Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

LFF 2015: High-Rise

by Ben Diamond

Cold, detached and airless.  Tom Hiddlestone in High-Rise (Wheatley 2015, 112m)

Oh dear oh dear.  I was really looking forward to this.  Ben Wheatley has been rising in stature over the last five years, starting with his debut, Down Terrace (his best), shot on a shoestring budget, and following it up with tales of the darker part of the English psyche – Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England.  Now he’s been given a proper budget and has chosen to adapt JG Ballard’s treasured novel High-Rise, which concerns the breakdown of social order in a block of flats for well-to-do professionals, who revolt against each other, and the building itself, which possesses its own sinister qualities and acts as a sort of superego for the collective hive mind of the residents.  A bit sci-fi, but not that sci-fi really, considering similar incidents were occurring at the time Ballard was writing the novel.  For someone with a fearsome reputation for pre-cog, including making the prophesy in the 1960s that Ronald Reagan would one day become president, this was more a reflection of what was happening, rather than what could happen.

Which all sounds like it might translate into a brilliant film.  I love Ben Wheatley but I feel he has simply picked source material that is too difficult to put onto the screen without losing Ballard’s intellectual verve.  I applaud his ambition.  But it simply doesn’t work.  Wheatley’s early work has been characterised by his gift for characterisation and dialogue, and his ability to create real menace and tension onscreen with nothing but a conversation.  In Ballard’s book, I feel most of the interesting ideas come from characters’ internal dialogues, not from external actions, which are actually fairly violent and repetitive.  Given a big budget, Wheatley appears to leave behind all the ideas about how the atmosphere of violence and jealousy of the High-Rise itself came to be, assuming it’s a given, and that we have all read the source material and understand it anyway, instead focusing on elaborate set designs and set pieces, which admittedly look stunning, but feel hollow without the ideas behind them being explained properly.

I really wanted this film to work.  In the end I feel Wheatley may have panicked and come to realise that, indeed, much of the message of the novel had been lost in the heady mix of visual flair and violent montages.  All of the characters from the book, (importantly) all living in different parts of the building and with different agendas, perspectives and attitudes, are thrown into a melting pot where they all blend into a homogenous, violent whole.  Perhaps this is why an audio clip of a Thatcher speech is shamefully tacked on to the end of the film, to give it some sort of intellectual weight which it had been lacking for the previous hour and forty minutes.  That might have been acceptable in This is England, but for a film devoid of social and political context up to then, it felt like a shortcut.  Even The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’, which plays over the end credits (in many ways the perfect track full stop, but certainly the perfect track for this film) couldn’t save this one.  The less said about the montage where Portishead cover ABBA’s ‘SOS’, the better.

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LFF 2015: Entertainment

by Ben Diamond

Entertainment (Alverson 2015, 110m)

When is a film not funny?  When its subject is a stand-up comedian.

Entertainment seems to owe a debt to Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon, both looking at the business of comedy.  But whereas there is some sort of prankish genius at work in the Andy Kaufman construct in the latter, it soon becomes apparent in Entertainment that there’s absolutely nothing funny whatsoever about its main character (played by Gregg Turkington, simply ‘The Comedian’ in the credits), who drives alone through the desert, performing terrible and offensive jokes to the few nonplussed stragglers in each new bar he reaches.  I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s brilliant book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, about his years toiling on the road, playing upstairs at pubs, misunderstood and underappreciated.  But at least in his book there is eventual redemption (success), and the confirmation that Lee really does possess some sort of comic genius that is just too sophisticated for the masses.  Here, although I desperately wanted some sort of an equivalent to a wink from Turkington, letting the film audience in on the joke, there was none.  Instead, there is just a slow-burn realisation that this lone figure is doomed to perform piss-poor comedy (if it can even be called that) for the rest of his life.  That he turns nasty when his audiences lose interest in the performances belies a lack of self-awareness, and gives the whole piece a razor-sharp edge.

The Comedian’s deranged onstage performances differ completely from his quiet demeanour offstage.  The set-up to his jokes often start with a pained and drawn-out “Whyyyyyy?”, almost as if he has been forced onstage against his own will as some Inferno-style punishment, questioning his own torment.  In his hotel rooms between gigs, he phones his wife and speaks to his daughter.  “Hello sweetie,” we often hear him say.  After a while one wonders if this family even exist.  It’s strange to watch a comedian at work and failing miserably.  It’s not as if he’s a misunderstood genuis – he’s just not funny.  And it’s not funny watching him fail, either.  And therein likes the horror.  This is a film so bleak, the comedy so pitch-black you can’t even see it, that when the credits roll you just close your eyes and take deep breaths until the house lights come up again.

The things The Comedian encounters as the film goes on become more and more surreal, extreme metaphors for his alienation and descent into madness.  Michael Cera, in an inspired piece of casting, completely against type, plays a desperate driver at a gas station with a buzz cut.  The effect is disorientating.  At one point The Comedian witnesses a woman giving bith by herself on the floor of a truck stop bathroom.  All his performances are mirrored by his support act, a young man who puts on makeup and clowns around silently, jumping on tables and pretending to masturbate, defecating in his own hat.  It’s a great and innocent (if equally shit) comedic counterpoint to Turkington’s abhorrent nastiness onstage.  The film is full of slow-burn moments of absolute existential horror.  I thought it was wonderful.