Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix”.
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The digital world hasn’t saved us from being hoaxed – if anything, it has made it more likely

Meanwhile, the suspension of disbelief is getting harder and harder to pull off.

One of the strongest movies I saw in the recent London Film Festival, Christian Petzold’s psychological thriller Phoenix, depended for its success on a contrivance that not every viewer found easy to swallow. Petzold’s regular collaborator, Nina Hoss, plays a German Jew who returns to Berlin after surviving the concentration camps and undergoing reconstructive surgery for injuries sustained there. She catches up with her husband, who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis, but he doesn’t recognise her. The rest of the picture hinges on this fact, but for some it was a sticking-point as well as a plot-point. How could it be that a woman’s face had changed so fully in such a relatively short space of time that even a spouse could look upon her and see only the vaguest resemblance to the woman he married? I think you know where I’m going with this. I think you may be several steps ahead of me here.

Should Petzold be called upon in promotional interviews to justify this far-fetched scenario when Phoenix opens next year, he need only offer two words to silence the doubters: “Renée” and “Zellweger”. The world is not crying out for another opinion on Renée Zellweger’s face, so it’s just as well I don’t have one to give. But the incredulousness which greeted photographs last week of this actor’s transformed appearance resembles strongly the sort of reaction prompted by an outlandish plot twist. The tenor of response was not “I hate it” or even “she shouldn’t have done it” but “I don’t believe it”.

At its most extreme, that response could be interpreted as: “It’s not her.” We have seen Vertigo and The Skin I Live In and Face/Off and we are not dumb enough to fall for that. These celebrities will try anything. Remember Joaquin Phoenix and the nervous breakdown that turned out to be merely the preamble to a mockumentary which he then had the temerity to sell back to us? Nope: we won’t get fooled again.

It is the worst sort of gaucheness to be hoodwinked in the digital world – to be taken in by a photoshopped image, a hoax obituary, a scam e-mail. It induces in people the same sense of shame once felt by homeowners allowing into their houses a con-man who claimed to be from the gas board. We seem to believe that technology has delivered us far beyond the reach of those tricks that duped previous generations, when in fact its sophistication has simply facilitated infinite new avenues by which our naivety can be exploited. Part of the aggrieved reaction to this woman’s decision to alter her appearance is down to the suspicion that we are being taken for mugs. It’s not very different to the scoffing and snorting that goes on in a packed cinema when the suspension of disbelief required is simply too great for the audience to bear.

The question of what women in their forties are forced to do to their faces to maintain a career in movies seems far less relevant here than the problems which arise when an actor breaches a contract with the public – a contract signed not in their blood, but stamped with a seal bearing the image of their face. The history of popular culture is littered with performers who have been brought to book by fans saying in one form or another: “Hey! We made a deal!” We may think we own them, but we don’t, and they are as vulnerable as any of us to changes in temperament, outlook, philosophy and physiognomy. Dylan went electric. Brando went nuts. Zellweger got a new face. That’s entertainment.

Phoenix will be released next year

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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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood