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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496