My advice to Ben Affleck? Don't listen to the fans - they've been wrong before

Most of the "fans" who cried heresy when Ben Affleck was announced as the new Batman are fans of nothing but their own opinions. This isn't the first time they've been wrong.

Being Ben Affleck must be like riding a rollercoaster in a whirlwind. He has known ecstatic highs (winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon) and nausea-inducing lows, notably, when he became a walking punchline after making Gigli with his then-partner Jennifer Lopez—with whom, let us not forget, he also became the first recipient of the now-customary hybrid tabloid brand name. (Yes, before Brangelina there was Bennifer.) He takes all that with extremely good grace, which is why it’s no surprise to see how he has handled the most recent onslaught of opprobrium. This has been directed at him over the announcement that he will play Batman in Zach Snyder’s forthcoming Superman sequel Man of Steel 2.

I know, I know—this was supposed to be the moment when the world gave Affleck a break. How can any year which began with him winning a Best Picture Oscar (for the rather lacklustre Argo, which he directed and starred in) end up with Affleck back in the bad books? Well, it’s only the case if you listen to the most toxic, insidious and ramshackle fraternity in the entire entertainment universe. Not the studio executives. (And no, not the critics, before any of you wiseacres try that one.) I’m talking about They Who Must Never Be Heeded. In other words: the fans.

When the Batman news broke, the “fans”—I’m putting it in quote marks because they are patently fans of nothing but their own opinions—wasted no time complaining. This, to their minds, was the worst news of all time, or at least since they were last distracted from World of Warcraft for five minutes by the supposedly cataclysmic casting decision before this one. 90,000 people with nothing better to do signed their names to a petition calling for Affleck’s casting to be overturned. He dealt with it neatly on a US talk show this week: “I’m a big boy. [The studio] said just don’t use the internet for a couple of days … I’m very tough. I saw the announcement, I look down on the first comment … the first one just goes, ‘Nooooooooo!’”

As Affleck must know, this is the sort of palaver with which any change in the fanboy movie world is always greeted. In the pre-Twitter era, some 50,000 Batman fans were incensed enough to crack open the green ink and dash off letters to Warner Bros when it was announced in 1988 that Michael Keaton had been cast as Batman in Tim Burton’s first superhero film. Now, of course, any sane viewer can see that Keaton’s subtle, even sexy, portrayal of Batman as a tentative loner represented an oasis of contemplation in the midst of that chaotic movie; it also laid the groundwork for Christian Bale’s recent interpretation, which the braying hordes probably consider definitive. It isn’t. Film is cyclical. For all we know, moviegoers of the future will regard Bale’s Batman much as we now regard Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Talking of Bond, Daniel Craig’s casting provided another recent example of wrong-headed pre-emptive outrage. His arrival heralded a brave shift of tone for the Bond series, so it seems laughable now that his appointment was so derided, though in that instant the media were as blameworthy as the fans. “The press complained because he was blond, and said he looked like Vladimir Putin,” said Martin Campbell, who directed Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale. “I asked Daniel, ‘Do you listen to all this crap?’ He said, ‘Yeah. What I do is I make sure I’ve seen it all and that everyone on set knows what’s been in the press, then there’s nothing to hide.’ I thought that was a very perceptive way of dealing with it.”

In retail, the customer is always right. But we should remember that these hypothetical customers are only usually involved at the consumption end of the deal: they’re not patrolling the factory floor saying “Don’t use a screw of that diameter—are you goddamn nuts?” or “Only a freakin’ moron would make a chair like that!” If they are “right,” it is only ever after the fact. And so with the fans. Let them moan and bitch and whinge once Man of Steel 2 is released in 2015. Let them squeal to their shrivelled, unimaginative hearts’ content. Until then: put a sock in it.

Ben Affleck on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he assured viewers, "I'm very tough." Photograph: 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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times