Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sunday Bloody Sunday: A Review

Film in the early 1970's explored taboo areas regarding sexuality and relationships. This is the same era where, in celluloid, a bored housewife overburdened by child rearing and an overgrown, social climbing boy of a husband engaged in a retaliatory affair with a sadistic novelist (Diary of a Mad Housewife). A year or so later, director John Schlesinger directed a daring movie which, though it has dated somewhat with the years, still says much about who we are today. Interestingly enough, it was brought to life by a male and female screenwriting team of Penelope Gilliatt and David Sherwin, the latter talent being best known for his work with film and stage director Lindsay Anderson. Both Gilliatt and Sherwin were prominent contributors to the British New Wave and frequented similar social circles.

The basic premise of Sunday Bloody Sunday is compelling and thought-provoking even today. A young bisexual abstract sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head) carries on two simultaneous relationships. One is with a middle-aged, divorced employment agency worker by the name of Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) and the other is with a much older man, a gay Jewish doctor, Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). Both of these participants in this love triangle are well aware that they are not having an exclusive relationship with him, but have resigned themselves to the fact that something is better than nothing at all. Bob Elkin, the sculptor, floats freely back and forth between the two of them, often creating jealousy and hurt feelings in its wake. Both lovers desire his exclusive attention and neither achieves it, though they display their frustration and cope with it in different ways.

Elkin, though a cheerful and convivial soul, can be insensitive at times and is consumed mostly with making a name for himself and with it lots of money. He has but recently started putting a pound (or dollar) sign in front of his artistic creations, at the expense of almost everything else. While not an unsympathetic character, he does nonetheless appear selfish and disinclined to soothe frayed nerves when the need for it arrives. By contrast, both of his lovers reveal serious character flaws throughout the course of the film, but no more so than the average person. One has no trouble relating to them. They appear wholly human and one sympathizes with their plight. It should also be noted that both are lost in a kind of existential crisis of their own making, knowing that there is something looming and substantial in their lives that they do not have, while unsure of how to achieve it.

The doctor is a genuinely warm, almost Grandfatherly sort of person, whose devotion to his patients is beyond reproach. Yet, he can't seem to gather the courage to reveal his sexual orientation to his emotionally remote, patrician, high-achieving family. One of the most revealing scenes in the film shows Dr. Hirsh visiting the Bar Mitzvah of his nephew, where he is derided by his mother as supremely selfish for not having married yet. "I just haven't met the right person yet," he wearily announces, with a shrug of the shoulders. After the ceremony, a well-meaning, but heavy-handed relative decides to play matchmaker, and while he politely carries on small talk with his chosen date, he nonetheless shows no interest in her. The doctor's convivial warmth of personality sets him apart from a very bourgeoisie and emotionally-repressed audience, one which he knows he must associate with from time to time, but not a bit more than necessary.

Alex Greville's internal struggles are quite different, in some respects, but not in others. Her divorce is recent enough that it is still a topic of conversation, but it's also evident that she's long since moved on from it. However, the aftermath has produced at least one unresolved complication, namely that she's begun to seriously second-guess herself as to what she really wants from a partner. We're never told how she met Elkin, the artist, but one can tell that she entered into it with the notion that enough's as good as a feast. Her father, as we are shown in flashbacks to the past and in real time, is an incurable workaholic who has always put his family in a distant second place.

In some regards, her relationship with the young sculptor reflects this same dynamic. As for her mother's take on her daughter's conflict, she is told that she ought not to expect too much and should instead deal with what she has. "After all, I left your father once", she says. The mother expresses the same exasperation felt by all who are relegated to the sidelines by a partner for whom career comes first, but she has notably developed some kind of stoic resolve to contend with the loneliness and the resentment.

Bob Elkin is a difficult character to read. We're never truly privy to his internal agony. He is not an unlikable character, but despite his cheerful veneer, we do see a person who is nakedly ambitious and unwilling to let a quibbling thing like a relationship (or two) get in the way. What we do see is a frequent habit of abruptly bailing on one lover to visit another, a tactic probably adopted to prevent him from unduly favoring one over the other. It's also likely a response to each partner's unintentional, but nevertheless plain desire to have him only to himself/herself. Elkin wishes to preserve what he has, but knows instinctively that he'll find himself choosing sides if he isn't careful. In those days, no one would have been familiar with non-monogamous concepts like polyamory, so accordingly each active player in this drama wants exclusivity, even Elkin to some extent. When Greville, disappointed in her lover's behavior, takes another man home with her, the artist shows jealousy, though he tries to hide it.

The greater message of Sunday Bloody Sunday has less to do about relationships or romance than the question of loss and desire. Each major character in the film slowly realizes that the old adage that anything is better than nothing isn't always the case. It's neither selfish, nor unjustified, we're told, to desire complete unconditional love, instead of a half-measure. We're often told that relationships are based on compromise, which is true. However, neither should one compromise one's basic emotional needs by having to contend with someone else's timetable other than our own. All characters experience the pain of separation and recognize by the end that what they are getting out of the deal is wholly insufficient and unsatisfying. The film's conclusion does not provide much in the way of resolution or emotional satisfaction, but the questions it raises are worthy ones.

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