Still agitated, still frustrated, and still trucking along for over a half-century, Britain’s resident muckraker and political Force To Be Reckoned With explores the tragedy of comedy, or the comedy of tragedy. It is, in short, an exercise in Loach Doing What He Does. Loach is among the fiercest leftists in modern cinema, and who am I to bemoan his semi-stagnancy as an artist? If I, Daniel Blake is still-water as far as artistic advancement is concerned, its nuances into the mind of oppression under late capitalism are uniquely advanced none-the-less. In other words, there’s no institution in I, Daniel Blake that Loach hasn’t agitated before, and agitated better. But he was a vanguard of leftist cinema once, and all these years later, he still seems like a lone pillar in an empty field, especially with the drop-off in serious leftist public scholarship these days. So if an artist repeating himself is all we can drag out of him … well, capitalism hasn’t exactly fixed its problems during Loach’s career, so there’s reason for him to keep hammering the same nails to make sure they continue to stay in place.
This particular slice of life, very much another chapter in Loach’s larger, somewhat homogenous book of films, is a dualistic character study of widower Daniel Blake (Dave Jones) and single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), the former recently laid-off due to a minor heart-attack and the latter newly arrived in Newcastle and unable to receive benefits due to arriving at a meeting a handful of minutes late. Blake, befitting the title, receives the favored tilt as far as screen-time goes, and his uncertain position is exacerbated rather than ameliorated by the bureaucracy of social safety net institutions at every turn. Loach paints a picture of life for the poor in Britain as an institutional roundabout as Blake staggers from form to meeting to counselor to computer trying to complete the next step in his request to be approved for the British equivalent of unemployment compensation. But every interaction with the institutional bureaucracy designed to ease his passage only sidetracks him or plunges him deeper into the labyrinthine calamity of a system built, for Loach, on overlooking humanity and framing oppression on terms that implicate the unemployed person rather than the system that devalued them in the first place.
This domesticated tragedy is a Hades of a new form, a purgatory of phone-transfers, and what circle of hell this is matters less than the circularity of it, the centrifugal runaround of shuffling through motions ostensibly designed to ease social assimilation but really only exhaust the already dispossessed. Blake is keenly attuned to the tempo, tone, and manicured dialect of these helping-hand institutions during late-capitalism, living and dying by a code of individualism, self-actualization, self-improvement, and thus self-blame. One outburst of righteous indignation – when Blake tries to intervene in another woman’s plight – is met with a curt dismissal. But when the employee rebukes him with an old stand-by, “this isn’t your concern”, the strained worker is really revealing the inferno of atomization and individuation that governs late capitalism and the ameliorating institutions designed to curb the failures of capitalism but which actually exist within capitalism’s very logic.
During a “CV workshop” – another in a long-string of worker-improvement initiatives that place the own-ness of failure on the workers rather than the in-egalitarian system – Daniel announces his humanity, and the system pronounces judgement. He comically imagines another life, another self, through rejecting and dissenting against the informal rule – formalized through regulatory measures – that his time as a social failure must be devoted to “taking his problems seriously”. The man in charge of the seminar demands that Blake return to the real world, preaching the gospel of the self-governing, self-actualizing individual in charge of their own success. He implores Daniel not to share in the comic moment with the other dispossessed around him – not to invite them as friends and cohabitants of social crisis, to laugh with them in their shared misery – but to work to compete against them for diminished positions at the second-bottom rung of society, rather than at the bottom. Repeated choruses and rejoinders that emphasize numbers suggest the quantification, commodification, capitalization, and game-ification of human rights as a competitive system designed to salvage only the few who deem themselves worthy by subjecting themselves to the alter of institutions that define, and demean, their self-worth.
Loach also invokes the commodification of time itself, chopped and segmented into institutional units that colonize the very flow of being, of existence, until the never-really-hermetic seal between work and life, on and off the clock, dissolves completely. Yet, paradoxically, the complete commodification of time to ensure that subjects are “adequately progressing” is accompanied by a stasis of repetition and ritual, of constant motion to no end, every minor success undone or compromised by the next stage of a process of becoming, of self-actualizing, that is never complete and impossible to achieve. Blake refers to it in a semi-comic explosion as a “time warp”, but the phrasing divulges more than a thousand pages of Foucault or Adorno. It is a form of assault by institutional sanction, dismissal, and disinterest rather than open violence. The latter would at least provide a perverted form of catharsis in open assurance that the system is against you, an explicit vision of the enemy mobilized to lay its hand on you physically rather than on your mind and on your soul. Instead, Blake is boxed in by the façade of freedom, a prison in the open-air because he is given one sliver of hope that his agency might actually allow him to succeed in a system rigged to keep him running on empty. Loach understands how attempts to ameliorate social inequality operate in concert with the conventional parameters of inequality-producing mechanisms to begin with.
Daniel Blake’s real successes, however, are its understandings of the minimal alternatives and glimmers of humanity people like Daniel etch out of the mortal destruction of their very personalities. Loach understands that late capitalism isn’t about any particular demeaning job but about turning life itself into a kind of work on the self, which means work on the self as it is institutionally defined, improving the self through dictums of productivity and compliance. Daniel performs in opposition to these moorings when he expresses himself. Any aberrant slip from his silver tongue is an excuse for the institutions around him to judge him for not sufficiently working on his success, thus legitimizing their dismissals because of the only real humanity Blake retains. In a firebrand of a performance from Jones relying specifically on his daily-life as a stand-up and not an actor, Blake becomes a spontaneous, unvarnished human imp not programmed to speak as he’s told, a fighter not for any particular social crisis so much as the crisis of the soul and the mind that infects the very core of neoliberal society, all other crises being tendrils leaching outward form that essential mental torture.
So Loach locates the interpersonal humanity of resistance through camaraderie when Blake helps Katie with her plumbing, or Blake’s neighbor aids him with computer-work, or Katie cooks for Blake, each viewing the others not as competitors – a view implicit in the institutional collar around Blake’s neck – but as comrades in the little fights of daily survival. Blake defines agency not as assimilation to a system, self-actualizing through achievement and action. The film valorizes, instead, the agency of re-perceiving the moment. It valorizes the agency of fighting for humanity through mutating the arid inhumanity of the CV meeting into a personalized comic foil to that inhumanity, into Blake’s canvas for expression, and into a collective fount of laughter, repurposing the meeting on the terms of the oppressed. These motions of Daniel and others radiate the ferocious resistance not only of comedy but of collective personalization, among the only respites in this Kafkaesque nightmare of futility and exhaustion.
Time has not dulled Loach’s political quotient nor his resolve to commit with a full throat. One of Loach’s most discerning qualities has always been that he knows when to use the scalpel and when to pull out the broadsword. But time, it seems, has dented his commitment to certain nuances, as attested to by the often off-putting individuation of the social workers and governmental functionaries that Blake confronts. Rather than cogs in a social system – nominally Loach’s object of critique – they sometimes seem like they genuinely dislike Blake or have taken it upon themselves to personalize their disdain for him. This isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but leaning on their barely-subsumed venom displaces the banal and unseen terror of institutions with the more overt and classifiable (not to mention neoliberal) horror of people. Critiquing the emotional temperature of individuals is always the easier path compared to placing one’s finger on systemic injustices, but a good leftist knows that the pull to individualize the enemy is an act that is complicit in the enemy’s desire to competitively – rather than humanistically – individualize workers to begin with.
Maybe that’s splitting loose hairs, but Blake is decidedly imperfect for all its zest. The material related to Katie in particular sometimes feels like a consolation prize for a fuller portrait of injustices committed against females, especially as she is relegated to side-status in the film’s final conflict. More evocative of the will to expand the film beyond Blake – and thus beyond the capitalistic specter of films that localize problems to lone protagonists – is Loach’s quasi-neo-realist use of wide-frames and shifting focal points to highlight people in the background and in the periphery rather than simply Daniel. I must admit that I, Daniel Blake is more textured as an intellectual and polemical creature than an aesthetic one, but the refrains to the original leftist style of Italian neo-realism are heartening and still provocative after all these years, a radical aesthetic for a revolutionary ideology. I still think this is a film-by-circumstance – because film is Loach’s medium and it is convenient to reach a broad audience – rather than film-by-mantra that draws energy from the artistic toolset of its medium, but leftist films are in such dire straights in the world, I cannot bemoan Loach’s unique capacity to harness his agitation into 90 minute gut punches.