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Will Self: state cops, FBI letter jackets and celebrity sandwiches

"In Boston, I deliberate between the Fiscal Cliff with blue cheese and the Mark Zuckerburger."

On the dockside in Boston I spotted Fia’s Seafood – they were offering “twin lobsters” for $28.95; I ventured in and asked if the lobsters were identical or non-identical twins. “Why d’you wanna know?” the maître d’ snarled. “Because,” I replied, “I can only perform unnatural psychological experiments on them if they’re zygotic.”

The president was in town for a speech and the area around the State House was fraught with security: state cops on cliché Harleys, FBI agents in cliché letter jackets, and most intimidating of all those excessively polite men in pale yellow raincoats with pig’s tail antennae dangling from their ears. I gave them all a swerve and took the Red Line into Cambridge.

Sometimes it seems to me that the relationship between American society and its fast food is as close as that of ... well, identical twins. Foreigners writing on US gustatory habits have always understood the cafeteria and the lunch counter as the extension of the production line into the stomach. If you haven’t already, take a look at Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s ecstatically enraged depiction of American fast food in his 1933 novel, Journey to the End of the Night.

Emerging into the darkness of Harvard Square, I also gave the raggedy man standing by the subway exit a swerve. (His sign read “Looking for a Little Human Kindness” – how corny can you get?) The street folk were thronging about Starbucks, homing in like zombies on its smell-a-round of deceit – the odours of bread, pastry and roasted coffee that as one enters are dissipated by the cold winds of commercial calculation. In the lift down to the basement I sighed as I tapped my receipt code into the console. “They gotta do it,” an academic-looking type said, “else the homeless people trash the restrooms – they smear shit on the walls – I guess they’re really aggrieved.” I gave him an admiring glance and said, “Nice use of ‘aggrieved’.”

Back on the surface I passed by the Bridge Over Troubled Water trailer – “Reaching Out a Helping Hand to 16-24-Year-Olds” – before coming upon Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Boston landmark – or so its sign asserted – since 1960. Inside, the tables were covered with wood-grain laminate and the chairs were of the green plastic, lawn variety. A waiter with a T-shirt that read – wholly in innocence – “We Beat the Meat”, showed me to a table. Looking around me I saw that this was an establishment dominated by what Walter Benjamin characterised as the “vertical type” of modern consumerism: hokey old advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes; triangular road signs that showed stick figures crawling on their knees towards beer glasses, and which were captioned “STUDENTS CROSSING”; over several tables there were small signs that said “Johnny Cash Ate Here”, or “Robert Plant Ate Here” – claims I didn’t doubt for the thousandths of a second necessary for a computerised trading system to make a ruinous interest-swap.

Mr Bartley’s menu was equally diverting; the standard seven-ounce burger came in a plethora of guises. The Obamacare was glossed thus: “Nobody knows what’s in it ... ask the liberal sitting next to you”, and costed at: “$ Trillions”; while the Fiscal Cliff – “it’s here!” – was rather more optimistically priced at $13.85, for which you got crumbled bacon, blue cheese, red onion, balsamic vinegar and additional onion rings. I wish I could tell you I ordered a Mark Zuckerberg (“America’s richest geek, Boursin cheese and bacon with sweet potato fries”), which was a snip at 13 bucks – but, strange to relate, my sense of humour seemed to have deserted me. While I sipped my coke and chewed on my standard Mr Bartley’s cheeseburger (the only novelty being that I opted for provelone) I stared about me at my fellow preppies, who, to a man and a woman seemed to be channelling Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in those early scenes of Love Story – before the crab bites.

Lucky us. Out there in the streets the chill winds blew along Massachusetts Avenue and our brothers and sisters were dunking in the trash cans for discarded donuts. As I say, I often feel that American society and American fast food are twins separated at birth; and while one has been fed on 100 per cent ground beef and French fries cooked to a golden perfection, the other has been starved, beaten and otherwise degraded. It’s an unnatural psychological experiment – nonetheless I’m sure you’ll agree that it has to be done.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories