London - Cine-City (Part 1)
It's soon after a discussion of The 39 Steps with Hitchcock himself, that Truffaut offers his opinion that the Master's leaving Britain was somehow stylistically inevitable. These oft quoted lines make the claim that Britain is inherently 'uncinematic' - has too literary a sensibility, has an entirely uninteresting verdant countryside and so on and so forth. There are so many infuriating things about this statement, but surely the most glaring is its context: Hitchcock's original 1935 39 Steps has some of the most compellingly strange settings in cinema up to that point, from the noise and chaos of the opening Music Hall, to some wildly Constructivist shots of corners and slices of the Forth Bridge, to a return to the stark contrasts of an inky, neon West End. Its no accident that Bill Brandt, that most filmic of photgraphers, always claimed Hitchcock's London films - where his training in German expressionism resulted in The Lodger's dark, seedy glamour or the paranoid city of Sabotage - as a primary inspiration: in them, London is sublimely estranged and made utterly cinematic without ever ceasing to be London. And aside from Hitchcock, is there a purer cinema than the vast scale and overwhelming colour of Powell and Pressburger?
What Truffaut really meant, although he put it in an irksomely chauvinist way, is that the British middle classes are uncinematic, which is true enough. His ability to seek out and use the uncharted corners of British modernity came out in the startling mise-en-scene of Fahrenheit 451. The entire Ghost Box aesthetic can be found presaged in the opening scenes, where in the environs of the fantastic geometrically arranged slab-blocks that cap Roehampton's vast Alton Estate, a pile of beautifully designed Penguin paper backs are thrown on a pyre, with sensibly dressed folk standing around it as if in some sort of ceremony. But needless to say, the brit bourgeoisie has infected British cinema, either through its own pure representation in offensive nonsense like Iris or Notting Hill, or in their sentimentalisation of the old proletarian East End in their endless gangster flicks - an episode of The Bill, running forever.
London today is so absurdly cinematic, in its outrageous contrasts of wealth and scale, that its almost criminal that no-one is doing anything with it. Recently I was on the mighty Jubilee Line extension with someone taking photos on their camera phone, and looking at the pictures had the appropriate Shklovskian effect of highlighting the extreme peculiarity of this futuristic, yet oddly superfluous underground line. Its history is almost worth a film in itself, charting the sinister history of London changing from a place to live to a place to exchange capital - the extension of what was originally planned in the '70s as the 'Fleet Line', depressingly later renamed for jingo purposes, was to connect the Centre with the South East periphery all the way to Thamesmead, where Kubrick had found his dystopian future city - now, this line goes to the desolate dome at North Greenwich, the already dated Blade Runner fantasy of Canary Wharf, through to yet another Blairite bread and circuses project in the offing at Stratford. A whole cine-landscape of grey metal and vaulting space, all just waiting for someone to point a camera someone running along it.
(Part Two, if and when I write it, is on Peeping Tom, pin-ups, Conrad's Secret Agent, seediness, Bill Brandt and other such things)