Gilbey on Film: Playing God

Divine presences in the movies.

I was tickled and strangely moved by Simon Rich’s recent New Yorker piece, “Unprotected,” which imagines life from the point of view of a condom confined for many years to its wrapper in the wallet of an unlucky young American. Apparently I am the last person in the world to cotton on to the talents of the 29-year-old humourist, who has already published several collections and novels, and enjoys the distinction of being the youngest writer ever employed by Saturday Night Live - they snapped him up when he was 24. Not that he even looks that old now. To paraphrase an old Morrissey line, he clearly found the fountain of youth and fell in. Owen Jones could plausibly be employed as his babysitter.

In a hurry not to fall even farther behind the curve, or to have a more-than-usually wide chasm between my finger and the pulse, I turned to his latest novel. Rich’s first book, Elliot Alagash, has already been optioned by the filmmaker Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) with the author on board to write the screenplay. (By the by, he is also writing a film for Pixar.) It probably won’t be long before this latest book, What in God’s Name (published this week by Serpent’s Tail), goes the same way. (To the screen, I mean. It wouldn’t do for Jason Reitman to get his mitts on everything.) It has a cracker of an idea. Here’s the opening scene:

The CEO leaned back in his swivel chair and flicked on his flat-screen TV. There was some kind of war going on in Venezuela. He forced himself to watch for a few minutes: it was the type of thing that people would expect him to know about. Last week at a meeting, some woman had asked him if he’d “heard about Ghana.” He’d grinned and given her a thumbs-up, because he knew Ghana had just qualified for the World Cup. But it turned out she’d been talking about a genocide.

He squinted hard at the TV, but within a few minutes, his eyes were glazed over with boredom. He decided to take a quick break. He would watch something else for five minutes, ten minutes max. Then he would flip back to the Venezuela thing […]

A young man poked his head into the office.

“God? Are you busy?”

God quickly flipped back to the war.

“Um … just trying to do something about this Venezuela thing!” he said, gesturing vaguely at the TV. “There’s a war there.”

So God is the bored, complacent CEO of Heaven, Inc. He’s thinking of jacking in the Earth (fire or ice, he can’t quite decide) and devoting his time instead to opening an Asian-American fusion restaurant offering pretentious food at affordable prices. But two angels in the Miracles department really care about Earth, and strike a bargain with God: if they can get two human beings to fall in love within 30 days, the planet will get another chance.

It sounds cute, right? It is cute. But it’s also lively and funny and compassionate, with prose that is light and beautifully measured.

The inevitability of a movie version reaching cinemas at some point got me thinking about the tradition of God in the movies. There have been surprisingly few filmmakers (and actors) willing to put the deity into tangible form on screen. Probably my favourite example is from television. In the “Batteries” episodes from The Sarah Silverman Program, Silverman has a one-night stand with God (Tucker Smallwood). To her chagrin, He’s still there in the morning—and He’s clingy. (Later she uses Him for her own ends when she wants to show up at her high-school reunion and trump her former classmates with her impressive new boyfriend. Perhaps the nicest touch is His little “GOD” nametag.)

With those clips being sadly unavailable online outside the US, as far as I can see, here are five other examples of actors playing God:

Ralph Richardson in Time Bandits:

Alanis Morissette (replacing the original choice, Emma Thompson) in Dogma

George Burns in Oh, God!

Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty

Groucho Marx in Skidoo

 

Groucho Marx, who played God in "Skidoo" (1968) (Photograph: Getty Images)

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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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