High Rise/Weiner – Reviews

1 Jun

High RiseWe all exist in communities. We live in small towns or neighborhoods within large cities or suburban tracts where most know one another’s face if not each person’s name. We work in small shops or big companies, factories, schools, studios, salons, bars, and labs. We have our cliques, our drinking buddies, our food snobs. Game night with the gang. Sunday brunch with the gals. Sunday football with the fellas.

Within all of these groups there exist hierarchies. Any armchair sociologist can tell who the alpha is within a group. The leader. The followers. The loser friend everyone picks on (including, sadly, the loser friend). Within larger groups, within society as a whole, there exist more explicitly defined orders and castes. There are the Haves and the Have Nots, though what the Haves possess and what the Have Nots lack varies. Most would claim it to be money. I would argue that it is power, to which money is the most common adjunct. At our jobs we have those above us, those below, and those who float parallel to our own positions. In a family, the parents lead, the children follow. Governments create laws, police make sure they are not broken, courts punish wrongdoers.

Power, in and of itself, is not bad. Many use it for good. People tend to rally against the application of power only when it is misused. We don’t mind our bosses giving us assignments, but when they ask us to perform tasks that are outside the boundaries of our jobs, we are angry at the exploitation. We trust the police to protect us until they beat or kill an innocent person. When our parents lay down a punishment out of character we counter them with screams and shouts and words like “Unfair,” and “I hate you forever!”

The gradations of power, wealth, and class are the prime targets of Ben Wheatley’s new film, High Rise. A satire that goes after both the power elite as well as the mechanisms that create and maintain power, High Rise takes on class warfare (literally) like no film since Snowpiercer. The success of both films rests with the audience’s tolerance for cynicism and patience with allegory.   

Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a new resident (Floor 25) at an ugly utilitarian apartment complex outside of London. Designed by architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) (Floor 40), the building possesses all the modern amenities. A grocery story (Floor 15). A swimming pool. (Floor 35). A school (not sure). The wealthy live in the upper floors, the middle class in the, ahem, middle floors, and the lower classes down below. These latter include the testosterone-filled Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his abundantly pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss).

Royal describes the building as a “crucible for change.” He is in many ways the prototypical benevolent tyrant: he’s crafted a building for the masses, a high rise that is chock full of everything one may require. Here everyone – rich and poor alike – can live in peace and harmony, all swim in the same pool, shop in the same store, and send their children to the same school. But like those kings who idealize their own supposed altruism, they are still the ones who live on top, and if they remain there they will become blind to everything below them.

“That’s just the building settling,” Royal states with regard to periodic brownouts or when the trash chutes back up and bags of garbage begin to populate the halls. Food at the grocery store becomes scarce. The building quickly devolves into anarchy. Parties rage out of control. Unpunished violence becomes the norm.

All the while, Laing remains holed up in his twenty-fifth floor apartment trying to find the perfect color to paint away the drabness. He takes no side – he is chummy with both the elite Royal and the rabble-rousing Wilder. Laing is content sunbathing on the balcony and screwing the hot neighbors. He is the middle-class, the bourgeois content in his own life as society collapses around him.

High Rise owes much to the surrealist films of Luis Bunuel, specifically The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie which is great not because it doesn’t make any sense (it doesn’t) but because it never tries to make any sense. During the middle-to-late parts of High Rise, as the bacchanalia is in full throttle debauchery mode, the film comes closest to Bunuel’s take on middle-class consumerist absurdism. The look and feel of the film, however, owe much to Kubrick, and specifically his use of décor in A Clockwork Orange. While High Rise is set in the 1970s, the claustrophobic architecture proudly places the movie in a not-to-distant dystopia. Where Kubrick’s film transposed contemporary-ish décor to a near future, High Rise takes the near-apocalypse and places it in pre-Thatcher Britain.

Which brings me to one of my few complaints with the film. Like Snowpierecer, High Rise wears its politics on its sleeves. There is nothing wrong with political storytelling, but subtlety is rarely a strength in class-minded allegories. Near the end of the film, a snippet from a Thatcher speech nearly derails two hours’ worth of surrealist social satire by stating, “Oh, hey, this is what the movie’s been about.” Great art should not need to make its thesis explicit, and confident artists shouldn’t have to resort to telegraphing their punches.

High Rise is open-ended and almost impervious to rigid criticism. What it’s about will vary depending on the viewer. True Marxists (I’m sure they still exist) will view it far differently from the contented middle-class (such as the protagonist) who will see it in a different light from the limousine society. Even if no interpretation sticks, the film is one of the most viscerally engaging, darkly comic, and imaginative films I’ve seen in some time.

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WeinerThere’s a pretty good chance I would have voted for Anthony Weiner for mayor of New York if the second of his sexting scandals had not been brought to light. Here was a man who had dishonored his elected office as well as his wife. He had traded the good will of the citizens who had elected him for a few selfies of his junk. He then made the necessary public penance, apologized to the people and his wife, and attempted to discover Fitzgerald’s mythical American second act. He ran for mayor. He lead in the polls. And then.

And then…

And then…

The other shoe dropped. Or, I guess in this case, the other ball. Even after he had publically atoned for his failings, Weiner was weinering again. This time there would be no cauterizing of the wound. Weiner was done.

The new documentary Weiner follows the titular character, his wife, and campaign staff around New York during his 2013 mayoral run. It makes for a timely piece of storytelling: a film that originally is about a comeback turns into a comic-tragedy halfway through. If you go into the film with the basic knowledge of Anthony Weiner’s downfall, you would expect the film to be amusing. It is, after all about a man who tweeted photos of his man stuff. Also, his name. And lest we forget Carlos Danger. The whole thing feels like one giant Daily Show sketch come to life.

Except that almost the entirety of the media – from the Daily Show to MSNBC, the New York Times, and CNN come across far more craven and villainous than Weiner. Weiner is a tragic character simply by being his own worst enemy. It’s the media, however, that take him to task in a disproportionately severe fashion. This scrutiny bleeds into the electoral process. New Yorkers, some of the “I really don’t give a fuck about what that fucker did” kind of people, many of whom supported Weiner because of his past progressive positions, suddenly turned their backs on him. At every campaign stop he began by discussing policy (really well-thought out policy) but ended up fielding questions such as: “How many women were there?” “Are you still doing it?” “Will you do it again?”

If he had simply bowed out of the race with a grimace and a mea culpa, perhaps the press would have left him alone. But he overestimated the understanding of the voting public, stayed in to the bitter end, and came in with a measly 4.3% of the primary vote.

A movie called Weiner cannot shy away from the obvious punchlines, but it can – and does – undercut the sophomoric jibes with a story about an addiction so severe it almost ruined a man’s career and a couple’s marriage. No, I’m not talking about Weiner’s sexting addiction. I’m speaking of the public’s addiction to this kind of bullshit. We love it. We eat it up. Every news site is a pusher getting us hooked on the tawdry and tempestuous. It’s a real life unscripted reality show where we get to feel high and mighty because we are not the ones who did what that gross man did.

This is not to say that what Weiner did was not wrong. It’s simply blown out of proportion by a media who got their hooks into one of those great rare stories and refused to let go. Weiner cheated on his wife. He committed adultery with a bunch of women. He…

Oh, wait, no he technically didn’t. He sent dick picks to a bunch of women. He sexted with them. Yes, he betrayed his wife, but let’s compare what he did with what Bill Clinton did. Somehow, Clinton has managed to overcome his indiscretions and become sweet, loveable Bubba again. And lest we forget Louisiana Senator David Vitter who admitted to hiring prostitutes and was then re-elected.

So what makes Weiner different from all the other scummy guys in Washington (and elsewhere)?

To start with, I think it’s the offense itself. We have actual visual images of…well, his weiner, or at least the outline of his weiner. That can be played over and over again. Second, Weiner’s an unapologetic asshole. He’s a firebrand, a screamer, a political prima donna. The film opens on him standing up for a 9/11 workers healthcare bill that Republicans were about the vote down. It’s a classic moment of a politician pulling a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, using his bully pulpit for good. But that fieriness is double-edged. He doesn’t have the suaveness of a Bill Clinton or the holier-than-thou religious (and hypocritical) superiority of a David Vitter. When asked over and over again about the scandal, Weiner cannot hold back his temper.

(I could at this point mention that Weiner is Jewish and a New Yorker, and that both of these play for laughs in parts of the country, especially when combined. I don’t know if there is some innate anti-Semitism at work here, but I would not doubt that some have thought, “Ha, look at that funny Jew from Jew York City with his little pecker thinking he’s a big man.”)

And then there’s that name. I don’t know much about Weiner’s childhood, but I could imagine him being picked on as a kid because of his name. I can also imagine him becoming a tough motherfucker on the playgrounds of New York because of it. He mentions in the film how much he hates bullies. No doubt he has first-hand experience. Perhaps they inadvertently helped craft the future tough-as-nails Congressman.

At one point in the film Weiner is scolded by Lawrence O’Donnell. “What is wrong with you?” O’Donnell keeps asking Weiner via satellite feed. The answer is not that he committed adultery, killed someone, stole money, started a needless war, lied to Congress, or even used his office for personal gain. He sent some lewd texts/tweets. That’s it. He was naughty, not evil. But our contemporary media-consuming society has become addicted to the naughty. The evil we turn a blind eye to.

There are two true victims in the Weiner saga, neither of which is Weiner himself. He is a self-created tragic character, but that does not make him a victim. The primary victim is his wife Huma Abedin, who stood by him during the first scandal and became a champion of his mayoral campaign. When the second scandal comes down, it’s impossible for the audience’s gaze not to follow Abedin around the screen. For much of the film the camera focuses on Weiner, but in the background or to the side is Abedin, trying in vain to cover her misery with a smile.

Other victims are those who lost out on Anthony Weiner’s considerable political talents. There is no doubt that for those on the left he was a strong voice. When he discusses his plans for the city, it’s impossible not to be inspired by his wonky recitation of stats and his belief that all problems are fixable. Here’s a guy who honestly wanted to make a difference in the lives of the citizens he served. While he is to blame for his dalliances, perhaps we the people and our desire for red meat scandals didn’t deserve what Weiner was selling.

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A Note on Grading Going Forward

As I was watching High Rise I kept thinking of what grade to give it. That’s not how a critic – even a mere blogger read by five people – should think about art. That’s not how anyone should think about art, or, for that matter, life. A film cannot be distilled down to a letter, a number of stars, or the position of one’s thumb. If you read these reviews and think you’ll like a movie I review, you should go see it. If you aren’t into surrealism or a documentary about a guy with a funny sounding name that isn’t Obama, don’t.  

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