Doris Lessing’s blogger bashing

Doris Lessing has a pop at the world wide web, Stephen Fry does panto and the Beijing Eunuch Museum

Oh, the irony. Just weeks after this blog praised Doris Lessing for her strong web presence, she’s gone and slated the internet in her Noble Prize acceptance speech. She argued that the net “has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.”

Cue much uncomfortable shuffling at NS Arts Blog HQ. But, Lessing’s comments, which seem to view blogging as an activity roughly akin to opium addiction, are part of a broader debate that’s been going on all year.

On the one hand, at the end of 2006 Time Magazine celebrated the arrival of the interactive age by whacking a reflective(ish) panel on their cover and naming “you” (yes, that means you) as their Person of the Year, and Salman Rushdie has also been making complimentary noises about the growth of new media. Conversely, the rise of user-generated content was lambasted by Andrew Keen in his book “The Cult of the Amateur” (which he somewhat ironically blogs about here), and Jeremy Paxman announced that Newsnight was open to viewer submissions in a tone which made it sound like you’d have to be an incorrigible moron to take him up on the offer. So is the blogging community usefully democratising the media or just offering so much ill-informed blather?

At the risk of being accused of vested interests, surely “user-generated” content on the net is diverse and interesting enough to resist any glib generalisations or totalising theories. Moreover, on the literary side of things, the internet has the capacity to make great writing more readily accessible then ever before. Even if some of us spend more time on sites like this than browsing the complete works of Shakespeare, you can now, provided you have web access, view both from anywhere in the world.

It might also be worth noting that you get many more hits Googling “Doris Lessing” than you do Googling “inanities” but, of course, that’s a fairly inane point in itself.

Related:

A handy blog directory
An article on Google’s plans to digitise 32 million books
Online alternative news sources from around the world

Christmas Arts Round-Up

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, the billboards are crammed with tinselly exhortations to prop up the flagging economy in a frenzy of consumerist excess and, of course, the theatres are wheeling out their big festive shows.

Stephen Fry’s “Cinderella” leads a crowded, star-studded field of pantomimes, while writer-director Anthony Neilson offers an alternative Christmas show with his “Gods In Ruins”. Our bumper Christmas issue includes all the tips you need on the best theatre to catch this yuletide.

However, if you’re a crotchety Scrooge looking to rise above the seasonal cheer, the Guardian was keeping things intellectual with a Freudian reading of Jack and the Beanstalk and Wired offered a decidedly sarcastic list of “10 Christmas Movies You’ll Never See.”

Meanwhile, a series of outdoor light installations reflecting the lives of families living on an estate in Oxford promises to be one of the most interesting displays of festive art on offer.

Of Pogues and Eunuchs

In other news this week, Lily Allen was announced as one of the judges for the Orange Prize, Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane Oscar failed to sell at auction and 37 African musicians have recorded a UN sponsored record to boost awareness of HIV/AIDS across the continent.

Meanwhile, the Russian government instructed the British Council to close its two offices outside Moscow (you can read our take on a BC sponsored project in the country here) and the erstwhile Pogues musician and NS diarist Jem Finer won the British Composer Awards 2007 with his “Score for a Hole in the Ground”, an acclaimed installation paid for by the PRS New Music Award.

Happily, the Beijing Eunuch Museum looks set to reopen in time for the 2008 Olympics, but there was bad news for the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg as they discovered that the terracotta warriors they have been exhibiting are apparently faked.

Equally bizarrely the British Press picked up on the story of Barry Cox, a Merseyside shelf-stacker turned Chinese Pop Sensation. There’s hope for us all…even the bloggers.

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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