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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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.