Book Reviews

Why Criticism: Adam Nayman’s ‘Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage’

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In writing about Ben Wheatley, the rising star of idiosyncratic genre cinema, the conversational charm of Adam Nayman’s critical discourse rises to the surface. In his new book for The Critical Press, Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage, Nayman makes an impassioned case for writing about a filmmaker whose career has only just begun (we can hope). Nayman, offering context and insight, makes claim for Wheatley’s rise as one of the most compelling contemporary filmmakers, showcasing the director as an unabashed post-modernist born from the ashes of viral video mastery.

Over the course of his analysis, Nayman leaves heavy on authorial comparisons. While this method would not be suited to most filmmakers, for Wheatley it seems not only right but crucial. His work, which seems so familiar and so alien, benefits from bringing up his many intentional (and unintentional) influences and inspirations. And as so many critics, struggling to fully grasp Wheatley’s vision, have reduced his work to cheap back alley meetings of disparate filmmaking styles (Stanley Kubrick meets Robin Hardy), it seems necessary to approach his work through a similar lens.

Nayman’s text invokes the tenuousness of influence in Wheatley’s approach, making sure to never let his films be trapped by allusions. To reduce a filmmaker to their inspiration oversimplifies the creative process and, in this particular case, the films themselves. In his critical response to Kill List, for example, Nayman draws on the many critical comparisons to Robin Hardy’s pagan-horror-musical The Wicker Man. The line that many critics drew was straight from the 1973 classic to Wheatley’s work, undermining the reinvention and interpretation at the heart of Kill List. Rather than simply comparing the two, Nayman engages in a discussion, drawing ideas and motifs between them, searching for a greater experience that can be drawn from watching both films.

Nayman’s best comparison, however, would be Wheatley’s similarities to Nicolas Roeg. While the filmmakers are tenuously connected aesthetically and even narratively, they operate under similar rhythmic considerations. Both uphold to the power of the fleeting image, compounded by complex and rigorous montage. As Nayman describes it, “Wheatley conjures up images whose brevity belies their staying power in the mind’s eye.” The same analysis could easily apply to the fleeting images of Don’t Look Now or Insignificance, as both filmmakers maintain an almost cerebral narrative trajectory that operates within the diegesis of a character’s mind, rather than the soulless gaze of an objective lens. Both filmmakers crucially rely on “sudden intrusions” and uncomfortable carnality to represent a cruel and uncontrollable world.

In a survey approach, it’s not so alien to invoke a survey of critical responses, but considering the immediateness of Wheatley’s career, there is a new level of conversation between Nayman and his critical peers. The overall impression of most immediate critical responses often seems flippant or rushed, as if the off the cuff festival responses were never intended to be drawn upon at a later date. The instantaneous and focused need for festival coverage to be scrawled out leads to underdeveloped or even crude interpretations — by no means a fault of the critic, but rather the quick-take market. Great critics don’t have to be great filmmakers, but there is a kind of imbalance in the time and efforts put into filmmaking versus the time put into most reviews.

This ultimately raises the question as to what relationship critics and artists have. In an interview featured in the book, Wheatley invokes bygone eras of the past when critics like Pauline Kael at least had the semblance of influence, while today that kind of power seems a mythical memory. Critics have jumped on Wheatley in the past for breaking the fourth wall that exists between artist and critic, as he suggested that creative people should make stuff rather than complain. Rather than considering his perspective and perhaps how it reflects on the problems facing the industry — where writers are left no time to be creative — they jumped on him instead of looking inward.

Even for those who may be unfamiliar with Ben Wheatley’s filmmaking, Adam Nayman’s book opens up a lot of critical discussions in the modern age. Beyond the questions of Wheatley’s work and the current critical climate, he purposefully and democratically addresses the changing face of discourse. In one breath, he invokes YouTube commentators and Critical Quarterly, shifting away from the elitist empiricism of the holy print. And like most of his writing, Nayman maintains casual, conversational prose without foregoing any of his own authority. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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