I have something to tell you.
(Shuffles nervously… looks at the floor)
The thing is…
How can I put this?
Oh for God’s sake, I’m just going to come out and say it!!!
“I am the NinjaMarmoset and I don’t like I, Daniel Blake.”
I actually declared this out loud in a social setting the other night and was greeted with looks of utter horror – jaws dropped, visibly, in front of me – as if I’d publicly stoved in the head of kitten with a paperweight fashioned into the shape of ex work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith.
‘But these people have never been given a voice before!!’ one complainant wailed, eyes wide, starting to well with anger and distress. ‘And… I know lots of social workers – I’ve got social workers in my family!! – and it’s TRUE!’
As I started to explain where I was coming from, choosing to bypass the largely irrelevant detail that I’m actually married to a social worker, they stormed off in disgust. And the following day, they had wielded that most vicious of modern punishments… they blocked me from their Facebook page!!!! Not just unfriended me, mind, but blocked me altogether. Wow. They were REALLY angry. It’s a dagger through my heart, I tell you!!!
Yes, yes, I know, the film has won the Palme D’Or at the world’s most prestigious film festival; yes, I know it has received unanimous four and five star reviews, hailed as a ‘battle cry for the dispossessed’ by The Guardian; and yes, I know the only people to publicly criticise it are bile filled right wing poverty deniers such as the objectionable Toby Young – or government ministers who haven’t actually seen the movie.
Sorry. I still really dislike it, and, uncharacteristically, I was intending to keep this to myself. After we came out of the movie, I quipped to my companion: ‘There’s no way I’m posting anything about it on Facebook – I’ll be lynched!’
But the mere fact I was even saying this – and that my flip comment came true (if you count being blocked from Facebook as the modern equivalent of lynching) – suggests that there are some bloody innards here that are worth a poke around amongst.
There’s a reason you don’t see anybody on social media left of, say, Ken Clarke, voicing criticism of this film because, basically, if you don’t like I, Daniel Blake then you are officially a bastard.
Or I’m the only (left of centre) person in the world who doesn’t like it. That’s possible, I suppose.
What the-Daniel-Blake is going on here?
Let’s start with the film itself:
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
Daniel Blake’s a Geordie joiner who’s had a major heart attack. His doctors say he is too ill to work, but he is turned down for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and declared fit by the privately run Work Capability Assessment ‘decision maker’. The movie recounts Daniel’s attempts to get the ruling overturned, and his descent into abject poverty. Along the way he meets single mum Katie and her two children Dylan and Daisy. She’s had all sorts of terrible shit happen to her, and starves herself to feed her kids. She dreams of going to college, but ends up working as a prostitute. Daniel becomes a surrogate father and grandfather to her family, and she helps him when he finally gets his appeal for ESA. On the day of the hearing which intends to prove that he really does have a terrible heart condition…
…well if you can’t guess what happens in the toilets just before he’s about to speak then clearly you have never been to the cinema before.
I am fully aware that everything depicted in this film happens on a regular basis to people all round the country. The degrading Kafkaesque insanities of living in poverty and the benefits system are rehearsed many times every day, as they have been for decades.
They are part of my DNA.
One of my earliest memories is the bailiff coming to call when I was four years old. Apparently he told my stepmother (an out-of-work social worker, as it happens) that we didn’t have anything worth taking apart from the radiogram (here’s a link for younger readers)…
…but as we didn’t have any electricity at the time, the loss of it wasn’t the greatest of tragedies. Trying to feed the family on a single bag of potatoes for a week was far more distressing for her. Later we had the gas disconnected, and our phone too. In those days there were no pay-as-you-go inclusive-minutes mobiles, such as are used by the characters in I, Daniel Blake. After narrowly avoiding eviction a few years after that, things did get a lot better, and apart from a year or two (on and off) on the dole in my early twenties (even in the rosy 1980s signing on could be a pretty grim experience) I have led a comfortable life.
But the visceral reality of having nothing – the fear of it – the shame of it – never leaves you.
So I should love I, Daniel Blake, right?
Well, no. I don’t go to the cinema to see things because they are ‘real’. Or because they are a statement of something that is ‘factually true’. That’s not drama. If I want facts, or an exposé, I can watch an episode of Dispatches or Panorama or read an article in The Guardian or The Canary (NB One of the outlets listed in that sentence is not actually somewhere that deals in factual journalism and was included for purely humorous purposes). I already know what’s going on, as did – I would posit – every liberally minded middle class film enthusiast in Screen 1 of Manchester’s Home, the independent cinema where I watched the film. Toby Young may not believe the plot of Daniel Blake, but I would be amazed if a single person came out of that screening saying; ‘We blow me down with a feather, I had no idea!’
A lot of the audience were in tears, so the visceral power of the film couldn’t be denied (except to me, for whom the visceral power of actually having nothing is still more potent). So what was my problem? Hard hearted bastard? Or is it a ‘writer’ thing? It’s my job and I’m applying professional standards to a work of political cinema whose qualities go beyond the normal tenets of dramatic film making…?
If I were doing a blind assessment of this script (as my work often demands of me), I would doubtless admire its intent but I would be pretty forthright about its technical failings.
The story is clunkingly linear and schematic – reliant on acres of spoon fed, off-screen, uncontested back story (clearly no one is interested in the concept of the unreliable narrator in this movie). Lovely, lovable people are brutalised by nasty jobsworths working for the state machine. The characters – good and bad – are two dimensional. They have no inner contradictions, no complexity. Both Daniel and Katie are flawless salt-of-the-earth types. Daniel is a martyr in the great Christian tradition – a saint in fact – more than a saint! He’s a carpenter (a bit like… hmmm… let me think); he can conjure useful things from nothing – bookcases, food, heat from flowerpots and bubblewrap… (…but sadly not wine, as he’s teetotal); at one point he actually cures a small boy of ADHD (it’s like… its like… it’s like… a miracle!); he befriends a prostitute (see where I’m going with this?); and then dies for all our sins at the end (‘Tonight Matthew I shall be Jesus Christ Himself!’).
A two dimensional cipher – and in Blake’s case, entirely passive. His only transgression throughout the movie is a little bit of illegal graffiti. When I was on the dole I found ‘ways’ to subsidise my income. Everybody did – and they still do. The fact that we had to is no less politically significant than what happens to the eponymous victim of Laverty’s screenplay.
Presumably this is the point – these are ‘blameless’ good people beaten to a pulp by the system. Even if you play by the rules you will be destroyed, because the rules are designed to destroy you. We are left feeling outraged, a little bit guilty… but ultimately virtuous, because we have shared Daniel’s pain.
But passivity is not dramatic. Watching a puppy being strangled for two hours might be grimly distressing, but without even a moment where the puppy turns to snap at its attacker, what we are witnessing is a ritual sacrifice… not a story, not a drama.
I’ve always been allergic to didacticism and polemicism – and I say that having contributed to quite a bit of it as a young actor, deviser, director etc in the 1980s. My hackles rise the second I sense I’m being ‘told’ what to think – and boy oh boy does IDB tell us what to think. It pins us back in our seats, puts its moralistic hand around our collective throats and leaves us no option whatsoever to think for ourselves… right to the final speech – the eulogy at Blake’s funeral – Loach and Laverty hammering us over the head with their message. There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this film, resistance is futile.
I find it manipulative – patronising – tedious – suffocating – a form of political dumbing down. And when voicing any kind of dissent becomes a pariah-inducing social gaffe, then it becomes a form of bullying.
Drama isn’t there to ‘tell us’ stuff. Drama exists to enlighten, to enrich our lives by using the contradictions and conflicts of character and story to illuminate the world around us. Not to show us facts – but to throw light from surprising angles on what reality actually means, in all its messy ambivalent glory. It’s the difference between something being ‘truthful’ and simply ‘true’. It’s about asking questions, not answering them.
Shakespeare wrote: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and Hamlet remains a great play because it leaves the audience to wrestle with the answer – with the million imponderables it poses.
Of course, I’m comparing Apples and PCs here. Hamlet isn’t a polemic, and I, Daniel Blake unashamedly is. It’s in the great tradition of political, campaigning cinema (NB to my horrified Facebook blocker, should you ever read this, there have been hundreds of films giving voice to the lives of the dispossessed, you just haven’t seen them). And, fair enough, just because this particular marmoset goes all ninja about it, it doesn’t render the movie somehow invalid. That’s just a matter of taste, isn’t it?
Well, let’s explore the polemic – Daniel as martyr to the wilful destruction of the welfare state – as a ‘battle cry for the dispossessed’ – who can argue with it? And if it ‘converts’ a single callous heart to the cause of compassionate welfare provision then surely that trumps all artistic criticism – just as Cathy Come Home was integral to the foundation of the charity, Shelter in the 1960s and Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough TV drama brought the crimes and injustice surrounding that disaster into the public consciousness in the 1990s.
Actually yes, probably, that is true, but I’m still fascinated as to exactly how IDB achieves its goal.
So… there I am, I’m watching the movie… but something is knocking at the back door of my political consciousness, and it’s really pissing me off. I ignore it, content that whilst the movie may not be to my taste, clearly it is an important event for a lot of people.
Then, hours later, in the middle of the night, I slip into my dressing gown, climb down the stairs of my inner contrarian and open the back door, and who should be on my back step, shivering in the rain, firmly dumped there by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, but… Tiny Tim.
Yes! Seriously. It was him…
No!! Not him!! This guy!!
Yes! That’s what I don’t like about the polemicism of I, Daniel Blake – it’s dependant on a quasi Victorian – and arguably reactionary – notion of ‘the deserving poor’.
Who, reading this, doesn’t find their teeth set on edge when politicians start intoning about ‘doing their best for hard working families’? Why? Because of course everyone wants to help ‘hard working families’. It’s a meaningless thing to say. The test of a truly compassionate society is how we deal with ‘slightly indolent families’ – or ‘downright lazy families’ or ‘dangerous anti-social families’ who have gone completely off the rails.
What audience member could ever begrudge Daniel Blake his ESA benefit? He’s worked all his life. He’s paid his dues. He’s cared for his dying wife. He cures the sick. He deserves every penny. He’s the epitome of the deserving poor. But getting angry at Daniel’s injustice isn’t really what this country has to wrestle with right now. What if Daniel didn’t ‘deserve’ it?
Let’s imagine The Marmoset had written I, Daniel Blake (indulge me!).
Daniel’s a joiner – a competent, if mediocre joiner – who regularly knocks stuff off from his building site – and does cash-in-hand jobs on the side to avoid – no, evade – a bit of tax. He’s got an invalid wife and caring for her doesn’t come cheap. Like 49.3% of his fellow Newcastle citizens he votes for Brexit on June 23rd largely because he sees his mates priced out of jobs by cheap EU labour, and he’s particularly incensed when he learns that the Slovakian family in the flat next door are claiming benefits. Sitting in our lovely indy cinema drinking craft beer from plastic cups, he makes us uncomfortable, but we forgive him, because his wife is dying.
And then, bloody hell, she actually turns up her toes. Daniel’s grief-stricken – and he loses whatever meagre allowances were coming his way as his wife’s carer. He is hit by the bedroom tax. He has a heart attack. He can’t work, but is ruled capable and has to go through a lengthy and Kafkaesque process to appeal it. He is so angry and humiliated that he takes out his frustration on the Slovakian family who he knows are collecting benefits seemingly without hindrance.
Wow… now we’re feeling REALLY uncomfortable. This appeals process sure is cruel and dehumanising, but perhaps Daniel deserves it!
So my goal as a writer – wanting to interrogate the subject thoroughly and challenge my very intelligent audience – is to take Daniel on the most difficult journey I can throw at him. Everyone is angry when the ‘saintly’ Daniel Blake of Loach’s film is humiliated and dehumanised but I want to make the audience equally angry at the humiliation and dehumanisation of tax-dodging, Brexit voting, marginally racist Daniel Blake…
…because the core of a civilised welfare state is that benefits are provided according to need, not because we deem a fictional character morally worthy.
But if we are going to use fiction to throw light on a difficult subject, and if we are truly compassionate, then the humiliation of ‘bad’ Daniel must be no less wrong that that of ‘good’ Daniel… and to make the story narratively satisfying, Daniel can learn this too. He realises – just in time – that his anger at his neighbours is nothing to do with them, per se. They have been set at each other’s throats by the failings in the system, and by the inequalities in the macro-economics that drove them here in the first place. Daniel and his neighbours have more in common than they ever realised. If they understand this in time, the film is uplifting and feel-good. If Daniel realises this too late, then it’s grim social realism and we have to have another very expensive craft beer in the bar before we go home and watch something on Netflix.
The alternative – the one we see on screen now – is lazy. It’s lazy and simplistic, and it allows – encourages – the audience to be lazy and simplistic too.
Perhaps that’s why the film, as it stands, is more commercially successful than the marmoset’s version would ever be.
Well… perhaps that’s unfair. As I said earlier, perhaps that’s the point.
Perhaps there’s a reason that Loach (who has directed a few nuanced masterpieces in his time – Kes being one of them) has opted for the melodrama of Victorian philanthropic guilt as his chosen dramatic form this time. Perhaps he and Laverty believe that the times are so Victorian, the audience must be spoken to as Victorians.
On the one hand, I hope that’s true, because at least it makes some kind of sense, and I can happily shut up moaning about it; on the other, I sense it isn’t, and a great film maker has fallen into a depressing and reductive trope which paralyses the debate by reducing the issue of welfare to simplistic, immutable and ultimately sentimental moral absolutes.
I, Tiny Tim and all that.
And on the subject of Tiny Tim, if you’ve never heard the guy – or if you remember him fondly… have a click on this.