Gilbey on Film: Bobby bland

Will the real Robert De Niro please stand up?

I don't have any New Year resolutions, but I do harbour a vague hope: that Robert De Niro will return to acting in 2011. And please don't tell me that he never gave it up -- those would be the words of a person who had escaped the misfortune of seeing Little Fockers, the third and most gruesome in the Meet the Parents trilogy. Perhaps you noticed that De Niro also had a small part recently in Machete, Robert Rodriguez's exploitation homage (yes, another one). His failure to make much impression on screen was in stark contrast to the days when a Robert De Niro walk-on part was a cause for celebration, as in his Al Capone in The Untouchables, which amounted to little more than a few menacing scenes and a lot of Armani. Alternatively, a cameo might reveal a side of him we had never glimpsed, like his charming silliness as a renegade plumber in Brazil. Terry Gilliam told Ian Christie (for Faber's Gilliam on Gilliam book) that De Niro "approached this small part as if he was doing the main part."

He kept flying to London and spent months arguing over every piece of costume and every prop. He was going to brain surgeons he knew in New York and watching operations because I'd said that this character, although a plumber, was like a surgeon . . . We actually built a mock-up of the set just so he could practice. It was as if we weren't making the main film; the special effects, props and costume people were going crazy because they had so much other work to do, but every time Bobby came in, everything would stop and we had to deal with him preparing for his role. He's just not aware of anything else in the world and he makes the most of whatever it is he has to do. He's very serious, very earnest and very hard-working, but it drove everybody else crazy.

If he applies this degree of rigour to his performance as Jack Byrnes, a tyrannical father-in-law, in the Meet the Parents films -- and I find it hard to believe he does -- then something isn't working like it used to; the old alchemy has fizzled out. De Niro the clown is such an odd proposition that there was mileage in it in the beginning; and by the beginning I mean his turn as a Mob boss in therapy in the 1998 comedy Analyze This. Of course, he was funny way before then: he's a riot in Mean Streets, he's dryly hilarious in Midnight Run and Jackie Brown. (In the latter he has all the grunting, un-self-conscious absurdity of a caveman who has accidentally invented the world's first "Knock, knock" joke.)

But the idea of De Niro as a deliberate goofball has its roots in New York, New York, where his attempts to be light-hearted or charming in the presence of Liza Minnelli provide one of the purest examples of horror outside a Universal monster movie. I'd wager that someone involved with Analyze This was channel-surfing late one night when they saw De Niro trying to woo Minnelli in a nightclub at the start of that movie, and realised that the actor has a mesmerising knack for blurring comedy and menace without ever quite throwing in his lot with one or the other.

De Niro being funny involves none of the traditional levity of comedy. In both Analyze This and the original Meet the Parents film, he brings with him the expressions and body language which had served him so well in straight parts -- the shoulders hunched so they almost touch his ear lobes, the mirthless laugh, the grimacing smile where the eyes disappear into the creases in his face. And it is no coincidence that both these parts call on him to be intimidating even as he is gunning for laughs. If any Hollywood casting director ever conceived of trying to get De Niro to be funny in a non-threatening role, the poor sap is probably stacking shelves or holed up in a padded cell by now.

I think comedy has given De Niro a breather that he probably needed. (That said, it's still no excuse for sending up his own "You talkin' to me?" routine from Taxi Driver in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.) But it's time he took on some more roles that are worthy of his range. What he's lacked recently are great directors. The last decent filmmaker he worked with was himself -- he made the undervalued CIA thriller The Good Shepherd, and gave himself a minor part (he was the only disappointment in it). I maintain that David Cronenberg must have a role for De Niro, somewhere up his sleeve. Can you imagine such a thing? Failing that, I'll just settle for De Niro swearing off any future Fockers. But I'll need it in writing. And in blood.

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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder