Absolute Rubbish

13 Aug

Occasionally, consensus makes fools of us all: nature dictates that as the years roll on, received ideas are more often than not rendered obsolete by things and time. Vague as this may sound, I don’t think it’s an invalid statement to make: it is, after all, why historical revisionism exists. Pop culture is no stranger to this principle: as a phenomenon, it is shaped and based around ever-shifting interpretations of received ideas- the convenient shorthand for which is “Fashion”. If you believe the myth, only about four people ever bought a Velvet Underground album during the group’s short life-span, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo– recently named as “The Greatest Film of All Time” in the influential Sight & Sound critics’ poll- was written off as “not worth-while” by more than one hack on its release in 1958. You could be forgiven, then, for arguing that universally-ackowledged critical opinion is nothing but a stale old construct, an inherently futile and limiting set of prejudices that mean absolutely fuck-all.

It was with this iconoclastic spirit, then, that I finally bit the bullet and watched Julien Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners. For as long as I can remember, I have been hearing horror stories about this much-discussed but little seen (and astronomically expensive) Colin MacInnes adaptation: “much-maligned” doesn’t even come close. In London, complete strangers will literally stop you in the street to tell you how shit it is- and what’s more, they finish off by admitting they’ve never actually watched it. It is the Failure of failures, the Turkey of turkies, a film which not only bankrupted its production company, its studio but caused its director to flee into exile and to obliterate the reputation of almost member of its cast. I didn’t understand: on paper,  Absolute Beginners had everything: Julien Temple is a good film-maker: the Colin MacInnes novel is a tremendously enjoyable cult classic: the theme song is wonderful, the saving grace in David Bowie’s woeful mid-1980s oeuvre. How bad could it really be?

I’d love to say I’d delved deep into the bowels of the internet to find the film and emerged with a triumphantly revisionist endoresment; I’d love to write that it had unexpectedly blossomed into the all-singing, all-dancing masterpiece it was so cruelly mocked for not being; I’d be happy, in fact, to be able to write that it was quite simply not as bad as it’s cracked up to be. But I can’t. It is dire. Truly, madly, deeply shite- and given the fact that it resembles not so much a feature film but a horrifically dated, carelessly stuffed grab-bag of early MTV clichés, I think it may actually be even worse than anyone thought in 1986. How? HOW?!? How can a film with so much promise be quite so abjectly grotesque? Even with the novelty value of seeing Ray Davies fall down a flight of stairs in a Pimlico terrace, or the sight of Bowie driving around Notting Hill in a convertible with two life-sized plastic models of Father Christmas, it still felt like a jaw-dropping waste of my in no way precious time. Decency wasn’t the only thing Temple took a liberty with in Absolute Beginners: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with an unfaithful film adaptation, it must justify its deviations. Temple’s film presents no reason whatsoever for turning MacInnes’ novel into a (wait for it) Rock Musical. The film cannibalises the source text, vomits it back up and wipes it all over its hideously ill-judged 1980s sheen with no enthusiasm whatsoever. It has one foot wobbling dangerously on the edge of period detail and the other sinking into a quicksand of pointlessly fantastical day-glo theatrics; I hate it when people use the word “authenticity” as a sort of all-important value judgement, but Absolute Beginners’ dearth of thematic direction is quite honestly unbearable. The script- lifted awkwardly from dialogue in the novel- is lamentable and the performances are excruciating: Patsy Kensit seems like Meryl Streep by comparison to Eddie O’Connell’s cardboard turn as ‘Colin’, the retroactively named protagonist, and the less said about Bowie’s proto-Don Draper figure, the better. Now that I’ve established that it’s practically unwatchable, I think it’s probably only fair to acknowledge the sole redeeming feature: I may be wrong, but even with this disaster, the director was addressing the upheavals of gentrification and its impact on communities, as in his recent (and actually very good) documentary London: Modern Babylon. It informs the principle narrative strand of the film, which differs significantly from the novel; developers home in on the poor but unprejudiced multicultural area of Napoli (in the novel, slang for the W10 district around Latimer Road, here a somewhat more confused location- of which more later), unscrupulously hiring gangs of racist Teddy Boys to do their bidding and drive out the largely black population, culminating (as in the novel) with the savagery of the Notting Hill race riots. For bringing a contemporary  problem- one which is perhaps even more relevant today than in 1986- into discussion, it is commendable, but it plays irritatingly fast and loose with its treatment of History and Geography. Here I must bastardise the painstaking research and ordered methodology of writers (like The Cine-Tourist) who actually know what they’re talking about; as I mentioned earlier, the novel is incontrovertibly set in W10, the film’s dialogue locates it slightly to the South-East, in W11- a more desirable postcode even back in 1958 (‘not fashionable, mind you, but quite graded’, according to the narrator in the novel). The development (as you can see in the still above) is given as White City, the name of a real-life estate over the borough border in Shepherds Bush and a dark play on the racist agenda of the gangs tasked with the clearances. So, relatively specific, then- there’s even a shot (see above) of Bowie showing O’Connell a model of the proposed development- complete with a maquette of what must be the Westway. The trouble is, White City is not- and never has been- in W11, and is a good half-hour walk from Ladbroke Terrace (which is given as O’Connell’s address). If this all seems needlessly pedantic, I apologise- but White City and the surrounding area are little short of obsessions for me. The White City Estate was not, in fact, built over existing housing (as implied in the film), but replaced the crumbling splendour of a similarly named exhibition complex, so-named for its once brilliantly white paint job, rather than any conspiracy of racial segregation. For more on this, check out my article in TREMORS (wooo!) about the exhibition pavillions and their fate.

The film was shot almost entirely at Shepperton Studios, and while some sets are genuinely extraordinary, many are just plain wrong. Look at the still above: that Tube Station on the right bears no resemblance whatsoever to White City station on the left- : it is, in fact, an almost absurdly accurate recreation of Latimer Road, a stop on a different line a significant distance away. Interestingly, it was at Latimer Road Station that the Notting Hill riots of 1958 were sparked, and it is here (in the novel, at least) that the narrator of Absolute Beginners lives. What confuses me is why a studio would go to the time and presumably hefty expense of recreating one train station almost brick for brick only to mock it up as another, completely different tube stop. Like so much else in Absolute Beginners, it doesn’t really make sense. Why White City, then? While it is possible to argue that the exaggerated artifice of the studio sets permits the film a degree of topographical licence, it is nonetheless extremely inconsistent with other details. For a film that goes out of its way to linger over specially-made street signs as characters turn corners- and even to locate us at various exact addresses (there are lots of shots featuring specific blue plaques, as above), it just doesn’t wash. I can only suppose that it is an extremely overplayed visual gag, a laboured riff on the racial tensions sparked by Oswald Moseley’s white supremacist ranting, as re-enacted by Steven Berkoff in the film. I think the only real conclusion to draw, though, is that it is in keeping with the general cluelessness that characterises Temple’s adaptation of Absolute Beginners.

Right. That’s enough pedantry for now. I really need to get a job, don’t I?

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