The Ephemeral Real, Part III: Get Carter
By Drew JohnsonSeptember 16, 2014
(This is Part III in a series on The Ephemeral Real, a meditation on cinema and history)
the ephemeral real and industry
IAN HENDRY — last seen in the editing room with a dead African in The Passenger — is now a low-life gangster-cum-chauffeur in Newcastle. He’s murdered Jack Carter’s brother. Jack Carter is Michael Caine, a London enforcer, and he’s popped home for the weekend to sort things out. Ian Hendry’s a dead man.
But before he goes, he’ll make a run for it along a beach in England as ugly as beaches are allowed to be on film. (Cinema loves certain landscapes and beaches are high on that list.) We see sludge slapped in a layer over what must be dirty sand, and Ian Hendry huffing across it. He makes you feel what a smoking, drinking, aging Englishman would feel running for his life. Michael Caine huffs too, enough to make you feel it, but not enough to make you feel that Hendry might get away. Still, there’s something close to comforting in the idea that Death and Fate might be a little inconvenienced when it comes time to reel you in, isn’t there?
The chase comes to an end on an unpaved incline. Hendry can’t even stand. Carter comes up behind him with a double-barreled shotgun. If you’ve read the original novel, you know that, as boys, Jack and his dead brother saved up to buy the shotgun. In the movie, it’s just something he took from the dead man’s home. Carter makes Hendry drink a full bottle of whiskey (Hendry makes us feel this, too) just as Carter’s brother had to — the murder was a faked drunk driving accident — and then, just when you think he’s going to cut loose with both barrels of the shotgun, he reverses the weapon high above his head and brings the butt down on Hendry’s skull.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because, behind them while all this is going on, coal skips disinterestedly pass by, down the incline up which they’ve run and out to a tower just far enough in the waves to pitch their load of slag before they circle back to pick up more. The Horden Beach coal skips are gone now, the beach cleaned up, millions of pounds spent to do it, but here a working and real industrial nightmare underscoring the ugliness of poverty and crime not as aberrations among decent folk, but as the natural consequence of England.
There are plenty of great films of the late sixties and seventies that employ the bleakness at hand, but, when Pauline Kael said that she loved Get Carter because it was so “calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic,” she was pointing out the lengths to which the film went to paint everyone with the same brush. The city of Newcastle plays a major role as do the old rows of housing, their lack of indoor plumbing featured, but it’s really this coastline and the unceasing coal skips that bring the point home.
Did I mention that Carter puts Hendry’s body on one of the passing coal skips? That he stands and watches as the skip plods along, suspended from wires like a skier’s gondola, and then dumps a human being into the ocean? That Carter laughs and smiles, the unfired shotgun over his shoulder like a walk in the country?
That Carter and Hendry are products of this place, as much waste as the coal mining waste, needs to be explicitly mentioned, although the movie doesn’t hide its light or meaning much.
The landscape by itself would be something we might not fully see, but bringing in the working and, even as we watch, destroying industrial machinery is another nasty bit of the ephemeral real.
Sometimes though, we find industrial ruins playing other parts. In Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the alien Zone is mostly a collection of derelict buildings, open spaces, abandoned rail lines between brick masses.
Geoff Dyer’s recent Zona details a few things worth mentioning here about how the real reaches into film, and film reaches back into the real. After shooting some of what must have been a very different version of Stalker in Central Asia, Tarkovsky’s crew relocated. The Zone became a man-made wasteland, and, in one of those strange bits of film history, the real wasteland likely killed Tarkovsky, his wife, Anatoly Solonitsyn (playing Writer in this film, Andrei Rublev in Andrei Rublev), and others. The story is that high volumes of pollutants led to cancer and cancer killed them — like John Wayne dying after playing Genghis Khan on a nuclear test site. But it goes further, as Dyer mentions as well. Stalker predates Chernobyl by seven years but seems now to so clearly predict it. And, as Chernobyl changes as a ruined place, and becomes a kind of nature preserve, the idea of the Zone loops back again.
Because of that strange relation between science fiction, industrial waste, and a nuclear future, I’m giving Tarkovsky’s appropriation of the real for the science fictional a pass. After all, one of the most compelling things in Stalker is how the aftereffects of the alien landing are conjured almost entirely via dialogue, cinematography, and atmosphere. The weird waste of humanity, in the main unaltered, is as alien a landscape as he needs.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!