Naked (1993)

*. I saw Naked back when it came out, and to be honest it wasn’t a movie I was eager to return to. What memories I had of it weren’t fond. In fact, I seem to remember hating it. But I’m glad I did give it a rewind. I like it a lot more today.
*. I’m nervous that the reason I initially disliked it had to do with my not liking the character of Johnny (David Thewlis). It wasn’t so much that he was a heel, I could roll with that, as it was a response to his physical and moral collapse at the end. He is beaten in an alley and crawls back to his girlfriend(s), who are, in turn, being terrorized by their landlord. And what does he do? Lies on the floor crying gibberish. I really was expecting more out of him. Apparently Mike Leigh thought of having him do more, but found that all “uninteresting.” I think what he ended up with is the one really false note in the film.
*. Of course passing moral judgment on a fictional character is a terrible thing for any critic to do. Just because you don’t like a character doesn’t mean you can’t like the novel or film they appear in. And yet with Johnny the question of whether or not we can like him, or to what extent he has redeeming personal qualities, does seem to be a big part of what the movie is about.
*. On the commentary track both Leigh and Thewlis try their best to defend Johnny. Thewlis: “on the one hand he is very compassionate . . . obviously in relationships he’s not very compassionate but he cares a very great deal.” I don’t get this. Johnny hurts and uses everyone he can. Where does he show that he cares about anyone or anything? Sure he’s not as odious as Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), but it’s hard to say much more than that for him.

*. As for why women like him, that seems more a sad commentary on the women in the movie than any indication that there’s something loveable in Johnny. Oh, but the women in Naked are a sad lot. Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) seems nearly catatonic, having perfected the art of speaking without moving her lips. She also turns into a clinging harridan after a quickie. Meanwhile, the woman in the window and the waitress at the diner are both drunken zombies. And though we expect Sandra to introduce some kind of normalcy if not authority when she returns (she’s a nurse!), instead she turns out to be a comic figure who runs around waving her hands in the air, unable to cope. A strange look for a nurse. And why was she in a relationship with Jeremy anyway?
*. The one exception to these pathetic women is Louise (Lesley Sharpe), who is also the one who is most suspicious of Johnny. But even she gets taken in by him at the end. He fooled her twice.
*. So, no, I don’t think there’s any way of redeeming Johnny. He is what he is, and he isn’t much. He just possesses some superficial charm to go with his superficial learning and sheepdog good looks. But just because he’s a bad man doesn’t mean Naked is a bad movie. Nor does the fact that it details such a misogynistic world mean that it is misogynistic.
*. This latter is a point that has really, really exercised critics, to the point where everyone on the DVD commentary track has to directly respond to the charge. This I find they do in a very unpersuasive way.

*. But first let’s present the case. As I’ve said, the women in Naked, with one exception, are dopes. The men, meanwhile, are all verbally and physically abusive toward women. The movie begins with Johnny raping a woman. (As an example of the special pleading Johnny’s case attracts, here is Amy Taubin’s take: “Is this a rape? Not exactly — more like consensual rough sex gone wrong — although, pragmatically, if a woman believes she’s been raped, then she has.”) Jeremy meanwhile, is a sexual sadist, as well as the more general type of sadist as well. He seems to especially have it in for women though. Archie wants to find his Maggie just so he can kick her ass. Even lonely Brian is a creepy voyeur who is divorced from his “whore” of a wife.
*. Is it any wonder that Suzanne Moore had this to say: “What sort of realism is this? To show a misogynist and surround him with such walking doormats has the effect, intentional or not, of justifying this behaviour.”
*. Is the misogyny justified? I think the response to calling the film misogynistic would be to say that while it’s about women being abused that’s not the sort of thing it endorses or justifies. Its defenders, however, have an awkward time addressing this.
*. Leigh himself is dismissive of the charges. Here he is on the DVD commentary: “When critics and others say, as they did, things like that I’ve suddenly become misogynist or that I’ve suddenly done this that or the other I just think it’s very silly and very naive and on the whole I don’t trust it much. I think it’s just journalists being smart for the sake of it.”
*. Also on the commentary Cartlidge “completely disagrees” with those who found it a film about men hating women. Instead she figured it just reflected reality. Thewlis also sees such charges as missing the point somehow, since it was the women actors who created their characters (through Leigh’s program of rehearsed improvisation), basing them on women thy knew.
*. And here are some critical voices. Derek Malcolm: “Is the film misogynist? No, because it is as deeply critical of the men as it is of the women.” And, tying himself in knots, here’s Neil LaBute: “I think it would be very hard for someone to honestly say that he’s creating something that is, um, that is not true. Not true in the sense that it happens, that people, both men and women, are mistreated in relationships, um, not all women, not all men, um, that’s the beauty of fiction, it only has to be true for the little part of the world that you create. The women in this picture certainly give as well as they get.”
*. I don’t throw all this out here to make a case pro or con (and to be honest it’s not something that interests me that much) but only to demonstrate how hard a time people have talking about such matters. As I’ve said, there’s a pretty easy defence to the charges of misogyny, so why is it so hard to make? Why, instead, is such a dismissive attitude taken? Because there’s no denying that men abusing women is a big chunk of what Naked deals with.

*. Maybe it’s just defensiveness on the part of Leigh, wanting to take exception to anyone offering an interpretation of what the film is “about.” For some reason, to take another example, both Leigh and Thewlis on the commentary track stress that Johnny isn’t homeless. I think this is because some people saw it as a movie about homelessness. But their insistence that Johnny has a home in Manchester isn’t made out in the film. Is he leaving his home at the beginning, or just some place he’s flopped in? Is he going back to Manchester at the end? I doubt it. He seems more like Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, running away from the girl who loves him and going nowhere.

*. Five Easy Pieces is an interesting analog. Another is Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a movie that came out just a couple of years earlier. Johnny is in many regards a textbook slacker: a reader and a talker but not much of a doer. He has lots of ideas but they’re all half-baked. He can fall into bed easily enough but can’t handle relationships. He complains about how everyone around him is bored (“You have had the universe explained to you, and you’re bored with it”), but he, in turn, finds all of them boring. And of course he has no future. I mentioned in my notes on Slacker how this was the last gasp of an analog culture about to be swept away by the Internet. It’s hard to imagine someone like Johnny today. Instead of a bag of (stolen) books he’d just be walking around town hunched over his cellphone. So few young people read in our own time that Johnny must seem to them like the cultural equivalent of Piltdown Man.
*. This may be one of the reasons I like the movie more today. I still don’t like Johnny, but I have more sympathy for him. I also appreciate how well made a film it is. All the rehearsal time, and the endless takes, give it a paradoxically rough and polished texture. The colour feels drained of life, without having anything documentary about it. It always feels like a work of art, but genuinely grounded as well. Where it slips, only slightly, is when it seems to aim at comedy, in part because it makes us feel as though Leigh is making fun of these people, which is something some critics have suspected him of. I don’t think he is (he’s not as patronizing as the Coen Brothers, at least), but I do get that feeling in some scenes.
*. Overall, however, it’s a movie that’s grown on me. In fact, I’d call it a great movie. Parts of it are always going to be stuck in my head now, for better or worse.

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