Three recent film viewings merge and amplify basic truths made visual in each. Three recent viewings of British films make clear an ironic dynamic: The British have long had a class-based society, but understood that and worked to reduce its effects. America has always had one as well, a class-based society for the wealthy, but has great difficulty admitting this, and will be forever trapped inside it if it does not see that trap for what it is.
Made in Dagenham, Gosford Park and Never Let me go make up the trinity in question. All three movies shine a light on the fundamental absurdity of our system. The accident of birth is paramount. Far more than any amount of “hard work” or “merit” or “virtue” or intelligence, it is the prime determinant of our social and economic status at the end of the day. Nothing is more essential in setting us on our present or future course or constructing our limits without our consent. Nothing comes close to shaping our destiny like the parents we can’t choose, or the parents they couldn’t select. We do not ask to be born at all, and we certainly do not get to pick the time, place or circumstances.
In Gosford Park, a murder-mystery set in a huge manor house in the early 1930s, we get an unusual look at both those “in service” and the people they serve. Unlike most films or books, there is a real attempt to make the lives and the doings and the work of “the help” every bit as important as the people who write our histories: generally, the winners of the birth lotteries. We get to go behind the scenes, into their quarters, into their work space to see their personal dramas and the back-breaking work they do. We also get to see how their hard work creates the space and time for the ruling class to concentrate on its leisure as they order “the help” about like dogs. There are secrets, lies and betrayals galore. Appearances are not just deceiving inside the manor. They are often shown up as purely ridiculous. What becomes obvious after a very short time is this: those in service are not some lesser species. They are human beings with the same exact cellular makeup as their bosses, and for some, the same DNA. They do what they do primarily because their parents weren’t born with the resources to set them on a different path. And the ruling class they serve? They were blessed with family circumstances that granted them their unearned privileges.
The director, Robert Altman, extends the lesson with subtle power via the casting of his mostly British actors. Several of the stars playing servants had previously played aristocrats, and one, Helen Mirren, would go on to play the queen of England. This interchangeability opens up a metaphor for the accident of life, the cards we’re dealt, and so on. Looking at the characters, thinking about the actors playing them, noting that they have often played across class lines, shuffles the deck yet again, and Altman’s democratic display of the lives of these characters deepens that observation. It’s not just the idea of actors playing in a drama about class privilege that seems so absurd. It’s the realization that the powers that be have successfully made class divisions appear normal and natural, even though there is no rational explanation for their presence. Art can help us see this, cut through the veil, because it forces us to isolate and abstract and dwell upon the compositions before us. Dwell upon the absurdity. Upon life, as in.
I’ll discuss the next two films in subsequent posts.