Saturday, February 29, 2020

John Schlesinger | Sunday Bloody Sunday

the cough
by Douglas Messerli

Penelope Gilliatt (screenplay), John Schlesinger (director) Sunday Bloody Sunday / 1971

It is strange that the John Schlesinger film I saw in 1971, at the time of its release, was completely different from the disk of Sunday Bloody Sunday I saw on Netflix yesterday. One scene, in particular, symbolizes how mistaken I was during my first visit to this work.
      Having overslept, and late for her promise to care for the Hodson children and dog so that their parents might escape their noisy British suburban household for a weekend, friend Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), quickly makes herself a breakfast.
     I recall the original as a quiet and calm affair wherein she, almost with great regulation, makes coffee and toast. This time round I realized just how crazed and hectic was that same breakfast of leftover coffee, with cigarette butts strewn around the floor, and a sink full of leftover dishes. In short, Alex seems the last person in the world you might wish to invite over to care for a baby and two precociously aware young girls—particularly since she plans to also spend much of that “bloody” weekend in bed with her boyfriend during a governmental crisis and its quite prescient suggestions of the Northern Ireland Bogside massacre a few months later, when 14 people were shot and killed by police during a march against internment without trial.
       It’s so very strange that I should have seen Alex’s manic rush as a careful and civilized event, accomplished even with great grace when Howard and I, in our second year of our relationship first saw it. Roger Ebert’s opening comments to his 1971 review of the film state something I missed:

              The official East Coast line on John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody
              Sunday was that it is civilized. That judgment was enlisted to carry
              the critical defense of the movie; and, indeed, how can the
              decent critic be against a civilized movie about civilized people?
              My notion, all the same, is that Sunday Bloody Sunday is about
              people who suffer from psychic amputation, not civility, and that
              this film is not an affirmation but a tragedy.

     In fact, the movie begins that way with the almost Dickensian household which Alex is about to care for representing a kind of exuberance of married life. The Hobson’s know of Alex’s affair with the handsome Bob Elkin (Murray Head) and might even secretly approve of their divorced friend’s new-found love; although they say nothing, their children are rather curious and overtly interested in the relationship. Even their over-large pet seems perfectly happy to intrude. Moreover, despite her disordered life, Alex is a good baby-sitter, mostly caring and attentive to the children. If things are not quite right in this world, Schlesinger hints they might almost be “civilized,” or controlled if nothing else.
     Yet, this talented director certainly provides numerous clues that something else is going on. It’s hard for today’s young, perhaps, to recognize just how intrusive was the rotary phone long before the constant pings and musical intrusions of cell-phones. Again and again, the director interrupts moments of love and caring with old-fashioned phone calls and with images of rotary dialing, to say nothing a busy-body phone operator (Bessie Love) who almost makes Lily Tomlin’s satirically obnoxious Bell telephone operator seem like a saint.
     She and Bob seem to be in love, and together they perform briefly as a nice pair of parental substitutes. But the circles of those endless rotary phones say almost everything.
     The social circles they inhabit are much larger than larger than the Hobson’s suburban retreat, as we soon see Bob rush away to London to his other lover, the much-besieged and over-worked doctor, Daniel Hirsch (played with panache by Peter Finch), a role offered first to Alan Bates and Ian Bannen. Bates had other filming assignments, and Bannen was wary of the deep kiss with which he meets his bisexual partner, Bob.

     This is one of the first true films of absolute bisexuality, as Bob, openly admitting to liking sex with both women and men, and with both Alex and Daniel willing to accept the limitations of their loving sexual encounters with him. Both are pained by the temporariness he devotes to them, but both have also been clearly hurt in the past by others. Alex is an unhappy divorcée, and Daniel is a Jewish gay man with a history he cannot reveal to the community with which he is still very much intertwined, shown by a brief encounter with a former lover who is a heroin addict and a bar-mitzvah at which he is constantly questioned as to why he has never yet married, with members of his family hinting that sometimes less is better than nothing.
      Both have chosen basically empty relationships to salve their lonely and empty lives, which their “civilized” circles will not ever truly allow, and the rather self-centered Bob, a rather mediocre “light” sculptor, will never truly permit. He’s on his way to New York where he hopes to extend his flimsy career.

      Bob, in short, is a temporary phantom of love for both the pained Alex and Daniel, a pretty boy they have latched onto just to have some possibility of joy in their otherwise desolate lives. Neither are adept at truly loving, and both are scarred by their pasts. Unintentionally, Alex allows one of her young charges to run ahead with the family’s large dog, resulting in an automobile accident which kills the beast.
      The film ends with Daniel’s personal confession and the beginning of a doctor’s joke, trying to deny his own loneliness—“I am happy, except for missing him”—and ending with the old Jewish joke “Doctor, I came about my cough.” The cough, of course, is everything, the beginning of the end.

Los Angeles, February 29, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

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