Will Self: The business of clarification through the Perspex space-helmet of clarity

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

Scrutinising your own fuzzy face in the misty morning mirror, you hear this bewilderingly obscure dialogue emanating from the radio:

“Let me make it perfectly clear –”

“I’m going to have to interrupt you there: when you say you wish this matter to be perfectly clear, how clear do you mean?”

“As I said, I want there to be no confusion on this matter –”

“So, total clarity?”

“Absolutely.’’

“The metaphor is a visual one, is it not?”

“I’m sorry?’’

“The metaphor you use to express the idea that you wish your statements to be entirely comprehensible, and without any ambiguity, works by analogy with the visual field.’’

“Um . . . yes . . . well . . . s’pose so.”

“So, if I may pursue that analogy, should we think of this visual field as clear in the way a car windscreen might be clear?”

“Um . . . possibly.”

“In which case is your clarity a function of there being no object blocking the windscreen; or is it a matter of there being no opacity?”

“Ah. This all seems a little involved to me.”

“But minister, you’ve made it perfectly clear that you wish to be perfectly clear, and I’m only seeking to clarify that clarity.”

“You seem to be making the whole business rather murky to me.”

“Would it therefore be fair to say that the windscreen through which you perceive your own clarity is in itself rather murky?”

“That’s not what I meant –”

“But wait just a minute: you granted me the initial metaphor, I then extended it a little, but now you say that your understanding of that image is itself imperfect – ‘murky’ in fact.”

“Look, you aren’t going to bamboozle me – I stick to my initial point: I wish to make it perfectly clear.”

“I think everyone listening understands that, minister – what concerns them is that someone entrusted with such a serious matter is unable to assure the public that he himself is perfectly clear about his own clarity. That is all I wish to establish: are you?”

“What?”

“Are you clear about being clear?”

“I believe I am.”

“So, there are no splashes of birdshit on your windscreen or any other obstructions ?”

“None whatsoever.”

“And you are looking at this windscreen through a second windscreen that is also free from smut or grime?”

“Yes . . . yes, I am.”

“How do you fit this second windscreen inside the first? Is it warped around your face, like the Perspex of a space helmet – or is it mounted on a curious little frame that’s suspended a few inches in front of your eyes by aluminium struts secured with nickelalloy bolts that are counter-sunk in your cheekbones?”

“I think . . . you’re being rather ridiculously literal-minded about this metaphor –”

“Would you concede that to be literalminded is, in a manner of speaking, to spell everything out?”

“Yes – yes, that’s true . . .”

“Which is surely only another way of being perfectly clear?”

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

“Is it complexly the case?”

“Now you’re being facetious.”

“No, no, please . . . nothing was further from my mind – ”

“Is it, I wonder, so far from your mind that you can’t in fact see it with any clarity?”

“Are you being rhetorical, minister?”

“Possibly – although I do find this image amusing: you looking in the rear-view mirror at your own facetiousness, which is hundreds of yards off and speedily retreating, when suddenly you’re broadsided by me, because with this complicated visual prothesis attached to my face, once the bright light of reason begins to shine I’m unable to see anything at all.”

“That’s as may be, but all I’m seeking to establish is that objects – such as my facetiousness –may appear larger in the mirror.”

“I accept your apology.”

“Thank you very much, minister.”

“Thank you, John.”
 

"This all seems a little involved to me." Photo: Getty

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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What the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema means for actors

It’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie, Trumbo, which resembles television at its most unadventurous.

Speak to many film professionals today and you will hear the same cry: Give me a series! It’s not only the security of a long-term contract. There is also the attractiveness of high-calibre writing and the relative liberty of working for an AMC or an HBO, a Netflix or an Amazon, compared to a movie studio.

Directors such as Todd Haynes (who made Mildred Pierce for HBO during a seven-year hiatus from cinema that ended last year with Carol) and Steven Soderbergh (who has defected permanently to television and is currently in negotiations for a possible third round of his Cinemax series The Knick starring Clive Owen) both speak of the creative freedoms afforded them in the TV world.

Soderbergh is currently lining up a new HBO show, Mosaic, which will star Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund. It’s been described as an interactive, “choose your own adventure” experience that allows viewers to follow different narrative paths, presumably in the manner of the once-popular children’s books: “You find a sword. If you pick it up and slay the dragon, turn to page 48. If you, like, can’t be bothered or whatever, turn to page 65.”

The boundary between TV and film performers was once rigidly patrolled, with television the training ground for cinema; once an actor moved up to the major league, there would be ignominy in returning to the practice yard. It’s a truism to say this is no longer the case.

The traffic of familiar faces flows freely back and forth without snobbery or preconceptions. And though there are still actors who can be TV A-listers while remaining unknown in the film world – Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), both former residents of Coronation Street, spring to mind – it is more common now for a performer’s star value to be bankable across the TV/cinema divide.

A case in point is Bryan Cranston, who was a reliable and recognisable TV actor for many years, often in a comic capacity (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle), before he became an outright star for playing an accidental crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. In Cranston’s case, his TV success must have helped push Trumbo into production, a new film in which he plays the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, The Brave One), who continued writing under other names after being blacklisted for being a Communist.

Like some of the other movies that have addressed the same dark period in Hollywood’s history (Guilty By Suspicion, One of the Hollywood Ten), Trumbo is all conscience and no panache. Cranston doesn’t discredit himself in the lead – he is studied, level-headed and workmanlike, and he has one wordless and especially powerful scene, when he is humiliated during a body search before being admitted to his prison cell.

But it’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie that resembles television at its most unadventurous. Sure, he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But that figures. Hollywood adores him (rightly so) but it also loves atoning for its sins in drearily respectable dramas like Trumbo.

My favourite example of the richness that can come from the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema is the case of Alec Baldwin. Here is an actor whose career has been at various points promising, fascinating and mysteriously self-sabotaging. But Tina Fey’s fiendishly inspired NBC sitcom 30 Rock has been his salvation. Having only caught occasional episodes of it over the years, I am currently picking my way through every minute of it and marvelling at the interplay between Baldwin’s real-life persona and career and that of his character, Jack Donaghy.

When this sort of thing is done badly, it can capsize a scene and even an entire movie – the new superhero comedy Deadpool, which features Ryan Reynolds in character cracking jokes about Ryan Reynolds, is a particularly grisly example. But 30 Rock gets the balance right in a way that creates a dazzling comic frisson.

There are numerous references to Baldwin’s filmography but the boldest overlap yet occurs in the 100th episode when Donaghy launches into a warning against the dangers of movie stars appearing on television. What it amounts to is a précis of Baldwin’s own career:

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbour, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. Be the biggest thing on the small screen [but] you want to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”

The joke, of course, is that 30 Rock didn’t sink him – it saved him. Bryan Cranston is a fine actor whose career won’t be waylaid by a few dull choices. But it would be encouraging to see the goodwill he built up from Breaking Bad (or from being great in poor movies such as Argo) being parlayed into movies that took chances or played with the form in some way, as shows like 30 Rock and Breaking Bad have been able to do.

Dalton Trumbo was a firecracker of a writer; it’s a shame that the movie that now bears his name lacks any of the sizzle he brought to the screen.

Trumbo is on release.

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.