Gilbey on Film: Sacha Baron Cohen is back

This time as dictator General Aladeen of Wadiya.

To the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, at the behest of a certain General Aladeen of Wadiya. As the invitation puts it: “His Excellency Admiral General Aladeen Would Like to Pleasure You at the World Premiere of The Dictator.” Perhaps it is this unusual promise which brought all these shiny orange people onto the red carpet on a dismal, rainy Thursday evening prior to watching the latest film from Sacha Baron Cohen. You would think their stylists would have warned them that tangerine doesn’t go with red, but here they are anyway, the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, illuminated still further in the sheet lightning from fifty photographers’ flashbulbs. No, strike that - the people behind me are saying it’s the cast of Geordie Shore. We’ll go with that. Thank you, people behind me.

Next is an abrasive wee fellow named Louis Spence. I don’t know who he is or what he’s done to warrant a place on the red carpet, but Alex Zane, the red-carpet interviewer with scissor legs, is mighty pleased to see him. What would Louis do if he were dictator of his own country? “Spit at people with speech impediments,” apparently. Oh dear. Is that an in-joke? Alex laughs, but it’s the fearful laughter of a man who sees his every media moment through the prism of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand scandal, wondering: “Who will be next? Could it be me?” Moving along, he interviews one of several comics currently named Russell (not Brand), who tells him that what makes Sacha Baron Cohen so brilliant is that “he finds the line and thrusts across it …He totally, schizophrenically inhabits who he becomes.”

Right on cue, here comes the film’s star as General Aladeen, arriving in front of the venue waving from the driver’s seat of an orange Lamborghini - a clamped orange Lamborghini, that is, mounted on the bed of a City of Westminster tow truck. I like his habit of only giving press interviews in character (see this email exchange with Dennis Lim of the New York Times). Even if you don’t find it funny (though personally I’m tickled by his in-character assertion that “The Arab Spring is just a silly fad, like ‘mood rings’ or ‘human rights’”), you have to concede that it’s preferable to celebrities talking about the spiritual journey which they embarked upon with their latest role. Imagine if everyone gave interviews in character. Wouldn’t that be something? Unless it was Jodie Foster in Nell, obviously. Clearly there would need to be exemptions.

Just after the lights go down, Baron Cohen appears — still in costume and in character — in a spotlight in the balcony, greeting the audience with cries of “Hello, hello, death to the West!” and “Hello, English devils”. He says he has been enjoying his red carpet experience. “Usually when I am on a red carpet it is because I have just beheaded someone in my living room.”

That’s the general tenor of the material in The Dictator, which has at its core the novel idea of an essentially innocent oppressor: a naïve, mollycoddled man who just happens to be a vicious murderer. It’s really the same joke that held together Baron Cohen’s last two films, Borat and Brüno — wide-eyed naïf comes to the US and exposes inadvertently that country’s hypocrisy and small-mindedness — but with the twist of making him a psychopath rather than merely a buffoon.

Watching The Dictator, which begins with the dedication “In Loving Memory of Kim Jong-Il”, I missed the genuinely dangerous edge of Borat and Brüno; those pictures placed Baron Cohen in volatile, real-life scenarios where his provocations almost led to violence against him. There’s no way to fake or replace it. On the other hand, that species of comedy can’t go on forever, not least because the actor is now a widely recognisable superstar, unlikely to be able to orchestrate pranks of the same scale. At least The Dictator is often wildly funny, particularly when General Aladeen, stripped of his uniform and beard, and wandering New York for reasons too convoluted to recount, has to take work in a Brooklyn feminist co-operative “for people of all or no genders” (as the store worker Zoe, played by the impish Anna Faris, puts it).

The film has teeth, which it bares occasionally. I’m not thinking so much of the bad taste gags—a terrorism Wii game, which offers Aladeen options such as “Tokyo Subway” and “London Underground” before he opts for “Munich Olympics,” drew a shocked gasp from the audience, while there’s a running gag involving a severed head, which was done better in the horror-comedy Re-Animator. But it succeeds in finding a rich vein of humour in post-9/11 paranoia. And it turns the tables on both liberalism (in its lively mockery of Zoe and her co-op pals) and the west, the latter skewered in an inspired monologue which has Aladeen showing how the US advocates at home the same cruelty it decries in foreign regimes.

"The Dictator" is released 16 May.

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the premiere of The Dictator (Photo: 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