The Sublime and the Ridiculous
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. We haven't done a double-header for a bit, so let us rectify that by once again venturing beyond the cinematic mainstream to discover one film which made me ecstatic and another which left me sadly (but not inappropriately) deflated…
It may well be the case that, in years to come, Channel 4's comedy department in the late 1990s and early 2000s is recognised as an extraordinary hothouse for cinematic talent. The success of Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais and their associates–by far the majority of whom rose to fame on Four in that period–is ongoing and impressive. Joe Cornish, one of the creators of The Adam and Joe Show, has recently completed Attack the Block, an SF thriller that already has a tremendous buzz about it. And, perhaps most startling of all, Richard Ayoade has written and directed Submarine, one of the most distinctive and impressive movies in a long time.
Ayoade, to me at least, is most familiar as geek extraordinaire Moss from The IT Crowd and Dean Learner from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Submarine is not remotely like either of these programmes, being a coming-of-age story : a combination of drama and jet-black comedy that's tonally somewhere between Donnie Darko, Gregory's Girl, and Napoleon Dynamite.
Craig Roberts plays Oliver, a teenager growing up in a town on the Welsh coast, at some point in a deliberately indeterminate past (pedants will have a field day). Oliver's father (Noah Taylor) is a marine biologist and failed Open University presenter, while his mother (Sally Hawkins) has an unrewarding office job. Despite his massive gaucheness and general inability to recognise basic emotional truths, Oliver's attempts to impress eczema-prone temptress Jordana (a revelatory Yasmin Paige) are actually successful, and the two embark on a relationship which they agree is strictly to be non-romantic and unsentimental. But Oliver's attention is distracted from his girlfriend: his parents are having a tough time, and things are not helped by the appearance of an old flame from his mother's past: leather-trousered psychic guru Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine).
What Submarine captures brilliantly is that moment in life when you have, to all intents and purposes, mature faculties, and the capacity for adult emotions, but a complete lack of the life-experience necessary to let you cope with them. It's about attempting to be a grown-up, and then completely cocking it up. I found so much of it to be almost painfully familiar from my own adolescence: Ayoade's script captures the awkwardness, the casual, unthinking cruelty, and above all the monumental self-absorption of being a teenager.
One of the things about being in your teens is that every single experience can feel like something epic and life-changing and utterly central to your being, when (of course) it's almost always nothing of the sort. Submarine manages to communicate this, telling what's ultimately a rather banal story with such style and confidence and wit that it does seem to be of much greater import than it probably is. This makes the film rather difficult to review effectively, but still.
What could have been a fairly cosy and nostalgic comedy is lifted to another level entirely by Richard Ayoade's command of the camera and some beautiful cinematography. And this absolutely isn't a cosy film, although I did laugh out loud throughout it. The humour is distinctly strange and very dark–one moment sees Oliver, with the authentically twisted logic of a teenager, deciding to help Jordana cope with a chronic illness in her family by poisoning her dog–and the whole thing is ruthlessly underplayed by the entire cast. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige essentially carry the film and deliver a couple of (if there's any justice) star-making performances. (I spent most of the film wondering why Paige seemed vaguely familiar before seeing her name in the credits and realising I had seven hours of her on DVD already–she's almost unrecognisable from her stint in Sarah Jane.)
I suppose if I had to make criticisms of Submarine, it would be that the film tarries just little too long in its closing stages, that at times its confidence and style come very close to becoming outright smug pretentiousness, and that there isn't quite enough Paddy Considine in it. But this is to quibble: Submarine is quite possibly my favourite film of the year so far, and it's practically a scandal that in some parts of the UK it's only on the arthouse circuit. Richard Ayoade has made a film with a genuinely cinematic vision, that manages to be, superficially, completely restrained, and yet at the same time deeply moving. Highly recommended.
'Notify Your Next Of Kin…'
Changes in the way films are partaken of have resulted in what seem, to me, like odd experiments in distribution. For me the life-cycle of a movie is that it's trailed, then released to theatres, before coming out on DVD a few months later and then eventually turning up on TV a couple of years after that, thus maximising the makers' profit margins. For many years, after all, describing a film as going 'straight to video' was another way of saying that either it was a failure or fatally lacking in ambition or credibility.
Nowadays the makers of some low-cost films seem to be taking a different approach, maximising the profile their publicity budget allows them and releasing their movies in cinemas (usually in a limited way), on DVD, and over the internet simultaneously. I can sort of see the logic of this, and I for one would happily make the journey to a cinema to see a new film simply because I enjoy the filmgoing experience; but, then again, I am a weirdo and fundamentally unrepresentative of normal everyday people.
Anyway, one of the films benefitting from this kind of shotgun release strategy is Quentin Dupieux's Rubber, a…how on earth am I supposed to describe this film without sounding demented? I don't know. Here goes.
In the deserts of the American southwest something relentlessly evil is stirring. These are the stirrings of a malevolent tyre, sprung suddenly to life. Possessed of an implacable hatred of all living things the tyre sets out on a rampage of bloody carnage, using its newfound psychokinetic powers to slaughter anyone who crosses its path…
Well, what can I say? It's French. Actually, I haven't come remotely close to doing Rubber justice as the film is much, much, much weirder than that brief synopsis suggests. This isn't the laughing-up-its-sleeve gory B-movie spoof that it first appears to be (and which its advertising strongly suggests it is) but something much archer and more cerebral. Indications of this come almost at once as some of the main non-pneumatic characters appear and do elaborately inexplicable things, before one of them gives a speech to camera listing supposedly inexplicable things that occur in great movies. Things happening (or not happening) for no reason are a major component of style, or so the argument runs, and one should not therefore dismiss a movie in which, say, a tyre comes to life and goes on a killing spree for no reason, simply because it's self-evidently nonsense.
And we still haven't got to the heart of Rubber. The central tyre-on-a-murderous-rampage plot is simply a hook on which the film-makers hang a great deal of post-modern commentary about the process of making a movie and anticipating the audience's reactions while watching it. Most of the characters in Rubber are either members of an audience supposedly watching the film, or characters in the story who are well aware of their fictional status.
Rubber's central thesis– that having an irrational story can work to a film's benefit–is fatally undermined by the fact that its own deeply irrational story is the heart of a film which isn't nearly as brilliant as it thinks it is. Most of the stuff with the tyre is actually a lot of fun and technically adroit–the skilful use of cutting and camera angles somehow manages to give the tyre a distinct personality, and if nothing else it's a more engaging screen presence than Mark Wahlberg–and the scenes where it does things like checking into motels and taking showers are entertaining in a deadpan sort of way. But we're constantly dragged off into post-modern wiffling and characters commenting rather predictably on the film they're appearing in.
I'm not sure Rubber is actually a bad film: as a piece of avant-garde absurdist surrealism it has a certain arch charm, a few genuinely funny moments, and at least at only 76 minutes long it doesn't outstay its welcome. But the way it's being marketed is, to be honest, deceitful. 'The best killer tyre movie you'll ever see!' shouts the poster. Not a new device, to be honest: a few years ago I was describing Ghost Rider to friends as 'The best Nicolas Cage as a demonic burning skeleton motorcyclist vigilante movie ever made', but at least Ghost Rider really was a movie about Nicolas Cage as a demonic burning skeleton motorcyclist vigilante. Rubber isn't really a movie about a killer tyre. It would probably be a lot more fun if it was. It's an ultimately interesting film, but very hard to like. It's not nearly as energetic, schlocky, and, above all, entertaining as it might have been had the makers had the guts to play the concept straight, rather than seeking refuge in postmodernism. A disappointment–but the advertising department's as much to blame as the director.