Friday, April 29, 2016

Mise en Abyme: Ben Wheatley's HIGH-RISE

Tom Hiddleston in HIGH-RISE.
I re-read J.G. Ballard's HIGH-RISE for the first time since the Seventies some months ago and felt somewhat disappointed by it. He's one of my favorite novelists and I prefer his most challenging material, so it's not that I was put off by its subject matter or its most lurid highlights; I was frankly exhausted by the book because it contained almost no dialogue, which made Ballard's austere, clinical writing all the more concentrated and wearing. Also, when all was said and done, I felt its ideas had been more definitively handled by William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES and Luis Buñuel's 1962 film THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and I'm not accustomed to Ballard being bested by anyone at his own game.
I was very much looking forward to Ben Wheatley's film - it premiered yesterday on iTunes, Amazon Video and other streaming outlets before its US theatrical premiere in mid May - which I found disappointing for an entirely different set of reasons. Unlike the novel, it contains a lot of dialogue (some of it funny, as when one character rules "This is my party, these are my guests, and I will decide who is to be lobotomized!" - but mostly not) and introduced a plethora of characters, vignettes and situations not in the novel besides. While superbly well cast (Tom Hiddleston as Laing, Jeremy Irons as the architect Anthony Royal, Luke Evans as Wilder, also Elisabeth Moss and Sienna Miller), it's too freely adapted by Amy Jump, whose interpretation is immersive and Dionysian rather than remote and obsessed as Ballard is in his storytelling, not sharing his interest in the slow and systematic breakdown of human psychologies divorced from nature and imprisoned in the most abstract extremes of luxury.

Luke Evans.
I sensed it was on the wrong track from the opening shot, which jumps ahead to where the tenants' reversion to savagery is headed, making that our baseline before cutting to a more civilized time "three months earlier." This gave me the uneasy feeling that Wheatley and Jump would not be approaching the story as Ballard did, as a satirical work of surrealism, because surrealism - like any form of fantasy - needs a certain grounding in realism before it can take flight. Here the high-rise itself is a psychotic derangement, a towering beard trimmer that its designer likens to an open hand. The film concludes with a tape recording of Margaret Thatcher defining the differences between state and private capitalism, summarizing all that has come before as possibly the most remote thing from surrealism: social allegory.

At no time does the material remind us, as Ballard does, how our interactions with the rest of the world decide how presentably we live from day to day, how easily our standards of living can deteriorate if we have only to please ourselves - into not making the bed, not changing our clothes for days or weeks at a time, and the psychological cost that comes with such self-neglect. (Writers and other business people working from home, as Ballard did, will hear me.) Even the needle drops of the music score, pulling "Spoon" from CAN's EGE BAMYASI and commissioning a post-traumatic re-recording of ABBA's "S.O.S." by Portishead, evoke a scramble for hipster cred rather than a serious attempt to venture where Ballard had gone, which would have called for something closer far less counter-cultural and much more akin to 1970s supermarket Muzak.

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is in many ways the better and more faithful adaptation, though it was conceived at least a dozen years before the novel was written. The Ballard film to beat remains Jonathan Weiss's uncompromising THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (2000).

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