The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

What’s Queer About “The Trip” ?

In film, Freud, Lacan, LGBT, Queer Theory, Sublimation on December 13, 2011 at 12:03 am

by Chase Dimock

To an American audience, I would not have to strain too desperately to prove that there is something gay about a movie featuring two British men touring gourmet restaurants in the English countryside while singing Abba and Kate Bush in the car. Yet, what’s queer about The Trip has nothing to do with any present or latent homosexuality (of which there is none in the film), but rather it is about how heterosexuality appropriates the discourse of homosexuality in order to repress or sublimate its own desires and sentiments. The increased visibility of male homosexuality in the public sphere over the past four decades via the modern gay rights movement changed the way in which heterosexual males view and speak of their relationships with one another. Centuries of male patriarchy that segregated the sexes, created legions of boys clubs among rich and poor alike, and reinforced the sexist idea that truly intellectually satisfying companionship could only come from another rational male mind suddenly became infused with a “homosexual panic”. Publicly visible homosexual emotional intimacy created the fear that others might read heterosexual emotional intimacy as sexual intimacy and thus the privileged bastions of masculinity such as the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the Friars, and every cigar club this side of Vienna eventually seemed, well…gay. In The Trip, we see a turn in the way in which heterosexual friendship navigates the looming specter of gay discourse. Departing from decades of paranoid disavowal and overwrought displays of cliché gestures of straightness that seem only to parody heterosexuality, The Trip appropriates queer discourse as the two protagonists create a running joke about homosexual desire for one another throughout the film. But, neither of them is laughing. Rather, the unabashed and unashamed references to homosexuality cover up the real intimacy that they share with one another as friends which neither one wants to declare aloud.

In The Trip, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictional versions of themselves. Coogan is hired by a newspaper to write an article about some posh country restaurants and he takes the assignment with the hope of bringing his much younger girlfriend along to show her the North of England where he grew up and to rekindle their strained relationship. When the girlfriend chooses a journalist assignment in America instead, Coogan asks his friend Brydon to come along, who becomes, as Coogan jokes, “his substitute girlfriend.” As the two journey between upscale eateries, the film stages a sharp dichotomy between the personal lives of the two friends. While Brydon is the cliché image of heterosexual domestic happiness, established through a series of calls with his wife in which he impersonates Hugh Grant, Coogan on the other hand is confronted with his failing relationship with his girlfriend, his strained, decidedly unfatherly relationship with his son, and his stalled career ambitions to become a serious, Hollywood actor. The bulk of the film consists of a series of conversations between Coogan and Brydon while eating, driving, or touring the countryside. Rather than directly addressing any of the tension building up in his personal life, Brydon engages Coogan in a perpetual game of celebrity impersonation one-ups-manship as the two of them argue over the finer points of impersonating Michael Caine, Al Pacino, or any of the other actors whose career Coogan envies. Coogan professes in his phone calls an annoyance for Brydon’s impersonations because Brydon revels in the same comedy shtick that Coogan cannot escape as an actor, yet he cannot help being pulled into Brydon’s performances and either competing with or complimenting his routines.

In his often-overlooked 1927 essay “Humour”, Freud distinguishes the concept of humor from a joke, asserting that while a joke provides a momentary, effusive release when the mind is presented suddenly with uncanny silliness, humor is more of a detached disposition toward the world around the subject:

“Like jokes and the comic, humour has something liberating about it: but it also has something of grandeur and elevation, which is lacking in the other two ways of obtaining pleasure from intellectual activity. The grandeur in it clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability. The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.” (162)

It is this quality of humor that makes Brydon’s constant impressions both irritating, yet therapeutic once Coogan engages in them. Brydon’s heterosexual bliss leaves absolutely no indication of any unhappiness, thus his humorous disposition toward the world seems almost gratuitous—he can be funny without the pain against which humor is generated. Brydon’s humor does not seem aimed at filling the Lacanian lack that drives our will to speak and create; he seems psychically whole. The film never really complicates or qualifies Brydon’s heteronormative fulfillment, and while some may read this as an unqualified valorization of heteronormativity, I believe, rather that Brydon is set up to be one polar opposite side of an unachievable ego ideal against which Coogan’s equally unachievable ideal of the serious actor is set against. Coogan blames comedy itself and being pigeonholed as a comic as the source of his unhappiness because it bars him from the serious acting roles that he thinks will bring him fulfillment and recognition. In reality though, this desire to ensconce himself as a respectable actor is a repressed desire to become respectable as a heteronormative, straight man. Coogan exclaims at one point that he would throw all of his medals in a river if it were to ensure the health of his children. When Brydon challenges the idea, asking Coogan if he would allow his child to become sick in exchange for an Academy Award, Coogan asks how serious the illness would be. Coogan’s humor here both points at yet denies the reality that he no longer knows if he would prefer success as an actor or success as a father. The image of the Hollywood star that he constructed to fulfill the lack created by his failed heteronormativity (a devoted husband and father) has superceded in priority what it was constructed compensate for and now he no longer can tell apart his desire for fame as a serious actor and his desire for love and recognition as a heterosexual man.

At first Coogan resists Brydon’s impressions, claiming that a man that goes around doing impressions all day should be examined, yet he cannot resist his impulse as a comedic actor to compete with Brydon. While the two spar as competing interpretations of Michael Caine’s voice over the course of the film, it seems as though Coogan derives an unspoken form of therapy through the exercise. Here, he is able to adopt Brydon’s humorous ego-position in mockingly adopting the voice of an actor like Caine that refuses to be distressed by the provocations of the reality that he can never become a respected serious actor like Caine. Coogan struggles to put Brydon’s impression exercises into practice. At both a luncheon with the attractive female photographer and editor of the magazine for which they work and during tea with Coogan’s parents, Coogan glares detachedly and offers cynical comments as Brydon is able to charm the company with his impressions. As a happily married man among attractive women and an outsider among someone else’s parents, Brydon feels no repressive impulse to be seen as his “authentic” self and present an ego ideal like Coogan does because Brydon has no compelling demand for love like Coogan.

While Michael Caine impressions may be the unspoken cadence through which they imply their intimate understandings of one another, the constant absurd references to homosexuality are the mechanism through which Coogan attempts to deny conscious knowledge of the vulnerability he has shown Brydon. At their first restaurant and inn, Coogan and Brydon are presented with the possibility of having to share a bed with one another because the accommodations were originally booked with the presumption of Coogan bringing his girlfriend. Sitting in the room where Coogan had hoped to repair his fractured relationship with a tour of fancy restaurants and the estates of romantic poets, he is presented with the inescapable reality of having to become “intimate” with Brydon. When Brydon asks why Coogan refuses to share a bed, Coogan replies:

Coogan: You might touch my bottom

Brydon: Alright, were you an altar boy?

Coogan, Yes, yes I was

Brydon: Seriously?

Coogan: Yes

Brydon: Alright, I’ll go on the sofa if you want, if it’s…Sorry, I didn’t realize you were

into Oprah Winfrey territory. Are you seriously saying you were abused as a

child when you were an altar boy?

Coogan: Only verbally…and physically. But not sexually, no, just punched by a priest.

Coogan has no actual anxiety about sexual activity, but he instead resents having to share a space with Brydon that was originally supposed to be the place in which he satisfies the demand for love from his girlfriend and achieve validation of his heteronormativity. When Brydon offers the sensitivity and intimacy for Coogan to confess and express his troubles that he had originally thought would be remedied by a romantic vacation, Coogan distances himself with the reference to analphobia and the altar boy quip.             Joking homophobia becomes the discourse through which a phobia of homosocial bonding is cryptically expressed.

Later, when Coogan and Brydon meet the aforementioned editor and photographer, they greet them with a standard display of hugs and side kisses on the cheeks. When Brydon goofily gestures toward doing the same to Coogan, Coogan jokes that there’s been, “none of that…heavy petting, yah, but we draw the line at penetration.” In the company of the women (including the photographer with whom he will have a one night stand) Coogan immediately casts off the sense of intimacy he has forged with Brydon and disassociates himself from Brydon’s silly joke through a humorous suggestion that they had been partially sexual intimate. By gesturing at what the public would assume to be the ultimate act of male intimacy, he hides the form of intimacy that the two actually share, which his ego ideal of seriousness cannot afford to recognize given Brydon’s silliness. Heavy petting without penetration becomes a coded reference to the real state of their friendship. He has allowed Brydon to rub off on him to mutual enjoyment, but he refuses to allow Brydon inside him, preferring people to envision Brydon inside his pants instead of inside his psyche.

The defense mechanism of denying emotional intimacy by speaking of sexual intimacy returns when Coogan explains that they have reservations to stay at a house in which the romantic poet Coleridge lived. Although Coogan had originally planned to stay the night with his girlfriend there and “make love in the same bed” that Coleridge made love in, Brydon points out that “it still could be romantic, just the two of us”, and Coogan replies that we could be “chummy, without the bum.” The double play of the word “romantic” is key here. “Romantic”, referring to Coleridge’s identification with the romantic poets, holds a certain idealized vision of a time when men of genius and adventure like Shelley and Lord Byron could pursue their desires in a world of artistry and invention and achieve jouissance, all feeding into the image of a “romantic hero”. Coogan’s hope was to achieve this ego ideal of the Byronic, romantic hero through physical romance with a woman in order to validate his dynamic heterosexuality in Coleridge’s bed. Without the woman as the vessel to achieve his ego-ideals through, he is left with his “bumless chum” whose reference to the impossibility of their own sexual congress both gestures toward the silliness of Coogan’s initial ambition and suggests that he could provide the dynamic male friendship that men of the romantic era shared. “Bumless chums” is perhaps Coogan’s first cryptic, spoken signification of an affinity for Brydon. Brydon, in turn, is willing to meet Coogan halfway between Coogan’s polarized ideals of the comic and the serious actor as he indulges Coogan’s interest in romantic poetry and tours Coleridge and Woodworth’s abodes with him.

Coogan sleeps alone in Coleridge’s bed and has a dream far different from Coleridge’s famous dream state visions of Kublai Khan and Xanadu. Coogan dreams that he meets a man who requests his autograph at a newsstand. As he signs a picture of his Alan Partridge character (a sort of British equivalent of Ron Burgundy from Anchorman), the autograph seeker asks if the things said about him are true, including his reputation for being a “cunt”. When Coogan claims that whoever said that doesn’t know him well, the man then reveals the day’s newspaper headline declaring, “Coogan is a Cunt Says Dad”. A Freudian could obviously have a field day with a man dreaming that his father is calling him a vulgar term for the female anatomy, but I am going to resist the urge to fill another 15 pages and instead tie this back to the relationship between the ego and super-ego that produces humor. As we know, the ego manages the ideal sense of self one wishes to project while the super-ego is the law of the father, the voice of repression, inhibition, and submission to the values and expectations of society. Freud speculates that perhaps in the act of humor, the super-ego performs an act uncharacteristic to its reputation as a “severe master”. It possibly “tries by means of humor to console the ego and protect it from suffering”, which he adds “does not contradict its origin in the parental agency.” (166) In short, Freud postulates that while the super-ego demands strict adherence to the social order, in order to protect the subject and civilization from rebellion, the super-ego may offer humor as a consolation to the ego saying, “civilized life may be strict and cause unhappiness, but at least you can make fun of it so long as you don’t act on its cynical observations.”  In Coogan’s dream, the superego unleashes itself and through the regulatory voice of both the father and the media, calls attention to Coogan’s misery and the miserable self he has created for himself with the aid of humor. It is at that moment that Coogan’s unconscious stages an intervention in the form of the dream and stresses the need to return to humor and his roots as a comedian because he will only continue to make himself miserable trying to achieve the impossible cosmic fulfillment and jouissance as a serious actor.

Around this point in the film, Coogan seems more open, in a completely unspoken way, to Brydon’s successful formula for happiness and tries in secret to emulate it even though he cannot put it into practice in personal matters. The director juxtaposes a scene of Brydon alone in his hotel room impersonating Hugh Grant asking for phone sex on the phone with his wife while Coogan sits in front of the mirror in his own room attempting to replicate Brydon’s signature comedy routine “Man trapped in a box”. Earlier in the day, Brydon’s celebrity status and ability to delight a stubborn museum curator with the act granted them access to tour Coleridge’s cottage after-hours. Because it was Brydon’s complete “unseriousness” that gained them access to the very “serious” space of romantic poetry, Coogan becomes progressively reacquainted with how humor works as a social currency. If it is the law of the father as the voice of the super-ego that we are psychically inclined to obey so as to recognize the validity of our ego ideals and it is the super-ego that has given us humor to console the base unhappiness of repressed drives in society, then we actually must give the law of the father humor in order for our ego ideal to be taken seriously. Coogan nonetheless still partially resists this as his polarized sense of humor and seriousness comes to a head when they visit Bolton’s Abbey, made famous by William Wordsworth’s poem. Brydon takes the time to memorize and recite it for Coogan, but he chooses to speak it in an imitation of Ian McKellan’s voice. Brydon has intimate knowledge of the poem Coogan loves, and speaks it in the voice of a the type of serious actor he aspire to be, yet, because the act fails to be “authentic”, in which Brydon would really be the pure form of the romantic and not its imitation, the gesture disgusts Coogan.

Inspired by the graveyard setting of the abbey, Brydon challenges Coogan to recite a eulogy for his funeral:

“Rob was an interesting guy…very funny, very entertaining, and…and yet at the same time there was something…although he made me laugh and made us all laugh, I think, there was something about him that was…lost. Something about him that seemed…unable to, to confront the reality of life. And so, when I think of Rob, I think of him with both a smile at some of the funny, pithy one-liners he would come out with on Radio 4 panel shows, but also for the man inside, because behind every little, pithy, vaguely amusing joke is a cry for help… But of course, let’s not remember a man who was lost, desperately trying to legitimize his life by doing silly voices constantly and not confronting the truth. Let’s remember the other side of Rob…the entertainer. The Rob Brydon who gave some levity…Yes. To our life and helped us avoid confronting the harsh realities and helped us avoid looking at the brutal reality of what life is.”

It is through doing an impersonation of himself giving Brydon’s eulogy that he can speak aloud his own fear of becoming essentialized as a comedian. In this existential moment of burying Brydon’s corpse as the embodiment of his own fear, Coogan confronts what Sartre would term his “bad faith”—the fear of an essentialized identity that could constrain us to its stereotypes that causes us to absurdly deny what we in fact are. Although Coogan never vocalizes this realization, it is perhaps implied to some degree at the end of the movie when he turns down the opportunity to star in an HBO series in America (the very type of role that could launch him to Hollywood stardom) to presumably stay in England and salvage his personal affairs. Yet, after he awkwardly hugs Brydon at the end of their trip and rolls up his window as Brydon says goodbye, we are left to wonder to what degree will he actually employ this newfound self-knowledge. The call to turn down the HBO series is the first step, but, given the fact that he still refuses the gestures of intimacy that Brydon offers, it can be inferred that Coogan will nonetheless strive toward an unachievable ego-ideal of psychic wholeness and jouissance as the camera leaves us with Coogan peering out his apartment window at the London skyline, swaddled in melancholia. The Trip, perhaps, leaves us with one of the truths of psychoanalytic inquiry—that knowledge of one’s problems and the unachievable nature of desire does not relieve us of desire or present us with any path toward a cure. Instead, when fulfillment is impossible and jouissance a distant ideal, we medicate our shortcomings with a denial of the world itself, a practice best honed through the discipline of humor.

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