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Introduction to Submarine

It’s still in cinemas.  It’s ace.  And you should watch it.  Here’s a primer…

(And yeah, before you say anything, I totally forgot to mention that Richard Ayoade called in a favour off his rock-star mate by getting Alex Turner to write the songs.  So shut that shit down.)

Introduction to Submarine

Submarine has been getting some of the best critical praise and audience word-of-mouth of any film released this year, which isn’t bad for a low-budget comedy with no major stars: a kind of hipster’s equivalent to The King’s Speech. Such positivity is unusual for a British comedy. Indeed, we’re lucky to get more than one or two Britcoms per year that anybody likes.

But, increasingly, the ones that do hit the mark enjoy a connection that goes far beyond coincidence. Pretty much all of the Britcom successes of recent years have made by directors with established track records on television. In The Loop and Four Lions were the debut movies of the creators of The Day Today, Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World followed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, in confirming that Edgar Wright has come a long way since starting out on C4 sitcom Spaced. Then there’s Ricky Gervais’ Cemetery Junction, Bunny and The Bull From The Mighty Boosh director Paul King and, just in case you think I’m reaching for a trend, next month sees the release of Attack The Block, the debut of Joe Cornish, who – as part of The Adam And Joe Show – recreated blockbusters using stuffed animals, notably the classic Toytanic.

And then of course, there’s tonight’s film, which is helmed by Richard Ayoade: star of The I.T. Crowd, co-creator and director of Garth Marengi’s Dark Place, and also a maker of music videos for the likes of The Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend.

Why this new wave of comedian-auteurs? For financiers and producers, they represent a low-risk investment: these guys are proven talents, who are guaranteed critical interest, and have an in-built fanbase who will flock to films. More than that, though, this generation is remarkably cine-literate, mixing movie-geek references with imaginative visuals and a worldview that is refreshingly removed from the kind of crowd-pleasing comedy associated with Richard Curtis…although of course, he too started out on television.

When did this sea-change happen? British TV comedians were making the leap to the big-screen since at least Tony Hancock’s day, but in those days actors remained actors, and directors never made the leap to cinemas beyond adapting their small-screen successes. It was Monty Python who transformed the rules with not one but two decent cinema directors. Terry Jones became the Pythons’ director-in-chief with Life of Brian and Meaning of Life; Terry Gilliam went his own way, transforming his weird Python animations into one of the most visionary careers of any filmmaker.

The Pythons were more or less unique. Perhaps only Peter Richardson – the chief creative force behind 1980s film and telly franchise The Comic Strip Presents… – could rival the Pythons for cinematic style. Mostly, TV sitcoms remained mired in theatrical, multi-camera set-ups. The real change – at least as far as the current generation is concerned – came with The Royle Family in the late 1990s, which did away with laugh-tracks and studio audiences for a filmic, single-camera style. The directors of that show have had mixed fortunes in movies: Ali G Indahouse, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse and Mr Bean’s Holiday, but they paved the way for a generation of risk-takers who didn’t want the comfort zone of conventional comedy, led by Edgar Wright on Spaced and Ricky Gervais on The Office.

Richard Ayoade might be the most interesting figure yet. His naïve, socially awkward on-screen persona hides a startling comic intelligence; like Peter Cook, Eric Idle, Hugh Laurie or David Mitchell, he was the president of the Footlights’ comedy revue at Cambridge. And he has the kind of movie-geek mind that many thought started and finished with Quentin Tarantino. Ayoade has expressed his love of generational touchstone Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but also the French New Wave, citing Louis Malle’s zany comedy about a girl’s visit to Paris, Zazie Dans Le Metro, as a major influence on Submarine.

Those qualities are apparent in his work, from Garth Marengi’s spoof of low-rent horror to blatant steals across his music videos. His promo for the Vampire Weekend song Oxford Comma, for example, is noticeably influenced by both Wes Anderson and the Jean-Luc Godard film Weekend. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Heads Will Roll is a surreal version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller with confetti as blood, while the video for Kasabian song Vlad the Impaler is a Hammer horror reimagined with Ayoade’s occasional colleague Noel Fielding as a ghoul.

Submarine uses Ayoade’s knowledge of cinema to refresh the coming-of-age genre with the kind of unexpected shifts of tone and freewheeling style you’d associate with Francois Truffaut. It’s the story of teenage boy Oliver Tate, whose ambitions don’t extend beyond a) trying to keep his parents together in the face of a new age guru’s lecherous advances and b) losing his virginity. Given the oddball subject, Ayoade has assembled an oddball cast, favouring great character actors as the adults – Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine (the nearest to a star this has) – and rising talent as the kids. Craig Roberts, playing Oliver, has since impressed as a vampire in Being Human, while Yasmin Paige, playing the object of his affection, is best-known to sci-fi geeks as an alien-fighting teenager in Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The future is theirs for the taking, much like it is for Ayoade – a director with cult appeal and an adventurous take on his material.  Hollywood might beckon: last week saw the broadcast of an episode of U.S. sitcom Community directed by Ayoade (and, aptly, titled ‘Critical Film Studies’).  But there are warnings for moving Stateside.  Look at Edgar Wright, very much the figurehead for this movement, but whose Hollywood crossover didn’t quite catch on beyond his loyal supporters. However… with his day job on The I.T. Crowd still paying off handsomely, Ayoade is more likely to stick to Britain and that might well be to his benefit. Like Christopher Morris – who, incidentally, cast Ayoade in his comedy-drama Nathan Barley – there’s a palpable leftfield edge to Ayoade’s work that might thrive with him sticking to the fringes of the mainstream, working with lower budgets and more creative freedom. If that means more films like Submarine, so much the better.

This is the text of a talk given at Derby QUAD on Tuesday 29th March 2011.  Thanks to Quad for kind permission to republish.

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3 Comments

  1. Ian RobinsonMar 31, 2011 at 12:45 pmReply

    Good intro. I enjoyed the film despite most of the characters being fairly unlikeable. But it's already vanishing from cinemas – why did Momentum not even release a trailer until February? Useless distribution for Brit films again (it'll happen to Attack The Block soon too)

    Would take issue about the 'star' though – surely Sally Hawkins is the nearest this film has? Just 'cos Paddy Considine gets written about in The Guardian it doesn't make him well-known!

  2. LukeApr 12, 2011 at 1:54 pmReply

    Thanks for letting me know about this film… I love Richard Ayoade but had no idea he had even made this film. I shall have to seek it out!

    PS. I don't know who Sally Hawkins is, but Paddy Conside is great!

  3. LukeApr 12, 2011 at 1:56 pmReply

    Okay, just checked out the IMDB.com page… it has Noah Taylor in it! I revoke my praise of Considine in favour of Taylor being the 'biggest' star in this film. 😛

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