Ring for reception: Tony Revolori as Zero (centre) in Wes Anderson's artfully fake hotel
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Travelling light: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson

Anderson’s style became paralysed around the time of The Royal Tenenbaums and this is no exception.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (15)
dir: Wes Anderson

Each year that passes without an announcement that Ralph Fiennes has agreed to be the lead in a Leonard Rossiter biopic is one to be regretted – but his performance in the Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel is the next best thing. Playing Gustave H, a voluble concierge whose fastidious manner gives way to tremors of panic, Fiennes is as skilful at exploring the shortfall between pretence and reality as Rossiter ever was. He can communicate a lifetime of disappointment in the tiniest slackening of the jaw, or a salacious fantasy in the twitch of an eyebrow. He brings mischief and joy to a film that is in most other respects closed off.

Gustave can be demure and earthy, often at the same time, whether boasting about his sexual encounters with an 83-year-old society dame (“I’ve had older”) or cutting short his own reverie on humanity (“Oh, fuck it”). He insists that his staff are spick and span but it seems he could at any moment fall apart. His response to being suspected of murder following the death of his elderly conquest Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is to absorb the news silently, wait a beat, then bolt madly into the distance. But he can regain his pretensions and composure in an instant. Receiving a visitor while in prison, he explains away his purple eye with a fanciful monologue that could just as easily have run: “You should see the other guy . . .”

The death of Madame D and the reading of a will in which she bequeaths a priceless painting to Gustave are the catalysts for a convoluted, caper-style plot that would be as exhausting to recount as it is exasperating to follow. One consolation for a viewer not persuaded by this forced zaniness is the delicate friendship between Gustave and the hotel’s lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). It doesn’t offer any advance on the mad mentor/wise protégé relationships in some of Anderson’s previous movies but it is enchanting in a way the mechanical narrative never is.

The period is 1940s wartime – though what we see are parallel hostilities in a fictional universe, rather than the Second World War. Presumably this is to insulate the comedy from actual suffering. A Wes Anderson film that touched at any point upon reality would scarcely be able to bear his name.

That is not to say that his movies aren’t emotionally alive. Yet a viewer’s tolerance to the arch dialogue, painstakingly composed tableaux and infinitely detailed sets can depend on how much spontaneity and human warmth is allowed to leak in. Anderson’s first two features, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, remain his most exhilarating because he was still learning and experimenting; his visual technique had a looseness that offset the tight, literary writing.

Around the time of his third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums, his controlled style became paralysed and it has been a matter since then of looking out for occasional vital signs. Pain and longing used to be palpable in his films no matter how manufactured the world he concocted. To compare the unrequited love story in Rushmore with the twee romantic subplot in The Grand Budapest Hotel is like placing a Leonard Cohen lyric next to a Hallmark card.

The intensity of the artifice cuts off most avenues for engagement. Anderson uses ostentatiously fake backdrops to alert us to the facade, just as Fellini did in And the Ship Sails On. The entire picture is built like a nest of Russian dolls, from the script’s triple-flashback structure to the recurring images of windows and trapdoors opening to create separate frames within the film frame. What smothers the comedy is the palpable effort that goes into each set piece or joke. The whimsical tone grows wearisome when the gags fall flat. There are several episodes here, including a prison break and a montage of international concierges (“the Society of Crossed Keys”), in which the space for laughter or admiration may be filled instead by incredulity that Anderson went to so much trouble for such paltry returns.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt