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Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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DVD Review

Movie Heaven at the Library: A Happy-Go-Lucky DVD Bonanza

Stuart Mitchner

“It’s a film about openness. About generosity of spirit. About love.”
Mike Leigh on Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), just out on DVD with an invaluable commentary by the director, impresses me as being, along with Naked (1993), his most exciting and enduring work to date.

When Happy-Go-Lucky came out last fall, I expected it to have a long run here, if only because of word-of-mouth about the hilarious Flamenco class scenes, not to mention the ones between the relentlessly playful Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and the driving instructor from hell (Eddie Marshan). That so outstanding a movie came and went in a week may be because people think Mike Leigh films — with the exception of extravaganzas like Topsy-Turvy — have to be somber affairs about dysfunctional families and abortion.

The reviews, most of which were raves, generally treated the picture as a feel-good comedy. True enough, but it’s much more than that. The brilliant comic set piece in which a fiery Flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) freaks magnificently out is balanced by the depth and range of Hawkins’s better than brilliant performance. Poppy may seem intolerably ditzy at first, but her uninhibitedness, seasoned by her intelligence, wit, and compassion, make her an ideal elementary school teacher; there’s not a single false note in the scenes showing the way she and the social worker who becomes her lover deal with a troubled child. Troubled adults are another matter. In the driving lesson scenes the film is built around, Poppy pushes a racist, homophobic control freak over the edge; she doesn’t do it intentionally; she can’t help herself. Here’s the most humorless and driven of driving instructors and she wants to lighten him up, but he’s simply beyond her, and so, it would seem, is the dangerously troubled derelict (Stanley Townsend) she confronts one night.

It’s in the course of this nocturnal encounter that Leigh and Hawkins show you how much more there is to Poppy than the zany, mischievous, wisecracking comedienne who has been alternately amusing you and testing your patience. For one thing, when she hears the man bellowing to no one and nothing, she doesn’t skirt the danger of the unknown as most sensible people would do. She walks right into a clearly unprotected environment — he’s leaning up against a stanchion in the shadows of what seems to be a viaduct. It’s not as if he’s come out of the shadows to menace her; she’s come into the shadows to listen to what he’s trying to communicate and possibly even to help him out. If you thought you were watching a comedy, this is where you learn otherwise. This is also where Mike Leigh plunges his seemingly sunnysideup movie into the night world of Naked and its crazed, tormented and tormenting word-drunk protagonist Johnny (lived by David Thewlis, just as Sally Hawkins lives Poppy). Surely this is the scene where Leigh realized that he was creating a darkly bright companion vision to Johnny’s dark journey (in the DVD commentary he refers to the previous film as “that particular journey”). Poppy is living out a more benign but no less profound version of the same compulsive engagement with the world. Johnny’s way of making contact with or testing humanity is to lunge headlong into life, throwing himself against walls, crashing into people, making vicious love to women, while philosophizing, teasing, and generally inflicting pain on himself and others. For Poppy, the compulsion is to make each human contact matter, to reach out, to reach the unreachable, to save lost souls.

As Poppy confronts this hulking, bearded lost soul under the viaduct, face to face, eye to eye, she listens to what he’s chanting, trying to understand or at least to make him know that someone cares enough to make the effort. At the same time, there’s not the slightest hint of patronization in her manner; she’s curious and caring. When the child in her class became violent for no apparent reason, she had to know why; she didn’t give up. Nor does she now. She doesn’t back off, at least no more than an instinctive step or two, even after he makes a series of violent gestures. She’s fearless. At one point he seems about to move on her, one arm around her, to crush her against his chest, but she manages without actually recoiling from him to keep her equilibrium. Miss Happy Go Lucky is, you know by now, an extraordinarily powerful human being. Sally Hawkins’s performance is no less powerful, and she has 14 Best Actress awards, including a Golden Globe, to prove it.

Movie Heaven

“Before talking films, all films were made the way I make films. Film only started being scripted beforehand with the talkies.”
Mike Leigh, in an interview about Happy-Go-Lucky

When Ernest Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast” and gave his posthumous memoir that title, you can be sure moving pictures were not on the moveable menu, especially given his aversion to Hollywood’s treatment of his books. But in the 1970s the Cinémathèque française was screening films all day every day in the Palais de Chaillot and on the rue d’Ulm, and Paris was the best place in the world for cinema. You could feast on classic film all over the city, for that matter. You could see Garbo at the Cinema Artistic Voltaire, Buster Keaton at the Jean Cocteau, City Lights at the Cinema Denfert, Greed at the Action Lafayette, and a Bogart festival at the Action Republique. But if you really wanted to feed your head in those days, you took a Metro to the Trocadero stop and disappeared into the Cinémathèque for showings of, say, Murnau’s City Girl at 3 p.m., Renoir’s Madame Bovary at 6:30, Borzage’s 7th Heaven at 10:30, and Frank Capra’s Forbidden at 12:30 a.m., from which you’d emerge movie-drunk and image-sated, with the Eiffel Tower swaying like a metronome across the Seine. Movie heaven!

Now, thanks to the DVD remasterings of 20th-century Fox, Criterion, Kino, Fox, Sony, Turner Classic Movies, among others, movie heaven can be found at the Princeton Public Library, where the biggest piece of this moveable Cinémathèque feast finally arrived last week in the form of the 12 DVDs comprising Murnau Borzage and Fox (reviewed in Town Topics January 7 and archived online at Widely hailed on and offline as the preminent DVD release of 2008, the box set can be checked out in 12 separate packages, along with two lavishly illustrated books (one providing background for the films and filmmakers with an introductory essay by Janet Bergstrom, the other a recreation of a lost film, Murnau’s Four Devils).

The documentary that comes with Murnau Borzage and Fox suggests that the first Academy Awards ceremony, held 80 years ago this May, was Hollywood’s “final tribute to the era of silent filmmaking.” The films and directors featured in the Fox set dominated the first Academy Awards ceremony, as Frank Borzage and Janet Gaynor won the Best Director and Best Actress Oscars for 7th Heaven, which also won for best adapted screenplay. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise won for Best Cinematography as well as in the short-lived “most artistic” film category. Gaynor’s citation also mentioned her work in Sunrise and in Borzage’s Street Angel.

Spunky Innocence

Janet Gaynor’s natural beauty and spirited charm are among the special pleasures likely to win over viewers who have an instinctive aversion to, or simple lack of interest in, silent films, or “old movies” period, regardless of their stature. The original wording of her award as “most distinguished” (rather than “best”) has little relation to the quality of her performances in the three films for which she was cited. What she does in Lucky Star, released later that year, is no less special; her character actually, believably comes to personify the title; she lights up the movie; she shines.

Eighty years later so does Sally Hawkins. Granted, that she never stops talking, that Gaynor is necessarily mute as Angela in Street Angel, and that Leigh’s film is a slice of London life while Borzage’s is a romantic Neapolitan melodrama. The essence of both movies nevertheless comes down to two actresses endowed with sweetness and spirit, strength and spunk.

Library Rentals

At this writing, while all four copies of Happy-Go-Lucky have been checked out and there’s a waiting list, the 12 Murnau Borzage and Fox DVDs are still on the shelf at the library, but not for long, I hope. It’s important to note that DVDs from the set can be checked out for a week and are located in the section somewhat misleadingly headed “Non-Fiction,” under the number 791.43, which is where you’ll find also find sets of D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Jacques Feyder, and, just added, the much-admired Budd Boetticher series of Randolph Scott westerns. So, for a buck a box, you can rent your own Cinémathèque.

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