Mike Leigh speaks to the NS

The Film Interview: why the director wants to make "epic" movies.

How did the idea for Another Year come about?
I have ongoing preoccupations of an emotional, social, personal -- and, if you like, political -- nature, which you can see in all of my films. And here we are looking again, I hope, in some way that digs a bit deeper than some of my films, at issues of family, of the relationship between work and the personal, responsibility, of isolation, of disappointment, of parents and children. So to talk about where the idea came from is not really appropriate. I felt I wanted to make a film that started from where we -- that is to say, we who are in our late sixties -- are.

You've said that you have reached a point in your career where you want to "paint on a bigger canvas".
Yes. If epic can be measured in terms of the emotional experience of the audience, then I hope this is an epic film, just as Naked is an epic film and, I would suggest, Vera Drake is an epic. In other words, my intention is to break through the apparent constraints of domestic life on to an epic or operatic scale emotionally. I think that's important.

Do you think that the "baby boomer" generation squandered the proceeds of economic growth from which it benefited?
That is a deeply suspect position. I'm slightly older than the baby boomers because I was born during the war. But the world they and I grew up in was one in which what had been fought for and won was a national health service, a very good state education system, on the whole free university education for people, and so on.

Of course, the sins that are implicit in what I've just listed - the abandoning of fundamental ideology - cannot be laid at the feet just of the coalition government. We go back to Thatcher, we go back to the fact that we had well over a decade of so-called socialist government that did nothing to correct any of the things I've just been talking about. So to bash the baby boomers just because they had it so good is obscene, because it can only be some kind of massive excuse for inequality.

Class seems to be back on the political agenda. What do you make of the way it is portrayed on screen in Britain today?
I don't know the answer to that. You absolutely cannot make a film about England or Britain that is not rooted in class -- in a way, you can't tell stories about anybody anywhere, because in the end class is an endemic part of the social human condition. But, despite everything, I have never consciously gone around thinking about class, as such.

I grew up in a very working-class part of Salford where my old man was a doctor. We lived over the surgery and I went to the local school. I therefore have a very, very clear sense of working class and middle class. But because that's my world and background, I take all this for granted.
The reason I can't get to the serious answer to your question is that there are very few British films that I think depict life accurately anyway, and I take it for granted that class is part of what's real.

Critics of your films say that they present caricatures of working-class life.
I take all this with a pinch of salt. If people start reacting to Another Year in that way, quite honestly they're so missing the wood for the trees that it's not really worth thinking about it. Life is complex. People are complex. That's what I do and what I've always done.

We normally ask this question at the end of the NS Interview, but it seems appropriate to ask it here, too: are we all doomed?
Well, let's put it like this: I find it very uncomfortable to think about the world in which my grandchildren and certainly my great-grandchildren will find themselves living.

You can read Ryan Gilbey's NS review of "Another Year" here

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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