Scottish Drama Speaks From the Heart With Subtitles

Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen , from a screenplay by Paul Laverty, could be disparagingly described as an English-language film about the Scottish working class with English subtitles. But I am grateful to Mr. Loach and Mr. Laverty for offering translation for the almost incomprehensible Greenock and Port Glasgow dialect spoken by a cast made up mostly of virtual amateurs.

For a great many people, the prospect of watching a film with subtitles leads to one’s face crinkling up in distaste. One of my favorite comic-strip Philistines, Mr. Lockhorn, neatly summed it up after coming out of an “art house” theater: “I knew we were in trouble when the coming attractions were in subtitles.” Even some of my students-scholars of film-complain that reading subtitles distracts them from a serious contemplation of the visual images. It’s bad enough when the film is set in a foreign country, but to need subtitles for characters in an English-language setting strikes many as the height of absurdity. I remain obdurate, however, not only in force-feeding my students all-talky-in-French Eric Rohmer films, but also in continuing to insist that all movies should be subtitled-too many actors have sacrificed audibility for what they perceive as a mumbling authenticity.

Nonetheless, the dramatic power of Sweet Sixteen renders it beyond such satiric gibes at its “foreign film” artiness.

Mr. Loach once again reaffirms his honored position as one of the world’s most passionate and compassionate filmmakers, a champion of the poor, the depressed and the oppressed for close to 40 years. There isn’t a director I know who goes so regularly into the lower depths of society. Indeed, Mr. Loach’s gallery of protagonists makes Mike Leigh’s assemblage of pétit-bourgeois grotesques look overprivileged by comparison. But then, Mr. Loach-unlike Mr. Leigh-is never looking for laughs, and he certainly never gets any. It always hurts too much to laugh. Yet Mr. Loach’s main characters are never content to wallow in the trough of despair. They are always struggling, generally against impossible odds, to achieve some measure of dignity or even happiness.

In Sweet Sixteen -an ironic title with echoes of John Hughes and Molly Ringwald-Liam (Martin Compston) is a teenage truant anxious to do almost anything to provide a decent home for his drug-addicted mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter), when she is released from prison. His older sister, Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), has been more of a mother to Liam (as well as to her own little boy, Calum) than their real mother ever was, but the teenager clings to his dream of a happy home upon his mother’s release. To get the money to do this, Liam and his pal Pinball (William Ruane) decide to break into the drug racket by stealing from Stan (Gary McCormack), a dealer for whom Liam’s mother took the rap that landed her in prison. The antagonism between Liam and Stan over Liam’s mother provides the final burst of violence that shatters all of Liam’s dreams.

From his earliest feature films, Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969), Mr. Loach has shown an affinity with the most profound aspirations of young people, both male and female, and the tenderness both genders share with each other in the direst circumstances. Chantelle’s deep concern for Liam glows with the bright flame of devotion as she tends to his wounds after his frequent brawls. For his part, Liam acts more like a father than an uncle to his sister’s child. In fact, there is so much love flowing in all directions that the screen is saturated with emotion.

Sweet Sixteen was shot in sequence so that the comparatively inexperienced actors could grow into their parts. Mr. Loach and Mr. Laverty worked very closely with their cast to achieve a comfortable rhythm as the narrative progressed. The beauty and desolation of the Scottish coast in the aftermath of the unemployment caused by the closing of the shipyards along the Clyde River makes for a haunting backdrop.

Mr. Laverty, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Loach, worked as a lawyer in Glasgow and then for a human-rights organization in Central America before joining a touring theater company. In the 80’s, Mr. Loach ran afoul of television censors with his notorious documentaries on the 1984 miners’ strike. Hence, the Loach-Laverty collaboration on Sweet Sixteen represents a distillation of two social consciences in the trenches of political combat. Yet there is no preachy sloganizing in their fictional narratives, and no whiny self-pity in their characters.

The obsession of the central character in Sweet Sixteen evolved from Mr. Laverty’s extensive interviews with troubled adolescents and their caregivers in residential homes. “What struck me … was that no matter how chaotic the family home, most were still determined to make contact with their mother. There’s something extra-concentrated about adolescence. There’s a special energy which can be exhilarating or explosive. Fragility and often a wild courage, even if misplaced, can sit easily side by side. We were keen to try and capture some of those qualities in our story.”

And so they did, though I expected nothing less from Mr. Loach after Riff-Raff (1990), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) and Black Jack (1979), among other brilliant cinematic crystallizations of his tender mercies. Let me say, finally and defiantly, that Sweet Sixteen speaks eloquently to the heart-even with subtitles.

Spell Check

Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound demonstrates the wondrous unpredictability of cinema in providing suspense and excitement from completely unexpected sources. Who would have thought that a nonfiction film about spelling bees, for God’s sake, would be more mesmerizing than expensive fictional flicks with oodles and oodles of production values and special effects?

Spellbound follows eight young contestants and their invariably supportive families as they compete in the National Spelling Bee finals in Washington, D.C., which is televised each year on ESPN.

Mr. Blitz and his colleagues consciously selected a cross section of contestants, at least geographically. The eight chosen spellers were culled from Missouri, Texas, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. Almost by definition and job description, all were word nerds, despite other accomplishments. Though their lives outside the contest are never explored to any extent, they seem generally to be loners in their normal surroundings and, not surprisingly, more convivial with their fellow spellers. Instead of tearing them apart, the fiercely competitive battle in which they’re engaged tends to bring them together.

Mr. Blitz, whose mother is from Argentina, observed that the film’s most meaningful theme for him was the pursuit of the American dream. Perhaps it has always been immigrants and their first-generation children for whom Lady Liberty’s lamp has shown most brightly.

Their common enemy is the vast, monstrous English language, a minefield of possible misspellings. George Bernard Shaw, I believe, posed the following linguistic question that illustrates the English language at its illogical best. How do you pronounce ghoti ? he asked slyly, and then answered his own question with a triumphant “FISH!” He went on to explain that the “gh” is pronounced “f” (as in laugh ), the “o” as “i” (as in women ), and the “ti” as “sh,” (as in motion ), thus completing the transition from ghoti to fish .

Yet the very anarchy of the English language tends to equalize the competition, or even give the element of luck a dominant place. After all, some words seem much more familiar and easier to spell than others. As one contestant after the next comes unstuck with words like iridescent (incorrectly spelled “irridescent”) and mongrel (incorrectly spelled “mongrol”), we may wonder if the American dream is as benign as we have been told it is.

Still, the spectacle of young American boys and girls of many different ethnic and religious origins striving to master a discipline, however irrational and unruly, is refreshingly idealistic in an age of soul-destroying cynicism and uncontrolled pleasure-seeking. And the support they receive from their parents provides a reality check from the panicky scenarios about the decline and fall of the American family.

One surprise in the movie is the irregular pattern of the final results. There have been charges that Leni Riefenstahl juggled the order of individual performances in her 1936 Olympia to create dramatic but false climaxes. Mr. Blitz has chosen a more humanistic and less triumphalist approach by lingering with his subjects and their families in defeat as well as in final triumph. Alas, the kids I rooted for most fervently all lost, some embarrassingly early. Anyone with a heart had to say a prayer for Ashley, the plucky African-American daughter of a single mother from the D.C. projects. Angela, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who barely spoke a word of English, also tugged at the heart strings. If only the English language were more forgiving.

No Waves

Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman (1961) is being revived in a new 35-millimeter print at the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street), from May 16 through May 29. Mr. Godard’s musical romp served as an extension of his critical revaluation of Hollywood musicals as significant contributions to the artistic heritage of world cinema. I was in Paris in 1961 (a year that changed my life), and A Woman Is a Woman was one of my two cinematic epiphanies on the Champs Elysées-the other being the glorious widescreen revival of the uncut Lola Montés (1955) from Max Ophüls.

It was a heady time for a newly formed auteurist critic like moi , and though I still remain in the hunt, I doubt that I can ever recapture the careless rapture of that period, when the medium seemed to be reborn before our eyes. But as Claude Chabrol-another luminary of the nouvelle vague -once remarked, there are no waves, new or otherwise; there is only the ocean. But if Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo, the recorded voice of Charles Aznavour and a thrilling glimpse of toplessness (circa 1961, at least) in a sleazy strip joint called the Zodiac Club don’t turn you on, then tant pis! for you.

The Crusader

Susan Sarandon was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on May 5, seemingly as much for her heroic posture as a pariah in the eyes of the shamelessly plutocratic Bush White House as for her sensual contributions to American film. These latter were vividly illustrated in the revolutionary R-rated film clips expertly selected by Wendy Keys, and amplified in the eloquent tribute given by Richard Corliss in the program notes. Gore Vidal, the godfather of one of her children; Tim Robbins, her very significant other; Tim Curry, her co-star in The Rocky Horror Picture Show ; David Bowie, her co-star in The Hunger ; Paul Schrader, her director in Light Sleeper ; John Turturro, her co-star in Illuminata ; and Geena Davis, her co-feminist crusader in Thelma & Louise , all managed to be admirably lucid and articulate in praising both a heroine on the screen and, off it, a political dissenter against a regime that preaches multi-party democracy in Iraq while promoting one-party mediocracy at home.