Pathos: Tom Morris’s 2012 production for ENO. Photo: Rex Features
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Those most offended by John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer haven’t seen it

It's a case of knee jerk by proxy, says Nicholas Lezard.

Here we go again: another controversy about The Death of Klinghoffer. This opera, about the murder of a wheelchair-bound passenger on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, has been giving nervous observers conniptions since its composition in 1991 – largely because it gives the Palestinian terrorists who killed Klinghoffer singing roles, and dares to suggest a parallel between the postwar fate of exiled Jews and the postwar fate of Palestinians uprooted by the creation of Israel in 1948. All this is a pity, because in many people’s opinion, including mine, it is the greatest opera of the second half of the 20th century. Its only competition, many also say, is Nixon in China, written by the same team of John Adams (score) and Alice Goodman (libretto).

The interesting, if depressing thing, is that the people who would wish to prevent audiences from seeing Klinghoffer, or companies from performing it, have not only not seen it: they have made a point of not seeing it. Or hearing it. The latest brouhaha has involved the Anti-Defamation League and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met will be staging the work later this year but will not, as it does with other major productions, be simulcasting it in cinemas around the world. Here is what Abraham H Foxman, national director of the ADL in the United States, has to say on the matter: “While I haven’t personally seen the opera, numerous experts on anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict on the ADL staff have, and our objections are based on their analyses and a full reading of the libretto.”

You could say that a self-appointed censor who has not seen the work he wishes to suppress is not doing his job fully; but perhaps he doesn’t have to, for this is how the mind of the self-appointed censor works. I would also query the use of the phrase “full reading”. I think the suggestion is that they read it and gave it their full understanding. Which would suggest they had not read the bits that give eloquent voice to the victims of the terrorists’ outrages – specifically, Klinghoffer and his wife, who has the last, most moving, word.

It is in and around the complexities of individuals caught up in history that Goodman’s two libretti have worked so far (she’d have continued in this vein with her and Adams’s treatment of J Robert Oppen­heimer in Doctor Atomic, but withdrew from that project after a year). It is perhaps unwise of Foxman to use so many weasel words in such a short paragraph when Goodman’s works are masterpieces of poetic concision. I would also query his use of “personally” in this context, which is a very loud leper bell announcing deep stupidity. Could he be said, then, to have seen it impersonally?

People who denounce a work of art without having seen it cannot, under any circumstances, be said to have made up their own mind. More worrying is the role of the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, who is, never mind cutting the potential worldwide audience for Klinghoffer by at least three million (roughly a thousand times its seating capacity), also presiding over an institution on the verge of crisis, trying to cut the pay of his unionised (and non-subsidised) performers while working out how to stop his audiences from dying of old age.

The irony is that it is precisely works such as Klinghoffer which show that opera is an art form capable of wrestling with the modern world; which bring young people to opera even at the risk of offending sensibilities (Melanie Phillips’s, for one; she calls the work an “obscenity”; when I asked her if she’d seen it she told me she’d “read the entire libretto”, which is not exactly the same thing. I love that use of the word “entire”; it comes close to “personally”. And reading the libretto takes up so much less of one’s evening, don’t you find?

The objections to Klinghoffer are bipartite. 1. It traduces the memory of its titular character and his wife. This is the objection raised, loudly and often, by their daughters, and deserves consideration, but no one who has seen the opera will say that the Klinghoffers are treated with anything other than sympathy, respect, dignity and tenderness. 2. It is anti-Semitic, an objection so fatuous that even Gelb – who, Alice Goodman says, “has handled this with incredible stupidity” – doesn’t use it. But the ADL does like a fight, as does the conservative pro-Israel press, and even Goodman’s “apostasy” (born Jewish in Minnesota, she is now an Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire) has been cited against her.

The last staging of Klinghoffer took place at the London Coliseum in 2012. I saw that production. The theatre had feared demonstrations but went ahead anyway. In the end, a lone Hasid stood quietly outside, his poster couched in the bathos-ridden form of the solitary protester. No one in the audience felt moved to anti-Semitism, or rushed to join Hamas, or cursed Israel. Instead, many of them were moved to tears.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories