A friend in France having recommended the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, I
went to see it recently. Tastes evidently vary, even among friends.
The film was a long and painfully extended joke about Central Europe that
was not very funny to begin with and the script was completely without the wit
that might just have carried off the original bad idea. Among many other
irritations was Ralph Fiennes’ repeated use of the word ‘Goddam’ in an
English accent. But the worst of all was the claim in the credits at the end that
the film was inspired by the writings of the great Austrian writer Stephan
Zweig. This seemed to me a little like saying that the Sex Pistols were inspired
by the music of Bach. Zweig was a man of the most refined and subtle
sensibility, and would have detested the crudity and insensitivity of the film’s
plot, its dialogue and jokes.
The most interesting thing about the evening for me was buying the ticket. The
young man at the counter said something unintentionally significant. ‘You’ll
enjoy the film, there are a lot of famous actors in it.’ He did not say that there
were many good actors or good performances in it (there were none of the
latter, at least): fame in his estimation was its own justification, to be enjoyed
for its own sake.
If fame were awarded only, or even mainly, on merit there would have been
little to remark in what he said, but this is scarcely the case. Thanks to the
ubiquity and speed of electronic communication there has never been a time
when fame and merit were so easily disconnected. It is not possible to put a
date to the beginning of the cult of celebrity – a writer like Bernard Shaw was
already a master of self-advertisement as the key to success – but fame is
now granted with a facility that makes the hereditary principle seem a fair and
sensible way to award the honours of the world.
We should make every effort to see the world through the eyes of others; but
try as I might to understand, the cult of celebrity mystifies me. For example, on
the home-page of my internet server today there appears the pasty face of a
young woman with the question ‘Can you recognise this celebrity without
makeup?’ I am far nearer to the mentality of a sadhu in the Himalayas than to
that of someone interested in such a question. I find this painful: it means I
cannot understand half the population of my own country.