Friday, December 20, 2013

Natural Born Killers, Innit?: Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and the Decline of Britain

German poster for Sightseers, by Heike Jörss, which MUBI's Notebook declared
to be one of the best posters of 2013.
I remember reading somewhere in the work of far left-wing nutjob Tariq Ali that the United Kingdom is just a medium-sized Northern European country.  And it struck me as a revelation, to think of Britain, this great fount of artistic achievement, the land of Shakespeare and Milton, as being decidedly marginal.  Its permanent position on the UN Security Council is just a relic of an era long since passed and whatever power it still wields in the world is either a legacy of colonialism or a concession from its powerful ally, the United States.  And like the United States, Britain is in decline.  A country like Norway may be marginal (militarily and probably culturally, unless we consider black metal and Ibsen revivals to be an influential part of modern culture), but it’s still got its shit together, economically.  Norway is a nice place to live and will continue to be a nice place to live for the foreseeable future.  Britain, by contrast, is falling apart, and has been ever since Margaret Thatcher took a sledgehammer to the welfare state and declared that “there is no society,” which is the kind of thinking that led her to rip up Britain’s social contract.
So Britain’s been falling to pieces since Thatcher, and Christ knows it shows in their cinema.  I should say first off that I’m not a huge fan of British cinema.  If you contrast it with the cinemas of countries of comparable size and historical-cultural influence, like, say, France or Japan, it’s downright pitiful.  They either sent their best filmmakers abroad (Chaplin, Hitchcock) or had to import them from overseas (Kubrick, Gilliam, all those Korda brothers).  The only truly great British filmmaker working in Britain back in the day was Michael Powell, and he shared credit on his best productions with the Hungarian-born Emeric Perssburger (the credits typically read “Written and Directed by Powell and Pressburger,” although my understanding is that Powell did most of the directing and Pressburger most of the writing).  In recent years, British movie production has focused mostly on two types of film: the kitchen-sink drama (or bleak chic; in America, we call it K-mart realism), embodied by the films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Andrea Arnold; and period pieces: like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement or The King’s Speech (the auteur theory crowd must not think too highly of these films’ directors, as I don’t know their names). 

But there is a third type of British film, pioneered by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg: the gritty black comedy bloodbath (think kitchen-sink drama with zombies).  This is the best description I can think of for Ben Wheatley’s 2012 film Sightseers.  The film stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also wrote it, along with Amy Jump) as Tina and Chris, a pair of sad sack lovers who go on holiday together.  With camper in tow (or caravan, as the British apparently call it), the couple seeks out a series of innocuous tourist sites in Yorkshire (including a historical exhibit about tram cars and the pencil museum, at which Tina purchases an enormous pencil—shades of the hamburger phone in Juno).  Tina and Chris (and, based on no research, I’m going to assert that they were named after the couple in the Talking Heads) run into a spot of bother when Chris reveals that he has a nasty habit of murdering people who piss him off.  His first victim, whom he kills (somewhat) accidentally, is just a random asshole, but subsequent victims are upper-class and well-educated, and a blistering class resentment soon makes its presence known.  Now, in America, we certainly have class, but we’re generally not allowed to talk about it: internet joke and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently asserted that even a term as inoffensive as “middle class” is Marxist and un-American.

Sightseers strikes a remarkable balance between hilarity on the one hand and passionate hatred and despair on the other (it’s the hatred that I don’t think an American film would be able to pull off).  Sightseers shows what absolute freedom looks like: it is desperate and it is necessarily short-lived, sustainable only until the authorities catch up with you.  As long as societies likes Britain’s (and America’s) continue to languish in anomie and economic decay and class warfare (by which I mean the war perpetrated by the plutocracy against everybody else), we will continue to see people flip their shit, abandon the future, and perpetrate horrific acts of vengeance against the world that tantalized them with everything and provided them with nothing.  In the words of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, these are the people who were “shown how to feel good and told to feel bad.” Although I suppose the American conservative would just dismiss them as “entitled.”

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