The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Not every Billy is an Elliot

with 11 comments

Do you remember Billy Elliot and his restless legs? He didn’t dance with them; it was the legs who danced with him, bringing him all the way from rag to riches.

With fighting spirit and a little bit of support from his family he raised from poverty to glory, with the spirit of the American dream: “You can if do anything you want if you just set your mind on it.”

Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong about that. I like a good old success story as much as anyone else. There’s so much to love in Billy Elliot: the music, the dancing, the humor, the drama and the spirit. It’s this kind of stories that keep us going, keep our dreams alive and I’ll always keep it way up on my top 100 list.

But even I have to admit that Billy Elliot is a fairy tale among others. For most people who are born into that kind of environment it’s far from the truth.

Billy the second
Of course there have been Billies who have overcome the difficulties by luck and effort, who have made it all the way to the opera stage. But for each one of them there were hundreds of others who also liked to dance, but didn’t make it. Maybe they never even knew they had the talent. Maybe they didn’t get that ticket to travel to the audition or maybe they dropped it on their way. Maybe they just ended up on the wrong side of the sliding doors, by circumstances or poor choices, not necessarily their own. Those were the Billies who eventually had to bury their dreams in oblivion, taking comfort in football and beer.

We don’t talk as much about the second type of Billies and we rarely see them on the movie screens. Perhaps we don’t need to be reminded of the harsh realities of life; we have enough as it is coping with our own lives and broken dreams. Perhaps it doesn’t make as good and engaging stories. Watching Billy Elliot conquer the world makes me believe that I too could accomplish great deeds. Watching Billy-who-couldn’t-break-loose-from-his-origins makes me sad and gives me a vague feeling of guilt. Why is it that some people are born to walk in broken shoes, as the Swedish/Dutch songwriter Cornelis Vreeswijk puts it? “God Father who lives in heaven maybe wants it that way?”

The taste of salt
However – balance is the key to remain a happy, content movie viewer. Once in a while I don’t want to hear another story about someone who succeeds. I’m sick of the sugar and I need to taste some salt. I want to hear about Billy 2, and that’s what I got as I recently watched Kes.

Like Billy Elliot, Kes is the story about a boy named Billy who grows up in poor circumstances in the mining district in Northern England. He struggles to get his life together. The extra work he needs to do to help to provide for his family makes him tired at school and he finds himself bullied by almost everyone he meets, including his own brother and most of his teachers.

The only bright component in Billy’s life is his own undertaking of taming a kestrel falcon (named Kes, hence the name of the movie). With a lot of patience and some advice from a book (assumingly the only book the boy’s ever had or read) he dives into the project and needless to say the bird becomes a symbol of Billy’s own destiny – the dream of a possible escape.

WARNING FOR MILD SPOILERS

The film ends fairly abruptly and without giving it away I’d say it’s open for interpretations. Will Billy be able to pursuit the office job he’s more interested in, which will require him to study more? Or will he end up in the mine like everyone else? It’s all up in the air but I can’t help hoping for the best. I just refuse to embrace the idea that someone is so bound by heritage and destiny that he can’t make himself free. Perhaps I’ve just watched too many Billy Elliots over the years. We want our heroes to succeed. Period.

Recommended viewing
Kes is considered one of the classics in British movie making, but I’ve never cared much about the cinematic canon, so this fact alone wouldn’t make me demand a watching.

However I think it stands well enough on its own to deserve a recommendation. Watch it for the humor (it’s actually surprisingly funny at times), watch it for its natural, almost documentary style, watch it for its humane perspective. It’s apparent that even the bullying teacher deep down is a sad person, as much a victim of broken dreams as anyone else.

I believe the mining areas aren’t quite the same anymore (most mines were shut down during the Thatcher era if I remember it correctly) and I hope that the school system in UK has reformed a bit. And yet I think that Kes is not just a historical documentation of working class life 40 years ago in UK.

It’s still valid. There are still boys like Billy who feel trapped. Class differences prevail. And very few of us are likely to rise from the ashes and become Billy Elliots.

Kes (Ken Loach, UK, 1969) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

February 7, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Kes

11 Responses

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  1. I’m so glad you watched Kes, and considering I recommended it to you I’m glad you enjoyed it as well. Kes was a movie that utterly broke my heart. It was the scenes with the teacher that did it. It like two misunderstood people who also misunderstood each other coming together, finding the light in life and each other. The movie also snuck up on me. It was engaging and funny and sad, but when that scene in the classroom happened I began to cry. The emotions of the film had gotten so deep. I was really affected.

    Corey Atad

    February 7, 2012 at 1:43 am

    • Strangely enough I didn’t burst into tears, even if I’ve heard others doing so. But crying can be such a strange thing. Sometimes it can come completely unexpected. Things you never thought would touch you will mess you up completely while you won’t cry over other scenes that you find deeply disturbing and saddening. It’s not necessarily a good measure of how deeply you’re moved by a movie.

      Jessica

      February 7, 2012 at 12:38 pm

      • I know that simply crying isn’t a good measure, but in this case I think it is. I wasn’t crying because something devastating happened. I was crying because my attachment to the character was so strong that when he came out of his shell and was appreciated by other people for the first time it really got to me. It’s a simple idea, but I think it’s one of the major themes of the film. It’s really beautiful.

        Corey Atad

        February 7, 2012 at 7:51 pm

  2. It’s long been my contention that coming-of-age movies come in two varieties. The first variety is the girl’s coming of age story, which generally involves sex with an inappropriate partner. The boy’s version is that something dies. Essentially, coming of age for a girl means coming to terms with sex and all that it entails. Coming of age for boys entails coping with the ideas of mortality.

    Despite this, I liked Kes. I liked Billy Elliot more.

    SJHoneywell

    February 7, 2012 at 2:29 am

    • You know, I never thought of this, but you’re completely right. And yet I completely love both Kes and Fish Tank. Weird.

      I think that in the case of male coming of age, the reason that sex isn’t an issue is that often male sexuality is looked at in simple binary terms unless sexual orientation is part of the plot. Female sexuality is often seen as more complex and so sexuality becomes key to coming of age.

      It would be really nice to see films subvert these ideas though. I guess Harold and Maude kind of counts.

      Corey Atad

      February 7, 2012 at 4:52 am

    • That’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure I’ll subscribe for it immediately but at least I will keep it in my backhead.
      Given the choice between those too movies, I too prefer Billy Elliot. But I’m still glad I watched Kes.

      Jessica

      February 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm

  3. Maybe I’m just cranky because I never liked Kes, but I would almost say it’s the other way around. It’s the success-feel-good-stories where everything ends up cosy that seems to be the exception. Well, maybe not an exception per se, but I feel like everywhere I look all I see are movies that are filled with crap and then some more crap to top it off. Movies that doesn’t require a genious to realise that absolutely nothing will ever go right or, if it does, you can bet your ass that something will happen that turns even this miniscule ray of sunshine into…you got it, crap.

    Sofia

    February 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    • You watch too many dark, edgy, depressing indie movies Sofia! You need to mix it up. Mission impossible one day, Tyrannosaur the next. Variation is the key to harmony as a movie watcher!

      Jessica

      February 7, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      • Well, I’m sort of in a “damed if you do..”-situation. What I want are movies that manages to surprise me, be them upbeat or total downers. So in that case, I’m as underwhelmed of these everything-is-crap-movies as I am of cosy little feel-good-movies.

        Sofia

        February 7, 2012 at 8:49 pm

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