Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Matris in Gremio: Ben Wheatley's High Rise (movie, 2016) (R)

I have some experience with the ostensible subject matter of High Rise, the tower blocks of the mid-1970s. I lived in the London Docklands in the late 70s to 80s, a fair proportion of that on the 11th floor. Once, desperate to get a place of my own, I’d visited a friend who lived in Balfron Tower, in Bow, the Erno Goldfinger Brutalist tower block that has been named as Ballard’s inspiration for the block in his 1975 novel High Rise. I remember taking the lift to the relevant floor in the service tower and then, when faced with walking along the connection to the main residential tower block, ending up crawling on my hands and knees, unable to face the view from the (enclosed) walkway. Needless to say, I didn’t take up my friend’s offer of his council flat (apartment), but when I found myself living on the 11th floor of a more normal block on Westferry Road on the Isle of Dogs, a few years later, I had not a trace of acrophobia. It appears to have been Erno-related anxiety. I lived in that tower block as Docklands went from a dumping ground for otherwise un-housables to an expensive gentrified waterfront area, and well recall the building of new, non-council (i.e. non-projects) towers with their differential sale prices – top-earning yuppies in multi-million pound penthouses, normal bankers in fractional-million pound lower floors. I left around the time the derelict Canary Wharf was beginning to be built up. It was an odd time to live in Docklands.  Gentrification, however, was several years after the book was published and the movie is set. Ballard a prophet? Perhaps.

My tower block last year, from Google Maps Street View

View of City of London from my tower block, 1980s

View of what was actually at the foot of my tower block, 1980s

Balfron Tower, picture ganked from this article

Now, the film. It's an R. I'm not sure why - there's a lot of violence and a few rude words in it, along with a little sex. A few of the rude words may make it into the review. The block in the movie is not like the dissected Goldfinger towers of London. It’s described as “like the distal phalanx of an index finger of an open hand”, but it looks to me more like a phallus with a bad case of chordee. There are five of them in various degrees of construction in the movie, all with that crooked top. It may be that the falling tip is ‘overarching’ rather than drooping but it’s hard to tell from internal movie clues.

The movie ostensibly follows Laing, who moves into the new tower block, attracted by its claim to supply all one may need from life, from living space, to gym, to pool, to onsite supermarkets. The new building has some shakeout problems, “settling” as the home-owners are told to think of it. The garbage chute clogs up. The power occasionally goes out. Our protagonist is a middle-class psychiatrist who has just bought an apartment on a middling floor. It has the lovely Brutalist feature of sloping naked concrete beams intruding into the living space, giving Laing a sudden impulse to paint all his belongings the same shade of grey. A straightforward reading of the film is that it tells the tale of a rebellion against the upper floors by the inhabitants of the cheap (but full utilities-paying) lower floors during an extended power cut, mediated by and observed by the middle-floor-dwelling Laing. In the darkness the food-deprived inhabitants blockade their floors, restrict access to outsiders, raid for supplies and, after the supermarkets are emptied, begin to eat their pets. On the surface, this is a typical dystopian movie plot. Who will become the leader of the block? How will he protect his women? And why don't they escape/call the police/go live with their mum?

It’s a little challenging to keep track of all the characters in the film. Even with its extended running time, not everyone gets fleshed out (or their flesh taken off). In addition to Laing, there is a junior psychiatrist Munrow, the designer of the block who is often just called The Architect, his enforcer Simmons, his wife, his mistress, his wife's mistress, Laing's women, and the lower-floors leader, the impulsive and violent Wilder, who "in real life" makes TV documentaries. There is a man who is always on the telly, and several more. They have many affairs, many wives and many children.

You can’t say Wheatley and subtle in the same sentence but the stand-out vignettes include a supermarket check-out conveyor belt converted to a torture-treadmill like the one Snake Plissken is chained to in Escape from LA, and the They Live-esque fist-fight over Laing’s can of grey paint that gave me quite a laugh. It also features a soothing amount of Tom Hiddleston-flesh, ABBA’s SOS performed by a string quartet, Portishead and soundtrack-man Clint Mansell as the running theme, Surrealist treasures in the penthouse, blink-and-you-miss-it allusions to other films and some very pointed, quick fire dialogue. One that stands out is the documentary maker’s wife casually throwing away the line, “he’s lost his focus” and later there’s an extended riff on the whole movie, beginning with the architect saying of one character, “she has quite a tight c*nt” and segueing into a description of his apartment owners having “fitted themselves tightly into their slots” (in society), with Laing immediately referring this back to the structure of the building “slots designed by you”. “I conceived this building,” the architect says as in the background women talk about babies’ bottles. “I offered a means of escape to a new life,” he continues, just as a new baby is born.

I don’t see any reason why this movie was so widely panned when it has more in common with The Matrix than its usual comparator, Snowpiercer. The latter was a one-dimensional allegory with all High Rise’s problems and none of its solutions. If I had to think of a similar film, I’d point to Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and Britannia Hospital. I think High Rise has a wider range of deeper motifs than those, however. In other words, High Rise deserves cult status, but that’s not something one can predict.

I’ve seen the film reviewed as being in some way about a typical seventies fear of high rise living. Just no. Should we also assume that Ballard had a fright about the bits of grass that grow between interchange lanes in complex highways such as freeways (Concrete Island) or was worried that iguanas might colonize London (The Drowned World) or had been in a funk that the angle between two walls might not have a happy ending (the Ambit ad)? There’s obviously allegory going on somewhere. What might it be?

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. The movie makes no secret that it’s ‘about’ the British class structure. If you take the phrase ‘social climber’ and dial the setting to ‘tower block’ you get the basic structure automatically. The film constantly refers to high life, lower orders, Marie Antoinette and power failures (i.e. failures of the powers that be). Laing buys an inexpensive Riesling from the supermarket and attempts to enter a party on the upper floors from whence he is summarily ejected, for wearing the wrong clothes and for being a cheap bastard. The people on the lower floors have lots of loud children, while the upper floors’ dwellers are famous and childless, and the uppermost of all, The Architect – whose name is Royal – has a formal rooftop garden, a horse, goats that his gauzily-dressed wife herds with a Louis XVI-era shepherd’s crook, and a dozen pampered dogs. The chief of the lower floors is called, natch, Wilder. He has a pregnant wife, several children and a poster of Che Guevara. He leads the rebellion against the upper floors.

Our man Laing belongs to neither caste, but is ideally placed as a go-between.

The social order allegory also explains one of people’s biggest moans about the movie: why none of the inhabitants try to leave the building as it breaks down. Wheatley bafflingly leaves the explanation to a voice-over at the very end, long after these people will have given up on the film as unrealistic. We hear Margaret Thatcher’s voice over the radio, “There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism. The difference lies in whether the capital is in the hands of the State or whether the greater part of it is in the hands of people outside of State control. Where there is State capitalism there will never be political freedom.” You must choose one, because there is no other system – there is no ‘outside’ to which to go. And given that you can only choose one, you should choose free enterprise, because freedom. In this analogy, the inhabitants have chosen free enterprise, and Laing, who is chewing on the last roast dog leg and thinking about setting up a private practice, is clearly all for freedom.  (You might argue that the TV personality guy left the block every day for work, but of course as his final scene showed, a man on the telly who is at work is equally in the apartments, inside their TVs, and cannot be said to have left the tower block.)

There’s a second metaphor that overlays the political one. It’s signaled by an early shot of a young medical doctor reading “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” by Sigmund Freud. The building itself is described in the film as a diagram of a psychic event. (This sounded very Ballardian, almost out of place, so I wonder if it’s a phrase from the book that wandered into the script.) The main character is not only a psychiatrist, he’s called R Laing, calling rather obviously to mind RD Laing, the psychiatrist who promulgated the theory that a psychotic episode is a result of a mind being placed in a lose-lose situation, a double bind, and the symptoms of which are an attempt to communicate the untenable situation. The building itself, with its bony ramifications, is a skull. We’re shown several skulls for comparison purposes. At one point, during a medical school dissection, we see the skin literally peeled back from a skull and the doctor hammer-and-chisel his way inside. Wheatley is not a subtle visual director. Laing, us, is the ego. Royal, The Architect, is the superego and the aggressive, rebellious, rapacious Wilder is the Id. The inciting incident leading to Laing's psychotic break is his very unprofessional treatment of a patient that leads to harm, and the film is on this level detailing Laing’s subsequent psychoanalysis. He checks out his own internal state and decides whether he needs the recommended treatment or not.

On yet a third level, the Architect is simply a god. Above everyone’s heads, dressed in Morgan-Freeman-God-White clothes, he’s described as the first to arrive in the building and the last to leave, one of the characteristics of Almighty God. “Alpha es et O”, as the hymn In Dulce Jubilo puts it, the alpha and the omega, “I am the first and the last”. He pores over his architectural plans like The Ancient of Days, Urizen, the demiurge of reason, laws and caste-based conventional society in Blake's mythology. He’s a Gnostic God, trapped in this reality, and his creation is, as always, flawed. (But Laing is not our Christ.) He is a Royal who uses a walking stick, the crippled Fisher King. As such, his wound has made him sterile and rendered his land barren and unable to support its people. He is also an alchemist– he says he designed the building as a “crucible for change” but he either put one too many or one too few "elements" in it. (He later comes to terms with his resulting rather leaden “gold”, as Ballard characters tend to do.)

The fourth metaphor I’m not sure was in the novel. The building, it seems, is built along the lines of Ken Reid’s famous and hilarious Nervs from Smash! comic, as well as Malcolm Judge’s earlier Numskulls from Beezer comic. The Numskulls were a collection of idiots who manned the skull of an unfortunate person, “Our Man”, operating his ears, eyes and brain, a little like the small people inside the girl in Inside Out, but less PC. The Nervs, despite their name, were little internal people who operated the entire body and brain of an equally unfortunate person, “Fatty". For example, they control the stomach acid pipeline. If you put the Nervs and the Numskulls together, you get the inhabitants of High Rise. This is not exactly a lofty literary theory, but I for one grew up reading these comics and many people my age, or with children my age, did, and it’s a visualization of the self that is certainly easy to, well, internalize. And let's face it, for every one British person who's read Baudrillard or Houellebecq there must be a dozen who read The Numskulls (and another dozen who've seen Inside Out).

We see this metaphor early on, where the blocked garbage chute (and man do I remember the blocked garbage chutes in the tower block where I lived) symbolizes not only a block in the internal workings of the body politic but also a more earthy block of the type that your grandma worries about, insisting you eat more fiber and drink castor oil to make you regular again. Much later, Lang describes himself as a blood cell, able to travel the arteries of the body by walking through the corridors. The implication is the other inhabitants perform the other functions. Rather than a beckoning finger, or a crooked phallus, the building with its rows of balconies is a human body with a series of compartments, as in the famous Dali paintings.

And the stinger is, the body, the block, appears to me to be female, as Dali depicted her. There are chronological and textual juxtapositions between descriptions of the building and a woman giving birth, for example. (See above for some dialogue.) Wilder ultimately asks Royal why he stole his wife, why he hides behind women’s skirts. He tells the architect to “sit there and think about what you have done”, like a kindergarten teacher. The architect is described as a midwife. There are maenads, nurturers, nymphs at the pool. The whole incident is described as “a children’s party got out of hand”. Despite the ego, superego and id being male-presenting, the block is clearly female. I think of this as scriptwriter Amy Jump’s little joke.

This is going to reward multiple rewatchings.

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