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All We Make Is Entertainment December 21, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, movies.
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When it comes to movies, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais elsewhere on this site, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a fine standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.

These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.

*****

Current listening:

Duran Duran – All You Need Is Now (2010)

Last movie seen:

The Alphabet Killer (2008; Rob Schmidt, dir.)

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Sixty Seconds in Kingdom Come November 3, 2009

Posted by monty in TV.
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3 comments

Sometime during the last season – and without me even realizing it – the American version of The Office became equivalent in quality to its British progenitor.

phptvdb-officeEver since the American version got its start in 2005, I’ve sworn up and down that it just doesn’t hit the same emotional notes as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original iteration of the show.  Much has been made of that show’s “comedy of discomfort,” of Gervais’ amazingly rendered office manager David Brent, of the delicious antagonism between employees Tim and Gareth, and of course the sweetly fumbling romance between Tim and Dawn.  As a comedy it’s nearly perfect, with each episode sporting one or two moments that should be immortalized in some comedy museum somewhere.

But what set it apart from the American version, at least until recently – and what makes me watch the entire series all the way through a couple times each year – is the rich vein of emotion that runs just below the surface.  The British version works so well because the characters, even David and Gareth, are profoundly real. There’s no cartoonish buffoonery or high-concept hijinks; the show is rooted in reality, and Gervais and Merchant were never afraid to let relevant emotion seep in when it was appropriate.  The scene at the end of Season 1 where David begs for his job is one of the most excruciatingly heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on television.  And the culmination of Tim and Dawn’s relationship in the series finale is – with all apologies to the American version’s Jim and Pam – absolutely note-perfect.

I’ve used the word perfect a couple times, and that’s really the thing about the British version: each episode presents a situation, or sometimes a series of moments, that could go wrong in so many different ways – cheap comedy, easy laughs, bogus sentimentality – but Gervais, Merchant, and the actors found, 100% of the time, the exact right way to develop and resolve those situations.  That’s a nearly impossible feat that I’m not sure any other show has consistently replicated.

OfficeThe American version, by contrast, has more often than not gone for the easy laugh.  It’s usually a good laugh – don’t get me wrong – but the show has largely plowed a different furrow than the UK original. There’s no denying that the appealing chemistry between John Krasinski’s Jim and Jenna Fischer’s Pam helps keep the show grounded, but where the British version mined humor from the mundane, the American version often goes for the wacky premise – Michael burns his foot on a George Foreman grill!  Dwight plays the recorder at a bird’s funeral!  This tendency often drags the show into the realm of sitcom, which it otherwise seems to be commendably resisting.

One other fundamental difference between the two series rests with the characters.  The British version had a smaller canvas, focusing primarily on David Brent, Gareth, Dawn, and Tim.  There are certainly supporting characters – Dawn’s fiancee, Lee; Neil, the district office manager; Chris Finch, Brent’s #1 sales rep – but by and large the smaller characters play only bit parts.  The American version, on the other hand, has a sprawling cast, with entire episodes centering on (or at least featuring) a dozen or more other characters in the last few seasons.  I stress again that the show has been consistently funny, but I always felt that the sheer number of characters has diluted the impact.

Or at least that’s what I thought until a couple weeks ago.  Even the casual viewer knows that the show has been building steadily toward Jim and Pam’s wedding since the end of Season 2.  In short, they kiss, he goes away, he returns, he’s dating someone else, they get together, she goes to art school, he proposes, she’s pregnant.  The wedding episode finally rolled around shortly into this season, and I was pleasantly surprised while watching it until …

***** SPOILER ALERT FOR PEOPLE WHO CATCH UP LATER ON DVD *****

… the wedding march begins, one of the wedding party signals the organist to stop playing, and Dwight immediately turns on a boom box playing that godawful Chris Brown song that accompanied that stupid YouTube wedding dance sensation from a few months ago.  I don’t remember groaning out loud in disappointment, but it’s entirely possible that I did.  This kind of straight-faced parody/homage seemed to run counter to everything the show was about.  It was a predictable joke, and worse, it was about two months too late to even be topical.

But I kept watching, and a funny thing happened.  Each of the supporting characters did his or her dance down the aisle – Michael, Phyllis and Bob Vance, Andy (using a walker after tearing his scrotum in a dance contest the night before) and Erin, Kelly and Ryan, Stanley, Michael again, Oscar and Kevin, Angela, Creed, Dwight, and then the whole cast – and this sequence was intercut with scenes from the real wedding ceremony that had already taken place in secret.  Watching it, I realized just how brilliant this show has become.  Even though the humor is broader, the characters are just as finely drawn as in the British version, and the emotional reaction I had at the end of this episode  – sitting in my apartment with a big, dopey grin on my face and a lump in my throat – was based on just how much I’ve come to care about them over the last five seasons.  The huge cast is one of the reasons the show has continued to grow and improve, and the wedding dance – rather than the hokey and ill-conceived joke I thought it would be – seems to be just as much a celebration for the actors as it is for their characters.  Above all, it demonstrates just how far the show has come in five seasons, and just how much this remarkable cast has evolved into the funniest group of actors on television.

The wedding episode could have gone wrong in so many ways, but, taking a page from its UK counterpart, The Office did the unthinkable and made it perfect.

Here’s the wedding video, for those who haven’t seen it, or who just want to remember how great it is (and sorry if NBC makes you watch a commercial first):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*****

Current listening:

Love earth

Love and Rockets – Earth Sun Moon

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Kate Krautkramer – “Roadkill” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers