May 24, 2016

Trump and the art of the braggart

'Trump’s MO is much the same as Clay’s: constant declamation of his own worth (“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created…. I’m so good looking…. Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich…”) interrupted by restatements of the incompetence of his enemy. A man who has rendered himself an orange-hued cartoon for the purposes of reality TV, Trump has a master caricaturist’s instinct for turning his opponents, too, into cartoons (“low energy [Bush], Little Marco…. Lyin' Ted….”) so he can then kapow! them. His fame may have been incubated on reality TV and in the Twittersphere but his persona — big, brash, boastful — goes all the way back to the Wild West, and the tall-talking show offs, of somewhat fuzzy historical provenance, who spun the unfunny facts of frontier existence into comic fictions around the camp fire and bar room stove — Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack said to have created the Great Lakes to water his ox Babe, trained ants to do logging work and eat 50 pancakes in one minute; Sam Hyde (“the Munchausen of the red man”) who claimed to have killed a whale by plugging its spout hole; or Davy Crockett, the pioneer from Tennessee who told Congress in 1857, “I can walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel yell like an Indian, fight like a devil and spout like an earthquake, make love like a mad bull!” This is how the West was won: with boasting. “American braggadocio is more than usually distasteful” wrote novelist Anthony Trollope, rather missing the point. The Old World virtues of reserve and modesty were only possible in a heavily stratified society in which everyone knew his place and nobody pointed it out. Such tall frontier talk not only tamed fear and made friends of strangers, it established your bona fides in a fluid, fast-moving society that had largely cut loose from such social indices as class, family and birthplace. You were who you said you were, with all the elasticity of spirit and potential for charlatanism that implied.   “It is good to be shifty in a new country" says Joseph Hooper’s  Simon Suggs, one of many confidence tricksters who prowl the pages of 19th century American literature, suckering their unsuspecting compatriots — Melville’s The Lightning Rod Man, the Duke and the King in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Joseph Baldwin’s Ovid Bolus, a “natural liar” who lies “with a relish from the delight in invention”. In each case, these unscrupulous Fagins draw from the reader a certain amount of awe and respect together with a suspicion that the boundless self-assertion is barely a breath away from what makes America great. Edgar Allen Poe called his era “the epoch of the hoax.”' — from my column for 1843

May 21, 2016


'England can be a little proprietorial about its actresses. Reading between the lines of the stellar reviews (“the most entertaining performance in Kate Beckinsale's career,” “Kate Beckinsale is back to her best” “the meatiest part Beckinsale’s been given”), it’s not hard to detect a note of gentlemanly regret for the amount of werewolves she’s been forced to slay over the years. In the post-Hunger Games world, the idea of our leading Shakespereans perfecting their American accents and kicking butt in female-led actioners is par for the course: Kate Winslett attached her name to the Divergent franchise, and Emily Blunt signed up for more Edge of Tomorrows with Tom Cruise. Beckinsale was in many ways the first, proving her blockbuster mettle in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in 2001, before embarking on the Underworld films at a time when English actresses were still following the Emma Thompson model: one American film, then back to London for a recuperative spot of Shakespeare and a cold compress for the forehead. Beckinsale not only didn’t do that but she then left her English actor boyfriend Michael Sheen, to marry her Underworld director Len Wiseman — boo hiss!  — a neat triple blow to national pride. She   embraced American action auteurs, Los Angeles and vampire film franchises in one move, and paid for it in coverage that painted her as the English girl who had lost her head in Hollywood — a red carpet ditz.   “It's a really weird window of time,” she says. “It was at the time where if you moved to LA you were immediately an ass, in England. It was something that you had to apologize for constantly to press, to your family. It was immediately like, "You're going to become a dick. I was somebody who mainly seemed to walk around the red carpet, which was completely not the case. I spent 90 percent of my time rushing home to look after my kid, which was excellent protection. Nobody wants to try and shag the woman who's wearing a Baby Bjorn.” It’s not hard to see why Scorsese cast her as Ava Gardner in The Aviator. Beckinsale’s mixture of boldness, raunch and slight edging of camp harkens back to another, older tradition of female stars at the movies — the board, the dame, the vamp, as embodied by such Home Counties glamor queens as Liz Taylor, Joan Collins and Jane Seymour. Her favorite film is All About Eve, with Bette Davis letting loose one smart bomb after another.   “It's really fun seeing her with the paparazzi at Sundance. It was like a 1930's movie star,” says Stillman, “I've never seen so many flash cameras. I’m still blinded.” — from my interview for The Sunday Times

The death of the big screen

“That's certainly what the movie philosophers are thinking,“ says Lynda Obst veteran producer of Sleepless in Seattle and last year’s Interstellar. “As television, now, gets more and more deep into character and more like extended both Saturday afternoon matinees and indie movies, the job of movies is to become more and more extraordinary. We can't do the same job that television is doing so well.”  Film is the more purely visual medium. It has our full attention: each frame must pull its weight in terms of narrative or spectacle. We leave home to see it, and we want an experience that honors that spirit of adventure: we want to be swept of our feet, to go on a journey, to fall in love, to have our central nervous systems hijacked. That is why it is a director’s medium — it envelops us. TV comes to us, into our homes. It is casual, familiar, favouring habit-forming episodic narratives. That is why it is a writer’s medium.    The big screen glamorises; it’s stars the stuff of myth; the small screen is more like a member of the family. “I think you can probably watch Bridge of Spies at home but I wouldn't want to watch ET or Close Encounters of the Third Kind at home,” says Obst. “I wouldn't want to watch Revenant at home.  And something like The Avengers, it's too much fun laughing with the audience. So, these things are just communal experiences. We watch TV at home and we feel differently about television stars than we do about movie stars because the movie screen is much bigger and much more mythical. That's why the material is intrinsically different.”— from my piece for the Financial Times 

May 4, 2016


'The new Terrence Malick film Knight of Cups arrives in cinemas this week. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “the ongoing Terrence Malick project arrives back in theaters, after a protracted spell in the editing room, this week with some new actors in it.” His films have reached such a level of wispy abstraction that they have long since blurred into a single strip of celluloid — a  dance  of  beautiful actors baring their souls in fragments of dialogue and whispered voiceover, while  cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski bobs and weaves through the tall grass like a daydreaming Keats. This one  has  Christian Bale as a screenwriter adrift in the pleasure-dome of modern Hollywood, wandering from  night-club to pool party, frolicking with a series of willowy beauties — Frieda Pinto, Natalie Portman — who whisper  promises of damnation and deliverance  (“Where will I meet you? Which way shall I go? How do I begin?”) while trailing their hands in pools, or gamboling through surf. Bale wears the  grim-set expression of a man beset by sirens, although as critics have been quick to point out: Knight of Cups’s depiction of the Babylon of modern Hollywood both looks and sounds suspiciously like an advert for the fragrance one should wear while braving it. But then the film is only notionally about Hollywood, in the same way that The Thin Red Line was only tangentially about the war in the Pacific. All Malick films are about the same thing — man’s fall from grace, Paradise Lost — a theme he was worked and reworked in six film spanning four decades.  Working “from the inside out,” he shots many of his scenes twice, once with dialogue and once without,  giving him greater freedom in the cutting room, where he can layer up the scenes with voiceover and music, cutting the cord of direct engagement between audience and the drama, to kindle a mesmerised dependence on the opiate of imagery alone.  “He just got bored with his own writing and with our acting and started to see another movie in there,” said star Richard Gere of  Days of Heaven, the 1978 film shot almost entirely at the magic hour of dusk, and which took Malick two years to edit, so exhausting him he didn’t make another film for 20 years. “He was looking for God’s light” said costar Sam Shephard. It is a strong contender for the most beautiful movie ever made.' — from my piece for The New Statesman