Carla’s Song

(Ken Loach, Germany/Spain/UK, 1996)


Looking at a film by the British director Ken Loach gives me an opportunity to confront certain tenacious resistances within myself as a film viewer and critic: resistances to this particular filmmaker, and also to a particular kind of film. I’ve often talked about movies – popular, populist movies – which I describe as ‘wilfully politically incorrect’. I’m thinking of movies with a certain proud, vulgar kick to them, like The People vs Larry Flynt (Milos Forman, 1996) or Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), movies which set out to loudly defy some censorious community standard of taste or decency or politeness.


In the past, this kind of aggressiveness, often a specifically working-class attitude, was directed at vague but powerful enemies like the establishment or the rich or the Church. What’s weird in the ‘90s is that the enemy of populism is usually posited as some liberal-minded, left-wing, university educated intelligentsia – an intelligentsia that includes feminists, artists and probably even a few film critics. Everybody gangs up on such lefties these days, everyone from conservative politician John Howard to political commentator Robert Manne, with many stops in-between.


The cry goes up that these suspiciously brainy lefties secretly run everything, from ABC public radio and television and the public service to the education system; that they brainwash the rest of us with their precious, delicate, middle-class values; and hand out every government grant to one or other of their lefty chums.


I have my problems embracing this kind of witchhunt of the politically correct, because this attack is often a kind of scapegoating or smokescreen. I’m not sure that left-liberal intellectuals have all the power that they are claimed to have. But, for all that, I cannot deny that there is some populist, aggro, ex-working-class kid in me, too, that does enjoy kicking against a certain very recognisable form of left-wing puritanism. Whether the left is secretly ruling this country or not, there is no question that one can come up against its particular brand of puritanism in many places.


Now, what’s all this got to do with Ken Loach, the guy who made Kes (1969), Days of Hope (1975) and Land and Freedom (1995)? Well, It’s the instinctive anti-puritan in me which sneers just a little every time I take myself off to a Loach film – or a John Sayles film, or a Mira Nair film, like her woeful effort, Kama Sutra (1996).


The source of my resistance to such directors and their films is a chicken-and-egg thing. I’m not sure what comes first: my reflex disdain for the political attitude of their films, or my instinctive recoiling before the dead, terribly ordinary and illustrative cinematic language that they use. I’ve always found this to be the case: that a certain rigid, over-prescribed political value system in movies goes hand in hand with a lack of feeling for cinema itself. That lethal combination doesn’t only happen on the left-wing side of culture; there are plenty of deadly earnest right-wing movies too.


Friends have told me that if I don’t like Loach’s films, it’s because I haven’t seen the very best ones, such as Riff-Raff (1990). Maybe they were right, because I have finally encountered one which has shaken my long-held anti-Loach resistance: Carla’s Song. What was that resistance based on, precisely? In Loach’s weakest movies, such as Raining Stones (1993), the plot often comes over like an illustrated political lecture based on old-school Marxist principles. Loach is notorious for inserting little message-bearing sermons into his movies: sermons about how the media brainwashes the working class into submission and consumerism, or tirades against the various networks of working class power.


These sermons and lectures have a very 1950s trade-union rally ring to them – and it’s not surprising to me that many of Loach’s most fervent champions are lefties from that period, now rather nostalgic over the lost revolutionary certainties of their youth. I’m not knocking that nostalgia entirely; I’m probably going to be all misty-eyed and nostalgic about postmodernism, disco music and Brian De Palma movies by the time I hit fifty.


My greater problem with Loach, down the years, has been the way he works small-scale personal stories into his Big Picture political canvas. I’ve always found the personal element in his films, the aspects to do with love, family, and friendship, a bit dutiful and grudging. It’s as if Loach felt he had to put that there, but his heart just wasn’t in it. Loach’s failure to connect here looks very much like a consequence of the old-left Marxist critique of Bourgeois or Romantic Individualism. It’s as if, for Loach, to get all worked up over personal, individual stories is somehow to be fatally distracted from the real, social issues at stake, issues that are bigger, more pressing than the petty crises of mere individuals. That’s what I regard as left-wing puritanism, and I hate it whenever and wherever I encounter it. But then again, I would hate it, because, after all, I am a tenacious Romantic Individualist.


If I’ve made Loach sound like some kind of dinosaur here, the values that he represents for me are by no means extinct. There’s a certain left strain that persists in much film criticism today, and the keywords in this tradition are precisely ‘the personal and the political’. If there is any film which combines a personal story (such as a love story) with a large historical event – like a war or a revolution or the Holocaust or even an election – then you can bet your life that certain reviewers will be falling over themselves to wag their finger and say: this film privileges the personal over the political, it reduces politics to a mere backdrop.


In recent years, it’s been said about Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), about The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996), about Beyond Rangoon (John Boorman, 1995), about a hundred films. Sometimes I’ve found myself saying it too, for want of something more intelligent to say. In a previous era, people would have said that the film erases the collective drama, the drama of a nation or a class or a community, in favour of an individual drama. This is a rather foolproof line of attack, since most movies do tend to be about two or three main characters, rather than three hundred or three thousand or three million characters. But the bogus idea that collective stories are politically better than individual ones persists in the praise that Sayles’ movies routinely get: movies like Matewan (1987) or City of Hope (1991) that have a big, generous canvas of characters or, rather, an equal-opportunity smattering of representative social types.


Carla’s Song takes me away from such angry, possibly defensive thoughts. Watching it, I kept thinking in happy bewilderment: what on earth has finally cracked inside this guy? Because Carla’s Song features sweet love scenes – by which I mean a sex scene – from the man whose films have been militantly sexless up until now. It features those love scenes, and it also features an entirely daggy rapport between its characters. Above all, it demonstrates an extraordinarily pained, compassionate feeling for how individual desires and destinies do not always hold fast to the true path of revolutionary history.


Of course, Loach and his writer Paul Laverty still have an impeccably left-wing political agenda. Carla’s Song is set in 1987, and tells the tale of a tentative, fraught relationship between George (Robert Carlyle), a Scottish bus driver, and Carla, a Nicaraguan refugee (Oyanka Cabezas, in her only film role). George is a kind of everyday rebel, always on the wrong side of the authorities. In his own way, he figures as Loach’s hero of the people, the ordinary guy with a natural, instinctive moral and ethical conscience.


The film begins with a set-piece that would normally get all my anti-political-cinema alarm bells ringing. George defends a passenger who can’t pay her fare – it’s Carla – from a bullish bus inspector. In its own intimate, everyday way, this is a set-piece dramatising an issue, a moment of social justice – or injustice, if you like. I’ve come to realise that such scenes are probably amongst the hardest to do well in movies. So often they’re handled in a smarmy, morally absolute fashion: the good citizens line up against their bad masters, and we in the audience are left in absolutely no doubt as to which side we should be on.


So many politically motivated films turns into didactic cartoons at this point – cartoons that preach to the already converted. When Loach does his scenes of social injustice in Carla’s Song, you know full well where he stands: but these scenes have a messy reality about them that is intensely satisfying.


As a result of this incident on the bus, and other pranks such as hijacking the bus for a country picnic, George loses his job. At least he is now free to explore his romantic individualism – his, and Carla’s. Theirs is a very tentative, fraught relationship – George is only one step away from harassing her, and Loach doesn’t shy away from that complication. But love, finally, does begin. Something is calling Carla away, however: her homeland, and the continuing struggle in Nicaragua, but above all, her lover, mysteriously lost somewhere in the fire between Contras and Sandinistas.


She has to go back, and George, opening up to some strange, new impulse, goes with her. He goes, knowing full well that she may end up with her former lover. He now faces that painful, lived discrepancy between the personal and the political. On top of all that, he quickly realises he’s one naïve bunny, stuck in the middle of Nicaragua without a prayer. His naïveté is confronted by a fascinating character, a dark, driven American aid worker played by Scott Glenn, the likes of whom we’ve never seen in a Loach film: he’s a mesmerising, demon-lover figure, and we are left to wonder what his relationship to Carla is, or was.


So there are personal mysteries and intrigues in this film – secrets and revelations all the way down its narrative line, which is new for Loach. There are more of those difficult, tearing vignettes of social injustice, happening now on the larger and more tragic scale of a country at war. There are also delightful recurring situations, almost running gags, as when George hijacks a bus for the second time, only now amidst the gunfire and confusion of his new, adopted home.


Never before has Loach opened himself up to the expressive possibilities of such melodrama, or such human comedy. And never before has he given such tender expression to the fragile interactions of love, passion and friendship between his characters. It’s one of those films that is sad, wrenching and desolate, but also somehow uplifting in its testament to the human spirit, and to the spirit of song, dance and humour.


Carla’s Song is, in fact, more like George’s song: the typical left-wing story of an outsider who is brought to a salutary point of political consciousness, of awakening in a strange and troubled land. But part of the beauty of this story is that, no matter what, George is always still George – just that bus-driving lad with his wits about him, and a heart so big it’s ready to burst.


The beauty and importance of Carla’s Song is that it breaks a certain deadlock in the way that we tend to think about the personal and the political. Because it’s not just a few film reviewers who keep starkly posing these two realms against each other as antagonistic entities: movies themselves collude in this vicious split, and so does a lot of social and political theory.


Everywhere we find stories and statements that reinforce this shocking, crippling assumption – the assumption there is a great chasm between love, sensation and art on the one hand, and society, history and politics on the other. But it’s never been this way, really, and there are movies like Carla’s Song or Bertrand Tavernier’s masterpiece Life and Nothing But  (1989), which show us how vitally indivisible the personal and political are.

MORE Loach: Ae Fond Kiss, My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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