Bluster, blandness and poignancy in Morgan Spurlock's One Direction: This Is Us

One Direction's first film manages to balance contradictory versions of its mega-famous subjects to great effect, giving glimpses of both the public and private incarnations of the band members.

One Direction: This Is Us (3D) (PG)
dir: Morgan Spurlock

When the five-piece boy-band One Direction perform in the concert sequences of their first film, they are dwarfed at all times by vast fragmented images of themselves on video screens behind them. This is for the benefit of those fans seated so far back that they’re in a different postcode, but it also provides an ongoing metaphor for fame, which inflates people to many times their natural size while also breaking them into innumerable pieces and dispensing them among their worshippers. The special accomplishment of One Direction: This Is Us is to balance these contradictory versions of its subjects. On one hand, they are pop-culture titans who take in their skinny-jeaned stride a show in Mexico City before an audience of 65,000. On the other, they hide mischievously inside wheelie bins, loll around hotel suites in their pants and wonder aloud why Japan isn’t hotter when it sits, after all, slap-bang next to Australia.

The film intersperses excerpts from live shows with plentiful off-stage footage from the group’s first world tour, as well as a brief recap on their reality TV origins for those of us who haven’t watched The X Factor since the days of Peters & Lee. In that way, it works as both primer and fan-club memorabilia. There are childhood snaps and TV footage from a bygone era (i.e 2010). An extra-camp Simon Cowell, hands draped over a dainty teacup, explains how the fans propelled One Direction beyond their bronze finish in the X Factor final and into mega-stardom, but not how he manages to forge a centre parting in his busby-like hairdo.

Morgan Spurlock, who made his name directing gimmicky docu-comedies including Super Size Me, has a lot of fun with the disparity between the public and private incarnations of the band members. One, Liam, returns to the family home only to be spooked by a full-sized cardboard standee of himself, which his parents have installed in his room. What do you mean, “only a mother could tell them apart”? On the contrary, another miracle of Spurlock’s movie is that it brings to life as individual personalities these men who until now seemed to the uninitiated like little more than advertisements for maximum-hold hair product, with bodies attached.

Apart from Liam (big lug, credulous, sincere), let me introduce you to Niall (chirpy blonde goofball) and Zayn (brooding matinée-idol type). Less quirky is Louis, who has a touch of Stepford about him. But there’s always the rakish Harry, the band’s Lennon, prone to larking around during photo-shoots (“Do a normal one, please, Harry!”) but aware of when to hang back, say nothing, bide his time. He has a dry wit, too: contemplating the days when it seemed Zayn might be ejected from the group, he says, “Imagine:  Niall would have had to be the mysterious one.” (That’ll be Niall who farts in the tour bus, then denies it.)

Harry’s timing and fashion sense – he can carry off a trenchcoat while his bandmates slum it in hoodies – make it easy to imagine him in a members’ club in middle-age, though he must be wary of becoming the next Alex James. Come to think of it, that’s sage advice for anyone.

In touching on the neuroses of life in an unimaginably successful teen-bait chart act, One Direction: This Is Us doesn’t kill the monster in the manner of Head, the 1968 Monkees film which deconstructed the pop dream. But neither does it merely feed that monster; truer to say the film approaches it with the deepest curiosity, sometimes venturing inside the cage, elsewhere recoiling and prodding it with a stick. A recurring theme is the group’s amazement at how precisely they can modulate the behaviour of many thousands of strangers. To prove that One Direction have the most dedicated fans in the world, Niall rises at one point from the chair where he is being interviewed, bounces across the silent hotel room and throws open the window, where a swelling roar announces itself from the streets below. Spurlock wisely confines this all to one unbroken shot, like a conjuring trick, and the effect is reprised again and again—most spectacularly when the band peeks over the top of the Arena di Verona at thousands of fans whose volume they can raise or lower with the tiniest gesture.

It’s easy to see a strong sexual element here: five young men controlling the temperature of an entire city’s female pubescent population with a mere flick of their wrists. But the situation plays in reverse too. The ravenous young women have the upper hand when they make it impossible for the group to leave a tiny Amsterdam sportswear shop. “One of ‘em tried to grab me ear,” laughs Liam, with the same degree of amused confusion with which the band greet the prospect of miso soup.

If the scenes of hysteria align One Direction: This Is Us with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, the picture’s melancholy undercurrent brings it closer to a more emotionally conflicted pop movie such as the insightful In Bed with Madonna – and not only because Martin Scorsese, bringing his daughter backstage at Madison Square Garden to meet One Direction, offers the most awkward celebrity compliment since Kevin Costner told Madonna her show was “neat.” Generous screen time is given to One Direction Snr – the group’s parents, that is – who pine for their sons as if they’ve just departed for the trenches. The fathers seem almost fearful of how their boys will have changed once they return from the theatre of war, or in this case, sixteen nights at the O2 Arena. (That place can be nasty. Have you seen what they ask for a hot dog?)

There is plenty of room for contemplation from the musicians themselves. During a staged camping trip, they ponder whether they will always be friends, and how strange it is that one day they won’t be doing “this” any more. Liam worries that people only like him because he’s a celebrity, while Harry points out that being called famous is no match for being considered a nice guy. It’s awfully poignant – like seeing the realisation of mortality dawning on a puppy’s face – and it tempers sweetly the bluster of the live shows, the blandness of the songs.

The band’s ambivalence about fame is expressed most piercingly during those digressions in which they dress in disguise to mill among their admirers, safe in the knowledge that no one would want to rip an ear from the head of the elderly, hirsute, overweight or ugly. When Niall dons whiskers and a padded suit to pose as a One Direction-hating security guard showing fans to their seats, he is flirting with what it would feel like to be anonymous, ignored, undesirable. “One Direction are crap,” he rages at the startled concertgoers before making his exit. “All go home!” In common with many parts of this sophisticated movie, it may be fake but that doesn’t make it any less real. 

(L-R) Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan of One Direction. Photo: Getty

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.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain