The Sweet East/The Old Oak

The Sweet East/The Old Oak by Nicodemus Nicoludis

Most often, when movies–or any art–attempt to aestheticize the political, they fail to live up to their own terms of engagement. There is a sense that when they fail most intensely is not when they attempt to forge some kind of universal from a particular, but when they become obsessed with their own periodization; they become too self-aware of their own content.  Hyper self-awareness is a hallmark of fiction today, and political art, in general, attempts to make sense of a senseless world. Of course, systems and police attempt to present the world as sensible. Marx called it the superstructure; Louis Althusser called it the “ideological state apparatus”; Jacques Rancière called this the “distribution of the sensible.” Everyone understands it as the way things appear versus the way they are, and two 2023 movies, Ken Loach’s The Old Oak and Sean Price Williams’s The Sweet East, attempt, in different ways, to illustrate the senselessness of the “sensible” world. Each highlight the shortfalls of either attempting too literally or too cynically to illustrate this fracture.


There is a trap one might fall into when one tries to make a piece of political art. Brecht failed when his vision became too obsessed with market forces in plays like Saint Joan of the Stockyards. The financial explanations were baroque and disjointed. Similarly, The Sweet East gets lost in its own understanding of what it’s attempting to illustrate. The movie has a deep cynicism, not one that tries to highlight its own cynical perspective. It’s a movie obsessed with its incoherence, gleeful with its lack of perspective or political grounding. Yes, everything is stupid, but that’s not a political outlook; instead, it’s a cowardly retreat from the terrain the film ostensibly wants to wrestle with. The failure comes from the filmmaker’s inability to say anything substantial. But of course, I could be refuted on the basis of taking an unserious film seriously. I may be guilty of the cardinal sin of the Internet era: sincere posting. 


Similarly, Loach, as he is wont to do, gets lost in his own brand of utopian realism. The Old Oak is a film that makes one feel that change is possible, that those left in the dust of neoliberal globalization–northern miners and Syrian refugees–come together through their shared immiseraztion. The film is profoundly affective, and one can’t help but be moved by its message and the final scene. However, the saccharine look itself belies its own attempted realism.  Auden’s and Heaney’s lines about poetry having no effect have been taken out of context and distorted by nihilists and materialists alike. However, Loach’s attempts come across not as a political allegory but as idealistic wish-casting. The film is beautiful but succumbs to its beauty; its grit is washed away, sanitized by easy reversals and reconciliations. 


Both of these films become victims of their own supposed desires: each wants to present a realistic picture of the society they want to critique. The filmmakers are forty years apart, and in some ways, what we see in both is two generations clashing against one another. Loach, with his mid-century socialism; Price Williams with twenty-first-century ironic remove. Each attempt to see through reality into the subterranean of the political Real while at the same time they are painfully aware of the process of getting there, and in the gap between the two we find the politics the films are attempting to fill. 


Nicodemus Nicoludis is a poet, co-founder and managing editor of Archway Editions, and a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center.

He has been awarded the David A. Bickimer Promise of Learnings Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and scholarships to the Slice Literary Writers Conference and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. As well, he was a selected reader at the Poetry Festival at Sarah Lawrence College and has been the Brooklyn Poet of the Day at

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