Behind the red flag

Lawrence Parker takes a closer look at the artist Ken Loach

The question of Ken Loach's aesthetic emerged at the recent Communist University and has also been a presence in discussions involving 'the rotten elements' group and part of the left. I think it is useful to begin to flesh out a critique by looking at Loach's Land and freedom (1995).

If this film did not exist and I were left with the task of sketching out an ideal film for the revolutionary left, then I would come up with something very similar to Land and freedom. It hits all the right buttons: the central political theme; the revolutionary ardour of its characters; the Stalinist betrayal of the Spanish revolution; its naturalistic feel and so on.

And, just before you get any funny ideas about me, I like Land and freedom and agree with its central political message (in writing this, I am assuming that the reader has some knowledge of the history of the Spanish revolution). However, when I get down to analyse exactly why I like this film, I find that it appeals to my emotions. In other words, its reception primarily revolves around a spontaneous reaction.

Such a response is mobilised by the core of this production. The film begins with the contemporary passing away of lead character David Carr (played by Ian Hart) and the grief of his grand-daughter, Kim; we have party members giving the anti-fascist salute and shouting 'No pasaran!' at a CPGB meeting in 1930s Liverpool; there is the death of the militiaman Coogan during a raid on a fascist-held village and the politically charged funeral that follows; we have David's stormy love affair with Blanca and their disagreement over Spanish events; David symbolically ripping up his CPGB card after his involvement in fighting against the anarchists during the Barcelona 'May days' of 1937; there is the dispersal of the POUM militia and the death of Blanca; and, last but not least, the contemporary funeral of David at the end of the film. This interplay of the personal and the political is a heady, emotional brew and I would defy anyone who has any kind of left consciousness to sit through this film without feeling a lump in their throat.

Loach chooses to foreground this emotional core. Thus, when we are shown a Spanish comrade talking to the CPGB meeting as David begins his historical narrative, when the speaker draws attention to the killing of trade unionists by Franco, a sombre and brooding tune strikes up, and underpins the rest of the scene, as the comrade calls for solidarity. As intimated above, we are then shown the audience (and David) with clenched fists, shouting their defiance at the fascists. It would be interesting to see/hear this scene without the stirrings of the music. It may then become less of an emotional ride and more of activists responding intelligently (as many workers did) to the argument for aid to Spain. But Loach and scriptwriter Jim Allen are precluded from this approach by the reaction of David in the dialogue that follows, in which he basically concludes, 'Someone's gotta stop 'em.' This is a gut response (in this case, a worthy one) in the context of David feeling he is not achieving anything in the British class struggle.

In the raid on the fascist-held village, Loach repeats this trick of using sombre music to accompany the death of Coogan. As the story evolves, the audience is rather overburdened with the grief of Blanca at her lover's death (she cradles and cries over his dead body in the street), alongside the grief of the village at finding the dead bodies of their comrades and families (the women of the village are shown sobbing over the rotting corpses). This passage ends with a funeral and the village and militia singing 'The Internationale' by the fresh graves. These sad images are slow to fade in the consciousness of the viewer - this is powerful, gripping stuff. But the revolution and the struggle against fascism are primarily emotive and spontaneous, with the construction of the imagery and dialogue serving that end.

This becomes even more apparent in the following scene, which shows the village and the militia debating a proposed collectivisation of the land. The difference with this passage is that it is one of the few parts of the film that is intellectually compelling, as we hear the arguments for and against collectivisation - it basically boils down to the issue of whether the protagonists are for or against revolution. The decision for collectivisation carries the viewer, because Loach makes us feel that it is the outcome of a living process, a debate, where difficulties have been looked squarely in the face. Yes, the actors are impassioned in the debate, but this passion feeds off their intellectual coherence and vice versa.

But, when David learns of the 'official' communists' duplicity in crimes against the Spanish working class (partly through the stormy response of his by-now lover, Blanca, to his joining the International Brigades; through his own experiences in the revolutionary POUM militia; and, ultimately, through being ordered to fire on anarchist workers during the Barcelona 'May days'), Allen and Loach choose to portray David in close-up, sitting on his bed, alone, in a concierge, tearing his CPGB card to shreds. If you freeze these frames out, you can see the contortion and anger on his face as he struggles with the card. But we do not really hear David thinking through this decision or grappling with his previous, in practice counterrevolutionary, arguments. Rather he seems to be prodded along by these events, until we, once again, reach the tipping point of a spontaneous outburst of anger and emotion.

In one of his letters home, David does reason out the manipulative policies of the Stalinists, but even here under the aegis of a dialogue that says, 'The party stinks "¦ it's evil and corrupt'. We can only muse how truly interesting this section of the film might have been if David had chosen to keep his party card. In a nutshell, this is the left of the late 20th and early 21st century: hastened along by events mostly outside its control and then buggering off when the strain gets too much (although at least David is responding to a life-or-death situation), with its theoretical understanding lagging some way behind.

Land and freedom is thus a film that brilliantly constructs a series of spontaneous outbursts of emotion - reaching through its characters and on to its audience - beneath a surface veneer of revolutionary politics. As indicated above, this either (cynically) suggests that Loach (just re-elected onto Respect's national council) and scriptwriter Jim Allen know the contemporary left rather well and are feeding it what it wants to see; or, more probably, that Loach's art is the product of this background.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the left has remembered how to feel strongly about issues, but, taken as a whole, it has been unable to think about a changed political landscape in any meaningful way. Thus it has collapsed back into old, spontaneous certainties (finding no echoes for any of its stale 'deeper' ideas) under its formal revolutionary banners.

Incidentally, no one is suggesting that anger, emotion and gut feeling are not important in changing the world. But if they are an overriding motive for action, they become abstract, brittle and burnt-out (as with the Socialist Workers Party, which has to cope with this lack of intellect by cynically inventing its own and others' self-righteous 'anger' at whatever the government is doing this week). Emotion only truly becomes a force when it is riddled with pertinent questions.

As for anyone who tells me that a film featuring a politically astute and angry David Carr coolly reasoning his way through the political minefield of Spain would not be good viewing - in that case, what exactly is this viewing? Also, Loach has just kept me enthralled during a scene debating "¦ the collectivisation of the land, perhaps testimony to the fact that you do not necessarily have to feed an audience in line with its preconceptions.

The ending of Land and freedom is truly awful, well in tune with its unwillingness to ask serious questions of its audience. The film gets its narrative cohesion from David's grand-daughter sitting in his flat and reading his letters home from Spain. This offers the director a thread with which to jump about between scenes and 'explain' the story to the viewer. However, this is more than just a point of form.

Using this device also allows Loach and Allen to console the viewer by tacking on a scene at David's graveside where his grand-daughter, after throwing soil and stones he picked up from some collectivised land onto his coffin, lifts up his red scarf and makes the anti-fascist salute. This tends to smother even the high-octane emotionalism of the break-up of the POUM militia and Blanca's death into a rather smug 'left' sentimentalism: 'The struggle goes on.' Such an ending merely coddles the viewer against the deeper political insights the film has to offer.

Contrast this pat nonsense with the ending of Jon Dos Passos's Adventures of a young man. Glenn Spottswood joins the Communist Party, working as an organiser in Harlan County during a miners' strike. Spottswood's refusal to follow the party line makes him a renegade in the eyes of the CPUSA leaders and this dogs him in Spain after he joins the International Brigade. Persecuted as a Trotskyist and jailed, he is released during a fascist attack, only to be sent on a mission - taking water to a machine-gun post - which appears to be an unofficial death sentence.

This is Dos Passos's ending: "He thought he'd stubbed his toe on a stone. Too bad the water was all spilled in so much blood. Must get out of this, he said to himself, and started to drag himself along the ground. Then suddenly something split and he went spinning into blackness. He was dead."

Despite Dos Passos's pessimism about the revolution (which is evident also in his construction of long, compounded words - "oldfashioned", "redknuckled", "tobaccocoloured" - that quicken the narrative pace and slide away from the reader), this is a more democratic ending than the one constructed for Land and freedom. Dos Passos pulls you up sharp, forcing you to reflect on what he has just unfolded. There is no consolation. You have to reason your way through a thicket of problems. The contradiction here, of course, is that Loach formally has the marginally better politics "¦ therein lies a tale.

Loach has said: "I have enormous respect for writers and I don't subscribe to the auteur theory of film-making. When I direct a film, I don't try to be the author. It's self-evident to me that a film is a collaboration, in which, if anyone is the most important contributor, it's the writer. Still, what the writer has provided is only a stage in the process. What matters is that what is actually on the celluloid is a valuable experience and that there's a sense of authenticity about what you've created" (K Loach Loach on Loach London 1998, p18).

"Authenticity" and "valuable experience" are words that seem meaningful, but are usually meaningless. Presumably Loach means by this that he strives for "authenticity", which would mean immediately that his products only have a relation to the 'authentic'. By stages in this quote, Loach is reducing the role of the producers (writers/directors/actors and so on), until all we end up with is the 'picture of reality' unfolding before us. This is also written into Loach's relative disdain for method actors, his use of non-actors and the fact that he only reveals bits of scripts at certain points so that he can record a more naturalistic set of reactions from his actors (the death of Blanca in Land and freedom was apparently not revealed to other members of the cast beforehand). But in this guise, the 'realism' on show has the same ideological structure as the commodity - effacing all traces of its human production.

By using such methods, Loach also mimics (ironically through the act of being a highly skilled craftsman - an artist, a producer) our contemporary left. Presumably we are not meant to be conscious of production values, but instead seek out the authentic chunks of reality we are being shown. This method tends to make us unconscious. We do not seek to cross-examine the film as a product.

As soon as we have quickly picked out some obvious lefty/realistic signifiers - the period pieces, natural lighting, the proletarian voices, the lack of special effects and so on - we know that 'it's real' and can just settle back and let it rip. This is not actually a particularly democratic aesthetic. In a different setting, this is exactly what the left does: set up an invented reality with a set of twee lefty signifiers and spontaneously follow the limitations of its creation. Spontaneity itself - as with the key parts of this film - being a construct.

As I said in the introduction, I like this film and I like Loach. But then I like a lot of things that are produced in this society. That does not mean I should just accept them uncritically. And sometimes that means looking beyond the red flags that Ken Loach flies in this film.

This is an edited version of a forthcoming 'rotten elements' article - www.rottenelements.org.uk