Film (2016). Jeremy Thomas and Hanway Films, Film4 and BFI present in association with Northern Ireland Screen, Ingenious Media, Scope Pictures and S Films a Recorded Picture Company production. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump from the novel High-Rise (1975) by J G Ballard. Cast includes Julia Deakin, Luke Evans, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and Louis Suc. 119 minutes. Colour.
"Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months," runs the famous first sentence of the novel from which High-Rise is adapted, and the same fraught relationship between containment and psychosis is established within the opening ten minutes of this film version, the combined frenzy and precision of its exposition calculated to reveal Ballard's focus on what Technology has done to make possible the expression of a truly "free" psychopathology. To name Robert Laing after R D Laing (1927-1989) – who argued (to paraphrase crudely) that psychosis was only effectively graspable within the social context of its manifestation – clearly points to inferences central to both novel and subsequent film.
Screenwriter Amy Jump combined with husband and director Ben Wheatley to hallucinatory effect on A Field in England (2013), on that occasion using the setting of the English Civil War and a dose of psilocybin mushrooms to reveal the hidden violence of societal mores, but here the effect is both intensified and expanded: the parameters of the drama are speedily plotted, the socio-political Satire both playful and accurate and, perhaps most cunningly of all, the psychedelic device of the "bright but bloody Kaleidoscope" mentioned by Ballard at the beginning of his memoir Miracles of Life (2008) placed diegetically into the hands of the boy "Toby" (Suc), not only as the means by which to relay the shattered montage sequences of the film's second half, but also to highlight the memetic effect of Ballard's output on popular discourse and to reveal the buried thematic properties and formulations of the New Wave of sf in Ballard's oeuvre, something about which Ballard himself was frequently circumspect.
Toby corresponds to the young Ballard novelized by the author in Empire of the Sun (1984) and later reset as nonfiction in Miracles of Life: Ballard named the Kaleidoscope as the frame through which he first viewed the self-deception of the adults around him, a paradigm he carried forward into the Lunghua POW camp near Japanese-occupied Shanghai in World War Two and called upon throughout his career. Jump and Wheatley use it as a kind of Time Viewer to suggest that the future Ballard depicted has already happened, and to convey a host of referents both from Miracles of Life and Ballard's novels and short stories: drowned Cities, crashed cars and the syncopated cultural analysis and Psychological derangement of the mainstream trilogy of Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003), for which the trilogy of Crash (1973) – adapted by David Cronenberg as Crash (1997) – Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975) were the template.
Doctor Robert Laing (Hiddleston) delivers via voiceover Ballard's third-person observation from the novel that he is "living in a future that had already taken place". When Laing asks the young son of neighbour Charlotte Melville (Miller) what the boy can see through the toy Kaleidoscope, Toby replies: "The future." We see what Toby (and Ballard) sees: the barely-repressed Dystopia of unconscious desires at first obscured by the bourgeois conventions of the high-rise, then revealed by the middle class revolt of its inhabitants, all to a woozy and insistent soundtrack by Clint Mansell. None of this would work if not for High-Rise's adherence to the central tenets of Fantastika: that it takes its own story as literal fact rather than merely as a series of symbols or systems of allegory; that it understands that it is a subgenre of sf; and that it is pre-emptively undermining European narratives about social progress.
"How's the high life?" asks Laing's secretary (Deakin) of his life at the high-rise. "Prone to fits of mania, narcissism and power failure," Laing replies. The lower-floor resident and Mysterious Stranger-like invader of the upper reaches Richard Wilder (Evans) is balefully shooting a television documentary about the social subdivisions of the vertical township and tells Laing: "The ones that are the real danger are the self-contained types, like you." In the novel, the brutish Wilder supplies at least as much, if not more, of the cultural commentary as Laing, or the building's resident architect Anthony Royal (Irons), both of whom are slow to comprehend the strange admixture of surface suavity and deep-seated grief that propels their actions.
In this, Ballard bears resemblance to Philip K Dick, the only other late twentieth century sf writer to break into the mainstream, partly via the medium of Cinema; where Dick used the Gnostic version of the Christian Religion to reveal the reality hidden beneath common understanding, Ballard uses psychoanalysis to reveal that human behaviour is wholly emotional and basically sexual. Where Dick grieved for his twin sister – and, indeed, was buried next to her after his death – Ballard grieves for his dead wife. Laing's deceased wife and living sister from the novel are swapped in the film adaptation, but the pain of separation remains. What is salutary is the similarity of the technique Dick and Ballard employ to achieve their effects: not only the swapping of outer and Inner Space that marked from the first both writers' founding influence on the New Wave, but also the inversion of sane and insane perspectives, conscious action relaying unconscious need, all imparted by three layers of narrative, three different characters, three ocular perspectives that first counterpoint, then fuse, in revelatory fashion: or as Ballard puts it in the novel, "... three distinct and hostile camps. The old social subdivisions, based on power, capital and self-interest, had reasserted themselves here as anywhere else." Dick himself broke down the three layers in a 1964 letter to fellow sf writer Ron Goulart, parts of which are transcribed in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989):
- Subhuman: ("Wilder" in Ballard's narrative); who seems at first to be of lesser social and intellectual stature than the other characters but who is in fact closer to the truth of what's going on.
- Protagonist: ("Laing" in Ballard's narrative); who is complicit with the organization or institute which dominates proceedings but who has personal problems that need solving.
- Ubermensch: ("Royal" in Ballard's narrative); who is engaged with the society-sized problem faced by the previous two characters but who needs one or both of them to validate his perspective.
Whether through Drugs as transcendence, transgressive Sex or some final, violent confrontation – here, as in the novel, the pack-centred animal behaviour of the inhabitants of the high-rise is punctuated by rape, murder and the final death of the "Great Architect" Anthony Royal – what is important is the deeper human truth the dramatic entanglement reveals. What is human? What is real? The questions the SF Megatext has been asking of itself are here brought into sharp relief by a husband and wife team who not only understand Ballard but also the effect of his work on cultural discourse. Portishead's desolate version of SOS by Abba is played to horrifying effect over a denouement as anarchic as it is measured, rooting the symbols of Ballard's connection to the broader European narrative – Dionysian rites, Francisco Goya's famous painting Aquelarre ("Witches' Sabbath", 1798), the Death of God – and the resulting doubts about the lasting efficacy of the scientific quest for Enlightenment. When Doctor Robert Laing peels back the flesh of a disembodied head early in the film, he reveals what is really going on: flesh.
That these montages and motifs function so well is down to High-Rise taking itself literally – ie understanding itself as sf. That Ballard so little acknowledged his connection to those developments in the sf of the 1960s that informed his own practice – there is no mention in Miracles of Life of contemporaries such as Brian Aldiss, John Brunner and Pamela Zoline, each of whom might be said to share a subset of his artistic concerns – is perhaps due to his sensibilities having been more significantly shaped by developments in cultural theory. He was, in effect, ahead of the game, a fact adroitly dramatized by Wheatley and Jump's film adaptation. The "Shanghai to Shepperton" subtitle of Miracles of Life is knowing: his favourite cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard (see Postmodernism and SF for more) was by that time being referenced everywhere in films, his theories most clearly allegorized in The Matrix (1999), in which people breaking under the strain of being used as batteries for technological progress struggle toward what is really going on through Baudrillard's "desert of the real". Baudrillard's "murder of reality" or "extermination of the real by its double" was most clearly summarized in Le crime parfait (1995; trans "The Perfect Crime" 1996):
By the time the Margaret Thatcher quote lauding capitalism is heard at the end of High-Rise, we have understood what the political codes of British society and brutalist architecture obscure, and why the characters of Ballard's novel, like the social media-obsessed populace of post-millennial society (see Media Landscape), must film everything they see in order to ascertain its veracity: social elites are no less animal in their behaviour than the rest of us, but they control the narrative. Genre SF is one way to encompass this truth without boring the viewer. Director Wheatley said re-reading Ballard's High-Rise was "like reading a newspaper" and that the novel had "come of age", but it is not only the novel's predictive nature that raises the film above the commodified formulas and art house reflexiveness of much of modern cinema, but its 1970s-inspired transgression. Producer Jeremy Thomas had previously tried to make High-Rise in the late 1970s with Nicolas Roeg directing a script by Paul Mayersberg, and again in the 2000s with screenwriter Richard Stanley and director Vincenzo Natali. The film's long gestation has produced a timely child, able to relay what we seem to have forgotten: the money won but the truth did not. [MD]
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