Meryl Streep's flaw

The great actress's problem is that she shows you how she's doing it - there's no magic

This blog post has almost nothing at all to say about the Oscars. What can there be to grumble about when justice was done in most of the main categories? Best Picture (The Artist), Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation), Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin, The Artist), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer, Beginners) -- I'm happy. So happy that I'm not even going to demand a recount in the Best Original Screenplay category (where Midnight in Paris beat A Separation and Bridesmaids, if you can believe it).

I can't comment on the Best Actress award, which went to Meryl Streep, as I still haven't seen The Iron Lady. I'd attributed my oversight to various circumstances beyond my control (missing the early previews due to illness, followed by Douglas Hurd covering the movie in the NS). But having read Charles McNulty writing in the Los Angeles Times about what he calls his "Streep problem", I wonder if some symptoms of that disorder hadn't also influenced my own lack of urgency in seeing The Iron Lady.

McNulty says of Streep:

"Her performances are always marvels of technical virtuosity, and her mimicry can indeed be dazzling. One senses her own delight in capturing the likeness of another... But her characterizations are so well calculated that they call attention to their own artistry. The dancer is always distinguishable from the dance."

This is a common charge levelled at Streep. McNulty quotes from some of Pauline Kael's analyses of the actress as a master technician rather than an interpretive artist. Reviewing The House of the Spirits in the Independent in 1994, Adam Mars-Jones remarked that "you find yourself thinking, as so often with Streep, not how real or how right or how true, but how clever, how resourceful..." He returned to this theme the following year in a review of The Bridges of Madison County:

"Once or twice you think that what's inside Streep's head isn't 'I don't know what to do with my hands' or even 'I am a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands' but 'My character is a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands.' Streep's controlling intelligence would be even more impressive if she could make it invisible."

So the general complaint with Streep is that we can see what she's doing -- she's a magician who has allowed the skill of the trick to eclipse the trick itself. Even the most sophisticated among us ask to be immersed in film: we want to be told stories in an unforced manner that makes the suspension of disbelief no more strenuous than lifting a piece of popcorn to our lips. It's a lot that we ask of our stars, even those who are essentially character actors for whom celebrity is an unasked-for by-product: be as fine and insightful as you were in those performances that made us admire you, but attain that standard of excellence while also making us forget that it's you. An actor could go mad. (Daniel Day-Lewis in 2009: "People always ask me: 'Isn't it strange that you have to do this or that to prepare for the work?' But really: what could be stranger than the work itself?") Then again, so could a viewer.

The obvious answer to our impatience with actors whose skill gets in the way of our enjoyment is to do away with them altogether, to cast exclusively from non-professionals. Here is Lance Hammer, director of the exceptional Ballast, discussing the process of working with an inexperienced cast:

"It really wasn't about bringing something out; it was about preventing them from putting something out there that wasn't them. So my singular goal in the direction of actors, was to have the actors behave as they are at all times...I wanted them. This is straight out of Robert Bresson -- you cast people for them. It's not acting. I don't want them to act."

Ah, Bresson. Now we're talking. Here's his take on the role of the actor in his films:

"In a film, each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at. Acting has nothing to do with that, it can only get in the way. Films can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them; using not what they do, but what they are."

The Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, director of the visionary Touki Bouki and Hyènes, maintained that cinema was "magic in the service of dreams" and that the repeated use of an actor could only dispel that magic, stir us from that dream:

"The professional actor does not exist. Economically, yes, but basically, no. Professional actors break the magic of the dream and the magic of cinema. I say that as a creator and manipulator of character and event. I do not want to use an actor again once we have worked together. Once we have worked together, it seems to me that the actor has already given everything, because I have already asked everything of him or her. So we leave each other in the fullness of our first meeting. When I was young, when I went to the movies, I was always angry when I saw an actor who had died in one film appearing in another film alive. That broke the magic of cinema for me. It is very important to preserve the magic of cinema."

 

 

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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge