The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres
Thursday, 13 June 2024 07:25

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres

Dennis Broe reviews The Way. Above image: Owen brandishing King Arthur’s sword - Mandalorian much?

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” about-to-be-fired news anchor Howard Beale screams in a television rant, urging everyone to go to the window and yell the same thing.

This scene from the film Network, much honored and claimed to be prescient, in fact represents simply mindless, ungrounded fear, vaguely articulated, not drawn from the specific material aspects of people’s lives and thus open to a kind of manipulation that can easily be converted into simple resentment and will become the basis of today’s populism.

Unfortunately, these ungrounded impulses, now 45 years on in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Reagan, Thatcher et al.’s austerity and neoliberalism, are the basis of the BBC series The Way. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis helped conceptualize the three-part series, and there’s evidence of his strengths (eg in tracing advertising industry manipulation in The Century of the Self) but also his glaring weaknesses (eg in the more recent anti-revolutionary, rabidly anti-populist documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head).

The Way blends a loosely constructed family fiction around the Welsh steel and former mining town of Port Talbot with documentary footage of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and a mythical otherworldly aspect that summons King Arthur’s pulling the sword from the stone, the lifting of the series title phrase “The Way” from the Star Wars’ Mandalorian code of conduct, and Scottish folklore of a proselytizing Red Monk who kickstarts a town rebellion.  

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Howard Beale’s populist rant in Network 

Into this soup of inluences is thrown the actual condition of the steelworks, with an Indian owner, in the series Japanese, who is always on the verge of closing the plant. The problem – and this is a Curtis mainstay – is that the characters are utterly deceived by a passive mediatized lifestyle. Owen, the lead character, who “can’t remember the last time I felt anything,” is, as his love interest describes, “a drug addict in recovery dealing drugs” to which her response is “I don’t care, it’s not my business.”

This passivity and foolishness influences their actions, as workers in the town strike the plant before it can close, though no immediate closing is threatened. Owen tosses a lead pipe which ignites the carnage with the police, which of course echoes the bone thrown across the ages in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it signals the utter breakdown of civilization rather than its terrifying advance, as in Kubrick’s film.

Wales is sealed off from “Britain”, and thus episode two begins with the family’s own odyssey as they attempt to march to safety in a now open police state. In the series, much hostility is summoned but it remains vague (“The British don’t revolt, they gripe”) with the actual problems of deindustrialization and a devastated economy expressed in generalized slogans.

These slogans do not directly confront the power structure and the massive redistribution of wealth that began in 1980 with the launching of the neoliberal era, just after Network premiered. In that film, people start throwing their televisions out the window, when they mighthave done better by storming the television station and taking over the means of production of the media.

Writers Guild of America 2023 writers strike rev

The 2023 Writers' Guild strike 

The ungrounded populism expressed in both Network and The Way does accurately convey the very real grievances felt by the population – but behind each lies the firm conviction that workers are too coddled and deceived by omnipresent media to be able to do more than threaten irrational action. But this mindset was just recently disproved by the massive strikes in the entertainment and service industry in Los Angeles, and which continue throughout the U.S.

These campaigns and strikes in the U.S. have specific demands, and represent a growing understanding and awareness by workers, not only of their situation but of how to use today’s media for their own purposes. This understanding is not present in The Way.

If the Port Talbot steel plant, along with another plant closes, Britain will only be fashioning steel from scraps and leftovers, rather than making it. The Way, with its muddled mix of genres and its deceived chaotic individuals is also fashioned from scraps – that is, the leftovers and the detritus of the entertainment industry and the subjectivity of its victims, who in this telling offer only confused resistance.