Gilbey on Film: No Cannes do

Don’t pay too much attention to the pictures that wow the festival crowds; we may only recognise a c

So, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But how much do you really care about Cannes?

I've only attended the festival once. That was 1999. A good year, I reckon: the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and Bruno Dumont's L'humanité scooped the big prizes from David Cronenberg's jury, while All About My Mother, Kadosh, The Straight Story, Pola X and Wonderland were memorable competitors.

I also spotted Jeff Goldblum rolling his eyes as we both left the cinema after Peter Greenaway's 8½ Women, wearing an expression that would now be described as: "WTF?"

While I harbour no burning desire to return to Cannes, it became a habit to peruse the festival despatches by other journalists and critics. This year, I broke that habit. It was all down to the sense of overkill after 2009's festival; by the time films such as The White Ribbon, A Prophet, Fish Tank and Antichrist landed a release here, I felt strongly that I had already watched them several times over. I didn't want that to happen again with this year's selection, so I adopted a policy of No Cannes Do.

Seeing a film fresh, with no prior knowledge of its flaws, virtues and twists as perceived by other eyes, is one of the rarest pleasures in cinemagoing. (I get quite unreasonably annoyed just thinking about the critics who revealed the identity of the casting surprise in Zombieland.) Add to that the unavoidable hothouse hysteria of many of those reviews filed straight from the steps of the Grand Palais, and you've got a recipe for some seriously warped judgements.

There are times when it can seem the festival isn't about the films at all, but rather the reaction to them. That is why the miserable ritual of booing has such a hallowed place at Cannes.

The most notorious example remains Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, which is now regarded as a masterpiece, but was greeted with a chorus of catcalls on the Croisette in 1960.

Antonioni reportedly believed his career was over, until a band of critics and film-makers, including Roberto Rossellini, released a statement unequivocally supporting the film. It went on to win the jury prize. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Vincent Gallo's unfairly maligned The Brown Bunny, along with the aforementioned Dumont film, are among recent competition entries that were subjected to a severe Cannes-ing.

Who knows how many of today's judgements will stand? As Steven Soderbergh said in 2007: "Twenty years from now we'll figure out which ones are great and which ones aren't." I was reminded of this comment, and of the unfairness of what is politely called "the common consensus", by the news that Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil has just been released on Region 1 DVD in a director's cut, with 13 minutes of missing footage restored.

In his look back at this masterful 1999 film, set during the US civil war, Graham Fuller of Sight and Sound strikes some familiar, plangent notes, reminding us that the picture was "poorly distributed and publicised on release . . . sank without trace . . . [was] not an easy sell . . ." And ain't that always the way?

Fuller rightly argues for the picture's unorthodox brilliance, calling it "the most mature film made about the effect the war had on shaping American society". Bravo. You can read a report here on a recent Q&A with James Schamus, the picture's articulate writer/producer (and regular Ang Lee collaborator), in which he reveals that his screenwriting dictum is not "Write what you know" so much as "Write anything but what you know".

Also heartening is news of another restoration. The new version of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis is a case not of a disparaged or overlooked film being rehabilitated, like Ride With the Devil, but of a confirmed classic being shown at last in its correct form.

Chris Fujiwara writes: "For years now the false Metropolis has been running amok, courting charges of proto-Nazism, furnishing video backdrops for nightclubs, and fuelling predictable academic studies . . . The Lang film had been mutilated in so many ways that its creator insisted that it had ceased to exist." Metropolis will be released in the UK on 10 September.

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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era