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.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis