Glow sticks, superclubs . . . and Bruce Forsyth

Mark Watson is wrong about dancing.

 

Mark Watson's most recent New Statesman column describes his angst at how suddenly everyone, everywhere, seems to be dancing -- with Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, and the new competitive shows on the BBC and Sky that are seeking out "Britain's best dancer":

At what point did dancing earn the right to be presented as a matter of such importance? And how come I missed the meeting?

Oh, Mark -- you missed the meeting by several thousand years! I do hope you at least sent your apologies. Some minutes were taken by Hieron, the 6th-century BC painter, mostly in the form of ceramic vases.

Watson is half right when he says we're in the midst of "the most widespread and inexplicable dancing mania in at least 400 years" -- but what's wrong with that sentence is the word "inexplicable".

As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her wonderful book Dancing in the Streets, dancing, music-making, dressing up ("costuming") and taking narcotics with others are hard-wired into the human DNA.

It's an evolutionary necessity for human beings, prefiguring speech as an agency of social interaction. In order to avoid being viciously mauled by that inconsiderate sabre-toothed tiger down the road, our ancestors had to assemble in groups larger than just the family unit, typically groups of ten to 15 people. To do this, they had to learn to get along with people they didn't share DNA with. And so, to help them become social animals, human beings learned to dance.

In strictly Darwinian terms: dancers survived and wallflowers got EATEN BY TIGERS. (Do stop me if the science is getting too technical.)

After we learned to dance together, we learned to speak; and as time passed, we started to construct civilisations. We built roads and sanitation systems, created hierarchies and governments. Eventually, we invented glow sticks, superclubs and Bruce Forsyth.

 

Make it funky

The impulse to dance is ever-present in human history, lying dormant for periods and then flaring up at points when alienation from power elites becomes more acute.

In this context, the dance mania of 2010 makes perfect sense: it is literally a knee-jerk response to the sedentary shackles of our "spectacular" culture of passivity. It's true that all of Mark Watson's examples of dance manias are TV programmes -- but we must hope this leads to more than just people wiggling their toes from the comfort of the sofa.

Certainly UK Funky, the genre-tag for some of the most exciting dance music being made in Britain right now, has become defined by its "skank" culture: this is a grass-roots movement to create and disseminate simple, choreographed manoeuvres that yell out, "For God's sake, do try this at home!" But not just at home: in IKEA, at KFC, in clubs -- at any rate, in public.

A generation of urban youth alienated from public spaces by privatisation, Asbo culture and de facto gated communities in their own backyards are now striking back. And they're doing it feet-first.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue