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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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era