(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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