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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser