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.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era