Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 4, 2020

Ray and Liz

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

“Ray and Liz”, a 2018 British film, is now being made available as a DVD or VOD by KimStim, a small Brooklyn-based company that specializes in independent, foreign, and documentary film. It was written and directed by Richard Billingham, the son of the eponymous Ray and Liz and older brother to Jason, the three principal characters of this harrowing portrait of people living on the dole in the Black Country of England. Black is not a reference to people of African origins but to the towns just west of Birmingham, named, according to Wikipedia, for the soot from the heavy industries that once covered the area, although a 30-foot-thick coal seam close to the surface is another possible origin. Wikipedia adds, “During the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialized parts of the UK with coal mines, coking, iron foundries, glass factories, brickworks and steel mills producing a high level of air pollution.”

Now, Black Country is England’s version of Flint, Michigan or any other rust belt region in the USA. Although Billingham’s film is not meant be a history of the area and only a study of his hyper-dysfunctional family, you can easily surmise that the alcoholism that turned his parents into a child’s worst nightmare grew out of the same kind of despair that led to an opioid epidemic in West Virginia and other coal-mining states. In the same way that chronic unemployment led some people to either vote for Trump or stay at home because of Hillary Clinton’s indifference to their suffering, the film will give you a good idea of why Brexit might have succeeded. It is particularly useful in raising the question whether “socialist” measures such as the dole or council housing are adequate to the needs of people like Ray and Liz. Their self-destructive behavior obviously flows from the feeling of worthlessness after years of being unemployed.

It is impossible to determine whether all the events that take place in “Ray and Liz” are based on reality, but if the one that begins the film did take place, it is a miracle that Richard Billingham could have become the productive artist that he is today. As Job said in the Old Testament, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

The day starts with Ray’s brother Lol coming over to babysit Jason, who appears to be about three years old at the time, while Ray, Liz and Richard go off shopping for new shoes. Like Ray and Liz, Lol is an alcoholic and totally unreliable—even more so than them. Just minutes after they depart, Bill shows up—the young, motorcycle-driving, muscular and malicious tenant who rents a room in their council house. Despite being warned by Liz that he will be “pummeled” if he touches their booze, Lol gives Bill the green light to search for their stash. He brings down a cardboard box filled with bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and brandy that the two men begin sampling. Bill makes sure to keep pouring new shots for Lol that he gladly consumes in a graphic illustration of why mixing your drinks is not a good idea. Getting him dead drunk will allow Bill to follow through with his plans.

Once Lol crashes to the living-room floor like a falling tree, Bill arranges the near-empty bottles around him as planted evidence and robs his wallet. Next, he takes some shoe-polish and dabs it on Jason’s face like warpaint. To make sure that Ray and Liz will reach full fury after coming home, he places a carving knife in the toddler’s hand. Liz, a chain-smoking, tattooed, obese but powerful woman, wakes Lol up from his drunken slupor by beating him over the head with the heel of the new shoe she has just bought and tells him that he should never come back.

Although Billingham covers the same terrain as Ken Loach, it is not as a social critic. Indeed, I could not help but think that the film had something in common with the comic strip “Andy Capp” that was a fixture of British and American tabloids in the 1960s. Andy Capp was a worthless, alcoholic, and chronically unemployed worker who had no respect for himself or for others, especially his wife Flo who often had to drag him home from a pub. Don Markstein, the creator of a web-based encyclopedia about comic strips, wrote:

Early on, the Andy Capp strip was accused of perpetuating stereotypes about Britain’s Northerners, who are seen in other parts of England as chronically unemployed, dividing their time between the living room couch and the neighbourhood pub, with a few hours set aside for fistfights at football games … But Smythe [the author], himself a native of that region, had nothing but affection for his good-for-nothing protagonist, which showed in his work. Since the very beginning, Andy has been immensely popular among the people he supposedly skewers.

Perhaps Markstein cannot grasp that the affection working-class people had for the strip is a function of their own inferiority complex. It is like how some black people enjoyed “Amos and Andy” or how some American Indians are okay with racist names like the Washington Redskins or mascots like the Cleveland Indians’s Chief Wahoo. Although I confess to having never seen a single episode of “Shameless”, the British TV show it is based on seems to follow the same pattern as “Andy Capp”. The main character, Frank Gallagher, is an unemployed alcoholic from Northern England who has few redeeming features. Libcom, an anarchist website, does make the case for “Shameless” as drawing a contrast between “the strength, complexity and resilience of the contemporary ‘underclass’ against the patronising poverty-traps laid by liberal handwringing, middle-class moral managerialism and New Labour police-state discipline and punishment,” but I’d still stick with Ken Loach.

“Ray and Liz” is currently available as a DVD from Walmart or Target for $18.95, $7 cheaper than at Amazon. You can also wait until April, when it will be available as VOD. Although I still have reservations about its politics, it is searing and often very funny study of down and out working-class life in today’s England.

1 Comment »

  1. To be pedantic ‘The Black Country’ is not in northern England. It’s in the English midlands. It is similar to other rust belt areas of the USA and western Europe and although closely tied to the automobile industry it has not has the severity of decline of Detroit.

    Comment by birminghamresist — February 5, 2020 @ 8:53 am

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