What is social realism? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself after recently watching Ken Loach’s 1969 masterpiece Kes, and also after reading this very well-written blog: http://idfilm.blogspot.com/2011/02/another-class.html?showComment=1297549571706#c7996957164354184254
How does social realism differ from the more frequently spoken about neo-realism? Let’s start here. Neo-realism can be thought of as a period in that it’s generally accepted to have taken place from 1943-1952, as a movement in that it is often seen as both reaction to Hollywood films and Italian bourgeois cinema of the time (“white telephone films), and as a style in that certain traits – non-professional actors, long takes, on-location shooting, etc – help to further define its boundaries. Social realism, in my understanding, takes on at least two of these elements: movement and style.
Alongside its roots in neo-realism, perhaps we can trace social realism to the beginnings of an American Independent cinema. 1953’s Little Fugitive (Ashley, Engel) looks at class structure in New York City and Coney Island using the “little fugitive” (Richie Andrusco’s Joey) as means to move the story along. A renowned influence on Casavettes, Little Fugitive has a flexible camera, non-professional actors, and a very loose plot.
The Angry Young Man films in Britain in the 1960s take these same traits and relocate them across an ocean, transforming the child from Little Fugitive into mid-twenties aimless men, often played by established or burgeoning stars for filmmakers such as the great Lindsay Anderson.
Kes seems to ride the line between these Angry Young Man films and an American Independent sensibility. The title character is a falcon, who is the lone source of joy for Billy Caspar, a young boy subject to boredom and draconian rule at school and in the home. Social realist in its stark depiction of a lower-class society, light on the direct class commentary (there is no “pasta scene” ala The Bicycle Thieves), and stylistically spare, Kes is concerned with the humanity of a character without a future more so than as a direct reaction to other existent cinematic forms.
The film reminded me of two more recent productions – Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008). The idea that two films made approximately 30 and 40 years later can utilize similar techniques and achieve similar ends is testament to the lack of boundary for a social realist film. Indeed, this may in fact be a genre more than anything else.
Kes is filled with wonderful moments and incredibly strong performances from its cast of unknowns. A scene that will stand out in my memory for some time takes place in the principal’s office. As the principal prepares to cane the hands of students’ accused of smoking Loach constantly cuts back to the last child (also the smallest and only true innocent) who has been forced to hold the cigarettes of the older kids. The principal ignores his protestations of innocence and the close-up lingers after his hands have been struck. His chin quivers and a lone tear falls down his cheek. This is a non-actor. He can’t be older than 8. The magnificent performance sells the scene and makes very real the small events that seem to loom larger than life for a child.
SPOILER here: The film is also surprisingly pessimistic in its final sequence. Billy’s older brother Jud kills Kes in a misdirected act of revenge. This comes after a series of events spelling out Billy’s ill-omened future. He has no interest in school. He is constantly bullied. He seems ambivalent towards any job prospects. In short, all Billy has is Kes. The film fades to black as he buries his falcon. There is no redemption, no newfound hobby or love. The audience has no reason to assume that Billy will do anything other than continue on his mundane path. This uncompromising approach is the “realist” in social realist, where Loach is choosing to look at a society that expects and offers little to its youth.