I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down: Summertime sadness

A programme full of comedians talking about their worst gigs allows Antonia Quirke briefly to believe that the summertime malaise is at an end.

I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down
Radio 4
 
August is a melancholy month, an antechamber you hang around in, drumming your fingers. Usually Radio 3 is the only station that comprehends this, programming huge wodges of Chopin through the night, letting the Nocturne in C minor go on until what feels like dawn; the notes, as someone once said, “not flowing, but falling – amid rests – like words of existential weight”.
 
Occasionally, the unspellable name of a Slavonic maestro is spoken by the announcer, whom you picture with shirt open at the throat and cigarette clinging to lower lip, followed by a moment of, if not quite silence, that perfectly gloomy, pronounced Radio 3 quiet. And then another bloody nocturne.
 
Usually Radio 4 programmes a tonne of repeats during August but so far this month it has been unseasonably keen, airing rambunctious interviews with the Clash and original plays about Joan Littlewood’s enlivening friendship with a wine baron. But one programme perfectly fitted the August sorrow – comedians talking about their worst gigs (19 August, 4pm).
 
At a coffee shop somewhere, Jack Dee and Jo Brand discussed their toughest moments on stage, a low canteeny clatter in the background contributing to that late-summer, lost feeling of other people being otherwise occupied. Dee said that the moment you start making jokes that begin with the word “anyway”, you are in deep trouble. Anyway stinks profoundly of fear. Brand described once inadvertently making what was interpreted as an outrageously racist joke – her embarrassment complete when she was complimented by the dreaded Roy “Chubby” Brown. She also made the point that no matter how celebrated or experienced, a comedian can still mess up horribly, making comedy the most democratic of forms.
 
“Didn’t Billy Connolly die recently?” she asked in awe, referring to his walking off stage after being faced with persistent heckling from crowds in Blackpool and Scarborough this year. (The inference was that if it can happen to Connolly, it can happen to anyone, so imposing is he as a character and so over-revered, even among comedians.)
 
The one stand-up mentioned who apparently has never died is Peter Kay. A friend tells me that many years ago he saw a thenunknown Kay at Edinburgh and that the comedian walked on to the tiny stage in a completely OTT cloud of dry ice, spluttering through the fog.
 
Even before he had said a word, the mood was hysterically cheerful, and everything from that point accelerated further into the insane good humour of a revival meeting. For some reason, we just have immediate faith that Kay will be funny without any kind of material whatsoever.
 
Back at the café, Jack Dee sounded resigned, thinking squirmingly of past disasters. He said he used to wear a motorbike helmet if he was working his way back through an unappreciative crowd at the Comedy Store, hoping that everyone might assume he was a pizza delivery guy. It was a nice confession and had people around his café table hooting. It sounded almost like September.
Billy Connolly. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump