Gilbey on Film: Gentlemen Broncos is an overlooked classic

If only studios had more faith in their own movies.

Much has been written about the very real difficulty of getting obscure or uncommercial films out into the public domain, but even mid-budget pictures from proven directors can be smothered in early infancy.

If there isn't any faith in a film, this will be reflected in the way it's treated by the studio and/or the distributor. Maybe the critics will collude in the film's early demise. Spying a runt of the litter, smelling the whiff of preordained failure, large parts of the media will not give it the same attention afforded to a glossy, well-oiled prestige picture such as Up in the Air.

In this instance, the "runt" to which I'm alluding is Gentlemen Broncos. While never destined to be a hit of Avatar proportions, it had on its side a director with cult appeal (Napoleon Dynamite's Jared Hess), some recognisable faces with indie cachet (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, plus Sam Rockwell and Mike White), and the clout of a distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures (the "specialist" division of 20th Century Fox), with a proven record of crossover hits including The Full Monty, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.

But Gentlemen Broncos died on its US release last October. Was it too bizarre? A picture that features three different films-within-a-film, all partly concerning a futuristic warrior's quest for his stolen gonads, could certainly have that charge levelled against it. But the movie -- about a poor, teenage fantasy writer whose submission to a short-story contest is plagiarised by a science-fiction novelist -- is heartfelt, visually arresting (in a Michel Gondry, sticky-backed-plastic kind of way) and rambunctiously funny. An original film, but not an inaccessible one.

It was deemed to have tanked on its opening weekend, when it grossed $31,000 on 12 screens, after which Fox Searchlight drastically scaled back plans to widen its release. If a movie flops in the US, it is as good as dead, and it's unlikely to receive a leg-up from its UK distributor. (The situation can sometimes be reversed if the film is travelling in the opposite direction across the Atlantic, as in the case of Croupier.) And so it was that Fox Searchlight in the UK showed zero enthusiasm for plugging the picture's release here in April.

But then, why wouldn't it? This was only a quickie release, a formality to promote the film's appearance on DVD a few days later. No point spending money pushing a product that it had already decided to bury. Most UK critics responded in kind by throwing their own handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, with the Telegraph and Standard isolated in their praise.

The slapdash treatment didn't stop there. Even with the DVD release date approaching, a critic writing for, ooh, let's say the New Statesman, might find that the PR company responsible for getting the film seen would actively brush off no less than seven requests for a review copy. Fortunately, the might of Fox Searchlight and its appointed PR agents was not omnipotent, and I happened to catch Gentlemen Broncos on a long-haul flight a few weeks back.

If I tell you I watched it twice on the way out, and once on the return leg, and that it has even made me feel I should take another look at Nacho Libre, Hess's previous film, about which I was lukewarm . . . well, what more recommendation do you want?

Gentlemen Broncos is a jubilant, uninhibited film, with a nutty sense of the fantastic and a genuine faith in the transformative power of the imagination. I must mention the genius of Jemaine Clement's performance as the clench-jawed SF legend Dr Ronald Chevalier, an icon of self-important buffoonery to rank alongside Garth Marenghi and Alan Partridge.

Chevalier's writing class, in which he focuses exclusively on the importance of giving the right name to your story's "protag", is already a contender for the most delicious scene of the year, just as Clement himself vies only with Nicolas Cage (in Bad Lieutenant -- Port of Call: New Orleans) for the title of Most Fearlessly Extravagant Comic Turn of 2010.

Also significant is someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with the film's production -- the New Yorker's Richard Brody. Search "Gentlemen Broncos" on the magazine's website and you will turn up 12 blogs, reviews and mentions of the film; all are credited to Brody.

Brody has seemingly devoted most of the past eight months to getting the word out about its brilliance, defending it from its (many) detractors, patiently explaining to them the deeper complexities that have eluded them, and generally refusing to let the movie die as its distributor would wish. He gives critics a good name.

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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage