Brain Teeth / Endless Nameless Part 2: Macro Meaning vs Micro Meaning


(Part 1 here)


So yeah. On the one hand I totally get that Nameless has meanings that you can dig out of it. I mean: people whose opinions I respect (there are a few out there yes) have talking about how it’s like about despair and our insignificance in the world and God and etc

But then also – I kinda think it’s bullshit? (But bullshit in a v. interesting way!) 
I’m not sure if anyone else has said this before – but I think in terms of trying to understand a comic or a film or whatever – there’s a difference between the Macro Meaning and the Micro Meaning (or – if you wanna sound slightly less pompous: the big meaning and the small meaning): and for this human at least – both High Rise and Nameless are good at making meaning at a Macro way and kinda suck at meaning in a Micro way. 

What do I mean by this? Well – let me try and explain it this way: “Macro meaning” is the stuff that comes through from the overall shape of things / the big picture view – or to put it another way: the stuff you get from the synopsis: “A doctor (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a London skyscraper where rising tensions and class warfare lead to anarchy.” – I mean: yeah – that gives you free rein to talk about whatever right? Tories and Capitalism and Austerity and all the rest of it. It doesn’t matter what actually happens within. It’s just what things look like from the above and outside. 

But once – you get further down and inside: when you watch the film and see the individual parts and the moments and try to look for some sort of meaning on scene-by-scene stuff – well – that’s the “Micro meaning” – I mean: just for me at least (maybe you feel different?) – in High-Rise there’s not really anything more to chew on than what you can get from that synopis. I mean: yeah – there’s a few good quotes and stuff: but it doesn’t feel like it adds up to anything more. It’s just Tories and Capitalism and Austerity and all the rest of it. Underlining all the things you already know from the trailer and the poster (I mean – maybe you had a different experience but the only part of the film that I wasn’t expecting / made me go “wow” was when Portishead showed up to play that Abba song).

Now – I’m not the biggest Stanley Kubrick fan in the film but just off the top of my head: 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example of the opposite thing. I mean: yeah don’t get me wrong it’s kinda long and slow and boring: but – aha! – each new scene / change of location changes the meaning of what comes before. In fact – I can’t even think of how a one sentence synopsis could capture the totality of the whole thing. You know – from apes to spaceships to murderous robots to stargates: I mean yeah: don’t get me wrong: there’s a whole lot of boring tedious stuff you can say about it – but on the micro level – it’s always doing new things and pushing in new directions, new places. I mean: it was made in 1968 – but I’d imagine that showing it to someone now (once they got over how slow it is) – would still be like: wow. What the hell was that? And I mean: it’s not even the case that one film is about buildings and the other is about space travel: you can make anything interesting if you really want to. Like (another top of my head example): Pixar’s Inside Out is about the trials of a kid moving house – and yet still the sweep of it is epic: and again – it’s not something can be just captured in the synopsis. I mean – the real meaning only comes out from the telling of the story (spoiler: sadness isn’t always a bad thing). Or hell – Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers where the film doesn’t make sense until it ends. It’s the whole: not the parts.

MAZIN: But I’d say these are very particular types of stories. It’s like on the scale of fable or parable on the one hand, and naturalist slice-of-life on the other, you’re talking about (and much prefer) films on the former end of the spectrum. Here meaning is structural: it’s the old 2+2=? formulas (Pixar, obviously). It’s also a very cinematic way of making meaning as 2+2=? is not just a way of describing meaning-making as a process, but also describes inferences we learn to draw from images cutting to other images.
TV I reckon is missing from you ideas, because to me it occupies a new weird centre-ground. The Sopranos: episodes develop as little stories, but what is the message, what is the meaning, other than : look at these people trapped in their own hells. Sure it’s not total avant grade or naturalistic shrug of meaninglessness: but neither is is Pixar.
But then we have to separate even further, between meaning and message. The way The Sopranos finale functions is to give the meaning ‘he is dead but we won’t show it’ and the message (perhaps) is “the powerful forever live in fear” – but what was the finale’s impact on the whole show. It’s like what we were talking about the other day with Game of Thrones. TV shows (much like epic novels back in their day) are so big that points, and messages, and meanings all start to get fuzzy. The comparison then might be between films and short-stories: ideally (for you) precise mechanisms of clear meanings that may be synopsis-able, but, as with a joke, can only have felt impact in the correct order, and with the correct apprehension by the audience, of each of its parts in a succession that the authors intended. Which is all well and good. But I don’t always want to read fables (even the rarefied Kafka kind) And God forbid we’d live in a world where all stories were as efficient as Pixar films. Your mileage may vary, and maybe I’ve been poisoned too much by that screenwriting book, but sometimes I am so sick of being propagandised to by every portal of cultural life that I just want something that has no wider meaning. (Again what do I mean (ha) here? Message? Nabokov (here we go again) is like Coen Brothers level of genius over how narrative transitions create meaning (he is a very cinematic director in that respect) but it’s such a relief to enjoy a story on an emotional level and sensory level (not always – sometimes!) without there being a point. (Contrast The Big Lebowski with A Serious Man (both of which I love). Although maybe you might argue that the former’s point is that is has no point.)

Well TV yeah is it’s own separate thing and I think it becomes very difficult (impossible even) to grasp the meaning of an entire TV show in your head when it’s hundreds of hours of story. It’s like trying to imagine all of London in your head when you can barely imagine yourself. But on an episode-by-episode level: well – I mean: I think that every episode of The Sopranos has meaning within it (that’s what makes it so amazing): especially as it’s often not the meaning you want. But I kinda think a story without a meaning isn’t really worthy of the word “story.” But maybe that’s just me? But erm – yeah: you’re pulling me away on a tangent. So let’s talk about comics instead?

Yes. A comics example of Macro and Micro meanings: so – think of the way the meanings of Watchmen are contained not in the single panels – but in the repetition of images. You can’t just take a panel of Doc Manhattan scratching his blue balls on Mars and go: oh yeah – this is what it’s all about. It’s not the individual parts – but the relationships between them: between the panels, between the characters, between the ideas where the meaning is made.

Actually. In fact – thinking it over: maybe I should just ditch this Macro Meaning and Micro Meaning stuff – because really (in simpler terms) it’s just the difference between someone telling you a whole complete story where the message or meaning or whatever builds and unfurls with the telling: and someone just hitting you with a pitch. And yeah: for me at least – High-Rise and Nameless work better as pitches than as stories – which I think becomes even more obvious when even after people sit through the story – they still talk about it as tho it’s a pitch. With all this talk about the big picture but with none of the sense of the detail. And well yeah: it’s not only the devil that’s in the detail: but all the good nourishing deep meaning stuff too.

MAZIN: Can’t you talk about, and talk well and interestingly, the detail without a) it being in regards to meaning or b) it being an empty aesthetics thing but it being how a scene, story, chapter, shot makes you feel: structure creates meaning but sound and image create feeling: ideally the two marry together. But it’s not always a dereliction of duty, or a failure to be smart, to have the one without the other.

Ha. Well – to that I would say: why separate meaning and feeling at all? In fact (for me anyway): how a story or something makes me feel is tied in completely with how I feel. I mean: you can try and be all dry and logical about it: but the stuff that works best is the stuff that does both. And come on yeah: the reason that a scene, story, chapter, shot makes you feel sad is because the meaning of it is sad – no?

But then it’s at this point the other side of my brain starts butting in – because hey come on guy: there’s more than one way to tell a story right? Like: I’m sounding awfully prescriptive here right? Like: everyone should just be free to do their own thing right? You know – let artists off the leash and into the wild blue yonder. And yeah ok: only the thing is: you need to be really really good at that type of thing and there’s not that many people that I’ve come across that can do it you know? Actually shitting out new life rather than just – well – shitting.  


Funny thing is tho is that thinking about it – James Graham “J. G.” Ballard is probably one of the few people out there who can do that kinda thing. I mean: I’m not a massive Ballard fan or anything and have only read a few of his books (but yeah High-Rise is amongst them – altho it was quite a few years ago that I read it): but I feel like I know enough to be able to say – that yeah: he did his own thing and blatantly ignored all this “meaningful micro story” stuff that I’ve tried to make clear above. Like: High-Rise the book (from what I remember) isn’t really about having a story in the conventional sense: it’s much more the meaning of the mood. And well – blah blah blah – I’m not really one for trying to talk fancy about novels (especially ones that have faded in my memory a little): but it’s paintings made of words all hung in the same gallery – which is cool if you like that sort of thing (and I’ll be honest: I’m not really sure that I’m the kinda person that does like that sorta thing) – but it’s all very carefully and deliberately done. You know: it feels like someone producing things to have a controlled effect – which actually is exactly what I think art should be about (realise that probably says a lot about me – but whatever: I don’t care). 

Only (just to state the complete fucking obvious like): a novel is not a film. 

I mean: most of I’ve written is kinda obvious to me (because obviously: I’m the one who’s writing it): but this bit seems like the most “oh yeah the sky is blue” bit: the majority of the films that get made nowadays because of the money involved and etc kinda have to be based upon pre-existing things. Because: the average person trying to choose between Film A (which is based on something they already know: like a book or a comic or a theme park or a board game or an app that they have on their phone) and Film B (which is based on nothing) – then most people will go for Film A because you know: it’s a known quantity and they have some idea of what they’re getting: and that’s understandable: you know – in the same way it’s feels safer eating something when you know what it is as opposed to it’s just a packet of something with a question mark on it (mmmm mystery meat etc).

And yeah (short version): because J. G. Ballard and High-Rise are both known quantities well then: cool – let’s make a High-Rise film and let’s not think about the idea that erm – maybe High-Rise isn’t the best blueprint for a film (to say nothing of the fact that David Cronenberg already made the best version of a High-Rise film all the way back in 1975: knowing that if you want to make people sit through a whole film and still be entertained then you kinda need to throw in parasites that turn people into mindless, sex-crazed fiends: because – come on guys – it’s a movie. And (sadly) Tom Hiddleston’s sexy face will only get you so far…

Like: again – it’s this thing of control of craftsmanship or whatever: like – not every story makes a good film: there are certain effects that you can get with cinema and you need to calibrate stuff to get the best out of it. It’s the difference between Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III (confession: for some reason I rewatched Jurassic Park III). Like: both films are people going to an island of dinosaurs and things going wrong. But (simplest version): one of the films tells a really good story in the best possible way (a story that also worked well as a book yeah: because hey – some ideas translate: and “things going wrong on dinosaur island” is one of those ideas): but the other film (Jurassic Park III): I mean – it feels like a half-baked half-hearted rehash. Mostly because it doesn’t have a reason to exist apart from making money and also because (the theme of all of this) well – the story never really means anything apart from “don’t steal raptor eggs” and erm “let’s hope William H Macy and Téa Leoni get back together or something?” 

Oops. I still didn’t really get to Nameless did I? 

Ok – sorry: next time. I promise.

(Part 3 here)


  1. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW – Micro vs. Macro Meaning in Ben Wheatley's High Rise part #1

    Okay, so when you ask what Ben Wheatley's High Rise is satirising and how, my gut feeling is that it's coming from a sort of slightly confused Burkean position – critical of the establishment, sure, but also fearful of our efforts to rip it up and start again. I say “confused” because it feels to me like a movie that is disdainful of our social order but perhaps also pornographically puffed up about our desire to change it – there's a sexual thrill mixed in with the horror, though aye, this is something Shivers and and Rabid both get at a bit more clearly.

    Anyway, this is was what I was hinting at in Like

  2. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW – Micro vs. Macro Meaning in Ben Wheatley's High Rise part #2

    You'd expect the rising of the lower floors to be an enjoyable follow-up to this, and it is to a degree, but there's also a scathing absurdity to the way it all plays out. Think of the scene at the party, where Wilder's groovy slow-mo dancing blurs into woozy, drunken violence. Think of the ensuing chaos – it's beautiful at points, sure, all strobing menace and upturned TVs asking baffled questions to no one, but that sarcastic tone undercuts everything and ensures that it all looks a bit pathetic and grubby in the end. A League of Gentleman sketch relocated to the big city.

    It helps when you have one of the Gentleman in question playing out a routine for you on both sides of the movie. In the end/from the start, Wilder's attempts to usurp a order are shown to be little more than a base, futile struggle that simply unleashes the latent violence of the system. The new world Royal's designed operates on similar principles, and the only sensible response is the one Laing eventually hits on, of making the most of your own position of relative stability in a chaotic world. Sky blue paint on the walls, sex in the ruins, a polite dinner on the roof – it could be worse, eh?

    If I was Jump or Wheatley, I would now ruin this by paraphrasing Thatcher on their being no such thing as society, just individuals and their families, but I'm not so I won't. I'm far too confident an operator for all that.

    One more thing, about 'SOS'. The Portishead version of it plays out once the chaos has started and it's an immense, dour thing – a new version for a new society, you might think. And yet, isn't it just the old society made more explicit? That's a fairly grim fucking song, regardless of how you dress it up: “Whatever happened to our love?/I wish I understood/It used to be so nice, it used to be so good”.

    High Rise gives us two different takes on the song, but its basic essence survives both interpretations – as below, so above.


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