music friday: sixties pop
what i watched last week

blu-ray series #14: sunday bloody sunday (john schlesinger, 1971)

There are a handful of movies that have particular resonance with me because I saw them around the time I became a film major and started wondering what kind of movies I would make. Sunday Bloody Sunday was one of my inspirations. I liked the matter-of-fact presentation of ordinary lives (“ordinary” in this case defined as “English white middle-class”). There were very few moments when the movie erupted emotionally, and only one scene, involving a dog of course, that went for sensationalism (even that scene involved an event that was quickly forgotten by the characters). Glenda Jackson was the perfect actor for a movie like this … her acting often suggests an intelligent woman, a bit harsh, able to be in control. Peter Finch matches her … now he’s remembered best as Howard Beale in Network, but he was always capable of playing characters like Jackson’s, smart, inward, controlled. Both were nominated for Oscars (as was Schlesinger, and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt, a film critic whose only screenplay was this one … the movie did not actually win any Oscars).

In 2014, it comes across as fairly blasé about homosexuality. Murray Head (Giles’ older brother!) played a young man having simultaneous affairs with the characters played by Jackson and Finch. The blasé response we have today comes partly because we’re used to the subject by now, but also because Sunday Bloody Sunday is so low-key, about homosexuality, about everything. Head’s character, an artist, is more carefree than his lovers, but the film follows the lead of Jackson and Finch … nothing jumps off the screen. This isn’t Midnight Cowboy. So Finch, a doctor, is mildly but not completely closeted, he and Jackson’s Alex know about each other although they don’t meet until the end of the movie, and it is simply never an issue that Finch/Head is a gay relationship while Jackson/Head is straight.

Watching it again after all these years, I was struck by how unnatural much of it seemed, compared to my memory that it was a film worth emulating because of its ordinariness. Schlesinger’s direction clamps down on emotions, and that’s noticeable. Glenda Jackson in particular is always clearly acting … she’s very good at it, but she isn’t a “natural” actress. And there’s a leftist-hippie family that has a bunch of unruly kids that are supposed to be charming in a rowdy way … they smoke pot (they are too young to do so) and when called on it, accuse the questioner of being “bourgeois”. In other words, they aren’t really like any family you’ve known in real life.

All of which is to say there is a lot of artifice in Sunday Bloody Sunday, and it’s amazing I hadn’t noticed that before.

Still, a case can be made that the first movie I ever made was influenced stylistically by what I thought was going on here. That movie told a straightforward story of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads, and until the final scene, it was slice-of-life all the way.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cool trivia about the movie. I already noted that Murray Head is the older brother of Anthony Stewart Head, who was a regular on Buffy. Even better, Sunday Bloody Sunday marked the screen debut of Daniel Day-Lewis, who was 14 at the time and was paid two pounds for the uncredited part of “child vandal”. I knew it was coming, and I still couldn’t spot him.

This is far and away my favorite John Schlesinger film … in fact, it’s the only one I’ve seen that I actually liked. 9/10. For a companion film, I recommend the 2001 Australian movie, Lantana.

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