The City in Fiction and Film, week 20: Dirty Pretty Things

dirty-pretty-things-movie-poster-print-27-x-40week 19

This week’s class was a short one (since we had a lot of admin and related things we also had to cover), so it is even more unconscionable that it has taken me nearly three weeks to write it up.

Before discussing Dirty Pretty Things (Frears 2002), we began by considering the notion of diaspora and different kinds of migrancy.

The term ‘diaspora’ – now used to mean the dispersal of people from their homelands to communities in new lands – was originally used to describe the scattering of the Jews from Judea and into the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE (the return from Persia in 520 BCE echoed the earlier exodus from Egypt and settlement in Judea). A second diaspora took place in 70 CE, when the Roman occupiers quashed a rebellion and passed laws banning Jews from living in Jerusalem and Judea.

There are other historical precedents, such as the west African slave trade, which began in the late 1400s, with the first African slaves brought to the ‘New World’ in 1502 (just a decade after Columbus ‘discovered’ the West Indies). This slave trade was essential to the wealth of the British Empire (although Britain likes to emphasise its role in Abolition, rather than in the slave trade and the use of slave labour even after Abolition) and to the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. After Abolition, there was a stream of diasporas into American from Europe (Irish, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Catholic Poles, Russian and East European Jews, Italians) and Asia (Chinese, Japanese). There were also Indian and Chinese diasporas into the Caribbean and South America, often in the form of indentured labour.

Such movements, which continue in the present, produce various categories of migrants:

  • Colonial settlers.
  • Transnational corporate expatriates: economic migrants of an elite managerial class, who work in another country while retaining citizenship in their homeland; they move easily across borders. The news never labels them ‘economic migrants’ though, as that is a tag reserved for condemning poor people.
  • Student visa holders: advanced education in host countries is potentially of great benefit to host country as well as homeland.
  • Postcolonial émigrés: post-independence migrants to former coloniser nation.
  • Refugees: targets of persecution, state violence, retaliation, repression, torture or unlawful imprisonment who have been granted asylum within host country (numbers dropping globally, but only because of increasingly draconian asylum processes).
  • Asylum seekers: those whose application for asylum has not yet been processed (and thus are denied the rights afforded to refugees under international law), which is probably the key reason for making asylum processes increasingly draconian.
  • Detainees: asylum seekers held in detention camps. Iin the 1980s, Cuban ‘boat people’ were welcomed in the US as political refugees from a regime opposed by the US, but Haitians fleeing the bloody, CIA-backed Duvalier dictatorship were detained as merely ‘economic migrants’ (almost 45,000 of them held at Guantánamo by 1994).
  • Internally displaced persons: people forced to relocate to another region of their own country due to violence, civil war, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, religious oppression, famine, disease.
  • Economic migrants: workers responding to push/pull of global economy (depression, recession, poverty, famine at home vs labour shortages in another country).
  • Undocumented workers (‘illegal aliens’): people who migrate for various reasons without the required legal documentation.

There are lots of films that explore these different experiences, including The Exiles (Mackenzie 1961), Black Girl (Sembene 1966), El Norte (Nava 1983), White Mischief (Radford 1987), Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Men with Guns (Sayles 1997), Last Resort (Pawlikoski 2000), Demonlover (Assayas 2002), In this World (Winterbottom 2002), Blind Shaft (Li 2003), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), Silver City (Sayles 2004), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), Blind Mountain (Li 2007), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007), Frozen River (Hunt 2008), Sleep Dealer (Rivera 2008), She, A Chinese (Guo 2009), Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009), Le Havre (Kaurismäki 2011), Out in the Dark (Mayer 2012).

Kevin Foster, who compares films from the Windrush era – Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961) – with Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things argues that such films, for all their apparent concern with the experience of migrant populations are ultimately more concerned with the ways in which their presence impacts upon and is articulated by the domestic population.

what unites the differing treatments of exile and displacement is their common focus on domestic anxieties regarding British national identity. … these films suggest that the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers … are of less interest to British audiences and filmmakers than what is happening to their own countries and themselves. … The new migrants, like their Commonwealth forebears, are of interest to British filmmakers in so far as they provide a focus for the analysis and treatment of essentially domestic political, social and cultural concerns. (Foster 683, 688)

He also outlines a common set of preoccupations in these films: ‘to explore and map the alien space of the here and now’; ‘what it means to lose one’s place in the world’; ‘what it means to lose the cultural identity that anchors one to [the world]’; ‘what it is to be stateless, lost and adrift’; ‘how, under the manifold pressures of migration, families cope, collapse or coalesce, how their traditional structures and roles shift in the face of unexpected circumstances and unfamiliar needs’; the nature and frequency of ‘improvised’ and ‘quasi-familial arrangements’ for support (688).

While this is all rather uncontroversial, his final point is perhaps more difficult to process: for all the often extreme differences between being a white citizen, a citizen of colour and a newly-arrived migrant (of whatever sort), the appeal of such films to the domestic audience lies in some kind of recognition of a shared experience of precarity and dislocation in a country that is becoming increasingly unhomely to the majority of its own citizens. As Foster writes

Britain may still exercise a magnetic attraction to the descamisados of the modern world but it is an increasingly foreign land to its own people, less a home and more like a hotel where every care or comfort comes at a price. (691)

Our own discussion of Dirty Pretty Things began with its view of London. For a film centred around a reasonably classy central London hotel, it is initially surprising that we  see so few tourists and nothing of tourist London: no Big Ben or London Eye or St Paul’s Cathedral or Southbank or Dome. There is also a strong emphasis on spaces of transition – hotel lobbies and bedrooms, taxis, car parks, tunnels, corridors, Heathrow airport; like Boyz N the Hood, this is a film about mobility and entrapment. Moreover, Frears’ colour palette – bright blocks of colour – give it all a slightly unnatural, constructed feel, despite its location shooting and overall naturalism, as if to insist that there is nothing normal or natural about this city. It is manmade, artificial, and so are the economic and social relations that dominate it. (This idea is extended through the image Senay (Audrey Tautou) has of New York, clearly derived from film and television and tourist imagery – a fetishised irreality she both clings to and knows to be false).

The London we see in the film is like the inverse of Notting Hill (Michell 1999), which ethnically cleansed its eponymous location (as subsequent gentrification is also doing). In Dirty Pretty Things, there are (almost) no white people because it focuses on cleaners, night staff, taxi drivers, and so on – the ethnically diverse working class without which the city would grind to a halt but who are typically marginalised.

The other key idea we discussed was concerned with borders. We tend to think of borders as physical locations whereas they are much more complex than that. They are legal constructs which only sometimes coincide with physical locations around the edges of a country. The apparatus of the border also functions within the enbordered territory. The crude, violent aggression of the Immigration Officers who tear apart Senay’s flat looking for evidence that she is working or accepting rent from a subletting tenant, and the laws banning her from earning any income while her case is being processed are just as much the border as the passport control points through which she and Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must pass on their way into and out of the UK. Just as the ‘transnational corporate expatriate’ is never labelled an economic migrant, so the ban on asylum seekers earning an income emphasise the relationship between wealth and the border. It is this function of the border that drives Senay and others into underpaid labour, sweatshops, sexual harassment and a state of constant precarity – and into the grips of organ harvesters…

Next week, we will take a step back in time to an earlier Stephen Frears movie, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and think about it in relation to Black British cinema and second- and third-generation Black Britons.

week 21

Core critical reading: Foster, Kevin. “New Faces, Old Fears: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and British Identity.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 683–91.

Recommended critical reading
Amago, Samuel. “Why Spaniards Make Good Bad Guys: Sergi López and the Persistence of the Black Legend in Contemporary European Cinema.” Film Criticism 30.1 (2005): 41–63.
Berghahn, Daniela. Far-Flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Gibson, Sarah. “Border Politics and Hospitable Spaces in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 693–701.
Lai, Larissa. “Neither Hand, Nor Foot, Nor Kidney: Biopower, Body Parts and Human Flows in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things.” CineAction 80 (2010): 68–72.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Monk, Claire. “Projecting a ‘New Britain’.”, Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 34–3, 42.
Pravinchandra, Shital. “Hospitality for Sale, or Dirty Pretty Things.” Cultural Critique 85 (2013): 38–60.
Wayne, Mike. “British Neo-noir and Reification: Croupier and Dirty Pretty Things.” Neo-noir. Ed. Mark Bould, Kathrina Glitre and Greg Tuck. London: Wallflower, 2009. 136–51.
Whittaker, Tom. “Between the Dirty and the Pretty: Bodies in Utopia in Dirty Pretty Things.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.2 (2011): 121–132.

Recommended reading
Contemporary British fiction about the experience of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe includes Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (2001), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret
(2005), Fadia Faqir’s My Name is Salma
aka The Cry of the Dove (2007), Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007), Rose Tremain’s The Road Home (2008) and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015).

Recommended viewing
British films addressing similar material include Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000), In This World (Winterbottom 2002), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007) and She, A Chinese (Guo 2009). Also of interest are Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Lilya 4-Ever (Moodysson 2002), Silver City (Sayles 2004) and The Terminal (Spielberg 2004).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Le temps du loup aka Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke France/Austria/Germany 2003)

18363600[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 94 (2005): 134-137]

Although it has always produced outstanding sf and fantasy—from Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Švankmajer—there was a time, back before I was born, when European arthouse cinema was synonymous with both cinematic and science-fictional excellence, when the nouvelle vague gave us Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1959), Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967). This period is best captured not by Bernardo Bertolucci’s joyless The Dreamers (2003) but, for all its gaucheness, Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001), in which a young American filmmaker in Paris, desperate to be Godard, ends up completing a pop-camp sf movie even more heavily indebted to Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik (1968) than to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), in which a sexy space-age spy must infiltrate the lunar base of Billy Zane’s Che-like rebel leader.

Over the last couple of years, European arthouse directors have again been drawn to the fantastic and science-fictional. Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love (2003), Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2004) attempt, with mixed success, to populate their Dickian/cyberpunk-flavoured tales with characters who at least vaguely resemble human beings. Vinterberg manages to produce several genuinely strange and estranging moments, but is undercut by a star-based narrative logic which forestalls complex intersubjectivity and opens the door to the worst kind of greetings card sentimentality; Assayas generates some sense of the perpetual displacement of the subject jetting through the spaces of global capital, but his film is no Pattern Recognition; and Winterbottom’s impressive vision of the future which looks just like the contemporary Third World succumbs to the picturesque (and a really problematic rape scene in which Maria (Samantha Morton) literally asks for it). In Fear X (2002), Nicolas Winding Refn transforms a Wisconsin which already looked pretty alien—positively Canadian—into somewhere distinctly Lynchian, while Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika (2003) occasionally rises above the ordinariness required of a Halle Berry vehicle. Although all of these films contain things to recommend them—some more than others—none of them measure up to those of forty years ago or, indeed, to Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup.

An immaculate MPV glides along a forest road. In it are Georges (Daniel Duval) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) Laurent, their mid-teens daughter, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier), and her younger brother Ben (Lucas Biscome). Fleeing the city and some never-specified catastrophe, they have calmly made their way to their weekend house in the country; but a family of strangers have already moved in. When the agonisingly reasonable Georges offers them welcome and a share of their supplies, he is killed and Anne and the children are turned away. Despite knowing the Laurents, local villagers refuse them aid or shelter, and so they begin to wander the countryside, first joining up with an unnamed boy (Hakim Taleb) and then with a proto-community dominated by the petty tyranny of property-ownership and commerce—a set-up which does not survive the arrival of a larger group of refugees. Together, these displaced people await the arrival of a train which might take them to somewhere better.

It could be a trick of perspective, but the last few years seem to have produced a number of texts which return to the the kind of post-apocalyptic fiction once dismissed as cosy catastrophes (Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1998), Lovegrove’s Untied Kingdom (2003), Roberts’s The Snow (2004), Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2004); the TV series The Last Train (1999); movies such as Reign of Fire (Bowman 2002), Twenty Eight Days Later (Boyle 2002), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich 2004) and Dawn of the Dead (Snyder 2004)), the best of which display at the very least an occasional flash of New Weird vigour, reinflating—with narrative and, occasionally, wit—a subgenre exhausted by the New Wave. What distinguishes Le temps du loup from them is a quite remorseless austerity, first signalled by the opening titles: small white uncluttered text on a black background, without music or sound. There are no CGI dragons. There are no zombies, enRaged or otherwise. There is no Big Weather. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the offscreen murder of Georges with the in-yer-face provocations and hi-jinks of Haneke’s earlier home-invasion movie, Funny Games (1997).

In an accompanying interview, Haneke explains Le temps du loup‘s restraint in terms of not wanting to make a generic disaster movie but a film about personal relationships, of wanting to give the comfortable westerners used to watching the unfolding global catastrophe on TV a taste of what it would be like if it happened to them. In this he succeeds, but not necessarily in the way he intends.

The film relies on ellipses. The nature of the catastrophe is never explained (although livestock burning on a pyre in the background of one shot might provide a clue). We do not see Georges’s death or his family having to bury him; we do not see their expulsion from their home or their theft of a bicycle; we do not see Ben’s discovery of his dead budgerigar or a barn going up in flames; we do not see Anne’s response to the letter Eva writes to her dead father, in which she talks about having to careful around her mother as she is on the verge of cracking up; and so on. Along with these omissions, there are also a number of scenes set in a pitch-black night, illuminated intermittently by the flame of a cigarette lighter or a handful of burning straw, and a number of unexplained events. This eschewal extends even to refusing emotional spectacle: when a sick child dies, there is a 30 second shot of hands fashioning a crude cross and placing it on the grave, followed by a two-and-a-half minute shot of the legs of the people gathered around the grave, the only sound being the mourning cries of the child’s out-of-shot mother—and in the extreme distance, as the mourners move off, the flaming torches of an approaching group of refugees creep into shot, blurs of distant light in the falling dark.

The refusal to show does not extend to the characters; rather, all that the camera does is show us their stunned and stunted responses, and in this Haneke seems to be deliberately pursuing the kind of humanist-realism championed half a century ago by André Bazin. The camera’s cool gaze stays resolutely outside of the characters, but frequent long takes provide the time to watch minute gestures and changes of expression and to ponder motivation and meaning. There is, for example, an aching moment when we can see Eva trying to choose between loyalty to a mother ill-equipped to handle the new situation and the teenage boy who has already learned to strip whatever he needs from corpses (and some time later, we see her growing realisation that the boy is differently, but equally, ill-equipped). In the same sequence, a close-up reveals the sorrowful wisdom of the even younger Ben who, unlike his family, knows there is no point running after a passing train, crying for help. This sense of externality counters Haneke’s desire to focus on relationships, and perhaps only twice produces the kind of the effect on the viewer he seeks. First, and overwhelmingly, is the sense of disconnection: just as the family have no idea what has happened or what will happen next, so the film’s omissions and ellipses makes the experience of the narrative an uncertain one; while it grips, the succession of incidents also produces a sense of being stunned, akin to that experienced by the characters. Second, the conclusion that Ben reaches, the sacrifice he decides to make to save his family, simultaneously comes out of the blue and is inevitable. It is a moment every bit as human and as terrible as the scene in Thomas Disch’s ‘The Asian Shore’ about the young boy struggling to carrry two buckets of water whose shoes come off every time he takes a few steps; and the ground is freezing; and every time he puts his shoes back on he spills more of the water over himself; and he is freezing; and just as Disch’s narrator cannot help because he cannot communicate with the boy, so we cannot save Ben from his decision even though we know it will not work and its cost is unimaginably high.

The low-budget Last Night (McKellar 1998), dubbed ‘the Canadian Armageddon’, stands out among the recent ‘not-so-cosy’ catastrophes, not least because it refuses the apocalypse a post-. Similarly, and like Weekend, to which its long tracking shots might pay homage, Le temps du loup is ultimately not about life after the apocalypse—the survivors are numb, powerless; there is no attempt to rebuild civilisation—but about life during the apocalypse going on around us, mostly unseen. Like Benjamin’s angel of history (and, perhaps, Code 46), Haneke’s film sees not progress but one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. The closing shot, which lasts for over two minutes, is filmed, the soundtrack implies, from aboard a train as it races through a verdant French countryside. We do not see the train. We do not know whether it is the one for which the characters have been waiting or, if so, whether it stopped to pick them up. We do not even know whether it is real, or merely a fantasy like the one spoken of in the preceding scene (‘maybe tomorrow, there’ll be … a big car racing up. … And a guy will get out and say everything’s fine again. And water will flow in our mouths with roast pigeons and maybe the dead will come back to life’). And while the final shot shows that the land, like the people whose story we’ve followed, endures, it is a land, perhaps significantly, deserted of people.