Gilbey on Film: what to watch in 2010

Our film critic chooses his highlights

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a café ("café" being the euphemism of choice for those of us who frequent any of the popular high-street coffee chains, but would rather people didn't know it) when I fell under the spell of the couple at the next table. Not only were they bickering -- always prime eavesdropping material -- but the contentious subject was movies. He wanted to see Avatar that evening, while she was adamant that paying to watch a film that she knew in advance would be pure tedium was not on the cards for that Friday night, or any other.

I did my utmost to appear absorbed in my reading, and to refrain from rushing to the defence of this sane-headed woman. Just as well, really, because the entire fabric of their relationship was starting to unravel. "Whenever you choose the film, it turns out to be crap," she argued, which would have given her the upper hand, had he not immediately produced his trump card: "You're the one who made us see Save the Last Dance." Oof! That's gotta hurt.

Now we're on the other side of Christmas, I find myself wondering if they made it through. The odds weren't good; when the topic moved on to films they were looking forward to in 2010, he cited Iron Man 2 and the forthcoming remake of Clash of the Titans, while she sought silent consolation in her cappuccino. As I started coming over all superior towards my fellow coffee-consumer, I wondered if my own Must-See list for the coming year was any more radical than his. The answer: not really.

Most of the films I'm excited about are safe bets in their own way. For example, I can't wait for The Killer Inside Me because the idea of Michael Winterbottom directing Casey Affleck in a Jim Thompson adaptation sounds like dynamite (and because someone who caught an early cut assured me that it's impressively nasty).

Scott Pilgrim v the World has me hooked already because I adore the director (Edgar Wright) and the source material (Bryan Lee O'Malley's witty graphic novels about a lovestruck bassist who must overcome his new girlfriend's evil exes). And I like the look of Gentlemen Broncos, a florid comic fantasy about a science-fiction writer who plagiarises the work of a fan; I'm hoping it will return the writer-director Jared Hess to the heights of his debut, Napoleon Dynamite, after the disappointment of Nacho Libre.

I also hear great things about the new films from Claire Denis (White Material) and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman). And I'm eager to see Chris Morris's first film, the jihad comedy Four Lions. But then, who isn't?

More than any of these partly known quantities, though, it is the surprises that get me buzzing: the films I haven't heard of, by directors whose names don't ring a bell, but which will in all likelihood change my life. The idea that they are out there somewhere is like the promise of an undiscovered colour. Or, at the very least, a new flavour of ice cream.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

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.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear