Pizza the action: Ellen ordered takeout for the Oscars but no one wants to hear someone munching through 12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Getty)
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Punters will always want to eat when at the cinema. It’s time for the film-tailored menu

Cinemas warn you to put your mobile phones on silent but say nothing about the clash of jaws or the gargling of gullets.

Harvey Woolfe, a regular consumer of Real Meals, writes to suggest that I tackle the vexed question of cinema food. He observes that whereas there are tintinnabulating warnings in advance of every screening that patrons should put their mobile phones on silent, there is nothing done about the clash of their jaws, the gargling of their gullets, or – my favourite, this – that peculiarly gravelly noise the last few CLs of a fizzy beverage makes as it is sucked up a straw from a waxed paper cup. Indeed, the policy of film-house management is positively to encourage comestibles (the noisier the better) by flogging them in the foyer. Harvey speculates that it’s all about profit, Statesmanlike socialist that he presumably is, but the horror show that is screen snacking is actually rather zeitgeisty. I heard a DJ on the radio the other day saying that he’s set up a pressure group to campaign for better viewing behaviour, following an incident in which his subtitled enjoyment was compromised by other patrons both munching and chewing the fat on their dog-and-bones.

Well, good luck to them all but I’m afraid I can’t lend my shoulder to this particular wheel of processed cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as incensed by inconsiderate eating as the next intolerant middle-aged cinemagoer; in fact, probably a great deal more so. I’ve been known to offer to meet these swine in the lobby and serve them a knuckle sandwich if they don’t desist, but on balance I accept it as part of the rough and tumble of popular entertainment. The thing is that films and food are a gestalt that’s been fully formed since the Keystone Kops were slinging custard pies; to go to the cinema and not shell out £3.50 for a bag of chocolate-coated peanuts that you could – with even infinitesimal foresight – have got around the corner at a fraction of the price would be a paradoxically impoverishing experience.

The same goes for those evilly glowing hot dogs that birl on their metal rollers; and for great, glistening heaps of buttery popcorn; and not to top off such a rotten repast with a demijohn of carbonated corn syrup would be a solecism on a par with loudly demanding ketchup at a state banquet. Besides, the artier cinemas usually offer quieter food – flapjacks, ham croissants, chai lattes – and the artier films attract thinner spectators. You’re unlikely to find yourself at a late-night screening of, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal with someone behind you lustily squelching wine gums. True, there is the occasional nightmarish crossover situation when what should be a famished cinematic road gets hopelessly jammed. My own enjoyment (if that is the appropriate term) of 12 Years a Slave was rather undercut by being surrounded by wage slaves who happily troughed their way through every excoriation.

Still, it made me see the film in a different light – by the end I was interrogating Chiwetel Ejiofor with my eyes, and thinking: “Hmm, you’re looking a little porky for a man in bondage . . .”

Ignoble thoughts, certainly, but it makes me suspect that instead of a blanket ban on cinema eating, we require appropriate dishes. After all, what was it that the Italian futurist Marinetti demanded for his fascist banquet: raw meat torn by trumpet blasts. So, for 12 Years, punters should be offered hominy grits, rice and beans; for Shame, Steve McQueen’s superb anatomising of sex addiction, they should be given flavoured condoms to lick, Viagra to snack on and pubic hairs to thread between their teeth; and for his debut feature as a director, Hunger, there should indeed be not so much as a melt-melded bag of Revels on sale.

All of which reminds me of a photograph I was emailed a few years ago which showed the seat occupied by a Very Big Movie Producer during a screening of an epic tale of starving polar explorers. This producer is both fiscally big and morbidly obese, and he had munched his way through the film in the most egregious fashion. There, forming a sort of blast pattern on the carpet, was the evidence of his insane appetite: half-chewed candy bars and hot dogs had been cast aside, litres of soda spurted skyward, and the finger-fumbled popcorn lay as thick and white as pack ice.

This is the dietary nightmare that underpins the whipped cream of the dream factory, and it is – as the mogul would no doubt concur – non-negotiable: snacking belongs to passive forms of entertainment as Pearl does to Dean.

I went to the theatre this week to see Francesca Annis in Peter Gill’s new play, Versailles. It’s an oxymoronically modern period piece, set in a late-Edwardian country house during the Paris peace conference of 1919, that gratifies playgoers with the unearned but amusing right of hindsight. At one point a character says of the lower middle class: “They have a capacity for single-mindedness that could lead them anywhere,” at which everyone laughed knowingly. In the interval I chatted amiably with Melvyn Bragg, another reader of this column. We both had ice creams – mine was Belgian chocolate, his stem ginger flavour. Both cost a reassuring £4.50.

I say to Harvey Woolfe, what’s good enough for His Lordship is good enough for everyone; surely that’s what men died for at Ypres and Passchendaele?

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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.