Blake Backlash finds that it’s not safe to stay indoors when the Glasgow Film Festival is on.
Films make you think of other films all the time. It might be down to a performance: the way an actor says ‘it’s raining’; something they do with their eyes; the way they light a cigarette. At the Q & A after High Rise, Ben Wheatley spoke about how they’d suggested Oliver Reed to Luke Evans as a reference point for his performance as Richard Wilder. And someone a couple of rows behind me went aaah! with that mixture relief and satisfaction you get when you finally figure out which one of your old friends that stranger in the corner reminds you of.
Other times it’s not a memory thing. When you’re at a film festival, you sometimes think the films are actually talking to one another, like they’re at a party. Like you’re the one in the corner, sitting back with your drink happily watching them all. Noticing who gets on and who doesn’t, listening to them arguing and laughing with one another.
And sometimes you start to see odd patterns and coincidences, something similar in the way they dress or what they’re talking about. In the first few days at the Glasgow Film Festival I saw three films that used interior space (how it borders the outside, what’s confining or paradoxically liberating about it) to explore how power is exercised.
Land and Shade opens with Alfonso (Haimer Leal) walking down a dirt road between two rows of sugar cane. Soon we’ll learn that he is going back to the home he abandoned, where his ex-wife Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) still lives with their invalid son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa). As he slowly makes his way down that path, Alfonso has to step into the cane fields to let a truck pass-by and, as it goes, it kicks up thick clouds of dust and ash that fill the screen. Later in the film Alfonso walks down this path again, this time with his grandson Manuel (Jose Felipe Cardenas) who is enjoying a birthday ice cream. Another truck passes and Alfonso uses his body to shield Manuel from the dust. César Augusto Acevedo (this is his directorial début) moves in for a close-up, old-man protecting the boy, boy protecting the ice cream, in a blizzard of grey ash.
Acevedo favours imagery like this, simple and vivid, with clear symbolic import but still rooted realistically in the situation. The ash from burning sugar cane plants, and the plants themselves, are a constant presence the film. A lot of the film takes place inside the house (Geraldo has to stay inside because he’s sick). But every time we we see through a window or a door, the cane plants are there, as inescapable as Birnham Wood moving on Dunsinane.
Alicia works in the cane fields with her daughter-in-law Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) where they are exhausted and powerless to stop themselves getting screwed out of their pay by their bosses. Meanwhile Hector stays home and has to sweep ash off the floor, even wipe it off the leaves of the plants they try to grow. He builds a bird-table but the ash falls on the fruit he puts out, turning the red flesh of the pomegranates a deathly grey. The ash gets everywhere.
It even gets inside Gerardo, making every breath for him an ordeal, so that the very act of staying alive hurts him. This is a film about how, when you’re at the bottom, capitalism is as inescapable as it is debilitating. But, for all the vivid imagery, nothing seems didactic or overworked, in part because it is impossible not to care about these characters.
Tom Hiddlestone isn’t quite at the bottom in High Rise. He’s a few floors up. Ben Wheatley’s film is tonally about as far removed from Land and Shade as you can get but it also explores what people with power do to people without it, and there are characters who can’t (or won’t) get outside. But since this is a Ballard adaptation, there’s more of a sense that power differentials bring out and make stark urges already present in these characters. So when things get messy, it’s not ash from outside getting in, it’s the detritus of bad parties.
High Rise has some of my favourite bad party scenes since La Dolce Vita (or, now that I think of it, since I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, which was the Oliver Reed film Ben Wheatley spoke about in the Q & A). I always think the litmus test of a good bad-party scene is that, while the people seem awful and the idea of being there seems frightening, even revolting, the flair in the way the film-maker captures all that leaves you sort of wishing you were there. There’s a costume part in High Rise that makes great use of Abba’s S-O-S that had that paradox in spades. And Tom Hiddletsone is perfectly cast as Robert Laing. In fact he’s kind of a walking bad party in this, in that you can’t stop looking at Laing but, at the same time, you have this sense that you don’t want to know too much about what’s going on inside. And yet he has this vulnerability that makes you empathise with him too.
High Rise is constantly and luridly inventive and I liked it a hell of a lot. It’s thrilling to see Wheatley and Amy Jump put images together. There’s a montage about halfway through the film, where things get bad – we see violence, rubbish bags, rotting fruit, flickering lights, broken glass, sex. These are familiar things made strange and scary and the overall effect is both oblique and shockingly revealing at the same time (like you’re seeing things you shouldn’t see). Wheatley spoke in the Q & A about how much of the imagery came from the script and how crucial Jump is to the editing process, with her more or less editing ‘through’ him, directing him about what shots to put where. The editing is one of the best things in the film for me, crucial to its sense of scary, funny delirium.
Rattle the Cage has got some scary, funny, delirium of its own going on. This is another directorial début (from Majid Al Ansari) but it’s a first of another kind as well, the first genre film made in The United Arab Emirates. This is a a mix of Harold Pinter play and spaghetti Western. It’s all set in a police station in an unnamed country (‘somewhere in Arabia’ a title card at the beginning tells us). I don’t want to say too much, partly because the less you know going in, the better, partly because for all that the film is about power , and uses interior space, saying too much about all that might make me lose sight of the fact that sometimes it’s just really cool to set a whole film in one room. And for me, this got about ten times the fun out of that idea than The Hateful Eight did. There’s a lithe, flamboyant performance from Ali Suliman at the heart of the film. As I watched him, I thought I might compare him to a dancer when I wrote about the film, but then the son-of a-bitch spiked my guns by actually starting to dance.
The Glasgow Film Festival is on till Sunday.