Gilbey on Film: I'm a Girl refusenik

Why I won't be watching - or reading - any of the Stieg Larsson trilogy.

A commercially daring marketing strategy has been announced this week by the distributor Momentum Pictures. In effect, it's a cinematic loss-leader.

In an effort to whip up interest in its forthcoming thriller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, which is released on 26 November, Momentum is putting on free double-bills of the preceding instalments in the Stieg Larsson-adapted "Millenium" trilogy (that's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire). Forty-one cinemas in the UK will screen the two films this Sunday; all you need to do is claim your tickets, climb into your motorcycle leathers, hop on your bike and burn rubber in the direction of your nearest participating cinema.

Well, I say all that about leather and motorbikes but I am exactly the sort of Girl refusenik at whom this unusual promotion is aimed, so what would I know? Through a mixture of cunning and ineptitude, I have managed to miss out on the series -- can we call it a phenomenon, or has that word now gone the way of "icon"? -- in both literary and cinematic form. There was definitely a week earlier this year when I was considering reading the first book or watching the first film, but then a pair of witty writers rained on that idea before it had even become a fully-fledged plan.

First, Nora Ephron -- sparkly on the page, even if her directing (You've Got Mail, It's Complicated) lacks that same fizz -- wrote a knock-out pastiche of the series, entitled "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut", in the New Yorker. Even my Larsson-resistant eyes could recognise it was knock-out, merely from having watched the trailer for the first movie, and from all the time-consuming sneering I've done at commuters reading Larsson's books on trains and buses. Ephron nailed the exaggerated pomposity and forced cool that anyone will recognise from even a passing acquaintance with a potboiler:

Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe. Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc...

That alone would have been ample justification for my avoidance of all things Girl-related. Then a few weeks later, Will Self piled in after Ephron in this most amusing literary scrum. In this very magazine, he summarised Larsson's series thus: "[A] lot of tedious Swedes cutting each other to pieces." One distinguished comic writer steering me away from the Stieg Larsson section in the bookshop, or from the cinema showing a Girl movie, would have been quite enough: I'm easily swayed. But two? The damage was done.

There is undoubtedly a contrarian thrill to finding oneself out of step with a popular craze; the rise of Dan Brown has done easily as much good for half the world's feelings of superiority as it has done harm to the remaining half's vocabulary. And in a world that makes increasingly unrealistic demands on our time, there is something empowering about resisting those entertainments of which simply everyone is partaking. (I hadn't read a word of J K Rowling or seen more than one of the Harry Potter films before I was called upon to review the fifth movie for the NS. In preparation, I received a crash course from my children, but what I saw only confirmed that I had not been missing much. It's government-regulated fantasy really, isn't it? Fantasy with the corners sanded down, the fantastic sucked out.)

On-demand viewing has made that level of assertion easier; the dominance of the boxed-set is also proof that we all like to regulate our interests and obsessions, gorging on an entire season in a day or two if we so desire.

The problem Momentum is trying to address with the free Girl giveaway is to stem the fatigue that must inevitably set in among audiences when the three parts of a trilogy are released in such a short space of time (the first Girl opened here in August). At least the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond films typically have a year or two between each outing. But I wonder if the Girl brand isn't irrevocably tainted among the uninitiated. I doubt I'll be setting aside five hours on a Sunday to submit to a marketing campaign.

That said, I love the idea of the double-bill making a return in the form of a primer. Multiplexes might show a brace of past Palme d'Or winners to whet our appetites for the upcoming Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Or a couple of movies set in hotels to get us in the mood for Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, which takes place largely in the Chateau Marmont.

The double-bill is a luxury in which too few cinemas indulge these days. I'm a sucker for them. But when it comes to Momentum's generous offer, I may just be washing my motorcycle leathers that day.

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.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

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