On Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donald Trump, and Looking Backwards
Updated: Oct 21
I recently watched, for the first time in probably twenty years, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the 1994 film directed by Mike Newell and written by that purveyor of romantic Britishness Richard Curtis. I am a sucker for Curtis films such as Notting Hill and Love Actually, and am not ashamed of it. Do they in any way address the complexities of Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries? Of course not. Do they provide positively oozing amounts of feel-goodness? Absolutely. I am a vicar whose vocation brings me into contact with people who are involved in all kinds of suffering, and I don't shy away from it. But every now and then it's nice to sit with a gin and tonic and escape in the puppydogness of Hugh Grant, in characters' ability to say just the right clever thing with a timing as precise as a Swiss watch.
Rewatching Four Weddings and a Funeral I was not disappointed. Seeing a young floppy-haired and squiggly-eyed Hugh Grant gives me a similar feeling to that I experience when I rub my dog Linus' belly. Sure, I'm not doing anything to ease world hunger or promote a better understanding of how we must care for our fragile environment, but - gosh! - is it ever soothing in that moment. The countless number of amusing lines which seem almost throw-away allow me to fantasise that I am one of those people who can always think of the clever thing to say: Where's Gareth? Torturing Americans. How thoughtful of him.
But, beyond all of this, what struck me most twenty years later is how much the world has changed. There is a kind of earnest innocence in the film, an optimism that at first glance is a bit jarring with the reality of the world we live in today, where clever and innocuous lines have, in large part, been replaced by a rhetoric of hate and braggadocio that is destructive at worst and just tacky at best. And so, before the final credits roll and we see images of the film's characters all happily coupled, there is a tendency to let loose an existential sigh and lament the fact that such unbridled jocundity seems to have gone the way of simple village life, of hat pins and morning coats. How much better was life then! we can exclaim (ignoring the fact, of course, that life wasn't really like that then either, but that's by the by).
But there is one subplot that to me feels horribly dated: that of Gareth and Matthew, played by Simon Callow and John Hannah. In the first part of the film we see them as a part of the ensemble of friends, with a relationship which is hinted at in an early scene, which seems to suggest that not only do they live together, but that there is enough intimacy present to have one wipe some food off of the beard of another. But that's pretty much the extent of it until Gareth drops dead at one of the weddings, and it is at the funeral where we really see that Gareth and Matthew were more than just buddies, when Matthew recites WH Auden's Stop all the clocks and we weep buckets (or at least I wept buckets). Later, Hugh Grant's character Charles, in speaking about Matthew and Gareth's relationship, says: All these years we've been single and proud of it and never noticed that two of us were, in effect, married all this time.
Wait. Really? Am I supposed to believe that such a close group of friends, the kinds of friends who have keys to each others' places, who seem to be almost inseparable, and whose social life clearly revolves around one another; am I to believe that they never noticed that Matthew and Gareth were a couple all that time?
Now, granted, in part this reveal is a cinematic device that would have produced a completely different effect had we known from the beginning (with certainty) the exact nature of their relationship. I get that. But more than that, what struck me is that even in 1994 (which is such a short time ago that I still have shirts that I wear from that year - please forgive me, fashion bloggers) it seemed absolutely normal to hint at things, to suggest rather than to declare - even in a film set amongst the British upper middle class (with its long and esteemed tradition, if you will, of poofery).
Extraordinary. How far we've come as a society in such a relatively short time. We've moved though a period when such things weren't generally mentioned at all in our films to the point where one's sexuality ceases to be an issue at all. One can only assume that if Four Weddings and a Funeral were made today that the big "reveal" would have been handled differently, if even at all. No, a modernised version of the film would probably still portray Matthew and Gareth as being the one stable couple in the film, with the fact that they happen to be gay being interesting from the point of view of character development, but certainly not worthy of a big reveal.
Apart from certain institutions (I'm sad to say the Church is frequently one such institution) many of us have moved on to this point as well, namely that we admit that our understanding of sexuality and gender has so developed that we know we need to move forward armed with such insight and understanding, and not weakened by prejudice and ignorance. The fact that this is happening across generational lines is encouraging, offering validation that these issues are not simply some shallow trend, but rather a genuine development in social, psychological, and sexual understanding.
Which is what makes Donald Trump's Tweet of the 26th of July in which he said that transgender persons would no longer be allowed to serve in the military so particularly disturbing. It has, rightly, been attacked on many levels, each as valid as the next, but what I find most particularly disturbing about it is that it demonstrates, yet again, a resolute desire to move backwards and not forwards. That this comes from an administration which seems to revel in such backward movement (most especially, but not exclusively, in the area of climate change) still does not take away the fundamental shortsightedness of it. Mr. Trump is continually propagandising about "making America great again," but history teaches us that greatness comes by learning, growing, and moving ahead, not by moving backwards. The USA used to be the leader of the world specifically because we were never afraid to move forward, never afraid to allow science and the arts to help us understand where we needed to go. Even if it took us a while to get there, the fact that we usually did so demonstrated our strength, our greatness, our leadership.
No more. In looking behind and not forward, we have lost vision of where true greatness can lead. And what disturbs me more than the individual antics of a man who reveals himself to be an embarrassment time and time again, is this patent desire to move backwards, abandoning all vestiges of insight and growth for an ideology that could, at its extreme, begin chipping away at rights that forward-thinking people steeped in greatness fought hard to attain. And if you're reading this and thinking that I am being overly dramatic, I would invite you to contact one of the transgender members of our armed forces, and ask them if they think I'm being overly dramatic. (At the same time I would invite you to thank them for serving their country, for seeking to promote true greatness.)
Where do we go from here? Well, I'm still trying to figure out what I, personally, can do to make sure that we move forward into love and understanding and not backward into hatred and ignorance. I preach. I volunteer. I vote. I write. I pray. The whole purpose of this blog is to figure things out, and I'm making a commitment to doing just that. I hope others join me.
In the meantime, I think I'm going to watch Love Actually for probably the 100th time and rub my dog's belly, probably misting up - as always - at its opening lines:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.