When it comes to movies and television, 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 (and the subsequent travel program, An Idiot Abroad) is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.
I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais in previous posts on previous blogs, 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 decent 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.
Love – Forever Changes (1967)