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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Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking seeks out the mental depth cameras can't know

This new short story collection approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles.

On 27 June 2014 the New York-based, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann was hospitalised after being punched in the back of the head. He was in Connecticut to attend a conference at Yale University when he came across a man assaulting his wife on the street. McCann yelled at the man, who walked away, only to return the same day while the author was speaking on the phone with his teenage son. “I was knocked unconscious,” McCann recently told the Irish Times. “Knocked out all my teeth; fractured cheekbone; severe contusions.”

In an author’s note at the end of McCann’s new book, a 143-page novella and three short stories, he writes: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” It’s a vague, slightly concussed statement intended to highlight how, uncannily, McCann had already begun to write some of these stories – each of which concerns a character who either fears, or succumbs to, an act of unforeseeable violence – before he was attacked.

McCann is well known (more so in the US than the UK) for his shifting, cinematic narratives, most notably the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s heroic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings as a symbol to connect an ensemble of disparate characters in 1970s New York. By comparison, Thirteen Ways is a messier, more ambiguous work.

This is no bad thing. McCann forgave the man who hit him, though he still struggles with “the punches behind the punch . . . the emotional impact”. That impact can be felt throughout the new collection, in which real life dovetails neatly with its recurrent themes: recollection, perspective, physical frailty and what Peter J Mendelssohn refers to as “the dark dogs of the mind”.

Peter Mendelssohn is a caustic, verbally gifted, 82-year-old former judge, a feisty Jewish relic of the Upper East Side whose Irish wife, Eileen, has recently died. He is both modern (his BlackBerry is “a wondrous machine” that lives in his breast pocket) and playfully unreconstructed (the sound of a juicer reminds him of the word “juicy” that he saw written on the back of a woman’s trousers in the park: “Sorry all,” he thinks, “but it was indeed rather juicy”).

His son, Elliot, “the hedge fund man, political aspirant, well-known philanderer”, is an accomplished disappointment, a man whose lack of charm and consideration for others – there are no “sorry alls” from him – is the opposite of his father’s warmth. When the pair meet for lunch, Elliot is unable to put his phone away long enough to indulge his father’s need to “talk . . . of our gone days” and rushes out without finishing.

Elliot is being sued for wrongful dismissal after an affair with a woman at his firm. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll crush her,” he says as he leaves Peter, who will soon be murdered outside on the street – a fact we learn early on in the novella, as McCann’s artful descriptions of the city are shown to be the static visions of surveillance cameras.

The image of a security camera also closes “Treaty”, the final story in the collection. “Suffering exhaustion”, Beverly Clarke, a 76-year-old nun, has been sent to a tranquil community on Long Island, where she is confronted by the image on late-night TV of the man who kidnapped, raped and abused her 36 years earlier: a former paramilitary commander who has now “taken on the aura of a diplomat”, speaking at a peace conference in London.

Beverly, like Mendelssohn, lives in the past. She smokes late into the night – “to cough, to burn and disappear” – and is undecided whether she has really seen Carlos, now restyled Euclides Largo, or not. “The odd little magpie of the mind”, she thinks, plotting a wearying trip to London to discover the truth. “Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its nest in random places.”

Thirteen Ways takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, which catalogues some of the perspectives that a poet might take on the natural world. Unlike Mendelssohn, Beverly does not succumb but confronts Carlos. She shows him her scars. McCann approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles. He seeks out the mental depths that cameras, surfaces and screens cannot know. Yet, for all the modes of catharsis and redemption that exist, it is Beverly’s calmly spoken words that feel most vital. “I just want you to know that I’m here,” she says. “I exist, that’s all.” 

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war