London Kills Me, a 1991 film written and directed by Hanif Kureshi, could be considered a description of the plight of youth, or at least a particular bunch of youths, in Thatcherís London. The Thatcher influence has seeped even the most illicit businesses, and Kureshi seems to be rather intrigued by it. Which is deserving of contempt, the "self starter" selling an illegal, highly demanded form of escapism, product, or the "self starter" selling a legal, highly demanded escapism.
The story of the film is a simple one: Clint, a young drug dealer seeks to break out of his current situation by landing a job as a waiter in a hip London resteraunt. However, his would-be boss insists that Clint have a suitable pair of shoes, rather than the filthy combat boots he wore at the interview.
Clint then embarks on a quest for The Shoes - "The shoe is due, man!" - with his drug dealing associates, Muffdiver, the boss of the "posse", Slyvie, the love interest (for what itís worth) and others. Clint tries to sell drugs to raise the money, only to be mugged of the nightís take. He then steals Muffdiverís bankroll in their shared squat, and hides it on the roof of the apartment, only to be unable to retrieve it when the squatís rightful tenant returns unexpectedly. Finally, Clint steals a pair from the house of a female acquaintance who is throwing him out for refusing to comply with her terms for a "gift" of thirty pounds. It later becomes apparent that the shoes belong to the manager of the resteraunt. Apparently the manager is willing to accept that as a sign of initiative and instead of being fired before the job has even begun, we later see Clint schmoozing to the resterauntís patrons as he waits on them, a success at last.
The film is certainly a comment on the situation of urban youths and the Thatcher engendered economy of Britain. All of the characters, save Clint, perceive dealing in drugs as the easiest, best paid way to make a living, and that squatting in other peoplesí homes is a perfectly normal way to find a place to live. All of Clintís friends find it incredulous that he wants a straight job, save Sylvie, and the support she gives is marginal, hers is a quiet cheer from the sidelines.
Oddly, only one other character agrees with Clintís assesment that his current method of survival is inadequate is the Scottish transvestite, Faulkner. Faulkner and the posse are drinking in a pub when he launches into a brief tirade about the perceived ease of the life of a prostitute. "They think itís a few minutes jaw work and thatís it, tax free millions. Well, itís not.". This same character also commented that even if Clint did land a legitimate job, heíd be involved in "Just another form of prostitution". Faulkner seems to be representative of the disenchanted population who hates their current situation, but prefers the devil they know to the one they donít. This is the breed that Thatcherism tried to eradicate, with marginal success.
But the two key characters, Muffdiver and Clint both embody beliefs and attitudes that would make any young Conservative proud. They are both aspiring to be better than they are at the moment, through their own methods. Of course, Clintís motives behind wanting a "real job" are more than wanting a legal position. Heís obviously fed up with the precarious living afforded by dealing on the street - a beating at the hands of a creditor is what finally convinces him to obtain the job at the diner.
Muffdiver was the most compelling character in this film, more complex and real than a Hollywood-esque streetwise dealer would be. While pretending to be counter-culture, Muffdiver has a not-so-secret desire to be a businessman, albeit of the streets. His attitude is compatable with any legitimate businessman: Heís driven to expand and be bigger and richer than his contempories, and heís willing to work to get there.
Muffdiver announces the formation of "Muffdiver and Clint PLC - Posse Limited Company", not quite noticing that no one in the group is taking him seriously, and holds an "Executive board meeting" in the bedroom of their squat. Continuing to act out his fantasy, Muffdiver arranges a meeting with a big dealer, Mr. G, and tries to behave in a manner that he believes is appropriate: that of two businessman negotiating a merger or buyout, but the scene plays out as a gruesome parody of the boardroom.
Give Muffdiver a tailored suit and Widgets instead of drugs, and he is the very picture of a bright young businessman, if an unlucky one.
Muffdiver scrapes a living by selling drugs and considers himself a very hip cat. He cultivates the air of a cynical, seen-it-all-before, street tough. However, that cultivated image is very thin. Muffdiver sees one glimpse of Sylvie, Clintís sympathetic, sensitive, junkie friend, and the veneer is cracked through. Muffdiver declares his love, that heís "addicted to her" and is confused whenever sheís present. Muffdiver can handle drugs, but not love.
Sylvie has a certain pale, skinny appeal, but is insufficiently developed to add to the film. At one point, in the midst of a silent tug of war where she is the rope between Clint, who feelings appear more fraternal than erotic, and Muffdiver, who seems as stricken by her as any storybook hero, she is seen in the bathroom, drawing a razor across four parallel scars on her arm. It is obviously something she has done before, but not even a hint of her motivation for self mutilation is given. Her presence only seems to be there to represent the disenfranchised youth beaten down by an oppressive economy and indifferent government, expressing its anger the only way it knows how - towards itself.
Sylvie has her moment of independent thinking at the end of the film, when she abandons Muffdiver on the verge of their flight from London. Whether she is leaving him to go to Clint, or to be away from Muffdiver is unclear. Is she leaving him because Muffdiver has failed, or because Clint has succeeded, or what? I can only guess that perhaps she was inspired by Clintís actions to take control of her own life, rather than to keep following someone else. Perhaps Kureishi is suggesting that there is hope for her and her kind, that the frustration and hatred can be dealt with in a healthy, constructive manner.
While Muffdiver is a more complex character, Clint is certainly more sympathetic. After all, itís very difficult to sympathize with a hip, future planning (or at least, anticipating) drug dealer like Muffdiver, but easier to feel something for one who is rather inept at his trade - Muffdiver berated Clint for taking half the stock himself and then giving the rest away. Also, while Clint may be simpler, he is more emotional. Clint gets angry, worried, scared, unlike the more-apathetic-than-thou attitude cultivated by most of his friends, and, despite setbacks, determined to get those damn shoes. The presence of this emotion makes him more realistic than Muffdiver and the gang and the most realistic character in the film.
Clint is a member of the same culture and class and Muffdiver et al, but he is determined to make it out, one way or another. The fact that even an admittedly sad sack such as Clint can make it out is meant to be inspirational to all sad sacks who have been beaten down in a society where itís more lucrative and socially acceptable amongst one peers to be a drug dealer rather than a waiter.
Who is the better of the two, Muffdiver or Clint? It would depend on by which standards you judge them by. To the capitalist driven Conservatives, Muffdiver would win by a narrow margin. Certainly, he buys and sells illegal substances, but he appeals to a wide market, including at one point, a business suited man who looked like he had voted Tory all his life. Muffdiver tries to expand his business, cut his overhead, and avoid inefficiency, everything the businessman should do.
However, from a more humanistic point of view, and you must understand that I have always considered the majority of the Conservative Party and their ilk subhuman, Clint is a far better man. He is rather pitiable, but he turns away from selling drugs and swindling tourists. He makes the difficult and unpopular decision to change his life. Clint has seen the truth of what kind of life it is, and has turned away.
Only one other character seems to agree with Clintís urge to get away, a Scottish transvestite, Faulkner. He too, in a moment of semi-serious ranting, bitches about what difficult and overrated work it is to be a prostitute and wants out, but itís only a momentary anger. Faulkner was also the only character to observe that if Clint was to get a job as a waiter, he would be exchanging selling one kind of lie for another, and itís all essentially prostitution, of a certain kind.
Shoes are a status symbol, Reebok brought that sharply home in the early eighties selling sneakers for more than Iíd willingly pay for an entire outfit. Members of a sub culture are just as vulnerable to trends as anyone. When these two facts colllide and combine, as they did with Clint, a man finds himself compelled by great neccesity. If Clint succeeds in obtaining his shoes, not in themselves a status symbol, as a particularly snazzy pair are not required, then Clint will acquire the much more potent status of having a legitimate job at a trendy place. Margaret Thatcher would be proud of Clintís success, of leaving an illegitimate career for a legitimate one.
When itís all over, Kureishiís dominant message is not that drug dealing could be treated as a legitimate enterprise. Rather, he is pointing out that what Muffdiver and his posse seek to imitate, however shallowly, the "legitimate" world is really no different and no better than selling drugs. A person could live like Muffdiver or Clint, but in the end weíre all selling lies to each other, itís all fundamentally the same, and no one cares.