Gilbey on film: Sleeping sickness

If a critic can't stay awake, it's not the film's fault.

There's a lot of Pauline Kael around right now. She features prominently in James Wolcott's autobiography Lucked Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which contains a delicious description of her writing: "Every phrase quivered like the handle of a knife whose blade has just lodged in the tree bark." There's also a new selection of her writing, The Age of Movies, edited by Sanford Schwartz, as well as a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow.

Not having read the latter yet, I'll return to it here at a later date. But this week, 20 years after chancing upon my first Pauline Kael reviews in the over-heated library at the University of Kent, I finally read the infamous 8,000-word demolition job that Renata Adler attempted to perform as part of an assessment of Kael's When the Lights Go Down in the New York Review of Books back in 1980. I think Kael's reputation easily survives the puritanical attack, which is so prohibitive that it seems to oppose the idea of a critic having any stylistic continuity, any blood in his or her veins. Adler is highly disapproving of the notorious sexual metaphors that pulse through Kael's writing, and goes to great pains to provide a shopping-list of the examples she has found, neglecting to appreciate fully how vital Kael was (along with Manny Farber) in loosening the terms of discourse in film criticism. (There's also the charge, of course, that Kael also calcified it in her own way, but that came slightly later.)

However, there was one passage in Adler's essay which pinched, for this reader at least. It forms part of a paragraph disparaging Kael's sense of humour, and isolates the following examples from some of her negative reviews: "you fight to keep your eyes open"; "people were fighting to stay awake"; "but after a while I was gripping the arms of my chair to stay awake"; "the audience was snoring"; "the only honest sound I heard...was the snoring in the row behind me."

Lifting those phrases out of the context of reviews written years apart is unfair, but it does highlight a particular injustice in reviewing that persists to this day. The suggestion that the critic in question was fighting sleep during a film has no place in serious reviewing, and yet we hear it frequently in supposedly dedicated settings -- middle-brow arts programmes on TV and radio, broadsheet newspapers. If the critic is having trouble staying awake, it's not relevant to the movie under discussion: it's a failing of the critic, and it means that he or she should have got more sleep the preceding night, or sunk an espresso before entering the cinema, or needs to seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity.

Is there any other species of criticism where it's acceptable for the reviewer to use his or her own susceptibility to sleep -- basically his or her own indiscipline or lack of professionalism -- as a stick with which to beat the work in question? You don't tend to read music critics maligning an album because they nodded off during the guitar solo on track seven. That said, I did once fall asleep standing up, for the first and only time in my life, while attending a Stone Roses gig, also for the first and only time in my life. But it had been a long day. It wasn't the band's fault. Well, not entirely.
Perhaps the tendency for sleep to loom large in film reviews is attributable to the viewing conditions. The cinema is dark and (unless it's an Early Bird screening at my local Cineworld) warm. So, too, is a theatre or an opera house, but at least in a cinema the performers are not disposed to object to, or even notice, a little snoozing or snoring. (The situation can be embarrassingly different in the theatre, as AA Gill observed in a review in the NS earlier this year.)

Plainly put, if the critic succumbs to sleep, it is not the film's fault, even if the film in question is Jacques Rivette's Out 1, all 12 hours and 41 minutes of it. Observing that other audience members were dozing has as little to do with what's on screen as comments about the décor in the cinema, or the amount of popcorn on the floor. The absolute minimum that we should bring to a movie is consciousness. Critics need to wake up to that.

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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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