Flattery gets you everywhere

The Academy is nothing if not self-adoring... just look at the Oscar nominations

A sad week for cinema. Two influential figures are dead: Theo Angelopoulos, the 76-year-old director of The Travelling Players, Ulysses' Gaze and the Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day, died yesterday after being hit by a motorcycle near Athens. (You can find a thorough and illuminating interview with him, conducted at the National Film Theatre in 2003, here. And Bingham Ray, a major player in the US production and distribution scene, died aged 57 after suffering a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on Monday. Ray founded October Films, whose first release was Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet, and later headed United Artists, a speciality division of MGM. An obituary in the LA Times notes that he "often clashed [with MGM executives] over the types of films that Ray chose to champion, with the studio regarding his taste as too esoteric and arty."

Which brings me to this week's other, less significant but nonetheless disheartening news. "Academy Awards Nominations Play It Safe" is a headline of the "Dog Bites Man" variety; no one expects the "esoteric and arty" to be anywhere near the door-list. With each year, I feel more inured to the minor snubs and injustices, and more resigned to the parade of phoney prestige that constitutes the whole awards calendar, not just the Oscars. I'm not immune to its silly allure -- I vote in the London Film Critics' Circle Awards, and was happy to see The Artist and A Separation amply rewarded last week. While I haven't yet seen Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed Margaret, its inclusion on our nominations list, and the tie-break win in the Best Actress category between that film's Anna Paquin and awards-magnet Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, did make a case for the importance of such rituals in bringing largely unsung work to wider attention.

We all know by now that this isn't the remit of the Academy Awards. The expansion of the Best Picture category in recent years to ten nominations was intended to accommodate popular favourites that might otherwise not have nabbed a place; at no point was it meant to shine a light on the overlooked or under-praised. But it's ridiculous to cast the net so wide when the quality of the films nominated does nothing to warrant it. Any awards body that is seen to be making up the numbers will lose what little authority it has. I'm sure this isn't going to trouble the Academy -- viewing figures count here, aided by the smoothness of the ceremony (hence the return to Billy "Safe pair of hands" Crystal after the botched experiment of Anne Hathaway and James Franco).

Reluctant as I am to share the opinions of someone who boasted of having walked out of The Artist, Bret Easton Ellis was correct when he tweeted that "The Oscars are a marketing tool but they give an indication of what Hollywood is thinking about itself. 2011 was an awful year for movies... In order for The Oscars to mean anything, if they mean anything at all, they have got to limit the number of best picture nominations to five."

I'm sure The Artist will win big; I hope it does -- it's not the best film made in the past year, but it is a smart and witty confection, and it's certainly the finest work within the boundaries of what the Academy is prepared to acknowledge. As the Huffington Post remarked, "films about films" like The Artist and Hugo (which leads the way with 11 nominations) predominate this year; the Academy is nothing if not self-adoring, and such movies are inherently flattering to the industry's sense of itself as magical.

Keeping the glass half full, it's encouraging that A Separation has been recognised in the Best Original Screenplay category, as well as the expected Best Foreign Language Film. Another plus: Bridesmaids got a Screenplay nomination, and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Melissa McCarthy -- she could very well win, as it's one of the few categories where unbridled comic turns are tolerated. (See Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway.) And a Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life -- flawed though that movie is -- alongside Best Director for Terrence Malick is not to be sniffed at.

Expect to see Malick sitting in the front row on Oscars night, jeering and braying loudly. Next to him is that born hellraiser, Joey the horse from War Horse, who leads the charge as the pair of them "do a Kanye" when The Artist scoops the gold. Well, if we can't have esoteric and arty, let us dream of scandal and horseplay...

 

 

 

 

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