Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Kes (1970)

by on November 23, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Tue Nov 29 at 6:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

 

Once a week, FSLC rolls out a highlight from each consecutive year of the New York Film Festival in their series “50 Years of the New York Film Festival.” They’ve hit 1970 and celebrate with a new 35mm print of Ken Loach’s classic.

 

Criterion’s dependably great “3 Reasons” segment on the film:

 

Dave Calhoun for Time Out (London):

It’s more than 40 years since Ken Loach shot ‘Kes’ in South Yorkshire, taking in school and home life in an area where nature meets the mining industry on the skyline. ‘Kes’ marked a new maturity and stillness in Loach’s work, which doesn’t mean it’s without energy or humour – it has both in spades.

 

Loach found fitting partners in cinematographer Chris Menges – who translated Loach’s eye and ear for documentary-style realism into a quiet form of observation, using natural light – and writer Barry Hines, whose novel ‘A Kestrel for Knave’ the script was adapted from and whose  compassion and knack for everyday dialogue runs through the film.

 

The ideas in ‘Kes’ on the role of both teachers and parents emerge naturally and gently from vital, believable portrayals. It’s a bird, of course, that gives the film its name and the scenes with Billy and his falcon are undoubtedly special and tender. But in the end, ‘Kes’ is one of the most astute, engaged films about education and what it takes for kids to be excited about learning or passionate about anything, really, whether in the classroom or roaming the fields with a feathered friend.

 

 
Nic Rapold for Film Comment (May/June 2011):

To the north! Where we do what we want – or at least raise a bird of prey as an escape from long days of getting bullied and scrimping for cash. That’s what 14-year-old Billy (David Bradley), a scrawny, grimy lad in the pit town of Barnsley, Yorkshire, does in Ken Loach’s canonical portrait of social deprivation. With no dad, an indifferent mum, and a brutish coal-miner brother, Billy’s the unvarnished version of a Disney boy-with-pet, who trains his kestrel from a stolen book. His Secondary Modern (not Grammar) school is a mill of routine injustice, featuring a furious headmaster playing himself. Working out of his own production company instead of the BBC, Loach adapts the novel by Barry Hines (like Bradley, the son of miner), observing faces and places with semistaged candor taking its cue from Forman and Menzel rather than the unchained egotism of Angry Young Man theater.

 

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Kes is Loach at his best. He shot it on a very low budget, on location, using most local nonprofessionals as his leads. His story is about a boy who’s caught in England’s class-biased educational system. He reaches school-leaving age and decides to leave, but doesn’t have anything else he much cares about. He’s the butt of jokes and hostility at home (where his older brother rules), and inarticulate with his contemporaries.

 

One day he finds a small kestrel hawk, and trains it to hunt. The bird becomes his avenue to a free and natural state – the state his soul needs, and that his home and school deny him. And then the system, alarmed or offended by his freedom, counterattacks. The film has a heartbreaking humanity.

 

 
Luc Dardenne to Sight & Sound:

In the mid-70s I also saw Kes. Its sudden ending – the boy burying his kestrel – is unforgettable. This boy and his bird stay with you for a long time after the film is over. Another moment in that film that my brother and I often talk about is the football-match scene, with the PE teacher [Brian Glover] who sees himself as Bobby Charlton. It’s marvellous! Only Ken Loach could film that.

 

Loach talks to David Archibald for the Financial Times:

“Chris was very taken with the lighting,” says Loach, “which was very sympathetic but naturalistic, not studio lighting, and with the kind of lenses they would use; there was a simplicity to it. We thought that what happened in front of the camera was more important than the camerawork, so in order to get the best out of what was happening in front of it we had to find a very simple way of shooting. It became about observation rather than chasing.

 

“Kes was the first film we worked on in that way, and it set the pattern for later work.”

 

 

Mike Robins for Senses of Cinema:

Kes remains Ken Loach’s masterpiece. While the director has reached similar aesthetic heights in subsequent years (Days of Hope [1975] and Raining Stones [1993] immediately spring to mind), the film remains a template for Loach’s abiding concerns: the struggle of the British working class to achieve life’s basic needs, dramatised through the plight of an individual character; the significant impact of public institutions upon personal lives; sensitive performances with an ear for regional dialects; and an unobtrusive yet evocative visual style that illuminates character and place in a naturalistic fashion. Arriving as the ’60s drew to a close, Kes heralds the end of “kitchen sink realism” and the true arrival of one of contemporary cinema’s major artists.

 

Despite truly bleak moments and an ambiguous finale, Loach infuses the film with enough warmth and humor to carry its audience along. Like Antoine Doinel, Billy has a penchant for daydreaming, insubordination, and petty theft (he steals a book on falconry after a public library refuses to lend him one) which contributes to his plight, if only in minor ways. When he steals a pint of milk and then stops to joke with the milkman, he displays a swagger recognisable in teens everywhere. Loach’s attention to detail consistently reveals aspects of daily life rarely featured on film.

 

 

Derek Malcolm for The Guardian:

Kes is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable films about education, or the lack of it, ever made. Its main theme is perhaps naive – that if you give a so-called dunce some kind of chance, the result can surprise him and certainly his teachers. The film’s incidentals are as good as its main thrust, which is never sentimentalised and maintains the right to be angry as well as touching and funny.

 

What adds immeasurably to the film’s power are the incidental scenes of school life. There are two I’ll never forget. One has a tiny boy lining up outside the head’s study, probably for a beating, and crying his excuses. The tenderness displayed here mixes with hilarity in a way very few directors could even begin to achieve. The other has the ex-wrestler Brian Glover as sports master taking his boys out on to the field and, to the strains of the BBC’s old Sports Night signature tune, acting out a football fantasy that has him behaving more like a child than his charges.

 

It’s this sort of thing that proclaims Loach a nearly great and certainly cherishable director, since it does so much more than merely leaven his political points with humour.

 

 
David Anderson for Ioncinema:

There’s no bouncing, hand held cameras, no loudly mixed background noise, none of the Hanekesque minimal flourishes that we so admire for their clarion ring of truth. As a film, Kes has often been described as documentary-style. Not only is that inaccurate, it demeans Loach’s achievement; as if he somehow deceived audiences into believing this waif-and-bird story simply through stylistics. There isn’t the slightest aspect of cinema verite anywhere within Kes’s angst stricken blue-green layers. The shots that at first blush seem so spontaneous and fluid are revealed, upon closer inspection, to be the result of precise and painstaking blocking. The conceit of available light is demolished as further analysis shows Menges’ subjects cleverly bathed in flattering, and carefully placed, illumination. Billy’s frequent idylls in the countryside are accompanied by a mellow jazz flute – think Pan meets John Coltrane – and while this romantic artifice should, at least in theory, be a barrier to intellectual immersion, its very preposterousness echoes the absurd notions that have taken root in Billy’s psyche.

 

Kes can rightfully be called a marvel, without the slightest hedge or qualification. Ken Loach and his team have created a slice-of-life for the ages, with a truer sense of the vagaries of society than any time capsule could ever hope to convey. The film overpowers all resistance and transports the viewer to rolling green hills, damp asphalt playgrounds, oppressive classrooms and dingy coal mines deep in the bowels of Earth. Not by magic, but by Loach’s stubborn insistence on absolute authenticity. Billy Casper’s attempt to train a wild bird is not so much an effort to master nature, but to unify with it, as nature offers his only visible means of escape from the unfair and peculiar strictures of the British social order. Though steeped in the distinct traditions and impenetrable accents of Yorkshire, Kes is a film that achieves a universal resonance through settings and performances that astonish with their unshakable, rough-hewn conviction.

 

 

Graham Fuller for the Criterion Collection:

“Everything had an appropriate size about it,” Loach has said, “and it was helpful to shoot on such a modest scale. For the first time, we were able to achieve a situation where the film crew was there to serve the actors in the film. It wasn’t a case of just telling people what to do. I think that’s always been very important: as filmmakers, we’re not there to order people around; we’re there to listen, to absorb, and to try to draw people and serve them. And as far as we could, that’s what we did on Kes . . . It was a very happy experience.”

 

Most British films have their premieres in London, but Kes bowed at the ABC Doncaster, near Barnsley—its Yorkshire accents apparently too broad for a ritzy showcase in the capital—in March 1970. It performed well in the UK but received only limited distribution in the U.S., where parts of the original soundtrack were rerecorded (with the same actors) to make the voices more understandable. It has gradually achieved classic status and remains the most clear-sighted film ever made about the compromised expectations of the British working class. Its world has changed: Billy’s all-white “secondary modern” school (for children who failed the national exam for eleven-year-olds) would have become a fully streamed (academically nonselective) “comprehensive” in the early seventies, and increasingly multiethnic; Barnsley’s coal mines closed in the early nineties. But the film’s message is relevant wherever the young are maltreated and manipulated, and wherever the labor force is exploited.

 

 
Glenn Erickson for TCM:

We know that Kes is a special movie when Billy doesn’t behave like one of the deserving disadvantaged youngsters typically pictured in socially progressive dramas. Billy looks woefully undernourished, and his stare of sullen resignation around authority figures betrays no hidden ambition or inner poetry. Some of Billy’s teachers are appalling misfits. A football coach bullies the whole team and uses Billy as a whipping boy, forcing him to take a cold shower when he isn’t feeling well. The vice-principal then punishes Billy for coughing in a school assembly. Billy’s hands are caned, a punishment he shares with kids caught smoking as well as an utterly innocent boy merely bringing a message from a teacher. At home Billy stays on the sidelines while his brutish brother and exhausted mother exchange sarcastic, disrespectful remarks. Billy receives little if any love but a great deal of disapproval, distrust and outright psychological abuse.

 

We know that Kes is a special movie when Billy doesn’t behave like one of the deserving disadvantaged youngsters typically pictured in socially progressive dramas. Billy looks woefully undernourished, and his stare of sullen resignation around authority figures betrays no hidden ambition or inner poetry. Some of Billy’s teachers are appalling misfits. A football coach bullies the whole team and uses Billy as a whipping boy, forcing him to take a cold shower when he isn’t feeling well. The vice-principal then punishes Billy for coughing in a school assembly. Billy’s hands are caned, a punishment he shares with kids caught smoking as well as an utterly innocent boy merely bringing a message from a teacher. At home Billy stays on the sidelines while his brutish brother and exhausted mother exchange sarcastic, disrespectful remarks. Billy receives little if any love but a great deal of disapproval, distrust and outright psychological abuse.

 

 

Chris Darke for Film Comment (July/Aug 2007):

Made in 1969, Kes was shot on location in the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley with a cast largely made up of locals and nonprofessional actors. Kes remains one of Loach’s best-loved films – it was his second foray into feature filmmaking after his debut collaboration with producer-writer Tony Garnett on Poor Cow in 1967, which followed a period in which he made agenda-setting dramas for the bbc such as Cathy Come Home (66). His hallmark traits of effortless naturalism and unpatronizing attention to working-class lives are on show here, fully formed and deeply affecting. The extraordinary performance of the nonprofessional Bradley as Billy is the film’s heart: he’s simultaneously as earnest, lively, and distracted as any 14year-old but also resourceful and completely aware of his hopeless circumstances. There’s a beautiful scene near the end of the film when Mr. Farthing (Colin Weiland), the only teacher who shows any faith in the boy, visits him in the shed where Billy keeps the kestrel. Observing the bird, Billy says, “I think she’s doing me a favor just letting me sit here and watch her,” revealing a mature respect for the creature that impresses his teacher.

 

One of the film’s most striking features is its pastoral moments, especially when Billy ventures into the countryside and first spies the kestrel. Abetted by a very late-Sixties soundtrack of strings and trilling flute, the natural light and dappled textures of Chris Menges’s cinematography provide a blessed tonal contrast to the grimly rundown backdrops of the rest of the film. With his abiding interest in social institutions and the ways in which they crush individuals, Loach isn’t usually associated with bucolic poetry, but I defy anyone to watch the kestrel-training sequences in Kes and not be impressed by the way the director conveys the uplift of Billy’s communion with nature. They can’t help but remind one, too, of British cinema’s perennial lack of imagination in the face of its most criminally underexplored resource, the varied beauty of the island’s natural landscapes.

 

Of course, Kes is more than simply a pet for Billy; the creature is also a symbol of hope. Billy’s increasingly obsessive attention to the bird leads him first to educate himself in the techniques of falconry, albeit with recourse to petty theft. After the local library proves predictably obstructive, Billy – adroit half-pint that he is – liberates a volume about training birds from a secondhand bookstore. Throughout the film, others make much of Billy’s barely literate state, but Loach offers us evidence to the contrary. Over footage of the boy’s patient coaching of Kes, we hear Billy narrating the process from his book, and we realize that this is no dullard but a misjudged child with a rich interior life. This becomes clear in a central scene when the sympathetic English teacher Mr. Farthing encourages Billy to talk about Kes in class and the boy opens up with expert enthusiasm. The bird has led him from books to public articulacy. It’s a triumphant moment and, to emphasize this, the camera homes in close on Billy and his classmates, who listen with rapt attention. But Loach leaves us in little doubt just how short-lived this epiphany of hope will be in the larger scheme of things. In the following scene, Billy is once again being bullied in the playground by one of those same classmates, the ensuing fight tellingly set atop a slag heap of coal.

 

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