The upcoming release of Ken Loach’s 1969 color film Kes allowed me my first chance to see the new Blu-Ray technology firsthand, as I recently upgraded to a Blu-Ray player with Netflix capacity. Hence, when sent a review copy by The Criterion Collection I was eager for my virginal go at the newer generation disk. Having seen it, I can say I noticed only a marginal quality difference vis-à-vis regular DVDs. Perhaps this is because Loach’s film is 40 years old, and Blu-Ray makes more sense on newer all digital films, and/or because I lack a digital widescreen tv. That said, crispness is one thing, but when film starts looking too much like video then what’s the point? The functionality of the menus, however, was noticeably enhanced, including easier to use features and the ability to restart the disk at precisely the point one last watched the disk in one’s player.
As for the film? It’s one of those films that’s not as bad as its detractors claim and not the masterpiece its champions hail. Overall, a good film, and having only known Loach for his film Poor Cow, segments of which were used as flashback sequences in Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 masterpiece The Limey, it was interesting to see his work more in its element. The film focuses on a 14 year old northern English lad named Billy Casper (David Bradley), who lives in a dead end town, Barnsley, with dead end prospects in life. He’s basically a good kid- despite perpetually being dirty, who has an abiding interest in birds, and has raised some in the past. His latest ‘case’ is a kestrel he trains, after stealing a book on falconry from a local used bookstore. It’s one of many things he ‘nicks,’ as he is constantly in trouble at school (one of a gang of kids who smokes) from deans and kids and coaches that bully him (the scenes with the gym teacher- Brian Glover- who deludes himself into thinking he’s a soccer star provides just the right amount of levity to defuse this film from a possible descent into maudlin gloom), and at home, from his psychopathic older half-brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher). Billy’s own father is either dead or has left his mother (Lynn Perrie), who can do little to control either son. Jud emotionally abuses her, as well.
Surprisingly little of the film is explicitly about Billy and Kes, but this allows the effects of his training the bird to have its proper place above the actual training in the hierarchy of Billy’s life and the film’s interest. Late in the film, Billy’s English teacher, Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), prompts Billy to speak of his interest in falconry, and goes to watch him teach the bird. The film’s denouement finds Billy spending money Jud gives him to place on a horse race, but which Billy spends on snacks. When the horse wins, Jud is furious at Billy, and seeks him out at school. Billy hides in ingenious ways, and Jud is thwarted. Unable to take it out on Billy, he kills Kes and leaves the body in a garbage can. Billy finds out and attacks his older brother, who repels him. The film ends abruptly and meekly following Billy digging a pathetic little grave to bury Kes. Overall, the ending is much like the film- the ‘realism’ of the ending, though, is somewhat dampened by the odd speed with which it ends. One does not really sympathize with Billy, as one might in other films, because the viewer knows the boy has far greater worries, in the present and future, than just the killing of his bird. In this way, the film moves away from the spirituality of a Robert Bresson film like Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette. In a sense, it also moves away from the almost explicit truth-seeking of a Bresson, for Loach is content to merely show. His interest is realism; whereas Bresson sought some higher, more nebulous, truth. Art is a poor vehicle for truth but a great one for realism, as realism just is, whereas truth requires an act of volition. If one is holding an apple in one’s hand, that action is a reality. When one declaims, ‘He is holding an apple,’ that claim is a truth- or not. Few artists get this difference. Loach, like the best of the Neo-Realists, got it, at least in this film.
Some people, though, have called the film a part of the British New Wave, ala the films of Lindsay Anderson, but Loach uses mostly amateur actors and the film is far deeper in the vein of Neo-Realism than New Wave. It lacks the ostentation of many New wave films, from around the world- even those that broached greatness. The film is based on the 1968 novel A Kestrel For A Knave, by Barry Hines, with the screenplay written by Loach and Hines. It’s a good one, although it has some hits (see the reading of the comic strip) and misses (where some scenes simply end and do not play out to a dramatic end). The Blu-Ray shows the 111 minute film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film’s simple musical score, by John Cameron, is often effective, and consists of a simple flute or woodwind instrumental. The cinematography, by Chris Menges, is nothing spectacular, as Loach preferred unobtrusiveness, according to his comments in the Blu-Ray’s making of documentary, which runs 45 minutes. Also included is a 1993 profile from The South Bank Show, which clocks in at about 50 minutes in length. The original theatrical trailer, an alternate soundtrack with more standard English accents to replace the heavy local brogue in the original film which, according to the making of documentary, almost was released subtitled. There is also an insert booklet with an essay by screenwriter Graham Fuller. The most interesting feature is the 77 minute film Loach did for the BBC anthology series, The Wednesday Play, in 1966, called Cathy Come Home. It is, like Kes, a mixed affair, and was shot in color. It rapidly follows the several year marriage, and demise of same, of a young British couple that produces two children, ends up in the uncaring and often barbaric welfare system, and results in the husband’s departure, and the wife’s having her children taken away from her. The film makes excellent use of cinematic technique- including documentary like voiceovers, unique angles, and other things, but also never really allows an in to the characters, and gets tendentious and preachy. Kes, made a few years later, lacks these obvious flaws. Cathy Come Home also has a 12 minute afterword by Fuller.
Noticeably missing from the Blu-Ray is an audio commentary. At first this may seem odd as the supposed appeal of Blu-Rays over regular DVDs is that their compression allows for far more features on a single disk. But, the real culprit can be found by simply searching for Kes on Netflix. It’s already available for streaming, so why bother adding a commentary? I’m afraid that streaming technology has obviated the need for audio commentaries since the disk format, Blu-Ray or regular DVD, seems to be in its twilight. I lament the lack of this most welcome feature for, while I never needed a good commentary to explain to me why or why not a film worked, the best commentaries gave invaluable background information on the film and its creators, as well as explicating sometimes Byzantine technical aspects of the art form that is not apparent to a lay eye. Alack, this quest for a deeper plumb into the medium seems to have faded, and few consumers seem to notice nor care.
Kes is not a great film, nor even a near-great one, but it is a good film- at times very good (even with brilliant flashes), and shows how political art can be of quality when the art trumps the politics. That Kes, the bird, has so little screen time in its titular film is merely a recapitulation of Billy’s reality that shows that the bird, while not the main part of his existence, is certainly the best part of his existence- at least for the duration of the film. It’s odd, for sometimes when one watches an old film for the first time (especially a film of an emotionally or intellectually resonant quality): there is a tendency for them to sort of backfill one’s own past. I.e.- they sort of get locked in to a place in time that seems like it has always occupied in one’s own past, as if one had seen it when younger, and always carried an idea or memory of it with one. At least that’s the way it is with me, and others have told me similar things. Hopefully, Billy Casper was never so locked in to anything, past or present, and escaped the life in the town’s coal mines that he so dreaded. I hope he did. I knew him once.