A song of praise for failure

Of all the slogans bandied about at the height of the long firefight between the Thatcher government and the arts establishment, easily the stupidest was "the right to fail".

It was stupid because its rhetoric couldn't have been better calculated to goad politicians who idealised themselves as the enemies of an engrained British defeatism. Thatcher's predecessors might have believed that their task was to manage the decline of British power, but she didn't - and the notion that taxpayers' money should be handed over to people who had elaborated failure into a mission statement probably made steam come out of her ears.

But it was stupid, too, because it asserted a right that no artist, however perverse or contrarian in spirit, has ever wanted to exercise. They might well define success in a way that would look an awful lot like failure to Margaret Thatcher - but it was success they were after all the same.

If the phrase was a tactical blunder, though, you do occasionally encounter works that remind you how cherishable failure can be, and how dull a culture would be that couldn't accommodate it. It happened to me twice last week, with two films that were, by general critical consent, not exactly unalloyed successes.

David O Russell's I * Huckabees, an exercise in philosophical whimsy, was greeted with muttering and tutting at the press show I attended. The critics who hadn't liked it felt this was a sentiment they could share in complete safety, throwing their eyebrows up in the universal signal of exasperation and inviting some expression of fellow feeling. Critics who'd liked it - and there were a few - were much more furtive about their feelings, uneasily aware that the prosecution had a pretty solid case. Best to lower your eyes, get out of the door quickly and make the case for the defence from behind a screen.

Something similar happened with Kevin Spacey's biopic about Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea. Here, the exasperation was milder and the tone more bemused. Having fewer pretensions than Russell's film, it was less likely to irritate, but it more than made up for its shortage of conceptual affectation with scenes of sugar-floss sweetness. The worst line in the film ("Memories are like moonbeams - we do with them what we want") turned out to have a biographical justification; Darin coined it, rather than one of the writers. But even so, it was hard to listen to it without wincing. Since when have moonbeams been a byword for malleable utility? Elusiveness, yes. A quarry for the dimwitted, yes. But not some kind of nostalgic plasticine. And not only did Spacey not notice that it made no sense - he was so pleased with it that he stuck it in twice.

Both films could justly be accused of self-indulgence. Russell's cerebral twist on a gumshoe movie (in which an angst-ridden environmentalist hires a pair of Existential Detectives to track down the meaning of his life) cheerfully dispensed with Hollywood's usual navigational equipment and substituted his own compass. The result may not be the longest possible distance between two points, but it certainly meanders and doubles back in ways that will defeat the impatient traveller.

And Spacey's quadruple performance in Beyond the Sea - as writer, director, producer and star - would seem to set a new benchmark for the vanity project. Essentially, he has the time of his life, and though he's not entirely indifferent to what we might be feeling while he does it, you sense he would have gone ahead anyway even if he'd suspected he would play to empty cinemas.

But, as you'll have gathered, I think there's something lovable about both films, a quality that doesn't arrive in spite of their self-indulgence but because of it. A defence barrister would probably move to strike out the word "self-indulgence" and substitute "idiosyncratic", because whatever else you can say about these films, you can't describe them as conventional.

Neither entirely does what it sets out to do, and both alternate lovely moments with awkward or embarrassing ones. But they fail because they are their own thing - which seems a lot better than failing because you're desperately trying to be someone else's. Better self-indulgence than market-indulgence or studio executive-indulgence.

The casual dismissal they encountered in some quarters made me feel like Russell's hang-dog hero, haplessly trying to protect a bit of suburban wetland from the depradations of a supermarket chain trying to build a new outlet. OK, it's not the rainforest, and you might even describe some of it as a touch "swampy". But if you care about ecological diversity, you really should learn to love it.

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