I watched Bronson a couple of days ago, a film I’ve wanted to see for quite a while.
My feelings afterwards were mixed. Indeed, my feelings during it were mixed. Even while I was loving the imagery and inventiveness of it, not to mention the stunning performance by Tom Hardy, a little silent voice inside me was already aware of the con that was going on in front of me.
The con is the middle classes feeding off the degradation of the poor and calling it Art. But it isn’t really the poverty that gets them off, it’s the stupidity that goes with it. Just as we all love watching those horror movies where the dumb bitch goes into the haunted house without a torch, while cheerfully saying to her friend, “You go that way, I’ll go this way”, when every single person in the audience knows no-one, no-one, would ever do that, then so are we entertained by the ignorance of the poor.
And how much more enthralling it is if they are poor, ignorant and smart. Or talented. Talented will do nicely. There is nothing more wank-worthy than watching someone who is possibly more gifted or smarter than you are completely messing up their lives.
This is not a new phenomenon. Go back far enough (and not so very far) and you will find the rich traipsing off in their droves for day outings to lunatic asylums and prisons to watch the poor, the mad and the criminally insane in their habitats of squalor. It’s always been fun for us all.
While modern political correctness prevents us all going down to the local loony bin and guffawing at the people who eat their own excrement or masturbate in trees, we can still go to the cinema and see films about that very same thing, all safe in the dark, getting our jollies.
Mike Leigh has made an entire (insulting) career out of this cheap masturbation. I won’t watch his movies for this reason, but a few months ago I was seduced – and a seduction it was, I should know better – into watching his latest effort, Happy-Go-Lucky, because ‘everybody’ was screaming, “Leigh’s latest is so funny and light-hearted!”, “Leigh breaks new ground with a dazzling light comedy!”. And they were all absolutely right – if you found the spectacle of a ‘girl’ who had Pollyanna disorder to a level that was almost a mental illness, being pursued by an emotionally stunted, deluded, paranoid man, whose mental health was equally precarious and who, in the delightfully frothy climax, becomes extremely violent and abusive in an episode of psychotic breakdown, which, of course, our Pollyanna only looks on at bemusedly because she lacks the correct emotional intelligence to recognise a threat when she sees one. Funny? I nearly died laughing.
This dislike of Oxbridge slumming it at the movies, as anyone who knows my work will hopefully realise, is not because I can’t handle harsh subjects, it’s because Leigh stands back in all his moral middle class rectitude and subtly passes judgement on all his lower class heroes and heroines, secretly sneering at their stupidity, their lack of insight, their caricature lives.
I’m never sure, because I don’t read about the man’s work, whether he doesn’t realise he’s doing this or whether it’s because he thinks we’re so fucking stupid we won’t notice that he’s really Outraged of Brighton getting his jollies out of correcting the universe by parading the poor and the mad as he wants us to see them.
His trademarks and ‘style’ are not unique. Anywhere you find such ‘intellectual’ lolling in the quagmires of the ignorant – like reality TV shows; their poor cousins –you will find the same shit going on: the ‘characters’ are always caricatures, screaming hysterics, the over-the-top lunatic fringe. Just as the shopping-addicted chavs who can’t control their children in Supernanny, or the OCD filthy who can’t keep the excrement off their shower curtains in How Clean is Your House? are always bizarrely ‘stupid’ and/or completely lacking in self-awareness so are the dramatis personae characterised in the work of Mike Leigh or in films such as Bronson.
Bronson, of course, is that more dangerous species of animal. It’s alluringly seductive with that delicious veneer of ‘Theatre’, that gloss of MTV rock video that makes it so edgy, so now. It appears even to “glorify” (where have I heard that before?) its subject. In Bronson, he is lovingly photographed, repeatedly naked, so we can see the raw majesty of the man (look at what a lumpen brute, ape-thing he is – yum). His violence is orchestrated to opera so we can see the tragic quality of his rage, the sheer grandeur of his aggression (look, it’s just like ballet and we get to see that thuggery in slow, slow motion. Let’s rewind.). His explanations of the reasons for his biblical ‘fall’ are limited to two throw-away sentences because he has too much dignity, he is a warrior (oh, who cares how he got that way? We just wanna see him fight, because we daren’t.) How kind the director was to involve him, his family, in the making of the film. How respectful. (We got to rub shoulders with a famous criminal. And his family’s so dumb and greedy they won’t notice we’ve done nothing but show him as a fame-hungry moron without a thought in his pea-sized brain.)
It’s so beautiful as a movie, so poetic, so artistic. Oh, how many sins we can cover with ‘artistic’. What a lovely word it is. God bless the man who first invented it. Even the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, in the ‘Making Of’ said the film is really about how a man discovers his Art. Yes, we’ve just watched 90 minutes of a beefed-up Tom Hardy, naked in blackface (yes, honestly), beating the shit out of everybody and anybody, while saying nothing very much, but all of it cryptic, to discover a man’s inner artist. We know that because there were pencils involved. Oh, and a pan round an art room with a handful of ‘tortured’ drawings. And a fag art teacher from Liverpool, of course, that Bronson just had to hold hostage. But he painted him like something out of Magritte, so that was okay.
Oh, these zany outsider artists – don’t you just love their naïve charm? Who cares why he didn’t just go to art school, or maybe an evening class, or just pick up a fucking pen, or what made him waste his whole life in solitary confinement for trivial almost non-crimes. Not me, I’m watching his penis sway in slow motion as he beats up pigs in full riot gear. Awesome.
After all, Bronson himself (he’s a real-life criminal; really should have pointed that one out sooner) wrote in his autobiography (assumably) that his parents had been ordinary ‘middle class respectable folk’, so why waste time considering that they might not have been? He’s happy with it, why not us? Except when you see his mother and cousin in the ‘Making Of’, even in their thirty brief seconds of air time you can see they look far from respectable, or middle class. They look like what they are, scrubbers that would appear on Jerry Springer, if they only came from Texas.
In short, there’s a story in this man’s life somewhere, it just isn’t in this film. What is in this film is a disturbing and disquieting portrait of the man who made it. And while that’s probably true of a lot of art, it’s more transparently so here.
And this is where it all becomes really offensive to me. When you go to see Terminator, or Die Hard, or a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie you know what you’re getting: the same stripped-off males kicking ass, in the same stylised slo-mo way, only minus the arty shots and the slowwwwwwwwwwww dialogue, such as it is. What you’re not getting with these action movies is some hypocritical ‘portrait’ of a real man. For all their alleged ‘popcorn entertainment’ and ‘cartoon violence’ they do not offer up a real human life as cheap entertainment for middle-class boys who are too chicken-shit to take a pair of pants back to M&S, never mind star in a bare-knuckle fight, so that they can get their strangely homosexual rocks off at some chunk of male stupidity doing the equivalent of hitting his head off the prison bars because he’s some poor thwarted soul who’s so afraid of who he really is he’s created a screaming, raging monster to represent himself in the hope that other men will admire him, or at least be thrown off the scent of what he really is inside – be that gay, artistic, ‘sensitive’ or just plain different.
I fail to see how this exploitation of others’ misfortune, their squalid little lives, differs from parading around the viewing gallery at Bedlam, watching the man who thinks he is a cat catching mice and eating them live, or following the woman who thinks she is giving birth to Jesus squatting and taking a turnip top out her vagina. Just because we’ve scored the raging beast to music, with his desperate, needy permission, does not alter the fact that we are essentially watching a man destroy himself, and instead of either showing that for what it is, a tragic and futile waste, or giving us some insight into it, we parade it as a form of peep-show: we strip him naked, oil him up, paint his body; we lock him in bars, tiny cells, ugly places, so that we can watch his suffering more minutely; we set him against an endless stream of caricature effeminate males so that his gladiatorial magnificence will be even more pointed; we bloody him up and beat him up and lock him up; we give him music, lights, theatre; we put him firmly centre-stage with the expensive lions we brought from Abyssinia and for which we can charge all the plebs an extra ten Sestertii because, after all, how often do they get see a dangerous beast like Bronsonus Maximus stripped-off, growling and roaring like one of said big cats? Oh the nobility, the grandeur.
And when he dies, when one of the expensive felines mauls him to death, we can go home in comfort and ease, knowing it was what he wanted. He wanted to be a famous gladiator, a warrior. It was nothing to do with us being greedy for gore and aggression, for rebellion and insurgence, and him being poor and ignorant, a slave in a system he can’t beat or rise above. It was nothing to do with him having no other way out of his squalor, his captivity, his gaol. No, he is a naked wonderful man-beast and we love him for it.
Bronson. Certificate 18. At a
cage cinema near you………