“You can laugh while Rome is burning, but believe you me, Poppy, it is burning, and if you don’t wake up, then you will be burnt to a cinder . . . I mean, look around you. What do you see? Do you see a policy of bringing happiness to people?” — Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is an allegorical film, written and directed by Mike Leigh. On the surface it is a character study of protagonist Pauline Cross (Sally Hawkins), a carefree, perky, and peppy young woman described perfectly by her nickname, Poppy. She is bright and beautiful and open, like a 1960s flower girl. She takes the world in a love embrace. Literally, she hugs a globe in one scene. She could be in love with almost everyone, and thinks that people are the greatest fun. Nevertheless, the film is all about judging people. We first meet Poppy bicycling through London, looking for adventure, waving to total strangers. Like a song, she reminds me of The Association’s girl Windy:
Poppy’s ambition is to “make everyone happy” and “bring a smile to the world.” Although she meets failures, no weight can carry her down, because Poppy was born to be free. For instance, her bicycle is stolen early in the film. She does not flash any anger, she knows such material things really have no value, and in the end she was not born to follow, she only wishes she could have said goodbye to her mechanical friend. The film tests her temperament by putting her on a journey and placing in her path social barriers, the first one being a set of books. She alights her soon-to-be-stolen bike to take a quaint street market stroll, entering a small, independent bookstore. On the first book shelf she espies sit serious British political titles such as The Blunkett Tapes (2006), Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? (2006), and three copies of On the Road to Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict in the Islamic World (2006). She selects a different book, the thick The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004), written by an astrophysicist. Here she utters the film’s first words, “The Road to Reality. Don’t want to be going there!” She pushes the book away with a laugh. This is not her world. Her place is across the store, in the children’s book nook. Here the books and decorations are colorful, as is most of the film, almost psychedelic, the dominant hues blue and cool. The world is not represented here by serious books, but by mobiles of cartoon children adorned in various ethnic costumes, harmoniously flying in the air. Poppy picks a book about the solar system, The Kingdom of the Sun: A Book of the Planets (2001), a children’s text, but also written by an astrophysicist. She opens the book to pages about Jupiter,1 both the planet and supreme Roman god. The Jupiter illustration fires her face with joy, as if her spirit itself soars up into space. While the wider world of politics and universe-sized science is her journey’s first barrier sidestepped, her first interpersonal sparring is a tougher nut, the bookstore clerk. She cannot crack his prim visage. She finally asks him directly, “Having a bad day?” He replies with just one word, his only word in the film, “No,” a clever hat tip to Happy-Go-Lucky’s American road film heritage.
Next we see Poppy partying with her sister Suzie Cross and female friends at a dance club, then walking home, then partying at home, the women colorfully and variably dressed. All this elicited memories of Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1983) video, but British with lots of alcohol. At times Poppy sings “I’m so excited,” a la the Pointer Sisters. Everything about her comes in colors, you can tell her by the clothes she wears, she is like a rainbow. On her bedroom wall are a poster of the planets, colorful stars, a blue child Krishna, and a curious black and white ink drawing of a single human eye. (Remember the eye.) Her vocal manner is cheery. One British critic called it “sort of U-certificate larky-sarky backtalk.”2 I cannot translate this phrase, except larky might mean bird-like, maybe chirpy? Is this a criticism communicating a distasteful feeling grounded in regional and/or educational differential social status between observer and the observed on screen? Next we discover Poppy and her housemate Zoe are primary school teachers. They devise a class art project based on the premise of becoming birds. We see Poppy joyfully juggle an armful of colorful breakfast cereal boxes and books about birds and bird watching. Bird watching — that is very British, correct? When Poppy employs scissors on a brown grocery bag, Zoe jokes, “You should ask an adult to help you.” Poppy pops back, “I don’t know any.” We learn one of Poppy’s ambitions is to fly like a bird:
Mr. Vertigo (1994) is a novel about an orphan boy who is stridently trained to attain the preternatural ability of flight by a mysterious man with “godlike properties” named Master Yehudi.3 We watch Poppy and Zoe fashion grocery bags with holes and adornments to mimic birds’ heads. At school we see Poppy prep her pupils with a lecture on the migrations of birds, in specific the Arctic tern, the greatest avian migrant:
But the biggest journey of them all is of the Arctic tern, because he flies from the Arctic, yeah, all the way, Wow, across the world to the South Pole . . . Wow. Wow.
She delivers her lesson in front of an arty wall installation of a map of the world. This film has many maps. In one school scene Poppy holds a globe to her belly. Is the world a weight to her? Is she earth-bound? Is she Gaia? She certainly is no Madonna; in a later scene she tries to heal a drooping hydrangea, rather than tossing the flower away. The wonderful schoolrooms are colorful and happy, reminiscent of the book nook. One schoolroom window displays paper decorations of the symbols of six religions: Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Leigh describes the settings in his DVD commentary as “Inner London schools, with a huge social mix of kids from all kinds of backgrounds, and indeed, from various countries.”4 The kids look multiracial, happy and stable, no 28 Weeks Later (2007) allegory here. Both Poppy and Zoe help their children construct bird masks out of brown paper bags. We see Poppy’s class complete the art project by donning the decorated bags as head-encompassing niqabs. Poppy, as teacher, leads them in how to act like a bird. It is such a British scene, quirky and kooky and larky, children flapping their arms and shrieking and squawking, dancing oddly like British people do, with humor and freedom and no fear. Happy-Go-Lucky’s avian niqab scene is utterly charming, but if any Scottish or Welsh people take offense at being lumped in with loony English folks, I extend my apologies, but point out that one of the children is wearing a Union Jack at her front, clearly a calculated blazoning of the children’s behavior, collectively branding it “British.”
But as the song goes, flying is easy, but when you come down, land on your feet. Poppy jumps on trampolines to mimic flight (carefully watched by minders), but all this results in is a backache needing medical care. Poppy’s central crisis in this film is not her inability to fly, but how to get around on the ground. She cannot drive a car. Perhaps driving lessons will get her a new key to life. She engages the Axle Motoring Company, whose slogan is, “Good Driving is No Accident.” Her instructor is Scott. Scott is the kind of guy who can make angry yet lucid phone calls to overnight talk radio at two in the morning. Scott and Poppy are about as opposite as two people can be. Their relationship is tense and charged; a yin and yang; he is the cathode to her anode; her world is like a rainbow, he wants to paint it black. Scott takes his job seriously, and adheres to the doctrine of defensive driving assiduously. He is also a racist and his political thinking is a little discombobulated, but he seems to know his job. However, his skills are challenged by Poppy, who is the worst driving student ever. In contrast, the other man in Poppy’s film life is Tim the social worker. He is like the sun. Really, it is like a halo on him when Poppy gets his phone number. Tim has amazing patience and the ability to heal children no less. He is tall and fit and good looking and sporting and makes small talk perfectly — a woman’s dreamboat. Scott and Tim are the new/old contrast motif of the film: new ways vs. old ways, new god vs. old god, the generation gap, hipsters battling squares, and so on. Scott is the doorway to Happy-Go-Lucky’s forays into tradition, religion, and politics. Scott or Tim, who will provide Poppy with a new key to life, another axle one might say, and does she really need one?
Due to the trampoline-induced trauma, Poppy takes up a weekly flamenco class for exercise. British people think flamenco dancing is funny. I know this from authorities such as Benny Hill and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Leigh says, “Touch of flamenco makes me laugh.” Poppy finds it funny too, making Harpo Marx-like grimaces during her first class. At one time the cartoonish Spanish teacher instructs them to think like birds, telling the students to extend their arms, “lifting up again, from the elbows, like the eagle spreading its wings. Beautiful. Angry. Ferocious.” Poppy finds this Spanish stuff silly, and displays how her British arms are ill-equipped for this pursuit. Bird-wise, British people are not “eagles.” They may be larks or loons, but they certainly are not raptors. This cross-cultural interaction does not go well at first. But there is a later lesson, and it seems the British students, including Poppy, do get the footwork down, stepping and stomping and mechanical sounding; we watch their feet progress like a camera-watching train or motorcycle wheels roll by. Is there a political statement here about European integration? I doubt it, I think the film’s mere fascination with motion here supersedes. As Leigh says, “I wanted this to be a film very much about movement.” Yet, by design, at the film’s end, Poppy goes almost nowhere at all.
Another obstacle for Poppy is her pregnant younger sister Helen Lightfoot. Helen is married to Jamie Lightfoot, and they live in a seaside suburb. According to Leigh (in 2008), “throughout all my films I have explored the tension between the free spirit and the constraining suburban world, which, I guess the truth is I myself escaped.” Poppy travels there with little sis Suzie, driven by Zoe in Zoe’s fifteen-year-old yellow Fiat Panda (remember the Panda).5 Helen’s home is not as colorful as Poppy’s. For example, it has a world map (a Peters projection) that is oddly under-variegated in color. For example, North and South America are both all green. On Helen’s bookshelf are relatively tame books with titles like An Incomplete Education, Totally Simple Food, and a Jamie Oliver cookbook. This suburban scene is supposed to be repressive, but it does not look too bad to me. Helen is unhappy, and projects her discomfort by opining that Poppy is unhappy, which is obviously not true. Helen also resumes the film’s questioning whether Poppy is acting like an adult or not, and should we care or not? Helen chastises Poppy for not having a mortgage and joining the “property ladder.” Poppy says, “I love my freedom. I’m a very lucky lady, I know that.” Helen takes this as a snub and becomes grumpier and banishes all Playstation playing. Yet Zoe and Poppy joke about adulthood up to film’s very end, inviting the question whether we should judge them on such quality.
Happy-Go-Lucky’s most enigmatic episode is Poppy’s descent into the underworld. She walks through a beautiful area of bushes, perhaps an Elysian Fields, mostly green but with pastel flower accents. But then things turn dark, she enters a scary setting of urban nighttime blight, which could be Tartarus or hell or Detroit. Entranced by strange chanting, she enters a dank, even darker place off the public road, demonstrating her inability to perceive dangers in the world — she always expects the best, never the worst. Here she meets a chanting tramp who is barely intelligible, and appears to be mentally ill. Is this a philosopher in the wilderness, the wandering prophet on the road, or something from Dickens? Is Poppy Pip in the cemetery? The Tramp seems familiar, he registered on my cultural meter, maybe from something I saw once on Masterpiece Theatre? Or is he inspired by the mad wanderers in King Lear? In King Lear Edgar feigns madness, calling himself “Tom o’Bedlam.” But Edgar is younger than the Tramp, and can speak. On the other hand, Edgar, like the Tramp, spits out funny names of strange demons like “Mahu,” “Modo,” and “Flibbertigibbet.”6 The Tramp fears a spirit named “the rubber knocker man.” The scene certainly has a classical underworld feel, like Odysseus searching for information in Hades on how to get home. The Tramp mumbles the adage, “Longest way about, shortest way home.” The Tramp can also sing, and croons the line, “I know that I said I was leaving,” from Frank Sinatra’s “Let Me Try Again.” Back home Zoe asks Poppy what she had been doing. Poppy, not mentioning the Tramp, says with poetic flair, “I went to the moon; and then back again.” Such reminds me of another Sinatra song, “Fly Me to the Moon”:
Fly me to the moon
Let me swing among those stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
Another relevant song is “Come Fly with Me“ with its across-the-world flying. Another musician is Orpheus. He ventures into the underworld to try to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. If inversely paralleled here, the Tramp may be trying to save Poppy from the underworld otherwise known as “the real world.” Whatever the case, although the best model of similarity might be made for Odyssey’s blind prophet Teiresias, I prefer to think of the Tramp as the ghost of Frank Sinatra.
Books are important to Happy-Go-Lucky. On one occasion we see Zoe reading the 1992 novel Hideous Kinky. Hideous Kinky (1998) is a beautifully shot film, and its colorful art direction is superb. The film is about an English hippie mother and her two young daughters flitting about Morocco and Algeria in 1972. Scenes of the sisters laying on bedding and talking about things reminded me of similar in Happy-Go-Lucky. The mother is searching for spiritual enlightenment, and takes up the idea of pursuing Sufism. In the book she also practices yoga and employs the I Ching. The film has a counterculture feel of the time, sprinkled with European hippies. It has a good soundtrack, with two songs from Jefferson Airplane and Love’s masterful “Alone Again Or.” The film’s first song is Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again,” but I am divided if Hideous Kinky qualifies as a member of the road film genre. It certainly is a journey film. The strongest road aspect of the film is a montage of desert truck travel scored to America’s “A Horse with No Name,” which jibes well with the well-known earlier North American hippie desert transit in Easy Rider (1969). There is a short paragraph in the novel that obviously initiated the cinematic vision,7 but the extent of camera interest in landscapes, animals, and the lens effects of rainbow-refraction and flares militate for an Easy Rider linkage too. Happy-Go-Lucky has one rock song, Pulp’s “Common People,” but when I see Poppy riding through London, looking very special, I cannot help but think of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” written by Mars Bonfire, and imagine how Suzanne Vega would sing that song.
Books are also important in an earlier Leigh film, Naked (1993). Naked is a dystopian film investigating civilizational self-induced implosion, chock full of religious allusion and cultural discomfort. Johnny, the humanoid centerpiece of the film, steals three Jane Austen books and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather from a morose woman representing England. At one point this woman’s body mysteriously occludes a map of Ireland, an action mimicking English imperialism. Johnny riffs on the Book of Revelation and the Apocalypse. He reads aloud from Deuteronomy 13 about identifying false prophets. There are scenes with situational similarity to Matthew 25’s sheep and goats parable. Brian, the night watchman, who guards an empty heaven or Eden, likes the book of Hosea, which predicts the destruction of the ten northern tribes of Israel by Assyria. On Brian’s desk are books about ghosts, life after death, and the Irish Potato famine, titled Famine (2004). Johnny’s ventures also recall Homer’s Odyssey. This identification is easy, Johnny fills the screen with a copy of Odyssey and proclaims, “Oh look. Do you get it now? Do you know this?” But to “get” Naked (if possible) is to know a different book. Naked is about the total consumption of history and culture and its destruction; the end of the human experience. The Bible, classical culture, English culture, everything is eaten in this film. The film also has interests in imperialism, genocide, plagues, sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and monkeys no less, because Naked’s primary text is not Odyssey, but a pessimistic modern one, UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (1991). Johnny reads the book while smoking a cigarette. He looks to be halfway through the book, he could be reading the chapter titled, “Why Do We Smoke, Drink, and Use Dangerous Drugs?” That would be a good inside-the-book joke.
Happy-Go-Lucky is like the anti-Naked. But Scott has elements of Johnny and Brian. Brian, the guardian of the heaven or Eden, looks down on a woman’s apartment like the watchman he is. Toward the end of Happy-Go-Lucky we catch Scott watching Poppy’s residence. Is Scott stalking her, or watching out or over her? Is he just a crazy nut, or is he a manifestation of, or an agent for, the all-seeing eye Enraha, the metaphysical entity that is both angel and rear-view mirror? Why is there that ink drawing of an eye on Poppy’s bedroom wall? Scott introduces religion in the film, in a unique way. His religion is entwined with a fundamentalist-like embrace of defensive driving doctrine, epitomized in the attitude, “We expect the worst.” For Scott, the rearview mirror and two side mirrors make a teaching tool, the “golden triangle.” “It’s a pyramid, and at the top of the pyramid, you see the all-seeing eye, Enraha. Can you repeat that please? En-ra-ha.” One time Scott explains that Enraha is a fallen angel. This unusual religious talk provokes Poppy to ask Scott whether he is a “satanist.” “No. In fact, I’m exactly the opposite,” Scott says. On a simple level, Scott’s invocation of Enraha often means ‘check your rearview mirror.’ But in elaboration, it is important on the road to know not only what is ahead of you, but what is behind, and where you have been. Scott instructs Poppy, “You see. You remember. You will remember Enraha ’til the day you die and I would have done my job.” One thing is for certain, if you the watch the well-acted Happy-Go-Lucky once, you will remember Scott forever.
One thing Happy-Go-Lucky remembers is prior films. Happy-Go-Lucky is a brilliant reworking of the classic-style American road film, fashioned female, British, and lower horse-powered. An apt example for Poppy and Zoe is Thelma and Louise (1991). But Happy-Go-Lucky has more connections to an earlier road classic, the masculine Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). For one, both films contain joking about the name “Lightfoot” – a name I must say I find neither “dumb” nor “boring.” There is also a scene where Lightfoot, a happy-go-lucky fellow himself, takes his hands off the steering wheel while barreling down a hillside taking the mock voice of a driving instructor, “Now in a case like this, you can’t take your hands off the wheel, even for a second. See.” Thunderbolt (a preacher and teacher) screams, “Get your hands on the wheel!” But the biggest similarity is the cinematic exploration of homosociality as an acceptable, even superior, lifestyle. In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot traditional domestic life is ridiculed in at least four scenes. These portray husbands as wusses and wimps, submissive to their wives. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot asks: is it not better for men to live without women? Which is preferable, shackled with carping wives or living free with the guys, sitting around drinking beer, talking about naked women, and plotting sophisticated bank robberies? Happy-Go-Lucky explores homosocial domestic couple life with Poppy and Zoe, who are like a pair of mutually comfortable shoes. Jaime Lightfoot serves the role of emasculated husband. He serves the drinks, cooks the food, and despite his contributions Helen humiliates him by prohibiting Playstation playing. But the most material American road film for Happy-Go-Lucky is Easy Rider. In Easy Rider’s opening credits, scored to “Born to Be Wild,” the heroes motorcycle by bridges and buildings and scenery. Similarly, Poppy bicycles through scenes of London. The Riders’ first social barrier is a motel that will not rent to hippies. Wyatt asks the motel clerk, “Hey, you got a room?” The clerk says only one word, “NO,” transmitted in neon. Likewise “No” is the only word Poppy can squeeze out of the bookstore clerk. Poppy represents freedom, and so do the Riders. As the character George the ACLU lawyer says, “What you represent to them is freedom.” In fact, Wyatt, Billy, Poppy, and even Scott too, are all free in a special, almost unique way, film-wise. Each of them is actually driving their vehicles. They are not being ported on process trailers.8
This theme of freedom in both films is elaborated with the idea of burgeoning into birds. In Easy Rider, it is the famous cycling scene where George and Billy pretend to be birds by extending their arms, scored to the Holy Modal Rounders’ song “If You Want to Be a Bird.” Both films also contain a subtext of discomfort with total individual liberty. In Easy Rider Wyatt explains why a rancher and his large traditional family live closest to ideal freedom, and Wyatt hints at unease with his enigmatic near final words, “We blew it.” The subtext exists in Happy-Go-Lucky insofar as the film pushes the viewer to judge Poppy, and is hardly subtle at all in Leigh’s following film, Another Year (2010), a work that is a practically an ode to tradition, stability, and suburbia.
I think Happy-Go-Lucky qualifies as a road film, in the mode of the social commentating American road films of 1960’s and ’70s. David Laderman analyzes the central aspects and principles of these films in his book Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (2002). According to Laderman, the road film became “a distinct genre in the late 1960s” and, “explores the ‘borders’ (the status quo conventions) of American society.”9 The “fundamental core impulse of the road movie,” is “rebellion against conservative social norms.” The road journey is a “means of cultural critique,” and “celebrates subversion.” The road itself is:
a universal symbol of the course of life, the movement of desire, and the lure of both freedom and destiny. Like the wheel, the road expresses our distinction as humans, embodying the essential stuff that makes human civilization possible . . . And yet, the road also can provoke anxiety: We take the road, but it also takes us. Will we survive the upcoming hairpin turn? . . . Do we need to turn onto a new road? . . . for better or for worse, the road represents the unknown.
Driving is freedom. Laderman notes, “the 1960s counterculture infused the cinematic act of driving with a politically rebellious spirit, best exemplified by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969).” Journey stories with social commentary are not new, and include Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, and Don Quixote. The great American literary example is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Very important for the road film genre is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1955), which provides a “master narrative” for late 1960s and ’70s road films. The spirit of On the Road also propelled literature such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). On the Road promotes car travel as a “figurative vehicle of transformation” that serves a “bohemian lifestyle that rejected traditional, conservative ‘family values,'” and similar ethical stances. On her journey Poppy encounters social barriers, but in contradiction to road film tradition, wherein the car facilitates freedom, Poppy flunks. She fails the road; she does not learn to drive a car. Laderman writes road films can involve movement by, “motorcycles, trains, busses, bicycles, or even walking,”10 and Happy-Go-Lucky has these all, and adds a boat to boot. Not only is it a road film, but I cannot think of a film that is more about learning the road, or failing to do so, than Happy-Go-Lucky.
“Mirror. Signal. Maneuver. Enraha.” Scott’s “Enraha” for Poppy is “weird” and “gives me the creeps.” Yet, although Scott is a rigid and demanding teacher, he is a kitten compared to Master Yehudi and his flying lesson torments in Mr. Vertigo, a book Poppy likes. Part of the weirdness is that Enraha is a name totally imagined by the film. There is no Enraha. Leigh says in the DVD commentary, “If you want to know what it is, google it.” Which I suppose is funny for Leigh, he can google “Enraha” himself and eye the folks searching for “Enraha.” I myself did not need Leigh’s personal encouragement to take the bait and google “Enraha” much too much. Nevertheless, being a pretend address allows the idea, perhaps intended, that what Scott is talking about is not a specific faith, but is applicable to any religion. His all-seeing eye triangle could evoke a Trinity, but lots of traditions have things that come in threes. The pyramid could be kabalistic. The Sikhs have the khanda. Eastern religions have the Third Eye. The pyramid is not only a good teaching tool, it also provides Scott a model to understand human society:
No. Enraha is the eye at the top of the pyramid. I’m talking about the bottom of the pyramid. Those at the bottom of the pyramid in this world are kept in total ignorance of what those at the top of the pyramid are achieving. Enraha, Enraha.
Scott tells Poppy he is outside the pyramid looking in. A lot of his opinions are not necessarily untrue, but they are colored darkly by his evident frustrations in life. As he gets to know Poppy better, he tells her more and more about how he feels. This garrulousness does not arise from growing familiarity, but increasing insanity. The more they ride around, the crazier Poppy drives him. She is a terrible student, and her complete insouciance and lack of fear of what may be down the road is totally inappropriate for safe driving. She may be unconsciously subverting her road lessons. For Scott, Poppy Cross is chock full of poppycock. But, as he says resignedly, “I have never given up on a pupil.” One time without prompting he opines on social status, economics, and the education system:
And the education system works like this: “I will give you a world view. And if you repeat my world view, if you reconfirm my world view, you will pass your exams, and you will go higher and higher and higher, and you will become a policeman, a magistrate, a lawyer, a general, a politician, and you will be happy and you will succeed. But if you think for yourself, if you think outside the box, then you will be unhappy and you will fail.” That’s how the education system works. Left turn. Enraha. Signal. Enraha.
Later Scott tells Poppy, who has no choice but to listen, about his political awakening:
I set the alarm. I opened my eyes, and I saw . . . I mean, you can laugh while Rome is burning, but believe you me, Poppy, it is burning, and if you don’t wake up, then you will be burnt to a cinder . . . I mean, look around you. What do you see? Do you see a policy of bringing happiness to people? No, you see ignorance and fear. You see the disease of multiculturalism. And what is multiculturalism? Multiculturalism is nonculturalism. And why do they want nonculturalism? Because they want to reduce collective will. The American Dream never happened. The American nightmare is already here.
At this point Scott zooms into an even angrier screed about the book of Revelation’s “6 6 6,” much angrier than Johnny’s Revelation exegesis in Naked, connected to some lunatic idea about the height of the Washington Monument. Scott’s Washington Monument riff struck me as protesting too much. It feels as if the film is uncomfortable with its own, earlier views on multiculturalism. Also, what the heck is that crack about America? The idea that Rome is burning is not an unusual metaphor. In fact, one hears it more and more these days since the continuing economic crisis began in 2008. I will show a Michael Moore example later. Scott sees ignorance and fear all around him. Lots of people do. However, he links these to “multiculturalism.” If he means by “nonculturalism” that multiculturalism leads to diminishing the larger host culture, there are some multiculturalist believers who might think like that. Scott calls multiculturalism “the American nightmare.” That stumped me. As an American, should I feel insulted? I think of the American nightmare as being sourced to exotic finance, dumb politicians, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Maybe Scott is confusing multiculturalism with multiracialism. But a person like Scott would know exactly what multiculturalism means, and the difference between that and integrationism. The irony of Scott’s words, which are presented as insane, is that Happy-Go-Lucky is itself an anti-multicultural film. The film may be narrowly offensive to Spanish people and their zoomorphic conceptions of bird flight, but certainly the major political act of the film, the avian niqab scene, is anti-multiculturalist. Does Poppy have permission slips from the parents of these children from “various countries” to instill them with British ideals and conceptions of freedom and liberation? The scene is so British, it waves the flag.
There is another way of looking at Scott’s multiculturalism rant. The rant follows Scott’s third or fourth warning to Poppy that she might kill someone with the car. Poppy asks, “Are you scared of death, Scott?” He replies, “No, I’m not scared of death. I’m scared of dying. That’s why I woke up.” Maybe Scott literally fears he is dying because he allegorically represents tradition. He fears his role is being abated toward a state culture-less-ness. He warns Poppy, a representational Lady Liberty, that she is endangered similarly. Liberty and Tradition, they are like a yin and yang, opposites, but also complementary and reliant upon each other for mutual enforcement and protection. Maybe the film is Taoist, but the interconnected opposites are not working here, there is a disharmony in their universe, Poppy Cross cannot drive the road, and she cannot follow the advice of a teacher who understands it. Together they might represent Britain. I had thought Poppy nostalgically did so in the beginning, with the scenes of her on a bicycle, London street markets, small shops, visions I thought signify a romantic, small “Britain” in film and television, like “Main Street” means for Americans.
Larry Crowne (2011) is a light romantic comedy, co-written and directed by Tom Hanks, which takes place in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The film is purposely small feeling, yet has road film travel elements and definite road motif lessons. It is also economically sophisticated and a little dark. The film begins watching Larry, played by Hanks, working joyfully, Poppy-like, at a big box store called U-Mart. In short order he is fired. Larry thinks he was “downsized.” The film’s general theme is lowered expectations, small hope, and adaptation. The film is remarkably in touch with the current mood in America, with people in difficult economic situations, housing foreclosures, and the fear prosperity may not be just around the corner. The opening credits are scored to “Hold On Tight (To Your Dream)” by the Electric Light Orchestra. However, one of the lessons of the film may be do not hold on tight to your dream; find a new one instead. Another idea implied is to find another road, a lesser or slower one. Taking the “secondary road” is one of the philosophical ruminations in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book Larry studies. Larry believes he was “downsized,” but his firing is not necessarily recession-related. Larry is told, “We’ve come to a parting of the ways, U-Mart and you.” The uncomfortable-looking human resources lady explains:
Of course, that is exactly what U-Mart does do. But Larry is a victim of rank and yank, not an age discrimination ploy. Rank and yank is a periodic, scheduled culling of employees in large businesses. Also called the “vitality curve,” rank and yank can deprive a business of its best workers, although its proponents would say on-site managers are conflicted and not the best decision makers at hiring and firing. Despite being his site’s best worker, Larry is selected for ejection because U-Mart’s metric greatly favors the mere admission into a tertiary educational institution. This sets up some college jokes. One blustery co-worker named Jack blurts out, “SMU, class of ’86!” Is there a reason why SMU is funny? Is it not a fine school? Is this something against Texas? A second goofy co-worker says for himself, “Three years Chico State.” I almost died. Those are the funniest four words I have heard in a long time. To try to begin to explain, contemplate a splicing of Animal House (1978) with a Cheech & Chong film. Perhaps my West Coast judgment is outdated. But despite being a dope, Jack has one of the sharpest laugh lines, a rank and yank joke no less. Larry says, “I thought I was going to be employee of the month.” Jack replies, “Well, in a way, you are.”
Larry decides to go to community college to improve his life skills. The dean suggests he enroll in three classes, composition, Econ 1, and “Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks.” A speech class is a good idea for someone like Larry, like joining Toastmasters to hone one’s skills. Indeed, the film suggests several ideas to people in Larry’s place at the bottom of the pyramid. Learn more about personal finances. Maybe it is in your best interest to hop off the property ladder and dump your underwater mortgage. Learn what a “strategic foreclosure” is. Get a clothing makeover. Maybe riding a scooter and reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would be good for you. One topic in Zen is the ideal of learning how to repair one’s own motorcycle, to take command of one’s own life. Indeed, Larry’s speaking ability improves as the film progresses. I think Hanks does a good job having Larry become a better, but not perfect speaker, thus the character remains within the boundaries of plain. Likewise, the film’s locations also have a broad plainness that is purposeful to the mood of the film, the exact opposite of Happy-Go-Lucky.
Yet Larry Crowne has some colorful characters. One is the completely insincere bank loan officer. She represents the never realized “refinancing assistance” politicians always vocally promise the people on the eve of their voting for big bank bailouts. Larry overcomes her, and the banking establishment, by dumping his house and mortgage. The Talia character is compelling. She is the cutest thing I have seen on a scooter since Breaking Away (1979), and not the only matter in Larry Crowne that reminds me of that film. Talia’s school project is making Larry look good, and her circumstance presents the idea that formal college classes may not be the best road for everyone. Julia Roberts as Mercedes, the alcoholic speech teacher with an overly jerky husband, is very good too. This surprised me because I had read reviews calling the film a “vehicle” and a “star vehicle.” I took these to mean the stars’ acting would be pedestrian, a walk-through. However, not the case at all, Mercedes does grumpiness very well, jealous seething too, and when she opens up to Larry she does so enthusiastically, not like two actors too familiar with each other. But what makes Larry Crowne one of the best films of the year is the great performance of George Takei and the college class he presides over, Economics 1. Takei, famously Star Trek’s Sulu, plays Professor Matsutani. Matsutani looms over his students like a god figure who holds the esoteric key to the road to economic success. Larry Crowne’s economic milieu, and Matsutani’s mastermind role, is best appreciated in the context of American news media culture, and the films since 2008 that address the current derivatives- and deficits-driven crisis. As follows is a short survey.
Up in the Air (2009) is a very good film, apposite to corporate firing practices, but the subject of corporate firings therein is not necessarily connected to the characteristics of the crisis. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), the infamous financial genius Gordon Gekko gets out of prison for crimes committed during Wall Street (1987). His new occupation (for a while) is the lecture circuit and hawking his new book titled, Is Greed Good? We see Gekko introduced as Mr. Insider, speaking to an enrapt audience about toxic banking. It is an excellent speech, spoken with convincing experiential authority. Gekko calls exotic securities and derivatives, “W – M – Ds. Weapons of mass destruction,” echoing Warren Buffett’s wise words about the same. Gekko also criticizes homeowners for their own risky mortgage behavior. His last words of the lecture are, “It’s a disease, and we got to fight back. How are we going to do that? How do we leverage that disease back in our favor? Well I’ll tell you. Three words: Buy – My – Book.” Money Never Sleeps is full of revenge and back-stabbing, even within families. It is like watching a revenge story about renaissance Northern Italian banker-warlord families fighting each other. The ending is relatively happy, all the characters end up rich again, and Jake can hold on to the dream that near limitless clean nuclear fusion energy is only a $100 million dollar investment away. Tartly, Gekko observes, “Wouldn’t you say green’s the new bubble, Jake?”
Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) begins with montages comparing America to a declining Roman Empire. Moore certainly makes a good visual point with juxtaposed images of mixed martial arts cage fighting and gladiators. The film is very personal for Moore; it has nostalgia for 1950s America. While Moore assesses “capitalism” to be “evil,” he holds Germany and Japan to be the models America should follow. The film often feels like a lament, pining for the fjords of a lost utopian -ism, one not beginning with capital-. There is some good commentary on exotic finance and deregulation, and criticism of how the major media treat Alan Greenspan and Wall Street insiders in government as heroes and their words sacrosanct. Moore surrounding the New York Stock Exchange with crime scene tape is a good sight gag.
The Flaw (2010) is a film that has not had a general release. I have not seen it, but I cannot resist citing it for its promotional material. The film’s title comes from Greenspan’s comment before Congress, “I have found a flaw in the model that defines how the world works. I was shocked.” I do not know whether to laugh or cry. “Models” can be massaged to suit any agenda or requested outcome, by ignoring inconvenient data, adjusting data, making all sorts of assumptions and goosing variables, all varnished with scientific-sounding blather, suitable to line somebody’s pocket. However, in Greenspan’s defense, he honestly believed his own garbage to be holy truth itself.
The same cannot be said for the slimy economic “experts” highlighted in Inside Job (2010). Inside Job is the best documentary on the crisis, excellent when it stays on finance and government. The film does a very good job describing items such as credit default swaps with helpful visual tools. Beyond explaining how derivatives increase risk and systemic instability, the film investigates how university “experts,” paid by the finance industry but presented as “independent,” are used to flim-flam politicians and the public into accepting the idea that increasing risky financial behavior actually decreases systemic risk. There are good guys in Inside Job. Here are the clear and simple words of UCSD Law and Finance professor Frank Portnoy:
You’re going to make an extra two million dollars a year, or ten million dollars a year, for putting your financial institution at risk. Someone else pays the bill; you don’t pay the bill. Would you make that bet? Most people who worked on Wall Street said, “Sure, I’d make that bet.”
Compare this wisdom to the wit of Alan Greenspan, the man once behind the curtain at the top of the pyramid, the former chief of the Federal Reserve:
I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.11
This statement is totally devoid of any interest in the obvious fact that “banks” are run by human beings who have their own self-interests and mistaken beliefs. Another smart man in Inside Job is the chief advisor of the China Banking Regulatory Commission. He speaks about derivatives while sitting in front of a nostalgic wall photo of the Communist Chinese flag and a toiling worker. He states, “As Warren Buffett said, ‘weapons of mass destruction.'” This is Inside Job’s inside joke. At a later date, Buffett went over to the dark side.
In these contexts of professed expertise and difficult economics, assess the claims and teachings of Larry Crowne’s Professor Masutani. Here are his first words of the film, orated to a large classroom full of students:
You have entered Economics 1, Econ Prime. Trying to make sense of the complicated structure of economic law and theory? It’s confusing. Until you read this course pack, [holds up course pack] written by Ed Matsutani, Ph.D. That’s me. Read this and follow me to economic enlightenment and power. [He laughs strangely] That usually scares people, yet none of you fled. A good economic indicator.
Matsutani’s laugh here is a muted form of the so-called evil laugh. It is the usually comic laugh of a villainous mad scientist or criminal mastermind found in film and television. Sometimes the evil laugh sounds like “muahaha” or “bwahaha.” Several characters in the series Futurama exhibit variations of it, including mega-capitalist Mom. Matsutani’s laugh is unsettling and strange here, but not totally outrageous. That comes later with this passage:
At the end of each chapter is a study guide. Master those and you will have mastered the course pack. Master my course pack, and you will take over the world. [pause] Mehahaha!
Here the teacher’s laughing is maniacal. Compared to Masutani’s mehahahas, Scott’s Enrahas seem relatively sane. But it is not only Takei’s demeanor throughout the film that is great. For one, there are the joking Star Trek visual allusions to communicators and tricorders, which can only work with an actor also known to be Sulu. But what is also great about Matsutani is what he actually teaches in Economics 1. Here is an example:
Matsu.: If the balance on axis A is the same metric as axis B, deficits appear because of overhead, taxes, and reinvestment. Translation? . . .
Larry (hesitantly): The break even paradox of the static flow assumption?
Matsu.: That is the correct answer, from page 56. Someone’s been reading the course pack! While economic law abhors an assumption, the break even paradox creates a whole new metric, an illusory flow that appears proactive, but is in fact, static.
This is brilliant gobbledygook. The academic bad guys in Inside Job could only dream of writing something that sounds so knowledgeable, yet at the same time is so utterly empty. For a light romantic comedy, Larry Crowne has some rather dark and discomfiting parts. Near the end of the film, a new semester starts and we see Larry is taking another Matsutani class, Economics 2. The professor begins:
The ships of finance sail upon roiling seas, with hidden shoals of junk debt, squalls of undercapitalization, and tsunamis of the false value index. This course pack, written by, guess who, is your map to a safe economic harbor. All aboard!
Larry looks unnerved. Did not Matsutani promise complete economic power and success by means of Econ 1 and its course pack? Larry has entered the twilight zone of Econ 2 and its dimension of insecurity. The classroom is bleak, with many fewer students than the Econ 1 class. Oh well, only so many people can ascend the pyramid. One conventional ending to a journey film is the return home. Larry ends up at a new home, a smaller castle, a downsized apartment with “the smallest kitchen in the world.” According to Robert Pirsig, “Zen is the spirit of the valley, not the mountaintop,”12 but although Larry gets the girl, there is nothing contemplatively serene in the economic lowland Larry ends up in. The closing credits are road filmic and colorful, as if the film needed to conclude with a romantic comic tone. Nevertheless, the closing song is Electric Light Orchestra’s “Calling America,” and while it is musically exuberant, its lyrics have a streak of desperation. Indeed, so do the lyrics of the ELO song that opened the film, “Hold On Tight (To Your Dream).”
Happy-Go-Lucky’s road film homecoming is wholly absent. After her breakup with Scott, we see Poppy with Zoe in a rowboat on a small urban lake. The girls discuss whether they have become adults or not, Poppy saying, “It’s a long trip,” and “We got a hell of a way to go.” Then Tim calls on the cell phone. These are the film’s last words:
Poppy: It’s a long story. I’m on a lake with Zoe.
Tim: [Is that your home now?] Poppy: [Laugh] The bathroom flooded. Yeah. It’s alright now. We found a boat.
Tim: [ ] Poppy: [Laugh] You’re funny!
I made up Tim’s line, i.e., the words that make Poppy laugh. We do not hear what Tim says. I think there is an internal joke here, about road film conventions and returning home, that Poppy does not get. She does not change or evolve, as do Thelma and Larry Crowne. Poppy Cross has no game-changer, no epiphany, no Road to Damascus moment. Although she rejects Scott, she does not embrace Tim much either. In the end, Tim is just some girl-toy on the other end of a cell phone call. Furthermore, his bookshelves have nothing interesting or discernable by title other than a set of drill bits. Even worse, Tim’s car is a twenty-two-year-old Volkswagen Polo.13 What journey is that good for? Scott’s car is a solid eight-year-old Ford Focus.14 In Leigh’s own words, “a very nice car, very well made.” Maybe Poppy should go back to Scott. After all, he told one of the funniest lines in the film — a road film joke. At the final driving lesson, which I will not spoil except to say that when Scott lists a litany of Poppy’s faults — as he perceives them — he concludes with, “and you all drive around in that stupid little yellow car.” He means Zoe’s fifteen-year-old Fiat. Scott’s inside-the-film criticism is correct. It is a stupid car, an affront to the film’s American road film heritage. Take Thelma and Louise and its great 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible. Look at Easy Rider; it has the coolest motorcycles ever. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is practically an ode to cars and their diversity. Instead we get the old Fiat Panda, and a nondescript rowboat in which to watch Poppy travel.
The way I feel about Poppy’s life choices is, hey, you got to go where you want to go, and do what you want to do, with whomever. I am happy for Poppy. I dig Poppy’s blossom world. I love the colorful clothes she wears, and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair — insofar as it shines in London. But as I first watched the film, I felt it contained little things indicating it is a reflective British critique of Poppy, or people or women like Poppy, or a generation of British persons. The feeling grew as I learned about road films. Social discomfort about an unmarried woman without a car is an openly critical part of Leigh’s next film, Another Year. Another Year is centered on a couple, Gerri and Tom Hepple. The wife is a therapist, the husband a geological engineer. They are a responsible pair, solid like the deep London clay Tom studies. Gerri and Tom live in a suburban home with a nice backyard garden (no hydrangeas). They also have a great plot in a community garden. Inside their home’s doorway is a beautiful geological map of Great Britain, a clear descendant of the map addressed in the book The Map That Changed the World (2002), a copy of which Poppy passes by in the bookstore.
Socially, Another Year is pro-marriage and pro-tradition, yet it left me thinking Mike Leigh needs a divorce, desperately. From his characters, that is. First up, in Gerri’s therapy office, we find again none other than the famous Vera Drake (2004)! Vera is as miserable as ever, but worse now, for there is no discernable reason for her misery this time around. Later we meet an angry nephew with a little Scott and Johnny in him. There also is an old college chum who looks like he is going die from enormous alcohol and tobacco intake, and then there is Mary. Mary, it is sad to report, but it cannot be avoided, is Poppy fifteen years older and still without a car. Mary is a friend and officemate of Gerri. Mary’s narrative crises are alcohol, finding somebody to love, and acquiring a car. She buys a fifteen-year-old Vauxhall Corsa Mark II15 for “650 pounds,” about $1,300. Unsurprisingly, a car that cheap will incur a lot of repairs. When she announces her purchase, Gerri encouragingly counsels, “This could be the making of you, Mary.” Mary says, “Just driving here today I felt like a whole person . . . a free spirit . . . I feel really good behind the wheel, really special.” Later she says, “I suddenly feel really liberated . . . It is so exciting, isn’t it. I feel like Thelma and Louise. This little car is going to change my life.”
Thelma and Louise is a bad omen here. Mary is a poor driver, and as she starts to fall emotionally apart, so does her car. Someone breaks into it just to steal some toilet paper; it gets that low. The old Vauxhall is a “catalog of disasters.” “It has given me a lot of stress,” Mary says, and she does not wear it well. The car dies, mechanics pay Mary “twenty quid” to take the heap off her hands. Posthaste she blows the cash on a bottle of champagne, drinks it up, sleeps it off, then heads to Gerri’s home to crash on the couch, uninvited, depressed, and dressed in dull blue clothes. It is an ugly demise. Gerri advises Mary to accept “responsibility” and seek “professional help.” Mary’s life reminds me of a song, Jefferson Airplane’s groovy but disheartening “Somebody to Love.” The lyrics, “and your friends, baby, they treat you like a guest,” perfectly mesh with the ending of Another Year. However, I prefer to remember Poppy forever from her fresh beginning in Happy-Go-Lucky, racing with the wind, bicycling, all dressed in blue, like seeing the sky in front of you, her face like a sail, a whiter shade of pale, have you seen a lady fairer? Is that too much?
* * *
- Mitton, Jacqueline, Balit, Christina (illus.), The Planet Gods: Myths and Facts About the Solar System (2008) no pg. nos. This is the American edition of the 2001 book The Kingdom of the Sun. Poppy also briefly looks at the two pages for Saturn. [↩]
- Bradshaw, Peter, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” The Guardian, April 18, 2008. [↩]
- Auster, Paul, Mister Vertigo (New York: 1994) 67. [↩]
- All quotations from Mike Leigh herein come from his DVD commentary. [↩]
- Internet Movie Cars Database, page for Happy-Go-Lucky. Zoe’s car is thereat identified as a 1992 Fiat Panda. In assessing vehicle ages, I am assuming the film was shot in 2007. [↩]
- King Lear 3.3, 4.1.”Flibbertigibbet” is a dictionary-acceptable word describing a flighty woman. A few reviews of Happy-Go-Lucky use “flibbertigibbet” for Poppy. Michael Coveney argues in his book The World According to Mike Leigh (London: 1996) that Johnny in Naked has some traits of Edgar’s mad phase, and some of Hamlet’s garrulousness too (20-21). [↩]
- Freud, Esther, Hideous Kinky (New York: 1992) 141. [↩]
- In an old interview shown in A Decade Under the Influence (2003) Peter Fonda says, “The public though, I think, went for the picture because they felt we were up to something real,” and gives as example, “yeah we’re really riding the motorcycles and we’re not on a trailer and a traveling car.” Leigh says in his DVD commentary, “Now it’s very important, I felt, that in all these driving lesson scenes, and you’re going to see lots of them, that whenever either of them is driving, that they really are driving the car. Of course, mostly in movies, it’s done by putting the car on a trailer of some kind, a low-loader some people call them, and the actors pretend to drive.” [↩]
- Laderman, David, Driving visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin, TX: 2002) 2. [↩]
- Laderman, 13. [↩]
- Clark, Andrew and Treanor, Jill, “Greenspan — I Was Wrong About the Economy. Sort of,”The Guardian, October 24, 2008. [↩]
- Pirsig, Robert, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: 1974) 220. [↩]
- Internet Movie Cars Database, page for Happy-Go-Lucky [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Identification comes from the Internet Movie Cars Database. [↩]