Archives for posts with tag: masculinity

(An extract from my book, The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom: Borders, Intimacy, Terror. London and New York: Wallflower Press pp.56-62, in which I discuss the 2010 comedy TV series, The Trip. The sequel, The Trip to Italy is currently being screened on BBC2).

Masculine intimacies

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Romantic and intimate relationships in Winterbottom’s films are haunted by loss, failure, rejection and withdrawal and also by uncertain futures. Indeed, characters are often engaged with the active, self-harming dismantling of relationships, rather than with the constructive investment in secure partnerships. The Trip, a six-part UK TV series[i], is concerned with the comically awkward nature of the friendship between two straight male actors, and the way in which, for these men, the expression of intimacy is obstructed by emotional awkwardness and sexual anxiety, and is mediated and displaced through the adoption of various personae and self-conscious performance.

 

The premise of the series is that Steve Coogan, playing himself, has been commissioned by a national newspaper to write an article reviewing restaurants in the north of England. Coogan had intended to travel with his American girlfriend, Misha, taking the opportunity to introduce her to areas of the country that he knows and loves. However, with his girlfriend having left him to return to America, he asks his friend Rob Brydon, also playing himself, to accompany him. Thus, Brydon finds himself awkwardly occupying Misha’s role in what was conceived as a romantic excursion, demonstrating that the series is an exploration of the dynamics of a couple as well as an examination of middle-aged masculinity.

 

The series, a road film derivative with extended interruptions, is effectively a sequel to A Cock and Bull Story since it centres on the interplay of the two actors who were the protagonists of the earlier film in which they also played themselves (in more or less the same characterisation as in this series), although there is no reference to the fact that they have each previously appeared in two of Winterbottom’s films. The narrative premise of a road film featuring a same-sex couple is a flexible format in Winterbottom’s work and is shared with In This World and Butterfly Kiss. It isolates two characters in close proximity – the car is a particularly effective device for this, a parody of the confines of a relationship wherein the characters are strapped in to their seats, side by side – and tests their relationship by moving them through a series of encounters and unfamiliar locations. The car, in which the characters sit immobile (but travelling through space) looking not at one another but at the screen in front of them is also a reflection of the spectator’s position, inviting us to identify or to recognise a parallel. As Julian Stringer observes, while the protagonists of road films appear to be driven by two alternate solipsistic impulses – escape and self-discovery – these films tend in fact to be centrally concerned with social interaction of individuals encountering one another in unfamiliar contexts. ‘Paradoxically, then, in masquerading as one of the most anti-social of all cultural forms, road movies constitute a polar opposite. Presenting characters who travel through expansive landscapes in self-enclosed vehicles, they situate the work of ideology in the creation of new intimacies’ (Stringer 1997: 166). That is to say, regardless of their intentions, these characters are unable to escape ideological determination in their interaction with others during the trip. They are returned to themselves. ‘Road movie protagonists may look through the window and see the whole world ahead of them, but they usually end up becoming intimate with people just like themselves’ (Stringer 1997: 166). Tellingly, when Coogan and Brydon look through the windows of their Range Rover they see a film set in which they are acting. As they drive through Cumbria, Brydon suggests, ‘You could have a costume drama here, couldn’t you?’ Coogan responds excitedly, ‘Do you know what? I’d just love to do a costume drama in these hills, just leaping, vaulting over dry stone walls with a scabbard, that dead look in my eyes because I’ve seen so many horrors I’m immune to them.’ They then spend several minutes exchanging heroic dialogue and mocking the conventions of the genre.

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‘Gentlemen, to bed, for we rise at daybreak!’ – Coogan and Brydon extemporising a costume drama

 

 

Much of the dialogue in The Trip appears to be improvised and, as a result, certain scenes have an ‘authentic’, confessional quality where the actor behind the performance appears briefly to be exposed as in the flashes of anger, jealousy, angst and arrogance with which Coogan responds to Brydon’s conversation. The naturalism of the performances by Coogan and Brydon makes it difficult to determine to what degree the film is fictional as opposed to ‘authentic’, but this is exacerbated by the fact that they are playing professional performers and celebrities, who are inevitably self-conscious about their presentation, and it is redoubled by the fact that this is a performance of awkwardness – of two male friends placed in uncomfortably intimate circumstances. There are inseparable layers of artifice, self-reflexion and a concomitant absence of self-awareness in these performances.

 

 

 

In each half-hour episode they visit a different restaurant and the focus of the programme is on their conversations conducted during the meal, while driving through the winter landscape of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District and during visits to local tourist attractions such as Wordsworth’s cottage and Coleridge’s house. This simple structure is repeated in each episode as the two actors discuss the food and drink, reflect upon their experience of ageing, sing pop songs together, exchange acting techniques and observations, competitively perform impersonations for each other, occasionally slipping into improvised routines, and defensively compare the success of their careers. As Coogan asks Brydon in the third episode (in a typically self-reflexive comment upon the series):

 

Do you think we have the same conversation in every restaurant? (…) We start out being a bit awkward with each other, have a little bit of wine, exchange a few frivolities (…) Have a bit more wine, get cantankerous, pick faults with each other, and it descends into a kind of bitter, unhappy end to the meal.

 

The sado-masochistic dynamic of the couple is that of a male comedy double act like Laurel and Hardy in which a vain, self-important but frustrated character continually abuses and humiliates his gentler, tolerant but resentful counterpart. The pair find themselves repeatedly thrust together not through choice, but through a certain fatal affinity and it is only when Coogan is asked by his son how long he’s known Brydon that he comes to acknowledge with surprise both to his son and himself, that ‘He’s a good friend’. The sexual dynamics of the classic male comedy double act typically remain unacknowledged in any direct way by the characters or the film’s narration, but they are nevertheless often a crucial comic component. Despite the fact that Laurel and Hardy are frequently shown sharing a bed, cross-dressing, and in one short (Our Wife (Horne, 1931)), are accidentally married by a cross-eyed J.P., they tend to be presented either as infantilised and asexual, or as chastely heterosexual husbands. As Jonathan Sanders has demonstrated, however, in a thorough thematic study of their films, the films of Laurel and Hardy consistently explore and derive comedy from gender instability and nonconformity: ‘Childhood and adulthood, masculinity and femininity, heterosexuality and homosexuality: polarities such as these are synthesized into comic ambiguities, which in turn are combined with each other to create a world in perpetual flux’ (Sanders 1995: 3). The pair is sometimes figured as a parody of a battling, vindictive married couple, sometimes as an idealised couple united in their difference from the hostile social environment.

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Two-shot – Brydon and Coogan dine at the Inn at Whitewell

 

Coogan’s discomfort with the ‘comic ambiguities’ of their intimate coupling is a running theme of The Trip as he repeatedly expresses his anxiety that they might be misperceived as a gay couple. This is superficially funny since, in a depiction that is consistent with his celebrity persona as it has been constructed by intrusive press reports on his ‘private life’, the Coogan character is depicted as a Lothario who sleeps with two women in the course of the trip while simultaneously trying to patch up his relationships with his girlfriend and with his son. However, this promiscuity and his disavowal of sexual intimacy with Brydon is, of course, poignantly underscored by a desire for intimacy. He will not allow the newspaper’s photographer to take a picture of the two of them together and he makes clear to Brydon in the opening scene of the series that he invited him on the trip only after failing to find another travelling companion, explaining, ‘It’s a job; I’m not asking you to go on holiday with me, or anything weird’. He is flatly insistent that they cannot share a bed when, in a comic cliché, they are booked into a single room by mistake. The awkward dynamic of forced proximity is a common feature of road films so that, Robert Lang suggests, ‘Almost every mainstream road movie in which two men travel together […] contains at least one scene that turns on homosexual anxiety and the taboo of same-sex attraction’ (Lang, 334). This generic convention is made excessively obvious in a scene where Coogan recoils when Brydon playfully leans in to kiss him, snapping, ‘Don’t do that.’ Recovering his composure and attempting to gloss over this brief exposure of his anxiety, he jokingly explains to the two women they have just met, ‘There’s been none of that. Heavy petting…but no penetration.’ His ironic disavowal exposes precisely the erotics of their relationship. Discussing the emergence of (primarily American) queer independent road movies in the 1990s, Lang suggests that the road movie has emerged in this period as a particularly effective vehicle for exploring the nuances of male friendship: ‘Fifty years after Road to Morocco, the road movie can explore some of the erotic complexity of male-male friendships, without prohibitive cultural anxieties and Production Code pressure making comedy the only genre in which such questions can be honestly addressed’ (Lang 1997: 335). In The Trip this flexible cinematic tradition is fused with the conventions of the TV sitcom.

 

 

Coogan has appeared in a number of high-profile films[ii], although his character explains to Brydon (in an ironic comment upon his relationship with Winterbottom), ‘I don’t work with mainstream Hollywood directors. I work with auteurs’. However, both actors are best known in Britain as comic actors and skilful impressionists on radio and TV. In conversation with one another and with other characters they encounter during the trip they launch continually into comic voices or impressions of famous actors, adopting and exaggerating their voices, facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Over the course of the series the frequency with which they perform this masquerade begins to seem almost pathological. Brydon’s irrepressible readiness to launch into an impression at the slightest cue prompts Coogan to suggest that he is an ‘autistic impressionist’, adding that, ‘I think anyone over 40 who amuses themself by doing impressions needs to take a long hard look in the mirror’. Nevertheless, they both constantly fall back on impressions during conversation and seem more comfortable behind the persona of Al Pacino or Woody Allen. While it is underpinned by disavowal, particularly, for Coogan, masquerade for the two of them is also a means of intimate communication rather than an obstacle to it. Brydon, for example, continues to rotate through different voices during his flirtatious, playful and self-mocking phone calls to his partner from his hotel bed at the end of each episode, making it clear that intimacy and performance are not incompatible. On the contrary, the drama demonstrates that intimacy and authentic expression is something that is performed and that is structured by cultural knowledge. The joyful sequences where Coogan and Brydon sing kitsch pop songs in harmony and act out conversations in character are brief intervals of relaxed, pleasurable, intimate communication. In this sense, the question raised by some of Winterbottom’s other films about the relationship between documentary and fiction is addressed in a different way since, for these actors, adopting someone else’s voice – usually a comically exaggerated version of a famous film actor such as Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins or Roger Moore – enables them to express themselves in a nuanced way. On a visit to the priory, Coogan berates Brydon for reciting an extract from Wordsworth’s poem ‘The White Doe of Rylstone’ (1807)[iii], in the voice of actor Ian McKellen: ‘It was a lovely poem. What would have been really nice is if you’d got up this morning […] and said the poem in your own voice and meant the words.’ Brydon calmly replies, ‘I chose the voice to suit the mood’. For Brydon, imitation and the conscious adoption of personae is a means of sincere and personal expression, a sensitive response to a specific context. Indeed, one of the most oddly moving moments in the series comes when Coogan, looking despondently at himself in a hotel bathroom mirror (echoing his earlier advice to Brydon), says in his childish ‘silly cartoon voice’, ‘I don’t care about silly voices. They’re stupid.’ This performance before the mirror is a moment of self-recognition and self-condemnation (and jealousy of Brydon’s popularity), voiced through the most bizarre of all the voices employed by the two actors.

 

Significantly, Coogan’s frustration is triggered by his inability to reproduce Brydon’s uncannily accurate impression of the muffled voice of a ‘small man trapped in a box’. This has become one of Brydon’s most well known impressions – they are able to get access to Dove cottage at closing time when Brydon performs it for the star-struck attendant, who is utterly uninterested in Coogan. It is, of course, also a vivid metaphor for repression, the psychic defence mechanism whereby thoughts and memories that might be troublesome if voiced or acted upon, are deflected into the unconscious. More precisely, it is a metaphor for the impossibility of masculine intimacy.

 

In one respect Coogan’s unhappiness is due to dissatisfaction with his lack of success in America. Anxious about being trapped in ‘the box’ (British slang for ‘television’), he explains to his agent at one point, when offered a role in the science fiction series Doctor Who, ‘I don’t want to do British TV’, adding, ‘I want to do films. Good films!’ The fact that the two of them repeatedly imitate the voices of much more famous actors underscores their comparative lack of success. We are given an intimate insight into the character’s egotism and anxiety through a dream sequence in which Coogan is addressed by Hollywood star, Ben Stiller[iv]. The actor tells Coogan that everyone wants to work with him, listing Tony and Ridley Scott, the Coen brothers, the Wachowskis, Todd Haynes. ‘They’re all geniuses,’ Stiller assures him, ‘and they wanna work with the genius’. ‘I can’t believe it’s happening’, gasps Coogan, to which Stiller replies ambiguously, ‘You’re living the dream, Steve. It’s all a dream’. However a later dream reframes Coogan’s anxieties about success and ‘performance’ more precisely in terms of masculinity. In the second dream he is dismayed to meet a man coming out of a village newsagent holding a tabloid newspaper bearing the headline, ‘COOGAN IS A CUNT SAYS DAD’. This is an equally vivid figure for Oedipal hostility and emphasises that what motivates Coogan, much more so than Brydon, is repression. He is the small man trapped inside a box, which is precisely why he cannot reproduce Brydon’s impression, why he cannot find a voice for this diminutive version of himself and why easy intimacy remains an impossibility for him. This is true of his relationship with Brydon and also with others, since Coogan is separated from his partner and children, and is ‘chasing women’, as Brydon puts it, while also trying to resurrect his relationship with the absent Misha.

 

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Small man trapped in a box – Coogan at home after the trip

 

There is some sense that the two characters have got to know one another more fully during the journey, but the terms of the relationship are not altered substantially so that at the end of the series the characters return to where they began literally and symbolically. The trip has traced a circle rather than a progressive line. Coogan drops Brydon back at his house, driving off impatiently as Brydon suggests that they phone one another to arrange to get together. He then returns to the empty, pristinely minimal tower-block apartment where we saw him at the beginning of the first episode. Whereas Brydon is welcomed home by his partner, Sally (and continues to do impressions during dinner with her), Coogan sits alone watching a video of himself and his estranged girlfriend, Misha, on his phone. He then calls his agent to tell him that he’s turning down the offer of a starring role in the pilot for a US TV series because, ‘I’ve got kids’. However, it’s unclear whether this is genuinely based on a renewed determination to invest in his own family, whether it is a pretext for not taking up a job that may have led to a seven-year commitment, or whether it is an indication that he has reconciled himself to a less spectacular career. The series ends with a series of shots of the London skyline at night, reprising the daytime shots the series opened with.

References:

Lang, Robert (1997) ‘My Own Private Idaho and the New Queer Road Movies’, in Steven Cohan, Ina Rae Hark (eds.) The Road Movie Book. Routledge: London and New York, 330-348

Sanders, Jonathan (1995) Another Fine Dress: Role-Play in the Films of Laurel and Hardy. London and New York: Cassell

Stringer, Julian (1997) ‘Exposing Intimacy in Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ in Ina Rae Hark (ed.), The Road Movie Book. London: Routledge, 165-178

 

[i] The TV series was edited into a feature-length film for screening at film festivals.

[ii] Including, notably, Coffee and Cigarettes (Jarmusch, 2003) in which he again plays himself as an unattractively vain, career-obsessed character.

[iii] The extract makes reference to the abbey.

[iv] With whom Coogan acted in the Hollywood satire about Hollywood film-making, Tropic Thunder (Stiller, 2008).

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Gary’s war on terror: soldiers’ stories, the ‘discourse of impropriety’ and the comedy of terror

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University

(This is an edited version of the paper I gave at the University of Northumbria symposium, ‘Acting Up; Gender and Television Comedy’ on 14th Jan, 2012.  A revised and  extended version of this entitled, ‘The comedy of terror: ‘Gary: Tank Commander’ and the TV sitcom’s “discourse of impropriety”’, will be published in 2014 in Lacey, S. & Paget, D. (eds.). Representing the War on Terror. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. N.B., three series of Gary: Tank Commander have been broadcast to date, but at the time I gave this paper the third series was still in development)

Writing on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001, the journalist Ryan Gilbey suggested that a notable feature of film and television treatments of the war on terror has been the absence of comic accounts of recent history but suggests that ‘defiant comedy is surely one of the sharpest weapons at our disposal’ (Gilbey, 2011, 52). Even more than the first gulf war, which generated what Jean Baudrillard termed ‘an improbable orgy of material’, the war on terror has produced an overwhelming deluge of films, TV drama, news coverage, books, articles, blogs across a range of media, but the scarcity of comic treatments of the ongoing conflict is clear. There are a few notable exceptions that include Team America: World Police (Parker, 2004), Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (Hurwitz, Schlossberg, 2008), In the Loop (Ianucci, 2009) and Four Lions (Morris, 2010) but in general and perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been approached as a topic that must be treated with solemnity – it seems that it is self-evident that this is no laughing matter and this is what makes Gary: Tank Commander all the more interesting.

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Two series of Gary: Tank Commander were produced for BBC Scotland, the first broadcast in 2009, the second in 2011. It was initially broadcast on BBC Scotland but in 2011, the two series were re-run on BBC3. A third series is currently in development. They were derived from a pilot TV comedy called Gary’s War, which was commissioned and broadcast by Channel Four but never developed. Gary’s War is a mock documentary about a soldier, Corporal Gary McLintoch, returning home after fighting in Afghanistan. McLintoch ,the tank commander is played by Greg McHugh, who wrote Gary’s War and the subsequent series, which are based on the same scenario with an expanded range of characters. The first series follows aspects of Gary’s day-to-day life after returning from fighting in Afghanistan with the fictional tank regiment and in the second series he has returned from Iraq. With the exception of the first episode of series two in which the characters are waiting in an aircraft hangar in Afghanistan for a flight to Cyprus for r and r, almost all of the action is set on and around the Scottish army base on which Gary is stationed.

The programmes focus on the farcical attempts by McLintoch and the three other members of his tank crew, Jacko, Charlie and Adam, to carry out their mundane duties which include doing guard duty, chaperoning a visiting US general on a homeland security exchange, recruiting in the local shopping centre, standing in for striking firefighters, participating in a debate on the pros and cons of the Iraq war with students, transporting their tank along the motorway, trying to buy a second-hand cooker for Gary’s father while undergoing manoeuvres, and auditioning for roles in an army recruitment video.

They are overseen by Capt Fanshaw, the vague, upper-class English company commander, and Sgt Thomson a perpetually furious sadist who seizes gleefully any opportunity to punish them. The four men tackle their tedious tasks grudgingly or distractedly and are generally looking for short cuts or ways out of the jobs they’re assigned. In this respect the programme is in the rather passé tradition of sitcoms and film comedies about reluctant and incompetent soldiering that extend back to Chaplin’s 1918 film Shoulder Arms and the 1931 Laurel and Hardy film, Beau Hunks, via such films as Carry on Sergeant (1958), but the most direct models for GTC are The Phil Silvers Show (1955-59), M.A.S.H. (1972-1983), Dad’s Army (1968-77), and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum (1974-81). All of these series are concerned not with soldiers in battle, but with the intimacies and domesticity of army life and the negotiation of power relations within the largely homosocial context of a military organisation and the celebration of small acts of resistance.

In terms of narrative organisation and in terms of visual and performance style the two series are relatively conventional, following the flexible minimalist narrative framework that almost any sitcom adheres to. Most episodes involve the four main characters being presented with an unengaging task, such as the job of patrolling the grounds of an estate where world leaders are attending a conference on climate change. Through a combination of their own boredom and incompetence and distraction by other events, such as the appearance of climate protestors dressed as rabbits who are trying to break into the conference centre to talk to Barack Obama, the characters will be diverted from the task. Finally they will improvise some sort of solution to the disruption, but they almost always fail to mollify their sceptical sergeant. And of course the tasks they’re given are all fairly marginal to soldiering.

However, there are two distinct and generically unconventional narrative and stylistic motifs running through the two series.

The first is that an element of the mock documentary pilot episode is carried over so that episodes are punctuated by shots in which Gary addresses an off-screen interviewer reflecting on a range of topics from terrorism and religion, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to soldiers’ pay and official enquiries. These are captioned with text that picks out certain words or phrases – usually irrelevant and unilluminating. There is no indication that any of the rest of the programme is a documentary, so these inserts are unexplained and generally only have a tenuous relationship to the frame narrative.

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Documentary pastiche 1: Gary (Greg McHugh) discusses the arrangements for the transfer of power in post-war Afghanistan

The second motif is the periodic insertion of short videos and YouTube clips made by Gary and his colleagues filming themselves playing pranks on one another, making spoofs of Bin Laden’s video tapes, and producing parodies of music videos. This picks up on one of the characteristics of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that almost every film and TV programme has acknowledged, which is the proliferation and widespread circulation of films by soldiers themselves through file-sharing sites – the unprecedented hyper mediation of the conflict. For instance, Brian De Palma’s 2007 film Redacted about a war crime by US soldiers in Iraq is composed entirely of simulated documentary footage, news reports, soldier’s videos, video blogs and youtube clips.

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Documentary pastiche 2: Gary and crew in Iraq performing Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’

In particular the device alludes to a famous viral video made in 2005 by British soldiers in Iraq miming to the Tony Christie song,’ The Way to Amarillo’. This means that virtually the only footage we see of the protagonists in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the two series is in these absurd comic sequences in which they are clowning and often in drag. Again they have little obvious connection to the narrative.

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‘The Way to Amarillo’, as performed by the Royal Dragoon Guards, Al Faw base, Iraq, 2005

The question I want to ask here is whether we might understand these programmes as critical or defiant and as texts that raise questions about how comedy or humour can function as critical – there is an ambivalence in these programmes that invites a reading of them as, if not oppositional or subversive, then at least defiantly comic.

Masculinity and camp

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The gendering of counter-terror. The Hurt Locker

A consistent feature of popular depictions of the war on terror has been the consolidation and retrenchment of a very traditional form of martial masculinity, the reactionary dimension of which is legitimised by its apparent authenticity. This is epitomised by The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2008) with its intense narrative focus upon a reckless, solitary, emotionally repressed bomb disposal technician who is addicted to the thrill of the warzone. To be sure, the treatment of gender in such not films is not unambivalent and uncritical, but nevertheless, the war on terror has revitalised action genres both on film and on television. 24 is television’s  counterpart to The Hurt Locker in its foregrounding of a cyborg-like protagonist that is part-human, part-machine – the traditional masculinity that is reiterated in these films comprises a particular physicality – hard, phallic, disciplined bodies  – and is aligned with emotional instability (typically against a backdrop of domestic disarray),  murderous aggression and coolness and paradoxical emotional continence. Gary: Tank Commander reproduces this focus upon male characters but, from the absurd title onwards, displays a consistently satirical attitude towards conventional models of masculinity. The protagonist, Gary, is presented in defiantly camp terms throughout, sporting a spray tan and bleached hair and a less than athletic physique. He is a sexual innocent as far as we know, who delights in plastic pop music and continually fails to understand the crude innuendos circulating around him. His campness, which consists of his theatricality and flamboyance is depicted as what Susan Sontag terms, pure or naive camp since it is rarely knowing or self-conscious and yet remains attractive and entertaining both for his friends and the spectator. One of the most notable features of the series is that, except for the exchange of bemused glances between his friends when Gary fails to get the double entendres, his campness remains unacknowledged and unpunished. There is a generic pretext for this in so far as British sitcoms have for a long time featured effeminate or camp characters – Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum are good examples, but there are many others – however, Gary: Tank Commander is distinct since this sexually ambivalent character is not the pathetic and feeble butt of running jokes, nor a bitchy, bitter and repressed outsider who comments acidly from the margins. Instead he is a tank commander, an emphatically masculine role, who outranks his friends but who also remains very close to them and the centre of their friendship group. They are like a gang of schoolfriends who frequently launch into songs together. Although he is a comic character, our laughter is directed at his limited understanding of the world around him, rather than at his campness. The problematic stereotype is the focus for much academic discussion about the representational politics of TV comedy, but this series negotiates this rather deftly in so far as the character is drawn in positive but unconventional terms.

Indeed one of the genuine pleasures of the series is the enthusiasm and complete seriousness with which he and his friends launch into their well drilled performances of songs by Aqua, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, often cross-dressing in elaborate improvised costumes. There is of course a neat coincidence of the etymologically distinct senses of camp in this sitcom, which brings together the army camp – the term derived from the Latin for field – with the gay slang term for tasteless and exhibitionistic – derived from the French term camper – to portray or depict. While there may be tenuous semantic connections, the programme argues for their cultural proximity, presenting Gary’s campness as a normalised element of life in a military camp as it appears on film and television.

And In its portrayal of camp life, what the programme identifies and highlights is the intrinsic campness underlying the excessive masculinity of many supposedly serious war on terror dramas. The most direct example is Generation Kill, which was broadcast the year before Gary: Tank Commander and which follows a group of US marines invading Iraq at the head of the invasion force and travelling north through the country to Baghdad. There is a great deal of spectacularly filmed fighting, but the series is as concerned with the social textures and culture of the unit of soldiers living and fighting together – with the frustrations of bureaucratic inertia and status anxiety. It shares with the sitcom format a preoccupation with quasi-familial relationships and the intimate and affective structure of the workplace. It is primarily concerned with how these men interact and the eroticised and stressful hyper-masculine environment that means that conversation about sex is obsessive. This is underpinned by boasting, teasing and abuse and playful flirtation with one another to the extent that, as one character observes, ‘Marines are so homoerotic – it’s all they ever talk about.’

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Sgt. Rudy Reyes moisturises in Camp Mathilda, Kuwait, Generation Kill

This is epitomised by the figure of Sgt Rudy Reyes – fruity Rudy as he’s known by the others – who is depicted as a body-conscious narcissist who sports a florid customised uniform with additional scarves and camouflage netting. Although apparently straight, Reyes is a potentially queer figure who troubles the other characters around him. As one of the marines says reassuringly to a new member of the unit, ‘it doesn’t make you gay if you think Rudy’s hot. Everyone does.’ Where Gary: Tank Commander is interesting is in its casual refusal of this disavowal. The tense misogynistic and homophobic anxiety around sexuality that pervades Generation Kill and which is expressed in continual wisecracks and insults (alongside a constant racism)  is entirely absent from Gary: Tank Commander.

Documentary, soldiers’ stories and embedding

Another way in which Generation Kill exemplifies television’s engagement with the war on terror is in its adoption of a docudrama mode. The series is derived directly from three articles written by a Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded with the unit, and it attempts a historically accurate reconstruction of the events depicted in the reports. Some of the marines themselves were employed as consultants and had cameo roles although interestingly, Rudy Reyes is the only one who got to play himself in the series.

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This is an image from his website on which he sells a range of branded products advocating ‘Hero Living’. The most unlikely and most camp character, it transpires, is the most genuine – the point at which the dramatic reconstruction is anchored in the real. One of the key characteristics of representations of the war on terror on film and on television has been the proliferation of docudramas and documentaries. There is a range of reasons for this, but a central factor is the sense that documentary and, by extension, documentary realist drama, is an appropriately solemn narrative mode for such grim and monumental topics as warfare, terrorism, occupation, torture, human rights abuses and forced displacement. Film theorist Bill Nichols categorises documentary as a ‘discourse of sobriety’ positioned alongside the related discourses of economics, science, politics and history. Documentary, for Nichols is directed towards instruction and illumination and exposure rather than entertainment, and in the distinction drawn between fiction and actuality it is ethically committed to accuracy and politically effective representation. In this respect, the hybrid forms of docudrama are problematic for Nichols, but nevertheless docudrama invokes the authority and serious-mindedness of documentary.

The documentary vignettes in Gary: Tank Commander function therefore both as an acknowledgement of this documentary turn, and as a parody of it since they are narratively disconnected and consistently unilluminating.  More precisely what they parody is the implicit assumption underlying the narrative focus upon soldiers’ experience – in docudramas such as Generation Kill and Redacted, fiction films like The Hurt Locker which again is closely based on an embedded reporter’s article, and documentaries such as the 2010 Danish film Armadillo – that close attention to the soldier’s story will reveals truth about the conflict that is not otherwise available. Generation Kill is a text that emerges from one of the innovations of the war on terror, the officially approved embedded reporter since the initial reports were written by a journalist embedded with this unit of marines, and the reporter is a minor character in the series, riding in the convoy as they invade the country from Kuwait. Of course, embedding is a strategy designed to ensure that journalists are constrained both in terms of their movements and in terms of their critical perspective by their dependence upon a particular community of military personnel with whom they form a close emotional bond over time. The fascination with the mundane details of soldiers’ lives during a war, and the vicarious thrill of battle that are conveyed by Generation Kill are a direct consequence of this.

Sitcom and satire

As much of the commentary upon the form has observed, the sitcom opens up a potentially quite subversive space within the fabric of mainstream popular culture in which issues of racism, adultery, the dysfunctionality of the nuclear family and the spectrum of sexuality are explored directly. As Jane Feuer suggests ‘it has been the ideological flexibility of the sitcom that has accounted for its longevity’ (Feuer, 70). In this respect, the sitcom is no less effective a mode through to which to criticise the conduct of the war on terror than more familiar comic modes of satire and sketch comedy. There remains, however, something scandalously inappropriate about the homely frame of the sitcom as a means of addressing this subject matter. Where Generation Kill adopts the sober register of documentary realism in order to emphasise the horrors and exhaustion as well as the triumphalism and machismo of bloody combat, GTC adopts the apparently trivialising format of light entertainment. In this context the sitcom is the articulation of a ‘discourse of impropriety’ rather than a ‘discourse of sobriety’. However, it is this impropriety that gives Gary: Tank Commander its potential critical purchase.

In refusing to show us the ambivalently seductive spectacle of battle, the series refrains from the insistence that the war on terror is a conventional war – that, to allude to Baudrillard this was a war that was actually happening. In refusing to restage the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, making a virtue of a limited budget and relegating these events to off-screen space, the series refuses also to accept the crucial political significance and legitimacy of these conflicts which have been used to justify a state of exception in which colossal investment in the security and defence industry and the passage of repressive legislation are waved through. In its depiction of the British army as a class-ridden, under-funded and hierarchical organisation in which Scotland is a minor province, the series punctures the promotional, celebratory images of the modern army as a high-tech, surgically efficient fighting force. The soldiers of Gary: Tank Commander display all the efficiency and single-mindedness of the drivers and conductors of On the Buses, rather than the macho killing machines of Generation Kill.

Also, in its depiction of the soldiers as an affectionate family or gang, the series refuses the thrillingly reactionary masculinity that is crucial to the appeal of many of the accounts of the war on terror in film and television. At the same time, the series refuses the institutional framing of soldiers as heroes or traumatised innocent victims, a figuration that is deployed cynically to block or divert resistance with the insistence upon compassion, empathy and identification. While on the one hand, Gary has an eccentric and sometimes quite restricted understanding of why he’s been sent out to fight – in the pilot episode he explains that Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq because he was so annoyed by all the dust – on the other hand he is a professional soldier who’s happy to fight. In the pilot episode he’s pleased to find that on returning to Scotland after a posting in Iraq, friends and neighbours think he’s been on holiday because of his deep tan.

Image

This is not to impute a resistant or defiant agenda to the producers of the series – it may well be that the series was conceived as a contemporary reworking of a conventional sitcom genre, and Greg McHugh, who’s working on a third series has indicated that he intends to develop the sitcom identity of the series. Nevertheless, in the context of the breathless orgy of action films, TV docudramas and film and television documentaries that substitute the rhetoric and aesthetic machinery for critique, the sitcom is an appropriate narrative and generic frame for the treatment of the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this context Gary: Tank Commander constitutes an exceptionally interesting and acute gesture of scepticism, defiance and impropriety. In his treatise on comedy, Henri Bergson suggests that ‘Laughter indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life’ (61b) and both despite and because of the formal and ideological conservatism with which the sitcom is generally associated, Gary: Tank Commander can be understood as just such an instance of slight revolt.

References:

Bennett, B. (2010). ‘Framing terror : cinema, docudrama and the “war on terror”’, Studies in Documentary Film. 4, 3, December 2010, 209-226

Bennett, B., Diken, B. (2011) ‘The Hurt Locker: cinematic addiction, ‘critique’ and the war on terror’, Cultural Politics, vol. 7, no. 2, July 2011, 165-188

Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Brereton, C., Rothwell, F., Temple of Earth

Feuer, J. (2001). ‘‘The Situation Comedy, Part 2’’, The Television Genre Book.

Ed. Creeber, G.. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 67 – 70.

Gilbey, R. (2011). ‘9/11 – How to tell a horror story’, New Statesman, 5 Sep. 2011. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2011/09/attacks-makers-world-away. Accessed: 18/9/12

Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Sontag, S. (1967). Against Interpretation and other essays, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode

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