Pleasure, the nasty bits, and the Bomb (The Bed Sitting Room notes, part 2)

[part 1 here]

"I'm the BBC..."

However, the brutal black comedic edge of the film lies in the character's obstinate non-recognition of this need to do something different, even as they unwittingly forge new relations by play-acting, messing up, and overdoing the old ones. (Inhabiting a world in which one might mutate into God knows what helps encourage this atmosphere of keeping a straight face while all that was solid melts into fields of broken crockery.) Theatricality and British stoicism rule the day, but only in name. For despite all these gestures toward the mortified freezing of the stiff upper-lip, the film is so gleefully messy that what rises to the surface is the real creativity of the survivors, scrappy and shabby bastards all. Including, of course, those who adapt to become shaggy dogs and roasted parrots, used dressers and cheap rent bed-sitting rooms.

In this way, even the great degree of normalcy becomes merely a junkyard to be raided, primarily for pleasure. A distinctly perverse pleasure that, by getting to be a kinky Lady Chatterley's Lover-quoting priest or interrupting your monologue to the dead Queen by dropping your pants and taking a phone call from a lover, doesn't come from poking fun at "boring" social norms but by misplacing them. Continuing to act like we always have in a setting drastically changed can work to excavate the pleasures of acting the part and deviating barely from what it was supposed to look like.

One of the first characters we meet, the last remaining BBC broadcaster (Frank Thornton), does just this sort of work. Because the BBC ceased to exist when the bomb fell and hence ceased to produce new news, our half-tuxedoed anchor can only repeat, endlessly and in person through the frame of an empty TV set, the "last news" reported before the full nuclear holocaust set in.

"Now all walk backwards into long-shot", the angel of history blowing herself backwards

In his pitch-perfect newsman baritone, even stopping for the "viewer" to smack the empty TV box to fake-fix the signal:

“Good evening, and I mean that most sincerely. I am the BBC, as you can see. And here was the last news."

The last news, as it turns out, was a summary of the "nuclear misunderstanding that led to the Third World War", a summary occasioned by it being the "third, or is it the fourth" anniversary of the "misunderstanding." (Combined with the general amnesia of the survivors when they attempt to recall just what happened, this furthers the sense of not knowing how long it's been.) And then, the "last recorded statement of the prime minister", in which he boasts of this being the shortest war in recorded history (2 minutes, 28 seconds, including the signing of the peace treaty) and of the speed with which Britain's 40 million dead were buried. Later in the broadcast, as the the PM and Mao Tse-Tung enter negotiations to draw up a lease the rent (in "yen-dollars") of an apartment ("this lease means peace in our time"), the real Bomb falls, the one that reduces Britain to the 20 or so survivors.

Mao and the PM turn to the real issue

The rose clouds of holocaust

Striking, here, is the sense of an already post-apocalyptic world driven back into apocalypse: the work of peace and burying has already begun, the new order of the earth in its early solidification (new currency combinations, a turn from war to battling out conditions of everyday life), and then the Bomb, in all its anonymous fury, unable to be tracked back like the British bomb returned to sender for insufficient postage (more "chinese dollars" required) later in the film.

Unwelcome returns

This in-folded apocalyptic structure (one version of the "combined/multiple apocalypses" concept that defines our project) gives the film - and the way of thinking apocalyptically we might draw from it - its peculiar texture, of double trauma, constant work with no end in sight, and incapacity to remember historically. The characters all consummately remember the affective textures of life beforehand: for those form the source material for both the goofing-off and the weary awareness of having done this all so many times before.

And as mentioned before, this "problem of history" is one made explicit in the film, nowhere more so than in the "recorded" Prime Minister's speech, which ends with the question have we forgotten the Bomb? and which answers itself in the real return of the repressed Bomb. His rhetoric, which forms the official discourse in the film about what's wrong with what's going on, establishes the idea that we need to remember the Bomb better in order to really bury the dead, insofar as the worry is less the stink of corpses and more the psychic and political burden that will prevent the refashioning of global economic flows. (A forward echo first to Britain entering the European Economic Committee in 1973 and then the deregulation and financialization of the Thatcher years...)

Initially, this seems dead-on, a capitalist inversion of Marx's call to cast off the dead weight of the past to write the poetry of the future here. But is this perhaps the central blindspot of the film, the pseudo-truth that it drags through the filth and mocks, ultimately pointing out that where it leads, like Mad Max later and so many other post-apocalyptic films, in new regimes that will drive us straight back to hell, albeit in more cunning sheep's clothing? Remembering better may restart the wheels of history, but the question remains which wheels and which trajectory.

Because what The Bed Sitting Room really wants to do, what it is about, and what it ultimately shows the near-impossibility of pulling off, is the full emergence of a salvage mode of life, not one of starvation and poverty and apocalyptic survival of the fittest bellicosity. Rather, one of new networks built on the gutted paths of the older, in which forms of care, utility, invention, and mutual aid overwhelm the strictures of class and power by treating them as the obscene jokes they've been from the start.

For example, the PM states in his speech:

"We know this great country of ours often sticks in the mud of the past and searches out and holds up to the light the mistakes of past times."

In a film at least in part about frivolity in a time and place literally mired in the mud and filth of the past, these words indeed get us halfway there to productive salvage thinking. But against this dourness and this urge to hold up the mistakes so as to throw them back into the filth and start anew, the lumpen wanderers, hoarders, scammers, and comedians of the film provide an alternative both more pleasurable - for which should the post-apocalyptic world be the dreadful oscillation between boredom and terror - and more radical in its capacity to dwell in and reshape the rubbish of their time. And what this looks like, at least initially, is keeping the reels of the past and, etched onto Harry Secombe's remarkable near-orgasm face, taking some serious the horror, oh the horror pleasure, like a sweaty teen fingering old and faded 8 mm smut prints.

"Oh no, oh no...

"... oh yes, oh yes!"

Clearly, the salvagepunk stance we are advocating does not hit its terminal point in the fallout bunker masturbation of the man who refuses to come out, dwelling with his nasty bits of history. But where it does come closer is in his later role in the film, when an unexpected visitor comes by and when he leaves the bunker, no longer waiting out the dark days, but entering them, with the particularly aim of sharing what he knows. Unspooled reels in hand, he wanders, looking for someone to look at what he loves, coming closer to the notion that what will really break the post-apocalyptic spell of not being able to do better isn't remembering the Bomb more clearly (for the constant memory of it is what allows the sadistic police to keep everyone on the move) but patching together pleasure and knowledge from what the atomized post-atomic stragglers have.

For what we really want, like our furtive bunker man, is a collective pleasure to be taken in collective work on this. If we stand in a wasteland, the best hope would be to enjoy each other's company, to trade expertise, and to forge collective modes of being together out of the best failed efforts of the past. To repurpose an older formulation, post-apocalyptic survivors have hitherto only remembered the world; the point is to salvage it.

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