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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis