A mainstay of both Cinema Scope and Reverse Shot (not to mention plenty of other publications), Adam Nayman is one of our sharpest film critics. This is evidenced in his previous book, It Doesn’t Suck, a thorough defense of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls that only solidified the film maudit as something of a modern classic. He’s now turned his attention to another divisive figure with Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage. While Nayman has shown in much of his writing a skepticism towards the lionization of certain genre directors in Internet circles, he makes a compelling case for the still yet-to-quite-breakthrough Wheatley as a wholly intelligent filmmaker whose ideas transcend Tumblr screencaps. He sat down with us to discuss his new book, Wheatley, and other issues within film culture.
The Film Stage: In comparison to your last book, It Doesn’t Suck, do you think this was a bigger or smaller task? I mean the title of It Doesn’t Suck positions it as punching upwards, but, with this book, there’s the challenge of establishing someone as an auteur — so is it also punching upwards?
Adam Nayman: I think that, without being glib about it, the Showgirls book, to some extent, wrote itself — or could have, you know. I worked very hard to make that not a kind of viewing-companion book, or ironic companion kind of book. I think the limb I went out on in that book was a little shorter and sturdier than some of the people who covered it, or some of the people who bought it, may have acknowledged. I think, in the years passing, you’re on pretty solid ground in being able to say something has happened in the perception of this movie. And there’s the fact that this movie speaks for itself in that, in simply describing it, you make it sound compelling.
I think, with Wheatley’s movies, it’s in ways safer because I’m not the only one who thinks they’re good; they’re pretty extravagantly praised in some corners. In some ways, it’s harder because there isn’t twenty years’ hindsight to see what these movies mean and what kind of influence they’re going to have. I mean, you need to be Nostradamus to do that. But I also think what was hard about it, and what I still am anxious about — I mean, I wouldn’t use a smaller word than anxious — is, did I do it too soon? That has to do with what a lot of critics struggle with, especially in the Internet age, of received wisdom versus being too quick. If you wait around, you’re probably not going to write anything too new about Bresson or, at this point, even something new about Scorsese.
Conversely, you go plant your flag in whatever director, whether it’s Scott Derrickson or Ava DuVernay or Ben Wheatley, and you kind of have the excitement of getting in on the ground floor. But you also risk looking kind of hasty or stupid, and, in Wheatley’s case, the one thing that is true about him — ironically, the thing that everyone who pays attention would agree on — is that there’s no agreement. This is a legitimately divisive filmmaker, so that, in some ways, was encouraging, knowing that I was going to be writing a book met with both agreement and skepticism. But I wonder if even the people who agree are going to be, “Yeah, sure, but you have him right up against the edge of this interesting turn in his career, so why didn’t you just wait?”
I feel justified in using this term because we’re speaking to enough of a niche audience, but when factoring in reception for his films, do you predominantly consider Globe & Mail, New York Times etc., or really, “Film Twitter”?
Reception of his movies have a certain narrative to it, right up to High-Rise, and that narrative was, “Not many people have heard of this, not that many people have seen it, and those who had seen it were pretty excited about it.” They were pretty interested in it. There’s a certain sort of clandestine-like he’s a really interesting filmmaker doing stuff and the kind of audiences he’s reaching are the kind that get it already. It’s true that, even within that, there’s clusters of dissent and outright pans for some of these movies. When High-Rise got made — and I don’t usually like this analogy, but I’ll try to make it work — that’s it’s like when an indie band tries to reach a wider audience. It’s for very conventional reasons, like bigger actors, not an original script based on a bigger novel, a bigger distributor, plum festival placements and all that. I think, then, that reception context widens to include a varied group of factions, like the Wheatley fans who were disappointed with the film, or the people who’d never heard of him before and were just kind of amazed that a film like that exists, the people who think he’s been kind of shitty all along and now he’s just being shitty on a bigger canvas.
All of this is funny because, even if you put all of this together and amplify it, you’re still talking about a niche film and a niche filmmaker relative to stuff that is neither Film Twitter nor the Globe & Mail — like, say we’re talking about The Ringer or Screen Crush or Ain’t It Cool News. I mean, we’re still talking about something that’s pretty small, and I think that’s one of the reasons this book is being published by a very much respected publisher; I think they’re doing a good job in that they’ve got some pretty big bylines with The Critical Press and some pretty big subjects, but this is the kind of book that, at the moment, isn’t going to be published by Wesleyan University Press. I am betting, and I think I’m right, that in ten years it would be. But essentially we’re talking about a niche filmmaker, and I’m betting that’s not going to be the case in a couple years — but I still wonder if I was pre-emptive.
You bring up the name in the book, but I think you can kind of make a binary of Wheatley versus Nicolas Winding Refn. I mean, you can even see it through their comments about critics: Wheatley got in some trouble for what he said, but when Only God Forgives got panned in Cannes, Refn was like “I’m the Sex Pistols of cinema,” which is, of course, a far more pompous thing to say.
I mean, we could certainly talk about it in terms of binary. I could certainly talk for hours about why one is really good and one is really bad, but it’s maybe more interesting a discussion to place Wheatley within these kind of emergent, transnational genre auteurs, kind of specialists who have personality beyond the kind of generic structures they inhabit. I mean, Refn is one; Bong Joon-ho is another. I’d even say, in a way, someone like Denis Villeneuve counts, or someone like Park Chan-wook. Because all the roads for these guys lead the same way they did for guys a little older, like Guillermo Del Toro — they all lead to either big international co-productions or what is the big American Hollywood cross-over. Wheatley’s in the first chapter. I mean, it’s not a big international co-production in that there’s not too many countries involved, but High-Rise is kind of that and Free Fire, too, but in some ways it’s kind of smaller.
But he hasn’t really had a Snowpiercer yet, he certainly hasn’t had a Prisoners, he certainly hasn’t had a Sicario or a Drive. But I don’t think he’s too far from those guys. But I think the difference between him and Bong or Park or Villeneuve, a French-language guy, is his regional films are in English, so they’re not as clearly exotic as those guys’ movies are kind of out of the gate. In some ways, Memories of Murder and Kill List are an interesting comparison, I think they’re both the best films by each respective filmmaker. They’re both genre films with a lot of attention. I think Memories of Murder is hurt in some ways by not being English-language, but it was really valorized as being a new kind of Korean-cinema kind of movie. Kill List, because it’s in English, means it’s maybe the kind of movie that more people would sit and watch on Netflix, but it doesn’t seem as exotic — it doesn’t seem as worldly — and that has to do with the American relationship to British pop-culture, too.
I think a fair comparison would be Takashi Miike, at least in terms of a prolific, genre-switching craftsman. Though I think your book helped in seeing him more as auteur than craftsman.
Well, I think one of the things that comes out in the interview with him — and I think it comes out in the film, too — is the prolificness, the rate of production, has to do with a feeling of a late start. Ben wasn’t putting together features in his ’20s. I mean, he didn’t start super-late, but it wasn’t until his late ’30s that he really broke through and figured out that you literally have to do it yourself, make it yourself for the first one, then a certain industrial infrastructure follows. I think he and [co-writer] Amy Jump are restless and creative enough that they can keep up the momentum. I think it might be too early to judge if the film-per-year thing is good or if there would be a different quality to them if they were made with a bit more patience. I mean, the one thing you wouldn’t call his films, even if you’re a fan of them, is methodical, or you wouldn’t even call them over-conceptualized.
Even the films — I think, in an innate way, or even an instinctive way — that are quite brilliant, that are intellectual and quite politicized, aren’t films that feel like too long were spent on them. With circumstances like A Field in England, they’ve had to shoot pretty quickly and pretty efficiently. I think that’s why High-Rise is the odd film out, even more so than Free Fire — the scope of that production — but also that it’s an adaptation; it meant that there’s a little more design, a little more pre-conception, a little more planning, even just down to the architectural metaphor of the movie itself.
I think it’s fascinating that it’s the movie of his that’s the most divisive. It’s the movie of his that the most serious critics have taken the most seriously because they’ve liked it, and that’s why I gave it so much space within the book — because, like it or not, it’s sort of the movie that suggests there might be more in this career than just a kind of cheap-o genre experiment every year. There are people I know who feel very strongly about the movie and don’t want him to ever make something like High-Rise ever again. They’re like, “Please make the things you made before.”
Before writing the book and doing the research, were you very aware of Amy Jump as co-author?
Yeah, but that’s because I’ve been very aware of Wheatley. I mean, I was when I saw Kill List at TIFF in 2011… I mean, I’m sure you do the same thing at film festivals where you test your responses of not just, “Do I like this?” but, “Why do I like it?” Just to the extent that I liked it that I was going to cover it, it’s part of your job — you’re making money by liking something. I just knew it, when I saw Kill List, that it was extraordinary, and I immediately read and tried to think about what made it extraordinary. I wrote a cover piece on Kill List for Cinema Scope, which was really fun because [Mark] Peranson was on board with the idea that it was a major film; in fact, he’d written a capsule about it in Scope’s coverage that I’d read that got me excited to see it So upon sitting down with Wheatley, you ask how’s the film written, how’s it made, how’s it cut, and immediately he brings up Amy Jump, so that’s been a constant in the reception and coverage of the film since.
I’m by no means the first person, and I won’t be the last — and I don’t just mean as a critic, in terms of people trying to write about or profile him — who’s made a request to interview him, and not a casual one, like sending him an email, like, “I wonder if Amy Jump wants to talk or comment,” and the answer is always no, so I don’t consider myself more or less responsible than any other critic in terms of being able to answer for her just because I wrote the book. I mean, there was that critical quarterly symposium which I drew from in my book where I tried to talk to her and the answer was no.
I tried, and someone who’s read the book can determine this for themselves, but I tried to make the case that she’s important, but without quotes from her and without explanation of how much the film belongs to her versus how much the film belongs to Ben. Putting the two of them together, it’s pretty hard to quantify. I would say if the female lead in Sightseers seems particularly interesting, if the subplot of the community of women in High-Rise seems particularly interesting, and if the satire of male comradeship in A Field in England seems particularly interesting, even if the ultimate narrative outcome of Free Fire is interesting — like, has that particular feminist read to it — it makes sense.
Did you debate considering his early viral videos for the book? I remember, when there was a touring retrospective of Ruben Ostlund a couple years back, they sent out links to all his films, but also early ski videos he made, maybe as to track their influence on Force Majeure.
I was working pretty hard to find them. MrAndMrsWheatley.co.uk had some of them stored, but not all of them. But then even finding factual information about these things, like some of the products they’re advertising, is not always easy. But I thought it was important. I mean, there are lapses in my book, and not accidental ones. A couple of people asked me why I didn’t talk about the Doctor Who episodes he did, which, in some ways, may be the most widely seen things that he’d produced. I talk in detail about The Wrong Door, but not some of the other British television, though I mention them in passing. He did a couple seasons of Ideal and some gigs doing other stuff. In my thinking and my research, I thought these were the things that constructed the best story and the most consistent story of him stylistically.
The Doctor Who thing, I think, the argument could be made — that could’ve gone somewhere in the High-Rise chapter as an example that he gets big work now — but I also think, having seen those episodes, and I mean this no bad way, they’re like competent, well-made, entertaining episodes of a television show, which I think tells me more about his reverence, fidelity, and respect for that franchise than him as an artist. Whereas I think the viral videos which are largely his own treatments and his own ideas, there are themes and ideas and a sense of humour that feels like an indication of what he’s into. If you watch something like The Wrong Door, as silly and undisciplined and childish as some of the humour is, it’s super-prescient at the time. Like how TV and Internet comedy have become kind of adjacent of each other in terms of short comedy, like Adult Swim, I think it’s pretty forward-looking stuff.
Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage will be available in early December from The Critical Press.