Gilbey on Film: Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

A genius for intimacy.

Until a few years ago, I had foolishly put the late writer-director Nora Ephron  in the same pile as various purveyors of apparently soft-hearted, soft-headed and - okay I’ll come clean - female-oriented romantic comedy such as Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall and the screenwriter Ron Bass. Why? After all, I had loved Ephron’s screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and I have to come to see over the years that the buoyancy and the canny modifications of You’ve Got Mail, which she also directed, exempt that film from being tarred with the bad-remake brush (it’s based on Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner). But there is so much information out there that we are all guilty of such filing oversights. You put the bailiffs’ letters with the school reports and then where are you? As for the cupboard under the sink, let’s not go there. (Really, let’s not.) Personally, I have a blind spot for Tobys. With all respect to the excellent Toby Litt, I’ll sometimes see his name in the NS and wince slightly, when in fact the cause of my discomfort is (you’re ahead of me here, aren’t you?) Toby Young.

Fortunately, a friend put me right on Nora Ephron. There I was blabbing about her fantastically precise parody of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I’ve linked to “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut” before on here, but it bears any amount of re-reading) and opining loudly and without the necessary evidence that her other work hadn’t shown such vim, when his face became fixed in a sorrowful expression which screamed “How little you know.” A copy of Heartburn was soon pressed into my hands, which forced me to let go of my preconceptions. This is a roman-à-clef based on Ephron dealing with her distressing divorce from her unfaithful second husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s acidic without losing its sweetness, light but necessarily angry, the words perfectly weighted - like all her best screenwriting and journalism. There was also a film of Heartburn, directed in 1986 by Mike Nichols, scripted by Ephron (who had written Silkwood for Nichols), starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and with songs by Carly Simon. My advice is stick with the book.

Her other films include Mixed Nuts (a listless remake of the popular French comedy Le père Noël est une ordure), Sleepless in Seattle, a big-screen version of Bewitched starring Nicole Kidman and the recent Julie and Julia, which plaited together the stories of the cookery guru Julia Childs (Streep again) and a fictional Manhattanite (Amy Adams) taking on Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For me, her best work remains When Harry Met Sally and the essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman. Here she is speaking to DGA magazine in 2009 about the challenges of the rom-com:

Romantic comedies are very hard. They look as if they should be easy, but they’re hard because there’s nothing you can depend on. I mean, you don’t have car chases or anything like that and, really, you don’t have plot in the way we understand that term—we all know pretty much from the start what the end of the movie is going to be. Romantic comedies are hard to do, but so are all movies. Movies are so hard, and they’re harder than ever because it’s so hard to get them made now, and so hard to do anything remotely unconventional, because that scares people to death.

Her preference, she said, “would be to do a movie with a small number of people sitting in rooms and talking. This is my dream.” I think she captured precisely that intimacy, strongly felt even among a packed and giggling cinema audience.

Making it look easy: Nora Ephron. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

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