Sunday, December 28, 2008

Inside/Outside: Spatial Conflicts in Absolute Beginners

- Hello all. My name is Glenn Heath, longtime hibernator, first time poster. I run a film blog called Match Cuts and enjoy teaching Film Studies in San Diego, CA. I look forward to the growing success and participation of this blog.

The opening sequence of Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners, anchored by a dynamic long take/tracking shot down a bustling London street circa 1950's, immediately establishes a racial barrier between interior and exterior spaces. Colin, Temple's hip young hero, glides through the thick crowds of various archetypes snapping pictures and introducing each with the efficiency of a true insider, while never losing the beat of the outside environment. Prostitutes, cops, sailors, and party-goers all mix to form a melting pot of exuberance. But this facade of multiculturalism reveals distinct fissures when Colin and his girlfriend Suzette exit a nightclub, the excitement of the party almost overflowing onto the street. They are followed closely by an interracial couple, Mr. Cool and Dorita, arguing about proper public etiquette for their relationship, with Dorita delivering a powerful finale - "It's one thing in there, but it's different on the streets." 

This response foreshadows a building tension between contrasting races, classes, and cultures in Absolute Beginners, a defining theme that comes to violent fruition in varying waysThe film challenges this fear of progress and the need to keep it inside, or hidden from the outside world, while portraying youth culture as a complex and daring force able to overcome corporate greed and artistic bastardization. Amazingly, Temple sees hope in his spastic protagonists and dissects interior spaces to clarify their specific potential, ultimately separating them from the staggering disappointments of adulthood. If David Bowie's conglomerate King comes to represent the draw of selling out, Colin and inevitably Suzette overcome this enormous void of consumption (best displayed in Bowie's dance number) and seek out the hidden joys of struggle, of tolerance, and of artistic collaboration. But even in the final moments of victory, after the brutal and bloody riots consume Colin's vision of Notting Hill, there's a sense of urgency toward deflating the power of bigotry and hate, that such destructive qualities could still crop up in the darkest corners of society and grow into a pandemic. 

Absolute Beginners might not be a great film, but it certainly has a lot of ideas on its mind. Maybe most interestingly, the film struggles to reveal how space directly reflects ideologies of all kinds, and how we view ourselves within these walls, real or imagined. 


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Glenn, great points--great to have you posting and I look forward to your pick for next month.

As a film shot entirely on sets and backlots, I think Absolute Beginners has some really interesting ways of presenting its spaces. The party and the fashion show, both set in a very large rooms (which, incidentally, we never get to see all of), are presenting as being claustrophobic. Even the Bowie musical number, with its massive set pieces, has a sort of myopia to it, while the extremely self-contained design of the long Steadycam shot at the beginning seems to encompass the whole world--the microcosmic school of set design, going back to the metaphoric props of old Hollywood movies.

GHJ - said...

Ignatiy - You're spot on with your points about the set design. I guess it's that "whole world" you mention that fascinates me so much, i.e. and the racial and social motivations that define its spaces. For such a problematic film, Absolute Beginners is far more complex than I realized on first glance.

Chris Cagle said...

Glenn, interesting read of those complex tracking shots. I'm torn myself whether they are stylistic flourish or thematically meaningful. One thing that would corroborate your reading is the film's repeated suggestion of Colin as someone between two worlds, a white straight man allied with black Britishers and sexual subcultures. There's that telling line in his voiceover: "It was England, all right, but at the same time very un-English."

GHJ - said...

Chris, thanks for reminding me of that line from Colin's voice-over, as if he's an insider being reborn through the harsh realities festering under the subculture's artificial surface, in turn attempting to understand a world view outside of his own self. At the end, you can't help but feel Colin has started to grasp the contradictions occurring within a British culture on a crash course with globalization.

david said...

There were a couple other shot-on-sets films worth attention from the 80s, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, a faux horror movie about lycanthropy and sex and Dario Argento's Inferno.

May I nominate Kobayashi's Kwaidan, which was shot in a disused airplane hanger, as a possible film de month?