Gilbey on Film: 44 Inch Chest -- and a very naughty word

Our film critic on swearing in movies.

Rich, vigorous and inventive swearing on film is hard to come by now -- either that or I'm inured to it -- but there's a foul-mouthed feast for the ears in 44 Inch Chest. This Pinteresque British film, released last month, is about a group of splenetic thugs who kidnap a young waiter who has cuckolded one of their number. While not especially distinguished, the picture has three things going for it: a rasping, rancid-looking John Hurt; the honey-voiced, smooth-as-a-bullet Ian McShane; and some of the ripest, most rhythmic use of verbal obscenities since David Mamet sustained a paper cut immediately after stubbing his toe.

In his New Yorker review of 44 Inch Chest, David Denby wrote: "The men take turns screaming at the silent Loverboy, as they call him, relying on extensive use of Britain's favorite four-letter word (not the same as America's favorite four-letter word)."

Woah there! Now wait just a minute. Is this really how the Manhattan cognoscenti regard us? (And have they never seen Curb Your Enthusiasm?) It's true that I haven't heard the word to which Mr Denby is referring -- we'll call it "clod" -- spill from the mouth of an actual American person, as opposed to a movie character, whereas in Britain you need only reach for the last tube of Werther's Originals in the shop to be branded a clod by the seething shopper who's next in line. But if all you had to go on was TV and cinema, you could hardly argue that we are a nation of clod-utterers. Unless, that is, you spent all your free time watching Danny Dyer movie marathons, and that's something you wouldn't wish on anyone, not even Danny Dyer.

I'm not sure where to cast my vote for Best Use of "Clod" In a Motion Picture. Withnail and I ("Monty, you terrible clod!") has to be a contender, but I find the word even more abrasive in the generally softer American accent, where it takes a moment to register what's been said. What a shock it was to hear Woody Allen deploy the insult in Deconstructing Harry; the BBFC clearly agreed, and gave Allen his first 18-certificate (for its "coarse language"). Even nastier was hearing Al Pacino use the word to diminish Kevin Spacey in the scalding film version of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

I'll put an early bet on young Chloe Moretz to steal Pacino's crown when Kick-Ass, the forthcoming movie about DIY superheroes, opens here in April. Looking like a kid who should be plaiting the manes of her My Little Ponies, Moretz (a veteran of the TV series My Friends Tigger and Pooh, and just 12 when Kick-Ass was shot) delivers the "British" word with a lip-smacking ferociousness that would make Danny Dyer sob into his monogrammed West Ham handkerchief. The director of Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn, is British, while the comic-book series from which it is adapted is American. Under the rules of the Denby test, we'll call that one a draw.

The picture has already caused a minor storm in Australia, where it has been rated "MA". I'm not entirely familiar with the Aussie ratings system, but this denotes either that anyone under 15 can see the film only in the company of an adult, or that admission is granted only to those with a postgraduate degree.

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.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution