Gilbey on Film: Curious collaborations

Our critic picks five unlikely couplings from the world of cinema

The past few days have felt like a variation on one of those "key parties" that provided such grisly amusement in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm; all weekend there were two needy partygoers left vying for the single set of car keys languishing in the bowl. Then Gordon Brown excused himself from the undignified dance, volunteering an as-yet-undecided junior to take his place in Nick Clegg's groovy waterbed (to stretch the Ice Storm analogy). Once we become accustomed to that idea, it was time to grapple once again with the spectre of a Clegg-Cameron love-in ("Clegg to be Cameron's deputy PM", tweeted Mark Thomas after chucking-out time at the Lib-Dem meeting, "though in Eton they still call it fagging"). Ever since the early hours of 7 May, this country has been forced to consider the prospect of strange bedfellows in all their permutations.

So now we know it's Cameron and Clegg. Or Cameron and Osborne, with Clegg on the Z-bed. But let's be optimistic, if only for the sake of variety. Offbeat collaborations can sometimes yield unforeseen advantages. Don't press me on the details right now, but take heart instead from the list below of random, film-related odd-couplings or unusual rapprochements. All have produced ripples of pleasure, even if some of them might appear initially to go together about as well as Adam Boulton and Alastair Campbell.

Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl

Olivier's disdain for his co-star in this 1957 film (adapted by Terrence Rattigan from his own fizzy play The Sleeping Prince) is by now notorious. Judge for yourself if the rancour is kept entirely off-screen when the picture is screened this week at London's BFI South Bank as part of a season celebrating its cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (who would rank as a legend even if he had shot nothing but his Powell and Pressburger hat-trick -- A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes).

David Lynch and a $45m science-fiction shaggy-dog story

New light is shed on the folly of Lynch's Dune by this six-minute excerpt from the video diary of one its stars, Sean Young. Sting chows down in the catering tent, Jurgen Prochnow trips up, Francesca Annis flashes her underwear and Young provides some distracted theories on what she considers to be Lynch's failure of nerve.

Bill Murray and Emily Dickinson (and others)

The reigning genius of US comic cinema reads poetry to New York construction workers. Obviously. Like the man says -- "A pretty nice piece of bliss..."

Lynne Ramsay and the pop promo

A season of Ramsay's work would barely fill an afternoon. Good job it's all so original and absorbing. While we await her film of Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, here are two different edits -- one here, another here -- of her video for the 2005 Doves single, "Black and White Town." Her mastery of the shorter form remains as assured as it was in early shorts like Gasman and Small Deaths; this promo plays like an x-ray of the people who pass before the lens. Ramsay proves the adage that most of a director's work is done in the casting. Look at these kids' faces, at once lamblike and yet so hard and angular they could have been bashed into shape on an anvil. Also, watching this makes you realise what a vital influence she has been on fellow Brits: the most visually striking films of the last two or three years -- Red Road, Fish Tank, Hunger, Better Things and Helen -- have all followed in her trail.

Blondie and Bond

Debbie Harry gives it the full Shirley Bassey in Blondie's live romp through "Goldfinger" for German TV in 1977. Feisty fun, though it lacks the daredevil thrill of Tommy McCook's reggae twist on the evergreen Bond theme. (As a not-unconnected bonus, here are Arctic Monkeys with "Diamonds Are Forever" from Glastonbury 2007.)

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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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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