GFF 2012: Urban Decay – Death Watch unearthed

As the long forgotten <i>Death Watch</i> returns to the big screen at GFF, we examine its connection with Glasgow

Feature by Alan Bett | 24 Feb 2012

Sometimes it is not the pioneers who are most lauded. They take the first tentative step forward before being trampled. This seems to be the case with Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s Glasgow-set nightmare. In 1980 he predated Videodrome and The Truman Show with this futuristic tale of a dark, manipulative media feeding its voyeuristic public. The film was quietly and criminally forgotten until now.

Harvey Keitel stars as a reporter working for a sinister TV company who implant a camera in his eye. His task is to film the final days of a dying woman (Romy Schneider) for an audience far removed from mortality because of medical advances. Her rare journey towards death seems to invoke thanatos, Freud’s death instinct. Their emotionally-starved lives yearn for the hurtful reality of her passing. From behind a two-way mirror Roddy (Keitel) and Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) delight in the fact that she has clear, honest features, her expressions easy to read.

There was no narrative need for Death Watch to be filmed in Glasgow; it seems to be a decision made purely on visual merit. The city in the late 1970s fits the story, where desolation of the soul was made tangible through a mixture of cold gothic eloquence and urban decay. Just as New York in the 80s made a cheap post-apocalyptic set for The Bronx Warriors features, and whose reality shocked further in the 1979 documentary 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, the industrially broken Glasgow of the 70s needed little make-up to become a futuristic state of perdition.

Tavernier provides an interesting commentary on human emotion sculpted by science and technology. The public are fed processed pain through the cathode tube of television. The terminal Katherine even programmes computers to simulate passion. Anthony Burgess cast his eye upon this conundrum even earlier. “Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?” asked Alex in the dystopian 1962 novel. Death Watch predicted a future where we are all such mechanical fruit.

GFF provides a great opportunity to watch a film that has laid dormant under our noses for so long. It is both poetic and punishing, challenging the viewer with more subtlety than a Haneke or Noé. The film’s Glasgow-based distributor Park Circus explained their wish to support a rich legacy of Scottish film. They see Death Watch as “one of those mad, rare and brilliant cult sci-fi films that people who have seen it are not sure whether they actually saw or just dreamt up...To premiere anywhere else but the Glasgow Film Festival would be a terrible faux pas.”

Deathwatch is screening 26 Feb as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2012.