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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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