Tom Sutcliffe: The mother of all villains

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The Independent Online

Mo'Nique is, apparently, a "lock" for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Having seen her performance in Precious I'm not inclined to disagree. If I was a voter myself I'd have considerable difficulty in shaking off the Vera Farmiga crush that has had me in its grip since I saw Up in The Air but I think even I might concede in the end. When Farmiga's on screen with George Clooney what you're interested in is the pleasure of a long rally – the lobs and the surprising backhands. It's a game for two players. When Mo'Nique turns up in a scene in Precious, though, the whole damn thing becomes a one-woman show, and while that might not offer the best definition of "support" as an actress, it should guarantee that she sticks in the mind when it comes time to fill in the voting forms. Mo'Nique has something else in her favour too. She – or rather Mary, the character she plays – is a monster. And in the right shape there's nothing we like more.

Another way of expressing this is to say that movies have villains we hate and villains we love – and Mo'Nique's character is unmistakably one of the latter. I don't mean by this that she's remotely lovable. She's a violent child-abuser who employs the full palette of maternal cruelty, including verbal, physical and sexual assault. She's a benefit-dependent sloth who whines about her daughter's desire to get an education because it's delaying the moment at which she can start bringing another welfare cheque into the house. And she's not even true to her own appalling values; when a social worker calls round she hauls on a wig and produces a simpering pantomime of familial responsibility. So she's not a Hannibal Lecter – perceived as superior to everyone around her.

And yet your reaction to her appearance on screen is something unsettlingly like pleasure. We're not rooting for her for a moment – and yet we relish the opportunity to watch her at work. There are various reasons for this, I think, of varying shamefulness. The least admissible is that there are moments when we want to shake Precious too. A film in which a fetching seven-year-old was subjected to the same treatment would be a very different affair. But Precious is so boulder-like in her misery, so sullenly uncommunicative in manner, that a discreditable little bit of you wants to see her goaded into a response (the discreditable bit gets what it wants eventually).

Slightly less reprehensible is the audience's desire to see stuff done with a kind of inspirational flair. What Mary does best – pretty much all she does in fact, apart from watch television – is crush Precious's spirit. And she does this like Roger Federer plays tennis, with such breathtaking pace and finesse that you can't help but marvel at it. It's the excess that impresses – and there's a connection with the kind of amazement with which you watch people damage themselves in a show like Jackass. Mary is as free of human inhibition as Tom or Jerry in mid-scrap, and the result is a wild cartoon exhilaration at the fact that no holds are barred. When she hurls a television down a stairwell at her retreating daughter (who has a newborn in her arms at the time) most of you wants to cry – but there's a bit in there saying: "Crikey... she chucked a television."

The saving grace comes last – which is that a character like Mary gives us pleasure precisely because she makes moral calibration so easy. I doubt there are going to be many people watching and thinking, "perhaps I shouldn't shout at the children so much". Virtually everyone will be thinking, "that's appalling" – and there's something almost vertiginous about the gap between our own shortcomings as parents and her dazzling supremacy in the field of maternal deficit. She somehow bypasses that kind of villainy which stirs our desire for condign revenge – another of cinema's potent satisfactions. We want her back on screen and on form, because when she's there we can be absolutely sure that we're superior.

Writings on the wall

Label-rage is always a potential hazard at blockbuster exhibitions, the etiquette of viewing being so vague. Are you obliged to wait until the person to the right of you has moved on before you peer closely at a painting – or can you give a hint by nudging up close? If someone is standing back for a long view, what are their rights to an uninterrupted vista? And what part do remote-controlled gallery-goers play in all this, those visitors who suddenly lurch forwards at the instigation of the audio guide, rather than their own will? I suspect the collisions will be even worse at the Royal Academy's engrossing Van Gogh exhibition, largely because the transcripts of the painter's letters are a central part of the exhibition and can't easily be skipped.

The result, when I went, was traffic congestion and general frustration. If reading the small print is essential to an exhibition, would it not make sense to make the small print a great deal bigger and stick it well above the hanging line? Or to take advantage of modern technology and find a means to get the labels onto people's smartphones. I'd love to cut out yo-yo-ing shuffle between reading distance and looking distance, and even though not everyone would be able to take advantage, it might help free up the traffic jams.

* It was intriguing to discover that Stephen Poliakoff, one of our more serious-minded television writers, thinks that reality-talent telly is a thoroughly good thing.

In a short interview for the BBC website he was asked, in an oddly leading question, whether he thought a show like The X Factor was "good for us". I braced myself for a gloomy polemic on the catchpenny values of contemporary television. Not at all. "Yeah... I think aspiration is great", Poliakoff replied. He did point out that the genre might have reached a peak, but went on to add that he saw in them, "nothing but to celebrate really... those stories are fantastic to tell".

The next thing you know David Hare will be extolling the virtues of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and Germaine Greer will be confessing her willingness to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. Oh, sorry, that one's actually happened already, hasn't it? Still, I hope it's a clue to a future work. Peter Kay spoofed the genre for C4 but I'm not aware of anything substantial written about a phenomenon that should be addressed with something other than a phone vote. The craving for instant celebrity is a defining theme of our time. We need some decent drama that tries to get to grips with it.

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