Last week was International Film Festival here in Rotterdam and with me living right on top of the main venues you now understand why I didn’t pick up the phone. Contrary to most film festivals, Rotterdam doesn’t pay anyone to screen their movie, nor cares much about well known movie stars, so you get to see a lot of work from young producers, oppressed nations, local heroes, bottom-of-the-barrel budgets and the occasional rubbish, which make it a splendid program altogether.
One skyscraper-related production on the menu was the upcoming movie High-Rise, which is based on the 1975 novel by J.G.(James) Ballard. And by the way, the movie increased the asking price for a first edition of the book to well over one thousand dollars. With my cheap reprint shelved as to-read for quite some time, now was the time to take in both, book first. The quotes below are taken from the book.
The high-rise was a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of the tenants, but the individual resident in isolation.
High-Rise is a dystopian view of high-rise living in which the residents of a 40-storey, 1,000-unit nameless high-rise in London (loosely inspired by London’s Barbican Estate) transform into primitive cave dwellers. The use of the latter term is no coincidence. It appears in the book itself to refer to the building’s residents, but it was also used when the first middle-class apartment building appeared in New York in the 1870’s. This was the time in which the predominant typology of ‘stacked living’ was the tenement, which was a very dense, lower-class living environment you would try to avoid at all costs if you could possibly help it. Critics believed that living on top of each other people would make you lose touch with the street, their neighbors and hence reality, which would make its residents prone to debauchery, loss of decency, and blatant violence.
These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.
More than a novel with human characters and a storyline, the book is about the self-fulfilling degeneration of the protagonist, being the nameless high-rise, which must be read as an image of the time in which it was written. High-Rise is most likely a response to the many housing blocks that went up in the 1960’s in Great Britain, such as the infamous Red Road flats in Glasgow, which were completed seven years prior to the publication of the book. As such it can be regarded as a thought exercise which is not entirely off the mark when compared to the process of deterioration of those Red Road flats as portrayed in Alison Irvine’s 2011 book This Road is Red.
the upper society of the high-rise
With the book being a ‘survival of the fittest’ in a closed environment, to me this context would be great inspiration for a reality tv show, but instead some adventurous producer called Ben Wheatley decided to turn this into a movie starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss.
Happily, this free and degenerate behavior became easier the higher he moved up the building, as if encouraged by the secret logic of the high-rise.
I learned a long time ago that reading the book before seeing the movie is not a guarantee for a good night out as you keep comparing the two. A 200-page book generally allows for a much richer storyline than a 90-minute movie. The best you can hope for is a proper imagination of the essence of the book.
The movie starts off with some great visuals, especially if you know to appreciate Brutalist architecture. The producers even created a website for the fictional architect Anthony Royal, which contains some images of his building. The British Architecture foundation has more images which bring to mind some of those great decors from Mad Men.
The building comes with swimming pools, a gymnasium, a supermarket, massage parlor and everything else your need in order to never need, or want to leave the building. It’s this stylish, luxurious but also contained world which shields the residents from the outside world, but also estranges them from its rules and morals. Degeneration sets in slowly but speeds up drastically in the middle of the movie which fast-forwards you to the second part where it turns into a story which brings to mind Lord of the Flies, in which the island has been substituted for a high-rise. I’ll stop here not to spoil the movie.
Living in a high-rise required a special type of behavior, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here, Wilder reflected.
Knowing it took 40 years before someone dared to adapt the novel into a movie shows how much of a challenge it must have been to do so, but the movie has done so very successfully. Staying true to the storyline it manages to visualize the process of human degeneration into instinctive behavior without becoming utterly implausible. Adding the superb casting and acting into the mix and you’ll understand this movie is far from the disappointment it could have been. Two thumbs up for this one!