Things Watched This week:
Common themes: trash
If you were to form an opinion on the national psyche of the UK based only on the three films I watched this week, you might conclude that Britain is obsessed with waste management. There’s a strain of British film – the non Billy-Elliott-and-the-Calendar-Girls-Are-Brassed-Off-at-the-Full-Monte strain – that worships trash above all other cinematic elements. I don’t mean trash as a category or taste of film, I mean garbage. Heaps of garbage, Tesco bags turning over in the wind like sleeping drunks, newspaper and tickets and bottles blanketing boulevards and plazas, trash bins overflowing with the useless packaged crap of daily living. Even The Third Man, where garbage takes on the epic proportions of car bodies and whole buildings, where the climax takes place in a sewer, was a British film. What would Freud have said about a nation so obsessed with its own waste that it needs to portray people running around in the stuff for two hours? Something in German, I'll bet. Easy to parse and even easier to spell.
The least-known of the three is Red Road, a psychosexual thriller that rolls around in the thrills of voyeurism, sex and revenge. On top of all that is poverty, ugliness, the utterly creepy UK surveillance state, and the unbelievably bleak slums of Glasgow. If you wanted to travel in time to a future without hope, you can skip the expensive and energy-hungry time machine and just move to the Glaswegian projects, where people live in squalid high-rise blocks, knife each other in the open and fuck up against the graffiti-soaked buildings.
The film centers around Jackie, a woman who spends her nights watching the Glasgow streets through the exhaustive network of closed circuit cameras that decorate the lamp posts of urban Britain. Her ostensible task is to prevent crime, but often she just follows people around: a man with an aging bulldog, a cleaning woman who yearns for another employee. The only other thing we know about Jackie is that she's achingly lonely, wears a wedding ring despite the clear absence of a husband, and carries on a desultory affair with a man named Avery who comes round every fortnight in a van. They drive out to the country and have mostly clothed, unsatisfying sex in the front seat.
The early sex scenes are notable because they feature the only non-urban images in the whole film: a few static shots of a dirt road heading into pastureland. It reminds me vaguely of the token rural fantasyland of Brazil (a film by an American director about a garbage-strewn future Britain*) or Blade Runner (a film by a British director set in a garbage-strewn future Los Angeles). Beyond that foggy pastoral, though, there's nothing in Red Road but a landscape dominated by kipple. Even the people seem as aimless as wind-blown garbage as they wander from project block to laundromat to cafe to pub.
In case you're wondering, something does happen in the film. One evening at the monitors, Jackie spies a man and a woman having sex against a wall. When the man turns around, she recognizes his face, even through the blur of video scan lines. We don't know who he is, but we know that there's a line leading from him to Jackie's ruined life. She begins to stalk him on camera, and when that doesn't satisfy her, she goes out to the projects on Red Road and begins to insinuate herself into his life. After that, things get twisty.
On Tuesday, I went and saw another great Brit-trash film. 28 Weeks Later seems to be about the repressed urge to abandon all responsibility, run around the English countryside and bite the decent slow-moving folk. Either that, or it's about the tremendous fear shared by decent folk that violence and abandon will crash through their homes and carry them off in a blood-dimmed flood. The movie opens with a group of people barricaded in a house in the countryside, carefully rationing out the last of their supplies. Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack play Don and Alice, a couple who have lost track of their children in the wake of the outbreak. When the angry zombies attack, as they do, Don panics and leaves Alice to the bitey mercies of the monsters. Why are those things so miffed with us anyway?
After that really quite excellent opening, the action switches to armed compound in London, where the 15,000 or so survivors are being housed and protected by an American force. They even give the compound the fanciful title 'The Green Zone' - wherever did the filmmakers come up with that catchy name? The Green Zone is a bit like a scrubbed-down version of the Glasgow projects from Red Road, all steel and concrete high-rises and crowds of shell-shocked people trying to knit together a life in a zombie-depressed economy. If you replace the cameras with American soldiers, the similarities between the two films become startlingly apparent. There are identical scenes in which the camera roves from window to window, catching little bits of ordinary people's lives, while a sympathetic authority figure (Jackie In RR, Good Soldier Doyle in 28WL) watches with a smile.
Mind you, Red Road is a story about a family irrevocably torn apart by accident and death. In 28 Weeks Later you get the pleasure of reunions. Into the Green Zone come Imogen and Mac, the lost children of Don and Alice. Don is already waiting for them. He tells them a fanciful tale of watching their mother die at the hands of the zombies and leaves it at that.
For the next twenty minutes everything seems tidy - a tidiness filled with the threat of galloping blood-vomiting zombies, but still - until the two children sneak away from the armed compound and drive a scooter through deserted, rotting, filthy London. This is probably the most striking image in the entire film, as the children speed bravely through a thriving city that has become a cenotaph.
Oddly enough, there’s very little fear at this point that the children will encounter monsters. Instead, the tension comes from witnessing the old order turned inside out. The city they find evokes the terrors of a neutron bomb, which promised to destroy populations but leave buildings intact.
When the monsters finally show up, with the craven dad in the van of the attack (long story), the movie slumps into ineptitude. Detail, character, plausibility and well-staged action sequences are pretty much sacrificed to the exigencies of completion, with potentially great scenes of horror ruined by shaky camera and overly rapid cutting. What's even worse, they neglect to trash up the sets - with the exception of an overgrown stadium, the streets of London are suspiciously tidy again as the survivors run from the infected. Say what you will about Brazil or Children of Men, they keep their dystopias messy.
When it comes to garbage, though, both of these films look downright scrubbed and shiny compared to The Third Man. For those of who you don't watch the film every six months or so, The Third Man takes place in late '40s Vienna, when the city was divided unter the control of the US, Russia, Post-war Vienna is worse than a slum or wasteland; it's an underworld of bombed-out buildings and empty pavilions, where faces peer from corners and criminals vanish into sewers. Vienna is a quartered corpse infested with scavengers.
That's all. There's garbage. I'm done with this entry. Take care!
*People what know Brazil will point out that the film is not necessarily set in Britain - that the entire world has become overrun by a ludicrous totalitarian regime - but it's about as British a setting as it gets.