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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder