Can't we just ban sequels for a few months?

Ryan Gilbey wonders why <em>Despicable Me 2</em> had to be made.

I have no time for sequel snobs but lately I have found myself fantasising about a small breather from the Part 2s and Episode 3s, a brief but significant moratorium on the whole franchise farrago. These thoughts were prompted by seeing Despicable Me 2, a completely redundant follow-up to the perfectly delightful 2010 original. The friction in the first film arose from the mismatch between the professional bad guy Gru (voiced splendidly by Steve Carell) and the three cutie-pie orphan sisters whom he adopted as part of a plan to foil his rival in super-villainy. Knowing that Gru would surrender to his mushy paternal impulses and renounce evil by the final scene did nothing to spoil our enjoyment at seeing his beastly façade fall away piece by piece. The challenge with the sequel is where to take Gru now that his heart has thawed. Despicable Me 2 fails completely to provide an answer, floundering around instead for 100 minutes searching for inspiration. There’s nothing left for Gru to do. How many life lessons can one super-villain learn?

My plan – and I appreciate fully that this would sound to some people like super-villainy itself – would be to arrest all production on sequels for six months. Too harsh? Okay: how about three? Just enough time to give inspiration an opportunity to flourish among the major studios, in much the same way that Glastonbury is sometimes suspended for a year to allow the land a chance to recover from all those hobnailed boots traipsing from the Pyramid Stage to the falafel stalls and back again. One precedent is the Pop Strike proposed in 2001 by Luke Haines, when he called all fellow musicians and consumers of music to down tools for a week. It was never going to work – I’m sure it was never intended to – but it was enough to make audiences think about the presence of music in their lives. I wouldn’t suggest a similar black-out for the whole of cinema, but a hiatus from sequels might give everyone – filmmakers, distributors and audiences alike – room to contemplate a populist cinema that didn’t depend only on known quantities.

I’m under no illusion that this would automatically result in works of startling originality. Sequels are not the only source of complacency. Occasionally they even become towering achievements in their own right, the obvious examples being the second Godfather and Toy Story films or the recent Before Midnight. But that’s rare. What an interesting winter period we might have next year, though, if all sequel production were to be halted in the next few months, thereby clearing a gap in the release schedules for Christmas 2015. I don’t think we could help but feel refreshed by an absence of the numbers “2” and “3” from cinema marquee displays. Children would gaze up at those unfamiliar titles, those celebrations of the zero-recognition factor, and ask plaintively: “What’s that film about, Mum?” And Mother would smile at her wee ragamuffin and say: “I don’t know, sweetheart. Why don’t we go and find out?” Cue twinkly, uplifting music and a soaring eye-of-God crane shot looking down fondly as parent and child seek sanctuary and inspiration in the cinema.

It’s moving, isn’t it? And it’s an especially tantalising project as we look over the upcoming summer releases: The Wolverine, The Smurfs 2, Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc), Red 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Grown Ups 2, Kick Ass 2. And there’s more to come in the rest of the year: Insidious 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Paranormal Activity 5, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

But those of us who yearn for a tiny reprieve might look to the box-office figures and despair. Monsters University has taken over $105m in less than a week on release in the US. This year’s Fast and Furious 6 has grossed $647m worldwide – and rising. Iron Man 3 – a highly enjoyable sequel, as it happens – has taken over $1bn internationally since its release in May, and even a lacklustre knock-off such as The Hangover Part III has converted audience goodwill into a staggering $325m. The numbers are against us. But we can dream.

Despicable Me 2 is released 28 June

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in Despicable Me 2.

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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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