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New Town Killers: A Novel Approach to Anti-Capitalist Cinema?

August 24, 2010

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Richard Jobson could not have selected a more opportune moment to release his dramatisation of big business immorality, New Town Killers, than the summer of 2009, when bankers and corporate culture were the bete noire of the general public. With memories especially fresh in the United Kingdom of Northern Rock’s collapse and subsequent nationalisation in early 2008, and HBOS requiring a dramatic takeover from the Lloyds Banking Group in January 2009, Jobson’s celebration of an ordinary working-class man’s triumph over a pair of maniacal investment bankers could not fail to tap into the national zeitgeist.

As well as the project’s uncanny presience, Jobson’s film occupies further interesting ground as a highly atypical and unconventional depiction of subject matter covered in other similarly-concerned films that I would like to loosely bracket as ‘anti-Capitalist cinema’. Due to the lengthy period it takes for a film to get produced and released in today’s market, immediate responses to the 2008/09 world banking crisis are still in short supply, but there had been a growing trend in cinema over the last decade anyway for exposés of the nasty underbelly of corporatisation and globalisation. Much of this is evident in the plethora of documentaries that have surfaced, tackling everything from the exploitation of Ethiopian farmers by coffee traders in Black Gold (2006), to the corporate shenanigans behind one of the decade’s most memorable financial scandals in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), to Al Gore’s popular The Inconvenient Truth (2006) which was one of a swathe of polemics about the environmental end-effects of decades of greed and consumption.

Clearly the documentary medium is a natural bedfellow for anti-Capitalist cinema – or cinema of any political agenda – with its emphasis on topicality, and its loosely instructional remit. That is not to say that filmmakers have not also used fiction film and all its inherent devices (narrative, genre, expressionism) to purvey social messages. Hollywood cinema has actually adapted very comfortably to growing cynicism over corporate culture, with Oliver Stone finally gaining studio assistance to work on his much-anticipated follow up to the seminal Eighties corporate fable Wall Street (1987). Jason Reitman’s recent release, Up in the Air (2009), even exploited the sentiment of this growing age of austerity by wrapping what is essentially a George Clooney romantic comedy, in a topical narrative universe of redundancies, dull conferences and unglamorous business travelling.

European cinema’s two most obvious contributors to socially-conscious cinema are the British stalwart, Ken Loach, who unapologetically wears his heart on his sleeve with an oeuvre devoted almost entirely to clean-cut socialist narratives, and Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne who seek through more spare and poetic means to suggest the inequalities suffered by those marginalised or unemployed in major Belgian industrial cities.

While Jobson certainly shares the concerns of both Loach and the Dardennes in New Town Killers (his main protagonist is a working-class, high-rise dwelling youth, victimised for his junkie sister’s debts), he wraps his polemic more unexpectedly in oblique stylisations and a genre homage. Perhaps the closest example of what Jobson is trying to do cinematographically, can be located in Laurent Cantet’s L’emploi du temps (2001) which effected through an emphasis on the shimmering mise en scene of its office location, a critique of the impersonalisation of the working environment. Narrative-wise, Jobson’s feature has similar functionalities to Paolo Sorrentino’s Le conseguenze dell’amore (2004) which enclosed within its pulpy gangster premise, a smart personal drama that gained a lot of impact from the plush interiors of its Swiss hotel space.

New Town Killers is not simply the effect of a political position though, and owes much to the influence of its undoubted author and voice, Richard Jobson. One of Britain’s most irrepressible cultural figures of the last thirty years, Jobson has led a career that has encompassed multiple transformations from the young lead singer on cult punk-rock band ‘The Skids’ in the late Seventies, to male model, to television presenter on a raft of fashion and cinema shows, to the writer-director of a number of feature films over the last decade. The two indivisible aspects of Jobson’s career and persona have been his aestheticism (his music has always had an element of the fashionista, and his well-publicised cinephilia rapturises sumptuous filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Terrence Malick), and his social-consciousness (he has never forgotten his working-class Scottish roots, and he has always prided himself on his ‘outsider’ status – particularly as a filmmaker who has produced and released his films on micro-budgets with little studio assistance).

This blurring of ethics and aesthetics makes the genesis of New Town Killers that much more comprehensible. The film takes Jobson backs to his home-turf of Edinburgh where all but one of his previous features have been filmed, and just going by the title, Jobson seeks to savage the ethos of Edinburgh’s New Town – a once historic area of the city, that has been transformed in recent decades into the central commercial district where shops and banks (Edinburgh is headquarters to the Royal Bank of Scotland) hold sway. Telling a simple Loachian narrative is not enough though for Jobson, as his ecclectic leanings means the social message is crammed alongside so many other cinematic and cultural referents – from his attempt to create a computer-game chase aesthetic, to the choice rock soundtrack that litters the film, to the connoisseur’s feel for cinematography that had some of the sequences momentarily looking as if they had been filmed by Christopher Doyle. Most bizarrely of all, Jobson seems enamoured of the freestyle urban running craze known as ‘parkour’, with multiple shots given over to fetishising his hero’s use of these skills, and in that respect it mirrors Anthony Minghella’s flawed ‘state of the nation’ piece Breaking and Entering (2006) which conflated social grandstanding with similar superfluous genre fluff.

Although this cocktail of style and conscience would seem to dilute the social politicking, and perhaps preclude Jobson’s film from being the obvious exemplar of a responsible ‘credit crunch’ cinema or films with an anti-Capitalist agenda, it is an interesting angle to posit, and just maybe Jobson is suggesting that the end-game of Capitalism in terms of homicidal bankers and a techno-world gone crazy, is not so far from the truth. (June 2010)

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