The subversion of sympathy in British social realism: uses of laughter in the cinematic representation of the British working-class

Brown, Stuart Duncan (2008) The subversion of sympathy in British social realism: uses of laughter in the cinematic representation of the British working-class. MPhil(R) thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The rationale at the core of this research is that the lineage of British social realism has portrayed a gradual departure from an ostentatious and judgmental approach which circumscribed the British New Wave. Bazin successfully highlighted the patronising tendencies inherent in a benevolent approach to representation by suggesting that “even for the poorest or the most wretched… pity does violence to the dignity of the man who is its object.”5 This bourgeois subjectivity has certainly become marginalised, especially in the last two decades of social realist cinema. Yet, the relationship between this development and the increasing observance of laughter, in British social realism, is presently a neglected subject.

The conceptual framework for this thesis intends to acknowledge social realism’s relationship with class through a discussion of the way in which the most recent examples of British social realism have begun to embrace the potentially liberating effect of laughter within the lives of working-class characters. The hypothesis for this work is that this site of study will elucidate how branches of British social realism have moved away from the bourgeois subjectivity of previous incarnations of the social realist form, towards a form of emotional realism that has a far more inclusive tendency. Influenced, in part, by Terry Lovell’s assertion that realism should more readily harness its ability to provide the pleasures of “common experiences”, “solidarity” and a sense of identity and “community”,6 I argue that emotional realism harnesses the potentiality to position the spectator within, rather than outside, the lives of the working-class subjects portrayed. Thus, this mode of spectatorship elucidates an attempt to collectively involve the audience in a way that removes them from the potentially patronising position of sympathetic outsider, which has been of such detriment to the appreciation of British social realism since its conception.

The films which I will consider, Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997) and Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004), not only emerge at a relatively similar point in the social realist form’s recent development but they are films which elucidate directorial approaches that possess many comparative features. Oldman and Meadows are both interested in very similar subject matter, namely the experiences and environments of the British underclass. Likewise, the element of this subject matter that each director chooses to focus on is the dispossessed and disenchanted underclass male, heavily affected by the disintegration of the values and cultures of the traditional working-class. Most importantly, there is a congruity inherent in Oldman and Meadows’ understanding and appreciation of this social group. Unlike so many other social realist directors in the past, both Oldman and Meadows’ originated from the environments that they have committed to screen and they appear to use their films to deal, at least in part, with their own personal experiences.

A confessional tendency is not, in itself, fundamental to the creation of a social realist text; however, it is certainly relevant to the fact that both Oldman and Meadows have been motivated to create the type of non-judgmental and unsentimental films that, I shall argue, they have. The most significant element of similarity in their respective portrayals of the underclass is a creation of emotional realism. There is a remarkable ease with which each director seems to be able to realistically move from instances of despair to moments of laughter. This symbiosis has the potentiality to create a portrayal of the subject that is as celebratory as it is critical. As such, this synthesis provides little opportunity to appreciate these films as being either unremittingly bleak or overly sentimental and sanitised, neither of which would be completely relevant to any mode of life, even one that was, on the whole, grim.

Item Type: Thesis (MPhil(R))
Qualification Level: Masters
Keywords: British Social Realism; Laughter; Working Class; Shane Meadows; Gary Oldman; Ken Loach; British New Wave
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Culture and Creative Arts > Theatre Film and TV Studies
Supervisor's Name: Geraghty, Dr. Christine
Date of Award: 2008
Depositing User: Mr S D Brown
Unique ID: glathesis:2008-670
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 Apr 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:24

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