Every once in a while I find myself wondering why I run a blog series called Philosophy Weekend that doesn’t necessarily resemble anybody else’s idea of what philosophy is, and maybe also doesn’t necessarily resemble anyone’s idea of what a weekend is.
I was in one of these questioning moods a few days ago when I watched an excellent film on late-night cable TV that gave me the insight I needed at the moment: Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh.
I love Mike Leigh’s humble, amusing movies, which are almost always about ordinary British people dealing with ordinary problems. In Secrets and Lies, an adult woman finds the mother who gave her up for adoption. Nuts in May takes place in a nature camp where a boisterous partier sets up a tent next to two stern hippies. Vera Drake is about a woman who secretly performs illegal abortions. Leigh’s masterwork Topsy-Turvy imagines the backstage action behind Gilbert and Sullivan’s premiere of “The Mikado”.
A Mike Leigh movie doesn’t look or feel like anybody else’s movie. The sets and performances aim to be completely natural, and his sensitive performers don’t overact for the cameras but rather move and speak like real people do: polite, hesitant, often unsure of themselves. In a typical schlocky Hollywood movie, a married couple having an argument will often yell at the tops of their lungs, even when they’re standing face-to-face only inches away from each other. In a Mike Leigh movie, a married couple having an argument looks like a real married couple having an argument. When a Mike Leigh film suddenly explodes into a sneaky emotional climax (as they tend to do) we are reminded of the communicative power of a quiet speaking voice.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a classic Mike Leigh setup. Poppy, a London schoolteacher played by Sally Hawkins, has a strange quirk: she’s relentlessly cheerful, gabby, upbeat. Everywhere she goes, she compulsively cracks jokes, breaks rules, calls attention to herself. She knows that people find her energy level odd amd annoying, and she also knows that her manic style amounts to one of many life choices she’s implicitly made that have not worked out particularly well.
She finds her opposite when she signs up for driving lessons with a tense driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. He objects to her chattiness, asks her to wear proper footwear, makes racist remarks about other drivers. The confrontation that finally erupts between this dour man and this ebullient woman is the transformative event in this film, as Poppy learns the full impact of her behavior on others, and comes to realize what her quirky commitment to joyful living is grounded in.
The first time you watch a Mike Leigh movie you might think he doesn’t know how to make movies at all, because he avoids all the conventions other film directors employ. A Mike Leigh film seems to exist in its own private universe. The sets look exactly like the world we live in: shopping centers, highways, kitchens, banal office buildings, public parks. He doesn’t even use actors who are familiar from other films (though many of his best ensemble actors later went on to play minor roles in Harry Potter movies, which sadly squander their sensitive talents).
I consider Mike Leigh one of the great film directors of the modern era, along with David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino. But he stands apart from the others. There’s never any doubt that Lynch and Kubrick and Coppola and Scorsese and Tarantino learn from each other and refer to each other’s movies. Mike Leigh makes movies that don’t connect to other movies. He just keeps doing it his own way, year after year.
This feels personally significant to me because I often worry that my Philosophy Weekend blog posts don’t seem to connect with what anybody else is writing about or blogging about or even thinking about. When I write, say, a 9-part series on the causal relationship between war and genocide, I know that I’m not doing philosophy “the right way”, and I’m also not doing political punditry “the right way”. I know I’m reaching readers, which makes me very glad — but I also feel very “alone out here” in the sense that I am not regularly connecting with other political philosophers or bloggers, and often not even paying attention to the topics or formats that are trending around me.
Sure, this leaves me feeling isolated — but when I watch a Mike Leigh film I am reminded how much creative energy we can generate by simply doing our own thing and not worrying about whether or not we’re conforming to external standards. Rather than work harder to meet the expectations of what a political philosophy blog should be, I prefer to pursue my own style to its maximum extent — and it happens that the personal style I would like to maintain also resembles that of a Mike Leigh film. Like this unique director, I want to always keep it down to earth. I want to write about ordinary topics that ordinary people think about. I want to sacrifice bombast for warmth, commercialism for connection, hype for honesty.
So I find every Mike Leigh film a bracing personal inspiration, and I also find special inspiration in Happy-Go-Lucky, the movie I happened to catch on TV this week. Even though I’m not a gabby extroverted British woman like the character played by Sally Hawkins — actually, I’m zero for four there — I do share one strange quirk with this character. Like Poppy, I’m an optimist, and I always try to always see the positive side of a bad situation, and I definitely prefer to see life as a comedy rather than a tragedy. I think this comes out often in the arguments I try to lay out here on Philosophy Weekend: my strong belief that world peace is inevitable, my conviction that money is not very important, my belief that people who commit evil acts do so because they are confused rather than intrinsically evil.
If I ever get better at this philosophy of life stuff, maybe I’ll be able to express more clearly than I can today how all of the various points I’m discussing here connect, and what it all adds up to. For now, the best I can do is decide to keep going, to keep doing what I’m doing, because I enjoy doing it. Sometimes it takes a late night film by a British director that runs on cable TV to remind us that what we’re doing is okay, and that we want to keep doing it.