Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Joseph Losey | Acccident

tabula rasa

By Douglas Messerli

Harold Pinter (screenplay, based on the novel by Nicholas Mosley), Joseph Losey (director) Accident / 1967

Those who have regularly read my essays on film, literature, and theater will know that I often perceive sexual undercurrents (sometimes gay, but also heterosexual) in works that seem, on the surface, to represent no such concerns. Fearful that some might find my interest in such issues as slightly prurient, I have even addressed these readings in my 2012 essay titled “Reading Sexually Coded Films: A Defense.” Admittedly, when I review any cultural work I like to observe the piece from a new perspective, but I also argue that when I do discuss such sexual issues that they are actually there in the works’ narrative structures. And my regular readers will also perceive that I do not find these issues in the majority of works on which I focus.

     I had to laugh, accordingly, after attending a recent performance at Los Angeles’ Royale Theater of a restored version of Joseph Losey’s 1967 cult favorite, Accident—a movie that has been long unavailable on DVD, which I had first seen as a student at the University of Wisconsin, soon after its US premiere. In that youthful viewing, during a period in which I had just become involved in gay sexual activities, I saw the work as being centered around the film’s handsome young student, William (Michael York), surrounded by men who sought out his sexual company. In short, in the foggy lens of my student days, I interrupted this basically heterosexual story as being primarily gay! Oh, well, we all read, at some time or another, literary works or life itself through the perspective of personal obsessions.

https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSz0yY4nne8O7FBdiMYMrOYAVF6HHn_2inKX3ax5a8aPaJzHFtO      But my particular reading, in this instance, seems so absolutely wrong-headed that even now I blush, as I did when I shared this information with my companion Howard. Howard, who has often accused me of reading things into works he perceives as being much more straight-forward, shared my laughter, responding, “That shows where your mind was.” He paused, “I mean, there were a few moments…but…” his voice trailing off. 
     Just for the record, Losey’s Accident features three Oxford males, two dons, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) and Charley (Stanley Baker), and Stephen’s pupil, William (York), who all lust after another young student whom Stephen tutors, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), an Austrian whose long full name leads Stephen to describe her as a “princess.” Stephen and Charley, incidentally are married with children, and both are at the age where, to mitigate their feelings of getting older, they have undertaken—at least in Stephen’s case—tentative and brief lasting affairs. We also meet both long-suffering wives, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant), Stephen’s wife, and Laura (Ann Firbank), Charley’s wife. The film even hints at an attraction, even if never played out, between Charley and Rosalind, and Stephen and Laura (with whom Stephen meets after Charley has left her). Although Stephen, the most morally scrupled of the three, contemplates sex with Anna, he is somewhat appalled when it becomes apparent that Charley has been bedding the young Austrian for some time. William trumps them both, however, when Anna announces that she is going to marry him. But when, upon driving out to Stephen’s country house, William is killed in a car accident during which Anna has been driving, fate seems to intrude, allowing Stephen (whose wife and children are away) a chance to possess his princess; and in a long, drawn out scene, half way between a rape and a willing seduction, he appears to succeed, besting not only the poor, dead boy but his best friend.  So much for my youthful interpretations!
     Most critics agree, however, that in the Pinter-Losey telling of this tale, nothing is actually said, only suggested. Indeed, the story I have just repeated is told entirely in one long flashback, after the occurrence in the first scenes of the “accident.” And that story is indirectly revealed during several paradisiacal outings into the Oxford countryside: a long, beautifully filmed, punting down the Cherwell (or Thames) to which William and Anna have invited the reluctant don Stephen, and an day-long picnic at Stephen’s beautiful country home, to which Stephen has invited Anna and William, with the uninvited Charley tagging along. Throughout these “dinners upon grass,” the figures are splayed out upon the lush lawns and overlooking the glorious English landscape while they chatter away in a sometimes witty dialogue about utterly meaningless things. Only after the heavy consuming of alcohol do these pleasantries flare up into anything we might perceive as revelatory; but then, by that time the male characters speak in a language so slurred and skewed that it is transformed nearly into nonsense.

      This, of course, is Pinter’s dialogic method, in which his characters in saying little, speak volumes—even if we cannot quite read the words those pages. Losey adds to this a baroque attention to detail, his camera embracing not only the natural beauty of his scenes, but lingering upon seemingly insignificant visual elements even after the characters have left the room. The musical score, consisting primarily of the odd combination of two harps and a saxophone, intrude, sometimes in a jazz mode, at other times registering as emotional statements that seldom have to do with what has just occurred, alternates with the sounds of the university bells and inner creaks and ticking in the quiet Oxford rooms and environs of wooden floors and clocks. Everything, in short, is poised to make the viewer suspect something significant has been has just occurred, even if we cannot imagine what that occurrence has consisted of.

      Numerous film and theater commentators have noted that both Pinter’s and Losey’s works are male dominated, creating worlds in which the women and their motives remain, at best, blurred. And certainly that is the case with Accident. Both director and writer make absolutely no attempt to explain Anna’s behavior or even suggest why she has taken up with Charley or wants to marry William—although, at least in the latter case, we can imagine that she might desire the wealth her marriage with an aristocrat will provide. Stephen’s wife, Rosalind, lives in quiet forbearance, recognizing, we presume, that her husband’s brief affairs are not real challenge to his comfortable family life. Charley’s wife, on the other hand, hardly expresses a word except in her letter to Stephen where she begs him to explain to her husband how meaningless his affair with Anna is.

           Given such a gender gap in this film, accordingly, we soon realize that the various macho poses and posturings of these two middle-aged sufferers of mid-life crisis and the young over-testosteroned youth are made not for the women in their lives, but for each other. Stephen, Charley’s and even William’s competitive actions—their physical pushes, pulls, punches and their the spirited barbs of what they define as wit—are enacted out of envy, dislike, and even hate, and just importantly, out of desire, admiration of, and even love of one another. It is no accident in this film that Losey, even as his characters lay beside, reach out for, and embrace the feminine other, positions his camera in a way that features the male form. Early in the film, just before we first encounter the Eve (Anna) of this tale, the males, student and don, almost display their bodies to one another, as, staring into other’s eyes, they discuss Anna’s existence, the camera languorously circling them as they stare at one another and into space. To say the least, William is flirtatious with Stephen throughout, while we witness none but verbal interchanges between him and Anna.

     Upon discovering that his friend Charley is sexually involved with Anna, moreover, we witness Charley with his hairy legs sticking out of Stephen’s bathrobe, while Anna remains half-hidden on the staircase further up. When Stephen goes up stairs to discover his own bedding afoul from their sexual encounters, we recognize from the slightly disgusted look on his face that the objects upon which he is fixated are not connected with his friend but with the feminine remnants of Anna. Soon after, in recognition of Charley besting him, he seemingly bequeaths Anna to him by offering the house up again the very next weekend.

      One need only notice that the faculty in attendance of the cricket game, including the Provost, focus on one figure only, the pure-bred athlete, William. When Stephen mentions the Provost’s daughter (with whom Stephen he has just had a one-night fling in bed) the old man at first seems not even to know of whom the younger don is speaking, as if to reiterate that women in the world are nearly meaningless.

      And one of the longest scenes in the film, the free-for-all rugby-like, huddling of young males played out in front of Stephen’s eyes in the large hall of Williams country house (the boy has insisted that the older man must play the role of goalie) seems to have no other purpose than to put the male form, once again, on display. If Stephen hardly gets a chance to show any muscle, at least he remains—symbolically speaking—“in the game,” which only women and old men are allowed to watch from the sidelines.

     When Stephen rushes out—if his almost casual walk to the site of the crash can be described as a “rush”—to inspect the accident of the very first scene, his only spoken words, delivered almost in a scream, are almost hatefully directed to the survivor Anna, who is attempting to exit the overturned auto: “Stop, you’re standing on his head!” Realizing that William is dead, he almost ritualistically closes the boy’s eyes, while Anna is left to fend for herself. Despite her disorientation, we perceive her, under Losey’s direction, as selfishly oblivious of the event (which, as I mentioned earlier, she caused), as she blithely attempts to repaint her lips. Surely, after witnessing this, we can hardly see her, in the retrospect that the movie lays out for us, as anyone worthy of love?

     And way, we have to ask, was William so determined to visit his don just before his upcoming wedding, in order to have a “man-to-man talk?”  One can imagine all sorts of possibilities, obviously, some of them quite mundane: might we have wanted Stephen to be his best man? Was he seeking more information about his future wife? Or….Might we have wanted to tell Stephen something important before leaving Oxford?

     Finally, concerning the incident that I have never seen fully discussed, why does the film end with yet another “accident”—this at the very moment when the seeming chastened Stephen enters his home with children and wife in tow, closing the door behind him. Are we to discern that the longings Stephen and the others have endured will soon begin all over again? That the true “accident” concerns the very conditions that Stephen’s society and himself have imposed upon his life? And who is behind the car of this accident? Another dear friend, like Charley?

     The fact that neither Pinter or Losey answer the many questions they have posed do not mean that such questions do not exist or are unimportant. For it is in just this way that Losey’s film serves as a kind of “tabula rasa,” a blank slate upon which one might possibly read anything? If I radically misread the film as a young man, it may be that my reading today is not so completely different from youthful one as I first imagined. But then, I have a tendency to read things the way others certainly will not.

Los Angeles, June 16, 2014

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