I’d like to take you on a long digression as I remember seeing Stephen Fry on Room 101, back in 2001. Room 101 was a show where celebrities (mostly comedians) would banish their pet hates into this Orwellian comedy bin. One of the things that he chose to destroy was collectors’ plates, those cutlery-based profiles of Victorian moppets playing simple games in shawls before the horrors of modernity turned everyone into a rastafarian, cockney lesbian. His main gripe with these overvalued pieces of tat was thus:
“Oscar Wilde was once asked, when he was a young man and he was in America; ‘Mr. Wilde, why do you think America is such a violent country?’ and he said; ‘Oh, I know very well why it’s so violent … because your wallpaper is so hideous!’
It seemed like a camp remark from a young Eastie but he was actually quite serious. If you look out of the window, as a human being, at nature… all of nature is unconditionally and absolutely beautiful – wherever it is … The only ugly things you will ever see when you look out of the window are things made by man. And if, from your earliest age of looking at the world, you see yourself as a member of a species that can only uglify and despoil the world, it gives you, what psychiatrists would call, a deep sense of guilt and guilt, as you know, is a major cause of aggression. That’s why you get violent – because you’re guilty, you feel worthless and you feel worthless if you don’t believe you’re part of a species that is actually capable of creating beautiful things. Which we are – in terms of architecture and in terms of painting and in terms of music and all kinds of things. Beauty is possible and is good! This, I’m afraid, is the worst thing because it thinks it’s beautiful – it doesn’t understand where beauty really lies”.
That screed really stuck with me and I think factored very strongly in my understanding of art. In amongst punk rock, film criticism, cartoons, alternative comedy and my Mum dragging me to galleries – the above sentiment always stayed with me.
It occured to me again today as I mulled over my thoughts on the very excellent 99 Homes. There are several scenes in and around the well-to-do mansion neighbourhoods of Orlando, Florida. In Real Estate operator Rick Carver’s boutique boudoirs, there was definite sense – at no fault of the filmmakers, mind – of something very uncinematic about those environs. Something airless and drab, which I have observed in other films and whenever I see similar citadels of smug in real life. The real kicker, however was to see the wide shots of the golf course and realise that this is a sad little collection of such mansions. All devoid of beauty, all self-importantly adorning the coastline like a shelf full of collectors’ plates. These houses, surrounding a golf course with middle-aged, chequered, heart-attacks-waiting-to-happen made me realise, then and there, that I never want that lifestyle. Beyond the political or even the moral objections I would have to living amongst those bourgeois immigrant-hating, cleaner-happy abortion shoulda-bins, there is an aesthetic objection: I could not bear the thought of waking up to that view in the morning. These people are so bereft of any artistic fibre that they’ve made even the very landscape match up to their dire monuments to empty success.
When I was a kid, I was always baffled by people decrying tower blocks or the Didcot power station eggcups. Similarly, I never understand people’s aesthetic objections to wind turbines – what’s so bad about them? These things might not be the epitome of received notions of beauty but they perform a function that (admittedly to varying degrees of success) benefit many, many people.
On the flipside to that, the moral decrepitude that seaps through the very veins of the Palace of Versailles cannot be understated but at the very least Louis XIV had a good eye for style.
The homes of the higher-ups in this film and in many places around the world today perform neither of these functions. So, no wonder that the actions of these individuals are so aggressive because they must feel guilt on top of guilt when they come home at night from another day’s screwing of the working people of America, to these concrete beige coloured shells. I mean I feel aggressive and I don’t live anywhere near them.