Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops, 2016, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 10 minutes 11 seconds.
“The increasingly widening circles configure every possible revolution.”1
BESIDE THE ROOTS of a massive Ceiba tree, a female figure lies on her back, eyes closed, a circle painted on her forehead.
Ceibas are sprawling giants. This tree climbs 130 feet, its waves of roots measure sixty feet wide, making pockets where herds of horses sleep. In Mayan myth, the Ceiba’s roots are portals to the underworld, the canopy a threshold of the heavens, and its encircling umbrage a space of healing.
This Ceiba has lived on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico for over three hundred years. It remembers runaway slaves. It remembers detonated bombs. It remembers civil disobedience. Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s black-and-white film Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces (2016) transforms this prostrate figure with 16-mm celluloid. We see stunning, close-cropped frames of fragments: an energy healer working on an eroding black beach, sea foam becoming emulsion, horses that have roamed forests without detonating innumerable landmines. After the image of the grounded figure—artist Ardelle Ferrer, Santiago Muñoz’s collaborator and friend—the film cuts to a horse that appears lifeless. This cut is not a break but a splice: Ferrer becomes the horse. The animal suddenly lifts its body, touched by the toxicity of weapons-testing that convoyed with and persists beyond the US Navy’s sixty-year-long occupation of the island. Ferrer’s direct gaze into Santiago Muñoz’s camera ends the film.
This is not the puncturing gaze of Third Cinema—the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist Latin American film movement that began five decades ago—which flares historical rage. It is an exchange of powers. Santiago Muñoz’s art is not documentary but a cinema of sensory experimentation and ritual that moves intimately with its subjects. Akin to Sara Gómez’s short films, her work shows us that the movies are not just an apparatus of human-made light, a receptive rectangle, and a hegemonic set of visual expectations. In the spirit of Third Cinema and LA Rebellion Cinema, Santiago Muñoz is not invested in the development of individuals, or the normalizing of what she calls “the chimerical ecology” of the Caribbean places in which she loves to make art; her cinema is not one of full-frontal disclosure—so much is seen from behind, in part. Instead, the structure of the film and its title implies shape-shifting and a plurality of subject positions, as does this work’s relation to the rest of her show, “Song, Strategy, Sign,” at the New Museum through June 12th.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces, 2016, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes.
In the long, L-shaped room of the museum’s fifth floor, there are two aural textures: the guiding intonation of a voice overhead, and the distant whir of a film projector. Near the north wall is an array of ten masks positioned at varying heights on simple wooden beams jutting from wooden cubes. There are masks made of mirrors, fishnet, neoprene, Plexiglas, bamboo, carpet, palm bark, bookbinding tape—camouflage for a “chimerical ecology,” materials for transformation. The overhead voice repeats phrases rhythmically, vigilantly, with an androgynous timbre and a Puerto Rican–touched English. The distant percussion of the projector beats out a steady drumroll beneath the voice’s fragmented narrations. A coqui frog’s onomatopoeic fluting comes and goes.
Just beyond the mask display are three staggered screens: That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops (2015), a three-channel color video. The title comes from Monique Wittig’s fragmentary, futuristic novel Les Guérillères, set in a world of elles and islands. Blocks of female and androgynous names of fighters for the ends of patriarchy punctuate the text. The first name to appear in the same block as this titular phrase is “Osea.” Resignified in Puerto Rican Spanish, “O sea” means “it could be.” O sea colloquially sets off a list of spoken possibilities equal to what one first said, but undermining its primacy.
O sea arranges a sound-metaphor for how to engage this three-screen space: The camera looks over the shoulder of an artist looking through her colored viewfinders—green, red, blue—at a Puerto Rican landscape; it crews with a pilot navigating her cargo boat along the island’s northern coast; it stands steady beside a farmer, thighs wrapped around a goat as she saws his overgrown horns out of his wounded eyes. The overhead voice is not heavy-handed; it is more like music. It stretches like the canopy of the Ceiba, orienting us in space so that we are not just viewers of but listeners to the visual. “This is the beginning. That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops… is the circle,” the voice says, quoting and improvising. The voice offers ways to move dynamically with the film, drawing circles of potentiality around exchanges set to different rhythms than that of a finance-capital to which we did not consent.
Reoriented to this cinema with our ears, we can hold the three screens with our eyes simultaneously, taking in their beautifully minimal display. Or look to one at a time in its distinct duration. O sea, leapfrog from one to the other, seeing forests, horses, fire, jevas, chickens, oceans, Puerto Rican flags on a bridge, hallucinatory lights—maybe not in that order. Walking past the projections we come to a dark corridor. There, at forty frames per second, but perhaps 330 beats per second, moves the black beach’s rhythmic metamorphosis. The voice-companion to the three-stream film leaks over the projector’s percussion: “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
In the face of the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, the giant Cyclops of Greek mythology shadows as the hegemon of the US: a financially disastrous, myopic hulk. But this reading of the sign of the Cyclops and US primacy isn’t enough for a show that imagines many collective and autonomous forms of force. From within the Ceiba’s growing, reparative circle, the Cyclops’s myopia breaks down, power shapeshifts: As the head-lantern on the farmer Norysell, the light-making device of artist Ivelisse Jiménez, the microphone in the hand of performer Macha Colón. “There are no limits—inside the circle,” said Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.2 “Song, Strategy, Sign” is about seeing with the sensorium—a frayed, renewing sensorium.
Les Guérillères was published in 1969. With it, Chantal Akerman, Jean Rouch, Charles Burnett, and “imperfect cinema” warmed the world for Santiago Muñoz, who was born in 1972 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Santiago Muñoz’s is a Puerto Rican cinema, a cinema of marronage. But here we learn to come at these signs not through rigid mimeticism, but with visuals that sing as much as they mask radical futures.
1 Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères (1969).
2 See Chapter 1, “Concerning Violence,” in the 1963 translation by Constance Farrington, 56-57.
Denis Côté, Joy of Man’s Desiring, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 68 minutes.
NEW-TO-NEW YORK Museum of Arts and Design chief curator Shannon R. Stratton has put together an inspired, seductive sleeper of an exhibition that resets the potential for the long-fraught MAD. Stratton’s “In Time (The Rhythm of the Workshop),” unfolds as an essay, deploying three films focused on the act of making in the industrial workplace against the museum’s more typical celebration of high-end, handmade avant-garde objects.
The show brings together filmmakers Andreas Bunte, Denis Côté, and Daniel Eisenberg—of Berlin, Montreal and Chicago, respectively—each of whom, in the well-crafted words of the curator, “turn their lens on manufacturing and the ways that material, bodies, and value are shaped by industry.” A related, equally absorbing series of feature-length films by each of the artists, titled “slow looking,” and programmed by Katerina Llanes and Carson Parish—two additional talented curators new to MAD—capitalized on the museum’s success with film programming and reinforced an emphasis on process over product and a relationship to work that takes into account everything from class to temperament to psychology to workplace and skill. The exhibition's sole object-based work also played out “in time.” Collaborative artists Varvara & Mar set the seven metronomes of their The Speed of Markets to "follow and translate into rhythm the real-time trade volume” of the world’s seven dominant stock markets. Viewers were greeted by a long thin shelf on a blank wall on which the metronomes meted out the time again and within which the work described by the films transpired.
Stratton’s achievement exceeds simply shifting the MAD’s focus from noun to verb; it is also one of the most satisfying installations of time-based art in a gallery context I’ve seen anywhere, and a sophisticated meditation on three very distinct approaches to so-called “observational film.” Her exactingly choreographed presentation of the films proper and the mix of ambient sound, in an elegant array of darkened rooms, somehow manages to pace both the looking and the listening so that each work invites precisely the slow looking and listening “in time” that the very nuanced subject matter demands.
“In Time (The Rhythm of the Workshop”) runs through Sunday, May 22 at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. “slow looking” ran April 1 through 29.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Tales of Hoffmann, 1951, 35 mm, color, sound, 113 minutes.
FOR THE SECOND TIME in as many years, cinephiles and archivists from the world over convened at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, for the Nitrate Picture Show, a weekend-long marathon of movies projected on silver nitrate film. Silver nitrate or just plain “nitrate” is film made of gelatin emulsion laid on a nitrocellulose backing. Until the middle of the last century there was nothing special about silver nitrate projection—nitrate was the only kind of motion-picture film that there was. Nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton, was cheap, durable, and flexible enough to serve as a film base, but it did have one distinct disadvantage: If it happened to catch fire, it burned with spectacular, unquenchable ferocity, and beginning in the early days of cinema, the white-hot flame and nitrogen oxide gasses of nitrate fires were responsible for more than a few fatalities.
Risking imminent immolation to watch a routine Ritz Brothers comedy, however slight that risk may have been, was considered desirous by neither audiences nor insurance agents, so when, in 1948, the Eastman Kodak company of Rochester introduced new “safety” film which used an inflammable cellulose triacetate base, nitrate’s days were numbered. Safety film quickly became the industry standard, and after 1951, no more nitrate prints were produced at all—meaning that any nitrate print that one sees will be not less than sixty-five years old.
Nitrate would only become more and more endangered from that point. Until recently, it was still standard practice for archives to destroy nitrate originals after transferring their contents to safety film, and many of the prints that come down to us today have survived only through the active disobedience of archivists, while shrinkage or other damage has rendered many of the extant prints unfit for projection, lending the playable nitrate print a sort of aristocracy of scarcity. Sometimes the provenance of a print is more interesting than the movie on it. Edwin Carewe’s 1928 Dolores del Rio vehicle Ramona, which closed out the festival, isn’t a patch on the 1910 version of the same source material by D.W. Griffith. You might make quite a movie about the life of the eighty-eight-year-old print, however—it came to Rochester from Gosfilmofond, the Russian archive, the German-language intertitles betraying the fact that it was part of a bounty looted from Nazi Berlin in 1945, which makes the movie’s romanticization of the American Indian (à la Karl May’s “Old Shatterhand”) and similarities to the “Mountain film” (à la Dr. Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl) of more than passing interest.
Rochester killed silver nitrate film, and it is in Rochester that silver nitrate lives on. The second Nitrate Picture Show was my second go-round seeing nitrocellulose projected, having been to the inaugural event. Because of the hazards and exhaustive precautions involved in projecting nitrate, only three venues in the United States are equipped to do so: The Stanford Theater, the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles, and George Eastman’s Dryden Theater. As such, the experience is incredibly rare: A conservator up from Culpepper, Virginia to present the Library of Congress’s print of Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (1951) noted that, after thirty-two years of minding the Library’s nitrate holdings, this was his first time actually seeing the stuff on a screen.
While the first year’s program at the Dryden was largely domestic, drawing heavily from the George Eastman Museum’s own holdings, this time around the lineup was more international. The English-subtitled release print of Vittorio di Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948) came from Eastman’s own vaults, a gift from the film’s American distributor, Joseph Burstyn—it had apparently been in regular use as a classroom aide at the University of Rochester through the 1960s and ’70s, and still looks like a million lira. From Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional came historical melodrama Enamorada (1946), one of several supernally gorgeous collaborations between director Emilio Fernández and his genius DP Gabriel Figueroa. (The Cineteca Nacional suffered one of the most debilitating nitrate fires in modern times in March 1982, an inferno that consigned 6,506 prints to ashes.)
Edwin Carewe, Ramona, 1928, black-and-white, silent, 100 minutes.
The centerpiece show was the Saturday night screening of Tales of Hoffmann, presented with two “visual music” shorts by the German-born animator Oskar Fischinger: Allegretto (1936) and An Optical Poem (1937), both instances of what a peerless craftsman with an avant-garde sensibility could do with the resources of Hollywood at his command. The delirious, parti-colored Hoffmann, whose only glaring fault is that it never outdoes its Second Act, anchored a fairly Brit-heavy lineup this year, including John Boulting’s 1947 seaside-resort noir Brighton Rock and David Lean’s 1945 film of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which features Kay Hammond as a Technicolor-green ghost. The secret star of this Nitrate Picture Show, however, was cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, represented with two credits in the lineup and some exquisitely spare, crystalline black-and-white photography. The first LaShelle film, 1944’s Laura, which inaugurated an ongoing relationship with director Otto Preminger, was a known quantity for most—and a knockout from the opening trawl through the bric-a-brac-cluttered apartment of Clifton Webb’s waspish gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker—but I wasn’t the only attendee taken unawares by the LaShelle-shot Road House.
A 1948 noir set in a rustic bowling alley/honky-tonk somewhere in the piney wilds near the northwestern Canadian border, Road House builds up a tense ménage-à-quatre among a Chicago nightclub nightingale (Ida Lupino), the house manager (Cornel Wilde), his gum-snapping, wisecracking cashier girlfriend (Celeste Holm), and the rich blonde snot who has all of them on payroll (Richard Widmark, reprising his psychopathic giggle from Kiss of Death  and bearing one of the ickiest nicknames in cinema: “Jefty”). “She can do more without a voice than anyone I've heard,” Holm marvels at Lupino, here singing for herself for the first time on-screen, and contributing a hypnotic version of “Again” that sounds like it’s coming from a scuffed-up 45, and which puts Wilde into a trance that has him giving culotte-clad Lupino sexual tension–fraught bowling lessons in no time flat. I’d never particularly rated director Jean Negulesco, familiar from Technicolor bloat-fests like The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), but Road House is a really first-rate work—if not a cause for total reevaluation than an affirmation of Paul Schrader’s position that “film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone [and often] will make the high point on an artist’s career graph.”
Maybe genre can elevate an artist, but I doubt that format can make or break a picture—Touch of Evil viewed on a smartphone screen is still, after all, Touch of Evil. It’s no exaggeration, however, to say that seeing familiar films in their presentation premium format is to see them as never before. I drove myself to distraction at my first Nitrate Picture Show outing trying to pinpoint what, if anything, defined the “nitrate difference.” Was it something about the particular shimmer in the high-contrast black-and-white, accountable to the high concentration of silver in the stock? The fine-filigreed detail? The illusion of depth in the image without benefit of 3D technology—which, perhaps not coincidentally, appeared shortly after nitrate film had been phased out? Well, all of the above are present in a well-preserved nitrate print, but to solely credit these qualities to some magic alchemy in the nitrocellulose base is to ignore a number of other extenuating factors: These are relics from an era when film lab techs were highly-skilled artisans with every resource at their command, struck from sources much closer to the original negative than we are used to seeing. (The less said the better of dead-tech bullshit DCP, beloved by viewers whose eyes have started to go and programmers on a budget.) It is perhaps impossible to pinpoint, then, the contribution of the nitrate film to the extraordinary beauty of the films shown at the Dryden, but the important point is that they are extraordinarily beautiful films—and the clock is ticking.
The second Nitrate Picture Show took place April 29 through May 1 at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.
SUNSET SONG, set in the remote, raw northeast of Scotland, is a film of tranquil calm and rending, elemental emotional outbursts—which is to say, it is very much a Terence Davies picture. Davies broke through to international acclaim with Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), autobiographical films that brought to the screen the texture of his boyhood in the working-class Liverpool of the 1950s and early ’60s, then principally turned his attention to adapting, in a manner that never felt less than entirely personal, the works of other artists: John Kennedy Toole, Edith Wharton, Terence Rattigan.
Davies’s latest continues his run of adaptations. The source in this case is a novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, published in 1932, the year before the author’s early death, which Davies became acquainted with through the 1971 BBC miniseries broadcast when he was studying to become a low-ranking shipping office clerk. Agyness Deyn stars as the novel’s heroine, Chris “Chrissie” Guthrie, first introduced as a promising teenaged scholar living under the wary eye and ready fist of a domestic tyrant father, then subsequently seen as an independent farmer, a jubilant bride and mother, and a widow of the Great War. The only on-screen date that appears in the film is the “1873” seen on a religiously themed sampler that can briefly be glimpsed hanging on a wall, and news of the declaration of war relatively late in the story comes as something of a surprise, for up to this point we have witnessed only dun-colored homespuns and candlelight and well-water pumps, and might just as well have assumed that we were watching common people living under the long, mostly peaceful senescence of Queen Victoria.
While Sunset Song works from Gibbon’s text, certain elements of the film reflect Davies’s own formative experiences as they have been presented to us through his filmography. The clever-beyond-her-station character of Chris is a new manifestation of the familiar Davies figure of the budding aesthete hungry for beauty, here found in a new, rural setting. Early on, Chris studies to become a teacher, and for lack of anyone to converse with about history in her rough farming community she cultivates a rich, hidden inner life, developing an almost cosmic worldview while never leaving her native corner of the Mearns. (The occasional appearance of a voice-over by Deyn, read in the third person of the novel, keeps us privy to Chris’s thoughts.) Peter Mullan, playing the Guthrie home’s patriarch, stirs recollections of Pete Postlethwaite’s portrayal of Davies’s own abusive father in Distant Voices, Still Lives, with Davies again emphasizing the terrible anticipation that hangs over a household governed by a capricious admixture of tenderness and brutality. Mullan’s character is introduced leveling a fond regard onto Chris, but soon after, when her teenaged brother, Will (Jack Greenlees), takes the Lord’s name in vain, father matter-of-factly beats him to the ground with a rain of closed-fist blows.
Terence Davies, Sunset Song, 2016, 65 mm and HD video, color, sound, 135 minutes.
But Davies hasn’t simply transplanted his midcentury Liverpool brick by brick into a turn-of-the-last-century Scotland. In fact, there are few period filmmakers—and Davies has to date been nothing but, with a new film about Emily Dickinson in Massachusetts on the way—who so strive to maintain the integrity of the period that they are depicting in matters of both feeling and texture. When watching Sunset Song and looking at how Davies films, say, a country doctor dispensing of a hard-boiled egg and toast points the morning after a difficult childbirth, or two young lovers canoodling in the parlor, silent save for the ticking of the clock and the hiss of fire in the grate, there is a marrow-deep sense of correctness, of “Yes, I suppose that that was how it was.”
A great deal of period filmmaking skews toward one of two myths: the myth of nostalgia or the myth of progress. According to the first, the past was a glowing, sepia-toned hearth to which we can never return, though we can still from a distance enjoy its comforting glow. According to the second, it was a period of unfortunate but necessary transition that had to be gotten through to become our more perfectly enlightened present-day selves. For Davies, period is something to be seen in the round, like character, with its paradoxes intact. So it is possible at one and the same time that the same dark world in which power hierarchies allowed unquestioned dictatorship at home and recruiters at the pulpit sent tens of thousands of young men to die senselessly for King and country was also a world enlightened by the presence of greater neighborly compassion and less interfering white noise than this one. No one of these factors cancels out the others—they simply are.
If there is one historical constant in Davies films, it is summed up by homiletic words spoken early in Sunset Song by one of Chris’s schoolmates, and repeated years later by Chris herself: “There are lovely things in the world, lovely that don’t endure, and the lovelier for that.” The film has moments of radiant bliss, like the eve of Chris’s marriage to neighbor farmer Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), which ends with them ceremoniously blowing out the candles in the barn that had just housed their wedding feast and dance, then snuffing one final candle aside the bridal bed. (Davies evokes the scene of Esther Smith and John Truett putting out the gaslights in Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, the dialogue of which is sampled in The Long Day Closes.)
More often, however, Davies finds suffering to linger on—I don’t know of another living filmmaker outside of David Lynch who has shown such a consistent fascination for photographing the face contorted in tears. The usual tactic of the long take makes us silent companions to pain, time and again: Will, straining not to let a single tear fall while enduring the lash of his father’s belt, then letting the dam burst as his sister strokes his striped back; the brother’s anguished leave-taking, which conjures the age when a transatlantic crossing was as good as forever as well as any film since John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941); the father’s stroke, which deadens his right side but leaves his nastiness undiminished; Ewan’s homecoming from training camp, brimming with hatred for Chris because she is a woman, and therefore not condemned to death; and Chris’s final “embrace” of what remains to her of Ewan, his good Sunday suit. Stripping back the sentiments behind the jaunty “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm?” idea of World War I, Davies shows the emotional violence that comes with even the prospect of facing combat, and as a reflection of how the winds of the Somme reached a distant home front, Sunset Song is bettered only by Maurice Pialat’s 1971 television miniseries La Maison des bois.
Anchoring all of this is the performance of Deyn, heretofore principally known as a fashion model, who manages the not-insignificant task of convincingly playing the same character from adolescence through the abrupt onrushing adulthood that is the lot of the working-class not granted the luxury of deferral. Her aging is signified by the appearance of two new lines on her face and a momentary dimming of luster which falls away in the final affirmative postscript, which finds Chris replenished by the ravishing landscapes that surround her, to which she is explicitly connected. (This show of faith in the restorative power of nature places Davies rather close to his near namesake, Delmer Daves.) Always unusually attentive to the art of transitioning between scenes, Davies ties together images of Chris with the land, as in a moment of sexual awakening where she studies her stripped body in the bedroom mirror—shades of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)—which lap-dissolves into the wheat fields aflame by night. (Davies developed the contrast between hidebound convention and wild nature by shooting his interiors on digital video and his exteriors on wide-gauge 65 mm.)
It’s been a good year for Terrys—Sunset Song is the only English-language picture with real epic dimension since Knight of Cups, though while Malick’s filmmaking has grown more prismatic and experimental with time, Davies has created something like an idiosyncratic version of the studio melodramas of his youth, with all of the command and clarity of expression but none of the false gentility. A late bloomer who was never exactly prolific, he may now safely be said to be entering the twilight of his career, and the light in the gloaming in lovely.
Ben Wheatley, High-Rise, 2016, color, sound, 119 minutes. Jane (Sienna Guillory).
AS REAL ESTATE BECOMES A LIVING NIGHTMARE in cities like London, New York, and San Francisco, it seems a good time to revisit novelist J. G. Ballard’s fictional nightmare of real estate, High-Rise, recently made into a film by British director Ben Wheatley. A pitch-black social satire typical of its author, the 1975 source novel concerns a state-of-the-art, high-tech apartment building—all mod cons and then some—whose residents quickly slide into violent and sexual depravity, losing touch with the outside world, as its conveniences begin to malfunction.
Ballard was interested in situations where the thin veneer of “civilization” is stripped away from human relations, either by technological developments or natural disasters, revealing the ignoble savage within. As in his unclassifiable, technopornographic 1973 novel Crash, in which “the deviant technology of the car-crash provided the sanction for any perverse act,” the rigorously automated citadel of the high-rise, which “[b]y its very efficiency…took over the task of maintaining the social structure,” left its residents “free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses.” The high-rise was, as one of Ballard’s characters reflects, “a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”
Like many literary authors who flirt with science fiction, Ballard was regarded as a prophet of dystopia, but it is not always acknowledged how prophetic he really was. Contemporary readers of High-Rise will come upon this passage, as accurate a description of ardent social-media users you’re likely to find in a mid-’70s text: “A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality…who felt…no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late-twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.” Pressing the point, one of the characters in the film delivers a line that doesn’t appear in the book: “We’re all bio-robots now. None of us can live without the equipment we surround ourselves with—cameras, cars, televisions, phones.”
Superficially, High-Rise can be seen as an adult version of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies (made into a film in 1963), but Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) are also cornerstones of its architecture. Taking cues from the Spanish surrealist, Ballard and Wheatley depict the decadence and barbarism of the upper classes as they insulate themselves from the lower-floor residents and “what’s going on at street level,” as one penthouse partygoer contemptuously puts it in the film. There are also echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the epic journey a lower-floor resident, coded as coarse and working class, makes to the very top of the high-rise to confront its architect and owner.
High-Rise is Wheatley’s fifth feature, and as with most of his films, its screenplay was written by his wife, Amy Jump, who stays fairly close to the novel, even if she occasionally puts certain characters’ thoughts into other characters’ mouths. The team is known for their mordant wit and mild surrealism, their most effective works to date being the truly shocking three-genre mashup Kill List (2011) and the dark Beckettian farce A Field in England (2013), which is set during the English Civil War and manages to be convincingly psychedelic despite being shot in black and white. The set and setting of High-Rise, as well as its tone, suit them well.
Ben Wheatley, High-Rise, 2016, color, sound, 119 minutes. Laing (Tom Hiddleston).
Wheatley lacks the cold, nearly inhuman artiness of Nicolas Roeg, slated to direct the film adaptation in the late ’70s, whose sensibility lies somewhere between Kubrick and Antonioni, but he is equipped and prepared to walk the razor-thin lines between humor and violence, prophecy and satire, realism and science fiction that Ballard traces in his novels. Ballard’s signature clinical distance, literally acquired in medical school and evident in his seemingly amoral descriptions of the increasingly appalling tableaux of the building’s degeneration, is honored by Wheatley in the film, leading to matter-of-fact plot points in my notes like “The morning after being raped by Wilder, Charlotte serves him a half-eaten can of dog food on the terrace.”
As with its budget and promotional push, the cast of High-Rise is a step up for Wheatley, though he still finds minor roles for some of his recurring actors. Of the stars, Tom Hiddleston brings his slightly effete, thin-lipped reserve to the role of Robert Laing, a medical school professor whose name is tellingly close to that of R. D. Laing, the unorthodox psychiatrist who theorized that psychotic episodes were legitimate human expressions and might be way stations to more enlightened states of being. Sienna Miller, here a dead ringer for Elizabeth Hurley in the Austin Powers cycle, plays Charlotte Melville, a vampy widow with a young son of mysterious provenance, who sleeps with Laing and other male residents of the building. Reprising his George Sanders–as–zombie role from Margin Call (2011), as a member of the urbane, moneyed undead who only inhabit stratospheric penthouse suites, Jeremy Irons is the building’s architect and “father,” Anthony Royal, whose name—like Laing and Richard Wilder, the story’s avenging id—is a bit too on the nose.
The prominent class-warfare theme of the novel would have made less sense to Americans in the ’70s. It is far more apposite today in a country that, despite its tediously ballyhooed Horatio Alger myth, is now commensurate with the UK in terms of (lack of) social mobility. US audiences will recognize in Irons’s unchecked arrogance and casual sociopathy the demeanor and attitudes of disgraced Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, the model for the CEO in Margin Call. Toward the end of High-Rise, as the camera scans the concrete desert of the larger development where the building sits, Wheatley cuts in audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech, presumably from her late-’70s rise: “There is only one economic system in this world, and it is capitalism. Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” The irony here is that the “freedom” so often lauded by Objectivist sock puppets like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan is truly realized in Ballard and Wheatley’s high-rise, a model of totally unregulated private capitalism where the law of the jungle prevails. Ayn Rand, to say nothing of Thatcher, would be proud. Perceptive viewers will detect the underlying message of the film, which couldn’t be more timely: Beware wealthy, self-satisfied men bearing skyscrapers; they will usher in a social system where only the richest and most brutal will survive. It’s gonna be yuge.
High-Rise opens in select theaters on Friday, May 13.
Ben Chace, Sin Alas, 2015, 16 mm, black-and-white and color, sound, 90 minutes. Isabela (Yulisleivís Rodrígues).
EARLY IN THE ALLURING, bittersweet Sin Alas (Without Wings, 2015), there is a shot as mysterious as a passage in Jorge Luis Borges or José Lezama Lima, the writers that inspired filmmaker Ben Chace’s memory piece about love and loss in a city where past and present soon will be obliterated by the tidal wave of capital that is its future. High above the cluttered cityscape of Havana, the camera captures a pigeon soaring and circling to land inches from the lens. A reasonable explanation: The bird is a homing pigeon and its coop is probably on the roof where Chace and his ace cinematographer Sean Patrick Williams have stationed themselves. If, however, you suspect that bird and camera are secret sharers of a vision beyond the human, then this is a film for you.
Chace’s first feature, Wah Do Dem (2010), which he codirected with Sam Fleischner, also explored a Caribbean island culture (in that film, it was Jamaica) by combining documentary and fiction with energizing local music. His follow-up, Sin Alas, was shot entirely in Cuba before bans on travel and commerce had been lifted to the extent they are today. The film began as a documentary about Cuban literary magical realism and then mutated into a subjective fiction about an elderly former journalist, Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), whose long-repressed memories of his passionate affair with a married dancer come flooding back when he learns of her death. But Chace’s original objective—to capture the Cuba of crumbling Spanish-style nineteenth-century architecture, 1950s American cars, and triumphant revolutionary posters, together with vibrant street life of Havana—informs every scene.
Like Havana and rural Cuba as well, Luis’s mind is mapped with memory. Past mixes with present as he walks about the city, finding the mansion where his lover lived with her husband, a military honcho in Castro’s government; the theater where he saw her dance; the park where they secretly met. Sin Alas is exceptional for its temporal fluidity, and for the ingenuity with which Chace brings the past—Cuba both before and after the revolution—convincingly to life on what must have been a miniscule budget. Luis’s passionate encounters with his lover and the melodrama of the triangle in which they were caught, are like scenes from Latin movies of the 1940s. In memory, the actuality of the romance is inseparable from its romantic archetype and even more deeply repressed childhood memories. Late in the film, Luis visits the town where he grew up, Hershey, named for the American chocolate factory where his father was a manager. His purpose is to find the deed that gives him legal rights to his rambling Havana house so that he can leave it to a young couple who for complicated reasons have no place of their own. But he also discovers the origin of his obsessive love for the dancer in his memories of the maid who worked for his parents and was his forbidden object of desire.
Padron, a venerable Cuban stage actor, gives an affecting performance, as does Lieter Ledesma, who portrays Luis as an earnest young journalist, more in love with love than revolution, but perhaps most anxious to save his own skin. Sin Alas is not a political film; rather it shows how people’s lives are defined by personal relationships on which political systems have little effect. As for Cuba, it’s a different matter. We will be grateful for Chace’s evocative souvenir once Walmart, Amazon, and Chase come to town.
Sin Alas plays through Wednesday, May 11 at the Metrograph in New York.