Monday 25 January 2021

Capital punishments: "Citadel"

Here's an early contender for comeback of the year. Citadel is a typically stimulating 20-minute dispatch from the British artist and filmmaker John Smith, director of 1976's great, funny, endlessly teachable structuralist short The Girl Chewing Gum. There are unexpected similarities between the two works, not least how they invite us to look upon London in longshot, although in the far more pointed Citadel, we're very quickly made aware that this is an enforced longshot: the familiar skyline of Gherkin, Shard et al. as viewed from the artist's flat over the first months of the 2020 lockdown. Having locked off that camera position, Smith began working (from home) on his soundtrack, deconstructing and remixing a series of public pronouncements by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, beginning with a February 2020 speech in which he set out his vision of making the UK the Superman of free trade. (With the country languishing in a post-Brexit impasse of its own making heading into February 2021, those words sound even emptier.) That the two positions - geographical and political - are linked is eventually made explicit by a visual effect that suggests one building (not the Walkie Talkie, oddly) is broadcasting Johnson's voice to the world; Smith's thesis is that this PM speaks for business, and for the "business as usual" mindset that has held such deleterious sway over Conservative policy during the pandemic. Still, as a dagger-sharp footnote slipped into the end credits notes, the party's brains trust has overseen not just Europe's highest death rate per capita but also the country's deepest recession in living memory. The 40% still claiming they'd re-elect jolly old Boris in a heartbeat can cling to their talking point: oh come on, they're doing their best in difficult circumstances. Smith, watching on silently from the margins, shows us what a skyline - and a country - starts to look like when a ruling party's best just isn't good enough.

Something more specific, too: what it looks and sounds like then a special interest - really no more than a fetish for finances, a purse-string kink - is allowed to warp beyond the usual parameters. Visually, Citadel expands the idea of major metropolitan emptiness expressed in such lockdown artefacts as Netflix's Homemade, although the old-school Smith never resorts to droneshot cliche: his point is that this latest, ongoing lack of movement, the near-complete absence of mobility, may just be the logical endpoint of ten years of Old Etonian rule, what the Bullingdon Boys were hoping for all along. This London is a grey, cold, steely place, devoid of the colour and life people bring with them to any given location (here, Citadel deviates more or less entirely from The Girl Chewing Gum's glorious street scenes); when we do spy Smith's neighbours - glimpsed in passing through illuminated windows, Rear Window-style - they appear newly boxed-in, imprisoned as per that choice title. The city's skyscrapers have become its overlords, ugly, hollow, misshapen lumps of capital, dumped (and dumping) on a population whether or not it wants, likes or needs them. I watched Citadel on the morning it was leaked to the Government's pet right-wing media outlets that this current lockdown - the third such - could be lifted as early as next month, even as our hospitals continue to struggle to meet the elevated demand for ICU beds. That's business as usual, and doubtless the Wetherspoons crowd and the country's ghastliest columnists and phone-in hosts will be delighted if that does indeed come to pass. (It wouldn't be the first time Johnson's cabinet has turned a blind eye to the science. As Michael Gove infamously said at the height of Brexit mania in 2016, Britain has had enough of experts.) But how many more loved ones will have to die before we collectively learn the lesson here? Covid-19 - reported to have first taken hold in a direly underregulated marketplace, you'll remember - is but a symptom. The real killer remains morbid capitalism, and those doing their level best to assist its spread.

Citadel is now streaming via MUBI UK. 

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