Monday, January 07, 2008

The Brits abroad: Sexy Beast

In Jonathan Glazier’s superlative “Sexy Beast” Spain is the state of mind to which it’s central character, ex-East End bad-boy Gal Dove has yet to fully accede. The brilliance of the piece lies in the indivisibility of its different realms: Spain and England are both real places within the film and also aspects of Gal’s psyche, just as Don Logan is both a real figure and also a manifestation of everything within Gal that must be overcome in order that he be liberated fully and finally into the world of pleasure and away from Englishness’ destructive demands.

Spain versus England.

By the time we get round to Sexy Beast, eight years further along from the dark night of Naked, England has simply become a place to escape from, the Kingdom of Doom to which you only return under pain of death.

Sexy Beast’s colour-saturated Spain and Gal’s intense, erotic engagement with heat and light captures a very real English obsession with southern Spain and the Med as an enchanted realm where people really live, far from the damp and the grey, the oppressive social strictures and isolating, cramped family structures of the stoical, hedged English-way-of-death. A warm, emotive, physically expressive, unrestrained Zone of rich libidinal and affective outpouring. This is where Gal has chosen to live, in his villa, with his lovely wife Dee-Dee, his surrogate Spanish son, his extended family of Aitch and Jackie. As the film starts Gal lies raw, pink and sensitised to the sun now the armour of everyday English life has been pried off at last. There is an early conflating of both Spain and the love that Gal has found with Dee-Dee during Gal’s famed monologue on England:

The first part runs over a series of shots of Gal and his friends enjoying a barbecue:

" People say, "Don't you miss it, Gal?" I say, "What? England? Nah, fuckin' place. It's a dump. Don't make me laugh. Grey, grimy, sooty. What a shithole. What a toilet. Every cunt with a long face, shufflin' about, moanin' or worried. No thanks, not for me."
The second part, over a shot of Gal blowing a heart-shaped smoke ring toward Dee-Dee, then floating above the dark sierras with her in a passionate embrace:
"They say, "What's it like, then? Spain." And I'll say, "It's hot. Hot. Oh, it's fuckin' hot. "Too hot?" "Not for me. I love it." "
There is a direct association of Spain, heat, Dee-Dee. The implication is that (and we assume that Gal’s imaginary interlocutor is English) while “Spain” might be too hot for some, that the intensity of pleasure and fulfillment that the satisfactions of a deep love bring may overwhelm or be unattainable to certain narrow English sensibilities, Gal is able to live with it.
The Proles.
In the hands of a less skillful, less subtle director it would be easy for Sexy Beast’s central characters to be grotesques, a little more distance on them, a little more pandering to middlebrow expectations, a touch more irony in the presentation and Gal, Jackie, Dee-Dee and Aitch with their gold rings, tans, beerguts, sangria and paella could easily be caricatures.
At the start of the film the tone is a little uncertain, the title sequence, soundtracked by the Strangler’s vulgarian anthem “Peaches”, with its freeze frame shot of Winstone's crotch and prodigious gut sets up precisely those expectations, only to gradually undermine them. Glazier does this brilliantly, not by rendering his character as sympathetic by appealing to our prejudices and sensibilities but by maintaining fidelity to theirs. The monologue sequence above, rendered largely in the non-realist language of advertising, (indeed one of Sexy Beast's most marked qualities is its skillful interplay of the realist and hyperreal) with its sausages on the Costa-del-crime and a swimming pool with two interlocked hearts may offend bourgoise taste, but for Gal and Dee-Dee it is the stuff-of-dreams and Glazier renders it as such without irony. Whereas someone like Mike Leigh is incapable of depicting, or indeed imagining, the rituals and ambitions of the proles without pathos, it’s this affirmation of his characters' inner lives, a siding with the characters against (a certain section of) the audience that is a part of Sexy Beast’s sly subversion.

Gal Dove.

Gal Dove’s happiness is shattered by the arrival of his old partner in crime, Don Logan. His arrival (and the underwater tunneling job Gal is later forced to go through with) are foreshadowed in the film by a boulder crashing into Gal’s swimming pool, narrowly missing him and cracking the link between the two interlocked hearts picked out in tiles on the floor of the pool.

The symbolism is obvious, even laboured, but immediately Sexy Beast's refusal to adopt one of the standard tropes of Post-modern cinema, the it’s-all-in-the heroe's-mind non-revelation is evident. The boulder that narrowly misses Gal’s head is both an event in his psyche and a real occurrence within the character’s world. Whereas in Fight Club, for example, Tyler Durden, as Edward Norton’s ego ideal, doesn’t actually exist, for Glazier, quite rightly, the people we know, the people to whom we cleave do become part of us and do function as agents in the psyche, hence Don, when he finally arrives is both real and a part of Gal's mind. He can’t simply be rendered as fantasmatic, the battle we have in our heads is with concrete figures whose discourse we’ve incorporated and who function as a variety of psychological equivalencies, ie Don is both symbolically Gal’s superego and also the person who stands as a superego agent within Gal’s social field.

“Fight Club’s’’ more solipsistic take partially denies this, Tyler Durden is something that comes up from within, parasitical on desire, a form of false-conciousness that must be battled with alone in isolation, the veil of illusion must be torn away, whereas Sexy Beast insists on the interplay between concrete social actors and the internal world of symbolization and discourse. In standard American pomo, reality is dependent on what happens in your head, you create it. But in Sexy Beast’s more materialist take what happens in your head is dependant on the world around you. You are the people you know, you are the place you come from.


Whereas Ed Norton finally has to literally try and kill the other in his head before he can be brought on to love, with Sexy Beast’s more dialogic, materialist take, the death of Don Logan is a collaborative effort. Each member of the group has a reason to despise Don but above and beyond this, with Gal partly incapacitated, his friends must take on a role in helping him overcome and destroy Don Logan ( even the Spanish boy who helps out attempts it, but it’s finally Dee-Dee who manages to pull the trigger.) A kind of group therapy, an act of love on Gal’s behalf.

Don Logan. “ I won’t let you be happy, why should I?”

Don’s doubleness is emphasised at the film’s end, dead and buried beneath the restored hearts at the bottom of the pool he nonetheless maintains an immaterial half-life, still talking to Gal, who now, within his own mind, has finally overcome him and is capable of telling him to shut up, much to Don’s disgruntlement.

Don, like Withnail, like Johnny, is, in his own way, a master of language, but while the others are masters of soliloquy, endlessly playing to an invisible gallery, Don’s mastery is primarily over the language of others, alive to every nuance and inflection in their speech, the faintest hint of an insult or a refusal, the smallest of “ insinuendos”.

"Look, Don...

Look, Don?

It's like this.

Like what?

I'm... retired.

Are ya?

'Fraid so. I haven't... not got lots of money. I got enough. I'd do anything not to offend you, but I can't take part. I'm not really up to it.

Not up to it?

No, I'm not.

I see.

I'd be useless.


I would be.

In what way?

In every fuckin' way.

Why are you swearin'? I'm not swearin' "


"What's that mean?-


That stupid nodding you're doing. Is this a fuck-off, Gal?

No, course not.

Are you saying no?


Is that what you're saying?

Not exactly.

What are you saying?

I'm just saying... Thanks and all that, thanks for thinking of me, but I've got to turn this opportunity down.

No, you've got to turn this opportunity yes.

I'm not match fit.

You seem all right to me.

Not really.

You look fine.

Do the job.


Do the job.

No, Don.




I can't.


I can't.

Don't do this.

Do what? What am I doin'?!


This? This what?"

It’s not only Don’s tensed alertness to Gal’s speech that’s frightening, it’s also the jackknifing instability of his own discourse. Both cajoling and punishing, consoling and caustic by turns there is no solid ground with Don, no predictable syntactic chains that allow for a proper presentation of your own discourse, Not only this, but the wild imagistic absurdity and playground name-calling combined with absurd malapropisms throws both Gal and the audience into a kind of freefall, half terrifying, half thrilling.

"Talk to me, Gal. I'm here for you. I'm a good listener.

What can I say? I've said it all. I'm retired.

Shut up! Cunt. You louse. You got some fuckin' neck. Retired? Fuck off, you're revolting.

Your fuckin' suntan, you're like leather. Like a leather man. You could make a fuckin' suitcase. You look like a fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fuckin' Idi Amin.

State of you. You should be ashamed of yourself. Who d'you think you are?

King of the castle? Cock of the walk? "

Finest of all is Don’s threat to Aitch, a hilariously inventive and disturbing crescendo of twisted, playground poetics.

"You fucking Dr White honkin' jam-rag fucking spunk-bubble!

You keep lookin' at me, I'll put you in the fucking ground"

The rabbit

Don isn’t alone in his cave under the swimming pool of course, he’s also joined by the movie's symbol of death (drive), something that’s best summed up by the term Giant Death Rabbit. The Rabbit menaces Gal in a dream sequence, and in his later meeting with crime kingpin Teddy Bass the sequence is partially replayed, reintegrating it from the imaginary realm into the film's real-world frame brilliantly. In an early sequence both Aitch and Gal’s surrogate son fail to kill the rabbits they are hunting due to problems with their guns, and soon the Rabbit has returned in monstrous form to symbolize the world that Gal has left behind. The world of crime and its transgressive delights. Don Logan knows who Gal really is, what drives animate him.

“It's not about money with us, is it? It's the charge, the bolt, the buzz. The sheer fuck-offness, right?”


Glazier’s camera tunnels through surfaces, through barriers and walls, through character's heads, just as Gal himself must dig and tunnel, bury and wall up, submerge himself and work away in order to return to Spain and live there fully.

Gal’s early inspection of the boulder and his emerging from the pool to find Dee-Dee waiting is echoed later in his being dragged up out of the bath into Teddy Bass’s smoking underworld. England is an infernal realm, the realm of the Id and the drives, the realm of death, over which the satanic Teddy Bass ( “Mr Black Magic himself”) presides, and of which Don Logan is merely a minion.

There’s a wormhole beneath the London streets that leads the viewer back to Spain, to the moment of Don’s murder, fixing his interment and the refilling of the pool to the breakthrough into the vault that brings an end to Gal’s commitment to Teddy Bass. He gets a desultory fiver and at last he can return.

The Brits abroad.

Several years ago I had a conversation with the guy who used to cut my hair about his holiday cottage just outside Vallencia. “ They have a better idea of how to live than we do, don’t they,” he said wistfully. I started to go for a "well-its-all-relative" response but after a few seconds I just shrugged and nodded.

“Could you keep your head still please,” he asked me.


parodijski center said...

Another astonishing masterpiece of film reviewing for you, Carl. About time you started on a review book, dealing with the British encounter with Spanish culture.

Glazer's second feature, BIRTH, was impressive for me, despite tepid reviews and the lurid accusation that he's ''copying Kubrick''. It was the only role for which Nicole Kidman was ever perfect, and it made me think deeply about portals, vessels, Deleuze, the Affect. Those portals you mention in the review are the focal subject of BIRTH.

ktismatics said...

The dialogue between Gal and Don sounds like a perverse analysis session, where Don the analyst really is channeling the Big Other who definitely does exist.