Man in the mirror: Jesse Eisenberg as Simon/James
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A case of homage overload: The Double by Richard Ayoade

Two films into his directing career, the former star of the IT Crowd  has yet to exhibit an original voice.

Watching a lot of movies is not a prerequisite for being a good director. In unusual instances, it can even be an impediment. Richard Ayoade is a case in point. As a comic performer, this actor-turned-film-maker has a distinctive style: he mixed the naive and the knowing to sophisticated effect in The IT Crowd, in which he played Moss, king of the nerds, stiff and straight as an ironing board, with a lopsided wedge of haywire hair.

Two films into his directing career, he has yet to exhibit a comparably original voice. Both the coming-of-age comedy Submarine (2010) and its superficially darker follow-up, a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella The Double, suffer from a severe case of homage overload. While I am overjoyed for Ayoade that he has seen such films as Brazil, Eraserhead, The Tenant and the collected works of Aki Kaurismäki, a 90-minute tour of his DVD collection is no substitute for a film. Casting is one area where The Double is strong. As Simon, the office drone so ineffectual that automatic doors fail to register his presence, Jesse Eisenberg is ideal. He’s so pale that a pint of milk would look like Tizer alongside him, so jittery that he surely stammers even in his thoughts. Simon is already a nervous wreck before witnessing a man in the opposite building jump to his death. There is also his agony at lusting after a demure, icicle-like colleague (Mia Wasikowska) to little noticeable effect and discovering that she may have played some part in the leaper’s demise. (It turns out that she told him, “Stop fucking following me!” the day before his death. “Do you think there’s some connection?” she asks innocently.)

Then Simon is spooked to find that his exact double, James, has begun working in the office. Even worse, James starts passing off Simon’s achievements as his own and currying favour with the boss (Wallace Shawn). James is also played by Eisenberg, though a supreme gag here would have been to cast the similarly pallid and angular Michael Cera; after all, both actors have remarked publicly that they are forever being mistaken for one another. Cera’s ongoing campaign to muss up his geeky persona began a few years ago with Youth in Revolt (2009), in which he played both a nerd and his suave alter ego: exactly what Eisenberg is called on to do here. Then again, Youth in Revolt was breezy fun, whereas The Double has its sights set stubbornly on being art. If there is a faster route for a director to end up with egg on his face, it has escaped me temporarily.

The movie is glazed with a feeble sense of dread, nowhere more so than in the area of production design, which has a retro-futuristic aesthetic: sickly green lighting, exposed ducts and pipes, technology with an antiquated spin (such as the photocopier equipped with clunky dials). Framed pictures of the omniscient Colonel (James Fox) recall Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four but even in its homages the movie is derivative – Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian fantasy Brazil went by the working title of 1984½. The problem, as with everything in The Double, is not that the influences are transparent but that they are all the film has. Those of a forgiving spirit might take this for an in-joke, as if Ayoade were making the movie itself into a double, a 24-frames-per-second facsimile.

Even generous viewers might wonder at the film’s preference for effect over feeling, affectation over depth. Ayoade can shoot a garishly coloured room flickering under a broken strip-light as well as the next David Lynch fan but where is the palpable menace required in any cinematic nightmare? We never discover why it is such a bad deal for Simon to meet his doppelgänger; the film wouldn’t be noticeably different if the interloper were not James but, say, any hunk with designs on Simon’s girl. Ayoade is not slow to pile on the zaniness (a suicide squad assesses Simon as a “maybe” and there are visits to a nursing home where the residents carry weapons). He also recruits his comedy chums (Chris Morris, Chris O’Dowd) for unremarkable cameos. Taking this story of the uncanny and stripping it of any eeriness must count as his most striking achievement, as well as his most perverse.

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.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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