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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution