Italian American food, or American Italian? Image: Getty
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Will Self on how to rescue our lives from marketers and margherita pizzas

To examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism. But let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

A mannish-looking woman in a white blouse buttoned to the collar and a straight black skirt kneels in the foreground of an undistinguished tract house, clutching a three-year-old girl about the waist so that her rigid crinoline skirt tips up on one side. They both look pained and the shot isn’t particularly well composed – a telegraph pole rises up out of the woman’s head.

Some years ago Nicholson Baker wrote a fine essay for the New Yorker on the books used as props in the Ralph Lauren mail order catalogue. Baker’s point – in analysing the disjunction between these bought-by-theyard volumes and the off-the-peg shmatte draped around them – was that the book had become a symbol of a form of leisured cultivation aspired to by the sort of people content to be accessories to the brand; in short, these were books that did even less than furnish a room – they furnished the idea of a room that one might have, were one to stop spending all one’s money on tacky designer clothing.

The same could be said of the photographs framed and stuck up on the walls of the Little Frankie’s that we ate in the other evening. These are emphatically not meant to be looked at, let alone analysed – these are images that should be merely glanced at, and so subliminally assimilated to the desired commercial gestalt.

In a way, to examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention – with sympathy and reverence, even – would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism; as someone might pick up small pieces of smoothed bottle glass from the beach, take them home, put them in jars filled with water and, placing these on the windowsill, observe how the sunlight transforms such undistinguished lumps into glowing jewels. But, hell, everyone’s life is too short, eh? So let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

Little Frankie’s is the cadet arm of the mighty Frankie & Benny’s chain, which has over 200 outlets in the UK. The only thing that distinguishes them is their piccolo size, otherwise they offer up the same shtick: a cod version of the cultural miscegenation that on their website is styled variously “New York Italian” or “Italian American”, but which at the branch where we found ourselves was detailed – as one of my sharp-eyed sons pointed out – “American Italian”.

I’d like to think that this was because someone high up in The Restaurant Group (the plc that owns the chain, along with Garfunkel’s and Chiquito) had come to the conclusion either that: a) such now is the degree of assimilation that it should be reflected in their terminology, or b) they need to dissociate themselves from all the usual Italian- American clichés – DiMaggio, Sinatra, The Sopranos, blah, blah, yech.

But the reality is almost certainly that a middle-ranking marketer had focus-grouped the reversed couplet and found out it played better with punters, such – as I believe I’ve already pointed out – is life. In Little Frankie’s, the bubblegum Fifties pop played nonstop and I wondered what our waitress – who admitted to me she came from Pisa – made of it all. The marketing department long ago (1995, when the first branch opened in Leicester) concocted a backstory: the eponymous Frankie, aged ten, moved from Sicily to Little Italy in New York in 1924 and a year later his parents opened a restaurant . . . blah, blah, yech. I can’t believe anyone devotes any more headspace to this than they do to the flash-bulbed revenants they see on their way down to the chequerboard-tiled toilets. There may be dark wood floors and bentwood chairs and “granite-effect” tabletops at Little Frankie’s, but so far as I could see, the only evidence of a sense the clientele were involved with was taste.

The same sharp-eyed boy said his margherita pizza “thinks it’s better than it is”; a strange remark that I think was occasioned by it being covered with slices of actual tomato rather than just the purée he favours. The other son said that his burger was shit and his onion rings were shit, and the extra hot dog we ordered was also shit, but that he’d eaten them all because he was so hungry. For myself, I didn’t mind my tough little steak – and when I complained about the cold chips, the waitress obligingly brought me a dish of chips so hot that, had we been in an Italian-American restaurant, I’d have suspected the chef of trying to whack me. Bravissimo!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories