NEW YORK — World-renowned filmmaker Ken Loach has devoted his career to exploring serious cultural and political issues. But some things are even more urgent - so he won't be available for his interview until the World Cup soccer match is over, and he's had a chance to digest the results!
It's good to know Mr. Loach has a hearty appreciation for the simple pleasures as well as the pressing problems of contemporary life, and the same good-humored personality shines through his answer to the interview's first question. Does he view himself the way many critics do, as one of today's most socially and politically conscious movie directors?
"I wouldn't disagree," he replies. "But if you say that out loud, people leave the theater in droves!"
Keeping moviegoers entertained hasn't been as much of a problem for Loach as he mischievously suggests. Although he has never approached Steven Spielberg or George Lucas in mass appeal, he has built an international following over the past 30 years with historical epics like "Land and Freedom," political thrillers like "Hidden Agenda," and heart-wrenching family tales like "Raining Stones" and "Ladybird, Ladybird."
His latest picture, "My Name Is Joe," won the best-actor prize at Cannes for star Peter Mullan, who plays a recovering alcoholic in love with a social worker. His previous movie, "Carla's Song," is now enticing American audiences with its unpredictable story of a quiet bus driver and a troubled Nicaraguan refugee.
Loach began his career in British television, where he pioneered the use of lightweight equipment that allowed off-the-cuff filming in actual locations. "When you film in the streets," he explains, "you film what people are actually doing, what their situation is, what their plight is. And that turns into 'social drama,' which is a leaden-footed term for simply the lives that people are living."
Given the built-in fascination of reality-based subjects, why don't serious films sell as many tickets as special-effects blockbusters? "It's because the cinema has always seen itself simply as a branch of the fairground," Loach answers, "and this has limited the options of what it can be. Films could have a range as diverse as any library, but what you actually have is like a roomful of popular novels. Cinema has mainly been about making commodities, not communications."
Unlike pundits who accuse the mass media of a liberal bias, Loach sees movie politics the other way around. "The majority of films have a right-wing subtext," he says. "The individual with a gun, the lone rider, the solo heroic figure who takes on everybody - this is basically a very right-wing concept." He feels his own movies "pull a little bit in the opposite direction," suggesting that people may be able to solve their problems through collective courage and cooperation.
Loach believes thoughtful, constructive movies can affect society for the better since "they contribute to what's in people's minds, and to the overall cultural climate." He also believes Hollywood's barrage of "fairground" movies can have less-helpful results. "I'm sure there's a negative effect from the delight in violence, the exploitative nature of relationships, the exploitative nature of feelings," he says.
"What seems to characterize commercial cinema is a mixture of violence and sentimentality," he continues, "and I think those two [things] are related. What's real [in human values] is compassion and understanding and intolerance of cruelty.
"If filmmakers indulge violence - putting it into slow motion and all that - they can't at the same time explore relationships or emotions. The only feeling this leaves you space for is a sort of crass sentimentality, souped up with music and so on. The kind of films that do this must contribute to a kind of cynicism, a coarsening of sensibilities."
Simplistic spectacles also hurt our capacity for sustained attention. "It's terrible if people can't follow a chain of thought because they've got a button that zaps them to the next channel," Loach says. "That seriously disrupts their capacity to follow a point through, or to think, or just to lead their lives at a pace that's human. Entertainment has become a constant bombardment of images."
One outcome of this trend is the dehumanization of movie characters. "The sense of sharing something with the characters tends to be lost," he says. "People become objects, and objects of derision, and something you can keep at arm's length without caring whether they get their heads blown off in slow motion."
Loach says this problem "came home" to him and his colleagues when they showed "Carla's Song" in the Nicaraguan village where much of it was shot.
"The fact that [villagers] saw themselves on screen, and recognized themselves and their place and their own experiences, was a transforming experience," he recalls with a warm smile. "It made you realize that films should do this. Film is a way of holding the mirror up to nature - reflecting it, reflecting on it - and that's very exciting! The idea of the audience as real, not just something to exploit for money and popcorn, is what films could be about."