Skeemby Kavish Chetty / 20.10.2011
Film-makers are about to start greedily suckling on these tropes. Skeem has managed to bag itself the nicest picket-fenced plot at the end of the cul-de-sac and everyone’s going to want to be its neighbour. Skeem is the girl-next-door: unpretentious and charismatic. There are any number of metaphors I could cycle through here, but let’s rather – in Hollywood speak – “cut to the chase”. The reason other film-makers are going to want to cuddle up to Skeem is that it’s both a commercial magnet and a genuinely “South African” comedy – that qualifier that everyone’s just slobbering after. The two perhaps rarely work in unison. Our films are caught up in split-personality disorder: how much foreign influence to freight in (read: how marketable for the foreigners who pay our heaviest wage?), how many local signifiers to hastily patch on. The comedy in this film is not plot-driven (the parts that are, as far as my nay-saying ass is concerned, are too familiar too jolt me into laughter) and therefore it doesn’t need to rely on those time-honoured and tenured gags of the American tradition. Its humour resides in the recognition of local cultural signifiers; it’s funny precisely because it’s here, hence all the charisma. We’re tired of paying for poorly-upholstered whores who watched too much Dallas in their youths. We want our cinema relevant, “South African”.
This is a moment of some incongruously celebratory acclaim on my part, so let’s just hop off this hot-air balloon and parachute down to reality. I said that Skeem lives at the end of the cul-de-sac, and for good reason. A simple barometric reading at the preview last week – an audience howling with delight – affirms that this film is funny, sometimes uproariously so. But the type of comedy that it works with is threateningly, precariously dead-end. Yes, we’ll spill out our innards laughing when we hear a guy say “this place looks like a whole lotta fokol”; and we’ll continue to laugh as the energy of this wit is maintained through strategic apportioning of the words “kak” and “poes” throughout the rest of the film. But there’s a rapidly approaching point when this kind of comedy exhausts itself. It becomes no longer a recognition of, for example, a particular jock-stoner stereotype that we all love and loathe. It just becomes an endless reiteration of a cultural trope. Skeem does all of this remarkably well. But that’s exactly where my anxieties about other film-makers wanting to cozy up to it come from. Everyone’s going to want to start hitting up Skeem territory because they can get that desired mix of local appreciation and financial reward. But note well, Skeem is the end-of-the-road. Comedy’s going to have to develop after this to be dynamic and situational. Originality doesn’t stay static, and simply mining cultural stereotypes for one-liners and accents is going to become boring very quickly.
Many directors have had to sell their soul at some point to dredge together the capital to make their masterpiece. Tim Greene – whose earlier work was Boy Called Twist (2004) – has possibly taken this detour en route to something more serious. He doesn’t need to be too anxious over the spiritually desolating element of that opening sentence because Skeem is fun, unpretentious, lighthearted, funny. But there are criticisms too. While it can be charitably spoken of as a comedy with broad, cross-sectional appeal, those like myself who prefer their cinema black with no sugar will inevitably slouch out of the theatre grumbling “lowest common denominator”. As another film critic with experience in the industry sagely suggested to me, though, “let’s not lose sight of the intention.”
Skeem is a comedy of errors, in the oldest vein: a duo of small-time crooks, in this case, running a million rands’ worth of drug money back to their employers. Sharking over the N1 to deliver this dirty dossier, their gorgeous ’68 Mustang breaks down and they find themselves having to spend the night in an isolated, gated resort – the “Everlast Resort”. They manage to get the last available chalet and find themselves sharing the place with a curiously representative selection of other holiday makers. In a kind of “Simunye, we-are-one” spirit there are, amongst others, three young girls having their bachelorette party; a trio of coloured fathers and sons out on a fishing trip; a middle-class black family committing grade-A tax evasion by camping out in the resort. As they’re loading their cash into the chalet for the night, the box splits its seams, dropping one million clams in view of everyone else. Strangely, this triggers a tidal wave of reactivated greed in our cast – for different reasons, with different objectives, they all decide independently that they want to fleece these two amateur criminals and get the money for themselves. Our two bumbling bad-guys are now on the look-out: they’ve got five groups of quintuple-crossing cash mongers to avoid: each of them with some hare-brained plot in mind to part these fools from their money.
I could divide this film into two sections to appraise the good and malign the bad. Kurt Schoonraad plays Richie, one of the crooks, a pissed-off pistol-packing dude with cocaine-dusted nostrils. His performance is perhaps the most durably comic, mostly surviving off a repertoire of “mah-chaana” jokes. His sidekick is Vista (Wandile Molebatsi), the straight-man, the fall-guy, in this whole thing. He’s introverted, nervous. The cast are mostly recognisable: David Isaacs plays Claude with the same self-deprecatory flair he had in Visa Vie; model Jenna Saras spends most of the movie slinking around in her virginally white undergarments; Rapulana Seiphemo’s nostrils are characteristically flared. The film drives itself forward through a kind of comic sheer incompetency – everyone wants the cash but no one has experience in criminality. The plots unfold and the jokes are cultural and character-based; the cast is cosmopolitan enough to cater to a generous serving of stereotypes. At its best moments, the film is absorbing with its enigmatic compressed location – trapped inside the resort until it opens its electrified gates at dawn. It also – like Congolese thriller Viva Riva – adopts and adapts familiar narrative conventions but allows them to breathe with local sensibility. Up to this point, we can garland Skeem with any number of superlatives reserved for its type: “a riot of laughs”, “side-splitting”, “so funny you’ll chunder”, whatever.
It’s around the half-way mark that the inherent fatigue in the style starts to show itself up. The prized cash that everyone wants starts getting circulated around with such relentless pace – a game of musical chairs, essentially, where no one has the bounty longer than a few minutes – that a perfectly legitimate response would be wondering when this infinitely forestalled conclusion is going to arrive. There is a problem of sympathy: if you don’t care for any of these characters, and even the protagonist as a kind of lily-livered nice-guy wore out my nerves eventually, then you’ve got no investment in rooting for them: so, won’t some one just get the bladdy cash and win the game already? The reliance on recognisable cultural gags doesn’t evolve and elsewhere the comedy is sutured together with a repetitive slapstick. The music is all too intrusive and non-thematic: it drowns conversation, it consumes breathing space, it runs the spectrum from breezy Hawaiian guitars to journeying jangles that would be more at home in an Isuzu bakkie commercial.
The comedy, happily, never dries up because it’s got enough resources to see it through. Mung – a stuttering Rastafarian played by Terence Bridgett – is consistently hilarious. And in the film’s last act, it dials up the motherfucking-crazy meter with a kind of Machete-esque lunacy that I won’t spoil here. But while it might have that enjoyable lunacy – shared with Viva Riva! – it doesn’t unhinge itself properly enough. Where those other two films were derailed in their carnage and lack of sympathy with themselves, Skeem has a parboiled romantic subplot – complete with moonlit skinny-dips and interrupted near-kisses – and a happy-ending. Don’t get a sucker wrong, I don’t loathe happy endings (although they work most marvelously in Bangkok massage parlours). But it happens at a moment when the film has revealed a hidden anarchic spirit and thus feels like a garish contradiction. In fact, this particular ending is the kind that didactically forces a moral down your throat. Rather than prove its moral through image and narrative, they offer you a pre-credit crescendo, set to the backdrop of a vermillion sunset, in which a voice-over warmly reminds you that “money can’t buy you happiness” amongst other gems.
I read somewhere that a reporter at the Rapport enthused of Skeem: “This is one of the funniest films of the year. And it’s South African!” That exclamatory “and it’s South African”, full of shock and surprise tells us two things: one, it is still genuinely surprising to us journalists that South Africa is capable of producing anything funny. Two, that we hope this film acts as atonement (international and domestic) for several decades of Leon Schuster. But I think the conjunction is misplaced. It’s not that this is one the funniest films of the year and South African. The reporter might have more accurately written, “This is one of the funniest films of the year because I’m South African!” The comedy is a distinctly local affair and this is a fantastic accomplishment. Skeem isn’t the first to have done what it does, although it probably does it the best. Like I cautioned earlier though, and I’m already trembling, let’s hope other film-makers don’t start slurping at a nipple that stopped lactating long before I finished this sentence. Skeem is enjoyable, but our comedy needs to move out of this territory or we’re going to remain monkeys in front of mirrors, endlessly, provincially amused at the mere fact of ourselves.
*Skeem launches nationwide on Friday 21 October.