Archives for posts with tag: Steve Coogan

The heightened look of cinematic history: Excess and costume in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love
Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University UK.
15/3/14


(This paper was delivered at Screening Style: Costume, Cinema and Performance, a symposium on costume design I organised with Dr Catherine Spooner (Dept. of English and Creative Writing, Lancaster). Details about the event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Screening-Style-Costume-Cinema-and-Performance/1433032680260289)


Michael Winterbottom has form when it comes to the costume drama. From his first theatrically released feature film, Jude (1996), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, it is a genre he has returned to repeatedly in inventive ways.

Jude

fig. 1: Jude

He has directed three adaptations of Hardy novels, including The Claim (2000), a treatment of the Mayor of Casterbridge relocated to the Californian gold rush, and Trishna (2011) a reworking of Tess of the D’Urbevilles, that situates most of the action in contemporary Mumbai.

Claim

Bull

Cock

figs. 2-4: The Claim, Trishna, A Cock and Bull Story

He has also directed a playful adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s metanarrative novel Tristram Shandy. Titled A Cock and Bull Story (2005), rather than a straight adaptation, Winterbottom’s film begins by showing us scenes from the film, before zooming out to focus on the chaotic film shoot as the film-makers try to cope with professional rivalry between actors, a restricted budget, the philandering star, Steve Coogan, as well as the broader problem of transposing a vast novel into the frame of a film.

party

fig. 5: The recent past restaged as costume drama: 24 Hour Party People

Winterbottom treats costume drama as an opportunity for formal and thematic experimentation as well as a means of narrating alternative histories (as in the 2002 costume drama, 24 Hour Party People’s account of Manchester music subcultures). His work is generally characterised by a self-consciously ambivalent relation to genre, and in relation to the costume drama – which is so closely associated with British cinema traditions, with discourses of national and cultural identity, and with the narration of history – this experimentation has a register beyond simple formal innovation.

The British-Iranian screenwriter Hossein Amini, who wrote Jude (and went on to write an adaptation of Henry James’ Wings of a Dove as well as Nicolas Refn’s Drive [2011]) explained in an interview that their intention was to destroy the heritage film from within (Bennett 2014: 113). This comment is a key to understanding Winterbottom’s approach to film-making more broadly since it often involves processes of disassembly and recombination, juxtaposing incongruous elements from quite distinct genres; what is at stake in the demolition of the heritage film in particular is an assault upon some of the apparent continuities and ossified institutions of British cultural heritage and an examination of Winterbottom’s films that have a consistently critical relationship to their cultural context gives us a lens through which to examine that context too.

Most academic writing on the costume film begins with the problem of categorical definition, triangulating the terms, “literary adaptation”, “heritage film”, and “costume film” or “costume drama”. While these terms may be defined differently they tend to be applied to the same group of films, and in this sense are, to some extent, substitutable. In this paper I follow Julianne Pidduck’s decision to go with the term costume drama:

‘I use the term ‘costume drama’ as a refusal of historical or literary authenticity. ‘Costume’ suggests the pleasures and possibilities of masquerade – the construction, constraint and display of the body through clothes […] Costume is inextricable from historical discourses of the self and costume drama’s play of identity and masquerade retrospectively explores Western subjectivity through the characters of the nineteenth century novel and historical biography […] If drama suggests an intensification of everyday life, then costume film plays out vivid episodes within the frame of the past’ (Pidduck 2004: 3).

The value of the term costume drama is also in its reach, implicitly acknowledging the transnational, cross-media status of the form, which migrates repeatedly across the boundary between film, TV and stage (just as directors, actors, screenwriters and designers move between the three media).

This paper focuses on Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Look of Love (2013), whose title indicates that this is a film about popular visual culture’s mediation of intimacy. My argument is that The Look of Love is a contemporary costume drama that explores the various visual and semantic functions and registers of costume on screen. This defines the category of costume drama expansively, since it is not a literary adaptation and is set in the late twentieth century, but I suggest that the film uses the frame of the costume drama and the narrative play of masquerade and identity within a biographical account of a historically significant (albeit marginal and unattractive) figure to recount a rather less palatable history of the relatively recent past.

Raymond

fig. 6: Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan)

A biography of the British pornographer and property developer, Paul Raymond, it follows his career, progressing from running a burlesque show in the 1950s through to opening a strip club and staging lavish West End shows in the 1960s, going on to purchase and relaunch the pornographic magazine Men Only in the early 1970s. At the centre of the narrative is Raymond’s relationship with his daughter, Debbie, who died of a drug overdose in the 1990s. The film is told in flashback with a grey-haired Raymond looking back over his life from his ornately furnished but empty bachelor pad, and the implicit allusion to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) here becomes clear later as Raymond attempts to use his wealth to establish his moderately talented daughter as a star, just as the publisher Kane did with his lover Susan Alexander. Raymond commissions an unprecedentedly expensive musical placing her in the starring role, but has to cancel the show soon afterwards due to its mounting losses.

This is a moralistic, cautionary tale: a story about excess as Raymond’s life becomes increasingly debauched; A Rake’s Progress relocated to the second half of the 20th century, that finds its cinematic parallels in the decadence of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). A serial adulterer and heavy cocaine user, Raymond’s second marriage collapses, his daughter dies from an overdose after a wretched, abused life marked by expulsion from school, drug addiction and cancer, and Raymond is left, at the end of the film, extremely wealthy, but alone.

The semantic functions of Costume

The costumes were designed by British designer Stephanie Collie, whose most recent work was in the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders (2013), a gangster drama set in Birmingham in the 1920s, and in this film they have several functions, as if in a systematic demonstration of the semantics of screen costumes.

The first of these is to serve as a ‘historical index’. The narrative is focused narrowly upon Paul Raymond and his family, friends and business partners rather than on the broader social context and monumentalised historical events that might typically function as markers on a historical timeline (such as the Profumo affair, the Aldermaston marches, or the miner’s strike) and so the changing style of the characters’ clothes is a key visual indicator of the historical shifts that take place in the film.

One of the common paradoxes of the costume drama is that, although they are dressed in period costume, characters are often presented as quite contemporary figures in terms of performance styles and language-use. It is often as if we are watching time travellers who have been transported back to the past and are dressed in a sort of historicist drag. This paradox is crucial to the appeal of the costume film, which makes the past seem puzzlingly strange on the one hand, but at the same time collapses historical distance by framing it accessibly in terms of contemporary personae.

Costume – and particular fashions or styles of costume – thus have a crucial function as the means of visualising history. Colour-change is also key to articulating this historical shift within this film, the colour of the costumes operating in conjunction with the colour grading of the film image. As the narrative moves from the 1950s to the 1960s, the film shifts from monochrome to a colour scheme that simulates slightly faded colour film stock, and the overall colour cast of the costumes becomes warmer, dominated by orange, umber and golden yellows as the narrative moves into the 1970s (the colour scheme of a Benson & Hedges or Johnnie Walker magazine advert from the period).

BW

colour

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figs. 7-10: Colour-change as historical index (the 1950s and the 1970s)

Historical change and the passage of time is thus rendered in this film in terms of shifting surfaces and changing visual textures, both in the sense of the graphic composition of the image as well as in the literal sense of the depiction of fabrics.

The manipulation of costume is a means of rendering history as image, and in so far as fur and skin are visual motifs here, we might also think about the haptics of the cinematic history-image. The visual textures of costume can perhaps suggest the embodied feel of history too, such that we might associate the cinematic middle-ages with leather, linen and hemp, and the industrial 19th century with heavy cotton and damp wool, taffeta, lace and bone, and the near-future with lycra, nylon and frictionless body-hugging smart fabrics.

haptic

fig. 11: The visual textures of the early 1970s: the haptic history-image – Raymond and Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton)

As well as measuring historical change, costume also functions as an indicator of changes within the characters – an expression both of the characters’ individualised identities and their relationship to other characters around them. In this respect, costume operates in a melodramatic register as the externalized rendering of a character’s interiority.

As Raymond moves through the film, his clothes become more colourful and more flamboyant. His make-up is modified too so that in the 1970s, he is moustachioed, with bleached blond hair, an artificial tan and sideburns. These alterations are not just an indicator of the passage of time – of changing fashions – but also an indicator that he is dressing in an increasingly self-conscious and self-consciously fashionable manner.

His outfits mark him out as visually distinct from others around him (bigger hair and collar) and they reinforce the depiction of him as both a narcissist and a fantasist as well as an inveterate self-promoter who takes every opportunity to remind other people of his wealth.

In this respect, Raymond’s costume indicates the performative aspect of this character, and thus costume has a double function here so that, rather than functioning as a simple sign of historical authenticity, Raymond’s costumes instead signify the questionable authenticity or inauthenticity of his persona; he is always performing. Raymond makes much of the fact that he is a self-made success and has never asked anybody for anything – he is also a name-dropper who repeatedly informs people that his luxury flat was designed by Ringo Starr – but it emerges in the course of the film that ‘Paul Raymond’ is a pseudonym. His real name is Jeffrey Quinn and he has an adult son from a former marriage, and so the persona of Paul Raymond is a self-made construction too, and in this respect, costume functions in conjunction with the fabulous interior design of his flat and his Rolls Royce with personalised number plate, to disguise Raymond’s real identity, assuming there is one behind this precarious identification with an idealised image. His partner, Amber, whom he hires as a stage performer and, later, as a model and writer in his magazine, also goes by a pseudonym, Fiona Richmond, and so the boundary between the private ‘authentic’ individual and the public persona inhabiting a crude, aspirational fantasy world of conspicuous wealth and erotic abandon is impossible to determine.

In interviews, Stephanie Collie has stated that a consistent strategy underpinning her design for film and television is what she terms a ‘heightened’ appearance – a slight exaggeration of the costumes in the reference photographs and illustrations she works from that works to collapse the historical gap between the spectator and the period represented. This involves the designer adapting the costumes to different physiques in a flattering way, and reducing some of the more extreme stylizations in line with contemporary fashions, It is clear from historical photographs of Raymond, for example, that Coogan’s appearance is not an exact copy but has been smoothed and streamlined.

heightened

fig. 12: Steve Coogan and the ‘real’ Paul Raymond

The heightened design aesthetic is thus not a matter of simple exaggeration or scaling up. It may be a case of the careful selection of clothes in a way that places emphasis upon particularly cutting-edge or transient fashions so that, for example, it might seem that every male character in a film set in the 1970s appears to wear a kipper tie, gold medallion, flared jeans, velvet jackets and large-collared shirts. Thus one effect of the heightened costume design aesthetic can be a cultural homogenisation and historical flattening, but what is at stake in this aesthetic is the successful co-ordination of the costumes with the film’s overall visual design, integrating the costume with the spectacular screen image, and also producing and modifying costumes so that they function narratively.

For example, in this film about excessive behaviour and excessive values, the progressive excess of Raymond’s predatory character is expressed through the increasingly colourful, and increasingly fashionable and loose clothes, and lengthening hair.

As a film about a pornographer, this is also a film about the erotic or titillating function of clothing that both conceals and delineates the contours of the body underneath. As Stella Bruzzi observes, in their preoccupation with repressed desire, period films tend to fetishize items of clothing as objects of displaced desire, ‘The power of clothes fetishism is that it exists on the cusp between display and denial, signalling as much a lack as a presence of sexual desire, through which it is especially relevant to films that depict a past, less ostensibly liberated age’ (Bruzzi 1997: 38). The Look of Love foregrounds the tensions at the core of the costume drama in its concern with the economies of sexual desire around the display of semi-clothed and unclothed bodies – progressing from the women quaintly dressed in body stockings posing in static tableaux at the beginning of the film through to the more hardcore photography of the later magazines. This takes place against the context of an apparently less liberated age, but what is arguably dramatised is not a liberal account of political emancipation so much as an account of the commodification of desire.

Although the film offers little direct commentary upon the business that makes Raymond very rich, his hypocrisy is made clear. He insists continually that he is not a pornographer but a businessman or entertainer, however when he casts his daughter as the star of the most expensive West End musical ever mounted, ‘Royalty Follies’, he insists that she remain clothed. The extent to which his hypocrisy is a sign of genuine self-delusion or a cynically and commercially pragmatic strategy in the face of legal proscriptions remains unclear but in a scene set in the 1960s, when Raymond is asked by a journalist how the female performers he employs in his nightclub feel about what they do, he explains that their job is to persuade the audience that they are enjoying themselves. ‘It’s a performance’, he remarks.

This passing comment is one of few moments where Raymond speaks directly and apparently openly about the business he works in and is thus a point at which the film’s commentary upon the culture of pornography becomes most explicit. We can understand this remark as a comment upon pornography in general – that it is a deceptive representational system, an illusion in which the performer’s nakedness is another layer of costume – this in the context of a film that is preoccupied with inauthenticity, exploitation and illusory surfaces.

One of the running motifs of Winterbottom’s films is a matter-of-fact realism in their treatment of sex and sexuality as an intrinsic element of intimate relationships, and a consistent rejection of the conventional cinematic codes of eroticism. Situated against this background we can understand The Look of Love as a component of an ongoing project concerned with the critical examination of the restricted conventions of cinematic sexuality. The film displays none of the nostalgia for an innocent, pre-AIDS sexual culture evident in its American counterpart, Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997), nor the libertarian politics of The People vs Larry Flynt (Forman, 1996) that frames debates around the politics of pornography in the terms of heroic battles over freedom of expression. In The Look of Love, pornography is a matter of unglamorous business and cool exploitation, love is a matter of economic exchange.

This returns us to the opening question of generic categorisation (and Amini’s declaration of war against the heritage film). Against this history of generic transformation, we can understand the film’s concern with the business of pornography as a critical intervention in the configuration of the costume drama. If the costume drama is concerned with the rewriting of national histories, with a particular tendency to focus upon apparently significant historical moments, and if the costume drama also often celebrates national cultural heritage, then this film is a provocative contribution to that continuum of historical and cultural revisionism. Its account of the movement of pornographic publications and performance from the semi-legal margins of burlesque theatres in the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of late twentieth-century Britain takes place against the background of cultural liberalisation so that the apparently permissive culture of the late 1960s and 1970s offers Raymond ever-greater business opportunities. In this respect, the film belongs to the category of the self-reflexive post-heritage film outlined by Clare Monk, but whereas the films we might associate with that category are aligned through their literary allusions or stylistic and formal experimentation with elite culture, however risqué their content, The Look of Love is a film about irredeemably popular culture and has nothing of the cultural respectability of the costume dramas of Sally Potter, Jane Campion, Catherine Breillat, Philip Kaufman, Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman.

The film begins and ends with the elderly Raymond driving through London with his granddaughter, proudly pointing out to her the numerous properties around the capital that he owns. This is an indication of his self-created success and perhaps a means of acquiring respectability, but this is also a means by which the film makes a key point about the mainstreaming of pornography, since his enormous wealth is the clearest sign of its cultural assimilation. The film ends with a series of captioned stills updating the stories of the characters beyond the point at which the film ends (in 1992). In these we learn that Raymond was, for a period, the richest man in the country, a fact that perhaps invites us to shift our understanding of post-war Britain through its insistence upon the cultural and economic centrality of pornography.

In conclusion, this film comprises a critical reworking of the formal and ideological conventions of the costume drama, allowing us to observe the operation of these generic conventions, as well as the semantic function of costume within the film image, and inviting us to understand this cinematic cultural history as an account of seductive and illusory surfaces – an unreliable historical account of unreliable characters engaged in the business of spectacle.

In writing about costume drama, questions of surface have often been explored as questions of authenticity and inauthenticity, questions that in turn are often linked to the ‘feminine’ qualities and supposed female audiences of these dramas. As Stella Bruzzi writes, ‘There are two principal charges levelled at costume films: that they lack authenticity and that they are frivolous’ (Ibid.). However, what unfolds from these gendered judgements, and feminist counter-claims around the in/authenticity of costume film, is a series of questions about the status of cinema itself as a medium concerned with temporality, history as performance, and the unstable boundaries of genre.

Preoccupied with pushing at the boundaries of genre, Winterbottom playfully places the frivolous culture of burlesque shows, strip clubs, trashy West End musicals and tacky pornographic magazines in the frame of the costume drama, and in doing so produces a quietly transgressive reworking of the genre itself.

References:

Bennett, Bruce (2014). The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom: Borders, Intimacy, Terror. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bruzzi, Stella (1997). Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London and New York: Routledge

Collie, Stephanie (2013). ‘The Look of Love: Q and A with Costume Designer Stephanie Collie’. Clothes on Film. 29 August 2013. Available from: http://clothesonfilm.com/the-look-of-love-qa-with-costume-designer-stephanie-collie/33035/

Pidduck, Julianne (2004). Contemporary Costume Film: Space, Place and the Past. London: BFI

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(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.

 

ImageImage

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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