Gilbey on Film: low-budget thrills

The star of Frownland breaks through the slickness of movie acting.

Oh, the giddy thrill of chancing upon a newcomer to screen acting. We've already marvelled at Tahar Rahim, who holds his own in every scene of A Prophet (and will be seen next year in Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle of the Ninth). And despite having four years' worth of zero-budget "mumblecore" films under her belt, Greta Gerwig came to most audiences' attention this year with her unguarded performance in Greenberg.

Now Dore Mann, in the new picture Frownland, breaks through the gloss and slickness generally associated with screen acting. I say the film is new, but that only applies to the UK. It was finished in 2007. Its writer-director, a former projectionist named Ronald Bronstein, hasn't confirmed how long the movie took to make, though he admits he stopped counting at three years.

In 2008, Bronstein distributed Frownland himself in the US after it played on the festival circuit. It begins at London's ICA this Friday, and screens until the end of the month.

The film concerns Keith (played by Mann), a psychotically dysfunctional Brooklyn coupon salesman, and the various warped or disintegrating relationships in his life. Bronstein was influenced by the early work of Mike Leigh, particularly Bleak Moments and Nuts in May, and it shows: the camera is unflinching in its inventory of Keith's emotional paralysis. (Any scene in which he succeeds in reaching the end of a sentence without stammering himself into a frenzy, or being crushingly humiliated, counts as upbeat.)

Bronstein describes Frownland as "a movie that, like me, can't quite tell whether it loves or hates people, and instead careens back and forth between the two in a queasy, confused kind of way."

I'm particularly fascinated by the fearless Mann, who appears to have done no other acting either before or since Frownland, but who radiates a raw authenticity untouched by technique. There is a downtrodden, slobby humour to his work here -- he makes Paul Giamatti look like George Clooney -- and yet no part of his performance is addressed to, or even explicitly acknowledges, the audience. Watching Mann makes you remember the first time it hit you that cinema is voyeurism.

"I met Dore at a family funeral," Bronstein has said, "and within a couple of minutes I knew I wanted to build a project around him... [He] is just a spastic powerhouse of talent. He was driven to basically expend every drop of his creative self for the sake of his role... to the point that we really haven't had all that much to say to each other since the production wound down."

He expands on this, and his own working process, in a fantastically thorough interview with Slant magazine:

I decided I want to be as surprised by the process of making a movie as I am by life itself. I found people that I thought were suited to the roles, and would feed the ideas to them and build the characters and concepts with them. Through massive amounts of rehearsals I would flesh out those scenes and the ideas of those scenes -- how best to communicate those ideas through their natural speech patterns -- and then I would go home and transcribe those rehearsal sessions. I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pages, which I would then pare down, so it was like writing with somebody's brain instead of writing with a pen. [Dore]... is an amazing guy, and is not the guy in the movie. It's a performance, but he's still tapping into something in himself... I'm looking to sculpt characters out of raw personality, rather than try and knock a square peg through the round hole of whatever character I have pre-conceived. Dore is an insecure person, but very confident about expressing that insecurity in front of a camera. He was hell-bent on taking what he felt were the ugliest sides of his personality and purging them in the movie.

Explaining how the on-screen relationship between Keith and his sort-of girlfriend Mary was built up using off-camera improvisation (again harking back to Leigh's method), Bronstein reveals that he engineered an internet relationship between the respective actors:

They started meeting online every night, with me supervising and setting up the time. She had her little AOL profile, and Dore contacted Mary online, in character, and before I knew it that relationship sprung to life. I have a couple of hundred pages of transcripts of all their emails and instant messaging and all that nonsense. It got to the point where this was getting interesting, and they decided to meet. Again, in character, Dore was very nervous and excited about this, but the second that they met, everything started to fall apart very quickly. They just had no rapport, in a way that was interesting. I decided the entry point for them in the movie would be at a point where the relationship was beyond resuscitation. That's what happened. Once something terrible happened with them, to the point where he thought he would never see her again, the movie starts at exactly that point where she shows up.

Mann's performance has not wanted for acclaim. The sparky critic and writer Neil Young has made room for it in the upper reaches of his ongoing and diligent list of the finest performances of the decade. I haven't found any interviews with Mann, but a statement on his MySpace page , written shortly after completing Frownland, reads:

Just finished acting in and creatively contributing to a feature film (a Cassavetes-style character study if that means anything). I have a bottomless appetite for art, history, psychology and learning in general. Though perhaps that sounds a bit dry. Academia aside, I have a very active sense of humour and look for the same in others (just ask to see my Kabuki-style Bill Cosby impression and you'll see what I mean).

If he never acts again, and never wants to, his reputation is assured.

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.