High-Rise ends on a shot of a smartly-dressed boy tuning in to hear Thatcher on the radio talking about capitalism. Hard not to read that as a comment on the kind of society we live in now, the birth of which is shown in the film we have just seen.

So what kind of society is it? Royal is a paternalistic architect presiding over a design experiment attempting to create a new kind of person – his apartment blocks are shaped like the fingers of a hand stretching out into the sky. Like the Tower of Babel, it doesn't go to plan. The allusion suggests a nod to the hubris of man, and the attempt to forge godhood out of the dust we are and the dust we shall return to.

People going feral in the corridors of stylish modern buildings suggests a clash between the order we try to create, and the inevitable resistance such creations provoke. Royal's name is significant. He is the descendant of a benevolent aristocracy devoted to their schemes to improve the world – and the people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But people don't fit into the boxes Royal stuffs them into. The planner's utopia is a failure.

The trigger for the revolt is partly the hypocrisy of the elite, who conduct extravagant parties while the tenants at the bottom of the building put up with blackouts. Royal is too steeped in his privilege to notice what is going on, and at the end gets replaced by Laing – a new kind of elite, sociopathically detached from other people, able to ride the wave of destruction let loose by the end of the old hierarchy.

The snippet of Thatcher's speech contrasts 'state capitalism', where resources are controlled from the top, with the freedom of the marketplace. Royal's aristocratic ways get thrown out in the revolution. The post-war consensus, run by grey upper-class men and their lackeys, is smashed. Deference is replaced with licence – the codes of politeness and repression that keep society going collapse. It is not a comforting sight. The lot of women spirals from putting up with condescension and passive aggression to being at the receiving end of physical abuse and rape.

People in the new order are free to fight for the space and resources to assert themselves in the world. Laing manages to wrestle out a can of paint from the bedlam of the supermarket in order to paint his room. He is strong and determined enough to fulfill his projects. Wilder is less lucky – he ends up under a table screaming his own name into a recorder. His failure to achieve his projects turns him into a brute. In a moment of lucidity, before he spurs him on to his doom, Laing calls him the sanest man in the building. The two are alike, but Laing doesn't push against the powers-that-be, he just stands aside as they get overthrown.

Invoking Thatcher may be a way for the filmmakers to show what happens when you try to abolish society. The film is darkly funny on the iniquities and decadence of the ruling classes, but it seems to suggest that rampant individualism is a lot more scary. I don't think there is a hankering for a return to the stifling social mores that keep people in check, but the trade off seems to be unrestrained brutality. In the end a new equilibrium is reached. Society goes on, a new family is formed between Laing, Melville and the little boy listening to Thatcher. It looks a rather cold, inhospitable place.

I haven't read the book, but the film definitely captures something of Ballard's style and preoccupations. The pace feels a little loose, and the visuals a little short of hypnotic, to the point where I got slightly bored through some of it. Ben Wheatley pays many debts to Terry Gilliam's Brazil – which I find a more beautiful and unsettling film. But bringing Ballard to the screen is no small feat – and there's plenty to chew over if you're able to sit all the way through it.


The Gap Between Panels / That Feeling of Vertigo

Third column at the LGNN blog takes The Unwritten as a starting point and delves into those comics that are particularly bewildering in their speediness. Somehow manage to rope in Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Napoleon to make the point. (I knew that Masters degree will come in useful eventually!) Read it here.


The Insect Woman

The story behind this film is sourced from a real woman Imamura met when drinking in what was known as a 'white district' – where prostitution was a way to top up a salary earned as a shop assistant or a maid. Imamura spent three days meeting this woman in a park (he was penniless and didn't have an office) recording her life story, and was particularly intrigued by her relationship with her step-father, which was very close, somewhat physical, although perhaps not actually sexual. The film depicts the way he would suckle at his adopted daughter's breasts – a symbol for an infantile Japanese masculinity cowering underneath tough cynical women fighting for their survival.

The film begins with a shot of an ant battling up a clump of sand, and ends with our heroine Tome struggling up a hill to visit her daughter. She is symbolically associated with the tenacity and the vulnerability of an insect. Tome is by no means the saint that appears in films by Ozu and Mizoguchi – she learns exploitation at the hands of a madam in the city, and becomes a vicious madam in turn. But although Imamura shows men to be universal cowards and idiots, they remain the ultimate expropriators. The most terrifying scene is the attempted seduction of Tome's daughter Nobuko by the man who seduced her mother. Unlike Tome, Nobuko manages to escape his clutches and the lure of the city, and returns to a purer rural farming life.

Imamura shot everything on location – none of Mizoguchi's elaborate sets for him. He also breaks up the history of this insect woman into fragments – presenting episodes of her life grouped by freeze-frames and voiceover. He also admits to being more interested in physical performances, rather than a deep investigation into the inner psychologies of his characters. The camera captures the effect of scrabbling about on the earth, bodies being affected by the environment, slowly eroding with time and effort. The episodic nature of the film reminded me of more recent attempts to map out a complete personality with a camera – Boyhood and The Life of Adèle. Both of those documentary-like fiction films owe something to Imamura.



At one point during the making of doc, the director John Cameron Mitchell tries to explain the feel of his film to his actors, who will be having sex with each other on camera. It's like a Woody Allen movie, one of the good ones from the 70s. That's particularly true for the women in the film – a relationships counsellor who's never experienced an orgasm, and her friendship with a professionally and artistically unfulfilled dominatrix. In fact, the film's quest for jokes often slides into silliness – the kind of physical slapstick that you find in TV comedies. More unsettling is the second narrative strand, exploring James's depression and his relationship with his partner Jamie.

Both these strands emphasise the way sex is really another kind of communication. The couples in the beginning of the film have their wires crossed. The metaphor of sexual circuitry is continually referred to in the animated sequences that punctuate the film – sex is a connection in the motherboard of human bodies and minds that make up a city. The answer, the film seems to suggest, is to connect with more people. Shortbus is an artistic salon in Brooklin where free love holds sway. It's a power generator that tries to recharge the city's sexual batteries. The couples find a way to be together only after they learn to stray.

The film's sexual frankness is refreshing, and its borrowing from the optimism of the musical and romantic comedy diffuses some of the challenging subject matter at hand. Characters who are or have been sex workers struggle with a feeling of worthlessness. The actor playing James wanted to explore the feeling of growing up gay in a straight man's world, and how that can cut you off from people even when you're in a loving relationship. The complications that arise with polyamory are only vaguely touched on – some relationships are closer than others. But interestingly, most seem to pair off or reconcile at the end. The final sequence is of the ringleader of Shortbus (the performance artist and drag queen Justin Bond) playing the part of a Hymen for the modern age – consecrating a new, more liberated kind of marriage.


The Gap Between Panels / Writing about The Unwritten

Second column for the London Graphic Novel Network blog tries to capture the sensation of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's The Unwritten, and has the temeritry to suggest the series is better than Sandman. Read it here.


The Gap Between Panels / The Speed of Comics

I've somehow been talked into writing a column for the London Graphic Novel Network blog. Will be trying and failing to write one every week, and hopefully they'll get better as time goes on. The first one tries to set the scene a bit, and looks at the weird constraints under which comics are created, and what that does to the way we read them. Check it out here. More soon.