Films of the year

The best movies of 2012.

You didn’t ask for it, you may not even have wanted it, but it would be remiss of us not to provide it anyway: yes, it’s the New Statesman’s film awards 2012, packed with intrigue, wonder and rash or contradictory judgements. You’ve read the rest, now read… another one.

Films of the year

1. Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán’s eloquent documentary interweaves two apparently unrelated subjects - astronomy, and the search for the remains of those “disappeared” by the Pinochet regime - so that they become mutually enriching metaphors for one another. The testimonies of astronomers and bereaved families alike create a searching philosophical reflection on the mysteries of heaven and earth. This is a film about illumination that is itself profoundly illuminating. 

2. On the Road 

There wasn’t much love around for Walter Salles’s years-in-the-making film of Jack Kerouac’s definitive Beat novel. But I maintain it’s one of the most intelligent and cinematic literary adaptations in recent years—not least for its determination to use film language to interrogate the ambiguities and elisions of the original novel while still evoking the spirit that drove the Beat generation.

3. Amour 

Some admirers of Michael Haneke’s film, about an elderly married couple staring mortality in the face, valued its power to squeeze the tear-ducts. Am I a brute for not crying? I felt the picture’s classical and sometimes disorienting storytelling style headed off at the pass any overtly emotional response. Not that it isn’t a moving film - but Haneke seems to apply an analytical framework to a traditionally emotive subject. It’s as though he’s musing aloud on the logistics of old age and dying.

4. Beauty

I hadn’t seen the previous work by the South African director Oliver Hermanus, but on the evidence of Beauty - a chilling, controlled study of a closeted man’s obsession with his daughter’s male friend—he is a master filmmaker.

5. Elena

Some of the promise of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 debut, The Return leaked away with its contrived follow-up, The Banishment, but he was back in full control this year with Elena, a tense story of marital discord and class tensions.

Honourable mentions

This Is Not a Film; The Myth of the American Sleepover; Tabu; Faust; The Imposter; Holy Motors;  Moonrise Kingdom; The Raid.

Comedy of the year

When I canvassed friends on the subject of this year’s truly hilarious film comedies, many of them singled out the comic reboot of the old TV high-school/cop show, 21 Jump Street, which I am informed is a fountain of merriment. I’m a promiscuous laugher, but only three films really tickled me this year: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and the Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle, The Dictator. The latter featured a brilliant sustained monologue on the apparent wonders and liberties of America.

Actors of the year

Jérémie Renier as the singer-songwriter Claude François in Cloclo; Denis Lavant in all his various guises in Holy Motors; Kylie Minogue, in a magnificent raincoat, bringing extra class and poignancy to the same film; Greta Gerwig turning the simplest reaction shot into a showcase of comic genius in Damsels in Distress; Mads Mikkelsen as a man accused falsely of child abuse in The Hunt.

Unnecessary cosmetic work of the year

The eye-job, be it digital or prosthetic, given to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. Look, if we can be trusted with the convoluted time travel plot, I think we can buy JG-L as a younger version of Bruce Willis’s character without the distracting makeover.

Michael Fassbender Performance of the Year

Michael Fassbender is so prolific that it would be unfair to lump him in with a run-of-the-mill Best Actor category, so this special award has been established in his honour. Am I alone in preferring him when he’s in a more comical mode? He has a gift, rare among heavyweight performers, for a dandyish lightness. That’s why the Michael Fassbender Performance of the Year award for 2013 is a tie between two elegantly amusing turns: as a dashing killer in Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy thriller Haywire and as a beautiful, as-good-as-gay robot in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his own Alien.

David Cronenberg film of the year

Fassbender also cropped up in the best David Cronenberg film of the year, A Dangerous Method, a bittersweet film about the Freud/Jung smackdown in early-20th-century Vienna. More complete and finely-textured, I felt, than the same director’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

Most overrated film of the year

Shame. Michael Fassbender yet again. His second collaboration with the artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (after Hunger, and ahead of 2013’s Twelve Years a Slave) has been called uncompromising. Flash forward a few years and I wager it’ll be seen for what it is: a po-faced 1950s-style public information film in chic clothing.

Opening credits sequence of the year

Berberian Sound Studio - not the film itself, though Peter Strickland’s eerie thriller about a shy sound effects maestro (Toby Jones) is accomplished in its own right, but the batty credits of the film-within-the-film, a giallo shocker called The Equestrian Vortex.

Best use of food in a movie

Berberian Sound Studio again: for the pulverised melons and the stabbed cabbages. Runner-up: fried chicken in Killer Joe.

Best use of pre-existing music

Young Adult for playing Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” over and over again as a key to the precarious mental state and arrested devlopment of its main character.

The WTF? award for repellent and extraordinary outlandishness

Headhunters: for the scene in which the hero, covered in raw sewage, drives a tractor with a dead dog as a hood ornament. Don’t ask - but do see the film. It’s a riot.

Good performance, shame about the movie

Sean Penn as a dazed Goth rock-star in This Must Be the Place.

Ending of the year

A tie between The Hunt and Shadow Dancer, which starred Andrea Riseborough as an IRA informer. Both endings pulled off the tricky combination of being genuinely surprising, emotionally open-ended but also poetically final.

Groundbreaker of the year

ParaNorman: a breathlessly inventive horror movie for children but also the first mainstream animated feature to include a gay character among its main protagonists.

Director of the year

I was thinking of giving this title to a film director, Danny Boyle, for his work outside cinema - namely, the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I have always been slightly underwhelmed by Boyle’s films, slick entertainments with a populist component but little of that complex, lingering after-taste that comes with enduring art. His directing job on the opening ceremony, though, was both heartfelt and stimulating - the best Danny Boyle movie never made. Another contender would be Leos Carax for his equally ambitious Holy Motors. It shared with the opening ceremony a historical breadth, though in this case it was the history of cinema and performance that was being celebrated, rather than that of a nation. Boyle and Carax also impressed in their marshalling of spectacle. Both the opening ceremony and Holy Motors could have been unkempt and incoherent but both adhered more closely than you might think to their own jubilant narratives. I watched them in a state of rapture. In the final analysis, though, the title of director of the year should go to Jafar Panahi, the persecuted Iranian filmmaker, for making the extraordinary and defiant This Is Not a Film while under house arrest - with a special mention to all who played their part in smuggling the picture out of Iran and into cinemas across the world.

Stars of Holy Motors Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant (Photo: 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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Survival of the smallest: the contested history of the English short story

Reports of the form’s death – and rebirth – have always been greatly exaggerated.

“The short story is enjoying a powerful renaissance”, ran a headline in the Spectator in September last year. “After decades of neglect,” it added, “the genre is very much back in fashion.” This isn’t true, but when it comes to short stories fake news is ubiquitous.

Other recent announcements of the short-story renaissance include one in 2014, when the Daily Telegraph called it “the perfect literary form for the 21st century” because brevity suits our dwindling attention span (more on the stupidity of that argument later); in 2013, when the short-story specialists Alice Munro and Lydia Davis won the Nobel and the Man Booker International Prizes, respectively; and in 2012, which Bloomsbury proclaimed “the year of the short story”, publishing five collections in as many months.

It is often said that publishers don’t like short stories because they don’t sell: it’s assumed this proves that readers don’t like them either. Yet, rather than accept the genre as a minority interest, there is always someone – a journalist, a prize jury, a publisher – announcing its comeback.

While bitter experience has shown poetry exactly where it stands in the marketplace, and the novel has shrugged off multiple reports of its death and maintained pre-eminence, the short story is continually characterised as the neglected form that will be great again. The funny thing is, when you explore its history you find the perception of a distant golden age, an undistinguished present and a return to glory has always been around: the short story has a problem with reality.

“The ’nineties,” as H G Wells wrote in the preface to his collection The Country of the Blind (1911), “was a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer.” Thanks to the range of journals available and the quality of their editorship, he believed, “No short story of the slightest distinction went for long unrecognised . . . Short stories broke out everywhere.”

By 1911 things were different. Kipling had gone off the boil (he hadn’t, in fact, but that’s another argument); so had Max Beerbohm and Henry James. Only Joseph Conrad, Wells thought, was producing work equal to his pre-1900 output, but this wasn’t enough to stop the “recession of enthusiasm” for the short story.

At the end of his 1941 study The Modern Short Story, H E Bates predicted that short fiction would be the “essential medium” of the war and its aftermath. In a 1962 article he admitted his mistake, and in the preface to a 1972 reissue of The Modern Short Story he wrote: “My prophecy as to the ­probability of a new golden age of the short story, such as we had on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and 1930s was . . . dismally unfulfilled . . . Even before the war in England the little magazines to which writers of my generation contributed . . . were already dead or dying.” And dolefully he concluded, “This then is the situation of the short story today; if it is not quite one of unmitigated gloom it is certainly not bright.”

Yet that same year Christopher Dolley, in The Second Penguin Book of English Short Stories, noted that, “far from continuing its supposed decline, the short story is enjoying a revival all the more encouraging when viewed against the gloom surrounding the future of the literary novel”. Was Bates merely wrong or reactionary? It appears not.

The avant-garde author B S Johnson, said his collaborator, Zulfikar Ghose, conceived the 1964 collection Statement Against Corpses in response to the “wretched state” into which the English short story had fallen. The pair saw it as “our destiny to revive the form”.

In 2004, in an essay about (what else?) the renaissance of the short story, William Boyd remembered that:

When I published my first collection of stories, On the Yankee Station, in 1981, many British publishers routinely brought out short-story collections. Not any more. Moreover, there was a small but stable marketplace where a story could be sold. A short-story writer could place his or her work in all manner of outlets. The stories in my first collection, for example, had been published in Punch, Company, London Magazine, the Literary Review and Mayfair, and had been broadcast on the BBC . . . Today, in the UK especially, it has never been harder to get a short story published. The outlets available to a young writer that I benefited from in the 1980s have virtually dried up.

And yet Boyd identifies a new enthusiasm for the short story, primarily because of the boom in postgrad creative writing courses, whose workshop model well suits their composition and analysis.

Leaving aside the contradiction between the desolation of Bates’s postwar period and the thriving 1980s scene Boyd remembers, the number of magazines that paid writers for stories peaked between the 1890s and the 1930s. If you were prodigious enough during this period, it was entirely possible to earn a living from short stories. Never­theless, the authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and F Scott Fitzgerald, who might earn the modern-day equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds for a single story, were always outliers. As Philip Hensher notes in the introduction to his Penguin Book of the British Short Story (2015), what magazines were paying for stories in the late 1880s had barely changed by the 1930s.

If discussions of the short story’s reception lead us into boggy ground, so do attempts to define precisely what the short story is. In his introduction to the impressive Cambridge History of the English Short Story, the first single-volume study of its type, the editor, Dominic Head, avoids doing so, and this is very much par for the course. In his 1991 essay “On Defining Short Stories”, Allan H Pasco wrote that those few critics who devote time to the short story “hedge on definitions, origins, major traits, on just about everything having to do with the short story as a genre”.

William H Gass, proposing one of my ­favourite definitions, proceeds by exclusion before moving into abstraction: “It is not a character sketch, a mouse-trap, an epiphany, a slice of suburban life. It is the flowering of a symbol centre. It is a poem grafted on to sturdier stock.”

In the Cambridge History, Ailsa Cox inadvertently coins a workable, albeit squarely economic, definition when she describes contemporary short fiction as “the least lucrative form of literary endeavour, apart from poetry”. Gerri Kimber, discussing the difference between story, novella and novel, says the difficulty lies with each form using the same techniques. Yet uncertainty needn’t be a bad thing: blurred boundaries can offer greater possibilities. Richard Ford considers it “a relief to observe how many disparate pieces of writing can be persuasively called short stories, how formally underdefined the short story still is in the minds and hands of writers”.

The uncertainty about what the short story is extends to when it began. Boccaccio lurks somewhere in the background, as do Chaucer and anecdote-laden jest books of the Elizabethan era. Some anthologists have gone back to the Old Testament and called the Books of Jonah and Ruth short stories, but these, with oral tales and passages from Homer, represent the form’s prehistory.

The short story as we understand it today is a 19th-century development. “We all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” – a statement that has been attributed to both Turgenev and Dostoevsky – is where Frank O’Connor begins his highly influential 1963 study, The Lonely Voice. Walter Allen, however, in The Short Story in English (1981), identifies Walter Scott’s “Two Drovers”, published 15 years before “The Overcoat”, in 1827, as the first modern short story. Elizabeth Bowen, in her 1936 introduction to The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, doesn’t go any further back than Maupassant and Chekhov, because, in her opinion, no one else has had such a powerful effect on the form’s development.

Maupassant, taught by Flaubert, brought an extreme objectivity and immediacy to the short story. Chekhov’s great innovation was to promote atmosphere above plot. His stories are less about what happens than how it is told; as Somerset Maugham jokingly said, “If you try to tell one of his stories there is nothing to tell.” Chekhov employs implication and melancholy to mysterious yet profound ends, and although James Joyce claimed not to have read him before he wrote Dubliners (published in 1914, but mostly written ten years earlier), the similarities in technique are striking. And to English and Irish readers, still, it is the stories in Dubliners – with their moments of epiphany, in which characters suddenly see themselves with all illusions stripped away – that define what is most commonly thought of as a short story.

There are undoubtedly skills that set you in good stead as a story writer, not least compression: it is logical that the short form should appeal most to those with the ability to say a lot in a short space of time (or to say a lot without saying much at all, as Raymond Carver achieved when he was edited by Gordon Lish). Beyond that, there are so many directions a writer can take. Most mainstream stories can be traced back to Chekhov or Maupassant, but not the postmodern provocations of Donald Barthelme, or the fable-like conundrums of Kafka, or the subverted fairy tales of Angela Carter, the thought experiments of Lydia Davis, nor even Alice Munro’s domestic Gothic. Perhaps it’s best to keep the definition simple, as John Barth does: short-story writers incline to see how much they can leave out, novelists to see how much they can leave in.

Edgar Allan Poe was even more practical than Barth in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. There he described a short story as a piece of work intended to be read in one sitting of up to an hour. Simplistic, perhaps – but it works, and explains why the short story is anything but the perfect form for a short attention span (a myth that often accompanies the renaissance narrative). In 2010, for instance, Neil Gaiman said short stories were “a wonderful length for our generation . . . perfect . . . for your iPad, your Kindle or your phone”.

What does this even mean? Given the need for a piece to be read at a single sitting – say, half an hour for the average New Yorker story – and the compression that demands constant and close attention to the text, it is bizarre to talk up the short story’s suitability for time-poor readers. War and Peace is enormously long but its chapters are short, taking five or ten minutes to read. It also includes a list of characters and, as Flaubert pointed out, Tolstoy often repeats himself. There’s a book for a crappy attention span.

It is understandable but unfortunate that the Cambridge History limits itself to fiction from the British isles and former colonies. Various contributors mention Chekhov and Maupassant, but the book’s focus doesn’t allow their centrality to the development of the short story to be established properly. Katherine Mansfield is discussed in the context of modernism and post-colonialism, but her huge debt to Chekhov, and the part she played in extending his influence to a subsequent generation of writers, is not. Other writers suffer from compartmentalisation: it feels old-fashioned to address the work of Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith primarily in the context of multiculturalism. The author of the chapter on this, Abigail Ward, issues a sort of apology for the term, but it would have been better to explore their work in wider contexts.

In its defence, the book covers enormous ground – colonial stories, rural stories, queer stories, comic stories – and makes room for obscure writers beside the heavyweights. There are flaws to compartmentalisation, yet how else to avoid incoherence when the history of the short story, wherever it begins, rapidly fragments into concurrent histories cutting separate channels? At least, with this approach, an expert writes each chapter. Highlights include Heather Ingman on the Irish short story and Roger Luckhurst on weird fiction, that amorphous zone between horror, fantasy and surrealism. Luckhurst and Ingman are excellent guides: able, as several of their fellow contributors are not, to give a strong flavour of individual writers’ styles while situating them within a theoretical framework.

Given the wealth of material available, it is a shame that so much discussion of the short story is infected with ill-informed debate about its popularity. It would be much more valuable to discuss the writing, which encompasses some of the greatest fiction in English: “The Signal-Man” by Dickens; “The Dead” by Joyce; Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”; Kipling’s “Mrs Bathurst”; J G Ballard’s “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island”; “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter. These, regardless of genre, are essential reading.

Quality, however, has little to do with popularity. The short story is and will remain a minority interest. This isn’t a defeatist position: if more weight were given to the work, and less to its popularity, some valuable stability could be established. Today, in qualitative terms, the short story is healthier in Ireland than in the UK, and yet there are good young writers out there, working with the form because it suits the stories they have to tell, not because it promises fame and financial reward. The renaissance is not under way and Nell Zink’s advice will be sound for a long time to come:

Don’t write short stories and poems unless you have a trust fund. No matter how perfect they are, no matter what prestigious magazine publishes them, each one will be 200 pages too short to pay the rent. 

Chris Power’s story collection, “Mothers”, will be published in 2018 by Faber & Faber

The Cambridge History of the English Short Story
Edited by Dominic Head
Cambridge University Press, 657pp, £99.99

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

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