people and why empathy is hard to find, particularly for him because he thinks outside the box and because he is searching for greater things and always wants more intimacy from people that they're not prepared to tenaciously paddle in, much less invest in. It also characterises much of the violence and cruelty that we witness in this film- that the gang beatings, brutality and rapes are all committed for no other reason than a hunger for cheap thrills and a terrible modern disconnection from humanity.
I've often said that one of the key aspects of nineties cinema is its drive to always wow the audience from the beginning and then continually one-up itself with each following scene. In a film as character based and as literate as "Naked", the film does this in a more intellectual and emotional way. Indeed that mind blower of a line above happens in the first half hour of the film, there is a lot more topical ground to cover.
The character of Johnny makes this into an existential film of the kind usually found in Italian, Polish, Norwegian and Russian cinema. He is very much a bitter intellectual who despises stupidity wherever he sees it, and he sees it everywhere, and when he doesn't, he sees pretentiousness, falseness and lies instead, and as with a lot of existential films there's an underlying sense of how maybe it is the people who don't dwell on the meaning of life who are often the most happy and content, and indeed hinting that being an intellectual can be a curse rather than a blessing. I must say I am not the biggest fan of existential cinema because of its tendency for slow pacing. I can be patient with slow moving films but existential films tend to go one step further into the realms of lethargy, and are humourless to boot. Despite which I did very much like Solaris and The Double Life of Veronique and this is another existential film to add to my little niche favourites. Mainly by virtue of its wordy density and its gallows humour.
I am myself quite a spiritual person. I'll admit it, I'm one of those annoying twenty-somethings who listened to Martika's "Love Thy Will Be Done" the once, and suddenly decided to become a new-ager. I'm not sure where my beliefs lie yet, perhaps somewhere between buddhism and wicca and I still hold onto the basics of rationalism, but I do believe in the importance of spiritual well-being and maintaining what is good for the soul, and rejecting the things that are bad for the soul, such as violence, hatred, revenge. I believe in empathy and understanding over judgement, of rejecting absolutes, conformity, emotional repression and the other things that lead to contempt and snobbery towards others. I believe in cultivating love and positive vibes and self-knowledge, and I think that is all very important in a society that is littered with bad vibes, a society that is driven by authority, repression, etiquette, conformity, mockery, pornography and dehumanisation.
Naked is very much a film about spiritual decay in a lonely world where bad vibes are at their most abundant in this anti-society. In many ways as a film about spiritual decay, it is in its own way demoralising to the spirit by its relentless negativity. It is certainly a film that shows how hard it can be to remain a spiritualist and a pascifist in our violent society (more on that later). But at the same time this film shows the importance of spiritual cultivation as it portrays a world where a man has to scour a brutal landscape and search every hidden nook and cranny to find just a spec of friendship, compassion or understanding.
Johnny is fortunate enough to meet Brian, a lone security guard on a high rise building, who takes pity on Johnny that cold night when he sees him sitting outside the doorway. Brian lets him in to be in the warm and seems glad of the company too as they spend the night talking for hours. Inevitably and with quick succession, the conversation turns to philosophy, beginning with Brian telling him about how he believes in reincarnation and about the time he saw a hypnotherapist and was regressed back into his own previous lives. The debate quickly turns angry as Johnny gives his hopeless theory inspired by Nostradamus and the books of Revelation that in 1999 the world will end and all human life will die out.
You have to remember that this was back in 1993, and in a way this film seems to pre-empt a lot of the later 90's films that reflected a current feeling of pre-millenial dread (a feeling I was reminded of in the recent countdown to the new year), and such films often made use of the doomsday theories and the gnostic philosophies. Most famously, The Matrix made the gnostic theory of how the reality we live in is a false one that must be destroyed in order to reach the true reality, into something trendy and sexy for a while. But there is nothing sexy about this debate, this is something altogether more raw and uncompromising. This is about the power of belief to hold together a broken man's messed up mind and soul by the very strings.
It's about a man who is so depressed and troubled that he genuinely believes that the end of the world can only be a good thing that will finally bring him peace. His gnostic theory of an existance beyond our world is not one of geekdom awe, but a tired and desperate belief that if there has to be another world out there and it has to be better than this one. Johnny's phiosophy is so bleak and hopeless that he has to share it and what we see between these two philosophical men is an angry argument with the clash of existentialism, individualism, determinism, self-determination, hope and fear. It isn't presented to us in sexy, cool and easily digested soundbites, but is actually a relentless tyrade of evangelicism where myths become facts by linking prophecies to recent events (i.e. Wormwood and Chernobyl). It's a dreadnought of a doomsday philosophy, that smashes and crumbles everything in its path. We're not merely experiencing a man's convictions, but watching his pessimism destroy the other man's faith. After this long, demoralising tyrade there's a deep intake of breath as Brian absorbs this hopeless belief and makes one last attempt to assert his own hope. "I don't believe that. Life can't just come to a stop".
And what adds to the beauty of the scene is that it takes place in quiet sanctuary in a place of security, high above ground level and as these two philosophers talk together there's the noise of the crowds of angry, drunken masses outside the windows, moving under their feet like human sewage whilst these men talk of heaven and hell, and indeed hell on Earth and the inescapeable coming of doomsday. The final clincher of it, and by which I mean it grabs you and doesn't let go, is when Johnny starts talking of his idea of God and how he believes that God is evil, that God does not love his creations, which is why he made such a rotten world plagued by evil for them to inhabit. Most theologians would maintain that evil has its place in creation and that it is an essential component of free will. However Johnny does not believe in free will, he believes that no matter what he or anyone does, suffering will always be a constant in their lives and humanity as a whole has already had its expiry date stamped on it. He doesn't believe either that good and evil are balancing forces in this world, he believes evil will always win because evil by its very nature destroys, enrages, manipulates, confuses, corrupts and disillusions and as such it spreads and breeds and conquers in a way that good never possibly can. It is actually one of Johnny's most revealing speeches, as his indictment of evil is an indictment of himself, a quiet, unspoken acknowledgement that he himself has committed evil acts, cruel acts, unforgiveable acts. Indeed if this is how he envisions God as a figure of apathy, contempt and cruelty, it should be remembered that we all create god in our own image.
It should also be noted that in his existential speech he only ever refers to pain and suffering as something abstract. He never tells of the kind of pain he's suffered though its crystal clear he has suffered a lot, but he never talks about it. As much as Johnny is a fountain of knowledge, there is a sense that all his wisdom is second hand and that he actually lacks the essential self-knowledge, which is why as much as he is able to whiter on for hours about existence, popular culture, religion and history and is able to intersperse literate, multi-syllabic words into conversations as casually as his 'f*cks', when it actually comes down to self expression, his only method of communication is violence and aggression, and so often when he is in intimate situations with women, he inevitably goes into a rage and ends up beating the woman to a pulp. Indeed his quick temper probably makes him the kind of man that most gangsters and football hooligans would find too volatile and scary to know, and that's a lonely life indeed. For the most part he is the archetypal Generation X character who doesn't reveal any kind of history to him and every declaration he makes about there being no future for him or anyone hints that he doesn't really have a past either, or rather that he does have a past that he doesn't want to either remember or acknowledge. He is actually a ghost of a man, and this is played on beautifully.
His most revealing moment about his younger years is when he is in a concussed and delirious state. He seems to mistake Jeremy for his father and re-enacts one of his adolescent memories, and there are hints of something deeply dysfunctional about that father-son relationship that shaped Johnny into a very confused and insecure man, but in typical Mike Leigh fashion, we are left with more questions than answers. I should say actually that this scene is one primal scream , borderline melodrama moment that I could see few actors being able to pull off as magnificently as David Thewlis does.
Parental abuse, neglect, isolation or discouragement would indeed explain a lot about Johnny's insecurity with women, and his conflicted need of love and his phobia of it. It is possible that he might have come from a strong religious background that forbid him any interaction with females which is why his encounters with women often end quite brutally, so convinced is he that he will always be rejected by women that he always compulsively makes sure it happens. His hatred of women is clearly a projection of his hatred of self and so he directs his contempt and cruelty towards those women who are, in the words of another wise reviewer, 'stupid enough to love him'. And we see that when he tells the battered woman 'you wouldn't want to f*ck me, you'd catch something frightful' or when his witterings have drifted far from coherency and have clearly lost him favour with the flyposter who he met on the street who is trying to avoid him and is getting rather intimidated now, yet Johnny compulsively keeps digging himself a hole and prattling on until he gets punched.
It is the depth to the character of Johnny that makes us care about him, or at least makes him hypnotic to watch, despite the vile things he does. As with all misanthropes, there's inevitably some identifiable kernel of truth in one of his complaints or outbursts that one of us can probably relate to that makes the character feel somewhat affirming. There's also his eccentricity and sense of adaptableness that endears us to him, such as when he's trying to coax a discussion about Nostradamus and Socrates out of a particularly dense and impatient teenage homeless boy with tourettes. Besides he may be many things, but he is certainly not shallow, and shallow is how the rest of his surroundings is often depicted. He is also favoured by the kind of facial camera shots that capture his puppy dog eyes and make us feel like we're looking into his soul and all his compassion, regret and pain.
You can't help but be happy when things finally seem to work out for him and he hits it off with a cafe waitress (played by Our Friends in the North's very own Gina McKee) and when she takes him into her home he finally seems to find peace of mind and a genuine fondness and suddenly he is actually fun to be around. Likewise you can't help but share in his sadness and disillusionment when in a fit of unexplained depression she suddenly can't bear to have him in the house and she kicks him out, and suddenly we realise it is for a misfit like Johnny to make it amidst a tyranny of etiquette and its landscape of conversational minefields and confusion, particulary at this time of mass unemployment and the crisis of masculinity.
This post-feminist world often does have its nasty social bureaucracy where men are often treated as being guilty of something they don't understand, and where no-one dares to interact or go courting unless they've read all the online guides for doing so. It is fitting that having spent the film's length philosophising and analysing, his words now are of defeated acceptance of his fate. "It just goes to show you, it doesn't matter how many books you read or how much you think you know because there are some things in this world that you just never, ever, ever, ever, ever f**king understand!" and Thewlis really wrings everything from that line and gives it that sting. And suddenly we can only see Johnny as a victim of both society and his own nature and as tragic wasted potential.
"You must be out of your brilliant mind!"
This is very much Johnny's film and there's a brilliant way that the film makes this environment into an epic metaphor for Johnny's mindscape. Even though the film is very naturalist in style with lots of long takes and a fly on the wall view, still there is a distinctive feel and atmosphere to the film. From the first scene by night time, the streets by night just immediately feel like an evil savage place where there's no God and nothing that can or will pacify the people and there's a feeling that danger could lie behind every treacherous alleyway and corner. We relate to his eagerness to escape this evil place, albeit for different reasons, and from that moment on, every day is grey, cloudy and colourless and every night is at its most pitch black evil and exposed, and makes our protagonist seem so small and vulnerable. It is not a pretty film to look at by any stretch of the imagination, but the directing is a real work of art with a savage beauty about it. The look and feel of the film is as spiky as its protagonist. The city's hostile and predatory inhabitants are his very own demons, like a plague on his soul. His search for the few people in this wilderness that will offer him friendship and compassion is his search for his own better angels and peace of mind.
In some instances he will wander into the kind of sanctuaries that have a real timeless ambience about them, far removed from the world outside. The isolation and alienation of modern life has preserved more old fashioned ways of life in the homes of those older people who live alone, so that stepping into them is like walking into a time warp, and as with Mike Leigh's earliest film Bleak Moments, he really gives these places a muted Victorian gothic atmosphere that's so otherworldly. It's all dislocated and confused, just like Johnny's messed up mind where nothing really aligns, everything is rambling, cluttered and incoherent and so he can't build a robust sense of self. The rapes we witness are important too as they possibly represent trauma and the confusion and personality disintegration which often arises from that trauma, and this could easily apply to Johnny, but there's definitely a sense that what we are seeing is Johnny's guilt, forcing him to relive his crime again and again and again, and in this savage environment, he will ultimately suffer the punishment that he knows deep down he deserves.
Violence and Victims
Near the end of this film, Johnny will be black and blue and be reminiscing on why he came to London
"I had to leave Manchester otherwise I'd have gotten a beating, so I came down here and.... got a beating"
What is interesting is that Johnny expected only to get thumped by vigilantes for raping the local woman we saw at the beginning of the film. He wasn't afraid of being arrested by the police, because at this point in time very few lower class people would ever call the police on anyone. The threats of the victimised woman were pretty clear to him and us "You're f*cking dead!" For Johnny it wasn't going to be a case of being picked up by the boys in blue and facing a courtcase and jail time, but more a kind of brutal street justice involving a bunch of outraged vigilante thugs tracking him down and kicking his head in. Indeed this sets us up from the outset in a world where people have to fend for themselves, where you're only protected if you're known to the right people and where anomie is the worst, most defenceless state you can be in.
It should be noted that at this time, the police brutality that had defined much of the '84 Miner's Strike was still very fresh in the mind of many people. If you watch the political-paranoia thriller series "Edge of Darkness" (probably the finest one of its kind) or "Our Friends in the North", you will see that public negative attitude towards the police over that event reflected strongly. Many working class people felt disillusioned in the police and they believed that the boys in blue were more likely to victimise and brutalise them than to protect them. In some neighbourhoods it was even seen that if you called the police then you were a 'class traitor'. To me this film reflects how this broken chord of communication and trust between the public and the police has allowed violence and thuggery to run rampant in our communities, which I think is why we've come to the sorry state we're in today.
It is a theme that crops up again when Sophie is being raped and terrorised in her own home by the merciless landlord Jeremy. She is actually afraid to call the police on him because Jeremy is a rich man in a suit, while she is unemployed and she feels she won't be believed by them, and she falls to pieces. This is very much a film about victimisation and being reduced to your weakest state, and it is very much in tune with home truths. People like Sophie and her flatmates feel like real people, people we may know. With Sophie it is obvious that she's a heavy stoner which sometimes makes her descend into dumb weed babble, that she was part of the Gothic brand of 80's counterculture in her youth and that she was sexually active from a young age. It is also clear that she is very depressed, insecure, clingy and needy. These aren't the kind of people we usually see in current TV dramas now that everything has gone all glossy and supermodel on us. These people are common, they're not exactly the brightest bulbs in the bunch and they're clearly not happy people and there is an element of the shamelessly pathetic about them. Sophie is very much a victim and through her and through the reactions of other people to her predicament, the film acknowledges a very important home truth.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years of talking to my parents about the approaches taken to school bullying back in their day, or talking to Goths about the kind of violence they suffer to teenage gangs of chavs and how the police often challenge them for loitering in huge numbers, or talking to feminists about rape court cases, historically there seems to have always been one ruling constant in all the institutions of our society, even in the family. Society has the deepest contempt for victims. The thing about Sophie is that she seems to be the kind of natural victim that has likely been attacked or terrorised several times before by different people. Some people simply are natural victims and are prone to attract trouble, and it's very easy to suggest that it must therefore be the victim's fault. If I can put the lid on the 'blame the victim' attitude, then I guess the best and simplest explanation for why this keeps happening to people like Sophie is that bullies are very needy people and insecure people are often tragically cursed to attract other insecure people. But in light of the ways that our society despises victims, there is something affirming about the way we perceive Sophie. On the one hand the film invites us to empathise with her and give her the compassion she deserves since no character suffers in this film as much as she does. On the other hand, Sophie is presented also from an outside looking in perspective. Other characters find her quite annoying for her tendency to fall to pieces and descend into hysterics and self-pity, and its hard to blame them and at times there's an overwhelming desire to give poor Sophie a boot up the backside and to yell at her to pull herself together for God's sake. So the film affirms that as hard as it is to find compassion, it can sometimes be hard to give compassion when you feel pressured to do so or feel like you have to take on someone else's hard work. She basically represents shameless misery, and it rarely gets more shameless or authentic in presentation than here.
Inevitably the scenes of rape have made this film a very controversial one, which outraged feminists who considered the film to be misogynistic. If I might reference a different British film for a moment, there is of course Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). Another film that was pre-occupied with issues of crime, deprivation, neglect and urban decay. Again seen through the eyes of its amoral rapist protagonist who also articulates a sense of alienation, spiritual deprivation and a failure to empathise.
The thing is that I actually do find Clockwork Orange's scenes of rape deeply offensive and blood freezing, because I find its presentation to be voyeuristic, savage, eroticising, and its blend of lingering, static shots and muted aggression really leaves a bad taste in the mouth even if they are innocent Kubrick trademarks. There's something that feels sadistic about them, as if the female characters were only introduced to be victims. I would say that this film doesn't do that. This is never a film that titillates and what we experience in the rape scenes is a shared sense of terror and humiliation with its victims. What is most shocking is of course the relentless sadism that accompanies the rapes, but it does this in a way to really draw the whole being of sadism out into the open.
Jeremy is the victimiser, the serial rapist, an utterly sadistic man and Greg Cruttwell really chews the scenery and plays Jeremy as every bit the repugnant little creep that he is. There's not a scene goes by that's not peppered by his distinctive sneering chuckle, his shifty eyes and odious lingerings and gestures, and sick humour. His idea of an after-sex remark is "I hope I didn't give you aids".
Jeremy is a rather literate, well spoken man which characterises him with an upper class, snobbish contempt. He is clearly quite intelligent, manipulative and perceptive. He toys with his victims and tests them for weaknesses and when he gets the scent of weakness he pounces on them like an animal. Since this is an improvisational piece, we never actually get to learn much about Jeremy. We only know that he is rich and from a priviledged upbringing. He probably went to a private school and he's clearly a misogynist of the highest order. But as for what motivates him beyond pure sadism, we learn nothing. No revelations of an abusive childhood or such. It is taken as read that he is simply an evil man. Which to my mind is a home truth in itself, I believe there are people out there who are 'evil' in the true sense of the word, and who have no reason to subject people to violence and torment other than that they can and they simply enjoy it.
Given that Jeremy's motivations are so murky, it is possible to view him as something of an Iago character. A character who is not unlike a collective hallucination who personifies a cosmic dimension of true evil and brings to the fore all the weaknesses and fears of the characters around him. This is actually valid since although this film is presented in the style of naturalism, the dialogue is very much existential and willing to bring up ideas of evil and the diabolic. Given what I'd said about how the film almost plays like the interior of Johnny's mind, then Jeremy really is like the dark side of Johnny. The fact that Johnny seems to briefly mistake Jeremy's likeness for his father or brother says a lot, as does the sensation that one is a collective hallucination and the other is a ghost, and even the similarity of their names is suggestive.
There is also the moments where Johnny and Jeremy's morbid monologues seem to intersect thematically. In one disturbing scene, Jeremy is raping a waitress and delights in frightening her by telling her he's going to kill himself on his 40th birthday (because he doesn't ever want to look old), at once echoing Johnny's fixation with thoughts of death and somewhat linked to a rather sad scene of pathos where Johnny has to explain to a young homeless girl he just met that he's only 27 years old even though life has made him physically look like he's in his forties. At the same time it establishes Jeremy as representing the superficial, surface deep, image conscious, shallow vacuousness of modern life that Johnny rejects. So the contrasts are as interesting as the similarities.
Of course it is difficult to take what Jeremy says in this scene at face value since it may simply be tough talk to manipulate the greatest fear from his victim- another classic Iago-ism. But taking it at face value and it seems that Jeremy represents the nihilism and the absence of a life of meaning that comes with modern materialism, which may suggest a reason for why he hates and why he bullys.
Quite simply Jeremy represents hate. He embodies hate. He doesn't rape women out of lust, but out of a desire to terrorise and humiliate women and he laughs as he does it. He delights in the tears and the screams and the fear and humiliation and in reducing women to trembling bags of nerves. This also reflects a home truth about the nature of most rapists who are often misunderstood by conventional wisdom as acting on lust. The truth is that a lot of rapists don't actually reach orgasm during the violation, and so it is often hatred that is behind the act of rape, not lust. Jeremy hates women because he hates, because he hates, because he hates. And hatred is a foul, destructive, irrational emotion.
Johnny on the other hand represents rage, isolated rage that was never tamed enough because he has been neglected of human contact. In a situation like Johnny is in, isolated and homeless he has become that bit more bitter, that bit more desperate and unrestrained, that bit more paranoid and agoraphobic, that bit more angry and lusting. He's now largely incompatible with other people, and even in the hardest, most thuggish and leering corners of 90's lad culture he would probably be rejected for being too volatile and too extreme. Being posessed by hunger and want is very alienating because most people are instantly repelled by that. It's clear that because of his loneliness, his focus and sense of philosophy and sense of self have been gradually disintegrating bit by bit over a long period of time. I know this because I myself have been there. I have even gone down the 'religion is evil' path of thought because of it.
Unlike Johnny then, Jeremy is not a product of his environment. He wasn't made the way he is by his background or the current times he lives in. Jeremy is simply cruel by nature, he is hate, that is not brought about by bitterness or pain. Although this is a film about hard times breeding mean people, it would not matter what situation or age that Jeremy was born in because he represents hate that constantly exists within itself and always replenishes itself. Hate exists and prevails by virtue of being its very own bottom-feeder.
Johnny and Jeremy together show the great contrast between rage and hate. Johnny's rage is typically caught up in insecurity and helplessness, whilst Jeremy's hate is all about being in control and having power and having no fear. Johnny's rage is all about spontaneous impatience. Rage is about losing control. What we see when we see Jeremy sitting back, calmly and carefully observing Sophie's weaknesses is that hate is different because hate is patient and cunning. Hate can wait, and can be as calm as an ox and then simply pounce like a tiger. Yet, in its own way hate is relentless and savage and cannot be tamed in the way that rage can.
This is a great dichotomy of contrast between Johnny and Jeremy, poor man, rich man. For the main length of this film, the ideology resembles that of the working class hero. Johnny is the angry young man and Jeremy is the cruel rich man picking on the poor folk and the women. But in an affirming post modern moment the ideology then gets turned on its head and a view that contradicts this sense of working class nobility comes about. The scene involves Johnny walking back to Louise's house and he passes a large group of youths. For a moment it seems like Johnny and the young kids are going to have a conversation about what it's like living in a deprived area with nothing to do but hang out in gangs. But spontaneously and for no reason at all, the gang of youths attack Johnny, beating him to the ground then kicking him half to death like a pack of savage animals.
That is basically the youth of the 1990's, and if you think things were bad in Britain back then, read a local newspaper today and there'll probably be some mention of a brutal happy slapping and maybe the odd stabbing committed by similar gangs. We don't often see this kind of violence in films and on TV because TV and film is usually about cause and effect and is not in the habit of showing spontaneous violence committed for no reason, but in a film that is not only about real life, but is driven by a man's inability to find security or stability, and where hostility and rage is always something arbitrary, then the scene works. It also works as a reflection of how the mean spirits and bad vibes that permeate this society have clearly rubbed off on the young.
Animalistic is the word, and Mike Leigh's view of Thatcher's Britain as seen in this film is of a place where people have been allowed to revert to their savage, animalistic instincts. The divide between the rich and the poor has meant that the rich have the power and priviledge to abuse those paupers who are weakened and vulnerable to them. At the same time at the bottom of society there are savage elements too who are have nots who roam free on the power of having nothing to lose. Indeed I would say the film actually questions whether we might all have been better off in the tribal society, when we all shared a solidarity and purpose and owned the land. When things weren't so complicated and when we knew danger and threats when we saw it. We weren't vulnerable to mind games or to a society that pacifies us and yet forces us to co-exist with the criminal and violent elements.
I would say that this film is very much about the disillusionment of living in a world where violence and brutality happens for no reason. Where you can be attacked without provocation by complete strangers. Where victimisation isn't a means to an end, but a petty ends in itself. Where someone can be a threat to you the moment you meet them, or the moment you happen to walk down the same street as them.
As I said above, it is a moment that would be out of place if Mike Leigh had intended his film to be a strictly 'working class hero' kind of film. But in post modern fashion, just when it seems that one kind of ideology rules the film where the lower classes and upper classes are polarised as heroes and villains- out of the blue comes a more disillusioning presentation of the scum of the working classes- I mean really these kind of kids are slime!
This is something that we don't often see because portraying this evil aspect of working class youth has always been a controversial terrain and media heads can often get in trouble for telling the truth about this 'chav' culture and 'happy slapping'. For that I really take my hat off to that scene for its honesty about modern society. It often seems as though the media is deliberately pacifying our ire and anxiety over the mad dog violence of chav kids. British comedy shows like Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show make cartoonish caricatures out of chav youths, making them seem mockable, harmless and trivialised and I have a problem with that, and I admire this film for instead presenting chav kids and their violence in a way that outrages the viewer.
But lets be fair here and not be so self-righteous as a society because most of these kind of young thugs tend to only pick on the easy targets. Gangs of chavs often only act on the contempt that society as a whole harbours, and the kids and the people that chavs assault are usually society's misfits and the despised and unwanted. Goths, Emos, Skaters, homosexuals, asylumn seekers, loners, tramps, the weak, students (who are often subject to a kind of reverse classism) and various other misfits and non-conformists. It is our society that instils the judgements and hatreds that these thugs act on. We live in a society that despises victims and which always lumps the scum and misfits together. A society that can't tell the difference between a quiet reclusive and a savage sex offender, or for that matter, a respectable manipulative one.
I would say that this is why I've always spoken up for youth and subcultures against an unsympathetic older generation and an authority driven society. It's not just a question of those adults out there who are bullies, tyrants or lunatics or sadists towards the children under their authority. It is to do with how society marginalises and disempowers young people, places a bad stamp on them and effectively leaves them to the wolves, because this encourages chavs and thugs to victimise them. For the record though, I would say that unfortunately most chav kids don't come into my argument, and infact chavs are by and large every bit as savage, evil and irredemable as they are made out to be.
A film like Naked shows our world for what it really is. The truth is that any film could depict what this film depicts. Any film could make crass tabloid sensationalism of all the topics of rape, violence and misery and the sight of human beings at their worst, particularly if they chose to ignore the issue of motivation in the way this film does. And any film could verbally lampoon Thatcher's Britain. Margaret Thatcher was such a divisive figure to those in the public who lived under her tenure that huge numbers of people would be behind this film just for slagging her off, regardless of whether the film backed up its politics or not. But this is far from lowest common denominator material. This film manages to weave together all these elements into a film that is so potent and realist about what it really means to be at the bottom of society during this time. What it means to be easily preyed upon by the savage elements of society, caught between the scum that shares the bottom with you, and the more respectable scum that can quietly take advantage of you too. So this is a film in which what evil people can do is not as important as the question of why they're able to do it, and what it says about the hierarchy of our society.
Indeed, that is why "Naked" is such a genius title for this film. Apart from the way that the film takes internal thought processes into the external with its vivid dialogue and mindscape environment, it is a film about being left to the wolves like human meat. Indeed the way the film communicates such a sense of being left to the wolves, of wilderness and vulnerability to predatory elements is one that I can only claim to have sensed so vividly when I listened to Talib Kweli's "For Women".
How will it all End?
"I had this weird dream last night about two skeletons having a f*ck! Freaked me out."
As I mentioned above, Johnny is a man who spends most of his time with thoughts of death and armageddon on his mind. I would say that if there's any great tragedy to this film, then it's that the end never actually happens for Johnny, and he so badly wants it to. The real tragedy of this film is that for all the stress, loneliness, torment and brutality that these characters go through, when we get to the final scene, nothing has actually changed for the better at all. This is a film where everyone is damaged and no-one heals, where the most evil people come and go into their lives, but the conflict is merely incidental and when it is over, nothing progresses and life goes on and life is no easier on them than it was before.
Indeed when I think of the end of this film, I'm reminded of something pyfr once said about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "It seems to me that much of the population has gotten so fed up with the stupidity and cruelty of modern [western] society that a disaster, even one that might entail tremendous personal loss, is almost a welcome alternative to carrying on."
Throughout most of the film, it does seem likely that the paths of Johnny and Jeremy will cross. Indeed that's probably the only way for the film to climax. We were probably expecting there to be a big knock down between the working class hero and this evil man, and the film beautifully plays on this expectation. This is probably how Johnny wants to see himself, as someone heroic, as someone influential who can crack open mindsets with his knowledge and inspire others. I'd say that as I see Johnny as a ghost, I really see him as a man out of time, as a literary man in a televisual decade, a thinker in a vacuous world. I see Johnny as someone who might have done quite well a few decades earlier in the radical thinking circles of the 60's. He is someone who wants to be an activist, but he is isolated from human contact and really he is unable to empathise with people. He is unable to care enough to be a working class hero when he has no bond with people and he can't really sympathise with the plight of others.
The tragedy of all this is that over the course of the film, Johnny's attempts to find human warmth are in vain and he has become so weakened and downtrodden and beaten down and degraded that when this confrontation between Johnny and Jeremy comes, (and its got to be said that Johnny looks fairly hard) Johnny is defeated even before the fight has begun. He has by now taken such a physical, moral and emotional beating that instead of standing up to the man, he simply is lying on the floor in tears, in disillusionment and shock, simply unable to understand why this man is so evil.
I would say that in order to be strong in this world and to not exhibit the weaknesses that people prey on, you have to have the essential qualities of a robust mind. It is a question of having both intelligence and a firm sense of self knowledge. It is telling then that the biggest victims in this film, Johnny and Sophie are people who lack one or the other.
Ultimately the strongest character in the film is Johnny's ex girlfriend, Louise. She feels pain and sympathy but also remains strong. There are times when Sophie's fits of self pity provokes Louise to be brutally honest with her, so she bites her tongue for no-one. She is also the only one who is brave enough to stand up to Jeremy, usually whilst Sophie faces the wall, clearly too intimidated to even look him in the eyes. I see Louise as that great paradox of young people in the 1990's given how she represents a time of confident, assertive, articulate and outspoken women, and yet the times that surround her are very cruel and predatory, where bullies never leave the scent of weakness unchased.
It is not easy to stand up to someone like Jeremy, because he delights in appearing fearless and impossible to intimidate. He presents himself as a man with nothing to lose and who will gladly face any court in the land for it, but he will still rape and terrorize any woman he chooses. Louise however does manage to intimidate him into leaving, and though he goes unpunished, we are left sure that he will never bother them again and he is ultimately made to look quite small and pathetic by her. Sometimes all it takes is to call somebody's bluff and be confrontational anyway and be fierce about it, but it takes a lot of courage and it takes something of a willingness to share in the tormentor's mindset for a moment, which is to say that you have to be seen as honestly not caring what happens to you because of it, so long as you have your pride.
The ending of the film ultimately shows the different ways that people endure these daily hardships. Louise stays put where she is, confident and headstrong. Jeremy is scared off, although he does save face with everyone else but Louise. Sophie quickly runs away in tears with all her belongings, desperate to find a new home somewhere else. It is Johnny who makes the last scene of the film so iconic as it becomes clear that even after everything he suffered on the streets,he can't settle in Louise's home and he has to take to the streets again. He is a figure of endurance as he limps headstrong down the street, showing the world that he can stand on his own two broken feet, but deep down we all know that he isn't enduring this life out of bravery or spirit, but because he actually has no choice.
A New Year, A Better World?
In some ways British society seems like a better place today than it was in the early 90's. Certainly our society today doesn't quite have the overall appearance of the 'anti-society' or the 'f*ck-off society' that we see here. To all intents and purposes I would say that people today do have time for one another, and generosity, conversation and friendship is still out there somewhere for people to find. And yet still the kind of violence, hooliganism and rape seems to still run riot and every New Year seems to begin with a fresh spate of violence and brawling in the news.
We are a society that currently aspires to a womanist 'empathising' outlook, which is all about being openly emotional and sensitive to others. Many Mike Leigh films released since "Naked", namely films like "Career Girls", "Secrets and Lies" and "All or Nothing" have been very much films for our modern romanticised empathy culture. In some ways there is nothing wrong with that, although a friend of mine who lives down in London told me last year that having seen how admirably the Londoners coped with the July bombings, a bit of the old fashioned stiff-upper-lip resillience sometimes works better.
My point to this is that in some ways Naked is an empathising film with that classic Mike Leigh approach of sensitivity with its characters, of drawing respectful pathos out of the pathetic. Indeed it is a film that asks us to empathise with a thug and a rapist as its downtrodden anti-hero. But for all that I would say that the film shows the gaping faults in our empathising society, and uses Jeremy to illustrate this. Jeremy is a man who stands for everything that the empathising society isn't. He is cruel and sadistic and our empathising culture of bearing our soul and pain to others is something he would delight in, smiling at the tears and the anxieties of others, sneering at them all "Aren't people pathetic?". Indeed it would make it far easier for him to hunt his victims if they wear their sensitivities and weaknesses on their sleeves.
The idealised empathising culture is in some ways based on the naive idea that if you embrace everyone and give them understanding, then everyone will be alright and that people are only scum if you treat them like scum. but Jeremy is living proof that giving people everything they want does not make them better people at all. That it is not merely the dregs of society who commit violent and evil acts on others, but it is the respectable people too. The people with plenty of connections and friends and a good name to them. I would say that is very true and that there is far too much 'respectable' scum out there that we remain ignorant of as a society.
Indeed "Naked" is a film that always depicts the value of society in a negative light. Wealth and richness means snobbery, contempt and spoilt evil and a position to take advantage over the weak. On a similar principle, popularity, belonging and solidarity is represented by that gang of chav hooligans, who are like a savage pack of wolves. Ultimately though I would say the main flaw in an empathising society is to do with the fact that Jeremy represents how there are some people out there you should never, ever, ever try to empathise with. People like Jeremy are so relentlessly evil, hateful and twisted and sadistic, their minds so poisonous, that you really don't even want to think about where they are mentally and you should never let someone like that get inside your head, because it could literally drive you mad for years. I have always maintained that a diseased mind is a contagious one.
Mike Leigh no longer seems to make films like "Naked" anymore. His films are more domestic and family friendly, although his authentic approach and rawness has not changed. I would say that "Naked" was one of three Mike Leigh films, alongside "Meantime" (1983) and "High Hopes" (1988) that saw him briefly lean on something of a revolutionary ethos, or rather a sense that revolution is needed in these bleak times of Thatcher's Britain. I would say that "Naked" is definitely the most accomplished of the three films in that regard.
To me "Naked" is a film that hints at something deeply unhealthy and degrading about our society in the way it breeds bad vibes and denys young men a sense of self through neglect and deprivation. To me the message of "Naked" calls for the building of a socialist minded society instead. A society based on sharing and co-operation and one which rejects capitalist society's values of conformity and competition. A society where no-one is left behind, where people are raised on self-determination and a belief in being part of something. A society where young boys are encouraged to be themselves and have a unifying role in society, so that they would be less likely to feel the need to resort to violence as a means of self-expression or bonding with others or conforming to gang culture. A society where evil people like Jeremy or the chav teenagers have no power to prey on the anonymous or to gain a following of insecure kids in their gang.
But of course the hellish vision of our society portrayed in "Naked" makes it clear that before this better society can be achieved, we need to do some serious purging of the scum. Of course that's sometimes par for the course with the revolutionary ethos, and indeed Karl Marx himself designated a scummy segment of society that should be firmly excluded from the spoils of the revolution. He called them the 'lumpen-proletariat', the 'scum of the Earth', and certainly I firmly believe that a revolution should never be about elevating or embracing the scum in society.
The fact is that I believe revolution is needed to change the current justice system as it stands. A justice system that hands out ASBOs to teenage thugs who lap them up like a badge of honour. A justice system that allows the worst criminals to roam free in the hope of giving them enough rope to hang themselves with, but which comes down hard on the good people who simply try to defend themselves. A justice system that dictates to the people that they must be passive and evasive in violent situations whilst we live in a society that dictates that the passive get walked over and victimised.
I used to believe in the view that even evil has its place in the world, and that actually violence and juvenile delinquency in some way is something to tolerate, since sociologically speaking, crime and deviance has always played an important and healthy part in the development of society's institutuions and attitudes, and that tolerance and understanding were important virtues to uphold no matter what the situation. But in recent years I have become rather less willing to adopt the 'live and let live' view. As a University student in Preston I have grown concerned over a spate of rapes and acts of teen gang violence around my University campus. Indeed there have been two separate instances where one student and one man in his fifties were literally kicked to death in unprovoked attacks from gangs of teenage mad dogs. And infact these days when people are being killed just for walking down the wrong street, I have become more of an advocate of a bit of vigilanteism to find these rapists and gang ringleaders and give them a beating they'll never recover from. Even as a spiritualist I believe that there are some people out there who can't be redeemed, who's spirits are so posessed of relentless evil and sadism that they won't be pacified by understanding or love. They will only be pacified by being physically crippled.
The Verdict. To Watch or not to Watch?
Up until last summer, when I watched this film with an old friend who was at University, I had always thought of "Naked" as a film that would always be a private viewing to me, but she enjoyed the film for its grittiness and its dialogue and its sharp humour. In some ways I still see "Naked" as an acquired taste of a viewing, given that it is not a pretty, pleasant or uplifting film by any stretch of the imagination. but it is an important film, an intelligent film, a hypnotic one and one with exquisite dialogue and bittersweet humour that manages to tickle between the tears and the misery. I would say that this film would appeal in a similar way to other 'cinema of loneliness' films such as "Taxi Driver" and "One Hour Photo" which shed light on the very real Johnny's, Sals and Travis Bickles in our world who are bowling alone. I would say it also shares a similar sublime mindscape vividness as films like "Waking Life" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". I would basically say that it is possibly the most important film you will ever see and I'd recommend watching it at least once.
My next review will be sometime around Valentine's Day
Share this product review with your friends