Oct 30, 2010

ANNIVERSARY: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

"HOW old is ET? It's a tough call. Sixty? Six hundred? Six? The look of Steven Spielberg's creature was a calculated smudge, designed to provoke all kinds of responses. Explaining to designer Carlo Rambaldi what he had in mind, the director pasted Albert Einstein's eyes on to the head of a child. For the voice, he recruited the throaty tones of actress Debra Winger – an inspired composite of innocence and experience. For Close Encounters's aliens five years earlier, he had summoned childlike sylphs, haloed in light, but Spielberg knew that for more prolonged exposure to extra-terrestrial life, we needed textures we could touch, features we would recognise, not to mention a voice that sounded as if its owner had just come off a week-long bourbon binge.

ET the movie, on other hand, is 20 years old, and to celebrate, Universal is scheduling a re-release, in theatres and on DVD. All in all, a modest birthday party, but then ET was always the most unassuming of blockbusters, completed on schedule and under budget – an aberration never to be repeated by any top 10-grossing movie. Spielberg kept a tight lid on merchandising spin-offs, allowing the film on TV only a couple of times, and never on cable. And the ET doll never really took off, thanks in the main to the fact that it bore more than a slight resemblance to a recently shelled tortoise. Not for nothing did Spielberg include the in-joke wherein Elliot tries to explain life on earth by staging a battle with his Star Wars dolls. ET looks on, quizzically. How do you explain merchandising to a higher intelligence?

It was François Truffaut who put the 28-year-old director on the right track. Cast as a scientist in Close Encounters, Truffaut had plenty of opportunity to witness the Hollywood wunderkind in action. "Keeds!" he urged him. "You must do a movie just with keeds!" Truffaut had already done so, of course, in The 400 Blows, an account of his allergic reaction to school, and while the two films could not be more different – Truffaut's was the grainy figurehead of the French new wave, while Spielberg gave us high-burnished fantasy – the two films stand comparison, as companion pieces on the subject of childhood: from ink-stained reality to Walter Mitty-like dreamlife.

The script came about from one such bout of day-dreaming, while Spielberg was filming Raiders of the Lost Ark. Seeking refuge from the everyday toil of blowing up trucks and loosing giant boulders, Spielberg found solace in conversation with Harrison Ford's wife, Melissa Mathison – the scriptwriter of The Black Stallion, another childhood classic about a boy, looking for a father figure, who decides to recruit outside his own species. Mathison was the first of many women who worked on the film, from casting director to editors, who helped invest the film with the soft maternal glow of Spielberg's own childhood in suburban California. It was Mathison's idea, for instance, for ET to land in an enchanted forest. (Spielberg had originally envisaged a disused car lot.)

Having just come off the big-budget successes of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg said he "didn't feel I had anything to lose", and with ET he essentially winged it – shooting the movie in just over 60 days, and abandoning his usual detailed storyboards, for fear that they would "force the child actors into stiff, unnatural attitudes". The results were some of the best child performances of his career. "Thespacemanneedstogettohisrocket!", squeaks Drew Barrymore's Gertie at the film's climax, and her breathless delivery cuts to the heart of the film, in which kids buy into the idea of an alien visitation with nonchalant ease, as if it were no more than a pizza delivery. The adults in the film, meanwhile, have a hard time even seeing ET – their noses buried in bills and shopping lists, the camera cutting them off at the knees, like the old Tex Avery cartoons. The child-eye camera tells you all you need to know: for in ET, Spielberg neither talked down to childhood fantasy, nor cosied up to it, but dealt with it eye-to-eye and on the level – just as children should be spoken to.

"By now a billion earthlings have seen his films," wrote Martin Amis on the secret of Spielberg's success in 1982, on the eve of ET's release. "They have only one thing in common. They have all, at some stage, been children." Critics like to lay the blame for the infantilism of cinema at Spielberg's door, but it won't stick. "The purity of ET is utopian and quite unfakeable," says Amis. As the scene in which Elliot's mum reads Peter Pan to her sleepy children illustrates, storytelling makes children of us all, and parents of the teller, with all the responsibility and risk that implies.Jaws frightened us rather like a father frightens his kids by swinging them around a room, knowing exactly where the limits of their trust lies, and knowing how much they like to be taken to within an inch of it. It's Spielberg's great gift: to have reproduced the exact mixture of trust and teasing that makes up the bond between parent and child.

ET was its purest distillation. On release, the film nonchalantly broke all the usual box-office records and was nominated for nine Oscars, but it was up against Richard Attenborough's Gandhi – one leathery guru against another – and lost out in all but the technical awards. It was one of those uppercut injustices that only the Academy Awards know how to deliver. In video stores today, few hands stray toward's Attenborough's windy, high-flown biopic. Strangely, critics have done their best to puff ET up to similar proportions. Some have taken its death-and-resurrection narrative as an allegory of the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which is certainly food for thought for those who consider Spielberg pre-eminently a Jewish film-maker. Closer to the mark are those who, taking their cue from Gertie's choice of bedtime reading, peg the film as the masterpiece of cinema's very own Peter Pan.

The real answer, though, comes if you close your eyes and listen to John Williams's score, which reveals the film as the love story it was always meant to be: boy finds true love, loses true love, finds him again, before finally losing him to the heavens. It's The Way We Were, with the love interest played, not by Robert Redford, but by a four-foot stack of wrinkly rubber. (Same difference.) The score is Williams's best for Spielberg, and marks the height of their lifelong collaboration. For the final sequence, in which Elliot and his friends escape the police by flying off on their bicycles, Williams had problems synchronising the flow of his score with the action, so Spielberg told him not to bother: instead, the director reversed things, editing the images to the rhythm of the score.

The result is film-making that flies, in every sense – everything in ET feels lightly airborne, from its bicycles to its violins. The image of Elliot, aloft on his bike, flying past a vast full moon, went on to become the symbol of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's production company, and rightly so, for it perfectly encapsulates the marriage of fantastic and familiar that is Spielberg's hallmark. In Close Encounters, he had envisioned alien encounter as an everyday matter of renegade vacuum cleaners and eerily possessed toys. And ET comes stocked with one image of casually gilded radiance after another: a spaceman at the door, a boy silhouetted against a moon. During their first encounter, Elliot and ET communicate by pointing at stuff in his bedroom – a version of the wordless mimicry between Roy Scheider and his son at the dinner table in Jaws, and of the sign language at the climax of Close Encounters. All point to Spielberg as one of cinema's greatest communicators, a man constitutionally unable to think except in images.

The loss to Gandhi hurt him, and set him on a path of urgent self-reinvention – a transformation into the maker of big humanist epics that do win awards – a path that would eventually lead, after a few mis-steps, to Schindler's List. Nowadays, that film tends to get tagged as Spielberg's masterpiece – a view which he shares, although it's not one that we should automatically endorse. There is nothing superficial about fantasy, and a fluency with fairytale is an infinitely rarer gift in a film-maker than a social conscience. It is true that the film-maker who made ET could not have made Schindler's List. But it is equally true that the film-maker who made Schindler's List could not make ET, as his more recent AI showed. A recapitulation of many of the themes of ET, it served only to show how far he has come since then, how radically sundered his sensibility is now – between Spielberg the teller of fairytales and Spielberg the issue movie-maker, between the maker of movies for children and movies for adults. The man who made ET would not have even recognised a difference."

— my 25th anniversary celebration of E.T. for the Daily Telegraph, 2007

Above is the trailer for the forthcoming thriller, London Boulevard, which was directed by Bill Monahan, who won an academy award for The Departed, and produced by Quentin Curtis, who shepharded Casino Royale to the screen for MGM. I know Quentin, who used to review movies for the Independent on Sunday back when I was a critic for the Sunday Times. I was always envious of his reviews — and the deeply-felt and undogmatic conclusions at which they arrived. Even then, he had an x-ray eye for great screenwriting coupled with an unfakeable delight in the work of the great showman-directors like Welles and Coppola. So as surprising as it was to see an English film critic make it in Hollywood, looking back, it makes perfect sense. I cannot wait to see his film. It looks like a kick in the pants.

REVIEW: Saul Bellow by James Atlas (2000)

"Here is a list of the things that have failed to kill Saul Bellow. A double dose of peritonitis and pneumonia, aged 8. A crocodile in Egypt – which gave him and Saul Steinberg a scare (Steinberg’s imagined headline ran, ‘crocodile kills two Sauls’). A poisonous Red Snapper that left him in a coma for two weeks, aged 79. Then there’s the alcoholism, cancer, AIDS and sheer old age that have silenced his late contemporaries ‘with the regularity of a drum tattoo’. At which point one can easily imagine Death simply shrugging and moving on – leaving Bellow to write yet another full–length novel, to father another child, and to contemplate the century he has done so much to document, not to mention outlast. ‘It remains to be seen what the 20th Century has made of Saul Bellow, or what Saul Bellow has made of the 20th Century,’ he said recently, with characteristically grandiose self–deprecation, as if the 20th Century were someone he met at a party last night. This gift for concretised abstraction is one of the things that Bellow fans treasure – his casual ability to be on better speaking terms with a Big Idea than most of us are with our neighbours. An article of 1990 rounded up Heidegger, Ronald Reagan, the Ancient Mariner, the Information Revolution, postmodernism and daytime TV – the usual suspects – and ran them through the blender to produce a vivid harangue against ‘the ceaseless world crisis, also known as the chaos of the present age.’ It’s that ‘aka’ I love – the Chaos of The Present Age as just another Bellovian hoodlum prowling the perimeter of his fiction, collecting poker debts and suckers. No shit, you just got mugged by the Human Condition.

So what’s the final diagnosis? What has Bellow made of the 20th Century, or the century of Bellow? You need a good head for heights to answer both questions – to negotiate both the gyroscopic perspective shifts of his fiction and to survive the sheer vertigo of the Bellow reputation. For to get to Bellow you must first get past all the praise for Bellow, most of it designed along roughly the same principles as electric cattle prods. Leslie Fielder has called him ‘one with whom it is necessary to come to terms’, which is simply a mean thing to say about anybody. James Atlas says that Bellow progressed from being ‘a promising writer, to being an interesting one, to being an exciting one, to being a major one’ – as thuggish a mob of adjectives as ever ganged up on a reader. By the end of Atlas’s book, Bellow has become such a glinting assemblage of plaques and Pulitzers, National Book Awards and Nobels that you could almost forget the novelist under there somewhere – a novelist with Russian blood in his veins, a nose for a scam, and ear for the streets, and a taste for big–bosomed women surpassed only by his taste for top–heavy rumination.

That there might also be a man in there has always been a strong possibility, too, although so far Bellow has only attracted the attentions of the biography industry’s more lunatic fringe. Mark Harris’s dotty, meandering U&I–style book on Bellow elicited the following response from his subject: ‘It was as if one of my joints were to turn author and write its own chronicle of one of my joints.’ At 674 pages, James Atlas’s Bellow (Faber 25 pounds) is much the weightiest specimen to date – tirelessly researched, rich in incident, and fleshed out with shrewd critical judgments. Atlas is clearly the man for the job, from the ringing endorsements offered by his CV (a previous biography of Delmore Schwarz, the model for Humboldt) right down to the seemliness of that surname: try and keep up with the young Bellow’s globe–trotting – France, Spain, Mexico, Egypt, Eastern Europe – and you’ll find an Atlas comes in pretty handy. AS for keeping track of the wives, well, the Manhattan telephone directory is a fairly good place to start– once it listed two Mrs Bellows in West End Avenue alone. And the mistresses? How much time do you have on your hands? More to the point: how did Bellow find the time? If all references to novels and novel–writing were to be excised from this book, you would not, I think, guess that its subject was a literary man. You would think: playboy, financier, jewel thief, airline pilot, superhero, sugar daddy, heart–throb. You would not think Nobel Laureate. You would think Bruce Wayne.

It begins on the hoof, in 1913, with Bellow’s parents – Russian Jews – fleeing the St Petersburg Tsarist police to relocate in Canada, where Bellow Snr, emboldened by a heady rush of pioneer spirit, tried his hand at a variety of jobs, only to prove a rousing failure at them all. One cannot but warm to Abraham Bellow, ‘a sharpie circa 1905’ who tried on occupations in much the same manner that Inspector Clouseau tried on disguises: peddling, bootlegging, matchmaking, insurance broking, selling cemetery lots, before finally moving from Montreal to Chicago where he became a baker. We clearly have a lot to thank him for. Abraham was not a literary man – a letter congratulating his son on the success of one of his novels urged him to ‘wright soon’ – but there’s as distinctly Augie March–ish tinge to that wild roster of misfitting jobs: it’s not hard to see how that fecklessness might, refitted with sufficient ambition, be turned outward as the hard–nosed yearning which was to be his son’s speciality. More importantly perhaps, he stopped his peregrinations at exactly the right point of the map. His son was to grow into a writer set on transforming his ugly, anti–poetic home city in ‘the place – incredible, vital, sinful, fascinating’ – as recognisable as Joyce’s Dublin, or Proust’s Paris. But there is a limit to what a writer can transform – the world was not, I think, quite ready for Bellow’s Montreal.

Bellow almost didn’t get to grow up at all: that peritonitis and pneumonia laid him up in hospital for six months, taking him close to death. Death, having failed in its first run–and–grab for the boy, returned for the mother, who succumbed to breast cancer when Bellow was 17. These two events became crucial elements of Bellow’s self–mythology – the life–epiphanies, the ‘batch of poems’ which every man carries around with him – although the keenly–judged pathos of that phrase should serve as both goad and warning to trauma junkies. To scan the outlines of this childhood, you’d have the child pegged as a sickly melancholic, bookish and inward, but the portrait won’t quite stick. Admittedly, an early job working for his brother’s coal truck company was severely compromised by Bellow’s tendency to read rather than count coal trucks. But on the other hand the book he happened to be reading was a soot–stained copy of Marx’s Value Price and Profit, which I guess beats Mallarme when it comes to explaining why you got fired.

The life of the young Bellow is instead marked by a Huck Finn–ish taste for adventure. Aged 17, and with the Depression in full swing, Bellow and a school–friend spent a summer hitching lifts with the hobos on dustbowl freight trains. This was followed by a night in jail, and then college, where Bellow was more drawn to performance than study, spending most of his time arguing the merits of Trotskyism with his friend Isaac Rosenfeld, improvising skits – a dissertation on beet Borscht, a Yiddish version of ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufock’. Atlas gives us a lovely portrait of Bellow at the time: standing out form the student mass of grubby corduroy in his navy blue suit and white shirt, ‘a sensuous mouth, a gap between his teeth, and wide eyes that were like a doe’s. He bounced on his toes as he walked’. Your basic dish. After the success of Dangling Man, Bellow even got a call from an agent convinced Bellow had a future in Hollywood – not as an Errol Flynn or George Raft type, perhaps, but as ‘the guy who loses the girl to George Raft or Errol Flynn type’. AS a prophetic act of literary criticism, this is well–nigh unsurpassable – it’s pretty much the plot of Herzog – and one can only mourn the possibility of a double career. The Nobel Prize ceremony – a notorious stiff – would surely be enlivened considerably, were its winners to bound onto the stage in green tights, plant their feet a yard apart, and let loose with one of those Errol Flynn laughs where it sounds as if you’re counting all the ‘ha’s.

Bellow resisted these blandishments, as he resisted anything that threatened his freedom: politics, marriage, and later, his Jewishness (asked if he felt he’s won the Nobel as a Jewish writer or an American writer, he replied ‘I thought I’d won it as a writer’). After he graduated, he did the customary tour of Europe, but found Paris a ‘sullen, grumbling city’. ‘One suspects that the main problem with Paris was the Parisians,’ writes Atlas, ‘they didn’t seem to know who Saul Bellow was.’ Actually, one suspects that the main problem with Paris was Hemingway – the last writer single–handedly to reshape American prose. What Bellow had in mind would resist Hemingway’s terse ruggedness just as surely as it would resist nail–paring exquisiteness. After his first two novels, Bellow rejected the Flaubertian standard and wrote at a gallop, abandoning wholesale what didn’t work – starting from the beginning again, storing what did work in the freezer, in case the house burnt down. Like Dickens, Bellow felt domestic chaos was a spur, not a hindrance to his creativity. ‘I feel like a man trying to sign his name in the back seat of a rollercoaster,’ he said, only half complaining.

The result of all this ferment was The Adventures of Augie March, a novel barrelled along by its own distinctive strain of brainy garrulity. The book was its own rollercoaster, as outward bound as it was inner–directed. For one thing, was ever a Bildungsroman so well populated? Dickens’s Pip meets a few colourful folk along the way and Stephen Dedalus talks of forging, in the smithy of his soul, the conscience of his race, but he prefers his own company. In Bellow’s novel, we get to meet the race. It is thronged with the peoples of America and their movements – ‘Danish sility, dago ingenuity’ – and Bellow’s powers of observation are sharpened into Instamatic indelibility by the need to catch the swarm of faces, the Brueghelian frieze, as it goes milling by: “We came up the walk, between the slow, thought–brewing, beat–up old heads, liver–spotted, of choked old bloodsalts and wastes, hard and bone–abare domes, or swollen, the elevens of sinews up on collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes, and with the strains of kitchen toil, Far West digging, Cincinnati retailing, Omaha slaughtering, peddling, harvesting, laborious or pegging enterprise from whale–sized to infusorial that collect into the labour of the nation.’ It is one of those extraordinary reverse–zooms that are a Bellow speciality: from a single set of sinews to the collective labour of the nation in a single sentence. His crowd control would be the envy of D W Griffith. The Adventures of Augie March at times resembles not so much a novel as a population explosion between hardcovers.

And where is Augie in all of this? To come to this novel from late Bellow novels, which are self–centred in every sense – launching into sustained orbit around a single soul – is quite a shock. For the first 200 pages or so, Augie is more of a satellite, physically undescribed, without character traits. All we get are the crowds, the people, and Augie’s reactions to them. ‘I’m not sure Augie can bear so much traffic and yet he must bear it,” worried Bellow. The gamble paid off. Augie’s is that peculiar brand of passivity which attracts events and people to him as surely as a lightning rod, yet hides a deep stubbornness of soul – a sense of self–determination so fierce that the only option is to echo the personalities of those around, all the while waiting the moment to strike. Augie March is unquestionably a young man’s novel, fired up with cunning and brio, and was received with appropriate rapture, succeeded by an expectant hush: how on earth would Bellow follow it up? How top the radiant verve – the ‘grand vital discord’ – of a novel like Augie? With a slim, infinitely sad novella like Seize the Day, of course – death whittled and dusted with melancholy, bone to Augie’s flesh.

Such a display of reach confounds our traditional ideas of the way careers should proceed. It also serves as warning to anyone trying to get the measure of a man so clearly capable of chopping and changing at will. Bellow seems to have conducted his personal life along similar lines: a terrible husband who left his wives before they could leave him, yet juggled events to portray himself as the wronged party – a selfish lover, whose legendary list of conquests concealed terrible technique in the sack – and a lousy friend who regularly pillaged his friends’ lives for material, and refused event to attend their funerals. There is something a little seamy and dispiriting about this portrait of the artist as Utter Scoundrel. The problem is not that one doesn't’ believe it. One does believe it: the problem is that the psychological profile echoes that of most literary biographies you’ve ever read.

After all, it is in their work that writers achieve distinction. In their personal lives they are second–rate copyists and rip–off merchants – plagiarising the same subset of personality defects and character flaws. The rich and varied language of Freudianism tends to hide one basic truth: that personalities tend to fuck up in roughly the same way. You are either fucked up or you are not. One day, someone will write the literary biography of a modest, monogamous, thick–skinned sweetiepie who cleans out his mother–in–law’s budgerigar cage every week: that would be an event worth recording. Whether he would be a writer worth reading is another matter. Personally, I distrust any writer still on speaking terms with more than half of his telephone book. Surely a writer’s primary duty is to louse up as much of his private life as he possibly can, so that at the end of a hard day I can curl up with a book that is of marginally better quality than the book that would have been written had he not. In this, readers are quite free from the normal constraints of etiquette and morality. If Bellow felt it necessary to steal his friend’s stories – and if he further thought that not attending funerals would help matters any further – then so be it. If it will help his books any, he is quite free not to attend my funeral. I will not mind.

Atlas knows all this. He quotes at length a letter from Bellow to Dave Peltz, who accused Bellow of pilfering an incident about a poker debt for Humboldt’s Gift: ‘The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to all my facts. You know them, I give them to you – if you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing.’ Aside from being magisterially cocky, this also happens to be the absolute last word on the subject, the debate clincher, an end of the matter. Atlas, however, has a biography to write, and so on it goes, the parade of pettinesses, the repeat revelations of Bellow’s beagling self–interest. ‘In Bellow’s case, the process of mourning was intensified by his habit of experiencing his dead friends as aspects of himself. Or, of his letter–writing style: ‘it was as if he was writing to just one person: himself.’ Do letter–writers – or mourners, for that matter – ever do anything else? You find yourself wondering if these criticisms don’t amount to much more than the observation that lives tend to get lived from the centre out: each heart, as Bellow once noted, beats only for itself. A certain self–centredness is surely bound to hang over any biography, as over any life. To write a book about Saul Bellow and then complain about the amount of undiluted Saul Bellow in it comes close to unfairness – like grilling someone at a party about their career and then complaining that they seemed a little career–obsessed.

The best comment on Bellow comes from his shrink, who confessed, after many years of administering Reichian therapy: ‘To put it quite frankly, I never quite figured this man out.’ He added that even when Bellow was caught in the middle of some domestic travail, ‘I could never make up my mind how unhappy he was’. This frank bafflement is infinitely suggestive, and furthers an understanding of Bellow’s achievement more than any amount of mother issues or narcissistic complexes. Read and reread his work as you may, it is well–nigh impossible to say how unhappy he is exactly – whether the work is ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’. At a distance certain novels seem written on the up – Augie, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift. Others – Seize The Day, Mr Sammler’s Planet, The Dean’s December – seem written from under a king–sized depression. But close to, certainty crumbles: the two moods break up and bleed into one another, the joys come limned with sadness, the anguish tinged with wit. Bellow suffers in great style.

Take Herzog, having a high old time feeling down about himself: ‘To his own parents he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and sisters, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigour of his judgment, he lay on his sofa, his arms rising behind him, his legs extended without aim.’ That final sentence is the killer, detecting self–satisfaction where you least expect it, as if consciousness were a false–bottomed drawer. It is one thing to purge yourself ruthlessly of vanity, but an altogether different order of insight to detect still more vanity in the severity of your attempt. The self–regard of self–criticism: this is prime Bellow territory, treacherous underfoot, fogged with self–doubt, and delimited by boundaries that seem to shift and shimmer the more you look at them. Is self–knowledge a form of transcendence or simply another trap?

Herzog sets the pattern for most of Bellow’s future protagonists: a bruised and brooding, soft and sore of heart, apt to panic under pressure, and with a weakness for abstract thought so chronic they almost seem in the grip of a brain fever – a swoon of higher thought. Bellow’s novels are seized by such constant, if casual, urges towards transcendence that at times they seem like the child’s balloon in The Dean’s December, ‘snatched upwards’ by the Chicago winds. His heroes are men caught in the updraft, dangling men all, unable to stop the ascent of their thought balloons, equally unable to let them go. ‘Could I say that morning I had been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology, the pages of freedom and death?’ thinks Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift. ‘Could I say that I had been thinking about the history of human consciousness with special emphasis on the question of boredom? Could I say that for years now I had been preoccupied with this theme and that I had discussed it with the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher?’

For many readers, the simple response to this will be ‘no’. Miss Ferguson, Bellow’s high–school teacher, used to chant the words “Be specific!’ to the tune of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. I’d love to know what she thought of her ex–pupil’s novels, with their speedy powers of generalisation and inflation, like over–sensitive life rafts. For we are here at the much–debated heart of Bellow’s achievement, the moment of truth, the point where fans and mere admirers part company – where those who are capable of being World–Historical before 9am in the morning shoulder the burden of their World–History city, while the rest of us shrink under the bed–covers. In short: what is the correct height at which to pitch our admiration for Bellow’s ideas?

One of the more instructive antagonisms that Bellow nursed through–out his career was with Nabokov. The two men took one of those instant snarling–dog antagonisms toward one another, Nabokov dismissing Bellow as a ‘miserable mediocrity’, Bellow gently condescending to Lolita: ‘I could write a better novel from Lolit’as poitn of view.’ It’s not too hard to see why this should be. For Nabokov, a novel of ideas was a contradiction in terms, novels no more needing to concern themselves with ideas than with dairy products. If your novel happens to be about a philosopher, there’s no ducking a certain amount of Hegel, just as if your novel is about a milkman, then a certain amount of Dairylea is t be expected. But the amounts are the same – no more and no less. Bellow, however, is a self–confessed ‘greatness freak’. His heroes are plumed philosophers, tenured intellectuals, great men wreathed in thought. Their unabashed grandiloquence embarrasses a slovenly anti–heroic century, but it also loosens Bellow’s hold on the Great American Novel, precisely because his protagonists have the head–start of their own greatness before the novel has even begun. How much of an aesthetic challenge is it to smuggle intelligence into a novel about an intelligent person?

Hence the slight frictionlessness – the suspicious ease – of Bellows later books, as if he were simply decanting his sensibility whole onto the page. As Martin Amis said in his review of The Dean’s December: ‘not a jot of Bellow’s intellectualism is withheld’, which is one way of putting it. Another might be that the books are straight brain transplants. Amis is one of Bellow’s more generous and perceptive critics, but he can sometimes sound like a force–fed man trying to convince himself that he’s a bit peckish. Later in that review, he praises something he calls Bellow’s ‘didactic generosity, as if such a unicorn could actually exist.

It can’t, of course. Didacticism is death, whichever way you cut it, and as the intellectual musculature of the novels increases, their blood thins, their fictive tissue weakens – the hero’s swoons of thought seeming more like fiction’s dead faint. The key text here is Humboldt’s Gift, which isn’t so much comic as light–headed, giddy: failed seriousness sending up its failure as it falls. ‘This wasn’t the time to remember certain words of John Stuart Mill, but I remembered them anyway,’ thinks Charlie Citrine, while getting arrested, of all things. When, eleven years earlier, Herzog got arrested, you really felt the hard crunch of reality – not to mention the actual thwack of a car bumper – muscling in on his cogitations. But throughout Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie’s collision with reality is softened, finessed by an inexplicably reciprocated friendship with the gangster Canile – one of the ‘reality instructors’ who traditionally serve in Bellow’s fiction to bring his heroes down to earth. The difference here being that Canile, incredibly, seems aware of his literary function – taking Citrine on a helpful tour of Chicago’s seamier sides with the words, ‘I figure it’s your duty to examine American society from the White House to Skid Row’. No it’s not, just as it’s not Canile’s duty to point it out. At times, Bellow seems to enlist his entire cast to carry out duties which are, strictly speaking, his alone to perform. His themes come self–indexing– his characters characterise themselves – his writer heroes do his writing for him.

All this is maddening, but it never quite proves fatal. For the net effect is the required one: American society from the White House to Skid Row does get itself examined. For 300 pages of a Saul Bellow novel, Saul Bellow is doing the writing, and Bellow in full flood is something to behold. Humboldt’s Gift also happens to be Bellow’s best Chicago novel – and the images of urban hellfire worked into The Dean’s December are as haunting a vision of modern apocalypse as you could wish for. Of course, there is a bathetic, over–strident side to the Bellow Jeremiad – sometimes when he sets about describing the inner circles of the moronic inferno – whether it be Hitchcock movies, or the Beatles, or Nintendo, or, most recently ‘The Simpsons, jittering away on TV’ – he has an uncanny knack of describing exactly what I happened to be doing last Thursday night. But with didactic talent, disagreement is the true test, because it frees you up to roam the books unfettered, scouting for epigrammatic and descriptive gems: an ex–wife whose ‘fig leaf turned out to be a price tag’ – the debt collector who ‘breathed the air as if he were stealing it’ – a father ‘brought down by the heavy tackle of death’ – a corpse’s face with ‘the subtracted look of the just dead’ – the wrinkles on a lover’s face identified as the work of “Death, the artist, very slow’.

Bellow has matched him. Death has been a lifelong subject for Bellow – a life’s work, requiring all the patience and cunning of the enemy – and all of his heroes have had to make room for it. From Einhorn, that ‘Thanatopsis stoic’ doing daily battle with the ‘cheating old rascal with bones showing in buckskin fringes – to Sammler, emboldened by his ‘earth–departure objectivity’, now free to make ‘sober, decent terms with death’ – right up to Ravelstein, a memoir of his friend Allan Bloom, who died in 1992 of AIDS. Bellow’s last novella was written after his own most recent skirmish with the grave – courtesy of that Red Snapper, which Bellow ate while on holiday with his fifth wife, Janis, in the West Indies. It sent him into convulsions, and then a coma and had him in intensive care for three weeks. ‘I was given up for dead. The doctors told me so themselves,’ he recalled, ‘I had some brilliant hallucinations, so great that what I was writing dwindled by contrast with these visions.’ The incident makes its way into Ravelstein, whose narrator, Chick, also makes a Lazarus–like recovery: ‘If I had stopped to consider it, I would have been aware that I was underground digging myself out with my bare hands.’

What keeps Chick alive is his promise to write a memoir of his late friend, Abe Ravelstein, a world–class brain whose book on American academia has made him millions. Now holed up in a luxury penthouse, his Japanese kimono parted to reveal ‘legs paler than milk’, Ravelstein discourses on everything from Thucydides to Mel Brooks. We never get to hear many of those ideas first–hand – enough to recognise a facsimile of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, but no more. Chick is as keen to note the appearance of this head as it contents: ‘On his bald head you felt that what you were looking at were the finger marks of its shaper.’ Bellow has always known that the best way to get to souls is through bodies – he is the fleshiest of transcendentalists – but here his method is given added punch because body and soul are at ware with one another. For Ravelstein is dying: ‘this head was rolling toward the grave.’

The result is a portrait designed to revivify the dead, but also written to keep the writer alive – almost an I–V drip of ink, feeding both ways. ‘Ravelstein expected me to make good on my promise – To keep my word I’d have to live. Of course there was an obvious corollary: once the memoir was written, I love my protection, and I became as expendable as anybody else.’ The memoir could well prove Bellow’s last full–length work – I hope not, but the man is 84. If anything, Ravelstein feels even later than that, a work from beyond the grave – a self–penned obituary handed out from the coffin, written right up to the line. And as epitaphs go, it’s pretty accurate. Two friends, both dying, having one final head–to–head across a hospital bed, finding the words they want for the things they still have to say: the image sets the benchmark for the exacting level of truth Bellow has set for himself in his fiction. For Chick on Ravelstein, read Bellow on Bellow: ‘This was his way of laying open a subject – not entirely flattering, but then he never flattered anyone, nor did he level with you in order to put you down. He simply believed that willingness to let the self–esteem structure be attacked and burned to the ground was a measure of your seriousness. A man should be able to hear, and to bear, and the worst that can be said about him.’"

— my review of James Atlas's Saul Bellow for Arete magazine, 2000

Oct 29, 2010

REVIEW: 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)

Should Danny Boyle have made 127 Hours? If someone put a gun to your head and demanded that you make a motion picture about the climber Aaron Ralston, who fell into a crevasse in Utah, remaining there for four days until he escaped by severing his own arm, then 127 Hours is definitely the best movie you could make. There could be no better film on the subject. Whether the subject demanded a film is another matter. Boyle has talked at length about the challenge of making a movie about a man who remains trapped in the same place — especially when you are as fidgety a filmmaker as Boyle. But he goes at the task with a vengeance. Employing a truly impressive arsenal of techniques — split screens, dream sequences, flashbacks, flashforwards, cameras that plunge up straws and down gullets — Boyle succeeds magnificently in putting the audience right there. You get to feel the existential dread of a filmmaker trapped beneath the weight of an unfilmable folly. The rising panic of someone absolutely terrified of boring the audience. I felt it like to was happening to me. And I was the audience. Yet still I left the cinema limp with relief not to be still back there, trapped in the canyon, dreaming up new and interesting angles to shoot a man trapped beneath a rock. It's quite a drama, alright, but it completely eclipses poor old James Franco. People who like to cream themselves over auterist technical bravura — a not-so-distant relation, you can't help but feel, of the people who used to cream themselves over Pink Floyd guitar solos — will doubtless have themselves a ball. Anyone else will simply have to lump it. The best part of the movie is the first 20 minutes or so, a matter if tiny triumphs and set-backs, playing out in real time, and inverting the usual demands of blockbuster cinema: you too will gasp in sympathy as Ralston seeks to hooks a knife with a twig and hoist it back to his grateful grasp. But pretty soon Boyle is bored and digging around in his bag of tricks. There's one sequence, about an hour in, designed to dramatise a small surge of optimism on Ralston's part: he's managed to rig up a pulley system with which he hopes to hoist the rock from his arm. Boyle goes to town: music, lights, zooming cameras, Bill Withers 'Lovely Day' on the soundtrack. It could almost be the song and dance number from Slumdog Millionaire. You sit there going: where has this come from? The emotion being dramatised is not Franco's hopes for his plan, as Boyle's sobbing relief that he's come up with one. But the pulley system comes to nothing, and Ralston's hopes are dashed; we could almost have done with one of those zzrrzp sound-effects of a needle being ripped from its groove but the effect, of course, would have been unintentionally comic. So we are left with an awkward, slow fade of the Withers song, like a DJ who can't get his floor-emptier off the decks fast enough. The fluctuating season of Boyle's moods, in other words, far eclipses those of his lead actor. Could he have made a film which actually succeeded in placing us in the mind of a man trapped for four days beneath a giant boulder before cutting off his own arm? Of course not. The film would have driven us out of our heads with despair, of which there is scanty evidence here. Both Boyle and Franco can only go so far. It is encumbent on them not to succeed in the task they have set themselves. Or rather, it is encumbent on Boyle to block and interrupt his own star's performance as best he can, like someone covering for a rambling relative. Many of the tricks he deploys are justified by the hallucinations Ralston began to suffer, a few days into his ordeal, without water, except Bole goes there way too soon: in your memory, the film is one lone montage of dream trips and fantasy sequences, right up to the final shot, when we should be feeling the reassuring hardness of reality beneath our feet. This movie is inventive, beautifully shot, and magnificently acted. It is also a conceptual failure — a rocket, off by just a few degrees at launch, that crashes in the rusty Utah desert, like one of the Acme-patented schemes of Wile E Coyote. Oh and the disemberment scene is really unpleasant. C

REVIEW: Mae West by Simon Louvish

"Mae West’s reputation will never be the same again. There we were, thinking her as the goddess of gyrating libidinousness, snacking on men like peanuts, and all the while her truly shocking secret lay simpering in the back of her bedroom. Make your way passed the alabaster nudes and sepia prints of Mae in better days; step over the polar bear shagpile rug, and into the salmon-pink inner sanctum of her boudoir, and what would you find? Mae hard at work over a typewriter. This was “Mae Wests great secret,” writes Simon Louvish, in his splendid new biography, “ that she went home to her apartment or hotelroom at night and wrote”. Come up and see her sometime and you would come across nothing more x-rated than Mae polishing her adverbs.

In all, she wrote 12 plays, and 3 novels, not to mention the 20,000-plus bon mots in her joke-book, honed assiduously over four decades, and which she sprinkled over every movie she was in, like confetti. Give a part in a movie to Mae West and you also had to find supporting roles for Mae West’s one-liners, crisp with sex-war sagacity: “ a hard man is good to find,” “ it isn’t the men in my life it’s the life in my men,” and so on. Hollywood’s first sex symbol — or “sex personality” as the Boston Herald quaintly put it — caused riots wherever she went. In Hartford, in 1938, ‘Mae West Safe’ driving week was disrupted when 30,000 fans flooded the streets, although it was really in the bedroom that called for De Millean skills of crowd-control. Louvish keeps track of Mae’s conquests like a man racing mice: an accordionist, a xylophone player, a Frenchman named Dinjo with with whom she coupled 26 times in one night: “the results were like a high speed film, blurred but exciting”. None of these men, he notes, were permitted to stay the night. Only her pet monkey Boogie got to share West’s breakfast table, and despite one short-lived marriage she died childless, having put sex to every possible purpose except the one for which it was intended.

The closest West came to procreation was, it seems, the medical text-book she pored over with a friend, aged 7, when growing up in Brooklyn: “I had a funny feeling about my parents,” she remembered. “A peculiar feeling — disgust you might say. It took me a long time to get over it. They suddenly weren’ t gods anymore.” A long time, indeed. That Godlike tumble from grace is one she would replay again and again in her career, flushing society’s dirty little secret out into the open, and using sex as the great leveller. “I’m going to dig under your supposed respectability and show you who you are” says a docklands prostitute to a society dame in West’s play Sex (1925), with which she kickstarted her career. The play was shut down for indecency, and landed West in the slammer for 8 days, the first of her energetic bouts of fisticuffs with the guardians of of American decency. “I enjoyed the courtroom as any other stage,” she quipped.

Her first film, She Done Him Wrong, had the Hays office crawling all over it; they cut 100 feet of film out of the song A Man Who Takes his Time — a considerable blow to the man’s prowess, one would have thought — and hacked away at most of West’s lines, but the result was to concentrate her oozing licentiousness even more: denied its obvious berths, it simply took up residence in the body language between her and Cary Grant, in the languid glances and pauses of their conversation, and in such seemingly innocuous phrases as “Why doncha come up and see me” “Do you get me?” and “You can be had”. These days, of course, the true purpose of the Hays office is known to all. At the time, they saw it as their God-given duty to keep America’s morals intact and save the nation from mortal sin. Now, its is clear that their real function was to provide comic relief for Hollywood biographies in the many decades to come. One of their best gags here involves a series of ever-more earnest communiqués over the song Pom Tiddley Om Pom, in Belle of the Nineties, whose acceptability “will depend almost entirely upon the manner in which he song is sung and the action accompanying the music”. In a sense, they were quite right: they could hack away at the one-liners all they wanted, but the most suggestive thing about West was the way she moved: undulating across the screen like she was being poured into the room, or sashaying back and forth when she was supposed to be standing still, like an idling motor.

“In order to play this shady character and keep the sympathy of the audience there’s one thing I must have — dignity”, said West. Louvish’s biography allows her to keep that dignity at all times, even when she seems most in danger of losing it. There is certainly room for a horror when contemplating West’s later career, which was as tawdry as it gets: an appearance opposite Ed the Talking Horse, a movie with Ringo Starr, an inevitable Vegas Comeback Tour, featuring gyrating “athletes” in lion cloths and hosted by Liberace. But Louvish ploughs through it all, refusing the temptations of camp-critical reclamation, but rather paying tribute to the sheer steam-ship momentum of this woman. You have to hand it to someone who can step from a limo wearing a diamond-studded dress, two lavender orchids on her lapel, draped in “a white cape of close-clipped fur, as if an albino o calf had made the ultimate sacrifice.” West was turning up for a court deposition."

— reprinted from my review in the Sunday Times, 2008

Oct 28, 2010

Fall 2010 Movie Preview: Screen Grab 3

From I Love You, Philip Morris (Dec 3), Love and Other Drugs (Nov 24), Biutiful (Dec 29), The Fighter (Dec 17), All Good Things (Dec 3), How Do You Know (Dec 17). Fall Preview #2 is here. Fall Preview #1 is here.

REVIEW: The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin

"When the smoke cleared and the rubble subsided, one New Yorker stood tall, his high spirits undiminished in the face of adversity, his reputation repolished to a blinding gleam. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Let's hear it for Irving Berlin.

Not to diminish Mayor Giuliani's achievement, but let's give credit where credit is due: To pen a song, consisting of just two verses, on a cross-Atlantic plane trip in 1938, as America stood on the brink of war, a song that is still sung over half a century later, as America wages a very different kind of war, is pretty good going. So it has proved with "God Bless America," which has even recently survived a severe mauling by Celine Dion–but then, Berlin has faced far worse in his time, not least a stock-market crash, a depression and two world wars, riding out the shock waves of each with the buoyancy of a champagne cork. The birth of ragtime, the jazz age, the arrival of radio, the movies, the talkies, the heyday of the musical: Berlin's 101 years encompassed them all. To read The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin is, at times, like reading one long epic poem, mapping the contours of the American century in metric form–like Walt Whitman, only with more tips on picking up girls.

Here's what you do. First, position yourself well. Under a palm tree is good, although beneath your intended's window has its advocates. If it's day, wait until night; a "pale blue" moon is ideal, but a "sterling silvery" one will do just as nicely. If it's December, go home again and wait until April, because "A girl will part with her heart in the springtime." Now you're all set–just fill your lungs and let rip. Nothing too fancy, just something that's neat and witty and trips off your tongue as if it just occurred to you: "I wonder / If you ever miss me / I wonder / If you're ever blue / I wonder / When we'll meet again / and I wonder if you wonder too." And if that doesn't ensure your advance beyond the wondering stage, follow the advice of "A New Way to Say I Love You": "Instead of all that gab ... I simply grab and kiss my girl and just say nothing at all." O.K., off you go.

Such sterling advice puts Berlin up there with the great wooers of all time–Catullus, Shakespeare, Marvin Gaye. Some pretty high company, to be sure, but Berlin was never one to crane his neck in fake reverence ("His name will surely live forever / For I think the kid was clever," he wrote of Shakespeare). These lyrics address the world–whether it be a country or a caretaker–with exactly the same tone, speaking neither up nor down, but on the level, one on one. There are over 300 songs listed in this book's index beginning with the personal pronoun "I," ranging from the sweetly inquiring ("I Ask You: Is That Nice?") to the snug ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm") to the unarguable ("I've Written Another Song").

You can say that again. The man seems to have been constitutionally incapable of not writing songs–more than 1,200 all told, and all here. When they say "Complete Lyrics," they mean complete–this book weighs as much as a large salmon–which makes you wonder, when the say "edit," if they don't mean "scour the globe for any extant lyric, finished or unfinished, first draft or final, and then publish." This, though, is as it should be, for Berlin's lyrics are one heaving democracy, matching America's own. His songs come flocked with traveling salesmen and homesick rubes, with cheating husbands and errant wives, with ardent beaux (of varying degrees of sincerity) and aspiring showgirls (of varying degrees of gullibility). Here are dreamy tango dancers and "syncopated vamps." Here are millionaires in their "high hats and colored collars." This isn't a book so much as a population explosion between hard covers.

Berlin's art was born of particulars. "God Bless America" boasts a fine ocean view–glimpsed, presumably, on that transatlantic flight–but it stands out a little loftily from the crowd: Most of Berlin's songs were happy to hang out at street level, where he could observe the passing throng, and where he hawked newspapers as a young boy. He remained fascinated by the tabloid form–the mixture of off-the-press immediacy and popular sentiment–and would later come up with the idea of a musical of songs inspired by stories culled from a single front page. All his lyrics felt like street bulletins, though; and the young boy's ability to belt out headlines at passing pedestrians translated into an ease of public address that never left him: "Come on and hear! Come on and hear!" began his first hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," in 1911. Millions complied.

In the decade that followed, Berlin really hit his stride. Or rather, America, caught up in craze of ragtime, matched his: Among other things, Berlin was a world-class pacer. A reporter from London's Daily Express who was there in Berlin's office while he composed "That Humming Rag" noted, "He walked about four miles doing it." It showed. His songs are barreled along by restless garrulity–fired up by hummingbird brio.

There are two basic types of motion in an Irving Berlin song. First, there's up and down, like the elevators in skyscrapers, the fortunes of stock-market speculators, the hearts of lovesick suitors or the interval leaps of the melodies themselves. Like Paul McCartney after him (that other self-taught musical savant), Berlin approached the octave with the attitude of a mountain goat eyeing the next peak; he worked on the firm principle that if hearts are to be coaxed into leaping, then your melody must lead the way.

There's also round and round, the "whirligig energy" of New York City caught up in ragtime and then the Charleston, spinning so fast that the lyrics flatten out in a long ticker-tape stream of verbs–pure action, pure movement. "Hurry up, hurry up"; "run, run, run"; "Go, go, go, go to it, do it." All this motiveless motion is not without its sinister intimations, and in some of Berlin's lyrics of the 20's, his dancers take on the nature of mindless marionettes, spinning madly, "suffocating with delight." Monkeys make a couple of appearances. As does Satan. And so, too, do an awful lot of doctors, tending to the lovesick and dance-addled, but also pointing back, perhaps, to Berlin's sad history of acquaintance with the medical profession, having lost his father when he was 8, then his first wife, who contracted typhoid on their honeymoon in 1917, then his mother in 1922, and his friend and mentor, Mike Salter, just five months after that. What made Berlin run so? It's not hard, listening to some of the songs, to hear the rattle of mortality beating at their back.

One shouldn't make too much of this, of course, although it's the sort of thing biographers love to pounce on, ripping away the high spirits of the songs to uncover a man smiling through his tears–the pain behind the champagne. But the portrait won't stick. If Berlin's personal losses had been any less, perhaps, it might have pushed him toward the slopes of a gentle miserabalism. But that running flush of bereavement seems to have punched him through into another realm altogether. He was braced by adversity but devoid of self-pity; his sunniness was less a disposition, still less a matter of choice, and more a stubborn reflex, a wiry mental muscle–one which seems a peculiarly American prerogative.

Which meant that when he did cross over to the sunny side of the street, America followed. Can there be a purer expression of human happiness than "Top Hat"? As if in direct answer to the crash of 1929, Berlin's score is all upward spirals, skyward ascents. "I'm in heaven," sang Astaire, before gently vaulting up one of those interval ladders: "and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak," so that by the time he gets to "speak" he's at the limit of his range, he can hardly sing, his voice thinning out into a whisper–as if hoarse from his own happiness, or oxygen-starved at this altitude of bliss.

Montaigne famously observed that "happiness writes white," and it's true: You don't hear much from happiness. Unhappiness is the noisier of the two, and has pretty much everything on its side: most of the major-league philosophies, novels, plays. But happiness? There's Wodehouse, of course, and Shakespeare's comedies, although they are more about the pursuit of happiness and the comic tangle that follows. There's very little written from within happiness' ground zero, from inside the heart of lightness. Until, that is, you hit the popular music of America in first half of the century–Porter and Gershwin and Berlin–and then you find happiness in full voice, with lungs fit to bust. People often talk of blind optimism, but Berlin's was the opposite; his optimism was clear-eyed and wide open to the possibility of suffering, which spurred him on more, not less, to grab at pleasure. Which is what gives pleasure its plangency: "There may be troubles ahead, but while there's moonlight and music / And love and romance / Let's face the music and dance."

Can there be a better time to publish this book? America's entertainment industry is currently engaged in the glum task of questioning its own relevance–comedy doubting its ability to make people laugh, the nation's wits gingerly asking whether we are allowed to have fun any more. One respects the politeness that prompts the question, but Berlin would have known the answer, for he was a peerless professor on the matter of how a nation should conduct itself during times of national distress: Shoulder to shoulder is good, but cheek to cheek is even nicer."

— reprinted from my review in
The New York Observer, 2001

INTERVIEW: Robert Pattinson

"Oh the pressures of your first film premiere at the tender age of 18! The rigours of shooting the new Harry Potter movie — battles with rampaging trees, chases through mazes, underwater duels — were as nothing for Robert Pattinson compared to the age-old conundrum of what to wear on opening night. “I was actually having nightmares about it for months in advance,” says the young actor, who went down to Jasper Conran’s and picked out “the most ridiculous extravagant clothes - they looked really good in the shop. And then I put them on and I thought: you look like such an idiot.” On the night, he stepped from his limo to face a sea of 12,0000 people and a barrage of flashbulbs. “I was in a trance the whole way through it,” he remembers. “The day before I was just sitting in Leicester square, happily being ignored by everyone. Then suddenly strangers are screaming your name. Amazing.”

Pattinson’s role as Cedric Diggory, the hunk of Hogwarts, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, has been garnering standout notices from the critics, although he bridles, with endearingly teenage embarrassment, at the label ‘heartthrob’. “I read the Variety and their only comment was ‘ rangy’. I thought it meant from the range like a cowboy. Just means tall and lanky.” He is tall and lanky, as well as pretty enough to be Mick Jagger’s sister; sitting down for coffee in a Tribeca diner, he displays that mixture of bashfulness and boldness that is prerogative of 18-year-old movie-star foundlings. When he first met with director Mike Newell, during casting sessions for Harry Potter, he “hadn’t read any of the books or seen any of the movies,” he proclaims, but he was in “a really good mood” having just landed a part in a TV version of the Ring of the Nibelungs, which was shooting in South Africa. “I went in with this complete confidence,” he says, “ I was convinced I had it.” Returning from the Nibelungs shoot, four months later, with the offer of Harry Potter in the bag, he sat down to take his A-levels with just two weeks to spare, and landed himself an A and 2 Bs. “I don't know how that happened. I didn’t even know half the syllabus. I lost faith in the examining system after that point.”

This is recounted with all the breezy insouciance of a youth, with just a touch of nervousness as to whether the cockiness is going to get a laugh or not. He had a certain amount of the edges knocked off of him by the Harry Potter shoot. “I’ve changed so much. I’m not nearly as cocky as I was,” he says. “I was a real pratt for the first month. I didn’t talk to anyone. I just drank coffee and told everyone I was 24 and this famous theatre actor just back from South Africa.” The 24-year-old thespian from South Africa was, in fact, an 18-year-old from South London who only got into acting after he was out with his father one evening, at the Tootsie’s in Barnes, and fell into conversation with a bunch of pretty girls at the adjoining table. He asked them what they did, they told him the local acting school, and, with some paternal prompting, he signed up. “It was a social thing. I literally went there 100% to meet these girls that were sitting at the table next to us.”

A job a stage manager led to a string of theatrical roles, and finally a break into movies with a small part in Vanity Fair, most of which hit the cutting room floor. It was nothing compared to the arduous physical labour of the Harry Potter shoot: a year of flying around massive sets, including a 60ft-deep pool and a massive maze with hydraulically operated hedges. “My instinct at the end was just to sort of collapse. What I to do next is a really short shoot. A six week thing where I can get my brain around the whole thing. A play or something.” He admires the films of Jim Jarmusch, and the renegade auteurs of the seventies “when you could just make a film for nothing. There’s no reason why a film should cost 100 million. It’s crazy. People will say ‘we’ll fly you out there to some country, pay for all your living expense, and then we’ll pay you.’ You;re just like: why? I’m not really sure what my point is.... I don't want to be paid ever again! I hate money! I want to do anything for free!”

“Now he doesn’t,” pipes in his publicist, silent up to this point, at the next table.

Next up is the New York premiere of Harry Potter, then Tokyo, and then back to LA for.... for what exactly?

“What am I doing in LA?” he asks.

“Meetings,” comes the gnomic reply.

“That’s it. Meetings. I like meetings there a lot. You go in, no-one cares if you’re a nice person or not. You just do it, and if you can do it, you do it, and if you cant you can’t.” Although he will have to curb a few of his errant English ways. “In England if you want to look rough, you go out and get really drunk and come in looking really hungover and if you do that in America, its like ‘have you got a drinking problem?”

His publicist nods. The boy is learning fast."

— my interview with Robert Pattinson for the Daily Telegraph (2005)