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Spitting at Dark Times

Maybe it’s time for a little dose of happy in a world where happy seems like an obsolete concept. I’m not talking Hollywood, sugar-coated, shallow escapism, but a happy that is grounded in the reality of workaday people, a happy that asks us to put our cynicism aside for just a little while and demands we take reigns of what freedom and pleasure we can derive from life. Where can we find this slice of happy? Try the new Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky.  Whoever thought Mike Leigh, the British social realist and voice of the beaten working class, would make the “feel good movie of the year”? But indeed Happy-Go-Lucky is a spit in the eye to these dark times. However, what makes this piece of happy palatable is the fact that the grime and tension of reality is included in the mix. Just because the film spits in the eye of bleak cynicism, that does not mean these dark times don’t exist. Being a Mike Leigh film, something would be terribly amiss if there wasn’t a dark lining to this movie’s candy-coated exterior. Centered on the effusively bubbly and optimistic Pauline, who goes by Poppy, Happy-Go-Lucky is a brilliant meditation on the power of self-conscious denial, the value of embracing life’s pleasures in whatever form they come and ignoring the doom and gloom dark stuff that can rain on your parade.

The film opens with Poppy riding her bike through London. She is smiling, bouncing, looking all around her, her optimism radiating like glitter from every pour of her body. And she is wearing high heel boots. Why do I mention the boots? Because I noticed the boots immediately, and it was my first of many laughs in the movie. She’s wearing high heels while riding a bike! Of course, we are taught that you can’t ride a bike in high heels. It breaks the rules. It’s dangerous. It’s impractical. You’re not supposed to. But Poppy does ride her bike wearing high heel boots. In fact, she does just about everything wearing high heel boots. Poppy wears her boots like a badge of freedom. Those boots are the symbol of Poppy’s refusal to cave into the boring, nonsensical, life-squashing rules of adulthood. With her constant silly rambling jabber and her garishly outrageous fashions, the inclination is to read Poppy as stupid, as a ditz, as a vacuous girl who puts fun before responsibility. The cynic inside us wants to laugh at her and ridicule her, force her to open her eyes and take a good hard look at reality. But like Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Howard Hawke’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Poppy turns out to be the most brilliant character in the movie. Like Lorelei, Poppy’s philosophy is to live and enjoy life and not be encumbered by unnecessary darkness and nihilism. As we ride along with Poppy and her boots, we are forced to look at the cynic inside ourselves with a critical eye rather than ridiculing Poppy for her optimism. We want to dismiss her, but we can’t. Poppy forces us to set aside our cynicism and feel a momentary liberation with her.  That’s not such a bad thing, really.

The main trope of the movie is Poppy’s driving lessons. Poppy decides she wants to learn to drive a car, so every Saturday, she takes driving lessons with Scott. Scott is the dark underbelly of the film. He is the brooding, resentful, self-loathing working class. A borderline psycho, racist and homophobe obsessed with rules, ethics, and responsibility, Scott seethes with explosive menace. His rotting front teeth, brown with decay, loom inside his scowling face like all the darkness of the world, and they play counter to Poppy’s gleaming white ever-present smile. We feel the threat coming from Scott the minute he enters the movie, yet Popp climbs into the car and drives Scott crazy with her refusal to be “serious” and her bubbling observations of the world around her. Scott tries to teach Poppy to drive safely and follow the rules, but Poppy shrugs off Scott’s authoritarian demands and drives the car through the streets of London like she’s on a ride at Disneyland. More than anything, Scott tries to force Poppy to remove her “high heels.” Her boots infuriate Scott. They mock him because the boots are a symbol of the freedom he feels he will never have – freedom to make frivolous choices, freedom to be sexually expressive, freedom to laugh, to play, to be an individual instead of another cog on the wheel. Poppy never does remove her boots because Poppy’s whole philosophy could be called “driving in high heels.” To take off her shoes would be to close the door on her freedom. In fact, in the end, Poppy quits the driving lessons in a symbolic gesture to refuse to embrace the control and containment of the Scotts of the world.

Freedom, in this Mike Leigh film, is represented by color. Mike Leigh is an amazing colorist , and it is no wonder that this movie made so many Top Ten lists in the art critic circles. The film is visually spectacular. Leigh gives us a gorgeous tapestry of color, not from traditional high art sources, but from objects that represent Poppy’s working class life. Every single piece of color in the film counts – the little yellow car Poppy and her friends ride around in, a purple ironing board, a rainbow-colored crocheted afghan on the sofa, Poppy’s orange underpants. Poppy’s freedom is all about keeping color alive and not letting it be killed by the monotone drudgery of adult responsibility.

Everything in Poppy’s London life is punctuated by bright splashes of red, green, pink, purple, yellow. In a scene when Poppy goes to the suburbs to visit her pregnant sister, Poppy awkwardly sits, like a garish bouquet of plastic flowers, in her sister’s lifeless department store showroom home. There is no color in the sister’s house. Sure it has perfect furniture and is perfectly ideal, but it is also perfectly flat and monotone. It is the tomb of the suffocating suburbs. Mike Leigh has erased the color from this scene to show how bourgeois aspirations are empty and dead. Poppy’s sister gives Poppy a lecture about how she needs to grow up, get married, get a mortgage, and be “happy.” Poppy beautifully and brilliantly explains that she is happy – with her freedom. And Poppy’s freedom comes in a riot of color. Poppy isn’t just wearing rose-colored glasses. She’s wearing rainbow glasses, and she exploits every bright and garish color to its fullest cheerful potential. She has an endless supply of colored lace pantyhose, and she is always dressed in a riot of glittery, bright, clashing color. She frequently wears cherries – cherries on her shirt, on her earrings, on her necklace – because Poppy is bound and determined to make her life a bowl full of cherries even if she is given a bowl of rotting onions.

Certainly the film has its share of rotting onions which come in the form of the brooding menace of men. Scott, the psycho driving instructor, is the primary menace, and he plays on all our conditioned fears of the violence that men do, as we expect at any moment for him to pull out a rope and strangle Poppy. Poppy also has a truly surreal and uncomfortable encounter with a huge, dark, schizophrenic homeless man. This scene consciously makes the audience uncomfortable and asks us to question our own socially conditioned views of homeless people or anyone who lives off the social grid. Much of the tension in the scene comes from our conditioned cynicism playing against Poppy’s sincere acceptance of this man who lives below the surface. But her acceptance doesn’t come easy. We can see the effort she makes to accept this dark force, to walk into the face of threat, to put herself at risk, and to somehow prove that she can turn the darkness into light. This scene takes place in the underbelly of the city with darkness literally pressing in all around Poppy. The way it’s filmed makes it seem like Poppy has entered the depths of hell yet spins it into an impossibly safe fairytale. Indeed, much of Poppy’s philosophy (like Lorelei Lee’s) is that fairytales can come true if you don’t cave into artificial social limitations (e.g. schizophrenic homeless men are violent). Whereas we (the cynics) expect the worst in these scenes, Poppy chooses to see the best. She has her rainbow armor to get her through life. In fact, in one scene when Poppy encounters a violent boy in her class (she’s a school teacher), she is literally wearing a big, kitschy, dime store rainbow necklace which dangles around her neck like some kind of magical talisman with protective powers.

Mike Leigh sets us up to believe that the worst is going to happen in these encounters, yet they never pan out to the violence we expect. In doing this, he plays our nihilistic conditioning (life sucks) against Poppy’s optimism (life is a bowl full of cherries). Perhaps Poppy’s rainbow does have magical powers. When driving instructor Scott finally goes off the deep end, we expect him to do something terribly violent to Poppy – rape or murder – yet she walks away safely. When Poppy encounters the homeless man, we expect him to lash out irrationally and violently at any moment, yet she goes bouncing along her happy way. When Poppy confronts the violent boy in her class, we expect some horrid tale of abuse and molestation, yet that plot fizzles. And finally, when Poppy actually meets a boyfriend, we wonder what dark secret he is hiding and how things will turn out badly, yet he seems to be just a “nice guy.” What is Mike Leigh saying as Poppy encounters this litany of potentially threatening men only to defuse their menace via her impervious optimism? Is Leigh answering to himself as a director and to his earlier piece of cinematic vitriol Naked? Is he forcing us to interrogate our own skepticism and the fear that is been hardwired into our existence by the media? Probably a little of both.

One of the reasons we feel so threatened by the men Poppy encounters is because Sally Hawkins’ performance as Poppy is absolutely flawless, and she has made herself so vulnerable through her delivery of the character. She has created a great film icon like Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee. So much character is delivered by the way Hawkins’ inhabits her body — her facial expressions, her flopping limbs tootling about like a big rag doll, and mostly the those tiny glimpses of tension and conflict in her face that reveal the work it takes to be happy and deny the darkness. Because Poppy seems so innocent on the surface, she is also rendered extremely vulnerable. Mike Leigh plays on this vulnerability by setting us up to see Poppy as a potential victim, when actually she turns out to be the ultimate survivor. The movie trailer states, “Seeing the world through Poppy’s eyes can change the way you look at life.” In other words, you could always expect the worst, or you could learn to live like Poppy and accept the best. In a way, Poppy is a kind of 21st century Shaman for the working class, the ultimate Zen Buddhist person, who lets everything roll right over her and lives a free life unencumbered by the burden of the past or the future or of socially imposed life-killing structures. But what Hawkins’ performance shows us is that inscribing a “rainbow lining” to life does not come easily or without effort. It’s those little glimpses of darkness that pass their shadow over Poppy’s face that show us that, yes, she knows the menace, dread, doom and foreboding are there, but she chooses to turn them into rainbows and cherries. But the darkness of reality still haunts the surface of her face. Denial/optimism is hard work.

The strange and ominous dark interior of the film is what makes it so brilliant. If it were all as happy-go-lucky as the title suggests, well, then it would just be another crap mainstream Hollywood film. Nevertheless, it is still a hilariously funny film, and I laughed from beginning to end, but it was laughter that reflected back on itself and made me think about why I was laughing.

On a final note, the movie is also refreshing because it is an ode to that working class, pub-driven London that is often portrayed as dreary and hopeless. Poppy and her friends have turned that stereotype on its head, and showed us that they can find beauty, camaraderie, and fun despite their economic limitations. They show us that working class life in the city doesn’t always have to have a bad ending if you choose to take your rainbows where you can get them. In other words, don’t let the fuckers get you down. Put on your high heels and drive the way you fucking want.

(Happy-Go-Lucky will be released on DVD on March 10, 2009.)

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.