Ealing Filmworks – trading on false nostalgia

The Ealing film studios are synonymous with the heyday of British post-War filmmaking. The studio became such a well-recognised player in the 1940s and 1950s that the ‘Ealing film’ became a genre in its own right. For audiences, the geographical location represented films with ensemble casts, community spirit and celebrations of the plucky British spirit. Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) were all produced by Ealing in the space of ten years and remain beloved classics.

Producer Basil Dean founded Associated Talking Pictures (ATP), as the production company working out of Ealing Studios was initially known, in 1929. The studio building itself was finished in 1931 and the production company’s name changed to Ealing Studios in 1938.[i]

The studio itself used community and collaboration for its corporate branding as well as for its film topics. Michael Balcon, who took over the running of the studio in 1938 when Dean left, has been described as managing the studio with “benevolent paternalism.”[ii] This neighbourhood feel was also reflected in the shape of the studio’s main building, which from the front looked like a house:

Associated Talking Pictures/Ealing Studios films from the interwar period include Look Up and Laugh (1935) and Laburnum Grove (1936). As is evident from the posters for these films, Ealing Studios also cultivated its brand of ‘cozy old England’ in its film advertising.

The very British pedigree of the films are the focus of the posters. Not only do the British stars receive ample attention, both posters also highlight that the films’ stories are written by J.B. Priestley, a quintessentially British writer. The posters have the feel of a collage, with different fonts and images laid over one another. These are not posters that stress modernity, like other types of posters of the same era such as posters for ocean liners or railways. Instead, they almost have a home-made feel.

I found it curious, then, to see the advertising campaign used by property developer St George to market a new development in Ealing. As such developments are now inevitably given a name, St George has called this site ‘Filmworks’. It is not at the site of the studios, but stands in the place of what used to be the Ealing Empire Cinema. The development’s website promises a property development ‘inspired by the past’. On the hoardings of the building site itself (although not used on the website) are copies of four advertising posters made to look like film posters:

Or, more correctly, they are made to look like what a corporate entity thinks a 2018 audience thinks an interwar film poster resembled. The sharp lines and minimalist designs of the Filmworks posters stand in contrast to what film posters in the 1930s actually looked like. The Filmworks advertising alludes to a vague idea of transnational modernism that cannot be found in British interwar cinema posters. The films that used similar poster designs were German cinema posters such as for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Spione.

Ironically, these German films were produced by the UFA studios, a massive company that produced the majority of Germany’s films in the interwar period. UFA was the polar opposite to Ealing in its vision and approach to film production. Yet today, years of re-appropriation and re-hashing of historical illustration and design styles means that a minimalist illustration of a woman with short bobbed hair wearing a tuxedo is believed to represent interwar London. The historically imprecise style of the posters represents the opposite of the Ealing Studios’ ethos – they employ a false nostalgia to sell luxury goods.

[i] Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, 1977, p. 4

[ii] Ibid., 6

Permanent disposables – waste in Isle of Dogs

Please note this blog post may contain spoilers

Wes Anderson’s latest feature, Isle of Dogs, was released in cinemas in March 2018. The stop-motion animation is made using puppets, and is set in Japan in the near future. In the film’s fictional city of Megasaki, a dog-hating mayor has banned all dogs to a nearby ‘trash island’. The film’s hero, 12-year-old Japanese boy Atari, goes to the island to find his dog Spot. He is helped in his quest by a pack of file male ‘alpha-dogs’, whilst on the mainland an American exchange student leads the protests against the mayor’s anti-dog decrees.

Since the film has come out, much attention has rightly been given to the problematic depiction and appropriation of Japanese culture (and critics’ subsequent calling out of that appropriation) – for example in articles here, here and here. For the purposes of this blog, concerned as it is with ephemerality in urban environments, I instead want to explore the landscape of Trash Island.

Trash, garbage, rubbish – it is an inevitable part of modern human existence. The challenge of getting rid of ever-increasing mounds of refuse, in particular in cities, is a common challenge for city planners. As citizens, we expect that rubbish is collected regularly and then ‘disposed of’, preferably in a way that is invisible and unobtrusive. When this does not happen, as during the infamous ‘Naples waste crisis’ in 2008, it leads to health and environmental risks as well as unsightly streets.

But after trash is collected from individual households, it still needs to go somewhere – in particular given that only a small percentage of all waste can currently be truly recycled. In most cases, it gets heaped into enormous landfill sites, which are either left out in the open or buried. For now, this seems to be the best solution that we have to manage our waste, and this is also how it is managed in Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki.

In Isle of Dogs, Trash Island is located a short distance from Megasaki. The ‘island’ is in fact a series of connected islets, which original sole purpose appears to be the collection of the city’s refuse. Trash is delivered to the island via a rope and pulley system:

IoD1

However, other scenes imply that there is some sort of order to how the garbage is stored on the island, as rubber tyres and glassware appear to be grouped together:

IoD2

IoD3

And when Spot, Atari’s dog, gets dropped at the island his cage is surrounded by trash that is neatly compressed in blocks:

IoD4

Wes Anderson is known for the aesthetic coherency he brings to his films, a visual style that is instantly recognisable by its symmetry and use of colour. It has spawned a subreddit and Instagram account on which people share real-life images that look like they are from an Anderson film. It appears that in Isle of Dogs, Anderson tried to find a compromise between using a landfill site as a primary location, and his natural inclination for order and harmony. Rubbish by its definition is messy, but Anderson manages to turn it into something that is (almost) beautiful. In this he was reportedly inspired by environmental photographers who have turned images of real trash collection sites into art. The difference is that whilst these photographers use their art to make people think about the impact of consumer culture on the environment, Isle of Dogs does not explicitly ask such questions of its audience.

Anderson can partly represent garbage as beautiful because of the permanence of Trash Island. Isle of Dogs does not give much information about how Trash Island came into existence, but it does become clear that the island has been used as a landfill site for some time. In the second half of the film, Atari and his five dog companions find a group of dogs at the other end of the island, who have been there for several years. This group of dogs has managed to build a real home out of the waste that surrounds them. Objects that have been thrown away by humans are given a new lease of life by the dogs, who build permanent structures and communities out of them.

Inevitably, Anderson’s aesthetics romanticise the landfill site. The location serves as an easy way to communicate how the mayor thinks dogs are trash, and then provides visual pleasures in the heaping together and repeating of textures and colours. But there is no discussion as to why Trash Island exists, or whether the citizens of Megasaki should consider better ways of disposing of their waste. When all dogs return to Megasaki at the end of the film, Trash Island presumably continues to exist as it did before. And there a parallel can be drawn between Anderson’s treatment of Japanese culture and his use of a landfill site setting: both give him great visuals to work with, but Isle of Dogs fails to engage meaningfully with either cultural appropriation or environmental issues.

All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The Feminist Camera in the City

The British Film Institute’s online streaming service, BFI Player, gives anyone with an internet connection an opportunity to go through British archival film and TV footage. I stumbled upon the 14-minute film Working Women, made in 1975 by feminist activists in Newcastle. The film was originally part of a regional television programme, and was made to highlight local support for the Working Women’s Charter, a trade union charter launched in 1974 to achieve equal pay and equal rights for both genders.

The film is a delight to watch as a historical document, but what I am interested in here is the formal tactics the film uses to visualise the city as a space inhabited by women. Although the film is on the face of it not particularly sophisticated, it utilises various techniques to ensure that the visual aspects of the film support the arguments made by voice-over narration. In this way it shows that it can be rewarding to analyse a piece of locally produced reportage in the same way as one would analyse a high-end production.

The first part of Working Women discusses the difficulties women run in to when they try to find employment, and it includes several ‘vox-pops’ with women looking for work. The film opens with several shots of women pushing prams along the streets of Newcastle (see figures 1 and 2).

These shots establish that when the film talks about ‘working women’, it is primarily interested in the plight of working mothers – a division that was arguably less distinct in 1975 than it is today. The start of the film includes a brief historical overview in which the voice-over explains that gender roles and responsibilities only became entrenched in the industrial revolution. The film thus makes a direct link between urbanisation and women becoming responsible for all domestic duties and child rearing. By extension the city is designed to suit the public lives of men and not the domestic existences of women.

Throughout the film, the streets of Newcastle are shown to be almost exclusively populated by women (see figures 3-5).

Figure 3 shows only one man walking down a fairly busy street, that is otherwise full of women. In figure 4, there is a woman in the foreground of the shot, as well as four women walking abreast in the middle of the shot. They take centre-stage, and their formation can be read as a united front. They are, indeed, blocking the path of the man behind them. The framing of these four women serves as a visual metaphor for the film’s argument that women should unite in trade unions to achieve parity with working men. Although the four women in this shot are not characters in the film, and there is no explicit comment made on this framing, the staging of the shot underwrites the message of the film.

These shots show that Newcastle by day is a city almost wholly inhabited by women. This serves as evidence to the film’s argument that whilst men are normally in full-time, permanent work, women struggle to get employment as they are primarily responsible for childcare and housework. Naturally, therefore, men are in their places of work during the day and women are out on the streets. But the absence of men also serves to ensure that the viewer’s attention is not detracted from the stories told by the women that are interviewed for the film. Women are allowed to take centre stage in this film both literally and figuratively.

Working Women only allows men in a role of significance in its final section, when the camera is present at a trade union meeting. This is the only part of the film where men are shown in close-up (figures 6 and 7). As trade union representatives these men are necessary allies in the fight for pay parity and other equal gender rights. The film therefore gives them a voice and visual prominence. The camera privileges those inhabitants of the city that support the film’s argument. However, by allowing these male trade union reps a voice, the women in this final section of the film are immediately in danger of being drowned out. The male voices dominate during the meeting, as the men apparently struggle to understand the women’s viewpoint. Again, this mirrors the political argument that the film is making: although women need male allies to advocate on their behalf within existing power structures, there is a risk that the female perspective is side-lined as a result.

Working Women is a piece made for regional television and probably not produced with the intention to preserve it for posterity. This brief analysis shows that despite the film’s modest budget and aspirations, the formal aspects of the film serve to underscore its arguments. It shows the city to be a space that women must use and navigate, even if it is not built with them in mind.

Gendered Dirt

We all know that living in a city can be a dirty affair, even in cities where extensive regulation and legislation prevents too much litter from floating the streets. Singapore famously penalises littering of public space with fines of up to 300 dollars – but this does not prevent the city state from having to grapple with air pollution caused by exhaust fumes. Indeed, no city is exempt from subjecting its inhabitants to soot and dirt. London, of course, seems continuously unable to curb its pollution levels and its air quality is getting worse rather than better.[1]

Everyone who lives in a big city is affected by poor air quality, but L’Oréal has found a way to not only use urban pollution as a marketing ploy, but also to make it a gendered issue. I picked up my male housemate’s L’Oréal Men Expert Hydra Energetic Black Charcoal Wash “Magnetic” Effect facewash the other day, and was startled to read the text on the back of the package:

Too much DIRT? Pollution, oil, impurities…Everyday’s [sic] a challenge in the urban jungle. Unfortunately this can show on your skin: dullness, shininess… For skin that feels squeaky clean: TRY THE “MAGNETIC” EFFECT WASH

(…) The formula acts like a magnet on skin to capture & get rid of dirt (impurities, excess sebum and pollution) and helps fight 5 problems that can be caused by daily city grime: SHINE; BLACKHEADS; STICKINESS; DULLNESS; ENLARGED PORES.

Putting the bogus claims about ‘the power of charcoal’ and ‘magnetic facewash’ to one side, what really struck me is how this product, marketed at men, states that the city is to blame for any skin issues. By comparison, this is the text on the facewash I use myself, which is branded for female use[2]:

Is PureActive Anti-blackhead deep pore wash right for me? Yes, if your skin is prone to blackheads, blemishes and imperfections, if it is combination to oily and if you are looking for a deep cleansing wash. (…) Enriched with Zinc and Salicylic Acid, selected for its purifying power, it helps to control shine and helps protect against the appearance of blemishes, blackheads and imperfections.

Here, it is not an external factor that causes the skin to break out, but it is the skin’s innate failure and ‘imperfection’ that is the culprit. Women are told they probably have skin that is ‘prone’ to blackheads and they can buy products to ‘control’ this natural urge of their skin. Men, on the contrary, are implied to have ‘perfect’ skin as their natural state, and this is only disrupted by their environment.

Of course, in either case, it is limiting and worrying that these products imply that the only skin worth having is one that is completely free of ‘blemishes’, which are in any case naturally occurring and completely harmless phenomena. I also personally quite enjoy the feeling of having freshly washed skin, and I presume my male housemate does, too, and that is the reason we use these products. But these brief marketing texts show that the gendered advertising of ‘care and beauty’ products goes beyond using black packaging for ‘male’ products and pastel-coloured packaging for ‘female’ products. The narrative used in the marketing copy reinforces the notion that women are somehow faulty and can only hope to one day be worthy, whereas men are sufficient in their own right and only need to use products to scrub off external tarnish.

The L’Oréal product presents the city as the source of all pollution, the cause of imperfections, without challenging one’s choice to live in the city if it is such a source of dirt. You can imagine the kind of man this product is aimed at: someone with a successful professional job, who is go-getting and does not want his impure skin to stand in the way of his success. Lewis Hamilton, who is currently the ‘face’ of the L’Oréal Men Expert line, embodies this ideal. The wash even claims to have an ‘Active Defence System’, to further the connotations with masculinity and the military. Living in the city is a battle which the Man is going to win – never mind that the city is wholly man-made. The ‘defence’ is against man’s own creation, the city like a Frankenstein’s monster that has gone out of control.

Finally, in a curious twist, the RRP for the Men Expert face wash is £6.35, whereas my own facewash sells at £3.69.[3] I was expecting the ‘male’ product to be cheaper – after all, the Internet routinely reports on examples of ‘female’ products having an inexplicable mark-up. Not in this case; I wonder if it is because the Men Expert wash has that Active Defence System and is apparently veritable piece of engineering. The price increases the status of the wash developed by ‘experts’. All my own soap does is try to assist my own body’s apparent inability to control itself.

[1] King’s College London maintains a website which gives Londoners access to live air pollution levels in the capital: www.londonair.org.uk

[2] This is Garnier PureActive Anti-Blackhead Deep Pore Wash

[3] Original retail prices at Boots UK

Battersea power station: heritage and gentrification

I have recently moved to south London, so now I frequently pass Battersea Power Station on my way into the city centre. This old coal-fired power station was partly built in the 1930s, and partly in the 1950s, in the ‘brick cathedral’ style. Although it was aesthetically pleasing, its main purpose was to supply one-fifth of the total electricity needed in London. It stopped its core activities in 1983 and stood empty for decades, during which the four tall chimneys remained a London landmark, complete with its own ‘heritage’ memorabilia. In 2012 private investors bought the site and started refurbishment works which are due to be completed in the next year. The new development comprises not only the original power station but also a large number of new apartment blocks and a new Tube station. The website designated to the project promises it to be ‘London’s newest neighbourhood – a truly mixed-use destination’ which will include spaces to ‘live, work, play, shop, eat, and stay’. Last week it was announced that Apple Inc will move its London headquarters to the site in 2021.
The chimneys are the most recognisable element of the Power Station, and an important guarantee the private investors had to give in 2012 was that the chimneys will be retained. However, during the refurbishment works each of the chimneys has been taken down and built back up, temporarily depriving London of an ‘iconic’ part of its skyline. Although the refurbished Power Station will ostensibly look exactly the same as the original building, it will in fact be made up from new materials. The insides of the building will also be completely transformed as its industrial function is replaced by third sector work spaces. So, while the Power Station will rejoin the skyline, it will never be the same again.
A big selling point of the new corporate branding of the Power Station (which includes a new logo) is the heritage of the building. But although the building will look the same, its old identity will be gone and be replaced by the uniformity of luxury flats, copies of which are springing up all around the area. The London Mayor has recently called for an inquiry into foreign ownership of such flats, an action triggered by the revelation that more than 60% of residences in the St George’s Wharf Tower are owned by foreign buyers who do not actually live in the apartments. St George’s Wharf Tower is only 0.8 mile east from Battersea Power Station, so it is not inconceivable that many of the Power Station’s new flats will suffer the same fate – especially as 2 bedroom flats start at £1.16 million. Rather than a thriving ‘new neighbourhood’, the Power Station site seems set to become a ghost town for the super-rich.
Battersea Power Station has been a much-loved London building since its opening in 1939. But by attaching such importance to the Power Station keeping the same outward appearance, attention is diverted from the implications of the building’s radically altered function. From having an industrial function it becomes ‘industrial’ purely in its aesthetic.
It used to be a marker of modernity and functionality, providing electricity to a large part of south London. Now it will be one in many property investment opportunities for the 1%, contribute to London’s ever-escalating housing prices and erode local communities in favour of bland globalisation.

The final disease: infertility in ‘Children of Men’

In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) the ailment that has struck humanity is infertility. For eighteen years, no babies have been born on the planet, which has led to the breakdown of societies across the world. Britain has reverted back to using World War 2-style propaganda to stress its superior ability to deal with the crisis over the rest of the world. But it deals with it by interning all immigrants in camps and by offering legal suicide pills to the elderly. In the midst of this journalist Theo is approached by his ex-partner Jules, now leader of the rebellious ‘Fishes’, and asked to smuggle something very valuable to the coast: the girl Kee, who is pregnant.
The dystopian background is established in the opening scenes of the film. Theo enters a London coffee shop to get a take-away coffee. On the TV in the shop the news announces that the youngest person on the planet, 18-year-old ‘Baby’ Diego, has been killed. The crowd in the shop are crying. Theo walks out and puts his coffee on a nearby electricity box to stir in his sugar. Then the coffee shop he has just exited explodes. Although this explosion is referenced later in the film (it was orchestrated by the Fishes), it is not treated as the extraordinary event that it would be in the ‘normal’ world. (Re-watching Children of Men in 2016, after recent terrorist attacks, makes it resonate in new and different ways.) When Theo asks his boss for permission to work from home later that day, he uses Baby Diego’s death as a pretext, and not his near-death experience. Equally, later on in the film Theo gets kidnapped off a London street by the Fishes, and later dropped back again. Neither instance appears to even raise an eyebrow of passers-by.

CoM_cafe explosionFig. 1: A café which Theo has just exited blows up

CoM_Jasper's houseFig 2: Jasper’s house in the woods

In this sense, Children of Men follows a well-established dystopian trope of equating the city with degeneration. This cliché is in the first instance strengthened when Theo visits his friend Jasper, an old political activist and hippy who lives out in the woods in a ramshackle building where he grows his own weed. Jasper’s house is a sanctuary where Theo can speak freely. The countryside appears relatively untouched by the ravages that have hit the city, and Theo’s cynicism is juxtaposed with Jasper’s optimism. But this division gets blurred as the film progresses, when Theo’s attempts to save Kee lead the Fishes (who turn out to be ‘baddies’ after all) to Jasper’s house, where they execute the old activist.

CoM_Jasper's executionFig 3: The Fishes kill Jasper

And of course the infertility exists in the countryside as much as it does in the city. Choosing infertility as the ‘disease’ inflicted on mankind, rather than a bacteria or viruses, allows the characters and audiences to speculate what humans have done to bring this upon themselves. The disease is a ceasing of bodily functions, not an external invasion that humankind has to fight. Although it is not revealed what the cause of the infertility is, characters drop some clues throughout the film that allow for a reconstruction of events. The film is set in 2027. Baby Diego dies at 18 years old, so the last babies were born in 2009. Miriam, Kee’s midwife, tells Theo that the infertility started by pregnant women having miscarriages, which occurred earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, until it became apparent that no new pregnancies were registered. Theo and Jules haven’t seen each other for twenty years. Jasper reveals that the couple had a baby, Dylan, who died in the 2007 flu pandemic. From these facts we can gather that the infertility was preceded by at least one pandemic of a viral disease, and that when the infertility set in it was a gradual process. It was not a divine judgement meted out to the masses (although there are plenty of religious groups in the periphery that take the infertility to be God’s punishment), but rather a halting development that took time to really take hold.

CoM_TomorrowFig 4: The ‘Tomorrow’ arrives to bring Kee and her baby to safety

But what caused it? And why is Kee able to get pregnant? The story wisely does not answer these questions. It is self-aware in its positioning of Kee, who jokes about being the virgin immaculate. In fact, she slept around and does not know who the father is. This leaves open the possibility that the issue is with the male half of the population, echoing noughties fears about mobile phones in tight trouser pockets. The end of the film cannot help but echo religious sentiments, with the baby being hailed as a source of purity and goodness, and with the saving ship ‘Tomorrow’ advancing through the fog. But is Kee’s baby the Salvation of humankind and the start of a new generation, or is it just a one-off medical incident?

Spin

Channel 4 has just finished airing the first season of French political drama Spin (Original title: Les Hommes De l’Ombre, 2012). The plot of the first season hinges on the killing of the French president by a suicide bomber, and the subsequent frantic presidential election. Although the presidential candidates are significant characters, the real protagonists are the two spin doctors working on either side of the political divide. Simon Kapita, who got the murdered president in power, comes back to France to help Centrist candidate Anne Visage. Simon’s former business partner but now rival, Ludo Desmeuze, works for the right-wing Prime Minister Phillipe Deleuvre.
Although Spin has been compared to West Wing,[1] a series which consciously draws attention to its use of space, the French drama has none of the ‘walk and talk’ scenes that make the Aaron Sorkin vehicle so instantly recognisable.[2] Indeed, on the face of it, Spin does not use the spaces it is set in very imaginatively. Most of the action is set in Paris, and when a location is used that the viewer may recognise it is signposted with text on screen. However, the series does make interesting use of one particular space: the HQ of Anne Visage’s campaign.
At the start of the season, Anne is not intending to run for president. However, Kapita manages to convince her that she should give it a try. The urgency of the election means that a campaign has to be started very quickly. As part of a swift montage in episode 2, in which Kapita, Anne, and her advisor find financial backing, they also visit an empty space in a ‘working class district’ which will act as the physical centre of their campaign (Fig 1). Political ideals are mirrored in the buildings in which their candidates work: Anne is in a dynamic, popular district whereas her rival Deleuvre exclusively resides in Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the French Prime Minister. Anne’s building is run down and full of rubbish, but when we see it again later in the same episode, people are busily cleaning, painting, and putting up large photographs of Anne (Fig 2).
It is never specified who these people are or where they come from – as soon as the space is found, the volunteer team appears seemingly automatically. The course of the entire campaign is said to only take a few weeks, yet near the end of it, in episode 5, the HQ is transformed almost beyond recognition (Fig 3), with confetti to boot. Here, Anne greets a mass of volunteers who are all emotionally invested in her success.
The key members of staff, such as Anne’s speech writer Valentine and Kapita’s daughter Juliette who is in charge of the internet campaign, are never shown to be either working on doing up the HQ building, or even talking to the volunteers. The show gives the viewer a sense that as soon as the physical space is found to launch the campaign, it automatically attracts people that can also assist in the refurbishment. Spin in this way subtly uses the space of Anne’s HQ to create shortcuts in the narrative. By showing space = volunteers = success, it is able to cut out any thorough explanation of how Anne’s campaign builds momentum, and can instead focus on the intrigue of the spin doctors.

Spin_FR3Fig 1: Arriving at HQ (Episode 2)

Spin_FR1Fig 2: Refurbishments at HQ (Episode 2)

Spin_FR2Fig 3: Electoral success at HQ (Episode 5)

[1] Mark Lawson, ‘Spin – it’s the West Wing, with added sex,’ The Guardian, 10 February 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2016/feb/10/spin-its-the-west-wing-with-added-sex accessed 10 February 2016
[2] See ‘The Corridors of Power’, Empire Magazine, http://www.empireonline.com/west-wing/walkandtalk2.html accessed 10 February 2016