This rotting metropolis

In this 1988 adaptation of Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s own influential cyber-punk manga classic, the likes of Mad Max, A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner quickly come to mind. But most striking of all is how the themes of this futuristic nightmare resonate with our urban present. I suppose that’s always the point with films like this but the temporal collapse is more apparent than ever for this reviewer at least.

It takes a while to get my bearings. But it’s pretty clear from the off that things are deteriorating pretty badly in this towering but decaying dystopian cityscape. The authorities are cracking down on juvenile delinquents engaged in petty crime amidst the barricades. It’s all quite exhilarating in fact. There are high speed chases, a newscaster announces that ‘terrorists have bombed the commercial district’; a bar tender tells anybody who’ll listen ‘with demonstrations and terrorists nowadays prices have gone up’ but ‘business is business’. There is even an Olympic stadium under construction and quarrels on the Executive Committee (aka the Greater London Authority) about its funding. ‘Instead of rebuilding the city’, complains one member, we ‘spend our whole surplus on that Olympic monstrosity’. 

It is AD 2019, 31 years after World War III, when Tokyo met its mushroom-shaped end (in the year the film was released). In its place (or somewhere near it) is Neo Tokyo, a city of random explosions and nihilistic violence. The story centres on the revengeful young Tetsuo – once ‘bullied by everyone’ but now with a maniacal glint in his eye. Like the little terror I saw arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act last week at Wood Green tube station, he finds himself detained under the convenient pretext of being engaged in something more sinister. To cut a long story short (without spoiling it) Tetsuo becomes a ‘test subject’ for the authorities in their quest to capture the ‘pure energy’ of the elusive Akira. Like the religious fanatics and the demonstrators in the street, the mad scientist wants to harness Akira’s ‘limitless power’.

But this is a film shot through with a knowing cynicism about the pursuit of knowledge and power and, of course, politics. ‘You’re forgetting who the real enemy is: it’s the politicians who got us into this mess in the first place’, says the colonel, as his troops train their guns on him. It is a world like our own where the catastrophic consequences of the human folly of the past stand as a warning to young idealists. As far as the colonel is concerned, ‘We’ve progressed quite a way since that Holocaust’. When he complains that ‘The people lost their pride in our great achievement a long time ago. Now all these fools care about is indulging themselves’, he sounds like a former lefty turned New Labourite berating the stupid consumerist masses for their failing loyalty. Though not seduced by Akira he shares with the scientist a visceral disgust for the city and its inhabitants. ‘I’m surprised you feel anything for this rotting metropolis,’ says the latter. 

To some extent, once you’ve seen one sci-fi downer on our collective urban future you’ve seen them all. And yet there is enough going on with Akira, visually and intellectually (if you ignore the clichés and the sci-fi mysticism), to keep it engaging. Perhaps its unique selling point is that it depicts a city that is both pre-and post-apocalyptic, cut off from its destructive past but consequently in fear of its future. Neo Tokyo is all too familiar.

The East End on Film

Various directors, East End Film Festival, London

OK, so my girlfriend and I trundled along early one Sunday afternoon to a little cinema on a quiet Kingsland High Street in Dalston, Hackney. There was none of the week-day bustle. The market was deserted. And with just half an hour to go before the commencement of this particular instalment of the ‘festival’, the shutters were down at the Rio. When we eventually got in, we felt like we were making up the numbers of what director Bev Zalcock jokingly referred to in her introduction as the hardcore avant-garde. We sat in eager anticipation of the visual delights to come.

An hour and a half later, we couldn’t have been happier to stumble wearily back out. As my girlfriend put it, they may have been short films but they weren’t short enough for her liking. But as a dedicated Culture Wars reviewer I am obliged to explain why I could only too readily agree. My trawl of the festival website – a last ditch attempt to make sure I wasn’t missing something – didn’t offer any insights into what the suite of films had to say, or why BAFTA nominated director (and here curator), Carol Morley decided to put them together in the first place.

The festival, I eventually discovered after an aborted search of the ‘about’ page, is something to do with ‘paying tribute to the diversity and scope of artistic endeavour coursing through our streets’. But I could only conclude that if anything was still coursing through the streets of the East End, it hadn’t made its way into the cinema. Not recently anyway. These particular films, explained the blurb, were an examination of ‘the East End’s heritage as told by local artist filmmakers’. Which explained why ‘Heritage Shorts’ was printed on our tickets and why they harked back to 1987, 1985, 2004, 1994 and 2004 respectively. The organisers were clearly using the words ‘new and contemporary’ rather liberally, to describe films made in the past twenty-odd years.

Which would have been fine if the material had been of a consistently good quality, or if it held together better. But the quality was variable and the ‘hanging’ failed to convince. The organisers predictably enough had fallen back on tired rhetoric about transcending all sorts of ‘cultural, political and artistic boundaries’. No doubt I am just not suited to such difficult and challenging work. As ‘artist filmmakers’, perhaps they don’t take kindly to bourgeois constraints on their creativity. But surely an attempt to ‘visualise the experience of living and working in the East End of London’ wasn’t a big ask. And yet only a couple managed to do this.

The fourth in the series, A13, directed by William Raban, passed the Ronseal test as it were. It begins with the journey made by traders to Billingsgate market in the early hours, as the newspapers roll off the presses and the traffic begins to roll along the main road past Canary Wharf. There is a poetic quality to it. Perhaps akin to the classic Night Mail, featuring the verse of WH Auden, there is an insistent sense of movement throughout. There is also a rare optimism, an excitement about city life. And there is variation. The day progresses, the light changes. Men out fishing in the shadow of the early morning metropolis, and the scattered orange boxes and dismantling of stalls, as the sun sets.

The other four films, as Zalcock indicated in her introduction, were surreal treatments of their respective subjects. She too seemed to be struggling for a rationale for the showing. But was nevertheless on to something here. The second film, East End Underground Movement, directed by Zalcock herself was easily the weakest though. She got her excuses in early claiming lack of funds. Somewhere between a bad music video and a grainy al-Qaeda call to arms, the title is a play on words taken from a graffiti scrawl. A woman on the tube to East Ham make believes that she is a freedom fighter or the ‘war child’ of the Debbie Harry soundtrack that accompanies it. This is intercut with the mundane reality of travelling eastbound on the district line, staring out at the desolate backdrop of the outerlying boroughs as they recede from view.

The best of the bunch, and the only other to do what it said on the tin/website, is Black Tower, by John Smith. This and Stalin My Neighbour, directed by Morley, both feature a disoriented, and unhinged first person narrator (complicated slightly by the split personality of the latter). Black Tower is also intensely claustrophobic, as the imposing and sinister-looking building of the title appears and re-appears, wherever he goes, crowding out his senses, and obscuring even our vision. His despair is concealed by a slightly comic monotone delivery. This articulates the repressive banality and sheer ordinariness of, and the melancholy induced by, the ‘unfashionable’ (according to Zalcock) and ever-so suburban Leytonstone with which I am all too familiar. It is a highly original work mixing abstraction and lingering still shots of the local area. For me it stood out as both technically and conceptually inventive. It too, however, was overlong.

Stalin My Neighbour features a deceptively straight ‘to camera’ guided tour of the old East End by an increasingly agitated young woman. Her psychogeographical leanings tell us of the lodgings where the Stalin of the title once stayed for an International get together, inform us of the Ripper’s prowlings, and hint at the gentler ambience of Gandhi’s wanderings, for instance. Indeed, just when I thought the East End itself was starting to take shape (if only through the trivia of criminal infamy and the accidents of residence of important historical figures) it turns out that her idiosyncratic historical journey is an expression of what her alter-ego describes as ‘depersonalisation’, a distraction for a troubled psyche trying to avoid a guilty secret. Shame. I was just beginning to find my bearings.

Thankfully, Fisticuffs, by Miranda Pennell, set in a Hackney working men’s club, was a bit of light relief. The film might have reflected on the passing of the political culture that gave rise to these now tired institutional hangovers that like Butlins continue to stumble along. But perhaps nostalgia for past leisure pursuits past isn’t the best response. Fisticuffs ignores all of this anyway and avoids poignancy and social comment altogether, preferring the absurd. The club is no more than a backdrop for a kind of saloon bar ballet. A neatly choreographed cowboy brawl ensues as old ladies chat and knit, blokes play pool, and the line dancing – perhaps the inspiration for the piece – goes on oblivious to the slapstick violence.

Fisticuffs and A13 share a balletic feel and wear their light touch well, but there is something missing. They seem to celebrate the banality of the everyday that is so brooding and arguably more effective for it in the Black Tower. They are as hollow as East End Underground Movement is barren. If there is a unifying theme this is it. The films, with the exception of A13 and possibly Black Tower, said very little if anything about the East End of London. I couldn’t help thinking that the supposed radicalism of such ‘underground’ film making is more a bunker retreat from the people actually ‘living and working in the East End’. A near-deserted auditorium was perhaps testament to this curious absence at the heart of a festival ostensibly dedicated to celebrating the area. Fortunately things had perked up outside. It was Sunday after all, so we went shopping.

Twelve and Holding

Twelve and Holding is the engaging second full-length feature from director Michael Cuesta following the critically acclaimed L.I.E. Most of the screen time is carried by its young, able and sometimes excellent cast. There are particularly notable performances from Zoë Weizenbaum who plays Malee, a lonely girl on the cusp of adolescence, with a crush on the Gus, a traumatised ex-fireman (played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Renner), who is a client of her divorcee-therapist mother.

The buddy movie classic Stand By Me soon came to mind for this reviewer. Both films are about a group of friends dealing with growing up, and centre around their response to a tragic event encountered on a journey of sorts. Both tell the story through the prism of childhood and the relationships formed between friends estranged from the adult world. But Twelve and Holding is different in some important ways. The children’s estrangement from the adult world is apparently endorsed by its authors (Cuesta and writer Anthony S Cipriano) through the portrayal of the peculiar dynamics that emerge when vulnerable yet knowing kids are subject to the damaging incompetencies of their parents. The young protagonists go on an adventure of sorts – into the otherworld of domesticated adulthood rather than into the wide and wild outdoors – but they don’t really learn anything because their elders, in this case, clearly aren’t their betters.

Roles are reversed and boundaries are blurred and confused. The disturbing scene where 12-year-old Malee disrobes and offers herself up to Gus goes beyond the taboo-breaking of even Nabokov’s Lolita by inverting it. He not she is the innocent of the piece, objectified as a kind of eroticised father-figure subject though never consenting to her confused advances. He is emasculated by his passivity both to his inner demons and her fantasies. When he later confesses to his therapist (her mother) that his time with this young girl was ‘therapeutic’, both are embarrassed, him for his transgressions and she for her failure in her obligations to both of them.

But it is ultimately adulthood that is disrobed in this piece. And found wanting. Adults are no more able to deal with events than their offspring, and consequently fail as models to which the latter may aspire. The children appear as ready-made cynics old before their time and pitying their parents for their ineptness. Conversely the adults embrace the state of adolescence vacated by their children, not because they yearn to see the world anew through uncynical eyes as the director seems to think, but in empathy with the existential confusion and angst of the troubled teenager.

But with children centre-stage and with their moral universe marked off as distinct from that of their incapable parents, the story has nowhere to go. Malee remains just precocious as she peers disapprovingly over her glasses at her mother; and the involuntarily obese Leonard, though a more sympathetic character, can only lock his mother in the basement in a desperate bid to control her appetite. There is no place for narrative progression if the adults are shown to exist only as toxic influences on their children, waiting to be saved by them.

Notably, both Leonard and his gluttonous parents are played to comic effect. They, as they lumber around and gorge themselves silly; and their son, as he attempts fat busting waddles to the end of the block. But beyond the comedy is contempt for the working class American family, for its junk lifestyle and ignorance of the damage its doing to its kids. And predictably enough, it gets its comeuppance when in one of the closing scenes the camera pans around the table as they tuck into their ill-appetising salads.

The only adults that aren’t portrayed as incompetent, selfish, vengeful or just plain nuts are the ones that form a connection, like Gus with Malee, by admitting their own vulnerability. And their characters are more-rounded as a result of this concession. Beyond this, the children and adults are just bemused by and alienated from each other.

Cuesta talks about how his characters ‘navigate the burden of their parents’ faults’ and how the latter learn from them as they encounter life’s problems afresh. Curiously, he argues that this is the result of the ‘experience’ of his young protagonists, when surely that’s the one thing they have less of! Beyond being encouraged by their spoilt kids to despise themselves, there was surely little for parents to learn. Cuesta also explains the prominent birth mark he gives one character, Jacob, as an added level of vulnerability. That he also has to deal with the grief for his dead brother and his ambiguous relationship with the boy responsible, shows that you can never elicit enough sympathy or over-egg the vulnerability pudding as far as this director is concerned.

The co-existence of these twin motifs of vulnerability and competence is a recurring feature in contemporary culture’s treatment of children and childhood – in the arts and in social policy. The piling on of one vulnerability on top of another, on the one hand, and the assertion (against all evidence to the contrary) that children are autonomous beings, as able as any adult to determine their own interests, on the other, are at the core of this film. That these are not seen as self-evidently conflicting traits tells us a lot about our understanding of our own and our children’s subjectivity, and the dramatic limitations of this particular portrayal of family life.

And yet for all this, Twelve and Holding is absorbing in its own terms, as an exploration of the way kids try to deal with growing up and learn to draw on their own resources in difficult times. The problem is that without the moral pointers traditionally provided by the adult world they, like us, inevitably lose their bearings. This is a new director with something to say, but if Twelve and Holding is anything to go by his talent lies rather in the way he says it.

UK release: 10 November 2006

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in Cork in 1920-1, and opens with a community radicalised by an armed British presence that reacts violently when they dare to play a hurling match (a game whose national significance now makes sense to this reviewer!).

These were uniquely ‘politicised times’ as Ken Loach said in his talk following a screening at the Barbican. The Bolshevik revolution was still fresh in the memories of the key protagonists, as was the Great War during which the British and the other powers sought to divide bits of the world between them, and Sinn Fein had won a massive victory at the polls and a clear mandate for power. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The infamous mercenaries, the Black and Tans, were sent in to quell republican resistance.

One reading of this important episode in the story of anti-imperialism is a tragic one, and yet the struggle shook the British establishment at a time when it was stretched and exposed, fighting on too many fronts. More effective solidarity with the restless working class in Britain, and with nationalists all over the empire, could have tipped things in a very different direction. It seems like a world away now from our more cynical and world weary times. It was. Politics was never more vital. A super-potent version of that sense of injustice that is a staple of Loach’s films going back to Cathy Come Home was the fuel that fed their anger and drove them to fight back.

Loach doesn’t spare us in his portrayal of the torture of republican soldiers, or the brutality visited on the communities from which they came – but neither does he titillate us with blood and guts. We are left in no doubt that this was a guerrilla war but, as he explained afterwards, we wouldn’t have learned anymore if they had pulled out teeth rather than just fingernails. The most exhilarating parts of the film are filled with talk. The violence is only ever a means to an end.

In a highly charged scene at a meeting of volunteers following the announcement of the signing of the partition treaty with Britain, we witness the beginnings of division in the ranks. Would they fight on for their freedom and disassociate themselves with the ‘free-staters’, or concede the north of the island, accept partition, and the dominion status that came with it? Loach rightly refused to come down on either the socialist/republican or bourgeois/nationalist (as he put it) sides, but instead allowed us to empathise with their personal torments and understand their political motivations.

‘How does if feel to kill an Irishman?’ asks one of another when hostilities break out once more. Loach explained how the cast was recruited from the local area, and how events lived on in the memories of those around at the time, and in contemporary folklore. He describes an instance he came across where one man had signed the execution warrant for the best man at his wedding. The telling of the story through the prism of the relationship between two brothers was clearly more than a neat dramatic device. The civil war ran deep.

Curiously though, like Basil Fawlty, Loach couldn’t help but mention the war (in Iraq) – at least they marched for one day, he said unconvincingly. Like Ireland, it has a long and bitter history of resistance, its boundaries drawn by British colonialists, and it now involves surrogates fighting a dirty war. But today’s reluctant imperialists exhibit a more accidental and aimless brutality, the consequence of its armies being holed up in their high security barracks with no clear mission, and promoted by a culture of paralysis and fear indulged by political elites at home. And the left is much the same, practising a politics that can only live vicariously through the self-destructive acts of deluded individuals with no roots in the local community – quite the opposite of supporting the right to self-determination of a sovereign people.

But there is one other parallel. According to Loach, all his films follow a clear narrative structure, tracing contradictions in the character’s lives and taking them to their resolution. Which is a strange thing to say if you think about it after a film about Ireland. Like Iraq, it is a conflict that was never really resolved. In the latter, the allies claimed to have won without declaring their victory for fear of triumphalism, but remain caught up in skirmishes as they try to avoid responsibility for the devastation they leave in their wake. This confused state of affairs is echoed in the republican movement’s declared end to hostilities. Though its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, like partition all those years earlier, signalled a withdrawal from its wider ambitions, Sinn Fein was more or less triumphant in public, in a calculated effort not to admit defeat.

The mystifying language of identity politics that subsequently came to dominate in Ireland (and Iraq, and elsewhere), subsumed its political history under the demeaning logic of historical and unchanging antagonisms, and institutionalised the divisions more than the barbed wire and check points ever could. That is the real tragedy of Ireland, and perhaps another film.

I, Robot

Director, Alex Proyas; Starring Will Smith, Bridgit Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood; 20th Century Fox, 114 minutes

The ‘I’ in ‘I, Robot’ takes on a whole new significance in Alex Proyas’s disappointing take on Asimov’s classic. It is not so much ‘Turing Test’, speculating on what might happen if the boffins were able to mimic consciousness. Rather we get a dumbed down humanity in which the only thing separating the metal imposters and us is that we can emote.

And that, significantly, is what makes them dangerous. The robots could outsmart us and take over, if we don’t get emotionally intelligent and rein in our rational urges. The message – the inevitability of our downfall as we overstretch ourselves – is no doubt familiar to contemporary audiences, but quite alien to the visionary writing that inspired (for want of a better word) this adaptation.

The cynical cop, played by Will Smith – very much in Men in Black mode – awaits his calling, though wrongly apprehending what he presumes to be a bag-snatching robot in one of the opening, and most engaging, moments in the film. Dr Calvin, rather than the ageing United States Robots figurehead who narrates the book, threatens to becom the obligatory love interest for our cynical anti-hero.

What might have been an intriguing psychological thriller – as the trailers of the interrogation of ‘Sonny’ certainly led me to expect – was in fact something altogether more predictable. Just as it looks as if it might get interesting, the pace picks up and we are treated to special effects set-pieces as chases ensue.

Having said that, there are some wonderfully evocative scenes, reminiscent of Blade Runner, as robots and humans pass each other in the Metropolis without a second glance. The vertical car parking and awe-inspiring wired-up cityscape – not to mention the surprisingly nimble lifelike robots – are worth taking away with you if nothing else.