The Problem of Johnny
DIRECTOR: MIKE LEIGH/1993
Take the image of a scruffy, dour figure dressed in a black trenchcoat standing ruefully in the trash-strewn thoroughfare of a post-industrial wasteland and you’ll have the essence of a series of movies I’ve been watching over the past few months. Inspired by a silent-frame chapter heading from the recent restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, dramatically reading “Furioso!”, a film program that began with Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), continued with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), extended through the 1994 Terry Zwigoff documentary Crumb, and concluded with the unlikely pairing of Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), is a loose assemblage of movies that, in retrospect, feature isolated, alienated male protagonists that test a film viewer’s acceptance of and receptiveness to largely unlikable characters. My Furioso! movie series, I suppose, is all about how far filmmakers/performers can test an audience’s tolerance for characters that neither invite nor engender an audience’s sympathy.
At least, I should add, in a conventional fashion. Coming back to our image of a forlorn figure standing in the midst of urban decay, British director Mike Leigh’s blistering, frustrating, problematic portrait of an angry young man stalking through the ruins of, shall we say, “Thatcher-era anti-poor person ‘reforms’” (and no fair guessing which side of the political fence such a reading implies), and his various encounters with city-spawned eccentrics, losers, and loners, is about as close as a movie can get, by my estimation, to creating a nearly visceral identification with an almost willfully unpleasant character. Propelled by Andrew Dickson’s bass-and-harp score, the driving and relentless, verbally-aggressive figure of Johnny is a screen “baddie”, using the British parlance, who charms, challenges, and infuriates his way through 131 screen-minutes of urban malaise and nighttime despair. As played by David Thewlis, in possibly the greatest screen performance of the late 20th century, Johnny is magnetic, tortured, and despairing; standing before the audience as Naked as the film’s title implies.
Opening on a direct cut of master cinematographer Dick Pope’s jittery handheld camera, stalking around a midnight corner to reveal a violent sexual encounter between Johnny and an unidentified married woman, Manchester native Johnny immediately flees this never-explained situation in a stolen car to visit an old girlfriend, Louise (Leslie Sharp), in South London. Alternately rude and tender, according to the whim of the moment, Johnny’s verbal flights of fancy through his 36-hour, sundown-to-sunup odyssey through the Great City reveals a brilliant turn of mind that seems out of place in his squalid surroundings. Revealing a further penchant for violent sexuality in his encounters with Louise’s troubled flatmate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), and later with an alcoholic middle-aged woman (Elizabeth Berrington), he also shows flashes of a more caring side when he spurns the latter character’s desperately masochistic seduction and offers (momentary) kindness towards a suicidally-depressed young waitress (Gina McKee) who gives him (temporary) refuge from his rudderless wanderings. A mass of contradictions, a genius with a Mancunian accent, a not-quite rapist who punishes women verbally and physically – and then turns around to sincerely help a violent young Scotsman (Ewen Bremner) find his “Maggie!” (Susan Vidler) – “our hero” is also a modern prophet of doom who, as revealed through a hypnotic, apocalyptic diatribe to lonely “post-modern gas chamber” security guard Brian (Peter Wight), has a curiously optimistic view of the ultimate fate of mankind, if a somewhat more pessimistic view of our place in the grander, universal scheme of things.
Coming full circle at the end of his travails through the seedy underbelly of the city – back where he started at the flat of his ex-girlfriend – Johnny encounters a demonic figure in one Sebastian Hawks (AKA Jeremy G. Smart, played by Greg Cruttwell) who has been in the background for most of the film brokering shady business deals, abusing women, and generally upstaging Johnny as far as screen villainy is concerned. The character may be a bit one-note when compared to the complexity of Johnny – your typical ruthless Yuppie scum – but their fateful meeting (where it turns out Sebastian is Louise and Sophie’s “landlord from hell”, and has been viciously “amusing himself” at the expense of poor Sophie) speaks volumes about the abuses of privilege in society and the powerlessness of individuals in a lower social strata. Sebastian and Johnny are opposite sides of the same coin, but Johnny’s abusive tendencies are rather benign when compared to the much greater social evil that a figure like Sebastian represents.
As played by David Thewlis, in possibly the greatest screen performance of the late 20th century, Johnny is magnetic, tortured, and despairing; standing before the audience as Naked as the film’s title implies.
As noted by contemporary film critic Derek Malcolm, “[Johnny’s] redeeming feature is that he cares” and, moreover, the redeeming feature of Naked as a work of cinematic art – past the brutality of the character, past his questionable motives – is that he has similarly been presented with the greatest of care. Eschewing conventional plotting, characterization, and reassuring themes through his unique working methods, Mike Leigh by this point in his career had addressed bleak subject matter and the less-than-savory characteristics of his English working class milieu, but never with the brute force and savage energy as presented in our Johnny. In previous films like High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1990), and subsequently in Secrets & Lies (1996) and extending through Another Year (2010), Leigh’s focus on family dynamics spreads the impact of his drama across a broader spectrum of interactions and redeems his characters through their relationships with each other. Johnny, on the other hand, is a character who seems incapable of forming such relationships – and, indeed, seems in all his interactions to exist in a vacuum of unrelenting mockery and despair – yet there is never a moment in the film where his attitudes and opinions, dark though they may be, seem less than truthful or appear unjustly put-upon. In other words, Johnny comes by his convictions honestly and his views are realistic within the world that he, quite literally by the end, stumbles limping through.
As such, and this is the “leap of faith” a viewer must make in viewing Naked, whether Johnny is a reflection or product of his times is immaterial; rather, standing once more in that dreary corner of the world and regarding the utter hopelessness of the situations of himself and those around him, he holds an audience’s attention with his lacerating wit and his absurdly Sisyphean-like struggles against a society in which he has no rightful place. A never less than compelling figure, the anti-heroic Johnny counter-intuitively invites sympathy and identification precisely because he stands against and articulates that most monstrous of injustices: the wasting of precious life. “Don’t waste your life,” the solitary security guard Brian, obsessed with space and time, mutters under his breath before they part. The terrible truth that Johnny may realize is that he, his ex-girlfriend, her pathetic flatmate, the erratic Scotsman and his runaway girlfriend, the man with “the most tedious job in England”, the dancing woman in the window across the way, the young woman with her ankle-length skirt crying “underneath [her] tear-sodden ****in’ duvet” – all the poor, disenfranchised people that he himself counts himself among – no longer have lives to waste.
The problem of Johnny is the problem of all such fictional characters: do we believe them, do they seem “real”? As alluded to above, the making of a Mike Leigh movie calls for a closer collaboration between director and actor than a more conventional screen treatment usually allows: shaping the character, situations, and dialogue out of endless rehearsals and improvisations between his actors – under the director’s always watchful eye – what ends up on screen gains authenticity to the point of the acting not seeming like acting anymore. As created by Mike Leigh and enacted by David Thewlis, what we have in the figure of Johnny, then, is an uncompromising anti-hero who at times rounds the bend towards heroism precisely because he appears flickering on the screen with such Naked “reality”.
Going back a ways in film history, whether it’s a grizzled saddlebum riding through the lonely valley, a dapper-dressed gangster gunned down in a shadowy alley, or an “untarnished, unafraid” film noirdetective sauntering “down these mean streets”, the screen anti-hero gains immeasurably by foregrounding the problems and injustices he stands against. As such, it’s good on such days to remember the anti-heroic qualities of others who side themselves with the lost, the lonely, the outcast – “the wretched refuse of the world” – and remind ourselves where true heroism often stands: alone, in the shadows, filled with compassion for us all, as we are.
Towards the end of the film, after Louise and Sophie have (just barely) managed to ward off the utterly depraved advances of the terrifying Sebastian, and Johnny has stumbled back into the flat from his midnight ramblings with a “lump the size of a boiled egg on his head”, raving and hallucinating with the power and fervor of an ecstatic vision, an unlikely deus ex machina arrives the next morning in the fluttery person of a third flatmate, Sandra (Claire Skinner), a nurse returning tired and exasperated from a disastrous trip to Zimbabwe. Narratively speaking, y’know, Sandra is there to “clean up the mess”, so to speak, of these, to her, incomprehensible goings-on: the flat is in a state, her flatmates are traumatized, there’s a strange man lying insensible and inchoate in her bed, and her evil landlord is strolling about the flat in his underwear. At this point, she just wants a “bath. Hot toast. Hot milk. Hot water bottle. Bed. Sleep.”, in that order preferably, but with nurse-like efficiency dutifully sorts out her flat, flatmates, landlord, and, somewhat more reluctantly, tends to the scrapes and wounds of this mysterious, talkative stranger:
“Enough. I’ve had enough. It comes at me from all angles… You… all of you… it’s the tin lids… When… how will the world ever…”
“End?”, finishes the mysterious stranger.
“YES!” replies Sandra.
Immediately leaving the room to soak in her hot bath, undoubtedly glad to rid herself of this troubling and vexing presence, perhaps she will have a moment of reflection there among her bath bubbles about this moment of connection – accord, if you will – with the most unlikely of persons imaginable.
Or perhaps not.
Still, the question remains, don’t it?