I went to see High-Rise – the Ben Wheatley movie of the JG Ballard novel, published in 1975 – anarchy and social upheaval in a 4O floor, one thousand unit apartment block somewhere in London. It’s as good a movie as anyone has any right to expect, and an awful lot better than most of us Ballard fans feared.
It would be pointless to claim it’s any kind of walking movie but there is some interesting walking in it. The movie’s protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing, (I think Ballard may have had trouble with character names) does a fair amount of walking within the building. Laing is played by Tom Hiddleston of course, who beforehand struck me as an unlikely Ballardian hero but he's pretty great here.
In one dream sequence he half-walks, half-dances, with a group of air hostesses (or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days).
He walks around his apartment. He walks around the supermarket. He walks across the car park – full of 1970s cars (though not in the picture below) - which is pretty much the only time we see him walking outside the building, as I recall.
And at a couple of points he walks in the rooftop garden, which belongs to the top dog architect who designed the building, named Royal – did I mention that I think Ballard may have had trouble with character names?
Thanks to Mike Bonsall’s brilliantly obsessive concordance of the works of Ballard I can tell you that the word “walked” appears 34 times in the novel of High-Rise, “walk” occurs 6 times, “walking” 3 times, “walking-stick” just once.
The high-rise of the novel is set in London, two miles east of the City, “along the river,” on the north side, which by my calculation would place it somewhere around Limehouse.
The movie for all its temporal accuracy – everything looks amazingly 1975 – is set in even more of a geographical no man’s land, and it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to find that much of the film was shot in Northern Ireland, for good solid tax reasons.
That walled roof garden that’s supposed to be 40 stories up in the air, even with some CGI work still looks very much like a real, ground level garden, and yes it turns out to be the walled garden at Bangor Castle.
Incidentally, Ballard’s old mucker Michael Moorcock seems to have been mildly obsessed with the roof garden at Derry and Toms in Kensington – which became Biba for a while (Biba closed in 1975!). It pops up more than once in the Jerry Cornelius novels. I’m guessing that Wheatley is playfully alluding to that, but I wouldn't swear to it.
Ballard was supposedly inspired by Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in Notting Hill – 31 stories – 217 flats – though for the purposes of High-Rise the Balfron Tower constructed a few years earlier might be a better model. Goldfinger actually did live there, just like Royal in High-Rise, although by all accounts having Goldfinger for a neighbor would have been pretty intimidating.
But one thing both the Trellick and the Belfron had - in common with a lot of other 1960s and 70s council blocks - was what we used to call (if we hated them) deck access or (if we liked them) “streets in the sky.” The flats had front doors that opened into shared external access corridors, along which people could, and had to walk, at least somewhat like a real street.
Of course these decks might be haunted by roaming bad elements, threatening passersby, banging on doors, settling fire to piles of rubbish etc., but that’s how it is with street life. And that's how it is with High-Rise even though the building doesn’t have external decks. The interior space is claustrophobic, oppressive, cinematically under lit.
And afterwards coming out of the movie, it felt good to be able to walk in the open air, in streets on the ground rather than anywhere else.
And walking up Sawtelle Boulevard I saw there’s been some kind of English, or more specifically London, invasion. There are apartment blocks, with names such as Camden Town, Soho Square, St John’s Wood. Admittedly they’re fairly low-rise and don’t look inherently threatening, but after the movie all apartment blocks seem potentially sinister.
A look at the developers’ website (it’s premierleagueinc.com - an English football reference - what’s that about?) doesn’t do much to calm the nerves. Here you’ll find all kinds of greenwash, and inert and empty language of the kind Ballard reveled in. They “strive for aesthetics and functionality.” They have “cutting edge design and efficient use of space.” The units are “pre-wired for today’s technological needs.” And so on. I can’t help thinking that the inhabitants will be sitting on their balconies roasting their dogs in no time at all.