David Simon has a lot to answer for.
There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when big institutions had their day in the sun: In foreign affairs, people began to look to the United Nations as a venue for resolving political conflicts while independent NGOs were seen not only as fonts of specialised knowledge but as self-less agents for change and charity. In domestic affairs, the backlash against the Thatcherite era of cuts and privatisations gained political substance as people began to demand proper investment in schools and hospitals. In the UK at least, this unexpected belief in the power of institutions to change the world swept the Labour party into power with a mandate for an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and massive investment in public services. For a while, people believed. People felt the institutional sun on their up-turned faces.
But then, as these things inevitably do, the wheel began to turn.
It is hard to tell when precisely it was that the rot began to creep into cultural representations of social institutions but it was pretty obvious when the roof fell in. Over the course of five short series, David Simon’s HBO series The Wire took a crowbar to the knees of pretty much every large social institution in America: The police, organised labour, politics, the media, schools and even criminal gangs. Nobody escaped Simon’s forensic wrath. According to The Wire, no institution could be trusted to deliver social change because institutions rely upon human agents who are invariably both too self-serving and too short sighted to act in the interests of society as a whole.
Change, we were told, simply could not come from above.
If The Wire’s brutal analysis constituted the crest of a wave of disillusionment then Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was undeniably a distant but powerful off shore surge that contributed to the bathymetric sway. The film focuses upon Ireland’s infamous Magdalene asylums, institutions run by the Catholic Church with parental consent that effectively pressed young women into slavery in order to ‘protect’ them and others from their fallen morality. Over the course of 119 minutes, The Magdalene Sisters wages a viciously effective assault on the notion that charitable institutions could ever be anything other than venues for misguided authoritarianism and the psychological and physical abuse of vulnerable people.
But what of the individual in all of this?
If it is unacceptable to suggest that the poor are simply lazy and that the vulnerable are simply weak, then surely it is just as unpalatable to suggest that the poor and vulnerable are nothing but the passive victims of misguided social institutions? If may well be reductive and simplistic to place all of one’s faith for social renewal in large institutions but it is just as simplistic to paint these institutions as nothing more than part of an unjust and exploitative system. People are individuals. People have choice. People have agency. A more sophisticated representation of the ills of our society would allow for this. It would acknowledge the responsibilities that we have to ourselves.
Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds (Non-educated Delinquents) attempts to examine both sides of the coin. Set in 1970s Scotland, the film depicts a social landscape bristling with institutions that are quick to open their arms to working class children but just as quick to turn their backs on these same children if they fail to follow the (largely unwritten) rules. However, while Mullan does a brilliant job of depicting the fickle and irrational nature of big institutions, his film’s real power comes from a willingness to recognise that we play a large part in our own downfall and salvation.
Neds’s sepia-toned opening section introduces us to John McGill (Conor McCarron), a serious, intellectual and ambitious young man from a working class background. Winner of a prize for academic excellence and touted by his family as a future university student and journalist, McGill leaves primary school full of hope for the future. Hope that is shattered by a parka-wearing thug who promises to ‘kick his cunt in’ every day for the terrible crime of being a ‘clever cunt’. Terrified, McGill begins to retreat from his hopeful and intellectual persona and reaches out to his older brother Benny for protection. Benny is a popular figure. A handsome young renegade who was expelled from school and now leads the local youth gang alongside the fantastically swaggering Fergie. In what will become something of a recurring motif in the film, John puts his school uniform under his mattress and dons a long leather coat as he watches Benny and Fergie punish the parka-wearing thug. In reaching out to Benny and employing violence to protect himself, John has taken the first step away from mainstream respectability. He has acknowledged darkness within himself.
This darkness resurfaces years later when the academically successful John makes a middle class friend while attending a summer school at the behest of his latin master who, quite correctly, worries that six weeks in the wasteland of the summer holidays might well affect his focus. His new friend’s mother interrogates John over tea and, while she is undeniably welcoming, there is a clear sense of disapproval. Disapproval that prompts decisive action when John accidentally breaks something in the house and his friend a) refuses to take the blame and b) allows his mother to cut his ties to John.
Denial of access to the respect of the middle classes knocks John even further out of line. Far enough out of line that he winds up spending his summer with the younger members of Benny’s gang. A gang which, in its pointless turf battles and willingness to provide booze, fags and girls gives John not only a sense of purpose but also access to many of life’s little pleasures. With the zeal of a convert, John throws himself into the life of the gang right up until the moment when the parka-wearing thug from the opening sequence moves into the area and is welcomed by the gang as a whole. This angers John. He is angry and resentful because he is aware that he has traded in his chance at mainstream acceptability in order to be a part of the gang and the gang’s lack of respect for his feelings and sacrifices leaves him feeling intensely alienated and betrayed.
John McGill is not the first fictional character to be betrayed by supposedly well-meaning social institutions. The willingness of his school, his middle class friends and his gang to turn their backs on him meshes beautifully with the images of institutional decay and social corruption that drift through our media from the cant of politicians to the uncritical media and right down to films, TV series and books like The Wire, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2009) and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (2008). We have been shown the flawed nature of our social institutions before and we have seen the toxic nature of the safety net provided to the underclass by gangs and criminal organisations. We know that these bodies are flawed and part of the problem. What we do not know is what to make of this problem.
Halfway through Neds, Mullan begins to subtly shift the film’s register. Slowly but surely, the glam-rock-and-fizzy-pop social realism of the opening chapters begins to give way to a more symbolic and poetic mode of representation. A mode that speaks not to the ills of our society but to a sickness of the soul. This sickness is personified by Benny and John’s father. An emaciated and ghost-like figure clad in thick spectacles and a crumpled suit, McGill senior drifts through the film like a toxic cloud. Drunk, incoherent, and simmering with an undirected psychotic rage that could erupt at any time, McGill senior is a presence that seems to call out to both Benny and John. An echo from their possible futures. An image of the violence and savagery that could be theirs if they give in to the angels of their worst nature. When John is small he hides under the covers while his father roars his demands for attention. When John is a teenager he reacts to his father’s bellowing by adopting a tough-guy scowl and leaning against the bannisters. Staring into the blood-shot eyes of his own self-destructiveness and raising a scornful eyebrow. McCarron gives great eyebrow.
John soon realises that in order to make something of himself one way or another, he must confront this demon within him. Initially, he reacts with violence, beating the old man to a pulp and thereby getting himself kicked out into the street and into a limbo-like state of exile that results in his living like a kind of urban Robinson Crusoe. When his attempt to use violence results only in more misery and alienation, John sniffs glue in an effort to escape further from the realities of his life but his dalliance with substance abuse yields only a magnificently symbolic hallucination in which John is hugged by Christ only for Christ to immediately turn on him and start strangling him, prompting John to knife the bastard in self-defence: an eloquent statement on John’s tendency to systematically shit where he eats if he doesn’t like the food.
Lured from exile by his hideously scarred father, John returns to school only to find himself in the remedial class alongside the boy whose brain he damaged. Back in the embrace of a hostile institution but a lot wiser, John sets about giving himself an education despite the interventions of the school. But as endures being blanked by his old teachers and threatened by his new ones, the bitterness begins to grow in his again and he knows that he has to confront himself once and for all. As his father says to him over dinner “Finish me”.
In another dreamlike interlude, John prepares to murder his father in an almost ritualistic manner by taping carving knives to his hands. Like an ultra-orthodox Jew, John winds the tape round and round his hands until all he has are knives. As though he is changing his shape to reflect the fact that his only means of interacting with the world is through murderous violence. As he prepares to execute his father, John wanders out into the night and slashes madly at the world. He slashes at rival gangs. He slashes at friends. He slashes at buildings. He slashes at himself. In a move designed to either kill or cure him, John becomes violence only to realise its limitations. A limitation that is elegantly communicated through a final mystical journey in which John guides his brain-damaged classmate through a safari park filled with lions.
Both violence and social institutions make bigger promises than they could ever hope to fulfil. Both offer themselves up to the hopeless as paths to salvation but both are so fickle and untrustworthy that only a fool would place his faith in them. John has made enough mistakes to realise how to navigate the dangers of the world but he also knows that he can never completely escape from the mistakes of the past and that he must carry them with him wherever he goes. Salvation comes not from charity or from isolated self-reliance but from the intelligent realisation that our personalities are a burden that we have the responsibility to shoulder. We owe it to ourselves not to let the bastards grind us down, but we also owe it to ourselves not to let ourselves get the best of us.