High-Rise (Ben Wheatley UK 2015)

highrise2After the varying degrees of self-importance, humourlessness and bloat Spielberg, Cronenberg and Weiss brought to their respective Empires, Crashes and Exhibitions, the very first thing screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley get right with their High-Rise is that Ballard is a comic writer.

A master of the modestly proposed deadpan preposterous, his dry technician’s prose fakes repression, barely concealing the glee with which he drones shock and flattens affect. This is pretty much impossible to reproduce in film. Cronenberg attempted it with Crash, and failed (Shivers got a lot closer, and is still the best version of High Rise that is not actually a version of High Rise).

Jump/Wheatley’s humour is much more their own, and they are sufficiently confident about it to have some fun with Ballard. There is, for example, a nicely played moment when Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) says something to Royal (Jeremy Irons) which is precisely the kind of impossible-thing-for-a-real-person-to-say that a character in a Ballard novel would say, prompting bemusement and discomfort in them both.

The second major thing Jump/Wheatley get right is to not update the setting of the film. Instead, we get a slightly different version of the 1970s, as if the decade went on a little bit longer and somehow became as attractive to look at as it clearly – and mistakenly – thought it was.

But this also reveals a problem with the film as an adaptation (as a Jump/Wheatley film, it is second only to Sightseers).

Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments was transforming from merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom (typically and conveniently forgetting that for many people moving from the slums to the new developments was headily utopian – indoor plumbing!). It was written when councils were withdrawing maintenance from post-war housing projects, and their residents were being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. It 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 – you know, like in Our Friends in the North).

And so 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. The closing moments of the film do nod to Thatcher, and it is certainly the case that she – conveniently forgetting that many of the worst post-war developments were built by private companies, not by the state or local councils – drew on this myth to drive through her ideological war on council housing, thus creating the ongoing housing crisis in the UK.

But the conditions in which Ballard’s novel was written no longer exists, and the film – despite the way it captures middle-class social sadism – lacks that element of specificity that would provide a vital resonance. Consequently, Ballard, who should be shocking the bourgeosie, is suddenly heritage cinema, and that is just plain wrong.

Probably the most telling moment for me in this regard comes in the sequence when Richard (Luke Evans), slowly making his battered way up the building to exact his revenge, assaults Charlotte (Sienna Miller). A montage, which includes her timidly serving him a tin of dog food for breakfast the next day, plays out to Portishead’s cover version of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’. It is a beautiful version, transforming the pop song into a languid, mournful piece of music, as self-consciously ‘serious’ as one would expect from them. And in all kinds of ways it works brilliantly.

But it is completely the wrong choice.

They should have gone with the original version; not because it is better, but because the last thing the film needed was to fall into such clichéd caution. This is not to say that rape, even if only implied rather than depicted, should be treated frivolously; but rather that the film loses something by choosing to treat this particular moment as so very exceptional. At least using ABBA’s version might have been sufficiently inappropriate to shock audiences out of their complacency. But that was never going to happen. Despite all the potentially offensive material the film contains, it also wants to be respectable, and that is budget speaking, not art.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s an enjoyable film, and full of nice little touches, from sets which bring the brutalist concrete inside the apartments to an unexpected nod to Aladdin Sane and some great dancing.

But you know the way The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘s static camerawork makes it not so much an expressionist film as a film of expressionist sets and performances? So High-Rise is a film of a Ballard novel, not a Ballardian film.

[Thanks to Mark Cosgrove for blagging me into the preview after the ticketing fiasco.]

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Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

1839lzdygndfmjpgFirst, the confession.

Until now, I have never read a Stephen King novel.

In my early teens, I just could not get into Christine (1983) or Carrie (1974) or, indeed, The Shining. Each time I gave up a few chapters in, and just figured he was not for me. Sure, I’ve read Danse Macabre (1981), his history of horror fiction, a couple of times, and have always cherished its description of Harold Robbins (he can’t tell the difference between a well-structured sentence and a shit-and-anchovy pizza). And I did read The Talisman (1984), King’s fat fantasy novel collaboration with Peter Straub, when it first came out – and since I enjoyed it, I attributed that to Straub (although not enough to actually read any of his solo novels).1 I even bought a copy of Dreamcatcher (2001) a couple of years ago, just to see if it is as hilariously inept as the William Goldman/Lawrence Kasdan film version, but gave it to a friend in the hope she would do the research for me. (She didn’t.)

But I am teaching the US cut of Kubrick’s movie this semester, so I figured alongside also watching Mick Garris’s 1997 King-scripted Shining miniseries and the Room 237 documentary, I should really give the novel another ago.

And you know what?

It’s all right.

It isn’t scary or suspenseful in any way, which might be because I already know the story. The prose only rises above workmanlike for literally – and I do not mean figuratively – a couple of nicely-crafted short sentences (which I failed to mark in the text so I can’t tell you what they were and may never find them again). But it is interesting in the way it is such a seventies novel.

That ain't no monolith...
That ain’t no monolith…

First, and least significantly, the cook, Dick Hallorann, often talks and thinks as if blaxploitation movies were King’s only source for imagining an African-American man – a quality Kubrick suppressed by

...and neither is that
…and neither is that

casting Scatman Crothers in the role, but which returns in the paintings decorating Hallorann’s Florida apartment.

Second, The Shining has something of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s post-counterculture misogynistic whininess that pins the dissatisfactions of lower middle class white masculinity on women.2 Terri Garr’s performance in the margins of Spielberg’s movie can, if observed, prompt at least some sympathy for her character. But just as Spielberg is uninterested in Ronnie Neary, so King, despite giving Wendy Torrance some backstory, some viewpoint chapters and some noteworthy nipples, really could care less. Like Spielberg always, King here is obsessed with paternity and patrilineality, even using the word ‘patricide’ in the novel’s climax to describe Danny’s role in the destruction of the Overlook/Jack.

Third, and most intriguingly, The Shining anticipates neoliberalism’s particular intensification of demands on workers. Much as the novel is about the past – the ghosts of the Overlook hotel; the effect Jack and Wendy’s neglectful, manipulative and/or violent parents had on them; Jack’s alcoholism; Jack’s violence – haunting the present, it now also has an air of being haunted by the future. When one socio-economic structure subsumes another, it does not replace it completely but carries forward, mutatis mutandis, that which it needs, that which it can make use of, that which does not contradict its operation and expansion. Which is why early capitalism had its feudal robber barons, and why this social relation and the sociopaths it rewards are ever increasingly evident in the aftermath of 2008.

In the later stages of the novel, the Overlook is revealed as a kind of raging Old Testament god, cruelly demanding that Jack sacrifice his son. His reward will be acceptance into a great chain of being, presided over by this dark ancient power and populated by mobsters, killers, CEOs and other criminals. However, the contract underpinning his adoption by the hotel is repeatedly expressed in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, of Jack having to prove that he is management material. From caretaker to manager – the American Dream! – through subservience and self-abasement misdescribed as personal merit.3

But what is the nature of Jack’s actual job? It is not the mountain-top location that makes his employment so precarious. Unearned, it is within the gift of his millionaire ex-drinking-buddy, Al Shockley, who inherited his wealth; and, as Jack learns, if he steps out of line, Al will fire him without hesitation. It is a job that completely obliterates any line between work and not-work, between workplace and home. It relocates and dislocates his entire family, but will last only a few months, and if he is fired, they will all be homeless. It requires his constant presence, often in stand-by mode. It colonises his consciousness and creative human capacities, and subordinates him entirely to the extraction of his labour-power.

Jonathan Crary entitled his 2014 book on the ruinous human effects of contemporary capitalism and its attention economy 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep; I guess I will now have to read King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to see whether it is just a coincidence that he called it Doctor Sleep.

PS Even after reading The Shining, I have still read more Guy N. Smith novels and seen more Lawnmower Man movies than I have read King novels.

1 I got bogged down in the early pages of Koko (1988) years ago, and still have an unread Shadowland (1980) in a box somewhere. But I did once stay in a hotel room next to Peter Straub at a conference in Florida, and was (admittedly unintentionally) a considerate neighbour, which surely must count for something.
2 You will be glad to hear this kind of silly whinging and contrafactual scapegoating is a thing of the past. Oh. No, wait. See  this. And this excellent response.
3 As satirised in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and straightfacedly reiterated every day by all that bullshit about this being a meritocracy.