Gilbey on Film: don't follow the Oscars herd

All this praise for The King's Speech makes me suspicious.

Ever since time began, mankind has yearned for justice to prevail at the Academy Awards. I don't think all the films which landed nominations this year are worthy of approbation.

Inception is surely only in the running because it's a popular favourite; the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominations to ten last year so that mainstream audiences could root for films they'd actually seen -- a transparent bit of populist tokenism. And I'm baffled by the general admiration for The Town, a compendium of macho crime movie clichés. But even we terminal Oscar curmudgeons would have to concede it's a pretty decent spread this year.

There's lots of love for The Social Network, Winter's Bone and The Fighter (out here on 4 Feb), as well as the odd crumb of comfort for Blue Valentine, Dogtooth, Biutiful and the Australian thriller Animal Kingdom (25 Feb). It's rumoured within the industry that Mike Leigh receives a Best Original Screenplay nomination each year whether or not he's actually written a new film, but that doesn't make his nod for Another Year (his fifth writing nomination from the Academy) any less deserved.

I can't even join in with much of the griping over at GoldDerby, where some of the exclusions are branded "shocking". Yes, it's a real shame that Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network was squeezed out of contention, particularly as he provides the emotional centre; he wears all the movie's pain in his worried face. But I can't get exercised over the omission of Michael Douglas for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (that would've been one of those "congratulations for still being alive" Oscars) or Robert Duvall for Get Low (ditto).

Casting a long shadow over the UK media's reporting has been, inevitably, The King's Speech. Supporters of the picture, who care not that it is dutiful and deferential to both royalty and to archaic wisdom about film acting and directing, may crow about its 12 nominations, but should recall the chastening example of The Color Purple (eleven nominations in 1985, but no prizes).

I won't begrudge Colin Firth the Best Actor award that he is the favourite to win; those of us unconvinced by The King's Speech might console ourselves by thinking of it as a deferred acknowledgement for his work last year in A Single Man (he was beaten to the gold by Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, who is in the shortlist for True Grit this time), much as Jeremy Irons's Oscar for Reversal of Fortune was widely considered to be compensation for his stunning double-performance, ignored by the Academy, in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.

But I feel suspicious of any consensus, even if it's one that builds up around a film I admire. I happen to think The Social Network does everything right, and couldn't really be bettered, but I'm suspicious of the absence of any convincing counter-arguments (though Zadie Smith's rigorous analysis of the film, and the phenomenon it describes, is a joy to read).

Likewise, it's dispiriting to hear the party line being toed over The King's Speech, as though to fail to root for it would be tantamount to incinerating a Union Jack. On Radio 4 last night I heard a news item in which the film was described as -- let me get this right -- a metaphor for the Anglo-American relationship, with the irreverent speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) as the funky, straight-shooting US figure helping the uptight Brit to loosen up. This, the reporter suggested, was why the film had gone down so well in America. Despite the fact that Logue was, erm, Australian. And that the only American character in the film, Wallis Simpson, is roundly disparaged.

A similar kind of consensus has built up over the Golden Raspberry awards -- better known as the Razzies -- where the nominations give new meaning to the idea of easy targets. The Razzies were once prized as an antidote to Hollywood sycophancy, and there was usually a comingling of scorn and affection for the films that figured on their radar. These days, they have an orthodoxy of their own that's every bit as blinkered as the one promoted by The King's Speech cheerleaders.

Rather than singling out the genuinely pitiful but supposedly prestigious lows of the year -- The American, say, or Black Swan -- the Razzies are an unpleasant reflection of adolescent fanboy prejudice. You can find some informed objections to the awards' agenda (such as: Why do they aim most of their barbs at teen idols or gay icons?) here and here.

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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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