Show Hide image

I watched the Oscar hopefuls and every film is full of men, men and more bloody men

Oh, and moaning women. These are the films of the year, the ones that we think best capture the tenor of the times. Yet they are only interested in one half of the human tableau.

It happens that my wife and I have been preparing for the arrival of our second child during Oscar season. A lot of sophisticated, well-reviewed films have been jostling for the attention of adult cinema-goers, and given that everyone tells me that the second child marks the end of leisure, I’ve been frantically trying to see as many as possible before my cinematic experience becomes confined to one endless Frozen.

So far I’ve caught Boyhood, American Sniper, Birdman, Whiplash, and Foxcatcher. Though it’s a motley collection of themes and styles, I’ve been struck by what they have in common. They are all emphatically, relentlessly male. These are stories of male maturation, male courage, male ego, male creativity, and male madness. The males make stuff happen, and the males compel our attention. It’s the male motivations that intrigue and puzzle us. It is the male face, in all its exquisite ecstasies and agonies, that commands our gaze.

The females exist on the edges of the stories. With few exceptions, they have little of interest to say, and we can easily read their minds from limited range of expressions they’re allowed to enact. Their main role is to moan to, or about, the males. None of the movies pass the Bechdel test: not once do I recall two women talking to each other about something other than a man. There was, come to think of it, a brief sighting of that rare bird in Birdman, but the conversation quickly became a lesbian facesucking session, which is, as I understand it, the invariable outcome when women get together without men.

Whiplash: drumming men

Whiplash, over which the (mainly male) critics showered saliva, is a movie about men made up of other movies about men. Like every other cop or war movie you’ve seen, it revolves around the clash of an idealistic and talented young man and an evil father-figure. Whiplash’s variation on this flea-bitten trope is to set it in a music school, and vérité be damned. J K Simmons plays a tautly muscled jazz teacher who gets the best of out his (male) students by bullying, scorning and humiliating them. You know the type. Whiplash is a fundamentally silly film, but the worst of it is its desultory attempt at a female character. The girlfriend of our young hero – I forget her name – is beautiful, beguiling, and, inevitably, sacrificed to the manly pursuit of the perfect paradiddle. Melissa Benoist does her impressive best, but her character’s development arc can be adequately summarised in three words: enter, whinge, exit.

American Sniper: fighting men. 

Whingeing is pretty much all that women do in all these movies. In American Sniper, there are two female characters, both girlfriends of our hero, Chris Kyle. The first appears only briefly and without clothes, after screwing another man. Even she manages to get in some moaning before we take leave of her. Then there is Taya, played by Sienna Miller. Taya starts off sassy, cynical and wisecracking. As has been well established by other movies, however, sassy and wisecracking women are desperately sad inside. Our hero quickly intuits that this is true of Taya after he sees her sitting alone at a bar (another sign of emotional turmoil).

Kyle seduces Taya by hinting at a bottomless capacity for violence; she rewards him with a baby and by ceasing to be interesting. Before long she is bending his ear endlessly and tediously about being a responsible father while he tries to kill savages on behalf of America and pursue the movie’s real love interest, a hotshot called Mustafa. In Whiplash and American Sniper, we are ostensibly invited to sympathise with the women but actually to want them to shut up so that we can get back to the man-on-man action.

Boyhood: ageing men

Boyhood too suffers from the curse of the moaning woman. Patricia Arquette has rightly been lauded for her bravery for allowing herself to be seen ageing on screen. But her character is crabbed, joyless and incapable of taking delight in life, or satisfaction in her achievements. This film does contain an exception to the general rule, however. Samantha, sister of Mason, the central character, is so fully alive that she effortlessly outshines her likeable but bland brother and makes you wish that Linklater had made Girlhood (Samantha is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei).

Foxcatcher: wrestling men

Foxcatcher doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than men, and its interrogation of the male psyche is so bleakly unforgiving that it would be impossible to call it chauvinistic. And yet it is clear who is to blame for John Du Pont’s broken soul: his mother, played, with a magnificently evil eye, by Vanessa Redgrave. The other female character, Dave Schultz’s wife (Sienna Miller again), is an adjunct to the action, a piece of narrative furniture who doesn’t rate a mention in Wikipedia’s plot summary until its end.

Birdman: acting men

Sexism in Hollywood is an old story, but it still has the power to astonish. These are the films of the year, the ones that we think best capture the tenor of the times. Yet they are only interested in one half of the human tableau. Even our most intelligent movie-makers have pushed women to the side of their stories, denying them volition, depth, vitality. Why is that? I understand that movies reflect, rather than shape, our interests; their job is to paint what we are, not what we hope to be. But women aren’t the least interesting people in the rooms I’ve been in. Perhaps a brute commercial logic is at work: are movie-goers only interested in men? I don’t buy it. Women go to the cinema as much as men, and I think women are quite interested in women. I even know some men who are interested in women, and not just in that way. Apparently they’re not making movies.

What we seem to have here is a collective failure of imagination, one that’s creatively self-limiting, not to mention unforgivably lazy. Perhaps when I re-emerge into the world of grown-up entertainment, things will have changed. Oh well – at least Frozen has a female hero.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

David Brent: Life on the Road
Show Hide image

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.