Classless, by Carl Neville

Classless, by Carl Neville

This entertaining exposure of late capitalist culture’s class denialism doesn’t quite convince

A Certain Lack of Class. Book review – Tom Jennings
Classless: Recent Essays on British Film (2010) is another of Zero Books’ valuable polemical pamphlets (see also, for example, Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman; reviewed in Freedom, 15th January). Carl Neville (The Impostume blogger) analyses with considerable panache commercial UK cinema over the past twenty years, proposing its ideological intertwining with neoliberal orthodoxy, media saturation, lowbrow fashion and reality TV in furthering fantasies of social cohesion and the overcoming of adversity. The embarkation point is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995) which, employing the unlikely theme of Edinburgh sink-estate junkiedom, supposedly reinvented British film for trendy youth consumption for the first time since the 1960s. Its blithe erasure of both suffering and the characters’ stubbornly conflictual resistance (scrupulously woven into Irvine Welsh’s source novel) is deconstructed here with reference to Peter Mullan’s magic-realist Orphans and Lenny Abramson’s mordant Adam & Paul – comparably imaginative visualisations not subtracting the complex proximity of misery. Boyle’s previous Shallow Grave is then backhandedly complimented for honestly appraising yuppie psychopathy, leading awkwardly to an examination of alternate antisociality in fictional football hooligans. Subsequent surprising lurches see Stephen Frears’ The Queen as a genuine fable of elite-populist assimilation, whereupon the climax reads Slumdog Millionaire and Mamma Mia as Bollywood-inflected Oliver Twist and bad karaoke respectively – but without the wit, humility, or hidden critiques of highbrow imperialism embedded in such classic cultural formations.
The book’s substantive comparison works least well – between Boyle’s films, righteously lambasted as Blairite pap, and the contemporaneous, far less successful ‘New Lad gone bad’ cycle which is argued to give more useful portrayals of proletarian transition. But many of the latter steadfastly focus on upwardly-mobile middle-class protagonism too, and surely resonate similarly. Like the Guy Ritchie school of sub-Tarantino mockney gangsterism, they reek of tabloid-whore rugby-club alumni slumming it – common denominators being hysterical masculinity, and only tangentially ‘Englishness’ – so dishonest feelgood palliatives in Billy Elliott, Full Monty and Brassed Off would perhaps be equally pertinent even if native kitchen-sink traditions remain beyond Neville’s pale. Nevertheless it’s perfectly true that marketing imperatives negotiate soporific official policy and media hype – rather than any underlying real social transformations coalescing around such ‘issues’ – especially given New Labour’s Cool Britannia dream machine that Boyle faithfully propagandises.
Arguments elsewhere are equally skeletal. Mainstream lower-middle-class aspirationals are contrasted in passing with backward-looking petit-bourgeois costume drama, Four Weddings and Bridget Jones, and more sophisticated pastorals by such as Frears. But recent British social-realist innovations militating against naturalistic victimhood scarcely figure – whose suggestive blends of expressionistic enchantment, surreal ambivalence and profane humour complicate clichéd trapdoors of poverty porn. Neville justifiably lauds examples somewhat closer to flashy MTV aesthetics – Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar – but ignores important directors like Carine Adler, Shane Meadows, Penny Woolcock and Andrea Arnold, not to mention television like Shameless. Despite its provocative insights, refreshingly unabashed focus on class and culture, and necessary correctives to celebrity brown-nosing, Classless ultimately cleaves to the blinkered middle-class bias otherwise accurately skewered – not least, in generally failing to wonder how viewers in and from working-class positions and backgrounds may respond to the materials described.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 9, May 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

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Tom Jennings
May 10 2011 10:52

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