Scorsese and the sickness of celebrity

Why "The King of Comedy", released 30 years ago this week, is the director's most disturbing work

 

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a hushed horror film about the craving for celebrity, was released in America on February 18 1983 — 30 years ago almost to the day. Few films from that period turned out to be so prescient. In a sense, it didn’t go far enough: the lengths to which its anti-hero, Rupert Pupkin, will go for fame (or infamy) have been eclipsed easily by the phenomenon of reality television. But the movie is still a fascinating case study. It shows the rot setting in.

Scorsese had helped to bring to life some of the most fascinating monsters in modern movies — Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Each of these men (played, like Rupert, by Robert De Niro) use violence or bullying to express what they can’t articulate. But Rupert is their most disturbing character by a long chalk: a celebrity-obsessed would-be stand-up who lives with his mother and performs an imaginary chat-show in the basement alongside a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minnelli. Alongside Rupert, Travis looks like an upstanding member of society, Jimmy a hot date, Jake a happy little bunny.

De Niro first brought Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay for The King of Comedy to Scorsese’s attention shortly after they had finished their first collaboration, Mean Streets (1973), but the actor was always more enthusiastic about it than the director. In 1980, after the "kamikaze" experience of making Raging Bull, Scorsese was itching to plunge into another project, and De Niro finally persuaded him that the time was right for The King of Comedy. It’s true that the script, about Rupert’s obsession with the chat-show king Jerry Langford — which leads him eventually to kidnap Langford and demand a slot on his show by way of ransom — had ripened with the growth of celebrity culture in the US. But in retrospect, Scorsese wondered if he had been right to direct the picture: “I didn’t feel comfortable with it. The King of Comedy was something that De Niro liked and I had to be convinced to do. If I have to be convinced to do something, I shouldn’t do it. I realised that I only want to do pictures that come from me.”

It was conceived as a quick, guerilla-style shoot after the lengthy production of Raging Bull, as well as a pick-me-up for Scorsese after a bout of pneumonia. But it didn’t turn out that way. “I didn’t make the film fast enough,” he said. “I went on too long and I lost my energy. Every day I had to get myself back into why I wanted to make the picture.”

Odd to think that the movie was considered plum material for a breezy shoot: its defining characteristics include a painstakingly slow pace and an over-deliberate fixation on images that convey the emptiness of celebrities and those who stalk them. You can see that from the off, when Scorsese freeze-frames the image of a fan’s hands squashed against the window of Langford’s limousine. This tableau is made all the more bizarre by being caught in the lightning glare of paparazzi flashbulbs. We have to look at that image for so long as the credits play over it that we want to scream.

That’s the reaction Scorsese was going for. So many of the scenes here are protracted for maximum audience discomfort: for instance, Rupert taking his friend Rita to Langford’s country house for a lunch date that exists only in his own warped mind. The social embarrassment when Langford confronts his uninvited guests is agonising.

With his slicked hair, ingratiating manner and Huey Lewis dress sense, De Niro gives a grotesque performance devoid of vanity, but there’s sound work too from Jerry Lewis, impressively implacable as Langford. The celebrity resonance invoked in the casting of this giant of US showbusiness works to the film’s advantage. Scorsese had first approached Johnny Carson to play the part, but Carson turned it down. He even considered Frank Sinatra. But it’s unlikely that either of them would have been as game, or as glum, as Lewis. His performance is like one long Mexican stand-off with his co-stars, whether it’s De Niro weaseling his way into his limo, or real-life comic and former Friend Of Madonna Sandra Bernhard stripping for him after first mummifying him with parcel tape.

With its despairing worldview, dislikable characters and callous humour, The King of Comedy is not easy to warm to, though the film is widely admired (if not loved by the public at large: it grossed a measly $2.5m in its entire run). The 1980s were difficult for Scorsese: after Raging Bull, he took on a series of unambitious films not originated by him (After Hours, The Color of Money) before expending enormous energy on his troubled pet project The Last Temptation of Christ. But The King of Comedy endures, partly because it is an uncompromising movie and partly because its relevance only increased with each passing year and each new celebrity who becomes famous for being famous.

Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro in 2008

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.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.