Thoughts On: Kes
A hapless 15-year-old finds and trains a kestrel.
Loach’s Kes is an absolutely astounding film and one of the best examples of realism in cinema. Realism takes many forms, from The Dark Knight to Jason Bourne to Trainspotting to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to The Idiots to Bicycle Thieves. With Nolan’s The Dark Knight, we see an example of narrative realism; essentially, Nolan taking an absurd and fantastical concept, like a crime fighting bat-person-vigilante, and making it gritty and (somewhat) believable. We see a similar application of realism in the Bourne films. What Liman and Greengrass do to inject realism into their films, however, is not so much about story, but technical camera work and cinematography. We see this, famously, in the action fight scenes. When we move towards films such as Trainspotting and British kitchen-sink-dramas like Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, we see a realistic approach to character – something we’ll return to with Kes. Moving on to films such as Bicycle Thieves, we see Italian Neorealism, a movement that much inspired British new wave films and in turn Kes. The kind of realism represented by the likes of Rome, Open City, Toni and Bicycle Thieves is primarily about setting and communities – not so much individuals, but a collective look at the every day person. On a last note, when we turn to Von Trier’s The Idiots, Korine’s Gummo or even Warhol’s Blow Job, we see an extreme attempt to project realism through fundamentalism and crude cinematics.
So, all in all, there are a plethora of approaches to trying to capture a realist aesthetic or feel. You can then ultimately try to imbue verisimilitude, believability and authenticity through story, design and/or character. With Kes, Loach proves himself to be a master of realist characterisation. This comes down to the manner in which the narrative flows from Billy Casper and eventually transcends him. And, in my opinion, this is the most powerful application of realism in film. Though I wasn’t alive in the late 60s, never trained a bird or even had an older brother, Kes is a film that resonates so deeply with me. From the fact that he’s a boy about to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood to that fact that there are a plethora of asshole teachers he has to put up with, there are many aspects of Billy’s life, as captured by this film, that I can empathise with and almost imagine myself in. In such, every scene with the P.E teacher, Mr. Sugden, seems to be a perfect projection of real life in my view as I feel like I’ve had those lessons, been in those games where the ‘teacher’ is just one of the kids with a dream of being a professional footballer – but with a whistle around his neck who can scream and shout at you. It’s all of these tiny, but personally resonant, details of Kes that I understand thoroughly and love the film for. And this is the power of realist films as niche cinema. Films such as Bicycle Thieves, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Cathy Come Home, Boyz In The Hood and Trainspotting have a vast appeal to many for their undeniable and instantly recognisable authenticity. But, for some, these films will be particularly resonant as they can be seen as films about ourselves – and not in an ambiguous, horoscope-esque manner you often see in bigger blockbusters (this is not a criticism, just a point of distinction). And this often comes down to the way realism is approached through character in films such as Kes.
With almost all of the films mentioned thus far (beyond the British dramas) the realism that is meant to be captured is not so much about perspective, but reality. I personally believe this can be a pretentious and rather pointless endeavour in film. As anyone who’s ever seen a documentary could tell you, there is no such thing as reality on film. Everything is always distorted by the fact that a camera captures action, that scenes are somewhat planned, staged or are manipulated by a director, cinematographer or editor. So, when we come to the realist extremists, like Warhol and Von Trier with films like Sleep and The Idiots, we often get films that are pointless or stories that are destroyed by their projection – all because of an attempt to disregard cinema or be anti-cinematic for the sake of truth (whatever that means). When we look to more moderate and understanding attempts to capture reality, like in documentary, we see a measured practice that is not redundant or pointless because there is considered to be, as famously said by John Grierson, a ‘creative treatment of actuality’. However, in attempting to capture perspective – truth in the eyes of a character, rather than truth in the eyes of a camera, director or location – I find that certain realist films can be so much more poignant than all others. When we look to Kes, it is easy to see why. Not only does Loach have us completely believe in and fall for Billy, but he creates a cinematic space that is not tethered to the 110 minute run time. This is done through the journey we see Billy take that is book-ended by ambiguity. With the opening of this film, we are never given a traditional exposition of a narrative goal – there is no John McClain having to get back together with his wife and then a bunch of terrorists showing up. In such, we never get a sense of what it is that Billy is working towards. Over the course of the film we come to realise that he isn’t working towards anything at all, that he is drifting through his last few weeks in school, yearning for an escape and time to stop. This is something that I think relates to people universally. As Billy watches time drag him towards the start of the rest of his life (a job post-high school) he gathers this great apprehension. Billy doesn’t want to work, doesn’t want to be in an office, a mine, a factory or shop. Billy doesn’t want to be in school either. Without these things, however, he is nothing, he earns no money and he dies.
This element of shame, anxiety, worry and money is probably the most crucial aspect of the greatest realist films. With themes of poverty projected through emotional and physical perceptual lenses, realist films dig into the core of the modern person’s worries: surviving in society. This is what we see in Kes. Billy not having a job, but inevitably about to be cut loose from school, triggers the most primal fears in us as we recognise that this is the modern person’s ultimate task in life (to stay afloat in society). It is then through the juxtaposition of Billy training his falcon and about to possibly face this social ruin that we see what is to be his true emotional test. Training his kestrel, Billy is almost lost of the ‘real world’. As he watches his bird fly, as he develops a bond between himself and nature, the pressure of modern society, of having to grow up, get a job and earn money, falls away and almost becomes an alien concept. I think this delves into an almost ape-like core in us all. We are machines made to just exist as part of a bigger world, to pick fruit from tress, hunt animals and jack off when we have free time. There is a freedom in this natural grind that society has, of course, lost – but still tries to hold onto with more primal outlets like sports (football), outlets like picking on one another, befriending and supporting one another, engaging with nature and so on. These are often the moments in life people cherish most; the simple, the natural and the easy. It’s the constructed elements of our society, like taxes, jobs, bosses and bills that are the most grating. Moreover, it is also the constructed elements of society, like supermarkets, television, the internet, irrigation and plumbing, that we so easily forget about and take for granted. What this all suggests is that there’s a natural will in us that likes the difficult, but inherent, aspects of the world – things like engaging with nature and animals in the form of training a kestrel. This is the societal dichotomy that is the core conflict of Kes. We thus see the constructed elements of society looming over Billy with the more natural, easy and fun elements of life being a bittersweet and momentary reprieve. And it’s these many details that ultimately speak to us on a personal level as well as suggest a realist feeling to Kes.
However, the true power of the film, as said, is the way that the design of the movie, as centralised and projected from Billy, is there to transcend itself. So, whilst the ambiguous opening and themes of the film give a realist undercurrent and commentary on the societal life of a modern-day person, the ending turns the spotlight onto us. Having his small reprieve, the little levity life affords him, taken away, Billy buries his murdered kestrel in the end of the film. The penultimate scene that precedes this, however, is his job interview. What this does is leave us with a tragic and open end that forces us to ask what happens next for Billy? This is where the film becomes transcendent. Its emotional impact is in our own reflection on the anxieties we all hold. So, by the film raising these notions and feelings of societal pressure and having to grow up, only to leave us with an open end we turn to ourselves for resolution, for catharsis, for answers to the question what next? This is the profound power and pain that comes with the closing shot of Kes. We are punched in the gut with our own anxieties and our own personal fears; Billy’s conflicts and worries become ours. So, through empathy and a strong thematic grip on this film, Loach gives true, powerful realism to Kes by projecting an authentic perception of the world that we come to embody. In such, we are made to walk in the skin of Billy Casper.
I believe that this exact same power is held by the last shot of Cathy Come Home and that a very similar power is inherent to the final shot of Bicycle Thieves. However, the profundity of Bicycle Thieves’ conclusion is not as personal as that in Kes. This is because we understand Antonio as an archetype, a figure that literally merges into a crowd. This leaves the power in the last shot to come with a gut-punch that opens our eyes to a wider paradigm of poverty. With Kes, however, we really have to turn in on ourselves to personally feel that punch. And because this is such a rarity, a film that can so dexterously manipulate perception, I find Kes to be a particularly special film. This is why Kes, to me, is the gold standard of cinematic realism and representative of the heights this form of cinema can reach.
I do concede, however, that realist films won’t be universally recognised or received because of how personal they are designed to be. So, what are your thoughts on Kes? What are the most impactful and poignant examples of realism for you?
Arrival – The Communicative Singularity
A Matter Of Life And Death – Lost Fantasy
More from me: