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 Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon