Friday, 18 March 2011

GFT programme note: Submarine

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Prior to the start of shooting, a statement was issued to journalists regarding the forthcoming adaptation of the 2008 novel Submarine. The press release was ostensibly written not by director Richard Ayoade, nor any of the film’s producers, but by protagonist Oliver Tate personally. “I have been waiting too long for the film of my life” he announced, heralding a cinematic extravaganza intended to capture his “particular idiosyncrasies” via “helicopter shots” and “slow-mo”. “Knowing me as I do”, Oliver noted, “I will be surprised if this film runs to less than three hours.” His statement concluded with editorial instructions for reporters, specifying “appropriate adjectives to describe this film”, including “breath-taking” and “a monumental achievement”.[1] Ayoade might have signed on as director, but Oliver was clearly destined to be Submarine’s guiding authorial voice.

At the outset, Oliver imagines his premature demise in comically overblown detail, visualising candle-lit vigils and a glorious resurrection. “I often find the only way to get through life is to imagine myself in a totally disconnected reality” he muses, envisioning his life as fodder for auteurs and acting accordingly (ponderously staring into the sea; listening “exclusively” to old French crooners). His precocious world-view produces statements alternately asinine and pretentious (for instance, stating with deadpan pabulum “I’m not sure I believe in scenery”), with Ayoade’s screenplay believably capturing Oliver’s distinctively teenage brand of affected ennui.

Oliver’s ambitious intellect and self-identified outsider status locate him in a long lineage of literary teens, from Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to Amis’s Charles Highway. Like The Catcher in the Rye and The Rachel Papers, Dunthorne’s source novel is narrated in the first person, the reader privy to Oliver’s every high-brow citation and inquisitive observation. Some are transplanted into the screenplay intact; for instance, his attempts to monitor his parents’ fluctuating passions via their bedroom dimmer switch, with halfway equating to romance the night before. But a humorously-deployed voice-over is only one way in which Ayoade translates the novel’s subjectivity from page to screen. Literalising the novel’s subjective perspective, the IT Crowd star joked at a recent Q&A, would have resembled the opening credits of Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) stretched to feature length, containing nothing but abstract “synaptic twinges”. Instead, Oliver’s story is presented the way Oliver himself might present it, were he to defy his fictional status and replace Ayoade in the director’s chair. This is realised not through the promised helicopter shots, but with self-conscious ‘arty’ cultural allusions and unabashed romanticism. Voracious cinephilia is indulged: diegetically by the Le Samoura├» (Melville, 1967) poster adorning Oliver’s bedroom wall, and reflected at a formal level by multiple references to the French New Wave. This is most notably invoked by the blue-and-white inter-titles that segment the plot, each accompanied by grandiose orchestral swells that recall Une Femme est Une Femme (Godard, 1961). On the subject of creativity, Godard once reportedly stated “it’s not important where you take things from; it’s where you take them to”.[2] Oliver might beg to differ: with his nascent self-identity constructed at least partially from the cultural artefacts he studiously shores around him, sources would seem to be integrally important.

Ayoade went on to identify Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) as a specific influence. The reference prompted laughter from the audience (further fuelled by the punch-line “we had to cut the climactic gun fight”), but it is nonetheless revealing. Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Oliver is a self-mythologising protagonist, but one influenced by libraries and art-house cinemas rather than porn theatres and gun culture. Where the former prays for a rain to wash the scum from the streets, Oliver just hopes he can convince his girlfriend to sleep with him. In pursuit of said goal, he enlists Nietszche (introduced with the delightfully limp appraisal “I may not agree with everything he says, but he makes some interesting points”), Shakespeare and Dreyer as unlikely accomplices.

In addition to the aforementioned Holden and Charlie, Oliver’s scheming courtship of Jordana recalls the creations of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, though his heart is arguably closer to the surface than that of Max Fischer, Rushmore’s teenage Machiavelli. Oliver may have no qualms about strategically bullying an unfortunate classmate if it impresses his would-be sweetheart, but at least he expresses regret afterwards – though his attempts at atonement (a lengthy pamphlet coaching his target on ‘how to break out of the victim cycle’) are decidedly misguided.

Notably, Ayoade appears uninterested in challenging Oliver for the position of auteur. At the aforementioned Q&A, he persistently diffused the politique’s aura by responding to queries with a mix of matter-of-fact pragmatism (Q. Why did you get involved? A. they asked me…) and self-effacement (introducing the film with the caveat “there’s a good chance you might not like it”). But while Ayoade may not wish to appoint himself to the pantheon, auteurism remains a widely-subscribed critical field, its continued prominence most recently evidenced by an editorial in the March Sight and Sound, which declared the publication proudly and unquestionably indebted to its tenets. Therefore, when traces of Ayoade’s previous television and music-video work surface in Submarine, the echoes will likely interest many: thematically, pompous egos have previously driven the likes of Man to Man With Dean Lerner, while a scene in which Oliver floats away in a stylised sea bears a strong visual resemblance to Ayoade’s aquatic promo for The Arctic Monkeys’ Crying Lightning. Furthermore, by openly admitting inspirations ranging from Louis Malle (modelling Jordana on Catherine Demongeot in Zazie Dans Le Metro) to Federico Fellini (in a Toby Dammit-inspired video for The Last Shadow Puppets), Ayoade demonstrates similar infatuations to Oliver – a biographical congruity that’s catnip to auteur advocates. Ultimately, the camp you occupy – whether subscribing to the notion of individual authorial genius, or instead understanding cinema to be integrally collaborative – will determine to whom you assign credit for Submarine’s monumental, breath-taking achievements, but it won’t alter the enjoyment itself one iota.

Christopher Buckle

Researcher and freelance writer

University of Glasgow

March 2011

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