High-Rise (2015)

*. When I was re-reading J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise recently I found myself wondering to what extent it could be described as an SF novel. It came out in 1975 and I don’t know if it presents any technology that didn’t exist at the time. It doesn’t date itself either, so I think readers could have imagined it being set in the present.
*. Nevertheless, in its vision of an urban world where the machine stops and civilization regresses to something tribal along the lines of the island in Lord of the Flies there is something dystopic if not apocalyptic going on. Nowadays we elide the genre question by just referring to such books as speculative fiction. They take place in a recognizable reality not quite our own.
*. The reason I bring this up is because this film version is set in the 1970s, or at least an alternative 1970s. According to the DVD commentary this was a decision made by the screenwriter Amy Jump, though it’s fair to ask if there’s anything in the script that refers to that particular period. Nothing in the dialogue, I would say, though apparently there were a lot of directions in the script making note of design elements that were elaborated on by the art department here.

*. I say an alternative 1970s because I was around in the ’70s and it didn’t look much like this. Albeit I was living on a farm at the time and not a high-rise. I thought it interesting that director Ben Wheatley (who was born in 1972) says that the supermarket in the building scared him because it reminded him so much of the period (“I really felt I was in the ’70s again”). I say this is interesting because the supermarket struck me as a generic fantasy. But then Wheatley backtracks and says it’s “not maybe how other people might remember it.”
*. Also on the commentary Tom Hiddleston remarks on how the wardrobe had it so that “it looked like the ’70s but also looked like a vision of the future.” In this I think it matches well with what Ballard was doing. In the novel Laing “finds it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and that was now exhausted.” Everything in the building is so new, and so old. In just such a way science fiction is always about the present more than the shape of things to come.

*. What’s the point of all this? I just got to thinking about the dates because of the speculative angle, and was wondering when a period film isn’t a period film. Does setting this film in a make-believe 1970s have some deeper meaning other than the fact that Wheatley feels drawn to the era? Here let’s note that his next film, Free Fire, would also harken back to the days of sideburns and moustaches.
*. I actually think the date does mean something, though that meaning isn’t clear. Which I don’t mean as a criticism since I like the fact that the film version isn’t as preachy as the book. A little bit of Ballard, I feel, goes a long way and I usually get tired of his (short) novels about halfway through. I think High-Rise may be his best novel, but still you get the point pretty quickly. A lot of reviewers didn’t like the movie High-Rise because they found it plotless and pointless but I appreciated its languid pace and relative reticence.
*. The screenplay diverges from the novel in several ways that are major but not significant. The characters of Toby, Munrow, and Simmons are wholly invented. Wilder’s wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant, which she isn’t in the book. Laing no longer has a sister he is incestuously drawn to and in the book he doesn’t paint his apartment. On the thematic level the willing retreat-into-solitude angle is dropped, not much is done beyond the obvious with the class warfare subtext, and there’s little of the threatening feminine principle Ballard harps on so much, with the maternal maenads at the end getting short shrift instead of being more clearly shown becoming the building’s true inheritors.

*. I say these changes aren’t significant because I don’t think it’s the script’s development (or non-development) of certain themes that is really driving the film. Instead, style is in the driver’s seat: the way the movie looks.
*. That may make it sound like High-Rise is a shallow movie, and to be fair it’s not as political or philosophical as Ballard’s book (Thatcher’s radio broadcast at the end is out of place). But I think it nicely captures the fact that these are shallow people, inhabiting a shallow world. More shallow even than Ballard’s 1970s. In the ’70s Wilder had his handheld camera and it was shocking that the residents were shooting their own porn, but how blase that all seems now!
*. The most interesting thing about the movie is its attitude toward the ’70s, because, like I say, this isn’t made clear. I was often reminded of Godard, especially Weekend with the parking lot appearing as a kind of Godardian carmageddon. And wasn’t Weekend (1967) both an expression of the spirit of its age and a reaction against that same spirit, seeing it as nihilistic and morally bankrupt? Another French influence might be the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who indicted the same generation most powerfully in The Elementary Particles (Les Particules élémentaires).

*. The thing is, I don’t see where Wheatley comes down on any one side in these generational debates, and I don’t mind. He is showing and not telling. Do we see ourselves in the residents of the building? Do we see them as the architects of their own downfall, or as lab rats in an experiment being run by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons)? Are we seeing the evolution of a new social type, which turns out to be something both more advanced and more primitive? Are men the bad guys, and is the triumphal sisterhood at the end a brave new world? I don’t know. Wheatley doesn’t editorialize. In fact, I’m not sure he even thought about questions like these.
*. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, but I wonder if Wheatley ever considered going in the other direction entirely and filming it shaky-cam style. Certainly the story lends itself to such an approach, since we’re told in the book that everyone is constantly filming themselves. And Wilder’s handheld camera is one of the key props in the story. I’m not saying it would have been easy, but given how much has been made out of less promising material in found-footage horror movies I think the potential was there, and maybe still is, for doing something alone these lines.

*. Mark Kermode thought he could detect the influence of Zardoz in a big way. That’s a stretch and I’m not sure what he was looking at. I suppose Luke Evans would be the Sean Connery character, but beyond that I don’t see much visual connection and both movies are primarily visual.
*. This was a movie that divided critics pretty severely. I’m curious as to how much of this broke down on national lines. Obviously it’s a British novel and British production (though shot in Northern Ireland). The cast seem to respond to their situation (in the book and the film) with a British sense of SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up). We rarely see anyone aside from Wilder showing any emotion. Laing only loses it when someone tries to take his paint. Aside from that, everyone seems narcotized. But this is the effect that living in the tower has. It returns people to a childlike state, with all that implies. I mean, anyone could leave at any time. It’s not that they can’t leave, it’s that they don’t want to.

*. The long takes, the musical interludes, the baroque design all scream of pretension, but that’s not the feeling I had watching High-Rise. It’s glossy like a wealthy lifestyles magazine, but complicated in much the same way. This is a double vision of heaven as hell, superimposed on one another.
*. I shouldn’t like High-Rise. I’m a big fan of the novel but the movie is far removed from the book, going for style over substance and not bothering to tell much of a coherent story at all. Even Wilder’s ascension of the tower isn’t a hero’s progress we can follow. Aside from Luke Evans I didn’t think anyone in the cast stood out, though that may have been more by design (Hiddleston as Everyman). And yet . . .
*. And yet this is one of my favourite movies of the past several years. Maybe it’s the way feeling and emotion seem to be seeping from the film like the water draining from the swimming pool, leaving only rotten debris behind. Or the loneliness of Laing, turning the last of man’s best friends on a spit while he stares off into nothing. Or the strangely vapid emptiness of the new matriarchy, preparing their Better Homes and Gardens photoshoot on the roof. Or Wilder doing his caveman dance in chiaroscuro on coke, or floating on the blood-dimmed tide. These moments last, and I think each means something.

*. I mentioned in my notes on The Trial how the nightmares of Kafka have a kind of comforting message to them. Ballard’s sometimes give me the same impression. It’s one of the paradoxes of High-Rise that Thanatos, the death impulse of civilization, is so seductive not just for allowing such an unrestrained exercise of libido but for its very coziness. Those barriered apartments are the cocoons of modern living, no matter if we’re starving inside or drowning in our own shit and garbage. Death and decline have become our comfort zone.
*. That’s as timely a message as it was forty years ago, and I think it’s the same message here as it was then. It’s just delivered in a different language, uniquely satirical and retro without invoking any generational irony. This might be a collection of home movies made by our parents, prophetic both as nightmare and as fantasy.

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