Should a vital piece of cinema be given some leeway if it’s a bad film?
Warning: This piece contains MAJOR SPOILERS for I, Daniel Blake.
Completely inadvertently – because Cinema has long turnaround times with regards to production – 2016 has turned out to be quite the boon for political cinema; films that actively try and address the current social and political environment in meaningful ways. And not a moment too soon, either, given the resurgence and boiling-over of racial, xenophobic, and just-plain-old fascistic rhetoric and action over these godforsaken 12 months. Films that were already great took on an extra powerful, vital resonance thanks to their fortuitous timing. Ava DuVernay’s rage-inducing 13th shot through the history of mass incarceration with real urgency, Chasing Asylum focussed specifically on Australia’s inhumane zero-tolerance stance on immigration but becomes extra terrifying given the endless dehumanising rhetoric towards refugees from British and American political figures and media outlets this year, Weiner is at once of-the-moment and instantly-outdated given the results of the US presidential election, and The Purge: Election Year, if not always successfully, did what the best politically-charged B-movie cinema should do in an open, defiantly-angry manner.
These films, however, pale in comparison to the attention heaped upon Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake. This, of course, is not exactly surprising given that it’s a Ken Loach film about the uncaring cruelty of the UK’s benefits system under this Conservative government, and it has promoted a firestorm of conversation over the year. There was Loach’s appearance on Question Time, multiple former employees of the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) speaking out about the awful nature of the process in response to watching the film, and, perhaps biggest of all, Jeremy Corbyn’s entire existence turning out to be nothing more than an extended piece of viral marketing for this one film. This is a film that has ignited a long-overdue conversation that many of us have been having for years but has finally spilled over into the mainstream, as the medium of Film is capable of doing.
It’s also a bad film. Not outright terrible, but just dramatically inert, poorly made and awkwardly paced, and very rarely affecting in any meaningful way. And it really hurts to say that because at no point whilst I was watching I, Daniel Blake did I ever get the impression that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty weren’t going into this film with anything other than the best of intentions. The general depiction of the benefits system in this country, carefully honed and normalised through years of political rhetoric and media depictions (both fictional and non-fictional), is one of lazy, opportunistic, succubus-like scroungers who couldn’t give a damn about anybody other than themselves, who see the system as an easy handout that is better to exploit than going and working for a living, and who proceed to waste that government money on drugs and alcohol because they are all lower-class tracksuit-wearing chavvy scum. The stuff that The Sun and Channel 5 have wet dreams about because it means that they’ll have content for the following day, and that Conservative governments especially like to use an excuse to cut and complicate and obfuscate the system to no end.
Of course, this is absolute bollocks. Whilst there are a few out there that do try and take advantage of the benefits system for non-altruistic reasons – because, wherever you go, whatever you create, there will always be people who will abuse good systems designed to help others, it’s depressing human nature – the reality is that those who require government benefits are those who really do need them. The poor, the sick, the ones unable to find work and have others to provide for and bills to pay but are physically unable to do so, the disabled, the ones temporarily taken out of action and need that money to be able survive the transition. Many of these actively want to work or need to work, and are merely victims of governmental policies, the changing nature of the job market, and Capitalism in general. They respond to their situations with selflessness, inclusiveness, love and compassion for one another.
For that, they are thrust into a confrontational, suspicious, and openly hostile system that seems actively resentful of having to deal with them. Where employees are taught to see these desperate, fragile people as lying drains on society, and as such have to subject them to a labyrinthian mess of conflicting obstructive tests, forms, exams, and phone calls that leave you on hold for hours and have the gall to charge these poor people by the minute. And if they make it to the other side, they may still be denied for whatever undisclosed reason, forced to wait in effectively-purgatory for them to begin the appeals process, and then start it all over again. It all sounds like a Kafkaesque comedy that would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that it is real and that there are actual poor, desperate people relying on this process who are dying as a result of this vicious loop.
When I, Daniel Blake sets its sights on this, as it does with every scene of Daniel in the benefits centre, it is fantastic, difficult, infuriating viewing. To watch Daniel be constantly jerked around by this system – caught in the Catch 22 of wanting to look for work, but not being medically cleared to do so by medical professionals, yet being considered fit for work by the DWP, necessitating he waste his time looking for work he can’t take – is exasperating. Sitting there with him as he is unfairly sanctioned time and time again by DWP employees seemingly completely devoid of empathy, with the one worker who goes out of her way to try and help being punished by her boss for doing so, is heart-breaking. Daniel’s attempts to work his way through the online-only appeals process, due to his not owning or even knowing how to operate a computer, are necessary reminders that there really are people, decent people, being left behind by our rapidly-advancing world and that erecting more barriers in their way is not the response we should be taking. When the film works on these specific scenes, it is brilliant viewing.
The problem with I, Daniel Blake though is, well, everything else. This is only my second Ken Loach film (don’t act surprised), but my friend described my issues with the film’s staging and camera placements – which are always distractingly off and fake-feeling, which contrasts negatively with the narrative’s attempt at realist melodrama, a problem with the film as a whole – best when she stated that Loach simply hasn’t tried to improve technically as a filmmaker in the last 40 years, and it really shows. Despite there being several excellent individual scenes, the film never works as a dramatic whole, which can be pinned down to Daniel never convincing as a character in his own right. He’s more of a martyred vessel (literally given the film’s ending) whom Loach and Laverty use alternately as a thing bad things happen to, an empty guide through the misery of the benefits system without much of a life of his own outside of that, or the great guiding spectre of moral judgement to let the audience know exactly just how bad things are for the other characters.
This ends up as a manifestation of the film’s biggest fault. As obviously well-intentioned as I, Daniel Blake is, much of it also comes off as an inadvertently super-condescending middle-class view of what working-class benefit-dependent poverty is actually like. It’s more upfront in a few segments that devolve into something approaching self-parody – two of Daniel’s neighbours are wacky “entrepreneurs” shilling knock-off trainers imported from their Chinese mate on street corners for an easy buck, whilst Daniel’s protest in front of the benefit offices ends up attracting the attention of a fellow ailing homeless man who yells out strings of righteous profanity at the system when Daniel is arrested, even openly calling (Former Work and Pensions Secretary) Ian Duncan Smith a “cunt” – but it’s mostly there in the exploits of our deuteragonist, divorced single mother of two, Katie.
Daniel meets Katie and her children whilst she’s getting into a confrontation over being struck off the benefits registry for being 5 minutes late for signing on. An honest mistake due to her being new in Newcastle and getting lost on the bus routes there that, because the benefits system is that much of a cruel joke, nevertheless sees her sanctioned and, following her justifiable complaints over the issue, cut off entirely. This scene ends up endemic of her role in the story as, rather than trust in the audience understanding on their own that this is abhorrent behaviour, or even just allowing her the ability to be the centre of her own narrative, Daniel intercedes on her behalf with his reaction resultantly becoming the focal point of the scene. That kind of inadvertent condescension abounds throughout and takes the shine off of both good scenes – such as the food bank trip that is otherwise as quietly harrowing as you have heard – and offensively clichéd late-game story turns – Katie eventually resorts to prostitution in order to get by, and it is unsurprisingly treated as the lowest point she could have sunk to – as the film constantly contrives a reason for Daniel to take over the scene and make his reactions and responses the primary focus at the expense of hers.
Although everybody involved is obviously passionate and have the most noble of intentions – that much is evident from both the film’s press tour and all of the scenes dealing directly with the benefits process, there’s too much tangible anger there to believe otherwise – the film constantly oscillates wildly between clichéd melodrama story turns (I could go on for hours about the prostitution subplot but I’ll spare you the venom) that depict working class life as overdone pure misery, and Even Flow, painting such people as virtuous saints we could all learn a little something from. Admittedly, nearly all British directors designated as “working class” aren’t actually real working class (or fast outgrow their working class beginnings) and come from positions of privilege, but at least Shane Meadows had the decency to turn the various This Is England series into straight-up melodrama by the end. He also didn’t end either the movie or any of the series with a clunkily-written speechifying monologue directly to the camera, just in case Daniel literally dying minutes away from his appeal hearing due to the stress of the past few weeks under the system (a story turn I do accept) hadn’t sent the message loud and clear yet, as Loach has the temerity to do here.
Which brings us back around to the question proposed in the lede of this piece: how much leeway can we, or should we, give badly-made films that nonetheless are preaching vital, necessary messages that are also inspiring related conversation and debate? Film and Cinema are populist mediums, as is the nature of any medium that is relatively inexpensive and easy to experience, and as such are capable of presenting and spreading messages of genuine import far and wide in manners that are either easily-digestible or unavoidably-confrontational, but always leave the viewer thinking afterwards. There is the risk, though, of preaching to the choir with these kinds of movies, in much the same way that shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are unlikely to change the minds of those not already receptive to their messages, which one could use as a justifiable excuse for judging them purely on their merits as films. That, of course, can be countered with the argument that doing so is tantamount to being the person who experiences Lemonade, a stunning love letter to Black femininity in 2016, and goes “but what about the music?” like it’s the only aspect that matters, since, after all, art does not exist in a vacuum.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s go with the idea that films can change minds and provoke legitimate discussion. I, Daniel Blake is proof of that, at least, so now the question becomes “can I still recommend a film for its message and vitality even though it’s poorly-made and an unenjoyable watch in the wrong way?” This is a question that’s easy to answer when the film in question is well-intentioned and well-made (13th and The Purge: Election Year are prime examples of this), and it’s also easy to answer when the film is badly-intentioned and poorly-made – The Birth of a Nation, though seemingly well-intentioned in its desire to turn an important figure of Black history into a pulpy figure of mythic aspiration, takes on a much darker and unsavoury bent when you take into account writer-director-producer-and-star Nate Parker’s rape allegations, especially with how that film invents two rape scenes wholesale to provide Nat Turner with rebellious motivation. But when the film is well-intentioned yet an unengaging slog to watch? That’s trickier.
Maybe this is where non-fiction documentaries are given an advantage, since the quality of filmmaking is far more difficult to parse for the average viewers or even some film critics (I confess to it being one of my relative blind spots). As long as it doesn’t look like pure garbage and the pacing and presentation of its argument are well-constructed, it’s easier to accept the vitality of the message without being constantly distracted by the faults of the rest of the film. Blockbuster or B-cinema also have a slight advantage over straight realist dramas like I, Daniel Blake since they can paper over more glaring flaws in their nature as movies with spectacles and thrills that can often get through the message just as well. Rogue One, for example – and I have a piece on that coming tomorrow – suffers from the usual Gareth Edwards problems of all its characters being underwritten, and the pacing prior to its locking-in being a trainwreck. But its messages of rebellion in the face of fascism requiring action, great personal sacrifice, and those willing cross lines in moments of desperation are so stunningly realised and communicated in its sensational, spectacle-filled final 40 minutes that I am more than willing to overlook what it does wrong and recommend it unreservedly. I, Daniel Blake, unsurprisingly, has no such option, it has to live and die purely on the strength of its substance.
I don’t know. I don’t really have any definitive answers for you, here; apologies if you were looking or hoping for some. In the end, I guess it comes down to your personal barometer for how you measure a film. Art does not exist in a vacuum, but time can suck that vital context out for a lot of people coming to a film later – try telling people today, let alone 5 years from now, that watching The Interview was considered a victory for free-speech and a middle-finger to North Korea back when it was released in 2014. Then all that’s left is the film itself on its own merits. But if that film inspired the conversation in the first place, and managed to successfully sway hearts and minds, then maybe narrative inertia and accidental condescension are small prices to pay? Again, I have no real answers for you, but it’s something for us all to take into account when we evaluate films like I, Daniel Blake. After all, good intentions only ever take people so far.