By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Raining Stones,” Koch Lorber]
It has been easy to underestimate and underappreciate Ken Loach, by far the most distinctive, profound and consistent filmmaker to work in Great Britain in the last 40 years. Being British has been something of a twin-edged fighting blade for Loach just as his films routinely get distributed here (though, due to the muddy brogues and burrs, they do sometimes bear subtitles), it seems that Loach has been largely taken for granted. No one conjures his name when global filmmaking heavyweights are enumerated, even though on the European festival circuit a Loach film is considered a privileged annual event. A hard-bitten ultra-realist, and a Socialist provocateur for whom social activism is more important than cinema, Loach may well be too good at his game for his own good. This year, with his (roughly) 25th feature (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), Loach again emerged on our shores, displayed his newest prizes from Cannes (he has won more major fest laurels than any other filmmaker alive), got his honorable reviews, and then went home, making precious little dent in the skull of American cinephilia.
We, it could be said, simply do not appreciate realism, when it’s so convincing you can smell the low-rent rooms the actors inhabit, any more than we care for narratives focused morally on the plight of the real working class. Have we been trained thus, by a media industry built upon distracting us from how much we spend on entertainment? Whatever: You survey Loach’s career, and the ambitions and priorities of most American filmmakers look gauche by comparison. It’s also a matter of style: ultra-realism is the most difficult special effect of all, and Loach has unparalleled deftness with naturally lit docudrama veracity, objective camera manner and the expressive grasp of off-frame space. Due to its palm-sized story, “Raining Stones” (1993) might be one of his more overlooked films despite an almost obligatory Jury Award from Cannes but it’s paradigmatically Loachian. Set in scrubby Greater Manchester, the movie trails after the hob-kneed efforts of one Bob (Bruce Jones) to earn a buck any way he knows how on the bottom rungs of the capitalist ladder. This starts, for us, as an episode of pratfall-packed sheep rustling with Bob’s rotund, worse-off buddy Tommy (Loach comrade Ricky Tomlinson, who before acting was one of the infamous Shrewsbury Three union members who were jailed in 1972 during a national building strike). Of course, nobody wants to buy the single sheep’s meat once the guys manage to slaughter it. Bob’s troubles earning a living accumulate, but for him a single issue rises above the rest: the absolute need, in his eyes, for his young daughter to wear a new, expensive white dress for her First Communion. To make this happen, Bob scrounges for work, scouts for scams and, eventually, makes the bad mistake of borrowing the money from a loan shark.
“Raining Stones” could be about virtually any mishap, incident or even utterly passive moment in this man’s life or in the life of his community and we’d still buy it whole hog, because it looks and feels as real as the tenth worst day of your year. (Still, the bump-&-grind of colloquialism-saturated North English accents makes “Raining Stones,” like “Riff-Raff” and other Loaches, splenetically funny.) Loach tolerates no movie-movie bullshit like American indie-makers often claim to do; if only we had even one lone ranger in our midst to fight so well the good fight.
However undisciplined, our own indies come in all shapes and sizes, including “micro” as in microcinema, currently the name of a distribution company selling underground cinema on DVD, but also the label given to the new digital DIY independent film, rarely available to a wide audience but thriving nonetheless, making films that cost less than a good car. The lovely, innocent pro-am aura surrounding these films can be bewitching (or, perhaps, it can be to me particularly), especially if it strives to evoke antique form and a sense of primal matinee naiveté. Andrew Leman’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (2005) answers the siren: a “new silent” film, scrupulously faithful to H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal Cthulhu tale (first published in 1928), that runs only 47 minutes but packs enough storytelling and energetic incident to fill out a miniseries. (The film, and its publicity ephemera, is also superbly designed to fit into its period.) Leman and his H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society cohorts cut every corner and freely employ obvious miniatures to tell the tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, from the Providence streets all the way to the mid-Pacific night (a blanket, scant nods toward a ship set, digitized perspective), the unmapped atoll covered with enigmatic ruins (cardboard, mostly), and the stop-motion appearance of the Old God himself. Call it pulp-geek nostalgia which by itself seems hardly a dress-down to me but the movie also actually manages to be creepy, in a cheap, unstable, kids-pretending-in-the-woods kind of way. It is innocent, and that alone makes it special.
“Raining Stones” (Koch Lorber) and “The Call of Cthulhu” (Microcinema) are now available on DVD.