José Teodoro reports from the 46th Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal.
Chaos Theory: Adam Nayman on Ben Wheatley, Film Criticism and Why Stanley Kubrick is Everywhere, Always
November 30, 2016
By José Teodoro
Some film critics stumble their way toward criticism via a circuitous route.
Adam Nayman, however, seemed born to his vocation. He has written on film—and sometimes on literature—for virtually every English-language film publication I know of. He’s a contributing editor at Cinema Scope, a magazine especially dear to his heart and emblematic of his sensibility, which is rigorous and sometimes acerbic, but often playful and always genuinely fascinated by the work being examined. He’s been a highly active member of the TFCA for 14 years—which I’m pretty sure constitutes the entirety of his adult life—and was responsible for my becoming a member. He seems to see nearly everything. He’s an educator, lecturer and programmer. He is also a home owner, husband and new parent. He is obsessed with basketball. I am convinced he does not sleep.
Somewhere in all this, Nayman has written two short and very enjoyable books: It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls (ECW, 2014), a witty, iconoclastic reassessment of Paul Verhoeven’s much-maligned 1995 erotic thriller, and Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage (The Critical Press, 2016), an insightful survey of the young but prolific English director of Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), A Field in England (2013), High Rise (2015) and the yet-to-be released Free Fire (2016). There’s plenty said about Wheatley and Nayman’s assessment of his films—and the one major element Nayman wishes he could have expanded upon—in the shamelessly digressive conversation below, so I’ll refrain from spoilers here.
Confusion and Carnage will receive its Toronto launch tonight at the Royal Cinema, where Nayman will be conducting a discussion with Wheatley over Skype before screenings of Down Terrace (at 7.00) and Kill List (at 9.00).
Why write a book? For a lot of steady-working critics and educators, like yourself, a book can be something of a vanity object. I’m not suggesting that you’re above appeals to vanity—
Not at all. I’m below!
—but something attractive about the books you’ve published thus far is that they read very much as form-specific extensions of your critical practice.
When I first wrote about Ben Wheatley in that piece on Kill List for Cinema Scope, I just remember finishing it and thinking that I can’t wait to see this guy’s next film and I hope I get to write on it. The book in some ways was born there, just by thinking, “What an interesting career to keep tabs on.” To your question about why write a book, timing has a lot to do with it.
Let’s put it this way: there are no two films that I’ve had more anxiety to sit and watch than High-Rise and Free Fire. When I started writing it I hadn’t even seen High-Rise. When I finished I’d just barely seen Free Fire. Now there’s this rumour that Wheatley may be doing a Frank Miller adaptation for Warner Bros. But when the opportunity came about, I thought it was exciting to write about a young director whose career is still in formation. This is not to compare Wheatley to Godard or me to Richard Roud, but Roud wrote book-length texts on directors like Godard in the mid-60s. There’s something to be said about an early career overview, getting in on the ground floor. It’s a matter of deciding that the subject is worth it. If Wheatley’s body of work remains interesting and he becomes as major a figure as I suspect he could, it’s the satisfaction of becoming part of the received wisdom. Whereas the Showgirls book was the inverse of that, an attempt to overcome the received wisdom by taking a long, hard look in the rearview mirror at something.
Something your two books have in common is how they champion and take seriously films which have elements that could be deemed as trash or exploitation, films with plenty of sex and violence, films that get programmed in Midnight Madness. These aren’t necessarily films commonly given sustained, serious critical consideration by a non-specialist.
Or if they do it’s always in the language of theory that forces the question of quality. I tried in the Showgirls book, with varying degrees of success, to integrate elements of camp theory or queer theory. I could feel myself reaching. I’m a very journalistic, evaluative critic. With Wheatley I tried to toss theory out altogether.
No one is going to write a book about a filmmaker who’s only made six films under the thesis that he’s not so good. You can do that in a review, and many, many people have: I know many good critics who are on the record as saying that Wheatley is a mediocrity. With regards to the exploitation element, I don’t really write in a fannish way, either. I felt when I’d seen Kill List that I’d just seen an emotionally devastating, politically resonant and beautifully constructed film that would never work in another medium. [Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film] Don’t Look Now demonstrably works in another medium—it’s based on a Daphne du Maurier story and it’s really good—but that movie, to me, is a singularly cinematic achievement, and probably my favourite film of all time. Wheatley kind of owns up to its influence, while in other ways he denies it, but I find Kill List to be in so many ways an ingenious reworking of Don’t Look Now. That was what attracted me. The question as to whether Kill List was too sick or not sick enough wasn’t part of how I responded to it. I just found it so moving. So it’s a pivot point in the book; what did Wheatley make subsequently and what did Kill List point to? That film on its own is why the career could matter. That’s why you want to write a book about somebody.
You’re happily married. We’re currently sitting across the street from the hospital housing your wife and newborn first child. Ben Wheatley’s films, the first three especially, are infused with profoundly despairing visions of couples and family life. I have to wonder if spending so much time with these films gets to you.
I haven’t watched Kill List since my daughter was born! But I saw it in New York when Tanya was pregnant and we had a great time. And I’m going to see it again next Wednesday at the Royal. I’m glad you used the word “despairing,” because that’s the emotional core of these films. Down Terrace has that despair blended into its viciousness. Despair is the emotional core that Kill List reveals right from its nasty opening scenes and that Sightseers has almost in spite of some of its writing and comedic elements. I think Sightseers is actually a very moving film about relationships, competitiveness and jealousy. I guess it doesn’t bother me to write about these films as a married person or as a father because I think there’s truth to them. It’s cathartic. Down Terrace is pretty concrete. Kill List gets abstract visually and in some ways is incoherent—which, in this case, I say as the highest compliment—but it and Sightseers as well are very concrete films. I think A Field in England, High-Rise and Free Fire are all works of greater abstraction. They’re more conceptual and, I would say, more Kubrickian, where the first three are closer in spirit to Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh or Roeg. I won’t pick a favourite from these two halves of Wheatley’s career, but I will say that I have a harder time with people who dismiss the first three than those who dismiss the last three. If someone were to say to me, “I watched A Field in England and found noting of value in it,” I certainly wouldn’t agree but I would have a hard time saying, “It’s clearly good—what’s wrong with you?” But the first three films I’m much more protective of. I think there’s a lot going on there besides the stuff Wheatley gets praised for, such as the cleverness and skill, the carnage and confusion.
A Field in England also features a comic sensibility that I think some people are simply going to have a hard time coming around to.
And I think the same could be said of High-Rise, which is a film that errs on the side of archness in a way that bothers some people whose understanding of J.G. Ballard is, I think, a little precious. Some people seem to think Ballard is sober and humourless.
I’ve been a Ballard fan since I was a teenager and that strikes me as absurd. It was interesting reading what you wrote about High-Rise’s reception, the accusations of it being insufficiently Ballardian. First because this is a filmic interpretation of J.G. Ballard by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley, not a book by J.G. Ballard, and second because I found that there were so many aspects of Ballard’s worldview, the climate of his novels, that haven’t necessarily been explored in other Ballard adaptations but came across in High-Rise.
That recursiveness in High-Rise is so rooted in Ballard’s interest in psychoanalysis and the unconscious. That sense of entrapment, of stasis and boredom the film captures is what I get from the novel. I usually hate going down that rabbit hole of saying something is bad on purpose, but I would say that High-Rise is monotonous. I would also say it’s monotonous on purpose.
As is Ballard in many ways. His body of work in both inspired and tautological. So many of his novels follow the same trajectory of high civilization leading toward willed collapse. It’s the ideas and iterations that surge and sustain the narratives.
His stories offer variations on kinds of depravity, and I think High-Rise the film, as a visual object, finds so many different ways of showing that. One of the only ways I would ever compare Ben Wheatley to Terrence Malick—and I think Malick is as lazily described sometimes as Wheatley is—is that there are shots in High-Rise that contain an entire narrative or thematic idea, like entire movies unto themselves in a single frame. It’s not that such things outweigh a film’s flaws, it’s just that I’m not a big believer that flaws are always demerits when a film has truly extraordinary aspects.
If we can jump back briefly to the question of shifting sensitivities, I know you’re a lifelong fan of horror films and I wonder if, as you get older, you find yourself more affected by films that trade in graphic violence and/or rampant nihilism.
I do. When Mark Peranson covered Kill List as a capsule review, which is what inspired me to see it, he wrote, “I can’t remember being this disturbed at the movies.” I think he was referring to a certain desensitization or seen-it-all attitude, and I think Kill List is a film that you can talk about alongside, say, Trouble Every Day as a very artful horror film, yet it pushes through all that artfulness to present you with something absolutely disgusting. It shook me, and I appreciate that. Too often we’re encouraged to find such violence funny, in a glib way, or simply pointless.
So Kill List shook you, but do badly made violent, nihilistic films shake you?
No, they piss me off. Or once in a while they do shake me because they show me things that I just don’t want to see anymore. But I think of the hammer scene in Kill List—
Which I have a hard time watching.
—and I have a hard time too. But what’s interesting is that you can read on movie message boards these comments that are meant to be critical of Kill List that say you can see similar things in this or that movie. They’re correct, but the moral weight of those blows is of an entirely different stature than those found in similarly violent films. It’s not like we’re seeing a character turn to the dark side—he’s a bad guy—but we’re somehow able to stick with him after that. The reasons he’s committing this act of violence are moral reasons. He’s a contract killer and former soldier, but what the man he’s attacking seems to have done, this heinous act that Wheatley never shows us, is for the attacker a moral justification—it’s not enough to merely shoot this guy. That’s why I find the scene hard to watch, because the motivations are so contextualized. That and the realistic violence, which, as a person with some humanity, I find very tough.
You acknowledge in the book that there’s this ghost collaborator hovering over most everything you’re assessing. Did you ever wish you were writing a book called Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage?
I do. It’s something I’m anxious to discuss, actually. As far as [Wheatley’s frequent screenwriter and life-partner] Amy Jump goes, I made a formal request for an interview. It was denied. Ben has read the book. I asked him if Amy was going to read it and he said, “Probably not.” I don’t think her importance to these films is misunderstood by many people. I consider them co-filmmakers. I see a lot of Jump in not only the films’ attention to gender, but also in the storytelling tactics in High-Rise. But I don’t know her; I’m simply seeing what I regard as the Amy Jumpness of the work. I don’t know what kind of movies Wheatley would make without her. It’s not like she’s trapped in the attic like Jane Eyre or something. People have asked me why I’m not writing about the two of them, but I write about her contributions at every turn. She doesn’t want to be interviewed; she doesn’t want to be accountable for the work. She lets the work speak for itself and a lot of artists wish they had that kind of discipline and confidence. I think she’s an extraordinary artist and I cannot think of a filmmaker I would like to read an interview with more.
You write about Wheatley having studied sculpture, which is a particularly interesting factor to consider with regards to his approach to editing, but do you know much about Jump’s background or field of study?
No. I know they met around the time that both were students. I’m not going to speculate about their personal life, but Ben says in the interview in the book that, to some extent, Sightseers is a film about him and Amy. There’s competitiveness there. It also has to do with the fact that early on in Sightseers the man does something that the woman does not, but then later she decides that she can do it too. She goes from wanting to be a muse to wanting to be an artist. If you look at the credits for Down Terrace Jump gets a special thanks; on every film from that point on her credit only grows. Now whether you want to compare their collaboration to that of the Coens, which Ben has, or to the Dardennes or whatever, it’s all just speculation. I really hope I don’t see him make a movie without her, for whatever reason. I love the films in part because of what she does to them. I’m anxious to know what she might think of this book if she ever reads it. I did my best to give Jump her due.
One way in which we know that this book is by Adam Nayman is by its extraordinary degree of attention paid to drawing links between Wheatley’s films and those of Stanley Kubrick.
Not exactly an obscure precedent.
But the amount of ink spilled on Kubrick in the chapter on A Field in England doesn’t strike me as de rigueur. You could have made other comparisons. I think it speaks to your particular interests. You write well about Kubrick, you teach Kubrick. There’s no dearth of writing out there about Kubrick, but I wonder if you see some niche in the realm of Kubrickana that you might stake as your own in a future book.
No, because James Naremore’s book On Kubrick is there and it’s perfect. He gets Kubrick because he looks at the work through the lens of the grotesque, which is also how I see Verhoeven. I really like filmmakers with whom what’s funny and what’s horrific doesn’t obviate each other but instead heightens each other. It’s what’s funny about Wheatley, about Kubrick, about Buñuel, about any savage ironist auteur you can name. What I would like to do one day would be to write about Kubrick as displaced amongst other filmmakers.
I was going to suggest that perhaps you are writing a book about Kubrick—it’s just that it’s spread out amongst other writings on other filmmakers.
It’s fascinating to look at Kubrick’s influence on other filmmakers. And also his influence on critics. That’s why I believe Room 237 is an even better film that its fan give it credit for, because it simultaneously vindicates and mocks why people like Kubrick so much, this idea of total directorial control. It’s reasonable to see Kubrick as a very controlling filmmaker. It’s also ridiculous to see him as masterminding every aspect of a film to the point where he’s feeding whatever ornate interpretation. Room 237 is one of the most underrated films ever, to me. People wrote about it as a piece of failed or compromised film criticism, or as sheer mockery of people’s takes on The Shining. I think it’s actually one of the only really truthful movies about what we as critics do, which is take up signs and cues from a work and analyze them with a sense of certainty regarding their intention. Stanley Kubrick’s not around to answer questions or confirm. He didn’t while he was alive—he was a smart man. What Rodney Asher did in Room 237 is something a lot more film critics should think about when they’re doing their job, which is question why we assume we’re seeing something purposeful in what we watch. If you can’t answer that question satisfactorily, think about what you’re writing.