Gilbey on Film: can Russell Brand save British cinema?

The UK Film Council wasn't perfect, but we need a high-profile campaign to support home-grown movies

What a rum time for British cinema. Recently it was announced that the latest James Bond film, which was to have been directed by Sam Mendes, has been moved to the back burner because of financial problems at MGM.

Daniel Craig, appearing at San Diego's Comic-Con on Saturday to promote Cowboys & Aliens in which he stars opposite Harrison Ford, would not delve into the matter when a question about the project's status was put to him by a member of the audience. "All I can say is that I want to get going on it as soon as possible," he replied.

Then it was announced yesterday that the UK Film Council was for the chop. The UKFC coughed up some of the money for Roger Michell's adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, in which Craig appeared. I wonder what the actor has to say about the decision to scrap a funding body on which so much of the country's film industry depends. It would be good for him and other actors to speak out about it.

So far, it has mostly been directors and producers voicing their objections. This could all go much wider if an A-lister were involved, someone like Craig who could get the story into the tabloids as well as the broadsheets, turning it into some kind of call to arms. Amazing the miracles that can be worked by a little magic dust from a celebrity.

Russell Brand must be busy preparing for his upcoming remake of Arthur, but imagine the attention he could bring to the story simply by mentioning it, let alone flying out to meet the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt ,and pointing out to him that without the UKFC's help, Brand's own film career might have stalled. (Perhaps it's best if Brand didn't mention that the film in question was St Trinian's. Leave Hunt to believe it was Get Him to the Greek or something.)

Some of the most original and challenging films of the past decade were given a helping hand, financially speaking, by the UKFC: Better Things, Bright Star, The Constant Gardener, Crack Willow, Fish Tank, Gosford Park, London to Brighton, Red Road. (They also put some money into Mike Leigh's forthcoming Another Year.) But as this magazine's Daniel Trilling has rightly pointed out, it would be unhelpful to look upon the UKFC as tireless promoters of experimental cinema when so many of the projects they funded or co-funded were evidently spawned or dogged by commercial second-guessing.

And Alex Cox made some trenchant observations about the fraudulence of this idea of Britishness which comes out in times like these. He called the UKFC's axeing "very good news for anyone involved in independent film. The Film Council became a means by which lottery money was transferred to the Hollywood studios. It pursued this phoney idea that James Bond and Harry Potter were British films. But, of course, those films were all American - and their profits were repatriated to the studios in Los Angeles."

If I were a politician, I might use that dreaded phrase I despise so much and say that we need to open a dialogue. The real brutality here is not that the UKFC is being axed -- perhaps the sums will be shown to make sense; who knows? It's that the death sentence has been passed with no apparent chance of a stay of execution.

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

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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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