Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Some Thoughts on Billy Casper: Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009)
A couple of days ago I found a dying sparrowhawk in the field next to the house, although the adjective seems too strong for a bird whose rich egg yolk-yellow eyes were still bright and curious, but a bloodied, fractured wing is death for a bird that lives by hunting, especially the kind of low, swooping, veering style of a sparrowhawk. I first thought I had caught the bird in the middle of a kill, with its talons holding a chaffinch beneath it, but realised that this colour that had deceived me came from the sparrowhawk’s rufous breast seen from an unusual angle as it tumbled, dragged and flipped across the grass, downhill towards the safety of a hedge. It was face down in leaf litter when I picked it up and saw its pierced wing and the upper leg bare of feathers. Perhaps it had been caught on a barb of wire in a swoop. To find it returning my gaze while I stared in admiration at its talons and the sharp hook of its beak was unnerving, not least because it remained inscrutable and utterly unknowable as it watched me, its eyes a mirror for any qualities I tried to ascribe to them. The streaking across its breast was the same colour as last year’s dried oak leaves that rattled in the wind behind me, and which were still attached to the trees, soon to be ousted by the bud growth of spring.

In one of those coincidences that I find myself ever less surprised by, I had just been reading J.A. Baker’s classic 1967 book The Peregrine and because of this I had it in my mind to, finally, watch Kes. Even disregarding the buzzards and kites that I see most days on the hill, it seemed that birds of prey were going to form the theme of my days for a while. So, with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that came after watching Ken Loach’s Kes that same evening.

Appropriately enough, the film begins in bed, a place where in dreams, mundane horizons are of no account, even if here they are soon shattered by an alarm clock and a surly brother. In fact, this is a film shot through with the horizons of limited expectations and the possibility of somehow transcending these with a different perspective. These horizons can be literal too: right at the beginning we see Billy running to get to his paper round after he finds his brother has nicked his bicycle, scampering through the streets and rows of houses and then cutting upwards towards the skyline across a field. The smoked and ruddy bricks of the houses is similar in colour to that of the kestrel’s chestnut mantle and wings.

In class Billy look like the archetypal dreamer, gazing abstractedly out of the windows, but in fact, when he is interested and inspired, he is as directly to the point as a bird flying to the glove for meat. After spying the kestrels’ nest at the top of a derelict wall, he doesn’t take no for an answer from the farmer who tries to clear him off his land. Soon they are engaged in conversation about the birds and where he can find out more. After the library proves unhelpful (‘you‘ll have to have somebody over 21 who‘s on the borough electoral roll to sign the form’), a book on falconry makes it into his jacket in a second-hand bookshop. The bird has already given him access to a different world. He also gets the butcher onside when he knows what he needs to feed the kestrel. Likewise, when he knows it’s worthwhile and he has a sympathetic ear, he candidly tells a teacher just how things are with him at home, with his classmates and with the other teachers.

I think of all the names that Billy is called, is given or even gives himself throughout the film: Billy, Casper, weeny little twat, German Bight, goalie, an ape, raggedy scoundrel, someone who wants to be awkward, a nail, a bad ‘un, and even – in a nice ironic moment when he is shown on his morning paper round carrying his sack with the name of a paper – The Star. None of them captures him fully, and certainly not the core of him that sees him driven to catch and train a kestrel.

I think of Billy too, holding his class rapt with that air of slightly bored attention peculiar to teenagers, after he has been volunteered to tell the class about his hobby. Even if they can’t realise it now, he has inspired them, showing what it means to be fired with enthusiasm and respect, and how that can be the key to transcending circumstance.

Adults in the film are, with a couple of exceptions, sour, vindictive or swinish folk for whom shouting has become a natural mode of communication. Even the Headmaster berates the collection of pupils in his office, delivering a prepared speech on how times have changed and telling them that they have ‘nothing solid or worthwhile underneath’. This is obviously false, and says more about the inadequacies of his approach than the boys themselves, who quite rightly laugh at his tiresome posturing behind his back.

A key scene comes with Colin Welland’s sympathetic teacher sitting with Billy in the kestrel’s shed. Billy talks about the difference between training a kestrel and having a pet, maddened that people he meets can’t tell the difference between the two things, and talk of ‘Billy Caspar and his pet hawk’ as if such a bird could be tamed. Instead, he is awed that a wild bird does him a favour by letting him sit and watch her on her perch. Welland mentions the silence that comes with their respect.

By the end though, this silence has gone, and birdsong fills the air when Billy goes looking through the fields for Kes after he finds an empty perch. The place the film leaves Billy is similar to that of My Way Home, the last part of Bill Douglas’s trilogy, when just before the film leaps into the startling white sand of the Egyptian desert, Jamie is left in a Salvation Army hostel, with no prospects or possibilities in front of him. We are left to imagine his journey to a time when the noise of a jet plane can scour out the physical location of his upbringing. Even if Kes does end up below a hawthorn in a hedge, I can’t help but feel promise for Billy. It’s unsure what he’s going to grow up to be but I just don’t see him joining the banal bar chat of adults who we have seen in the film talking about themselves mostly, bemoaning their lives or bragging about how things will be. His life may not turn out to be as extreme as J.A. Baker’s experience with the peregrine, in which he says, ‘we live, in these days, in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scisssoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways,’ but for a young man to have learned awe, reverence, and a kind of grounded wonder through his own experiences is certainly something that will stay with him and set him apart.

John Cameron’s evocative score – his first – is composed around themes of flight and grounding, but it’s the former you remember, as Harold McNair’s flute soars and relishes the possibilities of its brief, wonderful flights, doing its best to ignore the undertone of melancholy that waits to pull it inevitably earthwards.

As for the sparrowhawk that I found, by the end of the day it had gone from the hedge where it had sheltered – foxed or farm-dogged probably. As I walked back across the field, the late evening cloud lowered over the land like a ragged grey blanket, and it began to spit with rain, welcome after weeks of dry weather.

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