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DVD Review: Sunday Bloody Sunday (The Criterion Collection)

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Midnight Cowboy (1969) holds the distinction of being the first Academy Award winning Best Picture in history to be rated X. It was obviously a completely different era, and an X rating had not yet become synonymous with porn. Today, Midnight Cowboy would be an R, and not even a particularly “hard” R. It is an excellent film however, and a character study of two down of their luck men in New York City (Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman) that still resonates. Director John Schlesinger’s follow-up to Midnight Cowboy was Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). Although the subject matter of Sunday Bloody Sunday is very different than Cowboy, it, too, is a poignant character study.

Before discussing the movie itself though, I think it is important to address the title. Coming off the success of Midnight Cowboy, Schlesinger was in a position of power, and (I believe) mistakenly used it to insist on calling his film Sunday Bloody Sunday. Only those in the U.K. (where the action takes place) would understand it. Here in the U.S., calling it Sunday Bloody Sunday is misleading. Like it or not, the words have violent connotations.

As explained in the essay included in the new Criterion Collection edition of Sunday Bloody Sunday, the word “bloody” is English slang referring to something unpleasant, even boring. “Another Damned Sunday” may not be catchy, but it is much closer to what the movie is about.

The film was a very personal project for John Schlesinger, as it is considered his way of “coming out.” While I do not mean to imply that full equality has been achieved for gays, things have improved quite a bit since 1971. When Sunday Bloody Sunday was first screened, the presentation of a bisexual man carrying on simultaneous affairs with a man and a woman was provocative. What was considered revolutionary though was the way that male-male love and affection was presented. For the first time, the sight of two men romantically attached was presented as nothing special.

This is what I believe to have been the major impact of Sunday Bloody Sunday. And, I guess it says something about our growth as a society that a great deal of the “power” these scenes once held has evaporated. Seeing two men kiss in 2012 is not shocking. Homophobes may not like it, but that is their problem. As frustrated as I get with the juvenile nature of the “culture wars,” the fact that this material is no longer shocking does indicate some growth.

So, besides Schlesinger’s courageous willingness to present two men in an openly affectionate relationship, what else does Sunday Bloody Sunday have to offer? As reluctant as I am to say it, this is one selection of the Criterion Collection which I found to be fairly lackluster. Remove the historical importance, and what we are left with is a relatively straightforward love triangle.

Bob Elkin (Murray Head) is an attractive young man who is juggling affairs with a young woman by the name of Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), and an older Jewish doctor, Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). The film is something of a period piece, with the sculptor Elkin representing the Boomers as unfocused, and self-involved.

The motivations of the two older characters are much more poignant. In the case of Alex Greville, her relationship with Bob is symptomatic of a midlife crisis. Her marriage has ended, and she is haunted by memories of an uncomfortable childhood. In the case of the upper middle class Doctor Hirsh, the situation is even more confusing. His homosexuality seems to be an escape from his Jewish upbringing. Yet the script is very sympathetic. He is never presented in anything less than a positive light, which again was unusual for the era.

Besides their relationships with Elkin, what Greville and Hirsh both share is a knowledge that the whole situation is temporary. Nobody really knows how it will end, but almost from the very beginning we realize the scenario will not last. It does not come as much of a surprise when Elkin decides to leave England. It is a very natural resolution, as it is clearly time for all to move on with their lives.

The quiet desperation of the three characters is quite a departure from Midnight Cowboy, although there are similar themes. The “outsider” status of each (to varying degrees) is the biggest common ground. The “armchair psychology” (if you will) of Ian Buruma’s essay in regards to Schlesinger’s homosexuality, and how it relates to the film an intriguing inclusion in the booklet. I also found the reprint of the introduction to the publication of the script, “Making Sunday Bloody Sunday” by screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt to offer valid insights.

The majority of the DVD’s special features are interviews. These include three that were done in 2012 for this Criterion Collection release, which feature author William J. Mann (23 minutes), production designer Luciana Aright (nine minutes), and Schlesinger’s partner, photographer Michael Childers (seven minutes). It is John Schlesinger’s own words, from a 1975 American Film Institute seminar (13 minutes) that I found the most informative. His take on the state of filmmaking remains fascinating even all these years later.

Although the scenario is somewhat muted, Sunday Bloody Sunday is storytelling done at a very high level. Although the controversy it once engendered is not nearly as overwhelming as it was in 1971, it remains a powerful film. It was also a very courageous act by a director who was never afraid to express himself, no matter what the expectations of “conventional” society may have been.

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