Another Year (UK, 2010, Mike Leigh)
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Another Year will be considered rather lite fare by anyone who thinks that "Eleanor Rigby" is just a nice little ditty. I am not of this opinion. George Martin's string quartet arrangement is artistically excellent because in the first place McCartney's melody is artistically excellent and - regardless of whether it was written by him before or after the melody - his lyrics are as artistically excellent as the music. Personally, I find McCartney's poetic treatment of the theme of loneliness quite profound. (Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?) And I find Leigh's prosaic - for Leigh is always prosaic, and I mean this now to indicate a compliment about his approach to realism - I find his prosaic handling of this same theme equally profound. Another Year really upset me, made me very sad.
To what extent should the concrete characters and events in "Eleanor Rigby" be taken literally when apprehending the universal meaning of the song? At the very least, there is the suggestion of the potential for a relationship between her and McKenzie. What prevents this potential from being pursued, never mind realized? The church. She may or may not be an employee, but he sure is. If Father McKenzie is not a Catholic priest vowed to celibacy but a Protestant reverend allowed to marry, the making of their loneliness by the church is less direct but even more tragic because of this; more opportunity has been wasted. I could interpret the lyric further but the point is that there is evidence in the text of at least an implicit critique of organized religion. It is an institutional obstacle to romantic coupling - not to be equated with marriage - and authentic personal happiness in a truly loving relationship.
Another Year also has an implicit critique of a social structure that frustrates genuine erotic bonding and therefore individual fulfillment. Socio-economic inequality. I do not mean to impose a dogmatic Marxist reduction on the film, far from it. Yet, Leigh's realism is always of a class conscious sort. In Another Year, this percolates under the surface tensions of the domestic drama, with only a few subtle bubbles raising to the top of the pond to pop open there. Nothing remotely analytical is presented with respect to sorting out sociological conditions and personal psychology. No causal conclusions may be drawn. But there is obvious correlation between the relatively higher class circumstance of the admirably happy couple and the relatively lower class circumstance of the regrettably unhappy individual.
That the husband definitely came from a working-class background and was able to enter the middle-class is not insignificant to the way in which he indulges only so far his wife's pitiful colleague/friend/charity case. And the wife herself - a professional therapist who has been in effect treating the woman Pro bono - ultimately brings home that their friendship has limits and at the same time, they are not colleagues at all but in fact have very different vocational status. All of this comes out with the utmost delicacy. What is more, it is very dramatically complex because the happy couple is very appealing and sympathetic while the unhappy individual is much less appealing and just plain pathetic. Yet, they do display a degree of class condescension towards her and she displays a degree of class resentment towards them that simply cannot be ignored.
Having registered this observation, others can be made in connection with it. They are people who smoke not at all, drink in moderation, do urban farming that is presumably organic, talk about taking the train while taking their private car for granted and care for the well-being of others by providing expertise in either one-on-one councilling or public infrastructure. She puffs a fag whenever she can, throws back the booze with alcoholic abandon, cannot even cook let alone garden, cannot afford to maintain a working automobile and performs menial clerical tasks that any temp worker could do. They have raised a perfectly nice guy who reveals on the job his own flicker of class condescension and finds himself a perfectly nice gal, who in turn is appropriately upwardly-mobile and naturally inherits the attitude her fiance has towards his "aunt," who so clearly is not a member of the family in the end.
Throughout all of this, there are no bad guys. Another Year is in no way an ideological tract. In my estimation, this is what makes it so affective on the "Eleanor Rigby" front. Simply put, I identified with the happy couple and cannot see that they have done anything wrong. Their class condescension is mostly unconscious and even admitting a part that is conscious is not to uncover a big sin. For their class condescension in total is minimal compared to the sincere affection and nurturing generosity they bestow upon their "loser" friends in general and the protagonist in particular.
And make no mistake, the character of Mary is the protagonist of the film. This might not appear to be the case insofar as the four seasons through which we journey are not shown from her point of view, or even on behalf of her point of view. Nevertheless, she proves to be the star of the show. I say "proves to be" because it is not obvious from the outset that this is the case. What is more, at the beginning of the fourth and final act, she is absent while we are introduced to the husband's brother and nephew. This leads the audience to wonder what happened to the character whom we had only halfway through the film figured out was meant to be the hub of our attention. Of course, she certainly does return before the curtain falls directly over her tragic face.
With respect to this narrative technique, I was positively reminded of the late entrance of Bobby Sands in Hunger. I also flashed negatively on Certified Copy; not because the two main characters in that film come in late but rather because Leigh does not establish the narrative center of gravity until we are well into Another Year, whereas Kiarostami seems to do the same until what happens is that he refuses to establish a narrative center of gravity at all. At bottom, this is the difference between postponing vantage point in order to forestall prejudice in the service of achieving realism, and never committing to a vantage point in order to forestall intelligibility in the service of achieving formalist style.
Leigh sculpts Another Year in time like Edgar Degas painted a picture. Degas stylistically appropriated what for emerging still photography was a mistake; namely, the placement of the subject in a de-centered and sometimes even partial, background and unfocused location in relation to the frame. This awkward cropping and unconventional point of view enabled him to beat the new photographic realism at its own game by dialectically transforming accidental indeterminacy into purposeful perspective. The narrative technique in Another Year is coming out of the same seemingly free-floating but actually firmly-moored artistic camp. Interestingly enough, in order to achieve this, the dialogue in the film is more tightly scripted than in many of Leigh's other films where the realism is captured more by the Robert Altman-like improvisatory interactions of the acting ensemble. This is not to take anything away from the performances in Another Year, which are outstandingly good all around.
And now for your entertainment, the trailer: