Gilbey on Film: Gervais's kryptonite vs lo-fi "Mumblecore"

Ricky Gervais's silver screen efforts are no match for Andrew Bujalski's understated charm.

As Kryptonite is to Superman, so cinema, it would seem, is to Ricky Gervais. There are many things that make him an exemplary comic talent on television -- the forensic self-awareness, the schlubby persona spiked with unwarranted arrogance, the gift for timing which tells him just when to milk a gag and when to cut-and-run. And those are just as an actor and writer.

Directing The Office and Extras (with his writing partner, Stephen Merchant), Gervais seemed to rejoice in the material's distinctiveness -- you could feel he knew how good the material was, and how he had dedicated himself faithfully to preserving its idiosyncrasies. All these fresh qualities curdle inexplicably on contact with cinema.

Watching the films that Gervais has co-directed -- first The Invention of Lying and now Cemetery Junction, which reunites him behind the camera with Merchant -- you get the sensation of performance anxiety, a desperation to reprise the alchemy he created on TV. But how can you repeat originality?

Cemetery Junction, the story of three friends kicking around early-1970s Reading, aspires to reproduce the tenor of US coming-of-age films in a parochial UK setting. Infused as it is with the tang of 1960s British filmmaking -- there are visual nods to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the ending is an optimist's rewrite of Billy Liar -- the film tries to insinuate itself into two cinematic traditions. But I wonder what it brings to the party, apart from a change in iconography (the heroes hang around a scuzzy railway café rather than a diner; there are Ford Capris instead of Buicks) and an exaggerated ear for profanity (the big comic set-piece hinges on some very public swearing).

Everything in the movie is soul-crushingly familiar, from the dynamic of the central characters (the sensitive one, the emotionally-wounded yob, the overweight buffoon) to the various types they encounter (bad men who neglect their wives and girlfriends, or casual racists against whom the heroes can valiantly define themselves). It's embarrassing how by-the-numbers the film is. If you don't spot at least three of the big emotional confrontations in Cemetery Junction an hour before they roll around, then chances are you went to the bathroom when the trailers were on, then wandered into Clash of the Titans by mistake.

The film is scuppered ultimately by the clash between the contrasting traditions to which it pays homage. There was nothing affectionate about the kitchen-sink movement: it was striving to reflect a reality that had hitherto been nudged off the screen, the page or the stage. That's incompatible with the nostalgic bent of the American movies that have influenced Cemetery Junction -- American Graffiti, Diner, The Flamingo Kid, all of which were period pieces made some time after the eras they depicted. Combine the two and you get the film equivalent of mixing your drinks, or starting a band called Oasis.

Cemetery Junction would have looked square in any week, but viewed alongside Beeswax, the unclassifiable new picture from the Boston-born director Andrew Bujalski, it feels particularly stunted. British audiences were lucky enough to get a double-dose of Bujalski in 2007, when his first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, opened in quick succession.

The writer-director (and sometime actor) was heralded as the figurehead of the "Mumblecore" movement, which is usually to be found in the same sentence as words like "lo-fi", "low-budget" and "improvisation". (There, see?) I had assumed that the "mumble" part of that umbrella term referred to the dialogue delivery, which is conversational rather than performance-oriented, but it could apply equally to the shape of the films themselves.

When you're watching Beeswax, it's impossible to pick up on where the movie is heading. While Gervais and Merchant signpost every kink in the plot of Cemetery Junction, and even tell us which characters merit our sympathies, Bujalski goes for a more organic rhythm that's close in spirit to the best work of Eric Rohmer or Richard Linklater. (The picture is set in Linklater's home town of Austin, Texas.)

A week after seeing Beeswax, I'm still not sure how I feel about the twentysomethings who populate the film. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), who co-manages a vintage clothing store, can be an ice queen, and there's something a shade too wacky about her pink-streaked hair. But her unreadable face makes the most innocent close-up feel complicated, while her relationship with her twin sister, Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), is a delight. (The improvised photo-shoot on which the siblings embark is a charmingly loose-limbed set-piece.)

And what of Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), who's studying for the Bar, and offers to help his old flame Jeannie in a legal dispute she's having with her business partner? What's his game? He's a charmer and a straight-faced clown -- his response to Lauren's announcement that her first boyfriend just died could be the comic highlight of the year -- but then there's that mini-tantrum he has in the car...

This is the essence of Bujalski: his films percolate through you. It can be months before you really know what to make of them. Still, I can say for sure I got a huge buzz out of Beeswax.

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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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