A Special Feature

Fellow Criterion Collectors should always check a disc’s special-features section to see if it includes another full-length feature from the director of the main attraction.

That’s right (and if you already know this, my apologies; I’m late to the party): two films for the price of one! Special features are no longer exclusively reserved for commentaries, interviews, and behind-the-scene making-ofs. And often, these second — but by no means secondary — flicks, which tend to be rarer than the headliner, illuminate auteur insights from the career-fringe that inform their entire body of work.

Take the Kes Criterion, for example. Come for Ken Loach’s 1969 big-screen debut (he went by Kenneth back then), stay for Cathy Come Home, a 77-minute TV movie from three years earlier produced for the BBC anthology series The Wednesday Play. Juxtaposing them somewhat reshaped my conception of his signature aesthetic. Though he’s described as a realist (as well as a humanist), Cathy Come Home showcases what Loachian realism really looks like: documentary realism. His later style might boast restrained naturalism, but it’s not Cathy Come Home‘s artificially-manufactured total realism; there’s a difference between artistic evocations of reality and documentary realism.

Cathy Come Home‘s camera isn’t at home in its world, residing as it more comfortably does elsewhere in Loach’s oeuvre. It acts like a cumbersome nuisance, straining to film what needs to be documented. Scenes either start later than normal or are cut short, as if the documentarian couldn’t capture everything they needed to. In between scripted scenes, Loach includes shots of ordinary citizens living their lives. Subjects frequently stare at the camera; they don’t talk to it, but they’re aware of its presence (even if they’re told to ignore the lens, eyes can’t help gravitating towards the light). And the voiceovers sound like interview answers, sometimes uttered by the otherwise-unidentified rather than by established characters with lines of dialogue.

Though this more guerrilla approach — similar to the Dardennes’, other cinematic chroniclers of the working class — should ostensibly bring us closer to the characters’ sides in an attempt to fully immerse us in their reality — while simultaneously hammering home the very real facts of homelessness at the time (it might be a fictional movie, but it’s based on cold hard facts) — the camera still feels like an intrusion, which is never the case in Ken Loach’s latter-day films, including Kes. In them, he’s free to find the perfect spot for his camera to observe the action. Yet such a luxury does not belong in the scraping-by existence of the homeless; it’s at odds with the reality of their situation. If they can’t afford a place of shelter, then they probably can’t afford a camera. It’s easy to find vantage points in higher-class spaces, but the cramped confines of the poor have not been built to house room for anything extra. The rugged aesthetic of his filmmaking here reveals what it became down the road: neater, cleaner, and more visually polished.

So before ejecting your next Criterion disc, make sure you’re not missing an equally-worthy feature offered as a special feature.

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