24 Lies a Second: Fiction and Friction

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Fiction and Friction

The BBC's big Saturday tea-time show at the moment is a new version of Gladiators, which is of course based on the original US series American Gladiators (once described by Bill Hicks as 'pituitary [problematic epithet for people of low intelligence] banging their heads together'). It does make one consider the mysterious euphony of that word American – you can call a movie American Beauty, American Sniper, American Gangster, American Hustle or American Ninja, and somehow it instantly and almost inexplicably acquires an extra sense of mythic significance that plain old Sniper or Gangster just hasn't got.

Latest beneficiary of this odd effect is Cord Jefferson's American Fiction, based on the 2001 novel Erasure. The reliably charismatic Jeffrey Wright for once gets a chance to lead a major movie after many years in supporting roles in Bond films and The Hunger Games, amongst many others. Here he is on superb form as Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison, a writer and literature teacher from an affluent Boston family. The first scene sees another instance of what's practically a motif for a certain kind of film these days, as a young white student strongly objects to Monk's use of a racial epithet even in the context of a literature class, and his scathing response gets him suspended from his job.

He goes back to Boston for some family time, and to discover that his agent hasn't managed to sell his latest book, a sophisticated text alluding to elements of classic literature. Doing very well at the same time, however, is We's Lives in Da Ghetto, a novel by another African-American writer (Issa Rae) which seems to him to be stuffed with cliches and negative stereotypes, but which is adored by liberal white audiences.

A family crisis leaves Monk badly in need of funds, and, prickly and resentful, one night he sits down and starts bashing out a novel he initially calls My Pafology, an attempt to parody the literature of Black victimhood he sees all around him by raising the level of stereotyping to an absurd degree. But, of course, when he manages to persuade his agent to shop it around at publishers, a frenzied bidding war breaks out and Monk is forced to assume the persona of My Pafology's supposed author, a convicted murderer on the run from the police, when talking to publishers and film producers about it.

It's a terrific comic turn from Wright in a film which is frequently very, very funny and consistently intelligent. However, while the plotline about Monk's misadventures with My Pafology is the most eye-catching and provocative part of the film, it's only one part of it – much of it is, pointedly, concerned with exactly the kind of African-American story that doesn't usually end up on screens – Monk's relationships with his siblings, his mother's declining health, an Autumnal romance for a family friend, new love for Monk himself, his gay brother coming to terms with his own sexuality late in life. There is nothing inherently African-American about any of these things, of course, which is in part the whole point of the exercise – and these scenes are involving and convincing, and filled with warmth and unpretentious humour.

By all accounts this isn't quite a 'straight' adaptation of Percival Everett's novel – the key difference probably being that the novel includes the complete text of My Pafology at its heart, gaining much of its effectiveness from the grating stylistic incongruity that results. We do sort of see an extract from Monk's book at one point – the characters of the story, one of them played by the great Keith David, seem disgruntled about their own one-dimensionality and complain to Monk about it – but apart from this brief venture into Charlie Kaufman-esque territory, the movie is less inclined to play metafictional games until the very end – or perhaps I should say 'ends'.

I imagine it would have been quite easy for Monk to turn into an easy mouthpiece character for the message of the film, the nature of which would seem fairly obvious. However, Jefferson doesn't settle for something quite so glib and easy. The comedic sections of the story do occasionally go for what feels like low-hanging fruit – Monk meets a film producer who reveals his new project is an allegorical horror movie about the lingering psychological scars left by slavery in the deep south, the punchline coming when the film's title is revealed to be something outrageously schlocky and too good to spoil here (sorry) – but Monk doesn't have it all his own way. He's resentful, distant from his family, eager to pass judgement on others – oddly enough he has a lot in common with Nicolas Cage's character in Dream Scenario, another film looking at the vicissitudes of modern culture. When he actually has a chance to take the author of We's Lives in the Ghetto to task, she proves to be well capable of answering his points intelligently. The point the film is making is clear, but this does not reduce it to a nuance- or ambiguity-free zone.

Considering the large number of tricky things that American Fiction is attempting to pull off – as noted, there is a family-based drama, as well as slightly ridiculous metafictional satirical comedy, all in the service of a quite provocative central idea about liberal condescension and literary poverty tourism – it is strikingly successful at presenting all of these as a coherent whole. Much of the credit for this must go to Jeffrey Wright, who gives an extremely deft performance; he's quite capable of turning from rom-com leading man to hapless comic stooge to wounded idealist from scene to scene without ever actually losing his grip on the character. But he is supported by a great ensemble of actors whose performances are universally well-pitched.

American Fiction is an easy film to like, and it's equally easy to see why it has attracted so much awards attention – it's just as intelligent and witty and thoughtful as some of the year's higher-profile contenders, and has a genuine warmth to it that some of them lack; most of the characters are essentially nice people and you enjoy hanging out with them. But I fear that the taboo-stretching nature of the story and – perhaps more importantly – the fact it's often an out-and-out comedy will work against its chances. I hope I'm wrong, though.

Also Showing. . .

. . . Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, a film about a middle-class German housewife (Sandra Huller) and her attempts to run her household and enjoy her garden despite the disruptive effects of her husband's career. Some may complain that this synopsis is a bit disingenuous given that it rather quickly becomes apparent that her husband's job is to be in charge of the death camp at Auschwitz during the Second World War, but the whole film is an exercise in selective blindness and decisions of the couple to ignore the moral implications of what they are caught up in.

A very fine performance from Huller (already up for an Oscar for an equally good turn in Anatomy of a Fall) and the film is made with Glazer's usual technical precision and attention to detail; it manages to be deeply unsettling despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that you barely see a single thing likely to shock or repulse. It's obviously not the easiest film to watch, but perhaps a necessary one, and certainly impressive.

Probably Premature Oscar Predictions

Having now seen all the runners and riders for the big gong it's probably time to indulge in my usual random bit of prognostication. So here goes.

American Fiction:   May Win Because: Well, see the review above. Manages to handle some tricky material with an impressively light touch. May Not Win Because: It's possibly a bit too provocative and it's a comedy.

Anatomy of a Fall:  May Win Because: The Academy fancies throwing another bone to the non-English speaking world and indulging in a bit of constructive ambiguity. May Not Win Because: A lot of the film is subtitled and you never really find out if she did it or not.

Barbie:  May Win Because: Enough voters finally realise this is just as intelligent and serious as that other film that came out the same weekend. May Not Win Because: There's a perception it's (to paraphrase Iain M Banks) lacking in gravitas (comedy based on a line of toys).

The Holdovers: May Win Because: It's a callback to the kind of thoughtful, textured films that supposedly don't get made in the Superhero Age. May Not Win Because: It's possibly a bit too low-key and it's a comedy.

Killers of the Flower Moon:  May Win Because: It's heavyweight film-making from big name folk with a serious theme. May Not Win Because: All the voters fall asleep halfway through.

Maestro:  May Win Because: Inventive and well-acted look at the life of a revered American artist. May Not Win Because: There's still some resistance to Netflix movies and also because of Brad the Coop's fake conk.

Past Lives:  May Win Because: It's a beautiful mediation on memory, identity, and roads not taken. May Not Win Because: Parts of it are subtitled, it came out quite a while ago, and there's a perception that nobody involved has really paid their dues yet.

Poor Things:  May Win Because: It's a sustained feat of imaginative provocation, again with a serious theme beneath all the weirdness. May Not Win Because: It's a bit too weird for the traditionally conservative academy voter base. Also it's a comedy and quite filthy.

Oppenheimer:  May Win Because: Another heavyweight historical drama and Christopher Nolan should have won an Oscar a long time ago. May Not Win Because: It's the favourite and so nobody actually bothers voting for it.

The Zone of Interest:  May Win Because: The Academy loves looking significant and cultured and this is a well-made art film about the most serious material. May Not Win Because: The spiky and experimental nature of parts of the film are a bit too alienating.

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