The City in Fiction and Film, week 17: Ballard’s High-Rise, chapters 10-19

70256Week 16

Last week, we spent some time discussing the layers of observation, performance and display going on in Le couple témoin, as the protagonists are monitored by psychosociological experimenters, watch by television audiences and reported on in current affairs shows. This built on the idea of media – and television in particular – being repeatedly connected to alienation in mid-twentieth-century culture. In All That Heaven Allows, the widow Cary is offered television as a replacement for social life and romance. In Fahrenheit 451, we noted was the role of television in alienating Montag not only from his wife (a microcosm of Bradbury’s broader point about the (anti)social role of television) but also from himself when he watches the coverage of the Mechanical Hound pursuing him:

He watched the scene, fascinated, not wanting to move. It seemed so remote and no part of him; it was a play apart and separate, wondrous to watch, not without its strange pleasure. … If he wished, he could linger here, in comfort, and follow the entire hunt on through its swift phases, down alleys across streets, over empty running avenues, crossing lots and playgrounds, with pauses here and there for the necessary commercials … and so on finally to this house with Faber and himself seated, drinking … Then, if he wished, Montag might rise, walk to the window, keep one eye on the TV screen, open the window, lean out, look back, and see himself dramatized described, made over, standing there, limned in the bright small television screen from outside, a drama to be watched objectively, knowing that in other parlours he was large as life, in full colour, dimensionally perfect! And if he kept his eyes peeled quickly he would see himself, an instant before oblivion, being punctured for the benefit of how many civilian parlour-sitters who had been wakened from sleep a few minutes ago by the frantic sirening of their living room walls to come watch the big game, the hunt, the one-man carnival.
Would he have time for a speech? As the Hound seized him, in view of ten or twenty or thirty million people, mightn’t he sum up his entire life in the last week in one single phrase or a word that would stay with them long after the Hound had turned, clenching him in the metal-plier jaws, and trotted off into darkness, while the camera remained stationary, watching the creature dwindle in the distance – a splendid fade-out!

With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river; it was in actuality his own chess-game he was witnessing, move by move. (172-4, 177)

This dissociation continues even when Montag has escaped: the hunt continues; the Hound tracks down someone else in Montag’s place, cameras carefully shooting it all so as to maintain the deception of the rogue fireman’s capture. It is as if a second Montag has detached from the first. He witnesses his fate as if he has been given access to an alternate world in which he did not make the river crossing.

Television and associated media play a role in High-Rise, too.

Like Montag, Laing experiences moments of dissociation. When the jeweller from the 40th floor takes his fatal plunge (suicide? murder? accident?), Laing is among those who crowd onto the balcony of a neighbouring apartment:

Pushed along the railing, Laing saw his own empty balcony fifteen feet away. In an absurd moment of panic, he wondered if he himself was the victim. (41)

In the first half of the novel we learn about Wilder’s plan to make a documentary about the building and the breakdown of society within it – which his wife, Helen, who seems fully aware of Ballard’s own imagery, shrugs off as just another prison documentary, like the one he has been film in his day job. By the mid-point of the novel, everyone it seems is filming their own acts of violence – ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras are shooting away’ (90) – and showing their rushes to each other in the building’s move theatre.

Paul Crosland, the head of Laing’s clan, is also a television news anchor, and he continues to go into the studios to read the news, cataloguing disasters in calm and reassuring tones, never mentioning the similar catastrophe ripping through the building where he lives (96) – a departure from the teleprompter for which Laing continues to hope even as the novel draws to a close (151). When Crosland returns home, it is to stoke confrontations with other clans, emitting a blind and furious anger even though he ‘often … had no idea what he was arguing about’ (97). In those moments, unprotected by his makeup, Crosland’s outrage appears to Laing like that of ‘an announcer tricked for the first time into reading an item of bad news about himself’ (97). Such a dissolution of the distinction between public and private selves, between civilised and brutish behaviour, is linked to and articulated in relation to the electronic media that surround us in the city (just as the inhabitants of Alphaville in some way seem to live inside the Alpha 60 computer, which seems to be so thoroughly extended and distributed through the city as to be coterminous with it).

Even more mediatised is the drunken Eleanor Powell: ‘After a few cocktails she was hyper-animated, and flicked on and off like a confused TV monitor revealing glimpses of extraordinary programmes which Laing could only understand when he was drunk himself’ (96).

Soon, Laing can only watch the television with the sound turned down,

not out of boredom with these documentaries and situation comedies, but because they were meaningless. Even the commercial, with their concern for the realities of everyday life, were transmissions from another planet. Squatting among the plastic garbage-sacks, his furniture piled up behind him, Laing studied these lavish reconstructions of housewives cleaning their immaculate kitchens, deodorants spraying well-groomed armpits. Together they formed the elements of a mysterious domestic universe. (106-7)

When Wilder once more begins his ascent of the building, taking his cine-camera everywhere with him like some kind of protective fetish, he invites those he meets to take part in the television documentary he is making (or deluding himself he is making). On the lower-levels, people are eager to participate, voicing their many complaints, but the higher up he gets the more reluctant his potential interviewees become. Many of them are the kind of middle-class technocrats for whom being on television is nothing new, having previously appeared ‘as professional experts on various current-affairs programmes’ (115). Furthermore, ‘“Television is for watching, Wilder,” one of the women told him firmly, “not for appearing on.”’ (115). It is a curious kind of restraint amid all the chaos of the building, yet some proprieties, it seems, must be maintained. Soon, Wilder’s resolve to make the documentary begins to fade. Perhaps it is because, in some way, he has seen it all before – on television:

The decline of the apartment building reminded him of a slow-motion newsreel of a town in the Andes being carried down the mountain slopes to its death, the inhabitants still hanging out their washing in the disintegrating gardens, cooking in their kitchens as the walls were pulverized around them. (120)

On the top floor, Royal and his entourage dress formally for dinner at a pristine dining table, but even there the ‘theatricality of this contrived setting’ is obvious, ‘like a badly rehearsed and under-financed television commercial for a high-life product’ (132).

It is not just television, though.

The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. What depraved species of electric flora would spring to life form the garbage-strewn carpets of the corridors in response to this new source of light? The floors were littered with the blackened negative strips, flakes falling from this internal sun. … Laing’s feet crackled among the polaroid negatives scattered about the corridor floor, each recording a long-forgotten act of violence. (109, 150)

The flash of the Polaroid cameras is picked up on by the flickering lights, recalling the flicker of the movie projector and of analogue televisions:

the lights began to flicker continuously like a fibrillating heart. … a broken mirror lay on the bed, the pieces flickering like the fragments of another world trying unsuccessfully to reconstitute itself. … [Steele] beckoned Laing forward into the stuttering light. … The lights continued to flicker with the harsh over-reality of an atrocity newsreel. … the lights flickered from the doorways of ransacked apartments, form overturned lamps lying on the floor and television screens brought back to a last intermittent life. … In an empty bedroom a cine-projector screened the last feet of a pornographic film on to the wall facing the bed. (110-11)

Wilder projects footage of himself ‘upon the walls and ceiling’ of the elevator lobby, watching the images ‘as if about to leap on to the backs of his own shadows and ride them like a troupe of beasts up the flues of the building’, while in Talbot’s apartment the ‘lurid caricatures’ of homophobic graffiti sprayed ‘on the walls glimmered in the torch-light like the priapic figures drawn by cave-dwellers’ (108). Some floors above, the ‘even light’ in Royal’s penthouse is ‘as dead as a time exposure in a police photography recording a crime’ (138).

The building is media-saturated. In the darkness, nothing remains hidden. Artificial light exposes it all. (Just as the audiotapes made by Pangbourne (83, 140), the gynecologist who never touches his patients, and by Wilder (129-30), unleash things otherwise hidden.)

The novel self-reflexively – but not unambiguously – attributes the breakdown of society in the building to the post-Freudian subjectivities produced by a culture of affluence, commodities and consumerism. Talbot notes that they are not witnessing a return to some ‘happy primitivism’ or ‘the noble savage’; rather, the residents, ‘outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection’, seem to ‘resent never having had a chance to become perverse’ (109).

There is certainly plentiful evidence of regression to infantile psychosexual behaviour in the novel.

Laing takes his older sister – who reminds him of his mother and used to look after him as a child – as a lover; although she has inherited something of their mother’s ‘shrewish manner’, which he dislikes, he nonetheless finds this echo reassuring (98-9). This breaking of the incest taboo has two purposes.

First, it recalls anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s argument that the cultural ban on incest is intended to promote social stability by favouring exogamy (sex/ marriage outside the group) over endogamy (sex/marriage within the group) and thus expanding the network of mutually dependent interrelationships. Ballard perhaps suggests, then, that with the alienation, isolation and disconnectedness of contemporary urban life, exogamy – engaging with others – might seem to become the greater threat; certainly exogamy is ill-suited to the inward-looking inhabitants of the building.

Second, the incest taboo returns us to the Freudianism that the novel denies but also has in spades. In the Oedipal complex, incestuous desire (the male infant for the mother, the female infant for the father) is the norm, and it must be defeated. The novel repeatedly plays on this. When Royal experiments with touching the passive Helen Wilder ‘she reacted, not by pushing his hand away, but by moving it to her waist and lightly holding it there as she would the straying hands of her children’ (135).

Wilder’s entire trajectory ends up being one of infantile regression. He feels the need to break free from his wife because by doing so ‘he would break away from the whole system of juvenile restraints he had been trying to shake off since his adolescence’ (118). She watches him like a mother ‘as he hunted in her purse for money … amused by her husband’s dependence on the fictions of this elaborate toy [the phallic camera] he takes everywhere with him’ (119). He likes the dark because in it he can ‘deliberately play on all [his] repressed instincts’ (120). He welcomes the building’s ‘forced conscription of the deviant strains of his character’ and the fact that ‘this free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building’ (120). Mrs Hillman, in whose apartment Wilder stays, spends ‘all her time worrying about him, like an over-anxious mother fretting about a wayward child’ (124), but ‘No more ill-suited couple, Wilder decided, could have been cast to play mock-mother and mock-son’ (125). This mock-relationship leaves room for the possibility of a sexual relationship of the kind the incest taboo is intended to prevent: over the course of the evening spends with the Hillmans, Wilder ‘became more and more oafish …, deliberately coarsening himself like a delinquent youth fooling about with a besotted headmistress’ (126). (He also concocts a lie about Talbot ‘molesting a child in a swimming-pool changing room’, and the fact that everyone knows the accusation to be untrue somehow reinforces it (127) – so some taboos remain to be manipulated by the bullying Wilder.)

Having left the Hillmans behind him, Wilder is soon dominating another woman, who is anxious to avoid the exogamy this encounter involves:

She welcomed him as she would any marauding hunter. First she would try to kill him, but failing this give him food and her body, breast-feed him back to a state of childishness and even, perhaps, feel affection for him. Then, the moment he was asleep, cut his throat. (160)

Although this is described as ‘the synopsis of the ideal marriage’ (160), it is so only inasmuch as it recapitulates the complex feelings of interdependence and aggression as the mother-infant dyad is ruptured and the Oedipal struggle commences.

Ultimately, breaking the building’s taboo on using guns, Wilder kills Royal, the building’s patriarch, and finds himself on the roof surrounded by other – actual – children and the women who care for them. He immediately becomes completely infantile. Hoping to join the children, he wanders out towards the women:

In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers. (168)

Laing’s fate is not so clear-cut. The novel ends with him holed up in his apartment with Alice, his sister-lover-mother, and Eleanor Powell, who seems to be merging with her. He addresses them in the childish voice he used as a trainee doctor when talking to ‘the duller of his child patients’ (171), and believing himself to be in control he forages food and waits on them. He indulges them when they treat ‘him like two governesses in a rich man’s ménage, teasing a wayward and introspective child’ (172) – presumably he is both the rich man and the child – and sometimes he acts as if they really are in charge  (this is so convincing that once a raiding party of women left him alone, assuming he was the prisoner of the two women). Laing likes the arrangements – even if he deludes himself as to its actual nature – because it represents ‘an intimate family circle, the first he had know since childhood’ (172).

We also looked at three passages to chart Laing’s progress (regress) – when he attempts to leave the building but turns back (101-4), the start of chapter seven when the building seems to become timeless and motionless (145-7), and when he find Eleanor feeding her cat with her own blood (151-3) – and asked basically the same questions of each: what imagery and ideas does Ballard use to describe the building and its residents? how does the world inside differ from the world outside? why does Laing find it impossible to leave and why in each subsequent passage does he seem happier despite (because of?) the further deterioration of his environment?

This notion of deterioration is important. Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments went from being merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom. Typically, what was conveniently forgotten – often for ideological reasons – was that for many people moving from slums to the new developments was headily utopian. Many people finally had enough bedrooms that they did not need to share, indoor plumbing, etc. While Aneurin Bevan’s brick-built housing was intended to last, many of the the prefabricated developments only had intended lives of a few decades, and soon began to deteriorate, not least because councils often failed properly to fund maintenance to post-war housing projects. That this was the fault of government did not get in the way of the residents themselves being being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. High-Rise was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (1996) dramatises a version of these events). Whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre.

In closing, we had a brief discussion about Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976), focusing particularly on the ways in which it pretty much reduces New York to a demonised and perilous Times Square, bathed in a red light to make it infernal. This, too, fits in with a broader discourse, one that would lead to the purging of such urban spaces, ridding them of the diverse ethnic and sexual working class cultures that inhabited them in favour of redevelopment. The value of land and property on Manhattan was too high, and full of potential to become even higher, to be left to such people. There was money, and lots of it, to be made by criminalising them, driving them out, displacing them, and by thus reversing white-flight, by gentrification, by tourist-friendly Disneyfication.

We will pick up on this next week when we look at some blaxploitation and some LA Rebellion films as part of the background for thinking about Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991).

Week 18

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.

Recommended reading
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).

Recommended viewing
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).

 

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 13

936full-all-that-heaven-allows-posterWeek 12

Returning from the holiday break, we picked up and built on some strands from the end of last semester – moving from the rubble of The Third Man and Passport to Pimlico to postwar urban development (foreshadowed in Bicycle Thieves), and extending our thinking about the relationships between built environments and individual/group psychology. For the first couple of weeks we are looking at US suburbs, this week in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk 1955) and next week in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – we might get some glimpses of Truffaut’s adaptation in later weeks, as we move onto postwar European and British development Alphaville (Godard 1965), The Model Couple (Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975).

We began with an array of statistics to get some sense of the extent of – and transformations wrought by – the US post-war economic boom as war-time industries retooled, the growth of the suburbs and related expansion of and easier access to credit, and the development of a new consumer and corporate culture.  Some very broad strokes:

  • In 1945, 40% of Americans owned their own homes; relatively few families owned a car; shopping was done in neighbourhood groceries; and aeroplane travel was for the military, the wealthy and the occasional businessman.
  • In 1960, 60% of American owned their own homes; many families owned more than one car; groceries were bought at supermarkets in shopping malls; and TV had replaced films and radio as the major source of entertainment.
  • Between 1947–1960, the rise in average real income was equal to that in the previous half century;  GNP increased by 250%; and expenditure on construction increased ninefold.
  • By 1960, per capita income was 35% higher than the boom year of 1945.
  • By the mid-1950s, 60% of the population enjoyed a secure middle class income ($3000-10,000), twice as many as had done so 25 years earlier, before the Depression.
  • In 1946, there were 6 TV stations in the US; by 1956, there were 442.
  • In the mid-fifties, 66 % of US homes had a TV; by 1960, 87% (and 75% of American families owned their own car their own washing machine).
  • At the height of European emigration to the US in the early years of the 20th century, 1.2 million arrived every year; during the 1950s, the same number of people moved out to the suburbs every year – 18 million in total – as 13 million new homes were built, 11 million of them in the suburbs.
  • By 1960, a quarter of the American population lived in the suburbs.
  • Suburbs were typically whites-only (and when racial segregation in housing was ruled illegal, other methods were developed to keep suburbs whites-only).
  • Suburbs were generally arranged in a class hierarchy – the further away from the city, the bigger the lot/house.
  • There was a boom in sales of consumer goods and domestics appliances – which saw electricity use triple during the 1950s, with advertising revenues increasing 400% between 1945 and 1960, three times the money spent on higher education.
  • There was a massive increase in automobile usage, with the number of cars in the US increasing 133% between 1945 and 1960.
  • There were also government road-building activities: in 1956 Congress appropriated $32 billion to build 41,000 miles of highway, and the Interstate system was developed.

All this affluence surely made people happy? Not really. Eisenhower’s placid decade was also a time typified by an array of deep-rooted anxieties. Again, in broad strokes:

  • the cold war
  • anti-communist hysteria
  • nuclear dread
  • the Civil Rights movement
  • the Kinsey reports into human sexuality
  • dull conformity: endless identical tract homes in the suburbs full of the same consumer durables; the need for men to ‘fit in’ in new corporate workplaces; women pushed out of the workplace in favour of returning veterans and into the home to raise nuclear families
  • isolation: destruction or loss of extended kinship networks and communities in old urban centres, changes in access to urban resources
  • increase in alcoholism, dependency on tranquilisers, psychoanalysis and a major revival in Protestant christianity – all of which can be seen as methods of coping with and adjusting to circumstances rather than trying to change them

These transformations – affluence and anxiety – can be observed in the culture of the time, as well as being evident in the ways the period is remembered (which includes being misremembered, consciously and unconsciously).

From this admittedly sketchy sketch of suburbs – William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey, the source of many of my stats, is a good place to begin reading more detail about the scale and consequences of these transformations – we turned to the question of genre. More specifically, what is melodrama?

Melodrama emerged as a stage genre in the wake of the 18th century bourgeois revolutions – in France, America, Haiti – and with the rise of capitalism. As feudal structures/hierarchies were destroyed, so tragedy’s emphasis on people of rank – e.g., Hamlet, Othello, Lear – was replaced by the sentimental drama of the bourgeois family. But such sentimental stage dramas inevitably lack ‘heroic dimensions, overt excitement’, ‘cosmic ambition’ and ‘violence’ (Gledhill 17) – and made up for this deficit by taking on some characteristics from popular theatrical traditions of spectacle, performance and music to become melodrama (French: ‘song’ + ‘drama’). Theatrical melodrama also adopted Gothic fiction’s often Manichean outlook – in Europe, this typically pitted good bourgeoisie against evil aristocrats or good proletarians against evil bourgeoisie; in the US, which likes to pretend it doesn’t have a class structure, this opposition was more typically between good rural folk and evil city folk. Theatrical melodrama also increasingly emphasised ‘unpremeditated feeling as an index of moral status and social value’ (Gledhill 24).

In relation to film, Linda Williams argues that melodrama – ‘a modality of narrative with a high quotient of pathos and action’ (51) – should not be regarded as a ‘specific genre’ but as ‘the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures’ (42):

the basic vernacular of American moving pictures consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value. This climax revealing the moral good of the victim can tend in one of two directions: either it can consist of a paroxysm of pathos (as in the woman’s film or family melodrama variants) or it can take that paroxysm and channel it into the more virile and action-centered variants of rescue, chase, and fight (as in the western and all the action genres). (58)

The meaning of melodrama has also changed significantly when talking about film. As far as Hollywood was concerned, until the 1970s:

‘melodrama’ meant action thrillers with fast-paced narratives, episodic story-lines featuring violence, suspense and death-defying stunts. Dastardly villains, heroines in peril and daring adventurous heroes populated these films … Cowboy films, gangster films, crime thrillers and horror movies were typically labelled ‘melodramas’ in the trade press. … what Film Studies has come to regard as ‘melodrama’ since 1970 are films with more words than action, inactive male protagonists, active and even domineering female characters, and anything but clear-cut and easily identifiable villains [and it is this version] of ‘melodrama’ that is now in general circulation, having been adopted by Hollywood filmmakers, reviewers and journalists since the 1970s. (Mercer and Shingler 6)

John Mercer and Martin Shingler also offer a useful discussion of the key characteristics of the Hollywood family melodrama (the kind of film made by Sirk, Nicholas Ray and  Vincente Minnelli that is now often conflated with the entirety of melodrama):

  • a focus on the conflicts and tensions of a middle-class family, in which social and economic concerns are registered but are typically secondary to the focus on personal emotional trauma
  • the audience is invited to sympathise with protagonist (who is often also cast as a victim) and to project their own fears/anxieties onto him/her
  • the portrayal of a psychological situation will be pretty direct – there will be no recourse to monsters to express repressed material as in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or ghosts as in Festen (von Trier 1998)- and the viewer is likely to be able to identify with it from their own experience
  • there will be evidence of Freudian repression, of psychoanalytic symptoms and of the return of the repressed – Freudian psychoanalysis was a familiar part of US popular culture well before the 1950s, and sometimes, as in All That Heaven Allows, its terminology is explicitly evoked
  • the mise-en-scène will have a symbolic or coded dimension
  • expressive music will be used to heighten the emotional impact
  • the film will often culminate in a happy ending – but when it does, the happiness and/or the ending-ness of the happy ending will be unconvincing. In Stella Dallas (Vidor 1937), the working-class Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) is able to give her daughter an upper middle class life, but is shut out from it and will never see her daughter again. In All That Heaven Allows, middle-aged, middle-class widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is finally free of her (awful) children to be with the younger, working class Ron (Rock Hudson), but he is injured, reduced to an infantile state as someone she must care for as if she is his mother (despite the ‘erection’ under his blanket); outside the window, the yonic lake is frozen and the deer who wanders up as a potential symbol of new life is also clearly not a wild creature, independent and free, but one who has been domesticated by Ron (like Cary). Also, the society’s – and Cory’s awful children’s – disapproval of their relationship has not disappeared. Such ambiguous/ambivalent/double-coded endings seem to recognise that the problem/contradiction at the core of the film cannot be so easily resolved. They invite the viewer to read the film against the grain

As we mentioned Freud, we also quickly sketched in some very basic Freudian ideas (we will do more with this material in the level two module on genre and the fantastic):

  • large parts of human thought remains unconscious
  • the human mind expends considerable energy suppressing or repressing certain thoughts and ideas (particularly around sex and aggression)
  • repressed thoughts and ideas often sneak out in dreams, nightmares, slips of the tongue and artistic activity (the return of the repressed)
  • the unconscious, however, is not simply a ready-and-waiting place for repressed desire – it is produced by the very act of repression
  • the tripartite mind: the ego as the fluid product of the conflict and tensions between the id (basic drives around sex and aggression, etc) and the superego (internalised social codes of behaviour); Dr Jekyll (ego) want to chemically realise the angelic part of human nature (superego) but unleashes instead the Mr Hyde (the id)

And then onto Douglas Sirk specifically – his background in interwar Berlin’s leftist creative community, his German and especially his Hollywood films (a contract director who had little choice over what films he made, but found ways to work against their clichéd material; the major melodramas with producer Ross Hunter at Universal), and his belated designation as an auteur in the 1970s (in part aided by his ability in interview to talk a strong leftist game in describing – or claiming – what he sought to achieve in his movies). Since his ‘discovery’, the following characteristics have been discerned in his films:

  • he depicts the material American dream not to celebrate it but to critique it
  • his visual style subverts his clichéd, conservative narratives
  • he uses parody and excess, not for comedy value but to create a distance between the viewer and the film
  • this distance is also the product of his preference for medium-shots and long-shots over close-ups so as to keep the viewer from getting too caught up in the characters’ emotions
  • he also uses long-shots and creates frames within the frame to ‘stage’ events – to make them seem overtly theatrical and staged, thus working a low-key Brechtian alienation effect
  • he uses sets, props and shot construction to create graphic effects
  • he uses mirrors to double, distance and reveal – also uses windows and screens
  • he uses colour and props expressively

The remainder of the class was devoted to discussing a series of questions posed before the screening.

  • How does the film represent different spaces (e.g, suburb vs countryside, the country club vs the Andersons’ party, Carry’s house vs the Old Mill House)?
  • What does the film say about: youth, maturity, respectability, class, duty, desire, convention, passion, romance, community?
  • How does the film depict masculinity and femininity? What does it say about gender?
  • How does the film use colour (especially reds/browns and blues) expressively?
  • How does it use specific objects (spectacles, the TV, the teapot, screens, windows, the deer, Xmas trees, etc) expressively?
  • Does it have a happy ending? What undermines the happiness of the happy ending?

One of the things we focused on was the use of colour. Cary’s decision to abandon her widow’s weeds for a red dress when she goes to the Country Club suddenly changes how other people see her – she is hit on by a married man. Her children – who are every bit as awful as the children in Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey 1937) and Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953) – struggle to cope with the idea of their mother having  desires, being sexual. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) starts whom the film rather mocks for her book-learning and appeals to reason); significantly, once she falls in love with a boy and they get engaged she  also wears red – even as she tells her Cary, who at this point has abandoned Ron for the sake of her awful children (who are awful), that at least she had not really loved him. As her awful child, dressed all in red, spouts blithely spouts this, Cary is framed by a bitterly ironic vase of red roses. (It is some small comfort to know that Gloria Talbott will just a few years later marry a monster from outer space.)

The film also uses a range of reds and browns to signal physical and emotional warmth. Domestic interiors are red/brown against the cold blue of the night outside – almost like the conventional tinting of a silent movie – except in scenes when Cary is being berated for her ‘inappropriate’ romance by her awful son Ned (William Reynolds). Then, Cary is always posed against a warm red backdrop while Ned stands in front of a cold blue backdrop – an expressive lighting scheme that makes no realistic sense in terms of the physical space, light sources, lightbulbs, etc.

In the key scene, when the awful Ned walks out on his mother, the expressive use of props is also evident. Ned strides to posture in front of the fireplace, wittering on his patriarchal nonsense in front of a wall that has already been compared to an Egyptian mausoleum in which Cary is entombed (Cary has just suggested he put a screen in front of the fire, as if to block her passions). He leans on the mantlepiece where his father’s trophy used to be displayed (there has already been a row about Cary referring to it as part of the clutter she has taken down to the basement – a good place for repressed material to be stored). Throughout their conversation before and after this moment, the strong vertical lines of a screen has separated the film screen, with one of them either side of it, cut off from each other. Going even further, when Cary asks ‘let’s not this come between us’ (meaning her relationship with Ron) this is what the shot actually looks like:

vlcsnap-2011-12-28-15h26m55s98

Expressive mise-en-scène or what?

Week 14

Core critical reading:
Mercer, John and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility. London: Wallflower, 2004. 38–77.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 4, “Cynical Modernity; or the Modernity of Cynicism.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 250–333.
Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic, 1989.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. London: Gollancz, 1963.
Gledhill, Christine. ‘The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation’. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill.London: BFI, 1987. 5-39.
Hapgood, Lynn. Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture, 1880-1925. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Hilliker, Lee. “Hulot vs. the 1950s: Tati, Technology and Mediation.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.2 (1998): 59–78.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Nicolaides, Becky and Andrew Weiss, eds. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. Especially Chapter 10, ‘Critiques of Postwar Suburbia’.
Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
Williams, Linda. ‘Melodrama Revised’. Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 42-88
Recommended reading
Probably the first satire on suburban life is George and Weedon Grossmith’s *The Diary of a Nobody (1892).
The struggle to live in the suburbs and the meaninglessness of suburban living is central to James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961), John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (1964), J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971), Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) is set in Manhattan but nonetheless offers a feminist critique of the gender relations more normally associated with the suburbs.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), based on her own family’s experience, is about the desire to move from the overcrowded, run-down city to the suburbs – and the lengths to which suburban Americans went to keep out people of colour.
Recommended viewing:
There are film versions of Mildred Pierce (Curtiz 1945), A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie 1961), The Ice Storm (Lee 1997) and Revolutionary Road (Mendes 2008). Suburban alienation and dysfunction is also explored in The Reckless Moment (Ophuls 1949), Rebel without a Cause (Ray 1955), Bigger than Life (Ray 1956), The Graduate (Nichols 1967), The Swimmer (Perry 1968), Targets (Bogdanovich 1968), Safe (Haynes 1995) and American Beauty (Mendes 1999).
Far from Heaven (Haynes 2002) reworks Sirk’s film, introducing questions of race and sexuality that films of the 1950s could not deal with directly; Todd Haynes also directed a television adaptation of Mildred Pierce (HBO 2011).
More comical visions can be found in Mon Oncle (Tati 1958) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes 1986).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 11: the city and modernity – ruins and rebuilding

the-bicycle-thief-movie-poster-1949-1020503611

week 10

This week’s class was centred on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica 1948). We have already encountered postwar ruins and a version of the Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) in The Third Man (Reed 1949), and will watch Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) next week – a bit more festive than most Trümmerfilm and one that segues into the period of postwar (re)construction that will begin next semester.

It is difficult to talk about Bicycle Thieves without also talking about Italian neo-realism, and so the lecture this week also overlaps with some issues being discussed on Film Style and Meaning. James Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003) usefully describes Italian neorealism as possessing

a distinctive formal and aesthetic character of its own (location shooting, naturalistic lighting, long takes, true-to-life stories, unscripted dialogue and the use of non-professional performers). (232)

It would however be problematic to reduce the movement merely to a matter of aesthetics (Chapman doesn’t – I’ll come back to him in a bit), especially when the terms one finds in such lists are this broad and could be applied to so many realist film movements. So before getting into more detail about neorealism, we focused on the specificities of Italy in the closing years of World War II and the immediate postwar period.

Very broadly, then:

Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. In 1925, he abandoned democracy and set up a legal dictatorship. He was ousted in 1943 and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, who set about dissolving the Fascist party and surrendering to the advancing allied forces. In response, Germany invaded Italy and German special forces broke Mussolini out of prison. Italy declared war on Germany; Mussolini became head of the northern Italian Social Republic – a Nazi puppet government. He was captured and executed by partisans in April 1945.

In 1944, the returning exiled leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, promised to pursue parliamentary rather than revolutionary politics, and joined a broadly anti-fascist ‘national unity’ government, which wrote a new constitution, gave women the vote, abolished the monarchy and began to (half-heartedly) purge fascists from office. The Communist Party, had been the mainstay of the anti-fascist partisans and anti-Nazi resistance, and thus it had a certain moral high ground (as well as a million members in 1945). Under the new constitution, the first parliamentary elections since 1922 were held on 18 April 1948 (while Bicycle Thieves was in pre-production).

There were massive housing shortages and unemployment was somewhere between 9% and 20% – and if the Communist Party won, US Marshall Plan aid would have been delayed. The Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican and covertly by the CIA, won. The Communist Party was established as the second largest party.  On 14 July 1948 there was an attempt to assassinate Togliatti. He was shot three times and put in a coma, but recovered. In response, there were massive protests, a general strike, and violent police repression (including by the Nucleo Celere, who we glimpse out of the police station window in Bicycle Thieves, heading out in jeeps to break up a demonstration).

It was against this complex, tense, conflicted and invigorating background that Italian neorealism emerged, and which to an extent accounts for its distinctiveness among varieties of realist cinema – not least because many of the key personnel were communists, or at least antifascists well to the left of the Christian Democrats.

Chapman also outlines some important other factors in the development of the neorealist style. The massive state studio Cinecittà, opened by Mussolini in 1937, had been bombed during the Allied invasion and was closed down, not reopening until 1948 (it was used as a displaced persons camp from 1945-47). At the same time, distribution networks – which had been starved of overseas films – were badly disrupted. Film production and circulation had become extremely localised, and in the absence of studio facilities, location shooting was at the very least a practical decision as much as it might have been an aesthetic one (presumably, professional actors had also been widely dispersed during the war, so there might also have been expedient casting of non-professional actors).

To the aesthetic characteristics listed by Chapman, we might also add a general preference for medium and long shots, which has the effect of embedding characters in social settings and relationships – the American mistranslators of the title, who called the film The Bicycle Thief, rather missed this point, as well as implying the title referred to Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). Additionally, neorealism also tended towards a digressive narrative form (especially in comparison to the Hollywood three-act structure) which arguably had the effect of bringing films closer to the unstructured shape of actual people’s actual lives – a point, as we will see, that André Bazin emphasised in his enthusiastic championing of De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952).

There is of course no consensus on how extensive the canon of Italian neorealist films is – the shortest lists I have seen list usually about eight films, others go up to about sixty.

Either the first neorealist film or the major precursor of neorealism, depending on who you ask, is Ossessione/Obsession (Luchino Visconti 1943), the first adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – which the PCA had forbidden Hollywood to film.

So the other first neorealist film is RomaCittà aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), the story of a partisan and a priest killed during the liberation of Rome. It is generally interpreted as a call for communists and christians to unite in fighting fascism and building a new Italy. It was shot on the streets of Rome, using scavenged equipment and the ends of film reels, which gave it an urgent, grainy look . According to Dilys Powell, the influential Sunday Times film critic from 1939-79,

its impact was partly accidental, the result, not of the director’s art and imagination alone, but also of the accident of poor physical material which gave the story the air of fact.

For Rossellini, however, aesthetics and politics are inseparable, and neorealism was part of a movement to express a

need that is proper to modern man, to tell things as they are, to understand reality, I would say, in a pitiless concrete way, conforming to that typical contemporary interest, for statistical and scientific results.

In 1946, Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan, charted – in six episodes – the relationship between Italians and US troops, from the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 to end of 1944. Again, it is a film that could not have been made by Hollywood – the US troops are often drunk, the third episodes features a woman who works as a prostitute, and the second episode of is centred on an African American soldier.

In the same year, De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine began to shift the focus of neorealist film’s away from the war and onto the problems of postwar reconstruction. This is also the focus of Bicycle Thieves, as well as Visconti’s La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) and Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (1949), which are both concerned with rural settings, with fishermen and rice farmers.

Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves in these terms:

The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the film shows no extraordinary events such as those that befall the fated workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories … Truly an insignificant, even a banal incident … Plainly there is not enough material here for even a news item: the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. … the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. ( “Bicycle Thief” 49-50)

He also described it as a communist film, but one that avoided being mere propaganda

Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. … events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis – but the thesis emerges fully armed and irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. (“Bicycle Thief” 51, 53-3)

Arguments about the canon often start with Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951) – they are clearly building on neorealism and breaking new ground, but is that new ground somewhere outside of neorealism’s ambit?

No such uncertainty exists about De Sica’s Umberto D., though. It is a deeply digressive story, or non-story, about an old man living a meagre existence. He has a dog, Flike. He contemplates suicide, but first tries to find a new home for Flike. It is a film which Bazin praised for its refusal of ellipsis – for the way it leaves in all the bits classical Hollywood filmmaking would cut out (as in this four-and-a-half-minute scene of the maid making coffee). Nothing at all of significance happens. Apart from the details of her routine, glimpses of her character and a reminder of her dilemma – and so of course it is full of actions and significance.

Bazin saw this as the pinnacle of Italian neorealism – as close as any film got to eliminating the actor (through the casting of non-professionals), miss-en-scène (through abandoning the artifice of the soundstage for the ‘reality’ of location shooting – to be honest, he is not always very good at spotting when things are shot in the studio) and story (eschewing the tightly-plotted classical narrative in favour of the disclosure of the everyday). While conceding that it would never be as widely appreciated or as well liked as Bicycle Thieves, he argued that

It took Umberto D to make us understand what it was in the realism of Ladri di Biciclette that was still a concession to classical dramaturgy. Consequently what is so unsettling about Umberto D is primarily the way it rejects any relationship to traditional film spectacle. (Bazin “Umberto D” 80)

Italian neorealism is normally said to end with Umberto D or perhaps Rome 11.00 (Giuseppe De Santis 1952) – a film I have never managed to see, but which sounds (and from film stills 280px-Romaore11_fotoscenalooks) awesome, although its influence is still at work in films as late as Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957) – a film which I ended up misdescribing as being about ‘a prostitute who looks for love in a van’. Of course, I meant ‘in vain’.  And ‘a woman who works as a prostitute’.

Neorealist films were not great hits with Italian audiences, whose cinemas were being flooded with Hollywood product. They were attacked by the Catholic Church as unsavoury (rather than because they were anticlerical, or at least did not hold a high opinion of the church), and they were attacked by politicians because of the negative image of Italy they promoted internationally (not because they were, on the whole, left-wing films critical of the failures of Italian politics). But some of them were also major international successes, winning many festival awards as well as Oscars, and played a key role in the development of arthouse cinemas and circuits, especially in the US.

Before screening the film, I asked the students about Bazin’s claim that the message of the film is that ‘in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive’. Is this what the film says? If so, how? If not, what does it say instead? Can a film be reduced like this to a mere ‘meaning’?

I also asked students to return to the ideas we have been considering (since Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’) around the individual and the crowd – are these the only options? What about families? The neighbourhood? The church? The community party? What role do they play in mediating between – and in creating – the individual and the crowd?

Thinking back to Man with a Movie Camera, how does Bicycle Thieves depict leisure and labour?

And think about the film’s depiction of Rome. This is not the tourist Rome of, say, Roman Holiday (William Wyler), full of images of classical ruins and Renaissance art and architecture (though it is often shot with yards of such locations). Why does it eschew such sights? And why do other films focus so strongly upon them?

In the end, a lot of our discussion focused on the significance of Antonio’s bike – a muscle-powered forms of transport, halfway between the rural world of hand- and animal-drawn vehicles, and the coming modernising decade of Vespas and Lambrettas and Fiats. One of the sharpest contrasts is between Antonio, who needs a bike so he can work and provide for his family, and the racing cyclists who are wealthy enough to own bikes for leisure purposes. (This is part of the film’s argument about the flawed nature of capitalist social organisation.)

There is also the moment early on when Antonio is told he must have a bike and:
a) he lies, saying it is broken rather than that it has been pawned, even though when we see the pawn shop it is obvious everyone else is living on meagre credit, too;
b) none of the other unemployed men, who are not eligible for this particular job, who clearly state that they have bikes, offer to lend theirs to him.

This lack of communal solidarity stands in stark contrast to the way in which the family and neighbours of the guy who stole Antonio’s bike leap to his defence. This incident ties to the film’s argument through architecture. The Val Melaina, where Antonio and his family live is a borgate built for working class people who were forcibly displaced from the centre of Rome when Mussolini destroyed working class neighbourhoods in order to construct the avenues around the Coliseum, St Peter’s, etc. (This also had the advantage of removing antifascist and  potentially antifascist workers to a distant periphery – a move echoing the Haussmanisation of Paris.) These apartment blocks – which we see have no inside water supply – were ‘completed’ in 1933. They were five miles from the centre of Rome, separated from the city by non-urban space, and surrounded by open land. They had few services and poor connections with the city. Under such circumstances, the communal ties of the densely packed urban neighbourhood, with its multigenerational extended and intertwined kinship networks, and compounded by the dislocations and losses of war, came under increasing strain. Community gives way to the individual and the nuclear family; and that is not necessarily a good thing – as we will see in the first half of next semester as we encounter narratives of suburban conformism (from Douglas Sirk, Don Siegel, Ray Bradbury) and urban alienation (from Jean-Luc Godard, JG Ballard, William Klein, Martin Scorsese).

Core critical reading: Gordon, Robert S.C. Bicycle Thieves. London: BFI, 2008. 82–98.

Recommended critical reading
Bazin, André. “Bicycle Thief”, What is Cinema? Volume II, ed. and trans Hugh Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press 1972. 47-60.
–. “Umberto D: A Great Work”, What is Cinema? Volume II. Ed. and trans Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress 1972. 79-82.
Cardullo, Bert. “Actor-Become-Auteur: The Neorealist Films of Vittoria De Sica.” The Massachusetts Review 41.2 (2000): 173–92.
Celli, Carlo. “Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves.” The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellina. London: Wallflower, 2004. 43–52.
Cook, Christopher. Ed. The Dilys Powell Film Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neo-Realism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gold, John R. and Stephen V. Ward. “Of Plans and Planners: Documentary Film and the Challenge of the Urban Future, 1935–52.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 59–82.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapters 5 and 8, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut” and “The City as Queer Playground.”
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Tomasulo, Frank P. “Bicycle Thieves: A Re-Reading.” Cinema Journal 21.2 (1982): 1–13.

Recommended reading
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) offers an estranged vision of post-war London combining slums, bombsites and towering new architecture.
Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) depicts the young working class women living in the post-war slums of Battersea and Clapham Junction; Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is also of interest.
Two useful accounts of social housing and postwar reconstruction are Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2012) and John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014).

Recommended viewing
Short documentaries about slum living, new housing and other urban developments include Housing Problems (Anstey and Elton 1935), The City (Elton 1939), The City (Steiner and Van Dyke 1939) and Land of Promise (Rotha 1946).
Utopia London (Cordell 2010) outlines the vision of a group of modernist architects to rebuild London as a more pleasant and equal city, while Riff-Raff (Loach 1991) and Estate, A Reverie (Zimmerman 2015) chart the destruction of such developments.
Post-war London bombsites play a key role in films such as Hue and Cry (Crichton 1947), Obsession aka The Hidden Room (Dmytryk 1949) and The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953). These are Trümmerfilm (‘rubble films’), that is, movies made and set in the ruins of postwar cities. Others include The Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946), the Italian neo-realist Germany Year Zero (Rosselini 1948), Odd Man Out (Reed 1947), The Third Man (Reed 1949) and Ten Seconds to Hell (Aldrich 1959).
Up the Junction was filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965 (and rather less interestingly for cinema by Peter Collinson in 1968). Also of interest are Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), adapted from Dunn’s 1967 novel of the same name, and his influential television drama Cathy Come Home (1969). Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) begins – in part – as a drama about the post-war replacement of slum housing with tower blocks and concludes with the problematic privatisation of public housing.

The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Criterion Eclipse boxset 28)

Kurahara_box[A version of this review first appeared in Film International 62 (2013), 54–8]

Following an apprenticeship under Toho’s Kajiro Yamamoto, and a short stint at Shochiku, Koreyoshi Kurahara joined Nikkatsu in 1954, the year the studio recommenced production after the war. He served as an assistant director on Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu 1956), Kô Nakahira’s ground-breaking taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe film), before going on to direct a couple of films per year for the studio between 1957 and 1967, enlivening potentially formulaic material in a manner every bit as distinctive as that of his better-known contemporary, Seijun Suzuki.

XXX_Film_iamwaiting_originalKurahara’s debut film, I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze 1957) – included in the earlier Criterion Eclipse collection, Nikatsu Noir – seems less like American film noir than French poetic realism. A moody, melancholic tale centred on a dockside café, it tells of the apparently doomed love between the café’s owner (an ex-boxer, stripped of his license after killing a man in a brawl) and a woman (a former opera singer, reduced to warbling in a mobster’s nightclub) he dissuades from committing suicide. Their respective backstories, however, contain the cruellest of coincidences and traps. This sense of inescapable fate is key to the earliest of the films included in this boxset, Intimidation (Aru kyouhaku 1960). Like La Bête humaine (1938), it begins with a train approaching a town, but where Jean Renoir’s film concentrates on the rails which run relentlessly ahead, crossing and merging but always driving forward, remorselessly conveying the hapless driver to his fate, Intimidation’s opening shots are misty – oneiric – with steam and condensation. Kurahara’s train races through the tunnels cut into snow-covered mountains, taking us beneath the cold heights that rise above but are inseparable from the darkness below.

Kurahara_Filmw_Intimidation_originalIntimidation focuses on the relationship between Takita, the assistant manager of a regional bank, and his childhood friend, Nakaike. Many years earlier, Takita had been involved with Nakaike’s sister, Yuki, but abandoned her to steal Kumiko, the daughter of the bank president, away from Nakaike and thus accumulate nepotistic advantages. While Nakaike is still a lowly clerk, and Yuki an embittered geisha, Takita is being promoted to the Tokyo head office, where he is to be groomed as his father-in-law’s successor. The train, though, has brought a stranger to town who threatens blackmail: unless Takita rob his own bank, Kumaki will reveal his financial irregularities and sexual infidelities. Takita hopes to take advantage of the fact that Nakaike is on guard duty on the night of the robbery. But – as an eerie dream sequence, deploying a subjective camera far more effectively than either Dark Passage (Daves 1947) or Lady in the Lake (Montgomery 1947), warns us – nothing is quite what it seems.

The economy of the film’s set-up enables Kurahara to focus upon set-pieces – such as an almost-silent heist, every bit as remarkable as the one in Rififi (Dassin 1955) – and upon unpacking, through a series of reversals, multiple layers of manipulation, revenge, humiliation and despite. Lacking the claustrophobia of film noir’s Academy ratio, Kurahara uses his widescreen format (and a frequently mobile camera) to emphasise movement through physical space, which he contrasts to the relative absence of social mobility. Depth of field, along with startling cuts along the 180° line, stress the gulf between classes. Kurahara also often favours high angle shots that strengthen the diagonal arrangement of rival characters, craning down as the balance of power alters to shift their apparent relative height. Other high angle shots seem to pin characters to the floor, as if on a dissection board. Juxtapositions within and between shots jab the viewer in the eye like a boxer, compressing information with all the swagger of Sam Fuller.

warped ones 1Such bravura flourishes become the core of Kurahara’s style by The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu 1960). Reworking the taiyozoku-eiga by turning from Crazed Fruit’s privileged kids to the disenfranchised youths of the unhomely, post-war tenements, it follows the story of petty criminal Akira. Thanks to journalist Kashiwagi, he is caught pick-pocketing a tourist and sentenced to Tokyo Juvenile Reformatory, where, amidst brutality and violence, he meets another young thug, Masura. After this dazzling title sequence, the film proper begins with their release. Teaming up with the prostitute Yuki, they begin a summer of casual crime. Revenge, rape, street-fighting, murder and abortions follow, interspersed with hi-jinks, impulsive thievery, mucking around and mockery of bourgeois pastimes. Driven by Toshiro Mayuzumi’s jazz score, Yoshio Mamiya’s lively hand-held cinematography and Akira Suzuki’s snappy editing, The Warped Ones is, at times, even more exhausting than it is fascinating – as if Neveldine+Taylor had directed a mash-up of Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à part (1964) co-written by Jim Thompson and a young Harlan Ellison. Kurahara’s camera is constantly distracted, preferring to move through space rather than cut to reaction shots. Its gaze often drifts upwards to swirl across the collage of jazz greats decorating the ceiling of Akira’s favourite bar or, more tellingly, to flood the screen with the brilliant white blaze of the summer sun. This is not the Impressionist dappling of light found in Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), but light as a monumental, sublime energy: on the one hand, it suggests the transcendence of earthly conditions for which Akira yearns but lacks the patience to attain; and on the other, an oppressive weight, pinning him down, exposing his purposelessness. As with Intimidation, life presses hot and hard, and Kurahara cannot resist showing us every bead of sweat.

Although not exactly a sequel, Black Sun (Kuroi taiyo 1964) returns to this milieu. In The Warped Ones, Akira threatens Kashiwagi’s pregnant girlfriend Fumiko with a broken bottle. Gill, a black American who hangs out in the same bar, intervenes, dragging Akira away and driving him to the beach. In a totally unexpected sequence – which echoes earlier shots of Masura and Yuki cavorting while Akira rapes and impregnates Fumiko – Gill and Akira run hand in hand across the sand before plunging into the sea harmlessly to exhaust Akira’s rage. In Black Sun, Tamio Kurahara_Filmw_BlackSun_originalKawachi plays Mei, identical to his earlier Akira in almost every respect, Yuko Chishiro plays another prostitute called Yuki, and Chico Roland plays Gill, a wounded GI on the run after killing two other servicemen. The film starts with the desolate wasteland before an ominously alien-looking nuclear power station, where tiny figures scavenge for scrap. The jazz-obsessed Mei, who lives in a bombed-out church with his dog Thelonius Monk, thinks nothing of robbing these weary middle-aged mudlarks so that he can buy the new Max Roach Quartet album. When he finds Gill hiding in his squat, Mei assumes they will automatically be friends, since he loves black American music, and thus all black Americans. The culture-clash melodrama that follows (perhaps the oddest of rashamen films) plays like some demented, infernal rendition of The Defiant Ones (Kramer 1958) – part John Cassavetes, part Shinya Tsukamoto. Roland plays Gill as a feverish, distracted brute, wielding a ridiculously large machine gun, sweating profusely, mumbling and yelping his lines. Kurahara draws awkward parallels between post-Occupation Japan and the American civil rights struggle – and at one point even has Mei don blackface and whitewash Gill’s face so that they can escape by posing as street entertainers.

But all this bizzarerie ends magnificently. The increasingly incoherent Gill is obsessed with reaching the sea, which he associates with his mother and with redemption. Mei manages to get him first to a filthy, oil-slicked estuary, and then to a rooftop overlooking a heavily industrialised port. Somehow Gill gets caught in the ropes tethering an advertising balloon. He pleads with Mei to release it. And as the pursuing MPs close in, the delirious Gill rises up towards the sun, an absurd, black, blasphemous, jazz Christ.

Made between The Warped Ones and Black Sun, I Hate But Love (Nikui an-chikusho 1962) moderates and modulates Kurahara’s stylistic excesses, as one would expect of a colour vehicle for Nikkatsu’s – arguably Japan’s – biggest stars of that year, Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka. (Ishihara, an overnight success thanks to his performance in Crazed Fruit, played I Am Waiting’s ex-boxer and had already in 1962 co-starred with Asaoka in Kurahara’s hit Ginza Love Story (Ginza no koi no monogatari)). Kurahara’s camera remains restless, but not so unanchored that it cannot cope with sets and occasional back-projection. This time the contrived set up comes straight from a 1930s screwball or 1950s sex comedy, but the movie that ensues is more of a melodrama. Sort of.

i hate but love 1In just two years, Daisaku Kita has been transformed from a penniless poet into a radio and television star, thanks to a deal he struck with Noriko Sakakta: she would manage him, initially for free, but they would never consummate their romantic entanglement with so much as a kiss. Fed up with an unfulfilling life of constant bustling activity, and frustrated by his relationship with Noriko, Daisaku encounters Yoshiko Igawa. She has devoted her life to buying a jeep with which to aid Toshio Kosaka, a doctor in a remote village, in his work. Yoshiko insists that she and Toshio, who have conducted their entire relationship through letters, possess a ‘pure love’. Daisaku agrees on air to deliver the jeep to Toshio, so that he can experience some trace of this love – a love so different to that which he shares with Noriko. And Noriko pursues him across Japan, trying to bring him back in order to save his career from his multiple breaches of contract – at least, that is what she tells herself.

Kurahara’s road movie never becomes as achingly romantic as Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) or Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997), and his melodrama eschews the oedipal intensity of Nicholas Ray. His comedy has neither the bite of Preston Sturges (although one sequence resembles Sullivan’s Travels (1941) more than slightly), nor the brashness of Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu 1958), although Masumura – and Frank Tashlin – would undoubtedly have enjoyed the sequence in which Daisaku and Noriko struggle through a cloacal tunnel onto the fecal mud of mountain roads. But somehow Kurahara pulls it off – his stars, especially Asaoka, are a delight – and he even manages to conclude with a shot looking up at the sun, here betokening a pure love of hope and renewal.

The light that saturates Asaoka’s Etsuko – and the entire frame – in Thirst For Love (Ai no kawaki 1967) signifies something rather different: sexual ecstasy, erotic distraction, amoral desire. Etsuko, widowed soon after her marriage, submits to the attentions of her father-in-law, fends off those of her brother-in-law, and yearns for the family’s young groundskeeper, Saburo. Despite desiring Etsuko, Saburo does not know what to make of her, and her pursuit of him is confused, impulsive, uncertain. The class gulf between them is too great for her imagination to bridge, and she becomes increasingly cruel to him, trying to make him suffer just as she (feels she) suffers. Based on a Yukio Mishima novel, and offering the perfect set-up for a film by Luis Buñuel or Douglas Sirk, Thirst for Love instead more closely resembles Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki 1963) and Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui 1964) in its study of a feminisuto (but hardly feminist) woman.

While occasional shots and scenes possess the still formality of Yasujirô Ozu, these are odd moments of calm in another stylistically mercurial movie, incorporating voice-over narration, interior monologues, negative footage, slow motion, extreme close-ups, stills, sound distortions, intertitles, flashes of violent fantasised action, brief flashes of colour film (bright red, of course), a conversation that suddenly jumps into long-shot and switches from audible dialogue to subtitles, and, most remarkable of all, a two-and-half minute shot in which the camera cranes around an ornate light-fitting, showing the eight people seated at the family dinner table, before moving off to one side to look down at them as they converse, and then craning around and down behind Saburo as he rises to leave, before zooming in on Etsuko, sitting at the other end of the table, as she watches him depart.

Thirst for Love was Kurahara’s last film under contract to Nikkatsu. Studio bosses purportedly found it too arty and delayed its release, prompting Kurahara to quit the studio (in the same year, Nikkatsu fired Suzuki for turning in the brilliant absurdist hitman movie, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin 1967), rather than the sane, polished and pedestrian Joe Shishido vehicle they had expected). Kurahara continued to make movies, albeit at a reduced rate, eventually transforming himself into the reliable and unchallenging director of such films as Antarctica (Nankyoku monogatari 1983), the biggest Japanese box-office hit prior to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime 1997). But in his decade as a Nikkatsu contract director with an output as eclectic as Suzuki’s, he developed a personal style and vision every bit as striking as those of such contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave as Imamura, Masumura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara. And by making this selection of his films available, Criterion have once more done us invaluable service.

 

Fehér isten a.k.a. White God (Kornél Mundruczó Hungary 2014)

whitegodIf you like dogs, and you like revolution…

If Jupiter Ascending has whetted your appetite for films in which a girl and her dog fight against tyranny and longueurs…

Trailer

White God begins with a beautifully composed aerial shot of a major Budapest intersection. The streets are deserted. A tiny figure cycles up onto the flyover.

It has a familiar eeriness to it – like the deserted Waterloo Bridge near the start of 28 Days Later…, but without the graininess, the obvious digital compositing. And, shot from so far above, it is as much about the construction of urban spaces and the ways they channel us as it is about the shocking emptiness of this particular space at this moment.

The cyclist – a young girl, Lili, maybe thirteen years old – passes an abandoned car, its doors wide open, and descends into the city streets. Through intersection after intersection. Patient, determined. As if searching, cautiously and with trepidation.

Then the dogs appear.

Dozens of them.

Running.

Not from something, but toward something. With purpose.

They barely even notice her.

The film leaps back a few weeks. Lili’s mother and her partner are off to Australia for three months, so she is left with her father – once a professor, now a meat inspector at an abattoir, dishevelled and disgruntled. (He is inspired by David Lurie, the protagonist of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1991)). Lili insists on taking her dog, Hagen, with her.

The tension between estranged father and daughter soon focuses on the dog, culminating in Hagen being abandoned by a busy roadside.

The film then follows two paths.

white god-feher isten-zsofia psotta-hagenAn oh-so-arthouse mildly prurient exploration of the occasionally sexualised Lili’s pubescent struggles – with her father, with older teenagers from the orchestra in which she plays trumpet – as she tries to find Hagen and ultimately reconciles with her father.

And the story of Hagen’s life as a stray. He is befriended by a dog_THUMB-1418155236944scruffy terrier, who teaches him about life on the streets, how to find food and water and shelter. How to avoid the city dogcatchers. Le barkour. But Hagen is eventually caught and sold into the world of dogfighting.

In the arena he quickly learns the horrible cost of this so-called sport.

Soon, Hagen finds himself in the dog pound, facing a lethal injection. He rebels, rather bloodily, and frees the other dogs.

He is Barktacus; they have nothing to lose but their chains.

The canine uprising has begun.

A lot of the criticism the film faced after winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year has to do with the supposed murkiness of its metaphor. This is typical of critics who don’t quite get how fantasy works, and who are incapable of finding value in the fantastic until they have translated it into the mundane. What exactly do the dogs stand for? They don’t have to stand for anything. Let them just be dogs; they will accrue meaning(s) regardless.

In complaining about the purported failure of White God‘s symbolism to symbolise some particular thing clearly, critics unwittingly clamour for an unambiguous one-to-one allegorical correspondence between manifest and latent content. Which is precisely what they would complain about if the film actually did do something so lunkheaded. That would be like  valuing Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) so highly solely because it is a roman à clef of the Bolshevik revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, rather than because it is also much richer and more ambiguous than that.

Kornél Mundruczó has cited a range of sf influences – Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator – although his film probably comes closer to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). He inevitably mentions Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966), and more surprisingly the films of Fassbinder and of Sirk:

For me, White God and All That Heaven Allows is the same story. Both discuss how society confines and forces people to behave.

The genius of Sirk’s film is to move between the constraints faced by a middle-aged widow and the repressiveness of an entire society. Mundruczó’s film is perhaps less successful, but the alternation between the two narrative strands creates a similar critical resonance. It is about race and about immiseration and about state power and about the tyranny of free markets; about family, gender and generation; about species; about surviving and providing and being better than the unhomely world we daily build will allow.

It is also about crossing The Incredible Journey (1963) with The Birds (1963) with Zéro de conduite (1933) or, better yet, Hue and Cry (1947), and throwing in a little Pied Piper of Hamelin, so as to rework, as its anagrammatical title suggests, Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982).

Does it work? Not quite. But that did not keep me from enjoying loads of it, mostly the doggy parts.

Some might complain about the film’s typical liberal substitution of a vague warm fuzzy feeling for the coherent revolutionary politics it is incapable of imagining. But it is a film that functions primarily on an affective level. There is so much simple joy to beb9114194-0ea0-4e19-8aa1-312cd5d19455-460x276 found in seeing dozens of dogs, all different sizes and shapes and colours, running freely together, in fast motion and slow, that the image of revolution undergoes a quite radical transformation – it is violent and scary, but it is also comical and energetic and charming and delightful, as any worthwhile revolution must surely be.

And almost incidentally it does have some good politics in the mix. According to dog-trainer Teresa Miller, the two dogs playing Hagen don’t quite understand that they are dogs, and so simply did not get that they were supposed to be leading the pack. So although Hagen runs near the front of the pack, he never leads it. He is no Bane, which helps keep the canine rebels from becoming some clumsy reactionary representation of Occupy or Indignado or Tahrir or Syntagma, and which helps keep him unmuzzled. white-godAnd the film ends in media res, not with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) memorialisation of an already foreclosed future but, like The Birds, with the future still open … and if Hagen and his dogged comrades can just get to the horses, the cows, the sheep, the birds….

Note While leaving the cinema, I was momentarily thrown by the end credit I thought read ADDITIONAL CATS.