Inside Amy Schumer sends up Hollywood magnificently. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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This Inside Amy Schumer sketch about the media's treatment of "older" women is perfect

Passing the age of "believable fuckability".

If Julia Louis-Dreyfus chugging a pint of melted ice cream, then letting rip a sizeable, rasping fart doesn’t fill you with the kind of warmth usually stimulated by, say, a basket of puppies, I don’t think we can be friends.

And this is just a snippet of a sketch from this week’s season premiere of Inside Amy Schumer, which beautifully, caustically and, in a way quite seriously, rips it out of Hollywood’s treatment of older women. And by “older”, I mean forty to fifty-somethings, which, in an age where people regularly make it past 100, hardly seems old. We see Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette (both “older women” by Hollywood standards) join Louis-Dreyfus in celebrating her last day of “being fuckable”.

Louis-Dreyfus explains that this is the point at which the media decides that, as an actress, you’ve surpassed the age of believable fuckability. So, where you were once cast as a sexpot, you’re now cast as a long sweater-wearing frump. It’s when you start getting offered sexless and dowdy roles like Mrs Claus. An apt example of this being Sally Field’s stealthy transformation from Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline to his mother in Forrest Gump. And no, the same rules do not apply to men.

Aged 65, Harrison Ford was still Indiana Jones. Aged 58, Bruce Willis was still vesting it up and refusing to die hard as John McClane. Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer, in her fifties, is hardly still playing Catwoman. Can you imagine? Well actually I totally can imagine, but I’m not Christopher Nolan, so tough tits.

But Louis-Dreyfus, the extremely fuckable Seinfeld and Veep star, is sanguine about her transition to unfuckableness, hence the ice cream-chugging and farting. She can let it all hang out now. “I can grow my pubes out,” she says, shortly before being cast off in a ceremonial “no longer fuckable” rowing boat in the style of a funeral barge, with “Sally Field wuz here” carved into it.

Not only does this sketch throw ample shade at that toxic combination of sexism and ageism, ever present in show business, it’s also a giant “fuck you” to everyone still banging on about women not being funny. What’s more, it’s a true sign of women in comedy having reached a critical mass, where they can safely criticise the double standards that plague their own professional lives. They can also fart, talk about pubes and generally be extremely toiletty. And by “toiletty”, I mean (in short) unashamed of their bodily functions.

The more that gender politics are prodded and poked at in mainstream comedy, the closer we get to anything resembling equality on our screens. And if that prodding and poking also happens to involve farts, all the better. Because, I’m sorry, farts are funny. And toiletty, irreverent and pubic women are the future.

I’ve always been suspicious of comedy with a message. Generally speaking, moralising of any kind is about as funny as a replacement bus service. But this absolutely perfect Amy Schumer sketch manages to make a very serious point, without compromising a single LOL. This is what so many funny women do best.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear