Celebrity twat or man of the people? Russell Brand is both in The Emperor's New Clothes

by William Brown Senior Lecturer in Film at University of Roehampton 29.04.2015

A few moments from the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the new documentary made by the prolific Michael Winterbottom in collaboration with Russell Brand, the celebrity anarchist pretends to receive a phone call as he puts forward a proposal that the top 1% of the UK’s population should be more greatly taxed.

Yes, the top 1% would include him, Brand says, as if repeating the words of some invisible agent at the other end of the line. He then turns to the camera/audience and jests that perhaps this is one policy that might not be rushed into.

The moment, I assume, is a joke – although I am not apprised of Brand’s earnings such that I could know whether he is in the top 1% of UK earners or not. Either way, the moment for me deflated much of what had preceded it. Suddenly, I was faced with the possibility that the whole of the film is equally a joke – and that Brand, who had been riffing for the previous 90+ minutes about the institutionalised theft that is the contemporary banking system and about the need for citizens to take control of their lives by getting involved in politics, did not mean any of it.

In some senses, this is an interesting editorial trick for Winterbottom to pull off. It is a sleight of hand that finally distances him somewhat from Brand, who otherwise is the mouthpiece of the film.

Celebrity twats

Winterbottom’s penchant for looking at length at celebrity twats is well known, as is made clear by one of the posters for his film 24 Hour Party People, in which Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) is described using precisely that term. And so that Winterbottom would work with Brand, who is perceived as just such a celebrity twat by various circles of genteel (bourgeois) British society, is perhaps unsurprising.

It’s also unsurprising that in Winterbottom’s hands, Brand actually comes across very well, much as Wilson becomes a heroic – if comic – figure in 24 Hour Party People and much as the equally troubled Steve Coogan acquits himself beautifully in A Cock And Bull Story and The Trip.

This isn’t to say that Brand will be to everyone’s tastes as he marches into HSBC demanding a meeting with chief executive Stuart Gulliver in order to explain his salary, or as he manipulatively asks a bunch of eight-year olds whether it’s fair that one person gets paid dozens of times more money than someone else.

Indeed, these sub-Michael Moore stunts come across both as a bit laboured and a bit borrowed. Equally an issue is the sound of Brand’s voice as he gets excited – he knows he is about to say something clever, funny (or a combination of the two) but telegraphs it through a quickening of tempo and a slight raising of tone, which in turn undermines the power of what he is about to say.

However, Brand is also clearly a popular man. It’s fascinating to watch him wander around his hometown of Grays in Essex, explaining how it has gone from being quite an interesting place to a bookie-filled crap town overrun with pound shops. People approach him and chat, take selfies and basically love him.

On the campaign trail. STUDIOCANAL

Man of the people?

In other words, Brand clearly has what I guess is called the common touch – and it’s admirable to behold. What’s more, it surely is a worthy tool for getting people engaged in the political fate of this country. You have to organise and you have to protest, he tells us. Coming from anyone too clever, this might just seem insincere.

Coming from Brand, one wonders that people might well be mobilised to vote on May 7 in greater numbers, and more generally become engaged in political debate than would were this film not in existence – despite Brand’s own widely publicised calls for people to register their protest by not voting. And if we are to believe the rumours of Brand endorsing Ed Miliband after the Labour leader was spotted leaving his house, perhaps this is all to change.

The Emperor’s New Clothes bombards us with archive footage (often framed within glitch art-style graphics to convey that this is the age of YouTube), with stunts, with interviews (such as with Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason) and with direct address. In this way it involves a panoply of techniques that aims to recall the political cinema of something like Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s masterpiece, the Latin American 1960s activist film The Hour of the Furnaces.

As such, it’s a timely and vibrant film, with a fantastic sequence about the history of the Cadbury factory in Bourneville. It’s also funny at times, with a hilarious final montage-rap by Cassetteboy.

But Winterbottom, his cards as ever close to his chest, just finally nudges some distance between himself and Brand with the 1% joke. Is it Brand who stands naked before us, in addition to the banks that have fuelled his ire for the duration of the film? It’s a very Winterbottom trait to float this as a final possibility, thereby folding the viewer’s thought in on itself.

This film won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, says Brand at the film’s outset. True. But then it’s always good to keep mulling over what we believe we know, including about the film’s star. It’s only in reconsidering and ever-more-deeply comprehending (rather than blindly accepting) that we might find ourselves drawn into action.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Dr. William Brown is a Senior Lecturer in, and BA Programme Convener for, Film at the University of Roehampton, London.

He is the author of Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (Berghahn, 2013) and, with Dina Iordanova and Leshu Torchin, of Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010).

He is the co-editor, with David Martin-Jones, of Deleuze and Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), and, with Jenna P-S Ng, of a 2012 special issue of animation: an interdisciplinary journal, on James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.

He is also a zero/micro budget filmmaker, having since 2009 shot seven feature films, including EN ATTENDANT GODARD (Sight & Sound Films of the Year 2009), AFTERIMAGES (Sight & Sound Films of the Year 2010), COMMON GROUND (Fest Film Festival 2013; American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase 2014); CHINA: A USER'S MANUAL (FILMS) (2012), SELFIE (2014), UR: THE END OF CIVILIZATION IN 90 TABLEAUX (2015) and THE NEW HOPE (2015).


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