Monday, August 18, 2008

NAKED (1993) : A MOVIE THAT WAS TRUE TO ITS TITLE

Commonly, a viewing of Mike Leigh's Naked will emit either a reaction of utter disgust or fawning obsession. I am in the latter category. My sister, my blood, my kin feels the exact opposite of me. She thinks it's one of the worst films ever made.

... we don't talk about it.

Because the film is so polarizing, I can understand the opposing view. Namely that Naked is "cynical", "bitter", "bleak", "misogynistic", "hateful". Obviously, I see it differently, because those are terms I often place upon films I dislike from our current nihilistic era.

To me, Naked is one of cinema's greatest expressions of misplaced human rage. Anger and frustration and regret rising up in a man so full to his throat that it can go nowhere except onto the shoes of the people around him.

How does Mike Leigh see Johnny (David Thewlis)? : "Johnny's an idealist, certainly not a cynic, which is how he's often portrayed."

Recently, in line with the British release of Naked on DVD, Mike Leigh and David Thewlis (who plays Johnny) spoke to the Guardian about the danger of the method acting in Naked; specifically about the street corner scene between Johnny and Archie (Ewen Bremner):

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"Mike told me to hang round the church steps and then an actor - he didn't say who - would turn up," recalls Thewlis down the line from LA. "When Ewan came along, I didn't recognise him - it was before he was in Trainspotting. He was speaking in this impenetrable Scottish accent. He might have been an actor, but he might have just been an annoying Scotsman. I just followed the motivation of the character." Even if it involved stabbing someone with a sharpened screwdriver? "Yeah. Most of you is really engrossed in what the character would do. " How did you get the screwdriver? "I'd stolen it in character as Johnny."

Mike Leigh, sitting in his panelled office in Soho, remembers the fight differently. "I was standing across the street. Ewan was wandering around shouting, 'Maggie! Maggie!' because Archie was looking for his friend. Somebody leaned out of a window and told him to quiet down and he, in character, told them to fuck off.

"When the police arrived, I went over and said: 'I'm a director and we're making a film.' The officer asked where the camera was. I said we were improvising, and he wasn't convinced. So we had to take him back to our office and get others to corroborate the story." You stopped the improvisation? "I always do if there's a chance of violence - or if two characters are going to fuck." (Guardian)
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That is a scary and risky practice. It's the kind of technique that begs the disclaimer, "DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME". But Leigh is no sensationalist. Despite his morose reputation, there is nothing else in Leigh's body of work like Naked.

In fact, there is peace in Johnny's eyes when he shares a moment with his ex-girlfriend Louise. She's the one person who can humble him, shrink that intellectual power of his down to a paper-thin shield.

Aided by the score, and classic last shot, Naked ends ominously. But Johnny's story is one that cannot end. That's why Leigh cuts to black. You take it with you. To be continued... Johnny as optimist??? I don't if Mike Leigh would go that far. But maybe I could.

17 comments:

Slayton said...

Thank you SO much for loving this film. Mike Leigh is my favorite director EVER and I consider this to be one of the best films ever made - it is in my overall Top 10 list.

I don't think anyone was prepared for "Naked", simply because the Leigh work that had come before was so genteel. It takes a special kind of director to jump from "Life is Sweet" to THIS.

David Thewlis should have won the Oscar, and I think that Katrin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp and ESPECIALLY Claire Skinner (who arrives late but manages to quietly steal the film in one scene) should have been nominated for Supporting Actress, although Sharp could have gone lead.

Soiled Sinema said...

A fine film indeed. Johnny reminds me of a friend or two that I have had in my life.

Great write up!

-Ty E

Ibetolis said...

Oh, you have no idea how much I love this film.

Thanks for this great piece.

I read the same article and adore that anecdote about Thewlis and Bremner. The final scene is disturbing enough without knowing the mechanics behind it; it's easily believable one of them could have been seriously injured.

I heard Johnny described as a emotional vampire before and sensationalist as that sounds I believe it's rather apt. He destroys almost everyone he meets in the course of the film, sucking the life out of them with acid quips and snarly put-downs.

Once again, a great piece about a genius film. The finest Leigh has ever made, one of the greatest British films of the past 20 years and I've GOT to watch this again real soon.

Pat said...

Wow! I have loved Leigh's work for a long time, and yet have never managed to see "Naked."

Now I know I have to put it at the top of my Netflix queue.

Fox said...

Thanks for the responses, guys. I love to see the love for this film. (I'm gonna print these comments out for my sister and show her that she's wrong...).

Slayton -

Everyone is just great in this. Thewlis is just on fire, but Cartlidge (R.I.P. :( ) hangs in there with him.

And as for you saying that nobody was prepared for this movie, I still think that's the case. In fact, I think the fact that it hits hard is proof that Naked isn't empty sensationlism but painful honsety.

Soiled -

When I think of people I know from Naked, I think of the people that Johnny talks about when Sophie asks him if he's bored.

"That's the trouble with everybody - you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you and you're bored with it, you've had the living body explained to you and you're bored with it, you've had the universe explained to you and you're bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them... "

In fact, when I have kids, and they say, "Daddy, I'm bored!", I'm just gonna recite that to them. :)

Idetolis -

Your passion for it is making me wanna go home and watch it again!

Have you seen the short that is on the U.S. Naked dvd? It's called The Short and Curlies and it's hilarious and Thewlis is awesome in it... a departure from Johnny which just goes to show how talented he his.

Fox said...

Pat-

Awesome! I will be very curious to hear your thoughts on it afterwards. It's quite a jolt, and hard to watch at times, but I can't imagine trying to understand Leigh as an artist without having seen it.

bill r. said...

It's a great film, though I haven't seen it in years. But for me Topsy Turvy is Leigh's greatest achievement, and I've always wondered if his improvisational style factored in the same way, or if it was written more traditionally. If it was improvised, then holy Jesus...it's even more amazing.

Fox said...

Bill-

I may have this a little wrong, but I think on the commentary for Naked Leigh says that his films are much more written out than people presume. And by "written", I mean that he and the actors rehearse and rehearse over and over but not necessarily with a written script. Meaning, there is much more planning to his films than people think.

I love Topsy-Turvy too. Like Naked it was a nice departure for Leigh. Honestly, I don't think I've seen one film of his that I didn't think was great/excellent. High Hopes is my favorite and I have been itching for it's DVD release for years.

bill r. said...

I'd heard there was more planning to Leigh's films as well, but I'd still love to know how he and his actors worked out Topsy Turvy. The dialogue seemed so authentic to the time period, though I say that as a non-expert.

Fox said...

Yeah, you know, Leigh seems to keep his cards close to his chest a lot(which I can appreciate). Cuz you are right about the dialogue in Topsy-Turvy. It's not the type that lends itself to improv.

Though... the actors are British and, thus, much more talented than ours.

Soiled Sinema said...

I really tried not to read this due to me owning this film and not seeing it, but your few words reminded me of a film that I loved called Keane.
Truly a dirty film experience.
Will write up on it soon.


-mAQ

Fox said...

Oh hell yeah! I loved Keane. I saw it in a tiny college theater with like four other people and that was totally appropriate environment for the film.

What was unique about Keane was that it made you feel uneasy, but then it made you think about WHY you felt uneasy. Was it b/c of our own debased preconceived notions of what's about to happen on screen? Has our culture become so sick and jaded that that is where our mind leads us?

I felt the same thing about that director's Clean,Shaven - which I didn't care for as much as I did Keane. And to bring it all back around to Naked, Katrin Cartlidge was in his second film Clare Dolan!

Soiled Sinema said...

Wait. Director of Clean, Shaven directed Keane?

Holy fuck!

Fox said...

Yep! I'm kinda bummed, though, b/c he doesn't seem to be working on anything.

bill r. said...

Between, I think, Claire Dolan and Keane, Kerrigan lost an entire film in a lab fire. I'm just guessing, I would think that kind of blow would slow anybody down, and Kerrigan was never prolific.

Ed Howard said...

Naked is amazing, and Thewlis deserved much greater recognition for what he did with this role -- Johnny is hateful and despicable, and yet we're forced to sit with him for an entire movie, inhabiting his ugly world and getting to know him better. That Thewlis is able to make this character, not likeable certainly, but consistently compelling, is remarkable.

Anonymous said...

why is the title the Naked? i'm not sure if i get it right... can you tell me yours?