Meantime: Margins and Centers

A little over an hour into Meantime (1984), we get a moment of poten­tial relief from the grim conditions of the film. We see, in the right foreground, two of the familiar stone lions lording over the middle of Trafalgar Square, and in the distance, past the black cabs circling this famous space, and past the fleet of red double-decker buses coming toward us from Whitehall, the iconic clock tower of Westminster—Big Ben—and the adjacent buildings that connote the seat of British govern­ment. This is the most generic view imaginable of cinematic London. And it is unlike anything we have seen up to this point in Meantime, or will see after—as the film in every other moment occupies the devastated landscapes of working-class East End council estates or, less frequently, the bland anonymity of middle-class suburbs. Transported unexpectedly to the alien territory of the heart of the metropolis, the camera patiently tilts down to pick out, first in the distance and gradually closer to the frame as the figure walks toward us, Mark Pollock (Phil Daniels) strutting across the square in his leather jacket, jeans, boots, oversize glasses, and scruffy hair. Tourists, children, and pigeons flit through the frame, oblivious to the presence of this person, this potential protagonist. By the time the image fades to black, Mark is bearing down on us in a medium shot, still strutting, still taking in this foreign world, still on his way somewhere or nowhere.

We could describe this shot as pointless or extraneous. It does not provide information relevant to anything that happens in the film either directly before or after it; it has no apparent effect on our understanding of Mark Pollock or of the film around him. But it’s telling that Tim Roth, who plays Mark’s withdrawn brother, Colin, chose this scene as his favorite when asked decades later about his experience working, as a relative unknown, with Mike Leigh on this project. The eccentricity of the shot was the very reason for Roth’s selection; in his words, Trafalgar Square “is a free place to go, but [Mark] looks so out of place.” The fact that Roth could not remember whether the shot actually made it into the final version of the film is entirely relevant. The shot itself is free—that is, unattached to anything else—and looks out of place. It may seem that Leigh has violated basic requirements of storytelling by including such a moment, but the effect of this is to remind us that the nation that Mark and his family inhabit has itself (to use a British expression) “lost the plot,” adrift in the paralysis of 11 percent unemployment that defined early-eighties Great Britain.

Leigh’s curious decision here engages, as both cinematic form and subject matter, the crisis that consumes Meantime—namely, the crisis of national identity triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. Critics have generally not discussed form in connection with Leigh’s films—preferring to talk about people, themes, and situations rather than characters, shots, and narrative design. Throughout his career, Leigh has been invested in showing versions of the world in which he lives, in particular the everyday grit of family life, of chitchat—the texture of experience. As a result, his work is typically deemed realist in ways that suggest transparency, as if the director were merely an impartial conduit for truth. But as realist painting, fiction, and cinema from the nineteenth century on remind us, realism is always a set of codes and practices, a deliberate framing of the actual. Leigh’s visual and storytelling choices make us renegotiate our sense of how art and life correspond, or how they alter each other.

Meantime was made for television, like all of Leigh’s films between 1973 and 1985. In the interregnum between his first feature, Bleak Moments (1971), and High Hopes (1988), the film that would begin to launch him as a European auteur, Leigh worked primarily for the BBC, a venue that provided a reliable baseline of an audience, if little visibility outside his home country. Meantime is something of an exception within this sequence, as it was commissioned by a then-fledgling Channel 4, the broadcaster that would help revive the economically moribund British film industry by financing such directors as Stephen Frears, Ken Loach, and Peter Greenaway. If Meantime had been made a little later, it might have been shot on 35 mm rather than 16 mm, and it might have been conceived as a theatrical release, as many Channel 4 projects soon after it were; instead, it remained for many years a difficult-to-track-down word-of-mouth favorite, especially among the young and disenfranchised.

But however markets and audiences have fluctuated during Leigh’s career, his aesthetic and narrative preoccupations remain recognizable throughout. In Meantime, he stages crises of cinematic representation—of the obligations of plot, of the knowability of character, of the deployment of space—in response to the crises of value occasioned by the takeover of the government by a Tory party very different from its predecessors. Thatcher’s most infamous declaration—“There is no such thing as society”—shattered familiar notions of obligation and security that post-1945 Britain had established as inviolable conditions of citizenship. Meantime, by focusing on the Pollock family as exemplar and symptom of the effects of Thatcherism, took on a set of conditions that we could call facts, or circumstances, that the Channel 4 audience would have understood as their own—a shared territory between the viewers of the movie and the characters in it.

The shot of Trafalgar Square highlights that permeability between the actual and the represented in a different way. Is this a shot of Mark Pollock, a cinematic invention, walking across a set? Or is this Phil Daniels, happening to move across Trafalgar Square, as himself? The distinction between performer and role is always tricky in cinema, but it is even trickier in a Mike Leigh film, due to the gradual process by which, starting with no script or story, he and his actors build up characters that eventually interact with one another over a long rehearsal period, before Leigh structures the pieces into a narrative. So this shot of a man in a leather jacket crossing the square could almost be stray footage of Daniels practicing his character—an interposition superfluous to the film’s central story. The tension between the marginal and the central defines Meantime throughout, as Mark, Colin, and their parents (Pam Ferris and Jeff Robert) are absolutely marginal to what Britain is becoming. The film, by putting their plotless lives at its center, creates a persistently disorienting uncertainty for the viewer about what she is watching and why.

But there are at least two aspects of this moment that will strike us as familiar at this juncture of the film. One of these is the soundtrack music by Andrew Dickson that accompanies Mark’s walk—the halting notes emanating from a tack piano that make the world feel out of tune and unfamiliar. It is as if Mark has brought the off-kilter soundtrack of the film with him, temporarily flavoring Trafalgar Square with the restless, monotonous despair that fills the principal characters’ everyday lives. The second aspect is the refusal to cut within the scene, creating a sequence shot—a single shot that constitutes an entire scene—that is fifty seconds long. Such a choice may seem merely practical in this instance, since the buses, pigeons, and children are not in character and cannot be asked to recreate their movements for additional camera positions. But the rhetoric of the long take is already recognizable to the film’s viewers, as it is to audiences of Leigh’s previous and subsequent films. Perhaps the most remarkable of these shots in Meantime occurs earlier, when for a very long time we stare at a broken washing machine from ground level, observing the knees and shins of the Pollock family as they walk around trying to figure out how to fix it. Why doesn’t Leigh just shoot this “normally”—at the proper height, and following the rules of continuity editing, which make the faces of conversing people, rather than inanimate objects, the mandated centers of attention? In part because the washing machine, whatever its visual drabness or failure to operate, is what matters to the Pollocks at that moment, and Leigh wants always to make us recalibrate what we might think is pointless or extraneous.

The very title of the film makes us think about the pointless or extraneous. Mean can denote low in social status or petty or stingy or average or cruel. All of those senses apply to the Pollocks and their conditions of cultural neglect, of tedious bickering, of economic reduction, of unremarkableness, and of perpetual animus toward one another and toward anyone who wanders across their paths. Meantime can indicate a temporal gap, a fissure between one era and another, a suspension that here illustrates the present as distinct from a recognizable earlier moment when employment was at least seen as a possibility and from some future whose contours have become very difficult to imagine. In this sense, meantime feels like an emptiness from which no recovery is possible. But the permutation of the word most relevant to the Trafalgar Square scene, and to the shape of the film as a whole, is the idea of simultaneity—of something happening at the same time as something else. Within the logic of the film, Trafalgar Square is that other place of happening, that location just a few miles to the west of the Pollocks’ flat that we and they might forget still exists. For many viewers, it is the Pollocks themselves who occupy the meantime of existences that we might easily disregard.

There are two prominent cinematic strategies, both favored by Leigh, for conveying experiences of simultaneity. One of these requires framing two characters, often in a long take, sitting side by side and facing the camera. Later examples in Leigh’s career include such showstoppers as Hortense Cumberbatch and Cynthia Purley’s coffee-shop scene of parental discovery in Secrets & Lies (1996), or W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s artistic disharmony on a settee in Topsy-Turvy (1999). Those extended, uncut examinations of two people who seem to have nothing in common, even as they are inevitably joined to each other, constitute one of Leigh’s recurrent and most distinctive interests: how we live with the people whose lives we share, or would like to share. The corresponding moment in Meantime arrives near the end of the film, as Mark and Colin sit in their shared bedroom, facing forward for over two minutes and trying to reconcile themselves to the unsolvable situation of their existences. Mark’s declaration that he is leaving—going “anywhere”—might look like the signal of change, or mere possibility, that the film has withheld all along. More likely, as the brothers end the scene by smoking the last two cigarettes in Mark’s pack, he will not go anywhere, and nothing will change. Still, by lingering on the two brothers here, Leigh provides an image of a bond that may sustain them despite the engulfing purposelessness.

The second strategy for presenting the simultaneity of meantime is parallel editing—the going back and forth between spaces. Leigh uses this technique to juxtapose places or situations that it would be easy, or tempting, to separate, and it is most apparent in the three films, beginning with Meantime, that he would come to think of as a loose trilogy in their investigation of Thatcher’s Britain. The other two are Four Days in July (1984), which takes place in the intractable cataclysm of Northern Ireland, juxtaposing a Catholic couple with a Protestant one, and High Hopes, which contrasts a Marxist brother with his capitalist sister. In each case, the story visits two separate nuclei of activity, with family as the key connector or variable. In Meantime, the division is between Mavis Pollock, her husband, Frank, and her sons, Mark and Colin, on the one hand, and on the other, Mavis’s sister, Barbara (Marion Bailey), and her bank-manager husband, John (Alfred Molina), who live in suburban blandness in a house that is, as Frank puts it, the “same as all the others.” The illusion of sameness and the illusion of difference are precisely what Leigh picks at in all three films, by asking us to negotiate between these spaces as both independent and interdependent.

The last grace note of this sense of meantime, of simultaneous events in different spaces, occurs in the final shot of the film. After Barbara offers Colin a temporary job decorating a room in her home, and after that tiny plot within this plotless film is undone by Mark’s mission to rescue his brother from what he sees as exploitation, Colin wanders off to parts unknown—unknown both to us and to his family. The climax of the film, such as it is, stages yet another petty, cruel, mean argument in the Pollock household after Colin returns, without explanation, his head covered by the hood of his coat. The next morning, Mark pushes the hood off the sleeping Colin, revealing a shaved head—the consequence of Colin’s decision to imitate the skinhead Coxy (Gary Oldman), whom he almost wordlessly admires. Mark is at first taken aback by this transformation, but he gradually recovers his equipoise, teasing his brother by calling him Kojak. He then leaves their room, and we hear him engaged once more in the grating, diurnal banter that passes for conversation in this family. But the camera stays on Colin, whose interiority remains opaque to us. We have here a final depiction of meantime, of sound split from image—the social world of interaction off camera and the external evidence of consciousness on camera. If we expect other films to reach destination points, through acts of coming together, the final seconds of Meantime remind us that the world is always a collection of things apart, of places that are contiguous but nevertheless potentially foreign to one another. Wherever in London or the world we may be, there is always some other place—someplace whose relation to our own will seem pointless only if we don’t stop to look at it, listen to it, and think about it.

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