So What the Fuck is New?
British people repress sexuality and conflict over class in Gosford Park, a murder mystery sans mystery or, for most of the movie, a murder.
If you’ve ever seen a British drama, any British drama, you don’t want to see Gosford Park. In fact, unless you’re involved with the production in some way, you really don’t want to see Gosford Park. You know what you’d rather do than sit through Gosford Park? Pick stray eyebrows out of your head. Or clean out your wallet. Or shoot yourself in the face.
These are all things I considered doing as I sat trapped in a theater with about two dozen British assholes who I could hardly understand – and when I could, I wish I couldn’t. If they’re not phony and snotty then they’re repressed and bitter; many of them, though, are all four. And completely marble-mouthed to boot – not only do we have to decipher the extremes of British and Irish brogues, but we’ve got to deal with director Robert Altman’s obnoxious sound layering. The effect is like a swarm of vicious British bees circling around you, it’s this constant accented buzz that’s at once scary and sleep-inducing.
Not that I have anything against Altman – Cookie’s Fortune was a masterpiece of atmosphere and pacing, and The Player is one of my favorite movies of all time. But what he was able to do for the South and for Hollywood just doesn’t need to be done for England. Every goddamn movie that comes out of England is either about repressed aristocrats and their troubled servants or a scrappy group of underdogs who manage to pull it together to overcome whatever obstacles are in the way of making it big in whatever quirky/contextually misplaced/socially unacceptable field they choose (male stripping, ballet, soccer, dental hygeine). Basically what Altman does is take a standard British setup – a bunch of people in a big house – and strips away any sense of plot that might otherwise get in the way of the Grumpy Old Aristocrats formula. We’re expecting a murder mystery, but instead we get a bunch of rich jerks, and the poor slobs they exploit, not doing much more than hanging out. Which is basically what goes on in every piece of British storytelling there is – someone, and I’m thinking he or she is famous, but I can’t remember who he or she is, once said that all British literature is about one and only one thing: class conflict. The difference is, most British literature has a story to go with that conflict, or a character worth getting to know or at least someone to hang your sympathy on. Gosford Park does away with all that shit. The characters meander around the house, uncovering boring facts about one another, gradually revealing connections that only qualify as scandalous in the slightest sense of the word – not one interesting thing happens the entire movie, aside from the performance of Bob Balaban, who plays the only American in the movie (except for Ryan Philippe, who pretends, convincingly, to be a British asshole for the first two reels).
Not a second of the movie is about anything besides the hey-duh division between Servant and Served. The big murder mystery played up by the previews ends up to be, at worst, a pointless tease, tacked on and just as boring as the rest of the movie. At best, it’s an awkward contrivance designed specifically to support the same message we’ve seen a thousand times before: rich British people are jerks who don’t realize the sacrifices made by those who serve them. Well whoop-de-shit. How is this supposed to be relevant to an American audience? How is this supposed to be relevant to anyone, in fact, but the 5% of the British population who live like this? Who the fuck is Robert Altman making this movie for, besides the Academy?
And this, for the record, is my theory on the Academy: they’ve had their collective head so far up their collective ass for so many years that I don’t think they’re even able to view those evaluation DVDs that get sent to them. Being stuck inside one’s own ass would be, I presume, pretty prohibitive as far as watching movies go, so I’m thinking all they can do is listen to the movies – which explains why, year after year, the Academy has rewarded British accents, no matter what the context. And I think, after decades of getting shafted for Oscars, Robert Altman knows what I’m talking about here.