December 23, 2010
fish sunset
Fishing in Metro-Land produced by the Metropolitan Railway, Suburban London, 1932 (source)
Still from Sunset Boulevard, 1950 (source)


In George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, George Bowling decides to revisit the village of his idyllic childhood. Depressed, he dreams of the secluded pool in a country estate where he used to fish. But the village has been swallowed up by London’s suburbs. One of the estate’s ponds has become a boating lake, and is surrounded by concrete and clamorous children. The other has been drained and turned into a rubbish dump. It is filled with rusty tin cans.


Orwell had a tense, ambiguous relationship with the modern England he saw springing up around him in the 1930s. He saw it destroying the Thames Valley places he loved as a child, and he considered the new, modern landscapes as tinny, noisy, trashy and inhospitable. And the flashy modernity of west London was overshadowed by the approaching catastrophe of the Second World War: bomber planes swarm over the new suburbs.Coming Up For Air is an elegy for the England of Orwell’s childhood—it was about to disappear.


But Orwell also despised that England. Beyond a few islands of suburban prosperity, England was rife with poverty, stasis and despair. In the essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, written in 1940, during the aerial bombardment of London, Orwell considered English civilization, weighing up what was worth preserving and what should be jettisoned. Again, he turned to the suburbs—but now they gave him cause for hope. ‘The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light—industry areas and along the arterial roads’, he writes. …’In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town … no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labor-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools’. The naked democracy of the swimming pools: noisy but free, crowded but communal. In the suburbs, the privileges of Bowling’s youth were being made available to all. The boating lake was chaotic and charmless but it was open and popular, not the solitary pool of Bowling’s past.


Will Wiles


Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard opens with a shot of a dead man floating face-down in a pool. Wilder had originally wanted to shoot the body from the bottom of the pool, but capturing an effective visualization from this vantage point proved difficult. In an early trial, the camera was placed inside a custom-made waterproof container which was then immersed into the water; however the result was not to Wilder’s satisfaction.


The famous shot was finally achieved by placing a mirror at the bottom of the pool, which reflected an image of the scene that was captured by cameras above the water’s surface. The shot depended on the use of displacement through layered perspectives. The viewer feels as if they are immersed in the pool looking up at the floating body, when in fact they are viewing the scene from outside of the pool, by looking into a reflection at the bottom. While the corpse is alone in the pool, Wilder conjures the typically communal nature of the space by surrounding the victim with policemen, who are at once submerged with the body and on dry land. Similarly, the intensity of the waves is exaggerated as they are captured twice; once from above and then again from below. The dead man even features as a spectator to his own drowning, as he narrates the scene from beyond his watery grave.


Reflecting pools are commonly associated with monuments to the dead, such as those found in front of the Lincoln Memorial or the Taj Mahal; in Sunset Boulevard Wilder builds his own reflecting pool for his fallen protagonist and provides a space in which to commemorate his story.


Erandi de Silva


Edited by Erandi de Silva




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