Sunday, February 12, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #2: Sunday Bloody Sunday

That rascal Dave from Victim of the Time and I are at it again, looking at our second of ten British gay films in this little project of ours. Today's very appropriate film for this Sunday afternoon is John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday. Released ten years after our first film, Victim, Sunday Bloody Sunday depicts Britain just a few years after homosexuality was decriminalized. On the surface, homosexuals were allowed to be more open, but had things really changed that much...? 

James: Perhaps the most surprising thought I had after watching Sunday Bloody Sunday was that I wouldn't really label it a queer film at all. Sure, the film's plot--a middle-aged male doctor and a gorgeous female share the affections of an attractive bisexual--makes it sound like a queer film, and a positively shocking one at that since this was made just ten short years after our last film, Victim. But, whether or not Sunday Bloody Sunday is actually that shocking is up for debate, especially now that we've had 40 years of hindsight. On one hand, Sunday Bloody Sunday depicts two men who have a physical desire for each other. Their first embrace and kiss is right out in the open for everyone (in the audience) to see. It's no Milk, that's for sure, but it's certainly a step in the right direction from the asexuality of Victim.

On the other hand, however, that scene is really the only one that expresses any external attraction between the two. There is another moment, just a few moments later, where Daniel (Peter Finch) and Bob (Murray Head), both shirtless, climb into bed together. But the scene is shot King's Speech-style where the two of them are shoved into the bottom corner of the frame, askewed and barely visible. It looks more like Daniel is humping a sex doll than having relations with a flesh-and-blood human. So much for progess, huh?

But, but, maybe that's the point of the whole thing. Maybe Schlesinger isn't afraid of the homosexuality so much as he wants to make it appear so natural and unobtrusive to the narrative that we don't pay any attention to the fact that they are homosexuals. Aside from the "shocking" first kiss between Daniel and Bob, the film is hardly interested in any of the characters' sexuality. Gay, straight bi, it doesn't matter: Sunday Bloody Sunday is investigating the point at which having some, but never all, of another person's love is worse than being alone altogether. Schlesinger and company aren't focusing on sexuality by choice rather than because they are afraid of it. Once we've reached that stage, that's what I consider progressive. In its own way, Sunday Bloody Sunday is as revolutionary as Victim. While Victim needed to discuss homosexuality to get people riled up and take down this awful law, Sunday Bloody Sunday is almost saying, "Victim is sooo ten years ago. We've progressed a lot since then. We don't need to discuss the morality of homosexuality. Let's just show a homosexual living his life."

Then again, perhaps I'm overselling this rather quaint film. Gah, I haven't been this conflicted about a film in such a long time. Perhaps you can help me make up my mind, Dave.

Dave: I have to say, I would never call Sunday Bloody Sunday "quaint". Maybe it's a personal leaning, but I've always found this sort of early '70s evolution of the 'kitchen-sink' British drama to be dated, certainly, but with a rather definite and ennervating energy to them - they're always a bit drained of colour, but the camerawork and editing and narrative choices (the speech to camera at the end!) keep something in them fresh and fascinating, even if the social issues they're portraying have been left far behind. So I felt all that with Sunday Bloody Sunday, even as I understand the ambivalence you seem to have come away with. I think it means to leave its audience with an ambivalence, crafting such an elegant but disconcerting final scene where Peter Finch talks about how he took away happiness from a relationship that hasn't necessarily come to its end.

IMDb's trivia page for the film - a regular fountain of good and truthful knowledge - tells me the character of Daniel was originally written as much younger. I did actually feel a slightly awkward disconnect between Finch's age and occasional interactions in the film - Daniel's treatment during the bar mitzvah party wasn't tinged by any sort of suspicion or bewilderment at his lone wolf status, merely the sort of "when are you going to find a nice girl and settle down" questioning usually leveled at someone in their thirties. But Finch's age definitely gives a different complexion to Daniel's relationship with Bob - the latter seems mostly shallow, but his affection for Daniel suggests a deeper attachment. There's a kind of distortion from what would probably have been a largely sexual relationship to a sort of familial one - especially later, when Daniel comes to care for the ill Bob.

I think that aspect feeds into what I think is the film's reticence towards homosexuality. It actually presents both of Bob's relationships as familial, but Alex's can still be dominantly sexual as they are the young, bohemian couple with outlandish toddlers who smoke pot in front of them. His relationship with Daniel is necessarily more privatized, and though you do get sexual moments between them (peculiarly filmed, however - Finch's face is turned away from Bob, strangely immobile), scenes such as the one where Bob stormed out of the party struck me more as the rebellious teenager fleeing the stifling domesticity of the home. The film is much more concerned with sexualising the character of Bob - I remember particularly him standing in partial darkness like a sculpture, before he moved over to Daniel on the bed - than it is with sexualising the relationships, but it nevertheless seems more in love with Glenda Jackson than it is with Peter Finch. Alex, unlike Daniel, is permitted the grace to terminate her relationship with Bob on her own terms (albeit with a lingering toucan), within the normal narrative of a heterosexual relationship. Daniel and Bob's, in contrast, hangs there, without resolution. The film gradually becomes more and more intimate with the viewpoints of Alex and Daniel, but the camera shoots Jackson with a more glowing interest than the rather sterile view it seems to take of Daniel. Could be age, could be gender, could be subconscious homophobia - but in any case, it shows what I think is probably an unintentional remnant of more conservative values.

James: Yes! That was so dead on. You verbalized exactly what I couldn't regarding my mixed feelings toward this film and, more directly, the relationship between Daniel and Bob. How are we expected to believe that Daniel and Bob are in a hot-blooded sexual relationship when the camera shies away from actually showing anything AND they act more like a father and son than lovers?

Now, can we talk about the film's depiction of bisexuality? I have a few ideas of my own, but I'm dying to hear yours first.

Dave: On face value, Bob seems like the worst image of a bisexual - demanding and receiving emotional superiority over two people because of his sexual prowess. But I don't think the film views the emotional compromises Daniel and Alex have to make - and ultimately can't cope with - to keep Bob as harshly as that. It's made crystal clear that Bob isn't remotely duplicitous, but merely refuses to prescribe to the monogamous expectation set by society. Murray Head makes Bob seem genuinely affectionate and involved with both his lovers, and even though we are identifying with they rather than he, the script still values the idea that he is a great deal more emotionally mature than either of them. It might even have counted as a revolutionary portrayal of bisexuality if the film was told from his side. As it is, he's a tad too idealized.


James: Wow, you are far kinder towards the film's view of bisexuality than I plan on being. While I appreciate the film's attempt at allowing each relationship to thrive in honesty and openness instead of deceit ("Ooh, look at that shady bisexual, cheating on that lovely girl with that old man!"), I still don't find it to be much more than a detrimental depiction of bisexuality. Believe me, I'm no great defender of bisexuality, but even I recognize the depiction of Bob's sexuality as early 70's fear of an even greater unknown than homosexuality. Of course he's in love with two people of the opposite gender at the same time. And of course he's unwilling to make a decision between them so he decides to date both of them. And of course both of his lovers accept this because he's bisexual and, hey, he can't help it. I understand it's a contrivance the film is based on, but can't we give the bisexual a little more credit?

I think it's interesting that you note that Bob is "affectionate and involved" with Daniel and Alex and a "great deal more emotional mature" than either of them, because I found the exact opposite to be true. With both Daniel and Alex, he seems disengaged emotionally. They are the ones carrying the heft of the relationship (and the film), worrying about where it is going or what will happen if and/or when he decides to leave them for the other one or if they are better off alone. Bob is the pretty blank slate who bounces around between each relationship, sticking around when things are great but the first to leave when any sign of trouble comes. He's indecisive and doesn't appear to understand or care when Daniel or Alex are hurt by the situation. "You agreed to this arrangement," is always his answer when either Daniel or Alex complains about him leaving them for the other. Frankly, I found him to be empty of any emotion whatsoever rather than more emotionally mature.

Dave: On the surface, Sunday Bloody Sunday does seem to set bisexuality in the form of spontaneous, careless youth, but I think the script and Murray Head carefully avoid making Bob as cool and disengaged as he easily could have been, and I guess that's where we're diverging on this point. Whereas on the one hand he is, I think, drawn as emotionally mature, that same matureness means he's at odds with the expectations of relationships that you, and Daniel and Alex, are pointing to. Bob has constructed his approach to people as fluid and adaptable. As it doesn't conform to a monogamous society, he consciously positions himself on the fringes. That is easily viewed as a negative trait, but I don't think the film does that. Daniel and Alex accept the situation, so Bob isn't duplicitous. In the final event, Bob does fail at complete emotional maturity because he isn't adult enough to make a decision; he wants the best of both worlds. But I don't think we should confuse that with him being villainized, nor being emotionally vacant. There were several instances, particularly later in the film, where Murray Head played Bob's visual exchanges with his lovers with a spark of genuine sexual attraction or warm affection. He may leave them rather rudely at points, but it struck me more as being direct about his unwillingness to play their games of emotional dependence. If the film does fear bisexuality, it's equally afraid of independence - and that's a trait that ultimately makes itself known in each of the characters. Bob's decision to leave was never about Daniel versus Alex, but about love versus life experience - and I don't think the film begrudges him the opportunity to explore a different avenue of his life.

It's inevitable that Sunday Bloody Sunday could be viewed as painting Bob as empty of emotion, because it doesn't tell the story from his point-of-view. But if the film really wanted to demonize bisexuality, it could have been a great deal harsher than it is. It seems odd, in a way, that we've talked about Bob, because this isn't his story. This is about two characters engaging with the relatively new idea (within wider society, at least) of bisexuality, and I don't think either Alex nor Daniel ultimately feels wronged by Bob. They were, to an extent, a society in themselves, one which was prepared to make room for a different conception of sexuality.

I'm certainly being a little too generous here, but it's basically a case of me trying to fight for a corner I think the film hangs around in just as much as it hangs around in the opposite one you're describing. Sunday Bloody Sunday isn't perfect, and is a product of the times; but then again, are we really likely to find a depiction of bisexuality these days that's much more impartial and unjudgmental as this one? This series is about homosexuality, but I think what we've teased out of Sunday Bloody Sunday, whatever side we each land on, is that it's depcition of bisexuality is at the very least fascinating rather than frightened or ridiculous.

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