by Paul Deeter
It's hard to place my finger on Mike Leigh, or his lengthy career following wide releases in the early 90's and award-garnering career from the 2000s on. His work spans earlier than 1991, but 1991 was notable for his release of Life is Sweet, a film I recently discovered in the Criterion Collection and a good start to a career that would receive positive critical response. Mike Leigh is one of those directors who I recently argued is underrated in the sense that while the Criterion Collection has a good respect for his over-arcing works, the Academy has been notoriously unappreciative of his films. With films like Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake receiving awards at Cannes and the British Academy Film Awards, I'm not entirely correct in the assumption that he's been underrated over time. But I do stand by the point that his films do age better over time. Some of his biggest classics haven't been praised nearly enough upon their release, but instead received acknowledgement later on in his career. Our own Academy has nominated Leigh for 7 different categories starting with his film Secret and Lies with no wins, yet. And their recognition began after two of his most popular films today. So maybe with the fact that I have trouble categorizing the director, who's covered whimsy and light humor and simultaneously tragedy and pessimism, so does everyone else.
The Academy Awards have not figured when to give Leigh his due, and I'd say most of Leigh's best movies are polar opposites of each other. I see optimism in films like Life is Sweet, which certainly does not sugarcoat the confusing identity issues that its two teenage leads struggle with. I see optimism in Happy-Go-Lucky with the unexplainable pure happiness of Sally Hawkin's character, even when her driving instructor tries to mull her mood time after time. These are overtly optimistic films, which know when to get dark at the same time. So when faced with a classic film like Naked, it's not just hard placing my finger on the film's place in Leigh's body of work, but also its intentions as well. I should also note that Naked was a movie I saw as a teenager, which is either the worst time or the best time to watch masculinity and narcissism exposed for its ugliness. This movie is not optimistic, but I wouldn't argue it's pessimistic either. It's also misleading to call the film realistic, or emotionally accurate to the times. It tosses its characters amuck, in a world of their own misfortune and each of them suffer without an optimistic outcome in sight. And its not the fault of the film's female characters for their misfortune, its male aggression at play, toxic masculinity on the loose of the streets of Manchester. I'd attest the thought process of our male protagonist in the forefront exists in a hegemonic masculine identity:
The conceptual beginnings of hegemonic masculinity represented the culturally idealized form of manhood that was socially and hierarchically exclusive and concerned with bread-winning; that was anxiety-provoking and differentiated (internally and hierarchically); that was brutal and violent, pseudo-natural and tough, psychologically contradictory...
Johnny Fletcher our lead is played by David Thewlis, who prattles off his ideas and quiet jokes so quickly that if we weren't so annoyed by his ego, we'd stop and ask him to repeat himself. I've watched scenes now of Naked on a third viewing with the rewind button frequented. There's so much bottled-up anger in Johnny that causes him to snip and insult everyone and every situation as a defense mechanism. But what's he guarding? Well Johnny has an opinion on just about everything and everyone. He's got a penchant for theorizing on the world's end and the state of human nature, and no topic is off limits for his crass conversations. Sometimes it seems like Johnny is talking to himself, and for the better, some of the jokes or quips he make sound spiteful and insulting to the viewer but go unheard to the characters around him. The character reminds me of the quote turned into meme from Good Time. Robert Pattinson's character is asked "do you think you're better than me?" by another criminal cohort in the film, and despite 90-minutes prior to that of constant bad decisions and criminal activity by Pattinson, he responds: "I am better than you." Johnny floats around by the same rhetoric he simply thinks he's better, smarter or funnier than everyone else. He plays other people as the occasional punch-line, joking about the jobs of security guards and cleaners as if he has any authority to do so. Johnny is a bum, but he feels like he has the right to play as a societal judge, with criticism to offer everyone. On top of that, he's sexist and rough with multiple female characters. The movie lets us off from any sympathetic arc with the character, and even after he gets beat up, mugged and tossed back into a loft he started the movie in, we look at him from a standing POV. That is, we watch Johnny shriveled on the floor by the other roommates, crying and messy and piss-drunk. Oh how the almighty ego falls.
What's so interesting about Johnny to me, and I may be exaggerating a tad when I say this: I know a Johnny Fletcher. Or knew a Johnny, or maybe more than one. Johnny is unhinged from reality and doesn't have that filter some people in his line of thinking may have, but he's familiar nonetheless. I've known people, angry and outspoken, with a grudge against life. Some of these people were dangerous thinkers. I think the people who existed like this in my life had the bearings to keep their id chained up from leaking out into any conversation or social situation. But these men I knew, whether they bared a grudge against women or felt like they were superior in one way or another to the people around them, liked to talk. They maybe played off some of their opinions with dark humor, kinda like how Naked is considered a black comedy. But the personalities of people like this are beyond toxic masculinity. The Johnny's of the world might not be out drinking and assaulting people every which way on the streets, but they exist and they believe in themselves. This is modern existing hegemonic masculinity, and its as common in history as it has ever been.
Mike Leigh's story is not entirely pessimistic, like I mentioned before, and I've seen movies with fewer moral characters. But it doesn't hide its dark exploration of the male id, instead it opens its animal cage to a zoo of innocent bystanders. I don't think Naked is a bad time, at least not in the sense that I can't truly understand or appreciate a film that attempts to submerge us into a darkness that we may not be comfortable with. I mentioned this with Antichrist as well, sometimes a movie is allowed to make us uncomfortable. And if you're in the mood for watching a film that exposes an ugly that some may be too nervous to talk about, this is my recommendation. Mike Leigh is a largely improvisational director, and one who's beliefs on theology would categorize him as an atheist. Whether or not his work here lies in the realm of his belief, or the anxiety of some of his darker thoughts, is up to interpretation. However in a career of handling humanism at its realest, Mike Leigh doesn't hold back in showing us just how foul humanism can be, when stripped to its nakedness.