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Concrete universality: Tower blocks, architectural modernism, and realism in contemporary British cinema

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This article examines the representation of tower blocks in Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000) and Red Road (Arnold 2006). Commonly associated in the popular imagination as the site of major social problems (crime, poverty, antisocial behaviour), the concrete high-rise has become the symbol of the decline of contemporary Britain. Both films recognise the structural decay that characterises many post-war housing developments and acknowledge the social problems that plague them, yet they seek to understand this deterioration as a consequence of larger social and political decisions and developments. Last Resort records the transformation of tower blocks into holding cells for asylum seekers. Red Road turns the proliferation of CCTV cameras on a Glaswegian housing estate into a metaphor for a society fearful of those people and places incongruent with a modern, affluent Britain. In each case, dramatisation enhances documentation rather than compromises it, and the tower block becomes the setting for what iek terms concrete universality, the process whereby fiction explodes documentary from within (iek 2006: 31). In this way, these films constitute a revitalised realism in which the truth of the antagonisms that divide society can best be shown in the guise of fiction.
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Keywords: British cinema; Slavoj iek; council estates; modernity/modernisation; realism; tower blocks

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Winnipeg.

Publication date: 07 November 2007

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  • The journal aims to provide a platform for the study of new forms of cinematic practice and fresh approaches to cinemas hitherto neglected in western scholarship. It particularly welcomes scholarship that does not take existing paradigms and theoretical conceptualisations as given; rather, it anticipates submissions that are refreshing in approach and exhibit a willingness to tackle cinematic practices that are still in the process of development into something new.
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