Gilbey on Film: Against orthodoxy

Beware the over-hasty critical consensus.

A consensus is something to sniff at. Whether a movie is widely fêted as a masterpiece or strung up like a birthday piñata, I can't help feeling a touch suspicious of any kind of pack mentality among commentators. Witness the largely hostile reaction to the unveiling at the Venice Film Festival of W.E., a movie about Wallis Simpson directed by Madonna. Plenty of fine, sane-headed critics found the film wanting, to put it mildly -- among them Xan Brooks at the Guardian, who called W.E. "a primped and simpering folly", and Guy Lodge at In Contention, predicting "future camp-classic value" for an "irredeemably silly, self-admiring ode to life, love and all the fabulous bed linens in between ..."

But it's not the veracity or wisdom of anyone's opinions which worries me, so much as the way these initial impressions will calcify into received wisdom. W.E. has already become a marker of awfulness, despite the fact that only a tiny selection of people in the world have actually seen it; a few days ago, the Guardian asked whether it was destined to rank as a classic of bad cinema, and the comments section has already filled up with people casting aspersions on this movie which they have not yet seen (and probably won't even bother with -- not that this will stop them mouthing off about it).

Reading Mark Kermode's feverishly argued new book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies?, I came across several mentions of movies which had been comprehensively battered and bruised by critics over the years, and which were given another going-over in passing by Kermode. You know the sort of thing -- Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake. It isn't Kermode's dislike of those movies which rankles, even though I adore Ishtar and have already devoted more than enough space on this site to defending Van Sant's bold and delicious experiment. After all, Kermode has seen and assessed those movies, and they have become for him the sort of touchstones of mediocrity or plain wretchedness that we all have filed away in our memory.

(My own bugbear at the moment, in case you're interested, is the shockingly inept new version of Brighton Rock. It was the surprise movie at last year's London Film Festival. Then again, no one specified that it had to be a pleasant surprise.)

What doesn't sit well for me is when the same titles come in for a bashing across reviews, film history books, blogs, comments sections; I feel the same sort of fatigue setting in when Citizen Kane dominates the Best Of lists. We owe it to ourselves to interrogate the critical orthodoxy wherever possible, even if that means reversing a previously-held position or risking a social faux pas.

Let me give you an example: Michael Winner. No, wait -- come back. His films are ghastly, I know, but I must tell you that some time last year I found myself watching Death Wish 3 on late-night television and... well, I'm not going to say that Winner was rehabilitated in my eyes, but that movie is so gloriously berserk, so detached from any other kind of filmmaking grammar, that I began to admire it (the New York street scenes shot in London are only the start of the madness). The misanthropic nastiness and racism of the first two Death Wish instalments has been replaced by a sense of abandon and excess. It seems I'm not the only one to feel this way about Death Wish 3, as this fond post by Joshua Miller over at Chud.com proves:

As straight cinema, the movie is slap-you-in-the-face terrible, with zero redeeming qualities (other than maybe offering some nice sized roles to senior citizens). Yet the film is also kind of amazing. It is kitsch. But it isn't camp. Nor is it so-bad-it's-good. It is slightly too knowing for that. Yet, somehow, it also isn't tongue-in-cheek. Death Wish 3 belongs to the same bizarro group of exploitation cinema as Commando -- movies that are just so ridiculous and off-the-rails over-the-top that it is almost as though they've pushed the very framework of their genre so hard that it broke and now all we're left with is some ethereal vapour of unquantifiable mad terrible genius.

There's more where that came from, with in-depth discussions of the various perverse embellishments and inconsistencies that help substantiate that claim of "mad terrible genius."

But I am not here to praise Michael Winner, or to encourage you to rush out and buy Death Wish 3, so much as to say that I no longer feel able to dismiss Winner, despite some of his crimes against cinema. I'm sure we all have a Michael Winner in our lives (if you see what I mean). Perhaps yours was once Elizabeth Hurley, who came in for a lot of flak in the 1990s, much of it tinged with misogyny. But if you can be cruel and cutting about her talents once you have witnessed her exquisite timing and jauntiness in the first Austin Powers movie, or her anarchic sense of fun in the absurd Ice Cube action film Dangerous Ground, then you have a hard heart indeed.

All of which is brings me back to W.E. It may be ghastly, and worthy of uncomplicated disdain. But before you add your voice to the clamour, wouldn't you prefer to find out for yourself?

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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times