Reviewed: The Look of Love

Mags to riches.

The Look of Love (18)
dir: Michael Winterbottom

An 11th-hour change of title befell Michael Winterbottom’s film about the life of Paul Raymond, the club owner, property magnate and porn baron, when it emerged that Raymond’s son had first dibs on The King of Soho. But that title would have seemed too celebratory for a film that already becomes excitable whenever it depicts its subject’s escapades through the convention of montage.

The Look of Love is a more thoughtful fit for a picture that at least tries to make sense of the warped relationship between Raymond (Steve Coogan) and his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots). The film suggests that having inducted her into his hedonistic, druggy lifestyle as a show of devotion denied to his other children, he failed to notice the damage it was doing. He couldn’t see the addict for the coke.

That said, the movie gets off to a disastrous start. The authentically groovy title sequence, accompanied by a sax-heavy easy-listening score, is perfect. Jacqueline Abrahams’s production design and Stephanie Collie’s costumes are persuasive from the off – the speed with which labyrinthine wallpaper patterns, leopard-print furniture and men’s furs come to appear normal is retrospectively frightening. But the structural choices made by the screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh, who has form in the biopic genre, after Control and Nowhere Boy, betray his script’s identity crisis. The film begins after Debbie’s death, with Raymond sequestered in a velvet-walled sanctuary watching a documentary about her life. No sooner has this started than the action switches to a second documentary, this time about Raymond, his career and domestic happiness with his wife, Jean (Anna Friel). Even Citizen Kane only needed one documentary-within-the-film, for goodness sake.

Raymond and Jean share an understanding about his extra-curricular activities with the dancers who populate his establishments – notably the members’ club the Raymond Revuebar, which he opened in Soho in 1958. The understanding extends to Raymond doing whatever he likes and Jean being a good sport about it. When he climbs into bed long after her, it is almost shocking to hear her chirrup without malice: “Was she nice?” The next time it happens, she is not placated by Raymond admitting that he doesn’t know whether or not Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), that evening’s companion, is good in bed. If he didn’t sleep with her, she must be special.

Sure enough, Raymond leaves Jean and their children for Fiona. Exiting court after the divorce hearing, he can’t help correcting a reporter who calls the settlement agreed in his ex-wife’s favour one of the largest in British history: “I think you’ll find it’s the largest.” His bragging extends even to his losses. But then it’s the same sensibility that enables him to turn ashes into gold dust: when a tabloid newspaper sneers at the “arbitrary displays of naked flesh” in one of his dodgy theatrical productions, he splashes the line all over the posters. “House Full” signs go up in no time.

When Debbie is old enough, Raymond brings her into the business as the only clothed participant of one of his nude musicals. At a press conference, he responds with alarm to the question of whether she will appear naked, and Winterbottom cuts to Debbie giving an almost imperceptible wince at this display of protectiveness doubling as a slight; she’s like the schoolchild who is happy to be excused from PE for all eternity by an everlasting sick note but resentful of the outsider status, the perceived privilege, that this confers on her.

It doesn’t help that Debbie’s ambitions don’t always correspond to her talents. Any actor looking to mine pathos from an obliviously terrible musical turn is competing with the memory of Gwen Welles in Robert Altman’s Nashville. (Altman always said he never knew if this was Welles giving it her best shot and falling short, and never asked.) There are many great moments in Poots’s piercing performance – ordering champagne through a cascade of wounded tears, or breaking bad news to her father by chopping it out in cocaine form –but her delicate rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David title song, in a version only just poor enough to signal that Debbie plausibly might not realise her own shortcomings, is the high point.

If Debbie becomes the centre of the film, that’s only because Raymond is so fatally lacking in self-awareness. (His solution when an associate rages about Debbie’s drug habit is to sack the associate.) Coogan is good at the bluster and the showmanship, less so when forced to contemplate himself mournfully in the mirror in that old standby shot for the character in need of depth. He will undoubtedly be a better actor once he can remove most of the traces of his key creation, the rancid minor celebrity Alan Partridge, and of himself. There are Partridge-esque touches here, such as the attempted witticisms that lead to unforeseen conversational cul-de-sacs. Warming to the idea of himself as the Pied Piper as he gives Fiona a tour of his apartment, Raymond says: “Yes, follow me into the . . . well, not the sewer . . .” Not hard to imagine that line leaving Partridge’s curdled mouth.

Elsewhere it seems Raymond is being remade in Coogan’s image. It may be that the real Paul Raymond was an incorrigible impressionist, given to imitating Sean Connery during meals. (We’ve all done it.) But Coogan’s dinner-table impressions were such a big part of Winterbottom’s BBC series The Trip, it might have been prudent to steer clear of them, or else risk looking like the actor who is an accomplished accordionist in his spare time and argues on this basis that his character should play the accordion too.

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times