High-Rise, Ballard and the 1970s – An Exchange with Adam Roberts

I wrote an article titled ‘Sourcedness’ on Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise for Critical Quarterly. It’s here. (It’s also here, until Critical Quarterly say no.)

A Facebook post by Adam Roberts on 20th April 2017 seemed to be thinking along the same lines:

The Alec Guinness/BBC “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, set in the 1970s, *looks* a lot less “1970s” than the more recent film version, also set in the 1970s, because the BBC version *was actually made* in the 1970s, and in the 1970s the 1970s really didn’t look very 1970s, where the 2011 filmmakers went out of their way to make their movie look 1970s.

Jameson’s “Postmodernism” book has something relevant to this.

So I suggested Adam Roberts read what I’d said in CQ:


The writer-director team Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley is among the most interesting and ambitious working in British cinema, and – exactly because of this – they deserve the kind of attention that Cameron Crowe has Lester Bangs describe in Almost Famous as ‘honest,… and unmerciful.’

I loved High-Rise, but now I’m going to spend a couple of thousand words unmercifully kicking the shit out of it. (Because, in a way that’s entirely necessary for anyone attempting to adapt Ballard, it is full of shit.)

Let’s start with the coffee table.

It sits in Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller)’s apartment, on top of a zebra-skin rug, surrounded on three sides by low sofas with white and orange throws. It is square in shape, when seen from above, and has polished metal legs, also square if transected, and a smoked glass top.

At one point, during the first of the many party scenes in High-Rise, Wilder (Luke Evans) slides beneath the table and leers up at Charlotte Melville through the brown glass. Meanwhile Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) pretends to chat awkwardly to Wilder’s wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss), about how he has just moved into the twenty-fifth floor. Different seduction methods, stiff and lithe, vertical and horizontal, are contrasted.

The coffee table was designed by Willy Rizzo (1928-2013) – I know this because every time I go to visit my father, I put my feet up on almost the exact same model. Willy Rizzo was an Italian photographer who switched over to a vastly successful career in furniture design, then switched back again. My father used to be an antique dealer, which is when he acquired the Willy Rizzo coffee table. He has told me numerous times that it is a very beautiful, desirable object and that, when he’s gone, I should be careful not to sell it cheap.

I agree with my father, and I am sure you would agree with my father. The coffee table (not the only Willy Rizzo table in High-Rise) is a beautiful, desirable object; if one were an interior decorator with a time machine, one would almost certainly go back to 1970 and buy one right off the factory floor.

Of course, we don’t have such beings as interior decorators with time machines. What we have instead are historical films with Production Designers.

The Production Designer on High-Rise was Mark Tildesley, whose previous credits include 24 Hour Party People, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, One Day and The Fifth Estate. (Also very involved, I assume, were Set Decorator Paki Smith and Property Master David Carson.) Their collective work on High-Rise is obtrusively good. So much so that it becomes a kind of meta-film – one that I’d like to interrogate (kick).

The main way in which I can tell a film sequence is failing is when, watching the screen, I feel as if I am able to listen in to the discussion in the production meeting. Watching High-Rise, I felt this very often.

For example, there is a bravura sequence early on in the film where the male occupants of the doomed building all, as one, stride out of the lobby and towards the vast, flat, concrete car park containing their grid-parked cars. These are, for the viewers of 2015, vintage cars, but the way they are filmed obviates any possibility of nostalgia. The epic men are wearing period 1970s clothes, but they are not comically naff. Polyester flares are not allowed to swish. Instead, the camera angles lead us to observe with admiration the stylish cut of their trousers. And I feel, rightly or wrongly, that – as I watch all this – I am listening in to the production meeting. Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump, Mark Tildesley and others are present.

‘What we really need to do is get away from that I love the ‘70s clichéd view.’

‘Yeah, we can’t have lazy cultural signifiers – we have to be crisp.’

‘Exactly, we need to make the 1970s look new, cutting edge, undated, desirable.’

‘These men are technocrats – white head of technology, all that.’

‘We need the audience to want to be in that world. It has to look cool –as cool as our world.’

The brief for Production Design is clear. The point to be made is entirely revisionist: make the past seem as much like the present as possible.

And so, returning to the Willy Rizzo coffee table, we get the impression that it has been placed there, in the set of Charlotte Melville’s apartment, by an interior decorator with a time machine. But the time machine has made not one but several journeys – it has started from the production meeting of 2014 and gone back to 1970, in order to source a brand new Willy Rizzo coffee table, and then it has returned to 2014, so that Jump-Wheatley can okay it for the scene, and then it has taken the Willy Rizzo coffee table back to the imaginary 1970s of the High-Rise set, where it can look new and cool and desirable when viewed by the time-machine deprived audience who will eventually got to see it in 2015.

The most important verb here is to source. The Production Design of High-Rise is meticulously sourced. Almost every single object that appears on screen in High-Rise is surrounded by a painful aura of sourcedness. (I will return to the important exceptions soon.)

The Production Designer has done their job too well – their budget was too big, and they haven’t had to cut any corners in sourcing just the right thing. And when you end up with set after set full of hundreds of just the right things, you end up with an oppressive sense of cultural narcissism.

How can the Production Designer be sure that the Willy Rizzo coffee table will look new and cool and desirable to the 2015 audience?

Well, because (at least in England) we live in something like an interior decoration monoculture. Having started with a coffee table and my father, I am now going to move on to a toilet cistern and my mother-in-law: to be more specific, a broken toilet cistern, coloured champagne, that my mother-in-law recently wanted to replace like-for-like, but found she couldn’t. Because all bathroom suites are now white. If she wanted a champagne-coloured cistern, my mother-in-law would have to have gone to extraordinary lengths to source it.

Okay, you say, this may because champagne, avocado, tangerine and aubergine are horribly out of fashion colours for sinks, loos and baths. But it’s not simply that. Google image-search ‘new bathroom suite’ and then scroll down the page. This is the monoculture. Look in an estate agent’s window. See all the clean, light, airy spaces. Try to find a space that isn’t clean, light and airy. In terms of decorative detail, you are essentially looking at the same property a hundred times. If the interior is lived-in, dark and cosy, you will be shown a photograph of the well-lit exterior of the building.

What has been created for High-Rise is not a nod and a wink version of the 1970s, because it doesn’t ever need to nod or wink. No head or eye movement is necessary, because you know and I know and we all know what’s what. We are agreed that the Willy Rizzo coffee table is beautiful and desirable. Watching a silent version of High-Rise would be a form of cultural self-congratulation.

What goes for the visuals of High-Rise might also be expected to apply to the soundtrack. Each 1970s song that we hear operates in what seems, at first, an identical way to the Willy Rizzo coffee table. Can’s ‘Spoon’ and ‘Outside My Door’, Gila’s ‘Sundance Chant’ – they are all painfully sourced. These are cool sounds. No 1970s group has managed to ingratiate itself to the future as totally as Can. (Except the increasingly dated-sounding Kraftwerk; the use of which would have been too obvious or, perhaps, too expensive.) In listening to Can, we hear what we would have liked the 1970s to sound like.

If we were a music producer with a time machine, we would go back to a Can jam session and listen in. When they stopped wailing like hippies or doing bad funk workouts and instead started getting cleanly motorik, we would give the thumbs-up to the musicians and say, ‘Yes, that bit – keep doing that. We will like that.’

However, in High-Rise, the soundtrack (including the sound design) operates differently to the production design. It is established early on that there is a disjunction between image and sound.

In what is one of the film’s best sequences, what sounds to me like a gavotte accompanies visuals of seventies hipsters dancing to something that clearly isn’t a gavotte. (It may be a classical-sounding adaptation of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’, elsewhere covered by Portishead.)

This image/sound disjunction cascades down to later scenes – and even when the dancers are moving in time to the music on the soundtrack, we are still open to the possibility that they may not be hearing what are hearing. The soundtrack, in other words, may very different to the ambient sound that would have been gathered were a microphone operating in the room we are viewing.

What we hear at first listen is cultural ingratiation. The likelihood of Can’s ‘Outside My Door’ being played at a party equivalent to Charlotte Melville’s is nearly zero. The song was obscure, released in 1969. And so I suspect that we are intended to factor in the disjunction, and instead imagine that the characters are actually dancing to Brotherhood of Man’s ‘Save All Your Kisses for Me’ (1976) or the Glitter Band’s ‘Love in the Sun’ (1975) or K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s ‘That’s the Way I Like It’ (1975) or ABBA’s original ‘S.O.S’ (1975).

What Can were doing as they jammed their way toward ‘Spoon’ was the opposite of cultural self-congratulation. It was the creation of something that tried its damnedest to be unknowing. We can tell this because they recorded some awful and awfully dated music, probably on the very same day. They left it to the future to do the sorting; we want to pre-sort, because we already know. We’re all hipsters now – that’s the impression High-Rise might seem to give.

We can congratulate ourselves on being right, culturally, but it’s that very cultural self-congratulation that obviates totally any chance of great cultural achievement. It is only radical uncertainty of aesthetic judgement that can bring about true futuristic beauty.

The occasional disjunction between sound and image, though, works to open up a fissure in the aesthetic of the film. The audience is not necessarily being asked to admire and desire everything they see.

When High-Rise starts to come apart at the seams, when you know where the seams are because there occurs a sequence that feels to intense for the surrounding material, those are the moments that give me hope. Hope that Jump-Wheatley are up to something more anguished than congratulation, and that they haven’t created the entire film as a show-reel. (Their editing lack-of-style often tends towards this. It is nervy, reactive. When best, it opens interesting disjunctions; when worst, it shows off.)

High-Rise is clearly not a film about the 1970s. Not only the Willy Rizzo coffee table, and not only the mirrored elevator that featured in the first still image released from the film – the whole thing is rife with reflective surfaces. Throughout, we are forced to examine our own flattened image in the glass (before the glass gets smashed). This seems a very 1980s gambit, almost Bret Easton Ellis – to make the audience confront a radical shallowness in itself.

Reading this you will probably – in fact I hope you will – have been thinking, ‘Surely that’s appropriate for a J.G.Ballard adaptation?’ Self-congratulation. Shallowness. Ballard was publicly and perplexingly keen on the photography of Helmut Newton. (‘I can’t think of anyone better’ – V.Vale & Mike Ryan, J.G.Ballard: Quotes, pg 152.) I was always suspicious that this was simply because Ballard got off on the long-legged Aryan beauties and the jet set luxury of high-gloss interiors.

Why should I give sections of High-Rise a hard time for being the cinematic equivalent of Helmut Newton?

The reason is, Ballard’s novels are better than Ballard’s taste – which was (just listen to his Desert Island Discs) a bit shit. Jim was no barometer of cool. Instead, he was a canary of cultural pollutants. He realised things before he realised he’d realised them – and that’s why he’s still worth reading. The programmatic novels (Millennium People, Kingdom Come), the ones where he knew what he was doing, are less interesting and pertinent than the manic ones (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash). Everyone knows this, even the hipsters.

I said earlier that I would return to the objects within the film that are exceptional, that do not possess an aura of sourcedness. These all occur in a series of scenes that take place in the building’s supermarket. Here, instead of being merely sourced, each product on the shelves has been commissioned. Rather than settle for putting on display either an original 1975 packet of Kellogg’s Cornflakes or a brand-new, unyellowed, recreated packet of 1975-era design Kellogg’s Cornflakes, the film-makers have had hyper-real (because hyper-minimal) stand-ins created. The effect is something like a less colourful version of the supermarket sections of Pulp’s ‘Common People’ video (1995).

As Laing pushes his trolley down the aisles, another disjunction opens up – this time not between image and sound but between levels of reality in different parts of the film. A sourced 1975 has suddenly become a commissioned 1975 and, as such, is far more obtrusive. (Look, no barcodes!) It’s likely many viewers will not have consciously noticed the Willy Rizzo coffee table; the products in the supermarket, because we have never seen any of them before, are something no-one but a Martian could miss.

In conclusion, I think I would need a time-machine to form any firm judgement of High-Rise. If I were able to travel thirty years into the future, and attend a Jump-Wheatley retrospective, I could let you know. For if they go on to make a series of similarly sourced-looking, show-reely films, High-Rise will signal a decline from A Field in England (which made a great virtue of its micro-budget). If, however, they pursue either extreme of the commissioned or the accidental – if, in other words, there is a sense, looking back, that in making High-Rise they were playing their Production Designer team – using them to condemn themselves, and their self-congratulatory audience – then it is a breakthrough.

Adam Roberts replied:
I agree with you about Wheatley/Jump more broadly, and share your disappointment with High Rise, for some of the same reasons. In the end it was too pure in what it was trying to do, I think. It lacked the disruptive energy it needed. What Wheatley is particularly good up is contaminating one mode of film with another in creatively interesting ways: so Kill List puts the gangster assassin flick together with The Wicker Man and it really oughtn’t to work, although it really does; or A Field in Englandbeautifully poisons an earnest Winstanley-style b+w movie about the civil war with a hallucinogenic pop video from the wackier end of the 1960s. But High Rise was just too refined and polished, as you say.
The odd thing is that Ballard, even at his best, really wasn’t a very ‘pure’ or polished writer. Malcolm Edwards, who was his editor, once told me: ‘I used to say to him, “Jim, you’re a terrible writer, but you’re a great author…”‘, which strikes me as true.
There’s also the issue, which sort of follows on from what you’re saying, of the extent to which modern art (into which bracket I’d be tempted to include cinema) has been hijacked by design. Not that I would want to downplay the latter category, which is important, creative, often beautiful etc. Nor do I want to sound like a cultural luddite, or an old fogey. But when I wander round the Tate Modern I find myself reacting to much of the art on the level of its design, which frontloads a particular sort-of aesthetic: clever, clean, stylish etc.
We would both be interested to hear if you have any thoughts on this. Please do post.

3 thoughts on “High-Rise, Ballard and the 1970s – An Exchange with Adam Roberts

  1. For the record, Ballard had begun writing High-Rise by October 1973, which we know because he wrote to James Goddard in that month: “Since writing Crash I have completed another novel, Concrete Island, about a man marooned on a large traffic island, to be published next May; and I am now working on another, about a huge high-rise apartment building.” (Goddard, “Ballard on Crash: Answers to Some Questions,” Cypher no. 10, October 1973.) Edward Heath was prime minister in the autumn of 1973.

    Ballard had completed the book and delivered it to his publishers by December 1974 (by which time Harold Wilson was once more prime minister): “I finished a novel about three weeks ago… I call it The High Life provisionally. I may change it, I may stick to it. I don’t know.” (Ballard, interviewed by James Goddard and David Pringle, 4 January 1975.) Jonathan Cape took about a year to publish, as was their wont, but proof copies of the novel were available by August 1975 and finished copies by November of the same year. So it was a 1973-1974 novel as far as its time of composition was concerned, and all references to things later than 1974, such as ABBA’s song “SOS,” are strictly speaking anachronistic.

    The things which did influence the novel were pre-1973, I think — e.g. the architect Erno Goldfinger’s stay with his wife on the top floor of the newly completed Balfron Tower in the East End of London (1968); the disaster at Ronan Point in London when a cheap high-rise block of flats partially collapsed (also 1968); the demolition of the huge Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis (architecture critic Charles Jencks referred to 15 July 1972 as “the moment of Modernism’s demise”); the appearance of Oscar Newman’s book Defensible Space (1972), and so on. Also, of course, the events of the Heath government in Britain (1970-1974) — five declared states of emergency, frequent power cuts, black refuse sacks everywhere…

    JGB knew what he was doing, in the main, but nevertheless I do like your point that “Ballard’s novels are better than Ballard’s taste… [H]e was a canary of cultural pollutants. He realised things before he realised he’d realised them…”

  2. While I enjoyed High Rise I too was left disappointed, but in some vague way that I couldn’t quite encapsulate straight after viewing. I since concluded that my problem was that while it felt pretty Ballardian in spirit it wasn’t a Wheatley-style film, mainly because it was clearly made on an expensive budget and for all its distant, dreamy, Antonioi-esque coldness of tone lacked the menace and weirdness of the director’s other films. The disjunction between image and soundtrack was foregrounded, for me, by the SOS sequence, which was definitely a pointed, almost didactic indicator of the hollowness of bourgeois consumer culture. It almost seemed overdone to me, an AUTHOR’S MESSAGE moment which was borderline brilliant/clumsy. I hope Wheatley and Jump’s next project has less money to throw around.

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