Attack the Block

Even though it is the name of the 2011 film, the phrase “attack the block” could also describe the process of selling off and the regeneration of land and neighbourhoods in London. More precisely, the trend in recent years has been for local authorities to sell housing estates to private developers in order to facilitate large scale renewal of housing stock and the regeneration of neighbourhoods. One justification that councils have offered in making the case for renewal has been that due to the state of disrepair and the social issues presented by such conditions, it is beyond the financial means of councils to refurbish and upgrade the existing housing stock. It is no secret that most sites earmarked for sale are regarded as prime real estate. Enter the property developers who have the resources to purchase and redevelop the valuable land — value that is defined within a paradigm of exchange value rather than use value.
Whilst, of course, the financial burden is passed on to the property developers, and local authorities promise new social and council housing paid for by the proceeds of the land sale, the proposed benefits also have profound consequences. These are starkest for the current residents of any site. For example, the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle — one of the locations in Attack the Block — tenants in social rented accommodation were dispersed across London, and sometimes beyond, to other council housing. Those who owned the leasehold to their properties were offered amounts under compulsory purchase orders that did not allow them to buy a comparative property locally. Those in one bedroom properties were offered an average of £95,480; the cheapest one bedroom flat in the planned Lend Lease development was to cost in excess of £300,000.[1]

The individual and collective social cost to the breaking up of such communities, then, is irreversible separation, as one community is dispersed across a very large city. One of the local campaigns, 35% Elephant, shows the mapped displacement of the former tenants and leaseholders, as depicted in the following images.[2]
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These maps provide an interesting visualisation of the dispersal of those former residents. For both tenants and leaseholders, these maps clarify how the former community was geographically exploded. It is also salient that each of the journeys represented by these maps is most likely one-way. With that in mind, these images bring to light a collective parting of ways without the prospect of return or of re-establishment of the former communities.
Added to the sense of irreparable change to the parts of the city’s social fabric, Loretta Lees (2014) makes the argument that the London that is left in its wake is not viable or socially sustainable. New Labour pursued a policy of mixed communities, a policy that aimed to foster social integration and mutual flourishing by engineering a social mix of different backgrounds within the same property development. She highlights how the policy, although oft cited by the Mayor’s office and local authorities in the name of regeneration, has largely been abandoned, given the paucity of planned, genuine social housing by property developers. Lend Lease, for example, have plans for around 25% of the development to be ‘affordable’ social housing — this includes socially rented, affordable rent and shared ownership. Real council housing has been and is being written out of the future.
Lees argues that, with ‘[m]ost of inner London now gentrified, […] council estates and tenants have become the final gentrification frontier’ (2014: loc. 3772). The mixed communities policy has, moreover, merely provided a means by which the state has proceeded to displace estate residents from the Heygate and similar, central London locations. Lees writes, ‘[s]ignificant numbers of low-income tenants have been, and are in the process of being, displaced from their homes and communities in inner London through the guise of mixed communities policy’ (2014: loc. 3834). Such changes in the material reconfiguration of London underscore the ephemerality of the city’s spaces and architectural environment; the Heygate itself was condemned to closure by Southwark council less than 40 years after its completion. However, these changes in the spaces of the city, particularly around Elephant and Castle, conspicuously symbolise the forces of capital guiding the priorities of the local council — where a big bang solution was more favourable than a restoration of the Heygate’s existing housing stock. Such a restoration was, in fact, mooted, costed, and could have been made possible (2014: loc. 4121) but such a modest solution did not serve the priorities of the capital forces which built a narrative around the estate that it was always already inviable [3]. Whilst such capital forces are generative insofar as they ensure the ongoing reconfiguration and creation of the city’s material, perpetuating its unfinished, ephemeral materiality, these forces are also socially destructive. Communities are scattered. Without these, the city’s material fabric is undermined such is the inextricable link between the city’s architectural spaces and their human occupants. Playing bagatelle with communities of people, decoupling people from place, suits capital but does not serve the city well, when the ephemerality of social relations in a large, international city is accelerated and fuelled by the forces that promote its material change.
With the closure of the Heygate and pressure on surviving estates to be swallowed up in the same wave of regeneration, Attack the Block (2011) creatively deals with those who resist forces that threaten the estate. The film follows a gang of teenage boys, led by Moses, in thrall to their estate gang and drug-dealer boss. The boys mug a nurse who, it turns out, lives on the same estate as them. Shortly thereafter, something crashes from the heavens into the street they stand in, wrecking a car. An alien, soon dispatched by Moses, hails the the start of an attack by a legion of other invaders that arrive — the boys’ estate is officially under attack. The straight concrete edges of the estates’ blocks and the distinctive angular walkways belonging to the Heygate are evident as the boys seek to defend their estate against the invaders. In the end, all that the strange creatures appear to have been doing is pursuing the scent of a fellow alien, perhaps in order to mate.
The film is comic and light-hearted and notable for its locations and smaller budget, but the film is vitally political, too. Outsiders and authorities external to the world of the estate are impervious to the assault — the boys stand alone. In this sense, these alien trespassers, bent on the single goal of reaching the dead alien whose scent they keenly detect, do not so much stand for the property developers and local authorities but more for the unseen work of capital forces mentioned above. Their goal is to serve the best interests of capital by the most efficient means. Likewise, the manner of the aliens’ single-minded pursuit of the scent of their fellow life-form, the goal, is just as ruthless: people die; property is ruined; and the estate terrorised.
The total impassivity of the world outside the estate is evident, when, having contacted the police, the young nurse turns up with them on the estate looking for the Moses’ gang. The police’s efforts are fatally sabotaged by the aliens, but, of course, the damage and death come to be blamed by the police at the end upon Moses and friends, residents of the estate. Their otherness, it seems, mandates that whoever comes from the place of alterity must be caught up in the negative mythologies that come to be associated with it over time. Moreover, it is on this very point that the film rebuts such an assumption. After the police are killed, the young, white nurse who is relatively new to the area, teams up with her former assailants to survive. Only at this point do the boys discover that she too lives on the estate, that she is part of their world. They help her escape the aliens and she helps to patch one of the injured up. It is not so much to do with the sense in which the perilous circumstances throw the nurse and her assailants together, rather it is the fact that they are neighbours and live on the same estate that is the key variable that facilitates the transcending of differences in race, class, education, and background. It is not just that this unlikely band fight for their estate; this film defends the notion and potential of such communities.
Francesco Sebregondi (2012) argues that between the time of the Heygate being emptied of all but its most determined residents and prior to the estate’s demolition to make way for new buildings, a kind of void opens up in the city landscape, ‘[a]n unoccupied, un-utilised, un-programmed space’ (2012: 338). Leaving a sealed-off, neglected estate of buildings on display to London residents served the conventional, neoliberal narrative that the estate was destined for closure in any event and that such closures should be welcomed as progress. Sebregondi points out that one of the unique phenomena to arise within the void is its role as an image ‘machine’ (2012: 339). That is, it became the site for many films seeking to shoot on a location that typified brutalist sensibilities, and Attack the Block was, of course, one of those objects that arose from that void. Now, Sebregondi argues that one of the functions of the many films [4] made on the Heygate was to reinforce the narrative of this and other such estates as being harbours of violence and criminal activity. More than this, these images co-opted the memory of the estate, to ensure it would be remembered in such a light. What is interesting about Attack the Block is that there are signs of resistance to the general narrative and the memorialising of the estate as a place of crime and violence. Yes, people are killed by aliens and the boy-hoodlums come from there, but the film models the triumph of the estate, of those supposed troublemakers — who exhibit courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice — united with their one-time victim to survive and defend against the intruding force. And it is the estate as a social fabric, of local people and knowledge that accomplishes the very thing being exploded by capital forces.
The other consequence of the many images of the estate in this period, according to Sebregondi, is that images displace and dislocate. So, ‘related to the very phenomenology of the image, is […] [the dissolution of] both the specificity and the materiality of the Heygate as a place’ (2012: 339). Whilst Attack the Block no doubt participates in this very process, what is championed is the idea of the ‘estate’ as a distinctive place, but also as one that is worth something (other than pounds and pence), against the ’30 years of stigmatisation in political discourse and popular culture [that] has established the council estate as a page already turned in the city’s history’ (2012: 340). The film pictures the Heygate — and indeed every council estate — as something that can and should be fought for, preserved, saved.
As a cultural object that arose from the void in the city’s landscape, Attack the Block embodies the very same things as its characters in defence of the estate.

[1] Ian Steadman, ‘Look to the Heygate Estate for what’s wrong with London’s housing’, New Statesman, 6 November 2013 <http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/11/look-heygate-estate-whats-wrong-londons-housing&gt; [accessed 22 August 2015]
[2] ‘The Heygate Diaspora’, 35% Campaign, 8 June 2013 <http://35percent.org/blog/2013/06/08/the-heygate-diaspora/&gt; [accessed 22 August 2015]. See also the pamphlet: Loretta Lees, Just Space, LTF, SNAG, ‘Challenging “the urban renewal”: the social cleansing of housing estates in London’, in B. Campaign, D. Roberts and R.Ross (eds) Urban Pamphleteer #2 ‘London: regeneration realities’, London: Urban Lab, UCL pp. 6-10 <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab/research/urban-pamphleteer/UrbanPamphleteer_2.pdf&gt; [accessed 5 October 2015].
[3] For more for the narratives surrounding the Heygate see Stephen Moss, ‘The death of a housing ideal’, in The Guardian, 4 March 2011 <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/mar/04/death-housing-ideal&gt; [accessed 1 October 2015]
[4] For example, films such as Shank (2010), Harry Brown (2009), World War Z (2013) and The Veteran (2011) in addition to television episodes and music videos.

Remembering Los Angeles

Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is a remarkable feat of remembrance. Andersen’s essay film features footage of films located in Los Angeles, or which take the city as their subject: the seat of the industry that produced them. In doing so, this work is not merely a remembrance of places, locations, features and forms which constitute the city; for viewers, it brings to mind films that are familiar, those that may have been forgotten, or those as yet unseen. More than this, however, it might be said that in the caring activity that lies in the making of the film itself – the research, the selection of films and footage, editing and so on – is also a twofold act of remembrance. The first step is the bringing to light of the different films as objects, considered for their representations of Los Angeles. In their selection and use in the film they are somehow recovered from the great mass of films available to viewers at the same time as being re-considered in terms of their value as a record of the city. The second step is the sense in which this essay film is composed mostly of other films to form a new memory (or imagining) of the city. This is achieved by Andersen’s patient tapestry of interlacing other films together, in the course of which myriad imaginings and representations of the city are brought together to form another filmic city.
It is in the making of a new film object from existing film objects that differentiates Andersen’s finished work from the material it is composed from. Whereas the original films created, in whatever measure, a profilmic record from the actual city itself (or actual sets mimetically standing in for the city), Los Angeles Plays Itself has as its raw material the filmic city. A city of moving images (Los Angeles as the seat of Hollywood) is represented as a filmic city (Los Angeles Plays Itself), which is in turn made from the very same kind of fragments. Thinking in this media archaeological vein, then, the city presented is one which spans different times, temporalities, and both the material and imagined changes that take place within and across those, unified by Andersen’s vision and commentary. [1] As constructed in Los Angeles Plays Itself, the filmic city is therefore a place where the constitutive elements of the city can be explored outside of the constraints of spatio-temporal actuality and the scope of one particular film. It is a space, mined from film materials, where imaginings, remembrances, and re-shapings of the city take place simultaneously. The promise of the resulting filmic city rests not only with the opening up of new meanings, understandings, and imaginings of the city as a material entity. It also lies in the bringing together of excavated film fragments that are understood in terms of their value as documents, besides their original context or purpose. In this way, Andersen and his viewers explore the manifold possibilities that lie within the filmic city’s landscape.

[1] See Jussi Parikka’s What is media archeology? (2012) for a useful overview of media archeology.

Life in the Dark

Infrastructure. The skeleton, the frame upon which concrete dreams of the city are hung. Networks, seen and unseen, circulate water, power, waste, telecoms, people, and so on. Conduits, the hardware, allow for the movements that keep the city moving; pipes, wires, tunnels, roads, tracks, masts; even the air enables the radiowaves and microwaves to flow.
Darkness. Photons too sparsely distributed. Not just too little light, but a lack of hope. The blackness of eyes closed when open. Like the underside of a rock against the soil.
     Dark Days (2000) shows how a city’s darkness and an element of its infrastructure can be inhabited. At the time the film was made, a small community of otherwise homeless people lived in an unused Amtrak tunnel near Penn station in New York. The film depicts people for whom life is better underground than above. They could be safe, dry, make their own home, have neighbours, establish some kind of existence, some kind of dwelling. Nevertheless, to be ready to do this in cold, rat infested darkness, each person had to be desperate.
The black and white film stock bears out the stark realities of their existence as faces emerge from the darkness like disregarded ghostly presences. As the film records various people and their plight, a kind of light is shed on the darkness of the space and their circumstances; upon otherwise forgotten people in forgotten spaces.
In making their home within the infrastructure of the city, these marginalised people become dwellers within a system designed for flows, transport and transmission. What was a conduit instead provides a sense of permanence in the changing city. Moreover, it becomes apparent how the residents of the tunnel exploit other aspects of the infrastructure by tapping into the city’s electricity grid for power in their makeshift homes, which are full of salvaged, functioning appliances.
The documentary’s director, Marc Singer, spent time getting to know, and living with the tunnel dwellers before the idea of a film was ever mooted. Those that share their stories trust Marc and the others behind the camera — they are telling their stories to their own friends and neighbours. It is this dynamic that enables the film to compassionately, but without varnish, provide a glimpse of life in the city’s underbelly.

Rehousing Cinema: From ‘Cinema Paradiso’ to the Cinema Museum

Cities might be said to have a beat. A rhythm to which life — all the things that animate the city — gets played out. One of the sources of this energy are the relentless manifold changes that take place in the formation of its material, built environment. What at one time were sites of activity and vibrance can, over time, become sights indicative of decline, neglect and disuse. Some buildings may be appropriated for many different uses other than those which they originally served. Others are destroyed and replaced and the land is used for new buildings. Whatever the stimuli for change, the materials and the surfaces of the city’s landscape are in flux. Such ongoing mutations and the concomitant provisionality of space that arises, are perhaps constitutive of what it means for a city to be a city.
The story of cinema’s home — cinemas — and the city is, of course, caught up with this ongoing development and change. Cinemas, like other sites, are left to decay, are re-appropriated for other uses and replaced entirely by other structures. Even though the social practice of cinema-going is certainly far from dead, and whatever the contributory factors, cinema attendance in western markets has declined markedly since its peak in the 1930s and 1940s. Such social and economic changes naturally entail that the siting of cinemas in the city have also radically altered, with the number of cinemas declining in general alongside the rise of the out-of-town multiplex.
     Cinema Paradiso (1988; d. Giuseppe Tornatore) is an exuberant and affectionate homage to the world of cinema and specifically its materialities. It is also a lament for the demise of cinemas that close, decay and are re-appropriated whereby the land or building is put to a different use, thus altering the immediate environment and the practices that take place in and around that location. After many years of self-imposed exile, Salvatore, the former projectionist of the Cinema Paradiso — now a successful film director — returns to his hometown. He does so to mark the death of his long time friend and mentor, Alfredo. Salvatore visits the cinema where he spent his formative years, learned about film and then served as projectionist, following Alfredo’s blindness.

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He finds a dilapidated relic inside and out. In a muted greyish-brown palette, the camera follows Salvatore into the former hub of community life. Promotional posters, upturned chairs, a broken lavatory, light bulbs are strewn over the floor of the dusty auditorium. The wallpaper peeling from the walls is visible as the camera pans left whilst tracking right to reveal the void of black behind the broken screen. In the projection booth, offcuts of film and empty reels litter the room. Its broken windows look out over the square of which it was once an integral part. All these artefacts, which speak of a former era of cinema-going, are deemed to be detritus along with the structure of the cinema itself — worthy only of destruction. Shortly afterwards, the cinema and its artefacts lie demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park. Lined up to observe the demolition are the familiar faces of years gone by, those who were involved and attended regularly, to pay their final respects to the place that brought them together. Their ageing faces speak of a bygone era.

There is, however, another point in the film that Francesco Casetti links to the relocation of the cinema. The trajectories of this relocation are twofold. One is the proliferation of screens and the manifold means of accessing the film object that exist today. The other pertains to the organisations of space that occur outside of the cinema, in the home and elsewhere, to re-create a cinema theatre like experience. One evening, when Salvatore is still a young boy assisting Alfredo, such is the demand from those outside waiting for the next screening that Alfredo uses the glass of the projection window to reflect the film behind the projector, out of the window overlooking the square, where it can be viewed on the side of a house.

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In is this moment, cinema symbolically leaves its house, a moment that Casetti interprets as ‘cinema’s exit from its temple’.[1] This exit is evidenced today in the non-theatrical expressions of cinema taking place in urban spaces with free film festivals, pop-up cinemas, outdoor screenings, themed secret cinema events, and ad hoc screenings. Also present in this moment, however, is the re-appropriation of the material urban space by cinema and for cinema — a wall is illuminated with images from the filmstrip, transforming a building’s wall into a screen. This is a reminder of how the earliest cinema spaces were created by a re-appropriation of existing used and disused spaces in cities — mainly shop fronts, giving birth to the first ‘nickelodeons’ in the U.S. and ‘penny’ cinemas in Britain.
Even if there has been a reduction in the number of cinemas since the heyday of cinema-going, and the artefacts of a bygone era discarded in the process, there are places that are salvaging and preserving just such artefacts through the re-appropriation different spaces. The Cinema Museum in south London serves as one such example of that. The museum is based in what originally opened as the Lambeth Workhouse in 1873, and subsequently became Lambeth Infirmary. The museum took over the surviving building in 1998 that has remained as its home since then. Many of the artefacts in the museum’s core collection — uniforms, projectors, light fittings, doors, ashtrays, display boards, carpets, seats, posters, postcards, film stills, as well as films — have been salvaged from former cinemas to preserve these objects of cinema’s material past. In so doing, this might be read as the re-housing, the re-siting of cinema in the city. In the same way that space was re-appropriated in cities for the earliest cinema theatres, so the former site of the Lambeth Workhouse has been re-purposed as a site for cinema. This time, the space is organised to preserve objects from those original theatres. These objects are given a home, they take on an afterlife which summons the memory of, and serves as an index of the presence for, the periods and former sites they represent. And as people visit the museum — a space dedicated to imbuing the present with cinema’s past — the social practices that once took place around these objects are instantiated once again. In this way, cinema remains caught up in the beat, in the rhythms and flux of the city’s continual material change.

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[1] Francesco Casetti, ‘Cinema Lost and Found: Trajectories of Relocation’, Screening the Past, (2011) <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/11/cinema-lost-and-found-trajectories-of-relocation/&gt; [accessed 12 January 2015]