I was introduced to Mike Leigh's films in 1989 when I saw High Hopes at the Tivoli Theater in KC, MO. I was a recent transplant, and although Kansas City may not be the end all cultural Meca, it was worlds away from the amber waves of grains that I had come from. All of the sudden my world of film got much bigger, broadened not only by the two arthouse theaters in town (the Tivoli and the Fine Arts Theater, where I eventually found employment, although I wouldn't call it gainful) but also by a rich mixture of avant guard film and media artists brought in by the Kansas City Art Institute where I was gittin' meself edgemacated. The Tivoli played the High Hopes trailer for what seemed to be months and it is firmly stuck in my head. When it finally opened, I was enamored with it's mixture of comedy, humanism and ethereal sadness. Shortly after, I encountered an article that chronicled Leigh's work in television and a highly praised first feature he made in 1971 entitled Bleak Moments. Although my feverish attempt to find a copy of Bleak Moments was fruitless, it added another more challenging component to my cinephilia that continues to captivate me to this day: a world of film that existed just beyond me; Bleak Moments and many many other films were out there waiting for me to see it.
In a way I have yet to decipher, I have come full circle: 20 years later seeing a film I wanted to see from (nearly) 20 years before. And somewhere in the context of Kansas City, the Tivoli Theater, Mike Leigh, Film Comment, the Fine Arts Theater, and films waiting to be seen, my adult psyche was formed. Seeing Bleak Moments last week at the Walker was nothing short of what I expected, and I'll even say worth the wait. But what struck me like a thump on the head was the still, that flashed by so fast, that I had seen in a magazine in 1989: a close-up of Sylvia, with a stone cold stare, standing in the doorway with a babushka tied over her head. The image is as moving as it it emblematic of the film. What was Sylvia looking at? Was she leaving? Was she waiting? Or was she simply gazing out her door? No doubt I will carry this image for another 20 years or more.
Bleak Moments is not nearly as boisterous as High Hopes and not nearly has dark as Naked, but it falls somewhere in between: painfully funny and heartbreakingly awkward. Bleak Moments is a unique character study where the studying leads to an ambiguous understanding of the characters in the film. Sylvia finds comfort in her sherry as she cares for her mentally disabled sister, Hilda, and tries to navigate the convoluted social byways. Pat is Sylvia's co-worker who struggles with taking care of her aging mother but has found solace with some sort of spiritualist group. Peter is a school teacher that Sylvia is courting, but this poor man is wound up so tight it is an effort for him not to show his teeth. Norman is a sweet but odd tweaker who has rented Sylvia's garage to print an underground newspaper and occasionally comes up to play his guitar. The fact that Sylvia can only find brief and unsatisfying connections with these people seems, on one hand, totally beyond her control, but, on the other hand, self-fulfilling.
Bleak Moments is a quiet film that rests firmly on the idiosyncratic performances which in my mind are amazing. The characters tread this very thin line between Benny-Hill absurd and too-close-to-home real. A failed date between Sylvia and Peter is a delicate but bitter centerpiece of the film, as Leigh's camera lingers on each scene just slightly longer than usually, saturating the viewer with its uneasiness. Peter takes Sylvia to an empty Chinese restaurant, save for one man who is not only gorging but glaring at the couple from the corner of the room. The abuse from the waiter gives us one hint of why the restaurant might be so empty. Things don't go much better when they return to Sylvia's flat as Sylvia loosens up with some sherry only to have Peter meltdown into an indescribable episode of acute social anxiety. Sylvia handles the rejection of the evening with a perfunctory grief that we feel she saw coming. This is the moment we see Sylvia in the doorway.
Despite the fact that Bleak Moments was made 17 years before his second feature film, it is easily recognized alongside Leigh's other films. The tenor of the films may have a different pitch, but the characters and motifs are echoed throughout his films.
The Mike Leigh Retrospective continues at the Walker, with his dark and uncompromising Naked this evening, and his new film Happy-Go-Lucky tomorrow night. Also upcoming is Topsy Turvy, Secrets & Lies, Career Girls, All or Nothing, and Vera Drake. The dialogue on Wednesday is, however, sold out.
And for those who missed Bleak Moments and are interested, it is fortunately now available on DVD.