Monday, 12 May 2014

Dom's eleven fave film directors : Part A Thousand

Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant

Already I can feel your complainy glands contorting, oiling themselves up to excrete all sorts of splatter-words of denigration that I dain to place those two ugly, bullying chancer brits on the same list as Lynch, Scorsese, and Fincher.

What are they doing here? Aren't they just silly little over rated toads ripping everyone else off with their cruel and ugly comedies, making fun of everyone around them while doing so from a veil of irony that somehow allows them to pretend that they're not actually making fun of people, they're making fun of people who make fun of people!!!?!!? And all the while making tons of money and success by tricking people into believing the hype instead of attacking their exploitation? Why would they be on your list you unemployed overweight balding wannabe-actor hippy?

Here's my answer to you and let's move on – why would you assume that an audience who likes Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant products are that stupid? And in comparison to who exactly? People who like The Wire? Breaking Bad? Little Britain? Hate to be the one to break this to you, readers, but all television is derivative and exploitative. Television exercises an age old rule you may have heard about already : if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The comedy that Gervais and Merchant trade in is not new. Nor is how they employ it, really. But they are particularly good at it, and in Gervais have presented a truly gifted, funny, obnoxious, and sharply drawn character to a world, who now decries their success as selling out despite being the reason they became successful in the first place.

Here's the truth – whether or not you like them personally ( and the jury is still out for me ), whether or not you personally like what they do ( I do, ) the fact of the matter is they are excellent at what they do all the same and pretty much don't care whether you care or not. What they do is straight up comedy of embarrassment and irony, which they use as a launchpad to comment on human foibles.

There is relatively little satire, parody, or spoof to what they do. Certainly they hook themselves into various elements of satirical expression ( especially in their shows “Extras” and “Life's Too Short” where in the former they allow their fame to justify laughing at the hypocritical over-moneyed world of film, and in the latter – the closest they've come to satire itself – in it's uncomfortable usage of Dwarf actor Warwick Davis to allow for jokes at the expense of Dwarves, by doing so ironically. )

From “The Office” through “Extras” and into “Life's Too Short” they have built a fascinating career based around social awkwardness, bitter or naive English men, small-time people who have grand ideas about themselves and who often become self-aware too late, and an increasing willingness to centre the humour around themselves ( as “personalities” ) to allow them to tendril out and attack what is really on their minds – very often hypocrisy.

Gervais in particular has coasted on a bizarrely obnoxious persona since shooting to fame during his first stint on “The Office,” partly, it seems, as a true reflection of who he is, and partly as a character he appears to have created to deal with that very fame he has achieved and therefore protect himself. An advocate of animal rights and outspoken against animal cruelty, yet with a comedy background that could be described in itself as cruel, even bullying ( see his and Merchant's often genuinely cruel treatment of Karl Pilkington on "The Ricky Gervais Shows." ) A massive supporter of several charities yet not afraid to sell himself as same ( even if he would describe that as being ironic ), and a man who has made it his business to describe hypocrisy in sharp, comedic terms while clearly being able to demonstrate it himself ( his ability to both host the Golden Globes yet somehow seem as though he is too good to host the Golden Globes is fascinating. ) Yet strangely for a man who has created a persona based on narcissism his comedy is often based around a horrendous self-loathing, allowing others to poke fun at his weight, looks, and inabilities and consistently dropping him into situations as the butt of the joke.

One can argue that by allowing this to occur, it gives Gervais a self-satisfied carte-blanche to lash out at other – perhaps less deserving – targets, to whom he can defend himself by stating “but I make fun of myself too!” This is not inaccurate but then – what clown doesn't do that? It is the very first truth of clowning and by extension all comedy, that in order to observe the world around you, you must learn to observe yourself within it. While the characters he plays are often not self-aware, his and Merchant's comedy very much is.

Is it right to do this? Perhaps not, at least not always, but he's not the first to do it nor will he be the last, and it is how clowns, comedians, satirists, and even caricature artists often justify what they do. If I am the butt of the joke and you are laughing at me, then you can be the butt too. And I will be as cruel as you in my laughter.

Much of the humour of “Extras” in particular was founded on Gervais' own success, and though the show has been accused of biting the hand that feeds it in it's affectionate but sometimes merciless attack on the impersonal and often ugly people working behind the scenes on film and television sets, the reality is Gervais and Merchant are simply using this concept as a backdrop to make far more interesting observations about social interaction. Following on from the humdrum setting of “The Office” allowing for microscopic and often painfully sharp observation of how different people operate together under such mundane circumstances, and given their experiences up to this point, “Extras” uses as its backdrop the word of film and television sets to open it's observations further, based on their experiences of fame and the famous after their incredible success with their debut show.

The more low key Merchant cannot help but be sidelined by Gervais' own ever-trundling marketing tank, something that until quite recently did not seem to phase him ( something that colours both men – attractively to some, detrimentally to critics – is how at-ease they are with themselves and how unphased they are under sometimes harsh attack from critics and the public. ) He has since started to create his own particular brand name as a radio personality ( in fact he and Gervais started on radio and while Gervais is the over the top, loudmouth, it is Merchant's sly, intellectual wit that forms the yang in the double act ), stand up comic and sit-com character in his own right, seemingly no longer happy to be the second wheel in a partnership he helped create. But his contribution to the three TV series and one movie ( “Cemetery Junction” ) they have written, directed, and performed in, should not be discounted. While Gervais OTT personality is often the focus, in the background it is Merchant who grounds their work while simultaneously and happily indulging some of Gervais worse traits if it helps the comedy. As befitting the theme of friendship that runs through the entirety of work, it's their friendship behind the camera that informs the work they put in front, and it's their indulgence of each other, and understanding of what is naturally funny that shines through.

They are fans of a naturalism on-camera that makes their characters seem even more real, exemplified in “The Office” and “Life's Too Short” through the mockumentary format, and as a result not only does the embarrassment and discomfort feel natural and all too real, but so does the human warmth.

The themes that often pop up in Gervais and Merchant pieces run the gamut, from the aforementioned hypocrisy, the way in which political correctness can be used to vail racism/sexism/bullying etc, through the small-cog in a larger machine characters, their genuine warmth and empathy for those characters, to the way in which people of influence can use that influence corruptly.

There is certainly a braveness in using “Extras” to comment on celebrity and on the way in which, for example the BBC run its sometimes ignorant or corrupt business operations, but what is even braver is in the way Gervais and Merchant used their cache and popularity after “The Office” to essentially hog-tie the BBC into allowing them to do this particular show, which very often takes impish pleasure in bursting the arty farty bubbles and laying bear the grimness of working in film and TV for those who are not “stars” ( even if ultimately one it's biggest targets is Channel 4's "Big Brother!" )

They are both fascinated with the way in which ignorant people dig holes for themselves, but even more fascinated by the often farcical and uncomfortable way in which self-aware, supposedly smart people hide behind political correctness to justify their ignorance. The discomfort in their comedy often comes from a character's sudden realisation that what they have said or done is offensive, and trying to backtrack with disastrous results. Though rarely politically motivated, their comedy focusses on hot-potato topics such as racism, sexism, special-needs related bigotry, and hypocrisy with razor sharp eyes. It's often the discomfort a person feels with the discomfort they feel, that is the butt of the joke!

Yet at the core of their pieces are very simple, often extremely affecting love stories and friendships, as anyone who like me as cried their eyes out to the resolutions of both Tim and Dawn in “The Office” and in particular Andy Millman's deconstructive confession at the end of “Extras” can attest.

What is so fascinating about watching the two men work together is in the way that they constantly offer up a commentary on where they are at a certain point in their life. They live a constantly developing pop-will-eat-itself existence so that, by the time of the excruciatingly brilliant “Life's Too Short” they are self-referencing so much that at times it seems to be a case of exemplifying that awful catch-all phrase, “too clever for it's own good.”

Indeed at it's worst, the failings of “Life's Too Short” could be used as the hammer to nail Gervais and Merchant's continuous faults and indulgences. By utilising dwarf actor Warwick Davis as an arrogant Gervais stand-in, there is a very uncomfortable compliance on the behalf of everyone involved, in laughing at – though supposedly with – a dwarf actor, and the community he belongs too. The fact that Davis – who is truly excellent in the show, demonstrating a deadpan willingness to mock himself and others, and a superb skill at slapstick – allows himself to be the butt of most of the jokes within the show opens uncomfortable and multifaceted questions about the way in which, for example, dwarves are used in entertainment. By both mocking the way they are often handled by others, Gervais and Merchant seem to be on the dwarves side, yet the discomfort comes from the way they treat their dwarf actors in the same manner, as the butt of sometimes ugly jokes. It becomes hard in this case to understand what point they're making. Perhaps it's a simple admission that sometimes people find Dwarves funny, and it's better to allow them to control therefore how people are laughing at them.

Apparently the show was developed after Gervais and Merchant – who had worked with Davis on “Extras” - were regaled with stories by Davis on his experiences as a dwarf both outside and inside the world of film. They thought these stories were both horrendous and hilarious and wanted to express that in their show. Yet it's hard to believe that some of the experiences the character of Davis goes through are based in reality, which leads to the discomfitting possibility that Gervais and Merchant were looking for ways to mock with impunity while hiding once again behind their sense of irony.

But then, as explored earlier, it returns to that same old clowning ideal. If Warrick Davis wants to highlight and laugh at other people for their foibles because of his experience with bigots and ignorance, according to the Gervais and Merchant school of thought, he must first be able to look to himself and laugh. It works, just about, as a defence of what it is at times a terribly uncomfortable piece of comedy.

Why I've chosen these two unlikely lads as my “eleventh” favourite director is down to the fact that not only have they created an incredibly influential body of work with actual rewatch and staying power, yet they have done so consistently with their own stamp. It has become clear when you are watching a Gervais/Merchant product. And that stamp is usually one of a high quality. The naturalism on camera is often credited with feeling improvised; what's beautiful about the way these men work together – in marked difference to far too much comedy around at the moment - is that everything has been carefully thought through, written and rewritten by two very smart show-runners who know what they find funny, or upsetting, and how to put this on screen to make it seem real enough to appear improvised. It is a skill to be able to draw this kind of performance from a cast, and a skill to be able to write that kind of dialogue.

It is a sign of their odd public standing that when they released their excellent and oddly under-rated film “Cemetery Junction” a great many critics leapt on it, bizarrely stating that it was a step backwards in their body of work because it was gentle in its approach, dealt less with social ineptness and more in coming-of-age comedy and had as its centre a cast of unknown young actors ( this last being, somehow cynical and manipulative. ) The fact that they had chosen to explore maturity while maturing as writers, directors, and performers was lost because people wanted more staplers in jelly and wheelchair girls stuck in stairwells.

They would both be the first to admit that what they do is not new. Fans of silent comedy and in particular Laurel and Hardy, it's plain to see how much they have been influenced by the past, from the often genuinely surprising and funny slapstick in every one of their shows, through the many comedy double acts riffing off Laurel and Hardy's warm, silly, sometimes antagonistic comedy stylings ( Tim and Gareth, Andy and Maggie, Darren Lamb and Barry from Eastenders etc ) to the appropriation of the “Spinal Tap/Christopher Guest” style mockumentary format to tell the stories of “The Office,” “Life's Too Short,” and Gervais' newest project “Derek.”

However, it's the way in which they appropriate these techniques that makes their comedy seem fresh, vital, uncomfortable yes, but also warm and heartfelt.

More than that, the fact of the matter is – like em or loathe em – they create unique, intelligent, daring, consistently funny, often self-aware, television programs on their own terms. They write, direct, produce and act in their own work and with this autonomy they create shows exactly to their own specification.

And whatever else you can say about Lynch, Scorsese, and Fincher, you cannot say any of the above applies to them. Especially when it comes to their mediocre television work.

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