Philosophical Screens: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1971)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I gave about A Clockwork Orange at the British Film Institute on Tuesday 16 April 2019. The talk was the latest in the Philosophical Screens series.

On this occasion my fellow speakers were Lucy Bolton of Queen Mary, University of London, and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Where my thoughts as written here were shaped by the thoughts offered by my co-speakers at the BFI, I shall try to offer up credit.

In short, I suggested that A Clockwork Orange is a film about control, and as such it remains relevant to our world today.

For, at the centre of Kubrick’s film is the so-called Ludovico technique that chief protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) undergoes after being arrested for murder. The Ludovico technique consists of Alex’s eyes being forced open and then kept moist by the administration of eye-drops as he is shown a prolonged series of films featuring what Alex would refer to as ultraviolence, including what in the film are supposed to be documentary images of groups of ‘droogs’ committing rape and murder, as well as genuine documentary images – both of Nazi gatherings during World War 2 (which we see – including footage from Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935), and of concentration camp atrocities (which we do not see, but which Alex describes).

I shall return to the role played by these documentary images in what is otherwise a fiction film at a later point in time. But for the time being, the important thing to explain is that these images are so horrific to Alex that they, in conjunction with a drug that is injected into him, induce a disgust response, such that he begins to gag whenever he sees or even thinks about doing some of the violent and/or sexual acts that otherwise give him so much pleasure.

It is not that we are forced to watch horrific deeds on cinema screens in the contemporary age. Nonetheless, the idea that we cannot but watch moving images is relevant when we begin to consider the proliferation of screens in the contemporary world, and from which moving images and sounds emanate – perhaps especially ones that are advertisements specifically or advertisarial more generally.

(What I mean by ‘advertisarial’ is that these images may not sell specific products to us, but they sell to us lifestyles, as well as being designed for us to stare at them, i.e. they sell themselves.)

This advertisarial logic of contemporary screen culture is of course capitalist in nature, while its would-be permanence also relates to the development of what has been termed 24:7 culture, or the ends of sleep. That is, permanent illumination and screen culture lead to us always being awake, always being online, always being connected… such that metaphorically our eyes are always open as buzzes and flashes wake us up in the night and stop us from sleeping, our eyes always forced open by the machines of cinema.

We might think that there is a key difference between the world that I am describing (24:7 connection and the ends of sleep) and that of A Clockwork Orange. For, in the latter, Alex watches these images in order not to commit violent acts, while in our world, we are encouraged always to look at these images – in order to undergo our own Ludovico technique.

Except that as the Ludovico technique is introduced in order to control the behaviour of an otherwise unruly Alex, so is 24:7 culture and the ends of sleep designed to control the behaviour of citizens in today’s world. For, it interpellates them permanently into capitalist culture.

More than this, while Alex watches images of violence, what the contemporary ‘Ludovico technique’ of permanent screen culture involves is violence done to us, those who experience it.

Furthermore, what we ultimately learn is not that Alex is violent in spite of the world of control that the Ludovico technique reveals, but that his violence is the logical extension of that world. And that violence is the logic of our world of permanent illumination – violence to the world, violence to us, violence to each other. The cinematic ethos of our times reveals not just violence in cinema (torture porn, etc, to which we shall return later). But violence as cinema/cinema as violence.

If this notion of control in A Clockwork Orange needed further evidence, then the film’s very title offers us a clue. For, Anthony Burgess, upon whose novel the film is based, gave his book the title A Clockwork Orange for a couple of interlinked reasons. The first is his interest in the phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange,’ which suggests the way in which humans often do not fit into the roles that society tries to impose upon them. And the second is his sense of intrigue at how orang in Malaya (where Burgess was based for a time) means ‘human’ (as per orang-utan, which means ‘human of the forest’).

In other words, ‘a clockwork orang’ is a clockwork human – a human rendered predictable and controlled, as their eyes are glued wide shut by the permanent onslaught of lights, images and sounds that prevent them from seeing their own subjugation to systems of control.

In the term ‘clockwork’ we also have an initial sense of how violence is the logical consequence of, rather than the exception to, a society of control. For by reducing the human to set actions and reactions, time is rendered not a measure of change and becoming, but a measure of repetition, with repetition being a measure of controlled bodies doing repetitive actions (‘work’) for the purposes of capital. Clock-work humans are humans that work; humans that are subject to the time of capital rather than their own time.

Let us further this argument about violence taking place not in spite of the control society, but rather as its logical extension.

‘I would not be controlled,’ sing Alex and various other inmates in a chapel service at HMP Wandsworth before the former undergoes the Ludovico – suggesting that prison and religion both are ways of bringing ‘sheep back into the fold.’

But more specifically, once he does undergo the Ludovico, Alex complains about how he ‘began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glazzies,’ he continues, ‘and even if I tried to move my glazballs about I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture.’

In using the Russian term glaz to refer to his eyes, Alex also brings to mind how Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov referred to his cinematic project as a kino-glaz, or a cine-eye, in which cinema would create a new media-determined perception of reality.

That is, cinema is part of (a tool for) a system of discipline and indoctrination, or what I am here terming (in reference to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze) a society of control.

But cinema is already controlling Alex even before he undergoes the Ludovico technique. As much is made clear when we understand that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is Alex’s own ultraviolence theme tune (with that song also taking place in the 1952 American film of the same name at a moment when Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, is a bit unruly towards a police officer).

In addition, we are offered flashes into Alex’s fantasies as he dreams of ultraviolence at home – and during these moments Alex sees himself as a cinematic Nosferatu figure.

In other words, cinema has inspired Alex’s violent fantasies. Cinema will not cure him of violence. Violence is the logic of cinema.

What is key, however, is that Stanley Kubrick seems to be aware of this – as is made clear by various of the formal choices that he makes in the film.

As successively we hear Gioachino Rossini’s ‘La gazza ladra/Thieving Magpie’ and the overture from William Tell during scenes of violence, A Clockwork Orange takes on dimensions of not being about realism but rather being about choreography. The film becomes balletic as bodies fly through the air, as bodies move in slow motion, or as bodies (during a ménage-à-trois that Alex has with two women he picks up at a record store) move in fast motion.

Furthermore, the colour scheme of A Clockwork Orange also shifts the film away from realism and into a highly stylised realm that equally suggests self-consciousness/falsity. Indeed, the film opens with a red and then a blue colour card, while upon being beaten in police custody, Alex seems not to bleed blood so much as red.

Indeed, the very whiteness of A Clockwork Orange (various interiors, walls, props, milk, characters) would seem to fit its vision of a society of control. For, in presenting a primarily white world, the film would suggest a world without diversity and difference, but one of homogeneity/sameness.

(There are five black bodies in A Clockwork Orange; one in the Korova Moloko bar that Alex and his ‘droog’ friends attend, and four in Wandsworth prison. It is a white world that we see; violence is necessary to remove colour from the world and to make it and its values primarily white.)

Finally, when we see Alex and his droogs driving at speed down a country lane after stealing a Durango-95, A Clockwork Orange so clearly involves rear projection that again the film wants to highlight its own falsity.

This is not to mention the regularly stylised performances, which take on comic book dimensions through their grotesqueness and exaggerated nature.

So the question becomes: why does Kubrick adopt such a ‘comic book’ aesthetic – especially when he is dealing with such difficult topics as violence and sexual violence?

My suggestion would be that Kubrick adopts a deliberately false aesthetic in order to implicate his viewer into the film, to create a sense of self-consciousness about our act of film viewing (rather than the film viewer hiding unobserved in a darkened room). This implication is deliberately revealed to us on numerous occasions.

When Alex is being held in custody prior to his conviction, his parole officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) leans forward to speak to Alex, who is on the floor after taking a beating: ‘You are now a murderer, little Alex. A murderer, yes.’

These words are accompanied by a point of view shot, whereby Deltoid talks directly to us, just as Alex regularly addresses the audience, referring to them (in deliberately gendered terms?) as his ‘brothers.’

What is more, Kubrick regularly uses a 9.8mm lens on his camera, which creates a kind of fish-eye perspective that in turn seems stylised/false. This was a technique developed in conjunction with cinematographer John Alcott – and notably when Alex is first checked into hospital where he will undergo the Ludovico treatment, he is greeted by a Dr Alcott (Barrie Cookson).

In other words, it is as if Kubrick and Alcott were consciously suggesting that their film is a kind of Ludovico treatment.

However, theirs is not a Ludovico treatment achieved through the realism of the images, as per what Alex experiences within the film. Theirs is, rather, an anti-Ludovico treatment that is achieved through revealing the falsity of its images.

‘It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,’ says Alex in voiceover when undergoing the Ludovico. And because this is the case, so Kubrick does not show us ‘the colours of the real world’ – so that we do not mistake what we see as reality.

And yet, this creates another seeming contradiction. For if in the film it is documentary images that stop Alex from becoming violent, it seems to be Kubrick’s hope that fiction images will have that effect – that his self-consciously false images might highlight to us the violence of our world. In other words, unlike Alex’s view of the documentary images, Kubrick’s images are not supposed to be taken as real at all.

Here we can return to the use of documentary footage that I mentioned earlier. For, where Alex initially enjoys what he sees, it is the documentary footage of Nazi Germany that begins to change his mind about violence.

And yet, in our real world (as opposed to in the fictional world of A Clockwork Orange), it is the work of people like Riefenstahl, i.e. it is documentary images, together with fiction films that try to pass themselves off as realistic, that help to mobilise nations into committing atrocities as per the Holocaust.

Oddly, when we do see the documentary images interpolated into A Clockwork Orange, their status as images of the real world (as opposed to images of the diegetic fictional world) does help them to bring home (at least for me) the true horror of the Second World War.

Furthermore, Kubrick does not show us the concentration camp footage that Alex describes – not least because it would be unethical to do so (using the suffering of others for political purposes, which is exactly what Nazi propaganda was doing itself).

But what is important here is that it is in its very invisibility – the fact that it cannot be seen – that the Holocaust becomes unbearably real.

That is, it is in not seeing the footage of it that we are sickened by the violence of history.

We might say that Kubrick does not believe in the Ludovico technique, therefore, or else he might show us that footage in order to prevent humans from ever committing such atrocities again.

However, Kubrick specifically uses fake images in order, I shall suggest, to disgust his viewers, rather than using images of the real world. Kubrick uses the comic book style that I have described not in order to show us the real world, but to show us a nightmare version of it.

Put differently, if the Ludovico technique, and cinema more generally, breeds violence, then Kubrick must try to expose this process. He does not use the Ludovico technique so much as try to suggest that it is at work on all of us.

But how can one expose this process without repeating this process?

Just as Alex was really already just carrying out the violent deeds inspired by cinema, so is he co-opted by the film’s end into the seemingly totalitatarian state that is being created in the film’s dystopian UK. Furthermore, Alex’s two droogs, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), end up being cops. Violence is not only encouraged but also useful for the state in order to control its population.

As Ludovico inventor Dr Brodsky (Carl Duering) explains:

the drug will cause the subject to experience a death-like paralysis together with deep feelings of terror and helplessness. One of our earlier test subjects described it as being like death, a sense of stifling and drowning, and it is during this period we have found the subject will make his most rewarding associations between his catastrophic experience and environment and the violence he sees.

Perhaps the drug is cinema itself. And Kubrick wants to wake us from our deathly eyes-open slumber (including by making reference to his own films as Alex passes a copy of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK/USA, 1968, in the afore-mentioned record store) rather than have us continue somnambulating through the world .

And yet, while Kubrick seems deliberately to adopt comic book techniques in order to shake us out of our deathly slumber, Clockwork Orange arguably fails in this attempt.

For, perhaps A Clockwork Orange historically achieved (and continues to achieve?) the opposite – namely the creation of a new generation of state-endorsed violence.

Burgess’ story was inspired by the rape of his wife by four American deserters in 1944. Meanwhile, Kubrick famously withdrew his film from cinemas after real-world crimes were reported as being influenced by the film.

In this way, the film did the opposite of what it seemed to set out to achieve.

Furthermore, Kubrick perhaps was already aware of this possibility, even before he had it withdrawn from British cinemas in 1973 – as also signalled at various points in the film.

For example, when Alex and his droogs attack writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri), Alex at first cuts holes in the latter’s costume such that her breasts are exposed.

In 1964, performance artist Yoko Ono created Cut Piece, in which visitors to her exhibition were invited to interact with her as she sat on stage dressed in a suit and with a pair of scissors before her. Some visitors eventually removed her clothes in a fashion similar to Alex here.

The moment in A Clockwork Orange is not just a reference to Cut Piece, which functions as an attempt, perhaps, to critique men’s treatment of women in the patriarchal system of discipline and control.

Rather, it is a comment on how work that is designed to be critical of the values of white, patriarchal society becomes co-opted perversely by the very society that it critiques: Alex re-enacts Cut Piece precisely to rape Mrs Alexander, just as Ono tried to get visitors to reflect upon their own propensity for (sexual and gendered) violence.

This process of critique going wrong is even made clear within the film when in the house of a fitness instructor referred to as the Catlady (Miriam Karlin), we see on her wall a painting of a woman with her own breast revealed by a hole in her dress: the painting echoes Alex’s crime but suggests that art becomes violence when in the hands of someone like him.

Indeed, Alex murders the Catlady with a white ceramic penis sculpture – literally turning art into tools for white, male violence.

And perhaps most tellingly, Burgess wrote his novel using ‘Nadsat,’ the language that Alex uses and which basically involves a liberal sprinkling of Russian words (like the afore-mentioned ‘glazzies’) into the English that people otherwise speak here.

In other words, Burgess was perhaps aware about how the language of revolution and the creation of a new world that would live outside of the strictures of capital (the USSR) inevitably becomes co-opted itself into yet more, and more strict, systems of control.

Not only do we see this logic of co-option going on within the film, but perhaps it has also taken place through and around the film.

Not only do we live in a world where Nadsat sounds uncannily like the faux Dickensian patter of someone like celebrity shagger Russell Brand, but we also live in a world of the afore-mentioned torture porn and cruel violence appearing regularly on our screens, which is not to mention the circulation of atrocity videos online (even if taken down soon after being put up).

Notably, in the lobby of Alex’s run-down apartment block, the phrase ‘suck it and see’ has also been graffitied on to a faux classical mural, on to which numerous cocks have also been drawn. Of course, and to evoke the title of another film currently in theatres, ‘suck ’em and see’ was soon co-opted into the language of advertising for Fishermen’s Friends (as John Ó Maoilearca reminded us during the BFI event), as well as being the title of an album by the Arctic Monkeys. Capital takes all oppositional protests and turns then into new markets.

At the BFI event, Lucy Bolton contended that A Clockwork Orange is still shocking, in particular in terms of the treatment that women receive in the film. I agree with her, and think that Kubrick also struggles with replicating violence towards women rather than offering a comment on or critique of it in this film.

But if I also suggested during our discussion of the film that shocking images have become normal within the context of our contemporary sleepless society, it is not that they do not shock us anymore – but that shock itself becomes normal, as we experience shock after shock after shock, such that shock becomes the norm and we accept right-wing politics because we have no energy left to fight against it.

Is cinema not also part, therefore, of the ‘shock doctrine‘? (This reminds me of a very old blog post I once wrote.) In this way, cinema plays its role in establishing the logic of violence in contemporary society.

We are never entirely certain as to why the Ludovico technique fails and Alex retrieves his excitement in relation to sex and violence.

In part this may be a result of the shock experienced after a failed suicide attempt (he jumps from the window of Frank Alexander’s house after a second chance encounter with him).

But it may also be because of Ludwig Van Beethoven. For, during his Ludovico sessions, Alex complains bitterly that Beethoven is used as the score for the films that he sees. (‘He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music.’)

Brodsky speculates that this might help with the treatment, but it also reveals that a certain amount of contingency is at work here; Alex is not controlled by the Ludovico technique, which wears off – and perhaps it does so because of Beethoven, whose music ultimately prevents it from working rather than helping it, thanks to its previous pleasurable association with ultraviolence.

Sound is thus key to A Clockwork Orange, which features some amazing use of Foleyed footsteps and the violent sound in Alexander’s house of a glass bottle clanking on a glass table.

But one sound that features regularly in the film and which I should like to highlight is the sound of belching. It is with an analysis of belching that I should like to draw this blog post to a close.

Eugenie Brinkema has written about eructions in philosophy and cinema, charting in particular how the hiccups and belches of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium perhaps chart how the body always rebels against attempts to control it, and that such gurgles and belches are meaningless in the face of philosophy’s attempts to chart and/or to create meaning.

More than this, the belch also functions as a challenge to the perceived hierarchy that knowledge is primarily a visual phenemenon (Brinkema establishes this hierarchy through an analysis of the work of Sigmund Freud). There are other, ‘lower’ ways of engaging with the world – and cinema uses them, even though we tend to think of it as a visual medium.

Not only does A Clockwork Orange sound, then, but perhaps it also tastes and smells, and what it tastes and smells might be a bit disgusting (dis-gust = ‘bad taste’) – and deliberately so, as made clear by the emphasis on belching, eating, open mouths and porous bodies that seep, and Alex who revels in ooze.

Indeed, when Alex is beaten while in custody, he positively smiles when spat upon by Detective Constable Tom (Steven Berkoff), while it is also here that he burps in the latter’s face.

In addition to this belch, the inmates also burp and fart during the afore-mentioned service in the prison.

Finally, Alex also belches and retches when exposed to the desire to commit acts of violence, including sex, after the Ludovico treatment.

Where belching was oppositional to power (belching at Tom, belching at the prison chaplain, played by Godfrey Quigley), now it has become an expression of subjugation to power. This in turn suggests again that perhaps the belch always was part of the society of consumerism and consumption. That it, like violence, is the logical expression of the contemporary world, and not really oppositional at all.

Nonetheless, Kubrick does, as mentioned, seem once again to be determined to show us this world in all of its disgustingness – even as his film is highly stylised and comic-like.

‘Shut your filthy hole, you scum!’ screams the Chief Guard (Michael Bates) while Alex is in Wandsworth.

And yet, this is precisely what Alex does not do, with his mouth remaining agape at the film’s end as he is fed hospital food by a government minister (Anthony Sharp).

Note that Alex gets fed a lot during the film, while his anger is most carefully aroused – and conveyed – after returning home from prison, by the sound of toast munching by Joe, played by Clive Francis, who has moved into his room.

In that same scene, Alex’s father (Philip Stone) gawps at Alex with his mouth almost permanently open, while the Chief Guard’s own ‘filthy hole’ also often remains wide open, especially when staring at a woman (Virginia Wetherell) trying to tempt Alex into arousal during a demonstration of the success of the Ludovico technique.

That is, humans belch, drop their jaws, and generally are imperfect. We eat and consume, including consuming cinema (we ‘binge’ on movies, with edit also being the third person singular for eating in Latin)… perhaps to the point of being sated, or beyond such a point, to the extent that we feel nauseous and vomit. Perhaps that is the point of satire: over-consumption to the point of gaseous and/or liquid eruction.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is defined as a character who celebrates ‘contagious breath,’ while also being interested in food and wine (‘With drinking healths to my niece: I’ll drink to / her as long as there is a passage in my throat’).

A bawd, then, Belch is the opposite of the relatively effete Orsino, who famously pines that ‘if music be the food of love, play on.’

Rather than being the food of romantic love, though, music in A Clockwork Orange is for Alex – and for us viewers – the food of violence. Furthermore, food provokes belching, and so belching is almost certainly the music of food, and perhaps even the true music of love (a love that is, like an open mouth, agape?).

If belching be the music of ultraviolence and the ‘old in out,’ then Alex will play on. And the ‘in out’ extends beyond sex and sexual violence, and into the language of the institutions that the film portrays: ‘What’s it going to be then? Is it going to be in and out of institutions like this?’ asks the prison chaplain (emphasis added).

Not only are institutions thus ways to discipline the body to be violent, and to desire violence especially towards women, but so might cinema – as Kubrick, with Alcott, tries potentially to establish by having his camera so regularly itself zoom and/or track in and out (the three opening scenes all start with an outward zoom, with the camera thus performing the ‘in and out,’ as if the film, too, were in some senses violating us).

‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it,’ declares Brodsky’s colleague, Dr Branom (Madge Ryan).

Perhaps Kubrick wants us to feel in our bodies a sense of disgust, a bad taste, as we are reminded that the control of our bodies is perhaps a denial of our bodies, and that we must celebrate our body’s unruliness, we must feel our bodies rebel against us and feel unpleasant, rather than be programmed via taking pleasure in cinematic violence into the ways of violent society.

If A Clockwork Orange tries to show the mechanisms at work in the establishment of a white, patriarchal and violent society, then perhaps the film’s black humour, twinned quite deliberately with disgusting violence, can be or become a belch, making it a belch of a film that through its own imperfections reminds us of our own imperfections, suggesting directly that we are Alex’s brothers and that we are the murderers as we are interpellated into its male-dominated society.

Conceivably this message is lost, not least as audiences often recall only the first half of the film with its ultraviolence – as one audience member also pointed out at the BFI. Or perhaps we simply now live in an era of shamelessness as opposed to being ashamed at sensing our own propensity for violence.

But I think that there is evidence that Kubrick is trying (and perhaps inevitably failing) to do something more critical than replicating a society of ultraviolence – perhaps even implicating Burgess himself in this failure as the director changes Alex’s name from Alexander DeLarge (which he announces upon arrival in prison) to Alexander Burgess (as the press call him when he becomes a political pawn as a result of the suffering he has undergone during the Ludovico treatment).

If not a glorious, maybe A Clockwork Orange is nonetheless an ignominious failure. But in failing, it reminds us all too much that humans burp, and that the orang perhaps cannot be clockwork.

Maybe the film’s shocks are dated and outmoded since they have become doctrine.

But Kubrick tries to get us to think about this world – to get us not just to gawp unthinkingly at violence ourselves, but to consume it to the point of belching, choking, perhaps even vomiting.

As a testament to this positive spin on the film, I wagered at the BFI event that c100 people attended the Philosophical Screens discussion in the BFI’s Green Room, which sits directly under Waterloo Bridge. Such strong attendance would suggest that plenty of cinema goers want not just unthinkingly to consume cinema, but also to turn it into a philosophical experience – and one that includes not just abstracted thought, but thinking through the body.

And where the Green Room normally hums with the vibrations of traffic passing overhead, on 16 April 2019 it was virtually silent as traffic was suspended thanks to the Extinction Rebellion protests and protestors not 10 feet above us.

In a world of shocks and violence, peaceful and thoughtful protest, much like thoughtfulness itself (a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love), might yet prove to be transformative forces.

Philosophical Screens: This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA, 1984)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is basically a written version of a talk that I gave at the British Film Institute last night (Thursday 22 November 2018), as part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series, and where This is Spinal Tap played as part of their Comedy Genius season.

Other speakers at the event were Lucy Bolton of QMUL and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Some of the below feeds a bit on what they said, and I hope here to acknowledge as much.

Now, to offer up an analysis of a comedy naturally lends itself to immediate charges of spoiling the humour and not allowing audiences simply to enjoy the film. But there we go. Hopefully what follows is a fairly cogent reading of the movie.

And this reading relates to the film’s treatment of hardness and softness, as well as to the relationship between 1 and 0, or the line and the hole, the phallic and the vaginal, the solid and the void – with my argument being that comedy can put us in touch with the void, making it a transformative experience.

For, transformative human experiences all necessarily involve an openness to the outside. Without such an openness, we would be closed off and we would not change. When we are open to the outside, we change, we learn, we become.

We can think of this quite easily in relation to our mouths. Not just in the sense of opening our mouths to live by eating, drinking and breathing. But we also open our mouths when we experience orgasm, when we die, and when we experience something new. Along the lines of the jaw dropping open and we say to ourselves ‘oh yeah,’ as we realise something for the first time.

Each of these experiences involves contact with the outside, with the new, and each involves us learning, developing, changing, becoming.

The same applies, then, to laughter: when we laugh, we experience an openness to the outside. And as much can be understood by the word comedy itself – since the term implies withness (co-) and contact (media), or commedia as they say in Italian. Contact with otherness, with the outside, it tickles us, our mouths open, and we develop as human beings.

And yet we live in a world in which we try to close ourselves off from and to avoid contact with the outside: erecting walls, creating borders and boundaries, hiding in cars, behind screens, not talking to strangers, putting concrete over nature, living indoors and so on. Individualism, too, would suggest the desire to close oneself off from others.

And to build walls, etc, is to create a hard world with hard edges and clear definitions, rather than a soft world of overlaps, contact, vagueness (as per the waves/vagues of the sea) and more. Comedy is a soft form, while seriousness is hard.

Music, meanwhile, can a bit of both of these things. Music can bring people together, but it can also be a hard, aggressive and scary medium. Think of how drums have been used by many peoples to demarcate their territory, and think of how loud music is often defined as a ‘wall of sound.’ Indeed, rock and metal music both suggest hardness.

And this hardness is typically male and phallic.

And so it is that This is Spinal Tap charts a tension between the hard and the soft. This is not simply a question of hard rock music. But it also can be seen in how the band plays around with hardness, aspiring to hardness and to a solid masculinity.

Examples abound in the film, but several include the cricket bat that band manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) carries around with him, the band’s famous Stone Henge set, the album cover of Intravenus de Milo, the proposed Smell the Glove cover, and the tin foil-covered vegetable that bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) keeps down his trousers.

Repeatedly, the band strives for hardness – as also is made clear by the band’s name: Spinal Tap. For, the spine is itself a hard, vertical series of bones that keep the human upright.

And yet, every attempt that the band has at becoming hard/male/phallic/vertical is somehow thwarted. Ian doesn’t really use the cricket bat; the Stone Henge set is comically small; Intravenus de Milo is derided (as is Shark Sandwich, which in being described as ‘shit sandwich’ conveys a softness that the band otherwise tries to escape); Smell the Glove is temporarily shelved as a result of the proposed cover; Derek is humiliated by an airport security staff member when he tries to pass through a metal detector with his would-be massive cock. As Alice Pember also pointed out after the film, when they first arrive in New York, the band is greeted by their driver (Bruno Kirby) with a sign saying ‘Spinal Pap.’

Perhaps an exemplary image of this desire for solidity comes early in the film at the band’s tour launch party, where a mime (Dana Carvey) offers food to guests. Berated later by Billy Crystal (‘mime is money’), the mime signals the round 0 of his mouth and feigns the gesture of eating.

Where the mime tries to pretend that there is something solid where in fact there is only empty space, so does this mime gesture to the hole, to the 0 while seeming to signal a 1. This Crystal image, then, is a crystallisation in some senses of This is Spinal Tap itself: mime, like the band, wants to be money/capital/solid, but in fact it is an empty hole.

We can even return to the name of the band itself: while the spine might keep the human upright and hard, a tap is a vent hole. In other words, while tap also makes us think of drums (the tapping of the drum), it equally is an open hole, an orifice that makes the spine porous rather than solid and upright.

Perhaps the exploding drummers in the band also suggest a porous humanity, with drumming itself punching holes in a wall of sound that otherwise aspires to be solid.

That solidity is to do with modernity and in particular the sound that is afforded by electricity and the electric guitar – even as that sound is also punctured by the radio signals that are picked up by the wireless set on the lead guitar of Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest).

It perhaps also is to do with a nascent digital age, as we see keys player Viv Savage (David Kaff) playing a computer game on the band’s tour bus.

And yet, what is the digital? The digital is defined by binary code – that is, by 1s and 0s. By a combination of the phallic (1) and the vaginal (0).

And yet, as the band aspires towards being hard, it aspires only towards being phallic – and so instead of playing at 10, the band instead wants to replace the 0 and, as Nigel so famously explains, play at 11. In other words, the band wants to play only the phallic (11) and not the phallic and the vaginal (10).

The two-fingered horn gesture so beloved of rock fans (🤟) also suggests an exclusive masculinity: men only (1–1) – as is made clear by the band and their rejection of women (or at least Nigel’s rejection of Jeanine, played by June Chadwick, who is the partner of lead singer David St Hubbins, played by Michael McKean).

This all-male phallic club is also suggested as somehow demonic, perhaps even satanic when we link the horn gesture to the devil, whose horned head also functions as a backdrop to many of the band’s gigs.

It is not that rock music is literally the work of the devil. More, in its desire to be hard, all male, phallic and solid, it excludes the soft and so is a perversion of nature. It is patriarchal. It is patriarchy.

If modernity is the era of 1 (individuality, walls, exclusivity, masculinity, patriarchy), then the digital era involves something different – the advent of a 0, the advent of death, the advent of enlightenment, the becoming that is part of the 0 of the open mouth as it comes into contact with the outside.

(Perhaps it is for this reason that musicians like Lars Ulrich of Metallica were so against digital-era technologies like Napster: their patriarchal masculinity was threatened by the advent of the 0, the desire to make money over the desire to share.)

And This is Spinal Tap may be a film that comes out ahead of the digital era in its fullest manifestation (although as mentioned, the presence of the computer game, notably played by Viv, the weirdest and perhaps softest of the band members), but it is a film that itself is in touch with 0, hence functioning as a comedy.

(Notably, the film is not a nasty comedy, either. It is not phallic and mean towards its would-be phallic characters. Instead we have a lot of time for David, Nigel, Derek and the others – because the film in fact shows their softness even as they aspire to be hard. They want to be phallic spines, but we see also their invertebrate, fearful side – much as Derek at one point gets trapped inside a vaginal pod on stage that otherwise he wishes to escape.)

It was the philosopher Duns Scotus who first wrote of haecceity as a form of ‘thisness.’  That is, haecceity refers to uniqueness and the individuality of things. In some senses, then, haecceity relates to defining things and separating them off from the rest of the world. Or giving to things the form of a 1.

To announce ‘this is Spinal Tap,’ then, is to announce the ‘thisness’ of the band, or their aspirations towards being a 1. And yet what really is ‘this’ when we look at Spinal Tap?

The band may aspire to create a wall of sound as they take us on a jazz odyssey, but really they made their name with their flower power hits from the 1960s (when the band was known as the Thamesmen).

That is, their softer numbers were what made them famous… and as the band tries to cling to fame, so they become harder and harder, undergoing a sclerosis that does not go with the flow (as all flow-ers otherwise do). Or rather, they seek not to go with the flow and instead to be in control… but like all human lives, theirs, too, is a catalogue of errors, a series of failures to escape time, change, becoming, 0 and flow. And in recognising their failed attempts to escape time, we can perhaps recognise our own hubristic desire not to die – and so we laugh, since in the comic moment we do indeed come into contact with a little bit of death.

The clown is a twisted clone. That is, in the pursuit of cloning, humans attempt to live forever and to defeat time, since we will be able to repeat our lives over and over and never die. This is the phallic, patriarchal and planet-destroying quest to become what Noah Yuval Harari might term homo deus.

The clown, meanwhile, is a bit like the clone – but also different, in the sense that the clown like the mime mimics/clones reality, but in such a way that reality is presented to us as if new. That is, reality itself becomes new, soft and a force of becoming/change/time (0), rather than something hardened and never-changing and which, petrified, escapes the ravages of time (1).

The clown – who always speaks truth to power (itself a system of 1) – thus presents us not with reality as we want it to be (under control) but as it is (out of our control, changing us). The clown gives us comedy and a little bit of death (which is why people can also often be afraid of clowns, and why the clown has indeed become something to fear in our era of never wanting to die and seeking permanent life).

Cinema itself might be a tool for presenting idealised versions of ourselves back to us – a tool for escaping the ravages of time as we become permanent in images, or, to take Roy Scranton‘s twist on Harari’s homo deus, to become light, or homo lux.

But if much cinema wants to do this – to show us as permanent and never-changing, halting change – cinema can also show to us change itself, as well as being a force of change. Cinema, then, can be a clone of reality, a virtual world in which we hide from time, death and becoming (1). Or it can be a clown that reminds us that we are all going to die (0) and that our efforts to escape death (1) indeed constitute the human comedy.

Indeed, in the language of Henri Bergson, comedy is essentially the exposition of le mécanique plaqué sur du vivant, or the mechanical mask that we aspire to put on living flesh, the hardness that we use to cover our softness, which, in being exposed as precisely a mask shows us our inner softness.

With This is Spinal Tap, cinema is thus a indeed clown – and this is part of the film’s power.

If the statuesque and petrified Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims in his movies that he’ll ‘be back,’ what he suggests is a desire to become rock solid, hard bodied, permanent and never-changing. To seek always to be back – i.e. to have a spine – is to seek always to return, to control time, not to die.

This is Spinal Tap, though, taps/puts a hole (0) in that spine (1) and takes us into a less vertebrate realm. The film passingly references The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978), thus situating itself knowingly in the genre of the concert film, the music documentary, or what director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) calls the rockumentary. By extension, the film is also a backstage musical, i.e. showing us behind the scenes of the spectacles that we otherwise see on stage.

One of the great music documentaries is D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (USA, 1967), a film that takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s controversial tour to the UK in 1965 (and during which he also tried to solidify his music style by playing electric guitar).

Backness – or the spine – is key to music and films about it. In asking us not to look back, Pennebaker suggests how it is perhaps best not to peer too hard into the life of Dylan, or else we might discover that the legend is just a man – and one who quite deliberately seeks to erect his phallic identity (the would-be 1 of Bob Dylan as opposed to Robert Allen Zimmerman, the musician’s birth name).

Pennebaker’s film opens with a tracking shot of Dylan walking from his dressing room and on to the stage, thus announcing that his film has access to Dylan backstage, as well as access to how he constructs his onstage front. This is Spinal Tap, meanwhile, follows the band around backstage – only for them never to find the stage and thus not to get to the front.

While the film does allow Nigel and the band a final Japanese comeback (Spinal Tap are back!), in showing that they are only back (only backstage?), This is Spinal Tap deconstructs their spinal/solid/phallic aspirations, their thisness, their haecceity, their addiction to the spine – as expressed in David’s lyric in the typically puerile ‘Big Bottom’: ‘how can I leave this behind?’

Although there were numerous mockumentaries prior to Spinal Tap, with Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (Spain, 1933) being perhaps one of the earliest and best known, This is Spinal Tap nonetheless remains perhaps the landmark mockumentary, the film that defines the genre.

In this way, the film is an event, perhaps unique, and in this it is arguably itself a 1. However, in being a film that softens the distinctions between fiction and documentary, it is also a soft film, a film that has a 0 in addition to its 1, and which thus constitutes an openness to the outside.

It is this openness to the outside, its own open-mouthed 0, that makes the film new, and thus a landmark film, even if it is not the first of its kind. As all 1s must be born from 0s (vaginas), then so do we see that 0 is (without wishing to be too heteronormative) the defining feature of human life. The film is a 0, or a cipher, that allows us to deconstruct the 1 of phallic, patriarchal society.

What is more, the film would seem to allow Nigel to come to understand this, as he progresses from wearing his skeleton t-shirt that depicts his hard, vertebrate self to professing that he likes tinned tuna because it has no bones.

No bones about it: This is Spinal Tap is a great film, and it is so because of its softness, including both the softness of and the film’s softness towards its character, as well as the softness of the film’s structure as we do not phallically/linearly progress along a solid line, but instead meander about, get lost, find new things, have chance encounters, and in the process open our mouths, laugh, let the outside in, die a little (oh/0 to die laughing!), and become new, wiser people as a result of our encounter with the clown.

The digital era may yet be the era of comedy, where we learn to live with our planet rather than destroy it, and to live with each other rather than to humiliate and exploit each other (Nigel and David deny but cannot but subtly express their latent misogyny and racism as the film progresses).

It is an era in which we learn to let in and to remember that we come from (and may well return to) the 0. The spine will be tapped and the phallus will fall – and we will move from a hard ‘boner’/boney culture to one of flaccidity, softness, touch and kindness. An era of comedy, where we laugh and in the process love. Let This is Spinal Tap be remembered for tapping early on into the societal changes that are taking place.

 

Notes from the LFF: In film nist/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

On 20 December 2010, filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in Iran and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films for 20 years.

He is not alone: plenty of other filmmakers and artists have been placed under arrest in the last 12 months and more in Iran – including this film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was arrested since the completion of this project.

Before seeing This is Not a Film at this year’s London Film Festival, organiser Sandra Hebron read aloud a letter signed by various Iranian filmmakers in exile, including the whole of the Makhmalbaf family (Mohsen, Samira, Hana, and Mohsen’s wife, Marzieh Meshkini), calling for people worldwide to put pressure on the Iranian government in whatever way they can in order to release Panahi.

His crime? Being critical of the current Iranian regime, which – as per my previous post on Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011) – seemed illegitimately to install itself in power after the 2009 general election.

Being a filmmaker, not least a filmmaker with a global standing, Panahi is a dangerous man: he has the power to influence people, to rouse a sense of injustice in the (already-roused) masses of Iran who are in search of a more democratic society than the one currently on offer. He can also rouse anti-government support beyond Iran’s borders.

Given Panahi’s global standing, and given Iran’s refusal wholly to endorse films that – even if only ambivalently or allegorically – critique Iran’s status quo, it is no surprise that Panahi’s films – like those of many of his fellow filmmakers in Iran – have sought funding from outside of the country, principally Europe (and principally within Europe from France, Germany and the UK).

I am surely not the first to argue this point, but I must say that even if undertaken innocently, there is little to no true innocence with regard to the politics of who funds what films and for what reason. Representation is an awesome and persuasive tool. That is, all films have – or at least one can read into all films – an element of propaganda: incapable as we are of perceiving the whole of reality, consigned as we are only to partial truths, no film will present things as they are. But this does not stop a filmmaker from portraying events/the world as he sees them/it.

For this reason, to stand accused – as Panahi does, according to the letter that Hebron read out – of being an agent for French and British power in Iran seems to overstep the mark as far as his filmmaking is concerned. Panahi is a filmmaker trying to find the means to make the films that mean the most to him; if his funding comes from the UK or France or anywhere, and if that funding comes with few or no conditions with regard to the kind of film that he is supposed to deliver, then Panahi is, or should be free, to work with those funders.

In light of the seemingly stolen election, in light of the evident lack of freedom of speech or filmmaking in Iran, and in light of the documented and murderous brutality of the present Iranian regime towards dissident elements within contemporary Iranian society, it seems that any filmmaker concerned with anything but the most reactionary escapism must give room for elements that are critical of the contemporary regime.

This does not necessarily make Panahi an agent of British or French interests in Iran – even if as a filmmaker his outlook and approach finds favour with foreign (predominantly educated, middle class – i.e. festival) audiences as much if not more than it does with domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, to be denied the right to critique the country in which one lives and which with much probability one loves is a betrayal on the part of that country.

And this is what Panahi has suffered: a betrayal.

If we are to get all up in arms about Jafar Panahi and other filmmakers, we should not limit ourselves simply to their plight. Others have suffered terribly under the current regime, including, for example, Neda Agha Soltan, whose death can be seen on YouTube (but to which I shall not link here). And beyond Neda Agha Soltan, there are many more people who have suffered at the hands of the current Iranian regime. In other words, this is not just about filmmakers. This is about the fate of an entire nation, perhaps even the entire world.

Even if Panahi himself is only one of a multitude of Iranians adversely affected by the current government in Iran, Panahi is still very much to be admired.

For what he has done is to produce a film – playfully, perhaps rightfully, termed a non-film – in spite of the ban that has been imposed upon his creative output. Furthermore, in total defiance he has had that ‘non-film’ distributed globally, including at this year’s London Film Festival.

How did he achieve this? Remarkably, by hiding the film on a Flash drive in a birthday cake – which then found its way out of his apartment block, out of Iran and – first of all – to the Cannes Film Festival, before making its way – among other locations – to London.

Panahi’s non-film is what we might term minimalist in execution: Panahi is under house arrest – pending an appeal on his sentence – in his flat/apartment block in Tehran, and so the majority of the film takes place in the few rooms to which he is (was – is he still?) confined, and it features for its greatest part only Panahi and Mirtahmasb.

The non-film starts with Panahi taking breakfast, talking on his mobile phone, and then missing a family phone call while he is in his bathroom. These moments are comprised of two static shots in which Panahi refuses to recognise the camera.

In other words, the non-film starts almost as though it might be a fiction film as opposed to a documentary – Panahi is acting rather than ‘being himself.’

This fictional feel is broken, however, when Panahi picks up the camera that has been left rolling in his bedroom and carries it through his house: the refusal to recognise the camera’s presence is immediately broken.

Nonetheless, once Mirtahmasb arrives and takes over the filming, Panahi prepares tea and feeds his iguana, Igi, as if the camera were not there.

However, it is when he receives a phone call from his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that Panahi definitively casts off the illusion that this is a film in the conventional sense of the word, thereby taking us into the realm of the non-film.

Gheyrat explains that the ban on filmmaking might well be rescinded by the courts, but that Panahi surely will face some prison time. She then affirms passionately that the ruling against Panahi is not legal, but political. That is, the judiciary is not in charge anymore; Panahi is a plaything of the political powers that be. As such, Iran is no longer a country in which all are equal in the eyes of the law, but a country in which the law is changed according to the whims of politicians.

(Britons: take note. One should not call for ‘special punishments’ for the perpetrators of crimes, for example looting during riots. The crimes committed – damage to property and theft – should be punished according to the law and not, to use Gheyrat’s words, according to ‘current social conditions.’)

This phone call is enough for Panahi to say to Mirtahmasb that he cannot act anymore. Referring to a moment in his own film, Ayneh/The Mirror (Iran, 1997), Panahi does what his child actor, Mina Mohammad Khani, did in that film – and refuses to act. This he calls ‘throwing off the cast’ in reference to how Mina in Mirror refused after a while to wear the cast she had been given and stepped off the bus on which they were filming.

Of course, Mirtahmasb keeps the camera rolling even though Panahi says he is not acting anymore. If this is no longer acting, but if the camera is still recording, what is it that we are seeing now? As per the greatest of Iranian films, and as identified by a host of scholars of Iranian cinema, the line between fiction and reality becomes definitively blurred here – in a fashion that befits the more ‘art house’ branch of Iranian film.

(The argument that Iranian films blur the boundary between fact and fiction has been used persuasively to argue that we should not take Iranian films to be immediate representations of Iranian life. That is, we should not believe everything that we see in Iranian films as being real. In fact, it is an Iranian artistic tradition to blur this boundary. Even though Panahi has made not a film but a non-film, then, its artistic credentials are high, perhaps even beyond question.)

This ambiguity between fiction and reality is only heightened when Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut – only for Mirtahmasb to refuse, because Panahi is not entitled to make films and so therefore cannot direct the very film in which he currently is featuring.

(Humour, perhaps surprisingly, but also in a very human fashion, features prominently in This is Not a Film, as hopefully this blog will make clear.)

Not only is the non-film only ambiguously a documentary and/or a fiction, then, but the question concerning whose film/non-film this is also becomes ambiguous. That is, who is the filmmaker here? Panahi or Mirtahmasb? This ambiguity is further heightened during moments in which the camera is simply left rolling with no operator, as happens towards the film’s climax. No one is making this film at such moments; as such, this cannot be a film, since a film needs a maker, no?

Further to complicate matters is Panahi’s ingenious use of mise-en-scène. As Panahi shows to Mirtahmasb on his TV the sequence from The Mirror that Gheyrat’s phone call brought to mind, we have a mise-en-abyme effect whereby there is a film within the non-film that we are watching: if This is Not a Film is not a film, perhaps it is so because films like The Mirror lie within it and not necessarily beyond it. In this way, This is Not a Film is not a film because it has its own reality – such that it contains even other films.

Panahi pauses The Mirror, and Mirtahmasb pans over to him, stood as he is next to a shelf that houses a variety of DVDs. Most of the DVD sleeves are illegible – at least to this viewer – but prominent among those that are legible (to me) is the DVD of Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, Spain/USA/France, 2010).

Buried is about an American truck driver in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin. Practically the whole of Buried is set within the confines of the coffin. To have the DVD of Buried so prominent in the frame, then, is to suggest a parallel between that film and this non-film: Panahi’s house arrest is also akin to some sort of artistic death, as if he, too, were buried alive.

What is more, the way in which Buried functions for some viewers as a film that raises awareness of the complexity of contemporary Iraq and, by extension, the Middle East in general (including Iran), makes of it a truly canny choice. It is contemporary, relatively fresh in the minds of those who have seen it, and politically relevant. Without wishing to over-read what could, after all, be a random detail, the prominent placement of the Buried DVD also suggests Panahi’s desire to send out coded messages about his imprisonment specifically to Western viewers, knowing full well that it is most likely only Western – or at the very least non-Iranian – viewers that will be able to see his film.

If the reader thinks that the above is the over-reading of what is arguably a random detail, then I would respond thus: in fact it does not matter whether the DVD of Buried was prominently placed in frame on purpose or by accident. What is important is that this non-film makes us question this very issue. It is when we are not – and perhaps cannot – be sure about the fabricated nature or otherwise of the images that we are seeing that Panahi’s film works best: is this a film or not?

Panahi then speaks to fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, who tells him that she is trying to rally support for his cause. Panahi discourages her from doing so, repeating the advice of his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that it is perhaps better for him to court the support of foreign artists and Iranian artists in exile than for domestic artists to risk trouble of their own by speaking out against the government’s persecution of Panahi in particular and Iranian filmmakers more generally.

Bani-E’temad replies by saying that too many artists in Iran are living in fear of the present regime and that they must be more defiant. This truly is a bold act of defiance on her part to go on record as saying this.

(Even if Panahi cannot leave his home, his trusty iPhone keeps him in touch with well-wishing supporters. If anyone thought Iran were a backward country – if anyone took a Kiarostami film to be a ‘transparent’ depiction of life in Iran, then they should remember that the protests against the stolen election in 2009 were not for nothing known for their innovative use of Twitter and other social networking tools for their organisation.)

Panahi then decides that he will not make a film, but instead will read a screenplay of a film that he wanted to make before he was placed under house arrest (although, Panahi tells us, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, the government agency responsible for approving films at script and edit stage in Iran, did not approve this script when he sent it to them).

This script tells the story of Maryam, a young woman from Isfahan who wants to study the arts in Tehran. Her parents, however, refuse to let her go to study and so instead lock her in her room – such that she has little to no contact with the outside world – a kind of young adult version of the two girls in Samira Makhmalbaf’s beautifully poetic Sib/The Apple (Iran/France, 1998), who also are confined to their house and who pass messages over their courtyard wall in order to communicate with the world beyond.

In the style of Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Netherlands/Norway/Finland, 2003), Panahi lays tape down on the carpet in his living room (which also houses a beautiful old Lumière-style cinematograph) in order to show us the borders of the set that he had created for his film about Maryam.

He then talks us through the story. It is as if Panahi here has become Scheherazade, who must make up stories in order to stay alive. That is, like storytelling for Scheherazade, filmmaking is for Panahi not a money-making pastime, but something that he feels compelled to do, something that he must do because he has no option (and on a level that is above and beyond all those who in the blush of youth claim to feel the same about filmmaking – “I don’t think I can lead my life without making films” – and yet who never do it – a chiding I give to myself more or less everyday). Without filmmaking Panahi might as well be buried…

Even without the ideal tools (sets, actors, lights, etc) to make a film, Panahi nonetheless films; he will make a non-film if he cannot make a film. The important thing is to make, to create. This is the gift of the filmmaker and other poets and artists: it is not uniquely the gift of skill in art-making that they have, but the compulsion to give that skill to the world, the inability to stop that need to create from bursting forth. A gift to and a gift from the artist.

At one point, Panahi (a gmail user) checks what is perhaps his own website, or at the very least a website featuring news about him. It is pure propaganda, with the website supposedly reporting that Panahi has turned to political filmmaking recently (by which is meant a turn to pro-government films), as well as stating that he ‘directed’ the recent Berlin Film Festival – even though in reality he was not allowed to travel for it – in February 2011 as in 2010.

This manipulation of the truth, then, may in its own way make artists of the Iranian government in their participation in the falsification of websites such that we cannot tell fact from fiction anymore. But whereas Panahi is intelligent and playful, in this case we can tell that the website in question is spreading downright lies.

What sound like gunshots outside begin to become increasingly common on the soundtrack. Panahi receives a phone call from a friend who offers to pick up his wife and daughter – since many people are taking to the streets, since traffic is heavy, and since the police are beginning to turn out in force.

Whether this is a staged phone call or simply a fictional device weaved into the film, the caller hangs up – saying that he is being pulled over by the police. Minutes later he calls again – safe, but saying that the police had spotted a camera on the passenger seat of his car and had pulled him over to ask him what he was doing with it.

In spite of being asked in my own experience to stop filming by the police on various occasions in public spaces and for a variety of reasons – most of which have seemed to me unreasonable – there is something sinister about the police pulling someone over simply for owning a camera and not for using it.

But as the non-film goes on, we begin to realise that those are not violent protests in the streets, but rather fireworks being set off for Chaharshanbe Suri, or Fireworks Wednesday, which typically takes place in Iran on the Tuesday night before ‘Red Wednesday.’ This takes place on the last Wednesday before Nouruz, which is the Persian New Year.

(This means that – if it were filmed in one day, which in fact seems unlikely – This is Not a Film was filmed on 15 March 2011, which partly tallies with the coverage that we see on television of the Tōhoku earthquake, which took place on 11 March 2011. That said, Panahi seems to react to the earthquake news as if it were brand new to him, which surely it could not have been had four days elapsed since the earthquake. This renders ambiguous the true timeline of this non-film’s making – made only worse when the IMDb credits the film to 2010 – while at the same time showing that even in his confinement, Panahi is once again in touch with the outside world – most of which simply cannot be faked – thanks to the media.)

As is explained in the film, Fireworks Wednesday (which, coincidentally, is the name of a film by the excellent Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi – he also responsible for the recent Darbareye Elly/About Elly (Iran, 2009) and Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/Nader and Simin, A Separation (Iran, 2011)) has been ‘called off’ by the government, and yet people go out and do it anyway – including Panahi’s downstairs neighbour, Shima, who at one point tries to leave with him her yapping dog, Mickey. Amusingly, Panahi ejects Mickey swiftly when it turns out that he and Igi do not get along.

Therefore, the soundtrack to the film sounds something like a war zone, while at the same time being charged with political resistance, as people light fireworks and street fires to celebrate the coming of a new – dare one hope for a better? – year.

This is Not a Film reaches its climax when Panahi starts to film Mirtahmasb on his mobile phone as Mirtahmasb films Panahi with the professional camera. Mirtahmasb quips amusingly – one of various moments of genuine humour in this otherwise anxiety-ridden film – that they are like hairdressers, in that when they run out of people whose hair to cut, they start to cut each other’s.

(Panahi also recounts an amusing story about how he and Bani-E’temad dream of starting up an Idle Filmmakers’ Mobile Kitchen during the periods when they are not making films – simply so that they can meet people.)

Mirtahmasb then says that he needs to leave. He leaves the camera rolling on the kitchen table, explaining to Panahi that ‘it matters that the cameras are ON’ (the upper case ‘ON’ appearing in the subtitles) – perhaps one of the clearest declarations in the film that filming whatever one can will help to make clear the would-be criminal nature of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

And as Panahi goes with Mirtahmasb to the door, there appears a good-looking young man who calls himself Hassan, and who claims that he is filling in for Akbar in emptying the bins, and that he is the brother of Nasrin, Akbar’s pregnant wife.

A strange encounter ensues: Hassan recognises Panahi, even though Panahi does not recognise Hassan. Mirtahmasb leaves, while Panahi questions Hassan about his life.

Oddly, though, Hassan becomes nervous, seemingly evading Panahi’s questions about his jobs (he has various) and his studies – only ever answering in the vaguest of terms: he’s studying the arts, but he provides no details that might make this response plausible.

To a westerner/to me (if not to everyone), there is something strange in this exchange. Hassan’s evasiveness in answering Panahi’s questions leads one to suspect that he is a spy of some sort, sent by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, which is often referred to as MOIS or VEVAK. And that, seeing Panahi with a camera in his hand, he is about to do Panahi’s appeal case no favours whatsoever.

Furthermore, the sequence is immensely tense in that Panahi, filming Hassan at first with his iPhone and then with the camera that Mirtahmasb has left running in the kitchen, goes with Hassan in the lift. Here the conversation changes to half-charming, half-sinister, in that the now-greater levels of confinement in the lift only add to the claustrophobia of the film.

In addition, Hassan has told Panahi that he was working in the building on the night that the police raided the apartment building to arrest him, his wife, his daughter, and 15 others including filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, who was assistant director of Bahman Ghobadi’s underground film, Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

Why was Hassan there when the police raided Panahi’s place – in a fashion seemingly reminiscent of the party raid that occurs in Talayae sorkh/Crimson Gold (Iran, 2003)? Why does he specifically bring it up now, nearly a year later? The answer to these and other questions is repeatedly forestalled as Hassan takes the lift down level by level – from the 9th floor (Panahi’s) to the basement – stopping at each to check if there is rubbish to pick up.

Perhaps it is nerves on Hassan’s part – being stuck in a lift with a great director who is also filming him (Hassan does amusingly say that he is not looking good enough to be filmed). But there is something sinister about the way Hassan continually begins to explain his version of events on the night of the raid and arrest (which, incidentally, was 1 March 2010) – only to stop, leave the lift to check for rubbish, and then to start again when he returns.

What is more, it is only when Panahi prompts him to ring the neighbours’ doorbells that Hassan begins to do so to check for rubbish. Otherwise, Hassan explains, everyone seems to have forgotten to leave their rubbish out.

When Hassan does begin to ring doorbells, barely anyone answers. Hassan assumes that this must be because everyone is out at Fireworks Wednesday, but the viewer is nonetheless unsure – and this lack of security, which runs throughout this non-film but which is here redefined through the lens of the spy thriller, which – outrageously (at least for me) – seems to have surfaced from nowhere within Panahi’s film, only adds to the tension.

Further elements increase the anxiety: Hassan often steps out on to pitch dark landings that we cannot see – our inability to see enhancing our sense of uncertainty; one floor – the seventh – has raging party music thumping from its door, meaning that the non-film’s soundscape also creates tension.

Hassan and Panahi then reach the second floor, prior to arriving at which Hassan speculates that there will be lots of empty pizza boxes outside the inhabitants’ door. Once again, Hassan reminds us of Hussein (Hossein Emadeddin) of Crimson Gold, who himself is a pizza delivery man and whose sense of dissatisfaction with the world might be similar to Panahi’s in his current predicament.

However, comedy is unpredictably injected here into this prolonged lift sequence, when the door is answered not by pizza-guzzling neighbours but by Shima, whose voice once again we hear (we never see her) as she tries to fob Mickey off on to Hassan for a few hours so that she also can go out to Fireworks Wednesday.

(Hassan accepts – but he will look after Mickey in the lobby after the film has finished.)

The intrusion of comedy does not allow for a release in pressure, however; it in fact only renders us (or perhaps only me) further incapable of working out quite what is going on. Is Hassan a spy of sorts? Is this film – in spite of its ‘ramshackle’/improvised appearance – so well organised that it is only fooling with our expectations? Is this a comedy?

Bizarrely, Hassan tells Shima to try giving the dog to Panahi up on the ninth floor. She says that she has already tried, but that Mickey only survived two seconds up there. Suddenly what could well be a truly innocent conversation becomes once again sinister because the subject of the conversation, Panahi, is recording it. Panahi has now turned spy instead of Hassan. Perhaps Panahi as non-filmmaker is the intrusive one, documenting the strangeness of other people’s lives.

Nonetheless, down the lift goes – further into the darkness of the basement. All the while remaining immensely polite, Hassan then carries the rubbish he has accumulated through the underground car park (if I remember correctly – it is dark, after all) and towards the exit.

If Panahi has been playing with our emotions – is this real? is this staged? is Panahi in danger of being caught filming by a government that surely would use any excuse further to punish him? – then the unease only (impossibly!) increases as the film comes to its final moments.

Panahi steps outside of his apartment block and towards the gates of his building. Hassan turns and tells him that he must not be seen here – a gesture that seems to confirm, finally, that Hassan is not a ‘bad guy’ – but which only suggests, after so much claustrophobia upstairs on the 9th floor, a sense of liberation. This sense of liberation in stepping outside of the apartment further reinforces one’s sense of Panahi’s frustration and enclosure. That he might get spotted simultaneously reinforces one’s sense of paranoia – ‘they’ are, or at least, might be watching.

And as the film draws to its close, Panahi films a street fire taking place right by the gate to his apartment block and around which shadowy figures gather and dance. What had for a while seemed a generic film now becomes once again political: the fires are an act of defiance, suggesting the passion of the people, their desire for change in an Iran in which Panahi has been imprisoned for, it seems, nothing more than making a film. A beacon in the darkness.

But this final political charge does not resolve the question – defined as it is by uncertainty and anxiety – concerning whether we have just watched an elaborate hoax, or whether Panahi has managed to make a film that portrays a reality the weird and wonderful nature of which is more inscrutable and fascinating than any fictional world could be.

In creating a film that plays with our expectations in this manner, Panahi exposes the way in which cinema has ingrained itself in our thought patterns. An innocent man, Hassan, could be a spy, we/I fear. Paranoia perhaps characterises our times, but this paranoia is also linked to our secret belief that somehow we might be in a filmic reality in which people are spying on us.

Except that we know that Panahi is under house arrest; that ‘they’ probably are spying on him – regardless of whether or not he has managed to make a non-film and to have it distributed (how have the powers that be in Iran responded to this? is this all part of an even bigger hoax in which – crazily – Iran creates myths about its filmmakers in order to enhance their international reputation?).

It is not that we should take the content of these questions seriously (or should we?). It is that the suspicion that we could possibly be in a film, or what I shall call ‘cinematic thinking,’ suggests that cinema is our measure of reality – and not that reality is our measure of cinema.

This is not intended as disrespect to anyone who has suffered recently or ever at the hands of this or any political regime, but it seems as though repressive regimes (which I shall label as fascist, whether the regimes in question identify themselves with this term or not) themselves function cinematically. That is, fascism and cinema are inherently linked, in that the cultivation of fear that allows one to control the people is achieved not strictly in films, but in making people suspect that they might be in a (genre) film.

If we find the roots of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime back in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, during which cinemas were burnt down (with people in them), and during which the late Ayatollah Khomeini critiqued the cinema as a dangerous, but potentially useful, tool for controlling the people, then we could conceivably argue that Ahmadinejad has taken Khomeini’s lesson to heart. He has done so not by rejecting cinema, but by allowing cinematic thinking to penetrate the minds of his people, such that they live in fear. Such that they think that their lives could turn into a film, like Panahi’s life here, and that they, too, could be buried alive or worse…

If – paradoxically – the current Iranian regime asserts its power through the propagation of cinematic thinking, then, Panahi’s anti-regime film must by definition be non-cinematic. As he and Mirtahmasb themselves declare through their title, if it is Iran itself that has become a movie of sorts, then this film is not – and cannot be – a film.

What is true of Iran here becomes true of cinema as a whole – meaning that Panahi – whose films up until this point have always left me only lukewarm in comparison to some of the other Iranian filmmakers whose works I love – has made not just his masterpiece, but a true masterpiece of all cinema and – remarkably – under the most strenuous and minimal conditions.

This ‘truth’ is that ‘cinematic thinking’ infiltrates all of us – and the more we feel that we are living in a film, the more (potentially) we are prey to the logic of fascism, whether or not control is the deliberate or merely the unconscious aim of anyone anywhere.

That is, the more we prefer cinema to life, the more we wish our lives were cinematic, the more we will into existence the repressive/fascistic regimes that are required to bring this about. In a fashion akin to (of course) Gilles Deleuze, Hollywood and Hitler go hand in hand – such that cinema and fascism are inextricably bound the one to the other.

If this is the case, then Panahi’s non-film strikes a blow to fascism everywhere. But how is this so?

This is so because the non-film is not cinematic in the recognisable and generic sense defined above, hence its status as a ‘non-film.’ This non-film explores paranoia, but where mainstream cinema might make that paranoia real, not least by centering the film on an individual protagonist or on a small group of individual protagonists, here Panahi’s film leaves us to query whether the paranoia is real, or whether it is just us reading it into the film.

By raising the question that we are reading this paranoia into the film, Panahi exposes to us our susceptibility to cinematic thinking (rather than simply reinforcing it). Panahi, himself a political and not a legal prisoner, as Mrs Gheyrat argues (and if we are to believe her); in other words, Panahi himself precisely the person to say that the paranoia is justified because he has been placed under house arrest for his thoughts and for his creative endeavours, as if either could ever be crimes. If Panahi, then, exposes our susceptibility to cinematic thinking despite being entirely qualified to think it himself, then truly we must take note.

If Panahi – together with Bani-E’temad – refuses to live in fear, then none of us, be we from Iran or anywhere, should live in fear. By creating a film that in some senses destroys cinema, then Panahi’s film is justifiably ‘not a film.’ Panahi is superficially the centre of his film – we see plenty of him in frame throughout its duration. But his encounters with others, hopefully innocent as they seemingly turn out to be, remind us that we are not the centre of things and that we should not in an individualistic/paranoid sense believe that we are. There are always others; we are always with others; we do not – and cannot – exist without others.

And yet cinema has – in its more popular iterations, anyway – perpetuated the myth of the individual, written wider as mancruel against, and not with, nature. In this way, This is Not a Film is not the becoming cinema, or the becoming light, that most humans dream of. Rather it is Panahi’s unbecoming cinema that, paradoxically, lends to the film its great depth and power.

If cinema were not linked inextricably to fascism (again, defined here not as a single historical movement or moment, but as the repressive (and often self-willed) control of the people in all places and at all times – perhaps even in pre-cinematic times), then non-films like Panahi’s would not be necessary. They would have no existence, no meaning.

Perhaps the paradoxically mainstream nature of individualistic/paranoid thought justifies the artist, who tries to remind the world that we are with each other and with the world. That is, perhaps fascism has a mass psychology that is difficult for we humans to accept, even though we disavow our desire for fascism on an almost daily basis.

This is one conundrum I am not in a position to resolve – not during this [non-?]blog at any rate.

Nevertheless, in unbecoming cinema, Panahi exposes the cinema that has filtered repressively through Iran to allow Ahmadinejad to steal an election and to continue to impose his will on a people waking up to the realisation that this is not what they want, and that they need not live in fear.

As Panahi steps outside, he sees others who are also already outside. The example can spread beyond Iran: perhaps it is time for us all to step outside. To live not in fear. But to embrace reality and all that it contains. To think not just individually, but through a sense of withness. To reject fascism, to realise the extent to which we think cinematically – perhaps even to realise the extent to which thinking cinematically means that we think in clichés, and to realise that thinking in clichés means that we probably do not think at all.

If these are not in themselves clichés (and they could be), it is time, perhaps, to think – and perhaps to act by stepping outside, by exposing ourselves to encounters with others, by recognising that we are only ever with others and with the world. Not to have answers, but questions. Not to be certain but – as per Panahi’s film – to be asking about the truth-status of all that we see.

Perhaps there is no reality without cinema, no cinema without reality. Answering this question is not important. Or rather, not answering this question is very important. Buried in Iran, where paranoia/cinema is perhaps most justified as a mode of thought, Panahi refuses to answer this question. Again, for this reason his non-film is not a film in the conventional sense of the word.

But it is for certain a work of art that dances on the edge of cinema and non-cinema, of thought and non-thought, asking questions, inducing thought, living not in fear, even if the film also explores – consciously or otherwise – the politics of fear, making us aware that fear is not imposed from without but something with which we are all complicit.

Strangely, if we are complicit in our belief in the individual and the concomitant rise of fascism-enabling paranoia, then a paradox emerges in that individualism/paranoia/fascism is reliant on complicity/withness, while at the same time occulting that very withness that enables it; the job here is to bring withness back to visibility such that rampant individualism, paranoia and thus fascism might evaporate.

Since we are all together, we must all recognise this and each other. When we recognise each other – even when, like Panahi, we live confined to only a few rooms – then we can begin to live in a democracy, both in Iran and around the world.

Two Quick Thoughts for Friday – With Herzog

Blogpost, Uncategorized

Thought 1:

Gilles Deleuze writes of the shift from the society of discipline to the society of control:

“A control is not a discipline. In making highways, for example, you don’t enclose people but instead multiply the means of control. I am not saying that this is the highway’s exclusive purpose, but that people can drive infinitely and ‘freely’ without being at all confined yet while still being perfectly controlled. This is our future.”

The genius of Werner Herzog comes to mind, since he has been making films in the jungle and in the wilderness for longer than most filmmakers.

But while Herzog no doubt was ahead of the curve, others are now on it, as we arguably see a shift away from the road movie with its ill-informed myth of freedom – from the Beats to Easy Rider – to a more desperate search for freedom from control as witnessed in Into the Wild and 127 Hours.

How interesting that madness and danger are everywhere in the wilderness. Maybe there is no escape.

Thought 2:

We are in the world. At no point in our brief existence can we look at the world from a separate vantage point such that we can identify it correctly. At no point does it not have an effect on us in the same way that we have an effect on it.

With-ness (after Jean-Luc Nancy): we are fundamentally with each other in this world. At no moment in time are we without others, no matter how alienating certain experiences that we do have can make us feel.

Perhaps for cultural reasons, we suffer from the illusion that we are not with each other, that we are not together.

There is a paradox here that needs explaining. Culture is the product of human society; that is, culture is the product of being with others, of not being alone. Culture is something that fundamentally, therefore, we share.

To say that a culture could produce a sense of alienation, then, is contradictory.

What produces the sense of alienation is the decision taken, somewhere, by someone, to say that ‘this is my culture’ and ‘that is your culture.’ Inevitably, because we are in this world together, we are with the world and with each other, these supposedly separated cultures come up against each other. Of course they come up against each other: the fundamental with-ness of the world cannot isolate or, as per the above thought, control men for long enough.

And so this thing, culture, which some humans feel makes them feel part of a society, is the very same thing that causes conflict – precisely at the moment when cultures are drawn together, not necessarily as they should be, but as they cannot but be.

In other words: there is only one culture, and when mankind tries to argue otherwise, it acts in a fundamentally uncultured fashion. Clashes of culture are proof of with-ness; dividing culture into cultures is the source of the clash.

The ‘one culture’ of which I speak is not this or that particular culture; it is all cultures. It is the plurality of cultures. With-ness fundamentally needs plurality; if we were all the same, we would not know that others were there for us to be with them. In other words, celebrate difference. It is the one true thing that we all share. Difference is our culture.

The relation to cinema: I wonder whether this is why almost all of the most moving films are for me films that involve acts of altruism. I shan’t give examples; but altruism is at its core an act of with-ness, it is communal, common, compromise, complicit, and complicated.

Sacrifice is even greater than altruism, and moves me yet further when I see it rendered well on film. Sacrifice: to make (facere) sacred, or other (sacer). To make oneself other (to sacri-fice oneself) is an act of such paradoxical with-ness that it is overpowering.

To tie these two thoughts together: these are thoughts for Friday. Not just for the day, Friday (today), but for the man whom Robinson Crusoe called Friday, that human that proved to Crusoe, had he eyes to see it, that we are always with others.

Although he’s not made a straight adaptation of it, the spirit of Robinson Crusoe sits in Herzog’s films. In The White Diamond, Graham Dorrington tells Mark Anthony Yhap about how the children in Guyana cannot see his airship because, like the aborigines failing to recognise James Cook’s ships in New Zealand, it does not register in their visual vocabulary.

Aside from the possible/likely apocryphal nature of Dorrington’s story (if he is referring to Maoris, they were seafarers before Cook arrived, so this cannot be true), only one thought seems to come to mind: what is it that Dorrington cannot see? Does Dorrington even ask himself – as he fails truly to register the man with whom he is speaking? – this question?

In my understanding of the film – but perhaps this is Herzog’s trickery – Dorrington does not seem to ask himself this question, as indeed he romanticises and almost fails to see Yhap, who otherwise hijacks Herzog’s film and becomes the centre of Herzog’s attention.

It is a pity that we have to go, after Leshu Torchin, into the cinema’s cave of forgotten dreams, to get a sense of with-ness, both with those around us and with those from our past.

But either way: if cinema can help to see that we are always and forever with others, then cinema may unite us yet.

Notes from the LFF: Neds (Peter Mullan, UK/France/Italy, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

For those who do not know, NED stands for Non-Educated Delinquent, although it typically is a term bandied about north of Hadrian’s Wall by the bourgeoisie when it wishes to describe people whom those south of the border would call chavs (or Kevs, depending on your generation).

Despite the fact that the term refers to what one class calls another, however, Peter Mullan’s latest film, Neds, does not really deal too much with class difference. John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a bright young thing from a working class family who makes friends with a posh kid, Julian (Martin Bell), at one point, and after Julian’s mother tells John that she does not want him around her house anymore, John comes back and throws some fireworks through their window, shouting: “If you want a Ned, I’ll give you a Ned.”

Aside from this (and a brief moment in which John sees Julian on a bus some time later, before having to flee from the police), the issue of class difference does not surface too much. Instead, the film spends most of its time showing how John, like another John (Reece Dinsdale) from British cinema, becomes seduced by and ends up embracing more than any of his peers, the world of (in Neds, 1970s Glasgow) gang violence.

When John does tell Julian’s family that he’ll give them a Ned if that’s what they want, however, there is of course a sense of ‘Neddishness’ as a performance. Given that John has been rejected by the upper middle class, he decides fully, it seems, to become that which that self-same class loathes and fears: a violent Weegie who’ll chib ya for looking at him the wrong way.

It is not that the rejection of Julian’s mother is the sole factor that turns John from class swot destined for university to the Ned that he becomes. His family is a broken one, with his father (Peter Mullan) habitually beating/raping his mother, while his brother is also the hard man about town. What is more, when he makes friends with the rest of Car-D, the gang that he joins, he seems genuinely to make friends. Why not hang around with these guys if Julian is going to be so two-faced?

However, if Neddishness is something of a performance, then what lies beneath? Well, John the swot remains; even though by the end of the film John has been placed in a class for kids who cannot/will not perform academically, he continues to be a bookworm – and one gets a sense that he will ‘rehabilitate’ himself/that the clever and timid boy we saw at the beginning of the film is still there.

While this may be so, John remains someone who in the course of the film is responsible for holding up a bus at knife point (and the driver remembers him, hence John’s need to flee from the police when he encounters Julian on the bus later on in the film), for giving a kid permanent brain damage by dropping a gravestone on his head, and for knifing a rival from another local gang. It is not that we end up disliking John for these things (personally, I did, but many viewers may not); it is more that all of this must catch up with him one day – not least because the driver and rival gang members recognise him.

In other words, if being a Ned is a ‘performance,’ it is a performance that John takes so far that it becomes hard, if not impossible, for him to turn back to the ‘real’ John at the end of the film, even though to an extent this is what we are led to believe.

The film ends with John leading the boy whom he has given brain damage across a safari park. The moment is surreal, in that John and the boy (whose name escapes me – and IMDb has minimal information, so my apologies) hold hands and walk past a (digitally inserted) pride of lions. It is not clear what this moment ‘means,’ but it does suggest that John will be haunted forever by the crimes that he has committed, and also that the animal/lion in him is never going to go away. But it also suggests that somehow he has come to terms with himself after all of the experiences that he has had – and that, therefore, he is somewhat at peace (the lions do not attack the boys). This is fair enough, but how John will escape revenge from the other gang, or arrest when randomly the bus driver spots him again, or why indeed he does not hand himself in for all of the above, is unclear. Or rather: it is not unclear so much as troubling. We should bear in mind that Peter Mullan’s film does not have to avoid being troubling, but I did feel resistance to the forgiveness that it seemed to want me to give John.

Perhaps this means that Neds exposes my bourgeois values: I cannot get my head round someone who does not make real the ‘moral’ lesson that they have learned by facing up to what they have done. I feel this because I am a victim of luxury, a hypocritical sense of my own innocence, and, most likely, a lingering sense of morality bestowed upon me by my Christian upbringing (chapel every day at school, etc).

John, meanwhile, has been betrayed by Julian, the film’s bourgeois representative; he has experienced the thrill of gang violence that I am too cowardly to face (though I like the idea of it); and he has – in a dream/hallucination sequence that takes place when John is high from sniffing glue – literally been knifed by Jesus. So why would John care for my moral values and want to act in a way that I feel is appropriate to him? In some respects, he may ‘want’ to do this; but then again, he’s a Ned, so why not behave like a Ned and not do what I want him to do?

That John ends up in a safari park is perhaps significant. There is a scene in La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995), in which the main characters (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé) tell a news reporter investigating the banlieues to go forth and multiply, explaining that ‘this is not Thoiry.’ Thoiry is a safari park near Paris – the implication being that the media should not wander into housing estates with their cameras and look curiously at and record for amusement the lives of others that they thus in part consider to be animals put out for show. (Oh, the problems of shanty town and favela tourism – or poorism as sometimes I think of it.)

One wonders whether Peter Mullan is making a similar point with regard to Neds. We cannot make of the working classes (or the past, since Neds is set in the 1970s) a theme or safari park through which we wander, flirting with ‘danger’ and ‘excitement’ without ever experiencing either. Neds therefore self-consciously raises the issue of whether the film itself is not an exoticisation of working class Glasgow life. Whether the film itself is not something of a performance of Neddishness, beneath which is… a creative spirit as bourgeois as those with which the film otherwise denies kinship?

In some of the great British New Wave films, such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK, 1962) and Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, UK, 1963), there is a real sense in which the anti-hero, in these films respectively Colin and Billy, who are both played by Tom Courtenay, refuses at the last to take the opportunity to escape from his ‘depressing’ and working class life. Colin refuses to win the race that might help him to improve his lot in borstal, while Billy refuses to get on the train that might lead him to a different and supposedly ‘better’ life. The failure of performance becomes here a performance of failure, which in turn hides something of a success. Why should Colin run just to please other people? Why should Billy get on the train in order to find a ‘kind of living/loving‘ that is not necessarily his own? One may want more money, more freedom to move, and so on – but the Mephistophelian contract of class mobility demands that if you want wealth and, most of all, to be ‘accepted’ by those people that have brandished you as chavs or Neds, then you have to turn your back on and give up everything that you have ever known.

Where Cemetery Junction (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2010) sees Freddie (Christian Cooke) successfully run away by train in the end (albeit an hour late), the British New Wave films’ characters do not want to turn their back on everything they have known in order to have a ‘better’ life. Perhaps this is because, at the last, they are prey to the very ideological beliefs that imprison people – psychologically as much as physically – in economic penury. John in Neds cannot at the last kill his father, in spite of his father’s wish for him to do so, and in spite of the vicious beating that John gives to him with a saucepan or frying pan earlier in the film. While this shows that John finally loves his roots, no matter how ‘terrible,’ violent or traumatic they are both for him and for we audience members who judge it, as is expressed by his tearful embrace of his father, it might also be one set of beliefs that John cannot throw off – namely that you love your family through thick and thin.

Let us think about this: if we (or I, certainly) feel cold towards John at the end for not, say, handing himself in, it is because I am trying to impose upon him a set of moral values that are middle class but which present themselves as being natural and universal. I similarly feel saddened that John has not embraced/realised his academic potential and gotten out of Glasgow as he ‘should’ do. However, if getting out of Glasgow and the working class means turning one’s back on everything that one is or from which one comes, then in some respects, John would have figuratively if not literally to kill his father in order to achieve this/to do so. And yet, John does not kill his father when he has the opportunity to do so. My hypocrisy resides here: I in fact think John should have killed his father, or done the equivalent thereof by leaving Glasgow and never returning (something that John’s brother apparently does by moving to Spain, though this is also to avoid the heat that he has coming, too), but at the same time I frown upon John for all of the other acts of violence that he has perpetrated. I want John to believe in something, while at the same time asking him to believe in nothing. John may be a ‘fool’ of sorts at the end for not realising his potential, but in other respects, by keeping his potential as, precisely, unrealised potential, John may frustrate my expectations of him, but he also remains somehow pure potential, a member of a coming community or a people to come.

(In this sense, Neds does fit the model of cinema that has already been applied to Peter Mullan’s previous Orphans (UK, 1997) – as has been discussed here.)

John walking through the safari park, then, perhaps signals that John, unlike his brother, will not run away; instead of traveling to Spain or to Africa, the journeys he will make will be inner journeys, perhaps imaginary ones – and if he is caught for previous crimes committed, then he will face up to them, as opposed to going to Spain to escape them like his brother. In other words, John finally does show profound moral responsibility for what he has done – even if he is not in a hurry to hand himself in. Furthermore, he fails to perform/performs failure, and does not turn his back on his family life – which gives him a sense of integrity greater than that of the audience members/me who are egging John on to realise his academic potential, to go to university, and… what? Get a humdrum job like everyone else, watch TV every night over dinner, and congratulate himself on the fact that he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and has no trouble with anything…?

Upon first leaving the cinema after watching Neds at the London Film Festival, I felt somewhat disappointed in the film, as did my two Scottish companions who watched the film with me. Maybe the film felt like a bit of ‘poorism,’ without the overt community values that would have turned the film from Neds into This is Scotland. It was a performance of Neddishness, underneath which lies, as per Shane Meadows’ film, a sweet heart that wants the love of the middle classes that it so happily titillates throughout its duration.

Furthermore, the film was a performance of ‘shite Scotland’ that so pleases English and other communities: a ‘you’re only happy when you’ve escaped Glasgow’ kind of narrative that allows the English to feel safe in their condescending sense of superiority over their neighbours.

In these ways, Neds was disappointing – but that John chooses not to leave Glasgow also made the film interestingly troubling: we don’t like narratives that falsify how shite Glasgow/Scotland is, but we are perplexed that John does not want to escape it. We want to eat our cake and have it. But such reactions also perhaps do not give the film credit for what it is, since they try to judge it against an imaginary film that Neds is not – although if that film did exist, it might be a mix of Small Faces (Gillies Mackinnon, UK, 1996) and