AUGUST 9, 2016
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
IT’S OFTEN TEMPTING, and perhaps not wholly inaccurate, to think of Fordist culture largely in terms of repression. Home-improving suburban dads, over-medicated housewives, their children placated by free milk, discreet homosexuals, the integration of work and leisure, to say nothing of the uneasy settlement of labor and capital itself: all of these social forms sometimes seem to add up to nothing more than a massive blockage. While this view is preferable to a cloying nostalgia, its limitations are manifold — as is clear, for instance, in any encounter with the fiction of J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s work of the 1960s and ’70s dissected the flagrant perversity of midcentury life as the Fordist economy teetered on the edge of collapse. For Ballard, the bourgeois subject is not defined by the difficulties of an allegiance with reality so much as a complete unmooring from its constraints in ever-expanding whorls of production and consumption. In other words, his characters are not neurotic but out-and-out psychotic.
Ballard’s vision of Fordist consumer culture was most obviously developed in his autoerotic Crash (1973). For whatever else might be observed about Ballard’s most infamous novel, it is surely a carefully plotted return to the emblematic unit of regulatory capitalism, a manically rational exposition of the car’s role in 20th-century life. Throughout the narrative, Ballard’s measured prose unfurls rather than explodes the erotic logic of the midcentury commodity, revealing a tightly integrated world of production and consumption. This identity has, however, itself proved problematic in accounts of his life and work. In particular, commentators often seem to find it hard to reconcile the “normality” of Ballard’s own everyday life with the grueling psychopathology of his fictions, as if a slick loft, crumbling tenement, or grimy squat would somehow necessarily make one more psychotic than a suburban semi.
There is a longer history of the ideology of madness at work here, according to which the upper and lower classes are the unruly subjects of modernity, while aristocratic orgies and proletarian street life are cast in axiomatic opposition to orderly middle-class domesticity. Marx’s innovation within this tradition was to invent the category of the lumpenproletariat to protect the working class proper from such insinuations, while, at least in his more moralistic moments, more or less upholding the essential structure at work. In The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (1850), for instance, “blood and filth comingle” through an unholy alliance between the finance aristocracy and the lumpenproletariat. Marx’s distinction between the “scum and refuse” of the lumpenproletariat and the orderly, potentially revolutionary working class sets the stage for the development of a powerfully normative strain of leftist culture that stressed an ethos of proletarian discipline. This ethos was in turn sublated by the postwar Fordist settlement, producing its paradigmatic social unit: the steadfast middle-income family, contrasted to the scabs and agitators below and the toffs above.
Ballard was clearly invested in scrambling this pervasive psychosocial structuration, creating self-contained fictional worlds of middle-class psychosis throughout his career. Bizarrely trapped on a traffic island, a doctor regresses to howling madness in Concrete Island (1973); reared in a gated community, a gaggle of pampered children rise up and murder their parents in Running Wild (1988); a similar setting is also deployed for the Volvo revolution of Millennium People (2003). Ballard’s process of re-classing madness is perhaps rendered most explicit in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), where medical expertise and the culture industry come together with horrifying results. At one point a characteristically nonplussed character comments on one of the gruesome living dioramas of the story’s title, assembled by an unhinged psychiatrist: “one day he would carry out a Marxist analysis of this lumpen intelligentsia.”
While it would be inaccurate to label Ballard any sort of Marxist, one may take this as more than a passing remark or jibe. For it is precisely this morass of disintegrating expertise that Ballard then concretizes in High-Rise (1975), in which the professional middle classes run amok, grow ragged, and fester in an expensive Brutalist condominium building. The high-rise quickly deteriorates into open gang warfare, with “clans” of middle-aged, bourgeois reprobates stalking its corridors in a fashion usually attributed to lumpenproletarian youths, before finally regressing to a series of rudimentary enclaves rife with incest, rape, and cannibalism. Quite explicitly a witty retort to the snobbery of Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1962/1971), much of High-Rise’s humor lies in its portrayal of club-wielding doctors, tax specialists, television presenters, sociologists, and market researchers, pillaging their Brutalist building just like Alex and his droogs. In addition to the shock to bourgeois perceptions engendered by this reversal, High-Rise presents a further interpretative problem: How do we reconcile the relative homogeneity of the residents’ class positions with the insistently hierarchical structure of their setting? Fundamentally, is the novel even about class as such?
This question comes into clearer focus with the realization that the novel is an allegory of Burnhamite technocracy. In The Managerial Revolution (1941), James Burnham theorized the rise of a new managerialist middle class, whose technical expertise would reign supreme over the new world order. Later in his career, Burnham deplored the excesses of the social and sexual revolutions that blew apart the corporatism that he had, to a limited extent, correctly predicted. It’s hard not to see Ballard’s novel as a satire on Burnham as much as it is a riposte to A Clockwork Orange — the very architecture of the building symbolizing the social ascent of its residents with their “limitless professional expertise,” and their dissolution into violent anarchy mocking Burnham’s later harrumphing dislike for social liberalization. The main point here, as in Crash and many other Ballard novels, is that all of these self-contained middle-class subjects are in fact the real perverts of modernity — sociopathic, cybernetic, and self-integrated in a way that no proletarian nor haute bourgeois could ever hope to be.
The managerial madness of High-Rise is astutely captured in Ben Wheatley’s film, released this year to insufficient critical acclaim. During the film’s brilliant central sequence, a riot breaks out in the building’s 15th-floor supermarket. One of High-Rise’s trio of antiheroes, pitch-perfect Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), finally finds what he has been looking for: a tin of gray paint. Another resident tries to appropriate the paint as he makes for the exit, and a brutal fight ensues, the usually coolly detached Laing screaming, “It’s my paint!” as he viciously maims the would-be home-improvement bandit. The middle classes have finally gone to war for their right to modestly customize their homes. Returning with relief to his apartment, Laing obsessively paints the walls, before remarking with genuine pride, “I think I’ve finally found the right tone.”
This line — one of screenwriter Amy Jump’s many excellent additions to Ballard’s novel — could be accurately applied to Wheatley’s adaptation. Little known outside the UK, Wheatley has specialized in off-key, low-budget productions, including the claustrophobic kitchen-sink gangster flick Down Terrace (2009), the psychological horror film Kill List (2011), and Sightseers (2012), a bleakly comic take on the Bonnie and Clyde story set in the English countryside. Within this filmography, there is a sense of Wheatley constantly reaching for tonal shifts, at times rather laboriously tweaking the viewer’s perceptions. And while his earlier work does features some interesting moments (the apparent switch in directorial vision, for instance, from Leigh to Lynch via Tarantino in Kill List), it is only in High-Rise that Wheatley, like Laing himself, has really come into his own.
I would go so far as to suggest that Wheatley’s High-Rise is the best major film of a Ballard novel to date. David Cronenberg’s notorious Crash (1996) captures the solemn madness and deadened aesthetic of Ballard’s novel with great dexterity, yet the pacing of the film fails to register the manic cycles of the novel. For all of Spielberg’s evident suitability to the task, Empire of the Sun (1987) was markedly less successful. Spielberg lards Ballard’s story of imperial baton-passing and childhood wonder with more than his usual dose of transcendental innocence, unintentionally infecting the viewer with a distinct aversion to small children. High-Rise, however, doesn’t so much strike a balance between fidelity and invention as develop an intensely fetishistic relationship to the novel and its period that, rather like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), comes out the other side of historical accuracy to a place far more compelling.
In an interview on the notably fanatical Ballard fan site ballardian.com, Wheatley remarked that it was hard to find a location for the film, seeing as so many Brutalist buildings had been pulled down. In the end, the film was shot on an abandoned project in Bangor, Northern Ireland, to magnificent effect. The play of light over the high-rise captures the deeply seductive aspects of its concrete surfaces, while the interiors scream late midcentury in their fussy futurism, the counterpoint to the uncompromising intrusion of raw concrete into the walls of the apartments themselves — a detail that, as Wheatley observes in the interview, represents the way in which the building itself comes to dominate its residents. That being said, one of the most satisfying elements of the setting is how, in its attractiveness, it resists the usual screed against Brutalism. As Owen Hatherley points out in his passionate defense of the style, Militant Modernism (2009), it’s hardly the mass of concrete in itself that creates social deprivation.
The casting and acting are also superb, particularly in the three main characters. Tom Hiddleston’s Laing is enticingly icy, while Jeremy Irons’s portrayal of the building’s quixotic architect, Royal, and Luke Evans’s bristling documentary filmmaker-cum-rapist Richard Wilder strike the right vile notes. Sienna Miller’s silkily hedonistic Charlotte Melville is similarly well done, while Elisabeth Moss beautifully captures the listlessness of Wilder’s wife, the most sympathetic character in both the novel and the film.
It is worth stressing that Jump — Wheatley’s working partner on a number of productions — also edited the film, which means it really makes more sense to credit the work as a Jump and Wheatley production. The film is superbly edited and scripted by Jump through a series of canny additions and excisions. Laing’s sociopathy is augmented in a new plot line that sees him falsely diagnosing a serious brain injury in a character who slighted him earlier in the film. Meanwhile, the role of Royal’s nostalgic wife is extended through a series of deliberately gauche Marie Antoinette references that may jar some viewers, but which beautifully illustrate the essentially petit-bourgeois pretentions of the high-rise’s most wealthy residents. During a meeting in which the top-floor clan makes plans for their dominance of the building, Pangbourne (James Purefoy’s slightly over-egged gynecologist) asks Royal to “lead a delegation.” Royal asks blithely “where to, the United Nations?” to which his wife, not missing a beat, replies, “to the supermarket” — where, of course, she suggests they obtain cake.
This kind of appropriately bad taste abounds in the film; it delights, for instance, in Ballard’s shocking opening, which sees Laing calmly eating Royal’s Alsatian and pondering his newfound happiness. We get a full shot of the unfortunate animal roasting on a spit, to the serene accompaniment of the recorder entry of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto (this off-kilter deployment of Bach is a touch recognizable to followers of bad British television from Wheatley’s hand in Modern Toss). Indeed, the film’s score and soundtrack are suitably gorgeous throughout, intoning the sheer guilty pleasures of alienated hedonism. The final movement of the Bach is deployed as the building’s mayhem reaches the point of no return, complete with a Catherine the Great reference that one had been suspecting would turn up from the first surreal appearance of a horse on the building’s roof — again an addition made by Jump and Wheatley. A string quartet arrangement of ABBA’s “SOS” urges on a costume ball on the top floor, before Portishead’s haunting cover of the same track accompanies the building’s final stages of disintegration. Clint Mansell’s moody score works well in its alternation between dramatic foreshadowing and innocent delight — Laing’s pride at his home-decorating skills, for instance, is accompanied by a pastiche of a slushy midcentury Hollywood score, while the building itself receives its own series of musical motifs, at turns excited and foreboding.
It is something of a cliché, perhaps to be resisted, to call Ballard “prophetic,” yet he does appear to have had a knack for predicting the future 10 years in advance. Current political developments in Britain, for instance, were eerily foreshadowed in Ballard’s final novel Kingdom Come (2006), a tale of homegrown fascism directed against an arrogant metropolitan elite as well as against eastern European and Asian citizens. And High-Rise is set, with the same creepy prescience, on the site of the Docklands development, which began to boom in the mid-1980s. But it is probably more accurate to suggest that, like Balzac — another major influence, given his own obsessively striated dwellings — Ballard’s novel predicts through existing social typicality, rather than prophetic vision.
Wheatley ends his adaptation with a surreal projection: the geekily bespectacled Toby sets up a makeshift listening post, absorbed in a famous Thatcher speech, while blowing bubbles through a pipe. Initially this image might seem a little too obvious — albeit not an “anachronism” as one reviewer inanely dubbed it — for it hardly needs pointing out that Ballard’s novel anticipates the chaotic anomie of Thatcher’s Britain, while the date of the speech, 1976, is a little on the nose for a novel that came out in 1975. Yet the argument of the speech is important, opening up a more telling reading of the film: Thatcher intones, “Where there is state capitalism there can never be political freedom.” Ballard’s politics are always hard to gauge, but it is safe to say that he was never misty-eyed about the postwar settlement. And though the neoliberal alternative was to prove yet more pitilessly oppressive, with a little interpretative license one might conclude that Ballard, Jump, and Wheatley all unfold brilliant variations on Thatcher’s theme — which was itself to echo beyond her control. For it is surely the case that even free market buccaneers need their Burnhamite technocrats as much as the next pervert.
Glyn Salton-Cox is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His monograph From the Homintern to the Ministry of Love: Queer Leftist Writing of the 1930s is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.