Howard Jacobson: Thrillers always sell you a pup. As with sex, the delivery never lives up to the promise

Homeland: so well-made, well-acted, but in the end, at the mercy of the unsubtlety of its form
  • @Independent

Last week, we began with Mozart, this week we begin with Queen. Can anybody find me somebody to love? Except love's not our problem, moving pictures are. Oh Lord/Something – something/Can anybody find me something to watch?

All right, there's Mad Men, better since it ditched the existential hokum of Don Draper's past, and there are repeats of The Sopranos and The West Wing and Family Guy, but apart from those – and don't mutter to me in Swedish – what has television ever done for us? For weeks, Homeland has kept whoever doesn't watch talent-show pap in a state of educated, nervous tension; but it sold us a pup finally, as it was inevitable it would. Thrillers always sell you a pup. It's in their essential nature. As with sex with a dozen painted, athletic courtesans, the delivery never lives up to the promise.

And with Homeland, there wasn't only the crude melodrama of the bad-faced and, therefore, obviously ill-principled American Vice-President, there was also the shonky politics of passing off Stockholm Syndrome impressionability as idealism. The minute that prayer mat was rolled out... Don't get me wrong: it's not converting to Islam that bothers me, it's converting to anything. After the age of 16, the only viable alternative to your own belief system is atheism, not someone else's belief system. Disagree with me if you care to, but it was all flattering unction to the souls of liberals, and a faulty trigger.

So well-made, well-acted, often well-written, but, in the end, at the mercy of the unsubtlety of its form. What was missing was some smart-scepticism, not only of the political and theological sort, but genre scepticism, a degree of self-suspiciousness – in a word, play. The trouble is, you can play too much as well as too little. As witness The Artist and now – a curse on all film critics for persuading me to see either – The Cabin In The Woods.

Let me make my position on The Artist clear. I belong to a small, underground movement – call us a fifth column – dedicated to sharing, not a hostility to The Artist exactly, but a burning indifference to it. I say it's a small, underground movement, but I happen to know there are many more such groups out there. Some simply get together to talk about everything but The Artist; others go around to one anothers' homes expressly not to watch the DVD, the fact of its not having been released yet adding to the frisson of meeting in one another's homes not to watch it; and one group devotes itself to lamenting the condition of the movie industry, caught between the cacophony of special effects and silence.

My suspicion is that while most people enjoyed The Artist a bit – Bérénice Bejo's teeth, the dog, the tap dancing (how could a writer not have liked the tap dancing, when writing is a species of tap dancing on a keyboard?) – only film critics enjoyed it a lot. It is easy to see why. The film critic's lot is not a happy one. He has to watch acres of dross, he has to pretend there are good directors other than Michael Haneke out there, he has to stay serious in a trivial world, and hold his nerve in the face of that tide of uneducated opinion that is the internet. So when a playfully referential film comes along, he is under more than usual pressure to demonstrate: a) he has a sense of fun; and b) that not a single reference is lost on him. The Artist is a film critic's film – about nothing but film itself, allusive in ways that reward recognition with self-delight. Thus, five stars for the film is actually five stars for the critic's acuity.

Few demurrals from them, then, when the film Dysoned up all the Oscars and Baftas going. But I would wish them to have spoken up, in the name of their profession, against its winning a best screenplay award. Yes, I know a screenplay is more than dialogue, but is it not an act of vandalism against language to give the word award to a film that has none? Or do I miss the joke? And if I do – if the joke was a V-sign from the mute to the articulate – then what's funny about it? Or is it funny because it isn't?

Here is where irony lands you in the end. I understate the case. It lands you somewhere even worse. It lands you in The Cabin in the Woods which is a spoof on horror films and people who watch them, horror games and people who play them, comics and people who read them (and no doubt people like me who don't), myths and people who believe in them, and, for all I know, a spoof on other spoofs – because once you let filmic irony out of its cage, there's no getting it back in again.

After what I've said about the literalism of Homeland, I should, I know, relish a spoof on the stereotypical protagonists of a genre. But when the spoof is so in love with its own spoofiness that it forgets to interest us in the vulnerable humanity behind the stereotype, we are neither frightened nor moved – nor indeed are we that much amused – when the zombies, who are also spoofed, do to them what zombies do.

The truth which the makers of such a would-be savvy movie (and its movie-savvy admirers) surprisingly forget is that the horror film is already a satire on itself. We scream and laugh at the same time. We mock our terrors. So mocking us mocking our terrors takes us nowhere it is useful psychologically or aesthetically to be.

A gag about a gag or a wired-up pietist on a prayer mat? Can't anybody – anybody – anybody – find me something to watch?