A glimpse of conflict

How will cinema remember the riots?

It may seem slightly redundant to wonder how the riots that have broken out across London and in provincial cities over the last few days will come to be represented. That is, of course, if they come to be part of filmic or literary memory at all: it's an appropriate coincidence that they have broken out thirty years after the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, which have yet to spawn any films. But the cultural reaction to outbreaks of social disorder over the last 30 years or so can give some idea of the representational and imaginative blind-spots in the everyday social assumptions that riots rupture.

The film that seems closest to the current situation is Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995). Set against the backdrop of the Parisian banlieue riots of the early 1990s, sparked by poverty, entrenched unemployment and police mistreatment of Afro-Caribbean and Maghrebin youth, most of the film takes place during a lull in the disorder. The lead trio - Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Afro-French Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Algerian Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) - travel into Paris for the day, and an eerie quiet and clarity hangs on the soundtrack; the trio are surrounded by empty, space in each shot. The riots appear as outbursts of action and noise that punctuate this: the clatter of police boots chasing the protagonists through a subway tunnel, raised voices between them and as they scuffle with skinheads. The raw black-and-white cinematography echoes the racial differences that are constantly called up by the characters - differences identified and emphasised by hostility, violent action and the air of tension that pervades the film. To the trio themselves, these are not very significant: the three of them maintain a friendship mediated by the usual crass banter; their families on their estate all know and support each other. It is the social context - their run-ins with white, well-off Parisians in the city itself - that sparks them into deadly significance.

 

By contrast, the riot in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant that closes Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989) is all noise and colour: a blast of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" initiates the fight that starts the tumult; the frame is crammed with bodies, with struggling and roiling limbs, with faces black and white, mouths open in shouts. The roll-call of black power leaders that Pino (John Torturro) cites to Mookie (Spike Lee), and whose faces Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) wants on the pizzeria's "wall of fame", sits uncomfortably with the tumult we see shortly afterwards: the pizzeria smashed, invaded, set alight. Race limits their actions to a perverse outburst of self-destruction: as the shop burns behind them, Mookie answers police demands to go home with "This is our home!" The violence and skill of Lee's cuts, though portraying well the speed and frenzy of events, ultimately contain and stylise the drama. The problem goes to the heart of how to portray disorder, confusion, crowds: narrative cinema demands focus through the lens of a small number of characters; it aligns with a need to simplify, to make riots comprehensible by rooting them in individual and concrete motivations. The opening credits of La Haine, made up of news footage from the riots, are in some ways more effective than the rest of the film: shell-suited, masked and anonymous youths pouring out of shopfronts; police, made anonymous by riot gear, kitting up, charging; smoke roiling from burning cars.

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Kassovitz's incorporation of documentary footage isn't a much-used tactic, because it isn't sensational. As the Clash - or, indeed, Public Enemy - proved, riots are glamorous. A point driven home in Julien Temple's adaptation of Colin Macinnes's Absolute Beginners (1986). The film's motor is the excitement of London's racially mixed jazz scene; the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, that close the book and film, and engulf the teenage protagonists, come out of this friction. The riot-scenes are choreographed as dance sequences a la West Side Story. The film's contradictory investments in race are masked, resolved, by aestheticisation and by the force of identification with Colin (Eddie O'Connell); the larger conditions that lie at the root of the riots do not even leak through; events, with causes and consequences, are turned into blank spectacle. O'Connell is a little too slick for the role of working-class hipster Colin, and emphasises his distance from the black rioters with whom he all too recently mixed.

The fact is that the riots are already representing themselves: within hours of the outbreak in Tottenham a rash of footage was on Youtube and news broadcasts. The strangeness, perhaps even ugliness, of the film is striking. We see people doing things that no-one expects under normal conditions, and they keep doing them, in a torrent; they are pixellated, badly framed, shaky. But they are, nonetheless, something we would expect to see only in a film - though not, perhaps, any particular film we've seen. In a sense the traumatic impact of these images tells us all we need to know - about the grinding social reality that surrounds the moment of riot, that makes the thrill of action, no matter how reckless and self-destructive, seem preferable; about the reality, beneath social apperances, of a society divided against itself. Whether art will catch up with this insight is another question.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism