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.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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