Tag Archives: Steve Coogan

“I want all the things”: Freedom is a Problem in Girls

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“Do you like the poster?” Shoshanna asks Jessa, gesturing to a slightly obscured image featuring the principle cast of Sex and the City. Jessa reveals that she has never seen any form of SatC, an act which Shoshanna likens to “not being on Facebook”. “I’m not on Facebook,” Jessa replies.

As innovative and original as it is, the pilot of Girls sets the tone of a series that revisits social norms established in texts that have come before it. As the above sequence will attest, HBO’s focus can be more self-involved than outward-looking. Shoshanna aspires to be as free as the women in Sex and the City, yet Jessa finds solace in a spirituality that deems Shoshanna’s desires unworthy of any empathy. It’s freedom versus freedom.

A shot early in episode three shows Jessa looking utterly uncomfortable in Shoshanna’s clothes. What else could be a geographical barrier between them but an out-of-focus Sex and the City poster?

A shot early in episode three shows Jessa looking utterly uncomfortable in Shoshanna’s clothes. What else could be a geographical barrier between them but an out-of-focus Sex and the City poster?

In saying this, it was tempting to discuss how the show reflects the self-involved values and lifestyle of its creator and leading lady, Lena Dunham, but then that’s nothing I didn’t really look at with Steve Coogan last week.

But the topic of this week’s analysis does consider this idea – in its universally applicable standing within modern first-world communities.

Girls consciously plays up to its female protagonists, demonstrating just how different circumstances are between its world and that in Sex and the City. The most central figure of Girls does evoke Carrie Bradshaw, in that Hannah is following a writer’s aspirations, but it’s what Hannah fails to write that becomes the emphasis throughout the series. Sexual autonomy is a badge proudly worn by SatC’s Samantha Jones. But STIs, an abortion story-arc, and an innumerable amount of awkward sex scenes in Girls seem to attest to a reality not nearly as idyllic as the one Carrie’s crew would have us believe in. Yet HBO aren’t necessarily rectifying SatC’s claims to 21st-century living in America. The cultural landscapes are the same in Sex and the City and Girls, but the characters in the latter are struggling in their environment. Freedom is as ubiquitous as ever, the girls in Girls just don’t know what the fuck to do with it.
 
 
What You Don’t Own
Hannah is struggling to pay it. Her best friend, Marnie, says it’s the reason she moved to New York. Girls is saturated with references to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘it’ is RENT.

RENT was a display of artistic individuals who had their creative expression limited by financial constraints and the mortal shadow of HIV/AIDS. If RENT showed a fight for freedom, then Sex and the City and Girls show the spoils of the people’s victory. But for the characters in Girls, freedom seems an overwhelming responsibility to handle.

“I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘this is how the rest of your life should look'”
– Marnie Michaels, one of the four protagonists in Girls, played by Allison Williams

For Hannah and friends, the next best thing to do in the face of their inability to deal with freedom is to pretend that they, like the vagrants of RENT, are in a serious struggle to claim it.

At the conclusion of episode two (the aptly named ‘Vagina Panic’), Hannah is being tested for STDs by her gynaecologist when she claims the following:

“Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is… wanting AIDS.”

Aside from being a terrible thing to say, Hannah’s suggestion is, in the grander scheme of things, a plead to be faced with a real obstacle – she hopes that it will give her resolve or inspiration to write or, at the very least, a real excuse to flail in freedom. Writer’s block, becoming financially cut off from your parents, and everyday relationship problems, are Hannah’s menial issues that don’t lend themselves to advancing in any particular social or career direction.

But above all else, what Hannah spoke aloud was downright abhorrent, and the gynaecologist rightfully pulls her up on it. AIDS is suddenly discussed with the serious tone that it deserves, and we are reminded that Hannah’s head-space is constantly segregating her from others. This is an instance of Hannah’s absurd self-indulgence at its worst, and her life can only deteriorate for it.

girls-weirdos-need-girlfriends-too_article_story_mainBut it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to RENT’s representation in Girls. One of the most lasting sequences in the series comes at the end of ‘Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too’, an episode that has seen Hannah’s boyfriend, Adam, suffer a burden to his creative expression at the hands of a pretty awful performer in their two-man theatre act. Despite his collaborator’s shortcomings, the whole production is completely aborted due to Adam’s temperament. By the episode’s conclusion, Adam means to make amends for his lack of care unto others, manifested in his epic display of apology to a driver he verbally blasted. At the street where he encountered the driver, Adam makes a ‘SORRY’ placard feature wall. Adam’s sublime creative expression, rendered in a RENT-like font, and meticulously composited embrace with Hannah, is a perfect unity of the bohemian values of freedom and love. But though Adam reveals his greatest potential for compassion and creativity yet, he is clinging to an unlikely chance that his victim will see and interpret his message of goodwill. Never before has there been a greater hope for redemption for one of the most self-imposed down-and-outers of Girls. It’s just a question of whether or not Adam will, like those around him, sacrifice too much along the way.
 
 
The American Dream
The season two finale of Girls sees romantically linked characters haphazardly reconcile with one another following conflicts established in its premiere season. One might think of this as an idyllic close to a fairly tumultuous set of events, but beneath the surface lies a tough reality to face. For starters, any conceived notion that the finale could be an elaborate dream is shattered with Shoshanna and Ray’s relationship coming to a grinding halt. The reunions of Hannah and Adam, as well as Marnie and Charlie, are a false ending. That’s not to say the craft of the show’s creators is poor. It’s anything but that when you consider these relationships as case studies in what happens when estranged yet lonely souls reach out to one another.

Marnie returned to Charlie upon learning of his successful sale of an iPhone app. As her lifelong aspiration to sing, and attraction to Booth Jonathan demonstrated, it’s career success that drives Marnie, and she’ll realise such ambitions vicariously if she has to.

Hannah and Adam reconnect at a time when both parties are in vulnerable states. Their intentions within the relationship become sporadic to the point that the relationship can’t settle down in the metaphorical or traditional sense of the phrase.

Still not convinced that Girls has a pessimistic outlook of its characters? Just look at Hannah, who has advanced no further than when we first met her. She’s blown every writing opportunity that has come her way and finds herself literally in the arms of the man she was attached to at the beginning of the series, without having really resolved what had separated them in the first place. What can be positively said of a girl who has experienced so much potential to develop and yet finds herself at square one?

Methinks we're looking at a consciously constructed cliché. This kind of look is just too good to last.

Methinks we’re looking at a consciously constructed cliché. This kind of look is just too good to last.

‘Together’ is a blunt season finale title to describe the circumstances that the characters of Girls find themselves in. There are physical bindings between people, but their self-infatuation often outweighs their love for their companions. The phrase ‘love conquers all’ traditionally refers to the notion that one’s love for another can overcome any obstacle. But in a world where achieving anything seems more possible than ever before, one can bear love for something (or, in other words, themselves), and such a love can come to conquer the things that, down the track, might be of greater importance than anything else in life.

HOUSEKEEPING EDIT: Music analyst Fletcher would like me to mention that I failed to mention him in my post two weeks ago. I’d like to mention that I didn’t mention Fletch because I wasn’t sure when to expect his first post. Welcome aboard, Fletch, you silly ass. Also, each of the contributors will take turns in having a week off from blogging; starting with me next week. See y’all next month.

“A long, hard look in the mirror”: Flaunting One’s Flaws in The Trip

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I’ve been turned off television shows for one reason or another. But nothing grinds my gears more than certain annoying, misbehaving or morally corrupt protagonists who survive by their own self-righteousness (I say certain here because there are some anti-heroes out there who find justifiable means to hang around for the full length of a series). I’d name names but this blog steers away from such criticism, so that I don’t shoot down major projects of television networks that I might one day work for.

With Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, I think Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are toying with my natural response to an arsehole protagonist. There’s a malleable awareness afforded by the program’s pseudo-documentary nature: every element of its structure can cut right to the core of Coogan’s deepest insecurities. Watching The Trip, I quickly realised that the program wasn’t trying to simply broadcast Coogan’s detestable qualities – it was trying to look at why they were there in the first place.

Steve rejects Rob's offer to saw the BAFTA statue in half.

Steve rejected Rob’s suggestion to saw the BAFTA statue in half.

Steve Coogan is Steve Coogan
The plot, locations and cast performances seem real enough to suggest that we are watching actual life unfold in The Trip. By signing on, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon more or less feature in an exposé of themselves. Yes, they’re portraying exaggerated and often scripted versions of themselves, but they’re still allowing the audience to understand them on a fairly personal level. For instance, the puzzled expressions of those enduring Rob’s endless impersonations is as much a comedic device as it is Rob’s declaration of the real Rob Brydon; one who doesn’t need to necessarily make you laugh – he’s enjoying himself nonetheless.

Although Rob is one of only two principle characters in The Trip, the focus is essentially on Steve Coogan. The series opens and closes with him cutting a lonely figure in his high-rise apartment. When the show does follow some sense of narrative, family and career matters in Steve’s life are propelling things forward. This is Steve’s trip, and Rob is tagging along as an antagonistic force to inspire change. Steve will never share Rob’s content in being an entertainer first, and perhaps never carving a meaningful acting legacy, but he does crave Rob’s personal satisfaction with all facets of life.

The facts in The Trip don’t have to correlate with facts in real life. Steve isn’t really in a rocky romance with an American girl but if he was, he might become infatuated with the idea of someone like Mischa and their relationship might unfold in the jealous terms depicted in the miniseries. Steve wouldn’t normally initiate competition between Rob and himself quite as often as he does (err… maybe), but his incessant attempts to put down and outdo Rob in The Trip suggest an actor’s internal battle within the real Steve. Every documentary faces the struggle of trying to represent an irrefutable truth. The second you point a camera at something, your ‘reality’ becomes in someway staged because the elements in front of the camera become conscious of its presence. The Trip steps around this issue by repeatedly demonstrating and exaggerating the characteristics of its actors.

“Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”
– Robert J. Flaherty, documentary filmmaking pioneer

The Trip is a collaborative effort between two actors who, by abnormally pushing their own limits and each others’, agree to let their most profound personal issues surface to the small screen (in Steve’s case, anyway). There’s something to admire in a celebrity who, instead of opting to nurture an easily maintained image of invincibility, allows himself to enter a publicly vulnerable state.
 
 
Stuck in a Metaphor
Without understanding what has conditioned them to behave in such a manner, it’s hard to be sympathetic toward someone who won’t ever back down during an argument. Acknowledging this, The Trip capitalises on moments when its two protagonists are geographically separated. These moments of privacy take up the shortest amount of screen time in episodes predominately concerned with Steve and Rob’s restaurant banter and yet; without them, The Trip could’ve been reduced to a superficial case study in semi-improvisational comedy.

In ‘The Inn at Whitewell’, Steve responds to one of Rob’s many impressions with the following:

“I think anyone over 40 who amuses themselves by doing impressions needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.”

I don’t know whether this quote is scripted or improvised but in either case, it’s a stroke of genius in relation to constructing Steve’s identity. At the conclusion of two separate episodes, Steve stands before the bathroom mirror committing acts of physical self-preservation (brushing his teeth or moisturising the crow’s feet around his eyes) when he tries out the very technique he has chastised his colleague for doing. Hopelessly falling victim to contradiction, Steve is imitating Rob’s ‘small man trapped in a box’. Aside from working on a metaphorical level to suggest that Steve feels imprisoned within his own being, this sequence truly renders Steve a tragic figure because he is A) talking to himself; B) doing Rob’s talent no justice at all and; C) contradicting and tearing down the defences he’s constructed in his myriad exchanges with Rob. Rob indulges in marital phone sex while all this is happening, as if Steve’s failures weren’t exacerbated enough.

The second iteration of Steve’s mirror soliloquy unfolds similarly to the first, albeit with some form of resolution:

The voice Steve employs toward the end is his own creation – he is no longer undermining his own ideas by doing impressions. The smile to himself is proof that Steve is – probably for the first time in the series – content to be in his own skin and to act like himself.
 
 
Bumless Chums
We’ve seen personal development inspired by negative reinforcement when Steve is shown what he isn’t and what he cannot become. But there are some skills or aspects of knowledge that are never beyond Steve’s reach if he will only open up to his singularly most despised human quality: humility.

To Steve, knowledge is power. Throughout The Trip, he barrages Rob with mundane facts about anything from the history of deciduous trees to the intricacies of the late poet Samuel Coleridge’s life. Steve’s pride is quickly tested however when in ‘The Inn at Whitewell’, Rob criticises his wine-tasting etiquette. Steve’s defence mechanism is to suggest that Rob appears “camp” when trying to demonstrate the correct way to acknowledge that a wine bottle is corked or uncorked. He defers attention to his own lack of knowledge and the issue is promptly glided over.

The incident never rests easy on Steve’s mind however, and he actively seeks to redeem himself in front of Rob when the opportunity presents itself. Rob resembles a proud father when Steve gives the waiter a curt nod to confirm the quality of the wine. More importantly, Steve looks to Rob to ascertain whether or not he’s done it correctly. Such moments are few and far between but Steve shows that he can put aside his egotism in the company of others – even if only as a means to avoid future embarrassment.

There is an instance where Steve comes to empathise with Rob to a degree. After giving a geological lecture to Rob (and subsequently pissing him off), Steve decides to scale a limestone cliff face. At the summit, Steve tries to take in the stunning view – much like Rob tried to comprehend the cliffs when Steve launched into his boring monologue – when he is greeted by a fellow traveller. Pleasantries soon give way to the traveller’s own harangue on limestone. Steve’s frustration at being on the receiving end of a verbal spiel builds until he finds a semi-polite moment to exit. It’s important at this point to remember that the actor Steve Coogan is complicit in allowing this sequence to play out. He allowed himself to both self-righteously defend his geology speech to Rob, and fail in enduring a version of himself atop the cliff face.

It is a contradiction amongst many in Steve’s life, but in the context of The Trip, it’s as if he’s trying to come clean about a psychological condition of his. He is consumed by the need to know and be skilled at everything, and he’ll be damned if he crosses paths with anyone who exposes him as being anything less than that. Traditionally, I’d be deterred from watching someone so incensed with keeping up appearances, but under the circumstances in The Trip – which is, at times, a heart wrenchingly inward-looking psychological examination – it makes for truly unique television.
 
 
The Italian Sob
The Trip has been picked up for another stint in Italy. It seemed like a pretty definitive resolution where we’d left off; with Rob utterly at peace in the arms of his wife and Steve valuing his family over a role in an HBO pilot. I suspect, at the very least, we’ll see more of the same Steve stuck in a sad existential crisis. It would be confronting (in a good way) to see that, despite his best efforts, Steve continues to suffer under the expectations he has set for himself. Above all else, such poignancy makes embarking on The Trip truly worthwhile.

Is Steve interrupting Rob's best attempts at an Alan Partridge impersonation or are these two actually shaping up to be best buddies? Only time, and a trip in Italy, can tell.

Steve interrupting Rob’s best attempts at an Alan Partridge ah-ha? Or are these two actually shaping up to be best buddies? Only time, and a trip to Italy, can tell.