Snubs, surprises and Ben Affleck

And why the Baftas will always be the Oscars' too keen little brother

The 2013 Bafta nominations, which were announced yesterday, got to enjoy just over 24 hours of luxurious newsworthiness before being eclipsed today by the Oscar roll-call. The Oscars are putting out their bunting earlier than usual this year in order to take some of the dubious shine off this Sunday’s ceremony for the Golden Globes. (The Globes, for those who just tuned in, are voted for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association; in any reasonable person’s evaluation, they rate slightly lower than a rancid cuddly toy won at a fairground hoopla stall.) Any griping about the contenders proposed by an awards body amounts to nothing more dignified than playground name-calling. So join me now as I venture back into the school-yard to call someone else’s mum “ugly” and to brag that my dad could beat the crap out of yours (which is actually true).

Most Ridiculous Nomination

Bafta doesn’t have much going for it — the awards arm likes to think of itself as Oscar’s little brother, but you just know that if the two of them met at a party, Bafta would be all “Bro!” and Oscar would be, like, “Er, do I know you? Sorry, you’ll have to speak to my press agent if you want a signed photograph” before getting fist-bumped by Tom Cruise and Jay-Z while Bafta is grabbed in a headlock by security. But Bafta can stand tall this year and boast that it has waltzed off with the title of Most Ridiculous Nomination. Workaday awards bodies are content merely to snub and overlook, but it takes a unique brand of idiocy to amass the votes necessary to propose as a Best Actor contender Ben Affleck in Argo. It’s the perfect nomination for when you want to say: “Screw you, Jean-Louis Trintignant and your tremendous work in Amour!”

Most Pleasantly Surprising Nomination

The two Screenplay awards (Adapted and Original) traditionally offer slightly more space for innovation and daring than the other categories, so it’s perhaps to be expected that the two (unrelated) Andersons—Wes for Moonrise Kingdom (co-written by Roman Coppola) and Paul Thomas for The Master—get the nod from Bafta, with only Moonrise making it into the same Oscar category. For a true surprise we must look to the Animated Film category, where justifiable love has been expressed by both Bafta and Oscar for the marvellous stop-motion comedy-chiller ParaNorman (and, more predictably, the very good and tonally similar Frankenweenie).

The Tom Hooper/The King’s Speech Award (formerly known as The Ron Howard D’Or and The “Just Because You Liked the Film, Did You Have to Nominate the Bloody Director?” Prize).

Bafta makes it two in a row for Ben Affleck by suggesting implicitly in its nomination for him as Best Director for Argo that he is a more accomplished filmmaker than either of the Andersons (see above) or Steven Spielberg. In the case of the Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow, a previous Best Director winner (for The Hurt Locker), has lost out in that field even though her hunt-for-Osama-bin-Laden film, Zero Dark Thirty, is a Best Picture nominee. I’m a huge admirer of Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, but the idea of him competing for a directing prize with Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Quentin Tarantino (the slavery revenge western Django Unchained), let alone Michael Haneke (Amour), is positively surreal, like seeing Bernie Clifton and his London Marathon Ostrich challenging Usain Bolt in the 200m.

The “Can’t We Make It a Tie-Breaker?” Award (coupled this year with the “Best Off-screen PR Angle” Award).

Squaring up to one another this year at the Oscars will be Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), who at 85 is the oldest Best Actress nominee in history, and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), who at 9 is the youngest. Now I like Riva’s performance very much. But I also think that Wallis’s is the best part of Beasts. So which one is better? There’s only one way to find out.

The Most Egregious Snub Award

You might say this should go to Bigelow at the Oscars. For me it’s the minor scandal of Steven Spielberg being ignored by Bafta. Yes, Lincoln is Tony Kushner’s baby (as I’ve suggested in the latest issue of the NS), so it’s only right that he has been nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category. But what a crime to overlook Spielberg in the Director category for his mastery of tone, his faultless pacing and the way he keeps the film balanced between human detail and historical sweep. I fantasise about a recount in which Affleck’s Bafta nomination is turned over to Wes Anderson while voters give Quentin Tarantino’s one to Spielberg instead, confessing that in all the hubbub they got their slavery films muddled up.

The “Even a Stopped Clock Tells the Right Time Twice a Day” Award For Good Sense Accidental or Otherwise.

A big hooray for the following at the Baftas: Bart Layton and his producer Dmitri Doganis nominated for their wily and gripping documentary The Imposter (Outstanding Debut By a British Writer, Director or Producer and Best Documentary); the smattering of amour for Amour (Film Not in the English Language, Director, Leading Actress, Original Screenplay); recognition for Lynne Ramsey’s vaguely Olympics-related Swimmer (Short Film). There are also some deserving names in the Bafta Rising Star category voted for by the public; these include Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Juno Temple (last seen in Killer Joe and The Dark Knight Rises—but check out Kaboom for her best work) and Andrea Riseborough, who was nominated either for her tremendous work in Shadow Dancer or for surviving Madonna’s W.E. The Oscars also get it right with their enthusiasm for Amour, which breaks out of the Foreign Language ghetto and into the list of Best Picture nominees. But it’s the title of an earlier Haneke film which sums up nicely this whole awards business: Funny Games.

The Bafta ceremony is on 10 February, the Oscars on 24 February

Ben Affleck, director of Argo (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.

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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution