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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage