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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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