The Media Zone

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All the Lonely People: Film Review of Mike Leigh's "Another Year"

Just what do British filmmakers know that American filmmakers don't?

 

In Another Year (2010), British writer/ director, Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies) has created a dark and moving examination of winners and losers.  He rivets us with a psychological clinic of our life space -- personality, personal history, cognitive styles, and the myths and lies we tell ourselves -- which keep us stumbling painfully in place and running out of time. 

Leigh creates a clutch of human barnacles, life-losers who have latched on to a 60-something couple, Tom and Gerri, who model what the winning ways might be.  They suggest alternatives to those GPS voices in their friends' heads, offering only a repetitious repertoire of existential roundabouts and dead-ends.

 Regrettably, American movies don't provide this array of roles or role models for how ordinary people cope with problems throughout the life cycle. Young lives? Sure.  Late, middle-age and beyond?  Hard to come by.  Wrong demographic niche.

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And yes, there are the occasional, gimmicky, geriatric, Viagra-needing action hero films like Space Cowboys (2000), or trumped up plots like the recent Reds (2010) with Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman in dopey star turns as retired assassins.  But real character-driven middle-age or elderly leads telling elderly stories like Atlantic City (1980)?  Only if it's a comedy and it stars Jack Nicholson (The Bucket List, 2007, or About Schmidt, 2002), or maybe female boxers (Million Dollar Baby, 2004)... maybe.

I high-five filmmakers such as Mike Leigh and Roger Michelle (The Mother, 2003; Venus, 2006).  They joyfully swim in the pool of stories about ordinary men and women coping with the existential obstacles and challenges of aging.  The Brits seem to feed and thrive on movies with ordinary looking people leading ordinary lives rendered dramatically interesting by skillful writing.  I find this quite extraordinary.  Just what do they know that American filmmakers don't ...or refuse to acknowledge?

 Another Year might just as well have been titled "All the Lonely People," after the Beatles' haunting elegy "Eleanor Rigby."  It opens in a psychiatric facility where Janet, a middle-aged, working class woman, presents her depressed, hopeless, sleepless condition to Gerri, a behavioral counselor. An emotional cipher, Janet sees no prospect of change in her suppressed, blue collar marriage, no exit from the Sartrian truth that hell really is other people and the traps we create for ourselves.

 Janet is referred for more intense counseling.  But her stolid face mutters that she is closed off to such sharing. All she really wants is a prescription for sleeping pills to help her shuttle off the mortal coil passing for her life.  She is resigned to her class, caste, or merely to the socialized limits of her perception of possibility. 

 Writer/director Leigh is making the argument that, for many people, emotionally and cognitively calcified by experience and a desiccated sense of the possible, life will never --indeed, can never --change.  The film documents these familiar life styles.  We may indeed see a little of ourselves or our friends, lovers and other strangers in them.

 Janet's resignation is but one ticket to ride in the demographic class of the walking wounded.  There's another: self-inflicted blindness: blaming others for your lot in life thereby disempowering yourself.  As we soon see, an office friend of Gerri's, Mary, and her co-barnacles, are prime examples.

 After work, Gerri goes out for a drink with Mary.  Her failed marriage and promiseless affairs have left her adrift, inhabiting a life in monochrome. Her alcohol-lubricated, garrulous brio is transparent, as is the palpability of her chronic loneliness. It oozes from every glance at unattached or unfaithful men and into every conversational nook and cranny.

 At home later, Gerri relates the day and the conversations with husband Tom.  His astringent observations nicely offset Gerri's infinite capacity for empathy.  The two have become the reassuring anchor and pivot point around which their loosely anchored "friends" cling and literally and figuratively feed off.  But they're not without spine and bile, as when their adult son, Joe, whom Mary knew since he was a child, becomes prey for her love void.

 "

Auntie Mary" hitting on Joe?"  Not bloody likely! Tom and Gerri watch her moves with disapproving sideways glances but trust Joe to slough off Mary's advances. They know they've raised him right.  They did.

 The cast of losers expands as Tom's family connections and old friendships pop up, adding variant flavors to the stone soup of human drama in which he and Gerri are immersed.

 First there is Ken, an old pal of Tom's, who nervously eats, drinks and sweats his way through every occasion, reeking the foreknowledge that he is only a pint and a knifed ego away from a cardiac event.  Ken may have an undeveloped back story with Mary that's only hinted at in her disgust at his overtures.

 Then, Tom is forced to reconnect with his bleakly existing, heavy drinking, blue-collar brother, Ronnie, when Ronnie's wife suddenly dies.  At the funeral, Ronnie's son, estranged from the family and living a Goth and angry existence, arrives late, missing the brief, perfunctory, "Eleanor Rigbyish" funeral. He'd point the blame at the passing breeze for this affront to his mother's memory if it would stay still long enough.  A glassy-eyed father will have to do.

Mary and Ronnie
Ronnie is rudderless, visibly derailed and bewildered over his wife's death and about how to get on with things.  Seeing this, Tom invites him to stay with them for a while, bringing him into the desperately roving radar field of Mary.  For both, life alone is a life of cave shadows. Their road map of the blind leading the blind begins to emerge.  The characters replay their roles with new partners, but the play remains the same.

 Tom and Gerri's lives may look less "dramatic" than those of their circle.  But they are just as passionate in their joys in life and in each other as their friends are on their roads of sadness.   Each is self-handicapped, incapable of not making the wrong choice, not processing information with unerring incorrectness.  

Another Year offers viewers, be they patients, therapists, or civilians--a "non-defensive skein of Kodak moments" on life ruts, the secrets we keep, and the lies we tell ourselves. "Aha!" morsels are there for the supping; for it is often easier to identify our own faults when we see them rumpling the lives of others.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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