Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.
The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset , and Before Midnight ), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.
It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.
As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.
They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:
But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.
Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.
Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.
Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,
there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.
Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.
A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.
Both sets of films have prompted caricature: