Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Defending the Block

Seeing a "youth-orientated" film at a big chain cinema made for a different trailer viewing experience to the one I've grown accustomed to. On one hand I avoided the enervating promo for The Woman on the Sixth Floor, on the other hand I was bombarded with the sheer cynicism with which teen marketers approach their task. It seems they feel kids are easy prey for generic fantasies, so long as they throw in some shaky-cam to make it all feel real; either that or they think that by doing this, removing the titles and credits and inserting a link they can build “viral buzz”.  

Still, as dismissive as I was in the moment I can’t help wondering whether at some point these might have appealed to me. The first, for a horror film, was conventional in nearly every way, but it did play subtly on the big fear of every teenager: that someday you might grow up to be just like your parents. The second was a little more prosaic but no less seductive: What if you really could have superpowers? The third was aiming at the lowest common denominator: What if you could throw a party and be transformed from a gangly loser into a hot stud?*

As shamelessly manipulative as those trailers were I couldn’t help but wonder, as I started to fall for Attack the Block, whether I was responding more to the fantasy than to the movie itself. After all I deducted points from Even the Rain for on-the-nose politics and above-average but undistinguished direction and from The Yellow Sea for irritatingly busy editing during action sequences. Had I been sucked in to a fantasy (close-knit band of friends fighting aliens) personally tailored to me?

I firmly decided that Attack the Block was not coasting by through shamelessly appealing to my sensibilities. Firstly, occasional preachy pronouncements aside, its politics are more nuanced then they might appear at first glance. The film sneers at traditional conservative fears: “What’s out there has nothing to do with drugs, sex or violence in videogames!” Yet even while it does this, and rejects classist and racist stereotypes out of hand, it doesn’t ignore lower class criminality, instead taking aim at what it believes to be the causes: unaddressed poverty; incompetent, classist, racist institutions; a resulting bunker mentality; and poisonous social connections.

It also takes care not to stack the deck: police officers are both black and white and the government proves to be less openly hostile (Moses’ rant about trained attack creatures is never entertained as anything but paranoia) and more callously indifferent. In this way it is reminiscent of The Wire. Indeed its drug politics – why waste resources arresting the users and low level dealers instead of focusing on the real problems? – are more or less simpatico with the beloved TV show.

Secondly, while it’s true that Joe Cornish isn’t doing anything particularly bold here with the camera or mise-en-scene, occasional set pieces – I’m particularly thinking of Moses’ heroic run – show some real flair. Furthermore although I had issues with The Yellow Sea’s intensified continuity I was more bothered by the shear mind-numbing frequency of its fight scenes. Cornish makes no such mistakes: He keeps his action scenes short and punchy; and spaces them out over the course of the film.  

The pictures’ overall structure is every bit as carefully worked out. From the way each character is sketched in without breaking its heady momentum in the “Tool-up” sequence, to the way the story places all its characters in the right places for the final scenes without ever seeming deterministic, this is a movie that works with clockwork precision.

Most importantly Attack the Block is genuinely, disarmingly sincere. The film imbues nearly all of its characters with a measure of dignity and wraps up with a dose of we’re-all-in-this-together sentiment which might be cloying if it weren’t for the way that the rest of the movie embraces the idea of a united, neighbourly Britain in demonstrative terms. Indeed it is so successful that elements which would usually be turn-offs for me – including literal flag-waving patriotism – become “fuck, yeah!” moments instead. I won’t deny that the Sci Fi, B-pic story made it all go down easy but Cornish is doing far more than cynically selling a pre-packaged fantasy to a targeted audience.

*If the actual film is as aggressively and offensively chauvinistic as the marketing I will expect the film reviewers and bloggers who viciously panned Twilight and its audience to give this the same treatment.

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