MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)
In a surreal version of Los Angeles, a young man is trying to write a movie but keeps finding himself dragged into others’ film projects
A man at a party allegedly once told the great English satirist Peter Cook that “I’m writing a novel”, to which Cook replied “Really! Neither am I.” Whether it’s a joke about writer’s block, or about the way that aspirations to be a writer often aren’t matched by a willingness to put effort into actual writing, it’s painfully believable.
One of these problems, or both, certainly affects the most memorable character in Man Under Table, the sorrow-eyed Gerald (John Edmund Parcher), who has an idea for a movie but needs a writer to “format” it—he means to write it, of course, and the implication about how deeply writers are undervalued is unmissable. Indeed, toward the end of the film, Gerald reflects that he just wanted to break into the industry but “didn’t want to have to do anything.”
But for Guy, the protagonist of hyphenate Noel David Taylor’s first feature (played by Taylor), the issue is the opposite. Everyone in Los Angeles seems to be writing a movie, or at least saying they’re writing a movie. The film is actually subtitled I’m Writing a Movie, which is also the first line.
How is he going to break in as a screenwriter, especially when he’s up against competition like the supercilious Ben (Ben Babbitt), who’s landed a deal with rising star director Jill Custard (Katy Fullan)? It doesn’t matter that Jill’s work is terrible—the video of hers we see is ham-fistedly “poetic” drivel—the point is that Ben has got the deal.
Mostly, Guy responds by being aggrieved—not only in the hostile oneupmanship of his intermittent encounters with Ben but in his grumpy attitude toward everyone and everything else, as well. “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I remember none of them are available to me,” he muses.
Still, he tries, attempting to arouse the interest of two emptily enthusiastic movie-industry executives (Alisa Torres, Frank Perry) and trying to work with Gerald on a screenplay for the latter’s film. This isn’t a promising project, though. The impossible assignment of William Holden’s screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard (1950) was easy by comparison. For starters, Gerald wants to make a movie about a “fracking writer”, and it’s never clear to anyone—least of all Guy—just what a “fracking writer” might be.
All that matters, apparently, is getting the buzzword into the pitch. Indeed, Jill Custard’s debut feature is to be called Fracked Up. (Gerald also wants a “cool older guy” and a “slutty woman” in his movie; he himself is an older guy, and there are no prizes for guessing how the cool older guy and the slutty woman might interact.)
Throughout all this, Guy has to negotiate not only a nightmarish futuristic/alternate-reality L.A, where everyone’s elaborately masked and wreathed in swirling green smog, but also the relentless destruction of meaning by the zeitgeist-chasing film business. The two execs are continually excited at the terms “genre” and “content”, apparently without any grasp of what they actually mean. “Identity politics” and, yes, “fracking” have to be mentioned as often as possible. Ticking boxes takes priority over producing a decent film (“I’m writing a movie.” “Is everyone represented in it, like, equally?”)
And to add insult to injury, the most successful of all the content creators on display seems to be Lyle (Robert Manion), Australian presenter of Nothin’ But Lyle, a series of podcasts or YouTube videos or TV spots (it’s not clear exactly what, as technology in Man Under Table isn’t quite as we know it). These are supposedly inspirational but, like so much of the world surrounding Guy, in fact relentlessly self-centred and vapid. (“Identity politics is just another way of saying we’re going to be great friends, guys, you get to find out more about me…”, says Lyle.)
Taylor, evidently working on a minuscule budget, presents all this with great originality. For example, when Guy takes a cab ride, he sits in a flimsy wireframe vehicle with a 2D cut-out for a driver, as if CGI was going to be added later.
Occasionally the film does slip into arthouse imagery for imagery’s sake habits (Guy eating a ridiculously huge slice of pineapple, or sitting in an art gallery looking dejectedly angry). Both individual shots and whole scenes can be heavily colour-coordinated, and extremely artificial in the way they’re posed. Although to be fair many sections of the movie are quite unfussy. Crazy ads sometimes appear along the bottom of the frame (Alter Your DNA At Home! Low Risk), adding to the fun.
The director elicits vivid performances from his cast, and there’s surprisingly assertive and well-constructed music by Danny Lane at dramatic points. This is surprising not because there’s any reason to doubt Lane’s talent, but because indie movies of this kind often push the music further into the background.
Man Under Table is uneven, however. There are moments that seem unconnected to the rest of the narrative, even given that it’s a flimsy, fanciful and determinedly unrealistic one. The scene where Guy is menaced by shadow fangs, for instance. There are also elements that feel included simply because the filmmaker couldn’t resist them, but they don’t add much, and there are scenes where one might imagine you’re watching a short theatre-workshop exercise rather than part of a larger film.
Still, Taylor has neatly anticipated the objection, with Guy saying “this isn’t a movie, it’s just a bunch of random scenes about some guy.”
Plus, of course, even if they’ve been taken a little too far, discontinuity and sheer craziness are the driving motivation. (Two actors, in split-screen, simultaneously ask “what’s the point of this scene?”) Some lines literally make no sense, or language goes wrong (Guy says “Oxford” when he means “afford”, and Gerald says “scratching the service” when he means “surface”.)
Despite its small scale, this is an ambitious first feature-length outing for Taylor, and a consistently enjoyable one, even if it’s too way-out to be engaging on a human level. And Man Under Table promises that we may get something really interesting from this director once he has the opportunities, and the discipline, of dealing with a bigger budget.
USA | 2021 | 79 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Noel David Taylor.
starring: Noel David Taylor, Ben Babbitt, Danny Lane, James Canto & Robert Manion.