Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 26, 2016 4:19 am 
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Bureaucracy grinds down

Ken Loach's Cannes Golden Palm winner I, Daniel Blake packs a powerful emotional punch using a neorealist method close to De Sica. Loach's films have become more doctrinaire since he's taken on Paul Laverty as his writer. Their theme is, that in an increasingly money-based, conservative world, as Peter Bradshaw put it in his Cannes Guardian review, "the [British] benefits system has been repurposed as the 21st-century workhouse in our age of austerity: made deliberately grim, to deter or design out all but the most deserving poor." And Loach and Laverty are pretty fucking angry about this. It's not subtle material. But with this kind of economical and plangent filmmaking, you have to be hard-hearted to resist.

Daniel Blake, the everyman exemplar, is a 59-year-old carpenter - played by the disarmingly good and honest looking standup comic Dave Johns - struggling to get public assistance while the state welfare bureaucracy's minions toy with him and ignore who he is. He has had a major heart attack and is on doctor's orders not to work for some months at the craft he has practiced all his life. Some social services "decision maker" misreads a supernumerary questionnaire he oughtn't to have undergone. Or maybe she is getting revenge on him for showing her stupidity angered him. (The first governmental voice, in the opening credits, we never even see.) His status is reversed. He's declared qualified to work, apparently because he can touch his opposite shoulder and put on a hat. Disability payments are denied. He must reapply, and in the meantime to receive funds must inappropriately seek unemployment benefits. For them, he's supposed to spend 35 hours a week seeking jobs he can't take, and prove he has done it. Already it's a Sisyphean Catch-22 situation, and it goes on and on.

Besides this Dan is old-fashioned and computer illiterate and the new system requires many procedures to be performed online. The Internet is not a benefit; it only helps the deliverers of inhumanity to complicate things for decent, deserving folk. Dan has never handled a "mouse" and thinks the "cursor" well-named. Constantly threatened with "sanctions" for not fulfilling requirements, he has to attend a weekend workshop on making a CV whose main thrust is that job seeking is hopeless and employers indifferent. His resulting CV he hand-writes with a pencil. Nonetheless he gets a job offer with it, which of course he can't take.

The best parts of the movie involve distractions from this grim struggle. A touching complication is added when, early on at the social services office, Dan meets and comforts Katie (Hayley Squires), a hard-up single mum with two little kids recently arrived from London, who become a surrogate family for the recent widower Dan. He also has human moments with his young black neighbor, an energetic footballer attempting to make a living under-selling expensive trainers he gets direct from China. Katie's situation and her kids are sad and touching. The story verges on Defoe - Moll Flanders, perhaps.

The bottom line is the solid decency and fight to maintain dignity. We are watching working class people ground down by the state into dire poverty when, with a little help, they could be making a constructive contribution to society. I did not feel here the breathtaking authenticity of Ken Loach's debut film Kes. This hasn't the complexity of the related French film, Stéphane Brizé's 2015 The Measure of a Man/La loi du marché. But this gets you more in the gut, and of Loach's late phase work (he is now eighty), I, Daniel Blake may be his best. Did it deserve the Palme D'Or? Cannes top awards are often debatable. But Loach deserves recognition for his devotion to rock-bottom social concern and his classic craftsmanship.

I, Daniel Blake, 100 mins., debuted at Cannes 2016 in Competition, receiving the Palme d'Or; also shown at 14 other international festivals, including Locarno, Toronto, New York and Vancouver. Theatrical release in many countries 21 Oct. 2016. In France 26 Oct. Screened for this review at UGC Danton, Paris on 26 Oct. French critics' response strong (AlloCineé press rating 3.9). English languge respons slightly weaker (Metacritic 76%). US theatrical release begins 23 Dec. 2016 at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema .

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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