What's worse than losing your parents in the nuclear apocalypse? Your parents surviving and embarrassing you in front of your fallout boyfriend
If this horizon of collectivity persists through the film as a possibility, the real question to ask is: how do people treat one another? The answer falls somewhere between extraordinarily badly, insofar as those people in question are the remaining vestiges of pre-Bomb authority, and with surprising tenderness and care, insofar as those people are everyone else, even if that care takes the form of taking the piss. It's a film whose population might be divided into three as follows:
1. Those who purport to care for your interests are sadistic twits (and we don't mean sadism as a moral judgment but rather as a certain pathological structure of enjoyment, although twit remains a moral judgment) whose fidelity to the old structures of power take on new, insidious forms.
2. Those who want something from you are relatively harmless but imbecilic, the guardians of the post-apocalyptic status quo of non-progress.
3. Those who don't have much reason to care whatsoever turn out to be your comrades in making something of the world.
(The notable, and only, exceptions here are the mother, her daughter Penelope, and Penelope's boyfriend Alan, all of whom stand as last vestiges of fidelity to loved ones, and, in this way, often come off a bit sappy, albeit sympathetic.)
To the sadists, then...
As hinted, the apocalyptic sadist - to be clearly distinguished from the utopian perverts of the trash-heap - is the one whose sadism is not the reason for, but rather a symptomatic consequence of, a kind of vicious new behavior that masquerades as the responsible protection of the few remaining shards of the world before the apocalypse. They are here the guardians of bureaucracy and administration, not the aristocratic Lord Fortnam in his eccentric dottering and disconnection from the production of value, but the arch representative of the middle class (the subway family patriarch) and the apparatuses of the state management of life (the police and the National Health Service). While they incessantly invoke family values, convention, keeping up appearances, and maintaining the systematic ordering of society, their speech is merely a blind for the cruelty of their actions as they try to bring forth from the ashes of civilization a new, nastier, more efficient world. They are those for whom the apocalypse was a happy accident.
The father (just Father, through the film) most embodies this sense of capitalizing on the Bomb to shore up his authority, allowing him even the primal fantasy of hunting for his tribe, even if what he hunts are candy bars left in the subway loop's vending machines.
If anything, the tough repetitive work of keeping up appearances shoots holes in his fantasies, although he guards it as an option for whenever he needs to assert his position as anchor to the lost past. Rather, when he returns from the "hunt" (above), and his wife responds, "ah, you're home early tonight, father," one gets the sense that what he really wants is to be treated like the brute caveman he'd like to be. In lieu of that, at least he can take satisfaction in knowing that he has secured his position as the only one who brings home the bacon, or chocolate, no matter what the sexual revolution and the broad social shifts of the 60's may have said.
Eventually, the limited resource economy of an abandoned subway loop - both chocolate and suitors for Penelope of whom Father would approve - runs out, and the family, boyfriend Alan in tow, enter the world above, dumped unceremoniously into the light by an escalator to nowhere.
The world they enter is a world of ceaseless movement, of never being able to stop and rest. The electricity to power the train (and the "nation" as a whole) is just one man on a stationary bicycle, who, fittingly, pedals constantly and goes nowhere. In the first minutes of the film, he is seen slumped over his bars and is woken, with the encouragement to "liven him up with your truncheon, Constable" from the film's arch-sadists: the inspector (Peter Cook) and his sergeant (Dudley Moore, who will end the film as a sheepdog), who circle the wasteland in a rusted out car held aloft by a hot air balloon and tugged about by the constable, a sort of scrap-metal panopticon.
Later, in a much more direct show of coercion, Britain's pedaling power source is brushing his teeth, only to be faced with the one remaining instrument of state violence, the bulldozer with its wrecking ball (a crucial image we return to).
Unsurprisingly, he "finds" the energy to pedal madly and smile to the circling Inspector.
But while the coercive injunctions to the cyclist have at least a degree of utility (his movement produces energy to power the train, although the need for the train to keep moving is deeply questionable), the general and incessant command to those below lacks this entirely. To take one such example of this urging from above (which primarily takes the form of the bullhorn distorted, "Keep moving... Keep moving!"):
"We don’t want to stay in one place long enough for the enemy to have another chance at us, do we, sir? Not until our preemptive strike is launched, do we, sir? Do we, sir?"
Behind the jokey complete absurdity of this (given the fact that clearly no member of this ragged and hungry bunch is in any condition to launch a strike, pre-emptive or not) lies a more serious sense of the fallout of the Bomb. For what the film makes clear is how unclear everyone is about who the enemy is and, moreover, to what degree the enemies were equally reduced to a group of chocolate scavengers, aimless roamers, and, eventually, animals and inanimate objects. In other words, post-apocalyptic here does not mean that we have witnessed the destruction of our society or nation. It means that we don't know who our enemies are anymore. The very category of enemy is rendered diffuse, just the bad smell of fear sticking around and stinking up the place.
The crisis this provokes, consequently, is one of not knowing who we are anymore. Following the thinking of German political and juridical theorist Carl Schmitt, we might draw out the basic point that it is only the conception of the enemy - of what constitutes not just an existential threat to us but a political-cultural threat to the primacy of "our way of life" - that produces a conception of the "friend," (in this case, Britons and their allies). The concept of the political is this very opposition, for Schmitt: it is the structuring principle on which the whole architecture of citizenship and national allegiance turns. In other words, this messy collection of different class positions, occupations, histories, and all the rest only become a nation/politically bounded entity when they hate in unison. All together now...
Two things come of this, about what the "post-apocalyptic" does and could mean, in this film and beyond.
First, if apocalyptic Event is the revelation of the hidden, the post-apocalyptic stance and position is that of managing that new old knowledge: what's been there all along, what we should have known. In the Christian eschatological vision (and one picked up in variously in the rhetoric of the militant partisan and the black metal desire to declare enemies), the apocalypse is the making clear that makes possible knowing who the real enemies are. No more masked devils or cunning unbelievers, no more faceless violence of the system. Rather, the good versus the bad and the ugly.
But The Bed Sitting Room and the salvagepunk aesthetic more generally grasps that: we've been living after the apocalypse for a while now, and that the problem is too much of the hidden has been revealed. Too much uncovered data, too many telling images, too many public secrets. It's piling up everywhere and making it impossible to find the correct enemies, the right cracks to widen, the right ways to attack and build better. In this sense, salvagepunk post-apocalypticism is concerned with being more apocalyptic than the apocalypse: clearing away the clutter to reveal the true hidden-in-plain-view, namely, the deep, permanent antagonisms on which capitalism runs and the untenability of that system continuing to run.
Second, the "end of enemies" is more than the dissolution of what "we" are. It is the end of politics itself, not here defined (as in the Schmitt case) as the friend/enemy opposition itself but closer to what Alain Badiou has offered: "collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order." As such, it is the end of the kind of "we" we could become. Without the real sense of the enemy (both the abstraction of the dominant order itself and the human agents of its perpetuation), we cannot unfold, into the ruins of history, thoughts of consequence.
However, this "end of politics", in which The Bed Sitting Room may be situated, does not mean that the old structures of power go away, resulting in disorder and non-antagonistically defined possibilities. To the contrary: it is this end of politics that allows for the monstrous work of holding onto power in its previously defined positions while changing its shape and directions. More concretely, using the inertia of social structures as a cover-story while you go about constructing domination all the nastier for their claims to be the rational administration of care and resources.
And there certainly is plenty of social structure inertia here, a tenacious holding onto old roles, at least in their trappings. You may get to "tell off your betters" now, without the social fabric there to condemn it, but the positions don't really change.
All that is known is what we were, or so we tell ourselves. Meanwhile we all just get a bit shabbier and a lot better at surviving and innovating.
The very set of stock roles we have in the film produce this effect, a sort of portrait of British society that we know very well to be primarily a portrait of the cultural depiction and creation of that Britishness. As such, we have mailman, doctor, broadcaster, lord, policemen, patriarch, health service bureaucrat, industrial labor, new royalty, the solid and stoic mother, and the young hip generation. (Plus a wandering Chinese Red Army solider.) We have the promise, although frozen, of the the reproduction of the population. We have both the labor of running - and running around - the country and the diversions that make it enjoyable, including, casual sex, dancing on broken plates, domestic fetish scenarios, throwing rocks, and, mostly, a constant stream of puns.
It is worth here drawing out the historical particularity of the film, which was shot in 1968, held back from release by its backers who were deeply unimpressed with it, and released in early 1970. The end of the British 60's lacked that sense of imminent change, of real social unrest and the possibility of systemic collapse, that marked France in '68 and Italy in '69, or the height of the American civil rights movement and the increased visibility of mass "counterculture" in the same period. Britain's '68-'69 came in '73-'74, one might say, the years of mass strikes, bloody IRA violence, economic turmoil, and the return of Harold Wilson and the Labour government.
Compared to that other great film of wreckage and the collapse of a Fordist model of capitalism, Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967), which is shot through with the slow-motion bloody violence of the apocalyptic crash itself, The Bed Sitting Room remains a quieter film, brutal in its own ways. This is ultimately a consequence of the fact that it is a post-apocalyptic, rather than an apocalyptic, film. But not simply because the apocalyptic content of violence and destruction has already happened, and we're in the aftermath. Rather, because The Bed Sitting Room, against the grain of its salvagepunk aesthetic, depicts the formation of a new mode of governance and life, namely, the neoliberalism born out of the crises of the early '70s. More simply, the film isn't about the end of the 60's. It's more about the start of the long neoliberal nightmare from which we are just beginning to wake. (Hence the deep resonance of the film for our times, in which we again witness that regime of accumulation in an unstable, uncertain state, then finding its footing, now clamoring to hold onto what it held.)
In the film's extended moment of uncertainty, what is preserved are those hollow shells of governance and administration that no longer exist. One goes on working in one's capacity, even after the old form of compulsion is gone. In other words, you go on acting like a policeman even when there is no more police. And you make damn sure that everyone is doing his or her part to maintain that fragile edifice of the past.
The real horror that emerges, out of the sadistic fun of getting to be the kind of yelling, floating cop you've always wanted to be, is the emergence of "biopolitical" administration. Or more precisely, a death-centered ordering of life under the rationalized veil of keeping everything in line.
This broad concept of "biopolitics," which has numerous iterations not worth going into here, can be broadly thought as the kind of governance that isn't concerned with a society of individuals, but with a population of bodies. Politics becomes about the management of that population, working on it through all the channels of health services, disease prevention, welfare, housing, spatial distribution, and so on. Politics become the attempt to dictate the terms of mortality, with a particular emphasis on the "death" end of the life cycle.
In The Bed Sitting Room, this becomes even more necropolitical in its orientation, given that the deeply unsettling, nightmare-haunting, pure-sadist manifestation of the National Health Service (Marty Feldman in all his cockeyed creepy glory) spends his time passing out death certificates to those still living and delivering, or perhaps aborting, dead babies in his creepy inflatable operating room. The occasion of the death certificate, handed not to the living "dead" (the mother of the family) but to her husband, produces the chilling core of the film, of death in the record books (that no one is keeping) as the harbinger and guarantee of real death to come:
What I have here, sir, is your wife’s death certificate.
This phantom reach of bureaucracy and administered death into the realm of the living works as a perfect example of the brutal logic of the real abstraction, the basic thought-unit of capitalism itself. It is both description (that which is already past, the whole nation already dead and the few survivors on their way, an echo of her recollection that before the Bomb, she wished it would come and kill the whole world) and prescription (the certificate, like a speech act, makes it so, condemns her to her descent into the underworld, literalized here in her entering the subterranean bunker). Real conditions on the ground must be forced to comply with the records of the world: the ultimate sleight of hand of declaring how things are as a way to bring about that state of affairs. (Think here of oil futures: speculating on the future value of oil, a calculated guess as to what economic conditions and factors will be like, itself changes the conditions described and pushes the price toward the estimate. Or, if you prefer, like the third pre-cog in Phillip K. Dick's Minority Report, whose prediction of the future is based on the effects of previous predictions being known, thereby affecting the future actions described.)
This is indeed a deathworld in which being alive is all the trouble and perhaps not worth the trouble. For all the jokes and joy taken in playing around in the junkheaps, weariness and fatigue hang heavy on every scene and in the faces of the newly nomadic, threatened that if they stop moving, those prescriptive death certificates may be made murderous fact. Just the slow entropy and sadness of the remnants of the species, unable to reproduce and prevented, by your own complicity with the last gasps of police order, from settling down to form a community.
That is, of course, until a new option appears on the scene. And one does appear here, just in the nick of time: not finding a space to settle and start over, but becoming that space yourself. (In the mother's case, not finding a hiding place but becoming one yourself.) Not occupying temporary buildings, but becoming, radiation-cursed, a real building for temporary occupation. The resistance to biopolitical horror and forced transiency may lie in the transformation into something that escapes the realm of the administration of human bodies and that cannot keep moving, a sticking point of inertia on the strewn plains. At least until the bulldozers come.