Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Bloody Kids

People don’t take Stephen Frears too seriously these days, and even I feel weird about taking him seriously. For one thing, only a few years (1979-1986) of his long career really command my attention, and the diminution of his directorial personality afterwards makes my high appraisal suspect. For another, he is so much an interpretive artist, having always willingly subordinated himself to distinctive writers, that modest arguments on his behalf are more likely to fly than inflated ones. But then there are the movies, which for a brief time were not like anything else in the cinema. Grand claims must be attempted.

Bloody Kids (1980), Frears’ best film, begins with one of director of photography Chris Menges’s many dazzling long following shots, as a boy named Leo (Richard Thomas) approaches a nighttime accident scene that is cordoned off by the police. The shot moves fluidly around Leo as he enters the site undetected, as if through the back door of a theater, and examines the accident close up. All the elements of this sequence work together with the aim of defeating our immersion in the fiction and creating an abstract depiction of the act of observing. We see Leo clearly and see everything from his approximate viewpoint, but we can’t identify or identify with his mission. The world is presented in fragments, through a haze of spotlights and lens glare, and can’t be interpreted clearly: we see wrecked cars, one of which is dangling in the air from a police crane; a distracted accident victim gently chases Leo away, behaving more like an onlooker than an involved party. Both performance/narrative and camera/lighting exaggerate the separation between the looker and what he looks at: the looker may be enigmatic to us, but it’s at least clear that he’s looking; whereas the outside world is robbed of causality and coherence. The tour-de-force introductory sequence continues as Leo flees the accident site and finds himself at the windows of a nearby police station. Frears and writer Stephen Poliakoff break abruptly here with Leo’s point of view and take us inside the station, where we witness an elaborate but inscrutable scene in which a frustrated cop (Derrick O'Connor) makes fun of an expensive new surveillance system by giving a group of women (prostitutes awaiting intake?) a guided tour of the equipment. Eventually one of the women looking at the surveillance monitors says, “There’s a boy watching us” - and we see Leo on the monitors, which track him as he flees into the night. The shift away from Leo’s point of view is manipulated in such a way that it only reinforces the fragmentation of the world and the primacy of Leo’s spectatorship.

Even in this introduction, the cohesion between direction and script seems greater than what one expects from an interpretive artist. And the larger structure of the film only increases the surprising unity of the project. The plot kicks in when Leo and his less adventurous friend Mike (Peter Clark) decide to stage a fake knife fight outside a sports event, just for something to do. The film traces the consequences of this prank, as Leo throws fuel on the fire by spinning tall tales about Mike’s criminality from his hospital bed, and Mike spends a phantasmagorical night on the run from the police and under the protection of an older and more fully realized juvenile delinquent (Gary Holton).

The true excitement of the film is that Frears and Poliakoff use the more mundane aspect of the theme - the inability of London underclass youth to identify or engage with the adult world - only as a jumping-off point, continually tipping the film toward metaphysics, toward the gap between consciousness and the world, toward the way that reality comes to resemble fiction in the absence of our involvement. Leo and Mike are protagonists without a cause; the filmmakers exploit this concept to make a reflexive film that not only finds its own story inconclusive, but also wonders how any story can be conclusive. As Leo’s elaborate and completely successful charade runs out of road, the young mastermind is overtaken by bitterness toward a society that lacks his nihilistic insight. He leads Mike on a final manic tour of the hospital, entering forbidden areas and destroying property without meeting resistance or obtaining satisfaction: the world is revealed to him as a cheap movie set that has lost its power to persuade. The policeman who represents, as well as anyone in the film can, the reality principle takes the brunt of Leo’s scorn: “You should have figured it out!” Leo screams at him in frustration. In the end, the hospital undergoes a mass evacuation - a delayed effect of one of Leo’s casual destructive acts that the audience has forgotten - and Frears stages this human disaster as a phenomenon internal to the boys’ minds, robbing it of visual and aural impact, and using the last of Menges’ amazing following shots to fade the crisis into the background as the boys wander away from the world and smoke a cigarette, lost in their own thoughts.