Novel Ideas

Small Man Trapped in a Box


Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are familiar with both the literary and the “meta” in cinema. Their 2006 Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story followed the actors playing proxies of themselves playing roles in a film adaptation of Lawrence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel about a man trying to represent himself in autobiography. Take a few seconds to process that matryoshka sequence, but be careful to keep your head from exploding—brains make tenacious carpet stains.

The liar's paradox is also not recommended for pondering

Coogan and Brydon become almost-themselves once again in 2010’s The Trip, a television series edited into a movie. The plot is simple: Coogan tours restaurants in Northern England for a newspaper piece and Brydon tags along. Before I watched it, the basic synopsis was repugnantly reminiscent of Melvin Goes to Dinner, the apotheosis of indie film that, along with long distance sprinting right after a five-pound burrito dinner, falls into the category of lessons that should never, ever take more than one time to learn.1

Unlikeable people eating and talking, otherwise known as most holiday meals

The Trip, however, was refreshingly more complex than I expected it to be. In fact, continuing the literary work of Shandy, it delves into various aspects of Romantic literature, most prominently exploring the relationship between proxy-Coogan and proxy-Brydon as a modern analog to the relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth. Most people, though, have encountered The Trip through the following clip that has made its rounds on the Internet:

It’s entirely gratuitous in this context, but I can’t pass up Craig Ferguson’s rendition of the iconic scene from When Harry Met Sally as impersonated versions of Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

And don’t think that Michael Caine doesn’t get the last word here. Michael Caine always gets the last word.

Speaking with other people’s voices is a recurring theme in The Trip. Brydon always seems to be the instigator of these conversations, and Coogan plays along until he becomes visibly frustrated with Brydon’s schtick. Coogan’s editor and a photographer also are uncomfortably nonplussed when confronted with an impersonation guessing game. Imagine if you were stuck with someone who pathologically refused to speak with a normal voice.

Voice and tone refer only to delivery, though. There’s also the content of one’s speech: the words themselves. Over the course of the duo’s travels, Brydon recites Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in the voice of Richard Burton, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in the voice of Anthony Hopkins, and Wordsworth’s “The White Doe of Rylstone” in the voice of Ian McKellan. Understandably, Coogan doesn’t quite know what to make of impersonation to the second power.

What or where, then, is one’s own voice amid the thicket of other people’s words and voices? This is the reason, I think, behind Coogan’s discomfort with Brydon’s incessant performances. Coogan’s relationship with his girlfriend is clearly on the rocks, and his interactions with his agent show that “stalled” would be a glass-half-full way to describe his career. The titular trip that he’s taking leads him from one hotel room to the next, one set of indifferent service and hospitality workers and one-night stands to the next, one town to the next.

Put simply, Coogan doesn’t know where his life is heading, and he seems to have lost himself as a result. This is particularly visible when he poses for a photo shoot on a barren heath, a moment of sympathetic landscape—a trope that gained prominence in Romantic writing, when the landscape reflects the subjectivity or state of mind of the speaker or protagonist. During this scene, Coogan mentions to the photographer that Wuthering Heights takes place not far from their location, invoking Heathcliff as another analog for Coogan.

I’d say that Coogan (the actual person, not proxy-Coogan) plays this discomfort in a wonderfully understated way, creating the air and nuance of someone who is trying not to betray what he can’t help feeling. It’s certainly evident in scenes when Coleridge’s opium addiction is offered as a straw man explanation for any difficulties that the poet experienced, literary or otherwise.

In his correspondence, Wordsworth expressed concern for what he perceives to be Coleridge’s declining mental condition, and in one letter, Wordsworth implores Coleridge to send his notes on The Recluse, the grand philosophical poem that Wordsworth never got around to writing, before Coleridge dies. Obviously, Wordsworth put Coleridge’s health above any careerist concerns.

The face of empathy

In many ways, Coogan (and we’re back to proxy-Coogan now) is Coleridge. After the initial publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Wordsworth’s fame steadily grew while Coleridge’s wavered and fell. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the Coleridge poem that perhaps enjoys the widest readership and visibility today, initially opened the Ballads in its first edition, but all subsequent editions relegated the poem nearly to the end of the volume because of the widespread negative reviews that it received. Wordsworth became a national icon and Queen Victoria’s poet laureate. Coleridge’s position in the literary canon was much less certain during his lifetime.

The raw, brilliant moment of The Trip happens when Coogan, alone in his bathroom, tries to imitate Brydon’s “small man trapped in a box” voice. Of course, the very name of this voice evokes the idea from which Coogan attempts to distance himself—he doesn’t want something as simple as opium addiction to explain his own failure—yet he can’t even do that voice properly. The unflattering, fluorescent bathroom lighting and the bathetic, flailing attempts to match Brydon’s voice reveal a desperation that up until this point Coogan has kept in check aside from the occasional microexpression.

In a letter to Richard Woodhouse2, Romantic poet John Keats (you know, the “beauty is truth, truth beauty” one?) defines the “[W]ordsworthian or egotistical sublime [as] a thing per se [that] stands alone.” Keats presents this version of Wordsworth’s poetical subjectivity—his “I”—in contrast to Keats’s notion of the “camelion Poet,” who “is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” Keats obviously held a positive view of this sort of poet, but Coogan occupies this subjectivity with much less enthusiasm.

In formal research I’ve found that Keats’s reading of Wordsworth’s subjectivity, whose apotheosis can be found in The Prelude, is not exactly fair, perhaps not even accurate, and instituted a tradition of skepticism of Romantic sincerity and authenticity revitalized by Jerome McGann in the 1980s. Put simply, we’re reluctant to believe that Wordsworth and similar Romantic poets actually mean to do what they say that they mean to do. When everything is ironic, and when everything is self-contradictory (cf. deconstruction), it’s easy to continue disbelieving a straightforward, genuine assertion of selfhood.3

The Trip isn’t about resolution. The final scenes juxtapose Coogan standing alone in his cold, modern high-rise condo and Brydon sitting at the dinner table in his warm, Earth-tone home with his wife and child. Lack of resolution, however, doesn’t preclude character development. Over the course of the film, Coogan arrives at a point of clarity regarding his life crisis. It’s the opposite of the narrative form in Wordsworth’s Prelude, in which the end of the story—Wordsworth’s status as a chosen poet and minister of nature—conditions the memory of all things past and reorganizes them into a prospective, prophetic narrative after the fact. Everything that happened to Wordsworth is remembered as leading to his current situation.

By contrast, Coogan ends up not at a destination or a fated end, but at a point of uncertainty, when a narrative driving one’s life seems less and less likely.

—Trey Conatser

1. Melvin Goes to Dinner also occupies the niche market of movies whose title is also the basic plot synopsis. “Uncomfortable Plot Summaries” does this to a gamut of well-known cinema. I’m particularly fond of the Star Trek VI summary: “Racist military commander past his prime nearly ruins galactic peace.”

…in which Christopher Plummer plays an alien who speaks in a British accent, looks vaguely like an interstellar Ghengis Khan, has a Chinese name, and habitually spouts lines from Shakespeare’s plays

2. Richard Woodhouse should not be confused with Archer’s (of Archer fame) butler.

3. These are incredibly broad indictments that deserve to be indicted as straw men. On the other hand, get over it.