Wednesday, 11 August 2010

How I Became Addicted to 'A Room With A View' (1985) and the Consequences

As anyone who has followed this blog for any time will know some of the greatest detriment I have done to my own life is to have been afraid, primarily in two areas: travelling and relationships with women.  In many ways in my teenage years and twenties, I was a very lucky man.  Despite having some minor ailments, not being sporty; appearing very freckly, and gangly in how I walked, and having my self-confidence blown apart by my parents telling me I looked as if I was mentally disabled, girls/women of my age would ask me out on dates.  These women were certainly not desperate for male companionship and when rebuffed by me, as was usually the case, went on to have other relationships.  My fear that somehow they were doing it for dishonest motives or simply as a joke, was insulting to them but also meant I ended up lacking the experience of having youthful relationships which then meant I had little chance as a man in his late twenties and into his thirties to engage with these properly.  Part of the problem stems from how I perceived relationships between young people should function and for this I have to blame, in large part, what was my favourite movie for many years: 'A Room With A View' (1985).

I was 17 when I first saw 'A Room With A View', so had already been making many of the mistakes I have listed above.  However, at that stage things remain retrievable in a way they are not when you are 34.  To put the movie in context, it was one of the most successful in the UK produced by the Merchant Ivory partnership (formed in 1961 of the two lovers, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) working with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  With 'Heat and Dust' (1983), 'A Room with a View' (1985), 'Maurice' (1987), Howards End (1992) and 'The Remains of the Day' (1993) at the time of the TV series 'Brideshead Revisited' (1981) and 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1983) [not made by them but of a similar genre], movie culture in the UK was defined as being focused on the period of the late 19th century to the 1930s.  Subsequently with the very successful television version of 'Pride and Prejudice' (1994) for the following decade the focus stepped back to the late 18th/early 19th century.  Perhaps in the grimness and rioting of the 1980s we were looking for escape to an apparently nicer middle class existence in which manners and behaviour were more refined, though certainly in many of these movies not all behaviour is like that; homosexuality, in particular is suppressed and women are fitted into rigid roles, though this was a contributing factor to the rise of Post-Feminism that personally I began to detect from 1988 onwards.

With my parents away on holiday I began going to the cinema alone to escape the tedium of what was on television, a habit I was to continue more vigorously from when I finally left home and lived alone, 1987-2005 .  This was my first foray into that kind of activity, that you did not have to be with anyone to watch a movie, and, in fact, it could be better that way if the movie was what had drawn you rather than the social experience.  I watched 'Mona Lisa' (1986) the week before seeing 'A Room With A View', so it must have been still doing the rounds from the previous year.  'Mona Lisa' is an unpleasant British movie, well made, but it left such a bitter taste in my mind that I wanted to blot it out with something more refined, hence going to see 'A Room With A View'.  (I was to do something similar the following year, going to see 'Poussiere D'Ange' ['Angel Dust'] (1987) deliberately after being unsettled by 'Angel Heart' (1987)). 

Of course, I was utterly swept away by 'A Room With A View' with its stunning scenery of 19th century Florence combined with stirring music which I have written about before.  It is a funny movie in many parts but also a lovely romance.  The hero, George Emerson (played by Julian Sands) sweeping the heroine Lucy Honeychurch (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) off her feet in a wheat field and them later sitting in the window with Florence in the background, kissing while Lucy reads a letter, were scenes that I loved and wanted to replicate in my own life.  The tension comes around Lucy being unwilling to admit her passion for the unconventional young man who is of a slightly lower class (he works for the railways and his widowed father is a thinker and politically interested), but ultimately does.  There is a wonderful range of quirky English characters played by skilled performers such as Denholm Elliot, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day Lewis and Simon Callow which charm you too.  I have always liked women with long dark hair and Bonham-Carter fitted that perfectly.  She went on to appear in other period movies, notably 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' (1991 - from another Forster novel also set in Italy);  'Howards End' and 'The Wings of the Dove' (1997).  Once I had the video I would watch it on my birthday and dream of such a romance.  I could clearly post myself in the rather awkward, public servant, intellectual role of George Emerson and somehow anticipated women would love to be swept off by me even if I was not a fraction as handsome as Julian Sands.

Of course, I knew I was not living in the 1890s (and the director seemed to set it back in time a little from the 1908 source novel by E.M. Forster which features electric trams in Florence that do not appear in the movie), but had a belief I would meet a woman who would be intrigued by me and would not scream if I swept her off her feet in an Italian field.  At this time, I did envisage travelling around Europe far more than I was ever in fact to do.  My mother had always said that when she had been a teenager in the 1950s the way young people 'learnt' how to have relationships was through watching the movies which would show them how to behave and even how to kiss.  She felt that the trouble with the 1980s was that too many movies showed abusive relationships in which sex was the key focus and so men in particular did not learn how to behave around women.  In fact, for her son, the complete opposite happened and I ended up having my approach to women set by 1980s visions of late Victorian behaviour.  This was exacerbated by my friends all being of the 'Dungeons and Dragons' types and not having relationships with women until they had passed thirty and by the fact that by the time I reached university it was beginning to fill (especially in my accommodation hall) with Post-Feminist women actually seeking not even a Forster-style relationship but an Austen-style one. 

The trouble for me was that I knew that women did not want you to assert your desire for them and increasingly if you did, then you risked being charged with assault.  We were advised that touching or kissing a woman even innocently, in the times of increasing litigation, was hazardous and there was talk of signed permission before sexual intercourse (I do not think some universities know how much they screwed up their students' lives).  I mixed with too many people from private schools who were only encountering the opposite sex for the first time on a regular basis and who like me expected it all to proceed as if it were 1887 rather than 1987.  I had no appeal for them, being from the wrong background and too politicised and yet I lacked all the tools to engage with the kind of women who might have liked me.  There were no wheat fields, there was no time for walking in lush landscapes working up to ask permission to kiss the woman and yet, leaping in was clearly ruled out by what we had been told.  Consequently years went by with no relationships and now that women expect a man to have a sexual CV by the time he reaches 21, I was increasingly ruled out on that basis.

Hampered by the Victorian approach that had shaped so much of the end of my teenage years, the relationships I ended up in were increasingly termed as 'Victorian', i.e. very chaste.  I would go shopping with the woman, have tea with her, go and see a movie, but nothing else happened.  I wanted to kiss her, but the chance never came up and the women themselves seemed to expect me to make a move and yet I feared they would then cry assault.  Ultimately I ended up as almost a female friend, they would do domestic stuff with me then go off on dates in the evening with their boyfriends.  They would come and tell me about all their difficulties with these men who were clearly so much more exciting than me, when in fact I wanted to be their lover.  It took a woman who wanted me as 'the other man', i.e. to have an affair from her own marriage and was very straight forward about asking for sex, that managed to shake me out of the situation and get the tools to be more proactive.  Though I did continue to have some Victorian-style relationships, funnily enough until I left London.

I suppose the lesson of all this, is do not live your life by how it is shown in movies.  Perhaps we have gone to the opposite extreme from that period of the late 1980s/early 1990s when behaviour of the previous century seemed to be returning; the internet has had a huge impact on this both in terms of what you can learn and who you can meet.  I have lost my affection for 'A Room With A View' though I still would recommend it because it is an enjoyable way to pass the time.  I am angry now that I let it shape my expectations far too much, though I recognise it was not helped by having such critical parents and ignorant friends.  The visuals and the music are engaging but it was a mistake for me to be seduced by them and then hamstrung in thinking that such a fictional approach would work in the late 20th century for real.

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