Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 9:41 pm 
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(A reassessment)

Hasn't altogether held up, but it hasn't disintegrated either

I'm surprised at the viciousness of some of the current reviews of this film by people in a position to "guide taste" of DVD viewers and such. Viewers' comments vary from "a bloody masterpiece" to "a worthless piece of junk." This is largely a generational matter. Looking back at it from the 21st century, it's dated. For those who lived through those years and saw it then, it may be one of their favorite films. It obviously reads in some ways as awfully Seventies now -- which seems to mean slow and meandering, lacking in passion, focused on self-indulgent people. How pleased we are with what we have become, and how condescending toward what had looked like cutting edge social and sexual attitudes three decades ago.

The really self-indulgent one is Elkin (Murray Head) of course. He's a tiresome self-satisfied little boy-man with a pageboy bob and a dick and good cheekbones where a heart and mind and personality should be, a young man whose youth is one of his few real advantages; who uses indecisiveness as a pretense of freedom. Why do these two grown up and interesting people, Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) and Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) put up with him, knowing they're sharing him with each other? This is the weakness of the piece at its core. If they're really such grown up and interesting people, why are they so stuck and so needy that they don't give Bob Elkin the gate? Doesn't the fact of the two older people's knowing acceptance of "half a loaf" mean they don't have much passion about him -- or much respect for themselves? Or is this Penelope Gilliatt's curious sense of what bi-sexuality means -- dividing your sexuality between two people, who therefore have to accept half a lover? I did indeed see the film when it was new, and it seemed unusually grown up in the way it embraced doing what you don't want to do and getting by with very little -- which in this glossy John Schlesinger London looked pretty nice anyway. It was quietly thrilling to have homosexuality dealt with so calmly in a non-ghettoized context. The movie still has that meaning for me and will never lose it.

My father went to see the film with me -- a second time for me -- when I told him about the beauty of the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony and I was moved that my father, who often seemed prejudiced, took the sexual contents so calmly and was even enthusiastic about the film. Sunday Bloody Sunday resonated with me then, not for anything that was resolved by it but simply for ideas and emotions that were brought up and taken seriously. It still resonates with me. It's not like having to be satisfied with half a loaf is no longer something that happens in life.

And the bar mitzvah is still there, totally unnecessary, and absolutely glorious. It's thrilling. It was the moment when I realized Schlesinger had a gift for making life look good. When you watch this sequence it makes you fall in love with religion; if you're not Jewish, you wish you were. But though it provides a "demonstration" that Dr. Hirsh really is Jewish, that that's a part of him as well as being gay and being a caring but elegant Harley Street doctor, it's still a rather gratuitous sequence -- though it sings too much for me to care. I wasn't wrong to talk it up to my father, and he wasn't disappointed. He pretended to be anti-Semitic. Well. Not when he watched that scene.

I still like the final moment when Hirsh looks at the camera and says he misses him. Here Schlesinger probably is being indeed very autobiographical. He's talking about something that happens to older gay men; to anyone who has an affair with a younger man. You've got to take your lumps. This is an utterly mundane and yet rarely seen moment in film. I still like it, even though I cringe when I watch Murray Head's character go through his irresponsible dance back and forth between the two people who are so much better than he is -- or ought to be. Come to think of it, I had done much the same sort of thing, or was about to do so in a year or so.

Penelope Gilliatt if you read her New Yorker reviews that alternated with Pauline Kael's in those days had a very meandering style in whatever she wrote, and I was impressed by the fact that she could be so much herself in a glossy Schlesinger movie. It seemed that everybody was getting away with something in a quiet way and carrying it off with style. Now it's obvious that the film lacks energy and passion. This is a moment of backlash against the Seventies, which look particularly dated to us from 2005. Under John Schlesinger's glossy polish there now seems to lie a timid heart. In a sense this may be, as people like to say, Schlesinger's most personal film, but that doesn't make it his best. His oeuvre begins too look rather mediocre now, alas, but I would hope people can go back to enjoying it for the pleasures it has to offer.

For one of John Schlesinger's works that's much more recent and hasn't lost any of its sheen I would recommend his 1992 made-for-television A Question of Attribution, a cleverer film with a witty, thought-provoking screenplay by Alan Bennett based on his play. It has the same Schlesinger polish, but underneath there are ideas and a number of rather stunning performances starting with James Fox, arguably in the role of his life; and the film would be remembered, if for nothing else, for Prunella Scales' brilliant spot-on turn as HMQ. Nothing is really resolved there either, but the historical points about Sir Anthony Blunt are buried in a lovely conundrum. I feel safer recommending that...

But wait a minute: Sunday Bloody Sunday still has splendid, thought-provoking and touching performances, and if it's a time capsule, that's a value too. 8/10

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