Part 1: Rise of the Machines
Director Ken Loachʼs movie I, Daniel Blake (2016) may not be a perfect movie but it makes the politically important point that we should, and have to take into consideration: the generation gap in technology.
Even more important is the wider question the movie states: shouldnʼt we take extra care that the new technology achievements donʼt just enable people to stay lazy on their keyboards and blame the machines for not making the world a better place? Doesnʼt just this technology have enormous possibilities in assisting people, saving lives, in food growing and medicine, diagnoses, climate change, war- and massive migration prevention etc. Some of this can be aided by applying the attention to develop artificial intelligence to its greater potential, and ensure that the results reach the recipients.
Daniel Blake as shown by Ken Loach, is a confident independent carpenter burdened by a weak heart, and ordered by his doctor to take a rest from his work. We learn that Daniel Blake had a steady income. He is established in his comfortable home and he has overcome hardships like his wifeʼs passing away. Though he has no relatives, he is able to make easy contact and have friends. That is why it is such a huge blow for him when he comes into a digital age which strips him of his long earned self confidence when the system overcomes him and he has nowhere to turn to. He is losing the battle against the time.
The viewer is given the core of the problem already before the movie starts: in dark we hear the voices and only then we start to see where we are, who are these talking voices.
Man who, in his own words, can build a house but is helpless with a computer, takes bravely on to learn the new skills. However the forms lack the question he specifically needs for receiving the benefits. The system sends him to a circuit for finding work which he wants but is not able to receive because of his heart condition. Finally the time runs out.
This raises many thoughts for the viewer. It points out that we have forfeited our duty to include everyone in society. Also the weak ones in the new technology. It means that the technology wizards should form groups for discussion not only of white males in their thirties but of experts from all ages and levels.
I, Daniel Blake is a heavy, emotional movie. It strains to make its message clear by pointing out each painful step Daniel Blake has to go through. Loachʼs style in directing is not subtle, quite the opposite. It leaves no emotional escape for the viewer. In the end we are furious and disconsolate and the effect is the more so because the end credits are short and to the point. The dark of the beginning meets the dark of the ending.
I see Loachʼs point in pounding the viewer mercilessly with the bleak sight into the state of the things in social service in the modern Western world. It gives one the feeling of Charles Dickensʼ 19th century city gutters and cold hearts in novels like The Bleak House or Oliver Twist. Somehow still today the society has gone wrong, the movie says. People shouldnʼt be dying because of poverty.
Stéphane Brizéʼs film direction in The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché, 2015) gives quite a different style in its touching and sensitive way we are led to view one manʼs road through unemployment, his decisions in the face of the cold unknown. Though Daniel Blake faces his torments in the British town of Newcastle and Thierry is watching the supermarketʼs screens somewhere in France, the dilemmas in the two movies are very much the same: the conflict-creating meeting between humans and machines. Brizé leads us along beside Thierry and finally out of the movie to our homes taking with us the burden of hard solutions, by leaving the ending open.
I, Daniel Blake brought back to me Akira Kurosawaʼs film Ikiru (To Live, 1952) where the civil servants sit amidst high paper file stacks years in and out. They are content with moving the files from one pile to another. Their main point is to earn the salary and spend good time after work. Let’s assume the clerks had computers to work with, presumably the only effect would have been to make the clerksʼ work time shorter.
In Ikiru Kanji Watanabe realizes that none of the civil servants are really living, leading meaningful lives, and the realization is so devastating that it takes all of two and a quarter hours film for the viewer and Watanabe to grasp. Kurosawa shows us what living is: to see others. It is comfortable to forget the reason why we are working in the office: for each other, the people. Instead there is an atmosphere of fear and so the paper forms are endlessly transferred from one office to another.
Feelings become heavier and heavier as the movie advances. Even towards the end, in the astonishing scene at the funeral feast, the characters find themselves spouting excuses and going on in their old ways.
Irrespective of surrounding opinions and rules Watanabe finds his individual solution to lead a meaningful life, even so short.
In Kurosawaʼs direction Ikiru results as a masterpiece of storytelling, making black and white film to feel like color, ever so bright in the midst of heaviness.
Today it seems we are still in the year 1952 moving files from stack to stack. Have you noticed, while filling forms that they donʼt give questions just for you? Each person has different life circumstances. They are unique entities and the forms cannot embrace their lives.
People sit in the morning bus to their work or study, gliding their fingers on the cellular phones. Spike Jonze showed us in his movie Her (2014) the protagonist Theodore walking on the street infatuated, talking on his operating system “Samantha” who is supposed to be his loved one, while we see all the other people around similarly talking to the same operating system and ignoring one another.
Part 2: Poor folk
What to do with all those aging men or women who are alone in the world? When they come to confront life and death-questions? In Ikiru Kanji Watanabe had his son and daughter-in-law who alas were not capable to give him support. Umberto D, the protagonist in Vittorio De Sicaʼs 1952 film, was a respectable government official before his retirement in after-the-war Italy, but since reduced into poverty, not able to pay his rent or even food. He has nobody but his dog to love and to be loved in return.
Vittorio De Sica tells his story in playful tones, letting the viewer into the trials, highs and lows in the life of Umberto D and does it in beautiful black and white cinematography. It is breathtaking to follow Umberto Dʼs comings and goings on. The happenings are interesting and sympathetic. You leave the movie with feeling of enjoyment. You cannot but admire the wonderful dog, Flike, who is really the main actor in Umberto D. The carefree maid Maria, the only friendly person that Umberto D meets. The landladyʼs stately legs, camera caresses them as we do with our eyes, as would Robert Crumb do.
The viewer follows with wondrous interest the character of a young woman in all those three movies: Ikiru, Umberto D and I, Daniel Blake. A free soul as she would be, who gives contrast to the older man by befriending him and instead of giving advice shows what it is to live without a care in the world. Of course the cares come in time as we see in the character of Katie Morgan, the young mother and friend of Daniel Blake, and as we anticipate for the future of Toyo Odagiri of Ikiru and Maria of Umberto D.
These movies seem to say that life doesnʼt come with instructions nor are we machines.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari was in the same situation as Daniel Blake, afraid to fall to streets to beg, into the situation he could not fathom to ever be his lot in life. Poverty is something real and near, it can happen to anybody, as can disease or war or any calamity. That is why we have gathered to form the society, to protect each of us from the threats of the world.
The poverty and suffering in general are not popular themes. Those who keep expressing the importance of these subjects and do it with necessary conviction and skill, are to be admired. Ken Loach for one. Though I have since childhood been a great fan of the world literature and its constant theme of fortune, my eyes only were opened to the facts how poverty is real by the determined Swedish lecturer and writer Susanna Alakoski who in her rare diary Oktober i Fattigsverige (October in Poor Sweden, 2012) explained what are the causes of poverty and how to deal with the results.
Hunger paralyses. One loses the ability for inventiveness. Shame sets in. Just watch at Katie Morgan and Daniel Blake when they lose their grip of life.
Ken Loachʼs form of neorealism from Newcastle in 2016 parallels the fairytale The Little Match Girl (1845) by Hans Christian Andersen. The Little Match Girl was forced to use up her only assets, match by match until the bitter end. Both Daniel Blake and the Little Match Girl are tragic characters, but in no way do they fall into the group of victimizing themselves. They did what they could in the circumstances. By burning the very merchandise The Little Match Girl was supposed to earn with, and Daniel Blake by spraying his desperate demand illegally as a graffiti on the wall, both gave voice to their impossible plight in their pitch black inhuman world. Their lone revolt comes from the person who is everybody and unique. I am Daniel Blake.
There is subtlety in a person like Daniel Blake who has felt on his fingertips the smooth curves of carved wood and knows thoroughly the sounds of the hammer hitting on a nail, and the saw sinking in wood, producing sawdust. His mind is apt even to the power-operated saws and drills which produce concrete results his hands can then form into usable objects.
Consider a person whose hand is touching paper, who knows the sound and pressure of pencil or brush on it. That kind of understanding reflects to other situations, relations between humans. This lacks from the virtual world of network. The marvelous star moment when personsʼ eyes meet in understanding in a flash of some incredibly complex event. Be it a kind act to a person or to experience the sights, sounds, smells, touches, colors in your surrounding.
Maybe those who are at home in the virtual world of internet can say the same about their world of technology. But it is a world of its own and one has to feel it at oneʼs fingertips. It is not for the Daniel Blakes of this world. Maybe there are some who can dwell comfortably in both worlds, but for those who were born before computers or even televisions, being not able to fathom virtual system, it often brings brings fear and shame. Do I feel tight around my head when going to the internet? Yes I do.
Once I was admiring in my sonʼs home his beautiful box of sugar decorated with self-made collage. He asked me, surprised: “Don’t you make handiwork?” He thinks it is always important to have at oneʼs disposal scissors, pencils, carton, paper and glue. This wise advice I took and use regularly.
Machines can benefit humans. Letʼs not be blinded to believe that they are human or that we are omniscient while handling the technology. Letʼs not forget humanity, letʼs be kind and merciful in our actions. Thatʼs what Ken Loach seems to preach in his work. Movie can be overloaded and push the limits of patience for the viewer, but in all its clumsiness and preaching it gives a fresh view to the modern day poverty.
The comic book artist Matti Hagelberg has given new life to to the novel The Poor Folk (1886) by 19th century writer and equality activist Minna Canth, in his album Silvia Regina (2010). Hagelbergʼs very original technique and style of comics drawing on eraser cardboard balances the disconsolate subject with a humorous streak and as such it drives the point straight into the heart of the matter. Nowhere have I seen so poignant description of poverty. It rings straight through the centuries and touches our hearts.
There in front of our very eyes we see the machines versus humans.
Part 3: Shame
I, Daniel Blake in Ken Loachʼs direction and Paul Lavertyʼs screenplay, flows in front of our eyes in realistic style, almost like a documentary. The chosen location, Newcastle with its industrial background, grey-brown colors and everyman population is all designed to set the mood for modern harsh conditions.
Would the point have been made better as a documentary, seen from all sides, the social services included? Another Cannes Film Festival Palme dʼOr winner, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) by Michael Moore is a documentary, acclaimed by Ken Loach. He said it made a good effect, created discussion and as such defends its place.
Michael Mooreʼs methods in making documentaries is questionable. It has been pointed out for instance in some critics about Bowling For Columbine (2002) that Moore uses clearly manipulative picture- and speech-cuts without the knowledge of the interviewed Charlton Heston. Whatever we may think about NRA, it doesnʼt show fair play and moral decency, to use this kind of methods to twist the subject to your own side. Moore makes memorable moments with this kind of manipulation, but they tend to over sentimentalize the audience and catch us in his net. Is this what happened also in Fahrenheit 9/11 where President Bush famously was shamed in front of the camera? With Mooreʼs reputation we donʼt really know how this effect was created. It is one of those moments that stay in peoplesʼ minds and as such earned Michael Moore Palme dʼOr in Cannes 2004.
While watching any movie, a documentary or fiction, the audience has to stay on edge, think carefully what one is actually seeing.
A fair documentary film is great at its best. For instance Laura Poitrasʼs Citizenfour (2014) hits the mark. It’s revolutionary way of letting the audience be in the middle of the happenings is more than exciting, one of a kind experience. Breathtaking view on general subject with personal core. One cannot but wonder why this documentary was not the prizewinner in Cannes? Considering that Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary, was an earlier prizewinner. Laura Poitras manages to rise above her difficult subject matter in Citizenfour and stay objective. She lets the ideas explain themselves.
Shame is the most powerful feeling of all the feelings. Be it individual, taken alone on oneself or set by a nation on a group of minority, it centers on being different, allow to be downgraded for whatever the reason may be. It is the most disgusting of human deeds, unforgivable and immoral to inflict on anyone. Who is the best? Who has the power? Who loves you? Maybe you can forget it for a moment, but it is always there behind the corner, waiting for you, anybody, anytime.
In I, Daniel Blake Katie Morgan is caught stealing and although it is not food that she steals, it is because of the lack of food. The shopʼs security official catches her and offers a solution to earn money, not a job in the shop but as a prostitute in brothel. Why not a job in the shop, even temporary? Or the shop could give her outdated food daily from the back door, as the helpful shop assistant did in Hirokazu Kore-edaʼs movie Nobody Knows (2004) to help the family of children in dire straits.
The brothel keepers, its customers and prostitutes form a circle of a secretive bond which they know is shameful in the eyes of the society. They all feel shame for different reasons. There is only one way to act moral, it is inbuilt in the human mind.
I, Daniel Blake deals very much on the subject of shame. People from another side of the virtual world: the physical world are crushed in collusion with pixels and the data in the air which is not touchable although the appliances are there to be touched. But what is an app? I receive offers to get an app and when I ask what is it, no one explains. They give up. It is such a basic thing I should know, but from where.
The virtual revolution just happened, like the industrial revolution in the 19th century, and turned everything we knew upside down once again. Those who were left between the wheels, or pixels, of time are the victims in ever faster moving society, to get along or drop dead like Daniel Blake.
My bank informed me of the changing method to deal with my bank account. I had originally understood and learned the self service through computer and was pretty proud of myself and thought that’s it. Let the bank cut their services down, Iʼll manage by self service. Now through the net the bank sent instructions to get an app which is supposed to make everything even easier. Yes, but what is an app?
The bank building has officials to give instructions to get for my cellphone an app which connects me with the bank. I am too ashamed to say I need repeated sessions to learn this. What more, this is so frustrating life important subject that I might just burst in tears or start shaking and be ashamed.
Luckily I have my son to help me. He was born into the virtual world. I watch him searching for my cellphone code and glide on or in (in the air?) the net getting the data right. None of this I understand, it is going too fast and none of it I can feel in my hands or smell with my nose. How does the app feel: like butter, wood, water? How does it smell: like turpentine?
After such experiences David Fincherʼs The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) feels refreshingly powerful when the protagonist Lisbeth Salander hackers for herself the entire bank account from a sleazy criminal and does it by quickly tapping on her computer.
Recently I read that President Bush in his retirement has started to paint art in oil colors. Subjects are his former military officials. Surprisingly I see that the paintings are good. This Bush is a different man I saw in Fahrenheit 9/11. This man can see a person and has compassion in his heart. I can see it in his paintings although there is something childish in his style. That doesnʼt diminish the pictures, rather adds soul. My drawings have also a childish streak. There is no shame in that.