Arts Books Muse

Book Review: Ayoade On Top

Sam Campbell reviews the latest offering from Richard Ayode, a deep dive into a forgotten Gwyneth Paltrow film

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Image Credit: Faber & Faber, 2019

After reading Richard Ayoade’s latest study of the medium of film, I am fully committed to the position that no work of art criticism can be complete without a firm grasp on the potency and value of aviation-related wordplay. In this wonderful little book, Ayoade takes on the close reading everyone with even a vague interest in film has been waiting for as he picks apart what he refers to as“the best cabin crew dramedy ever filmed”,View From the Top(2003). Touching on everything from the world’s premier Journey tribute act, continental philosophy, the subtleties of big hairstyles,and Christmas in Ipswich, Ayoade guides us on an intriguing voyage through the intricacies of an early-noughties Hollywood era.

View From the Top follows Donna Jensen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, as she ascends from the purgatorial ‘waiting room’of small town Cleveland to the heady heights of Paris First Class International. I have never seen this film, but after reading the book I feel as if I could recite its plot in my sleep. As those of you who have seen Top will know better than I,its complex narrative themes, labyrinthine plot and intense dialogue are notoriously difficult to follow.

Luckily, Ayoade delineates the enigma of this film,and unspools it to us at a manageable pace with helpful interjections to assist us at trickier points. The book is divided into six neat parts,from ‘Approach’, via ‘Taking Off ’ and ‘The Life of Sky’, all the way to ‘A Rapid Descent.’ These parts feature enlightening chapters such as the contextual ‘A View of Goop’ (analysing Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand of that name, and its infamous‘vaginal eggs’), a walk through the all-important meet-cute between Donna and her love interest Ted Stewart in ‘I Can’t Believe Your Boyfriend Owns This Whole Houseboat’, and a meditation on the film’s moral quandary of tempering one’s dreams with romance and family life in ‘“Window Seat or Aisle?” Can You Sit in Both at the Same Time?’.

I have made an effort here to convey the scope of Ayoade’s analysis. As well as casting an eye to the broader reaches of the film and its many rabbit holes of context and cultural implications, he also gives Top the appraisal it deserves, appreciating its subtler textual elements which the casual viewer might miss.For example, on Donna’s friend Sherry’s boat-owning boyfriend: “Although we never meet Sherry’s boyfriend, Herb, the fact he owns a houseboat is enough to evoke an image of a man alive to the tax benefits of offshore living[...] Lots of chaps see fit to split a boat. Not Herb. None of this ‘Would you mind getting the boat back to me on Thursday? I promised to take the old crate out with my father in law.’‘Get your own boat,’ Herb would say.” Here,Ayoade’s keen critical and creative eye allows the text to burst into life, engaging with its rich tapestry in which even the most minor of characters (is Herb even a character?) captivates the reader.

In another inspired critical turn, Ayoade considers the ethics of the role of the airline host(ess) in ‘A View on Stewardship’. Setting the film against a quotation from the Book of Genesis, he argues that Top illustrates the radical exception to the relative ‘dominion’of humankind over its fellow creatures: the airline steward. Elsewhere, he points out the etymological link between the leading male’s surname, Stewart, which bears resemblance to the Old English word for ‘guardian’. Just another example of how On Top draws out the finer elements of the film’s text.

On a serious note, this hilarious book displays the positive potential of postmodernist criticism. David Foster Wallace once claimed that postmodernism had run its course; in the age of Family Guy and South Park, the dissident voices of popular culture had become too cynical, obscuring society’s jaded core beneath layers of comic lightheartedness.Conversely,Top represents a more genuinely lighthearted approach to culture: the trashy can be enjoyed, in a sense, if it is for a moment taken seriously. There is a deeper criticism,that at the same time does not interfere with the comic value, and cuts to the problems that Top represents – or those that in fact aren’t addressed in the film, such as capitalism’s darker side in opposition to

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