By David Armstrong
I’ve done a relatively terrible job at keeping up with popular culture recently. I suppose that’s a strange way to put the matter, because it is not really a major thing to keep up with, ordinarily speaking, and my reasons for being out of the loop are traditionally respectable ones: marriage, fatherhood, a full-time teaching gig. I’m typically too braindead to do too much of anything that isn’t walking my students through the third conjugation in Latin, trying to get my toddler to eat, and cleaning seemingly the same inexplicably sticky spot on my countertop on a quotidian rotation. When I’m not doing those things, I find that at my current stage of life I have an unfortunate stake in keeping up with the news, which has a certain attached mental cost; in a spiritual life defined by an on again off again rule of prayer, I’m currently trying to make the energy for “on again” stick.
Perhaps related, perhaps not, I’ve also found myself drawn, when I do have the time and the energy for TV, to cinematic and televised comfort food than to the novel or the exciting. I cannot remember which rewatch of 30 Rock this one would be, and I’m already doing the math in my head on how many years will constitute a sufficient buffer that I could feasibly return to it. When I was recently gifted a Nintendo Switch, the only things I wanted to play on it were the games that got me through my first round of graduate school, in the what feels simultaneously recent and distant era of 2016-2018: games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. As a result, a lot of the new stuff I’ve seen recently isn’t really new, and a lot of other new stuff that I know is culturally important right now has felt like it exceeds my power to force myself to watch. It is in this interval that I find I can write about The Trip films, which I’ve binged in the weeks since Spring Break, but have absolutely no energy to watch or comment on The Last of Us, a fact for which I know I should lose some form of street cred as a thinker about pop culture. (Truth be told, I’m more attuned to that other show where Pedro Pascal plays a thirst-trap father figure to a magical orphan, you know, the Disney one).
The Trip (2010), The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020) all follow the same general plotline and in most cases even the same general string of jokes: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play loosely fictionalized versions of themselves who are employed by a travel magazine to go, eat at restaurants, and write about their adventures. These films are hard to classify. They are not travelogs: they are, in a way, sort of films about a fictional travelog, and extended, slow shots are spent on stunning European landscapes, seascapes, restaurants, and kitchen workers. They are also in their own way films about film: that is, cinematic, stage, and comedic culture, as Coogan and Brydon compete to do the best impressions of famous British actors and talk through various modern and classic movies. In some cases, such films have a clearly atmospheric influence on The Trip entries: The Trip to Italy, for example, explicitly names The Journey to Italy (1954) as a cinematic spur, even while Coogan and Brydon are nominally following the careers of the British expatriate romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, and so forth) down the peninsular coast. The Trip to Greece feels almost as though one of the longest running impressionist gags of the duo–Brydon’s Anthony Hopkins impression–has been leading up to Brydon’s chance, in that film, to specifically copy Hopkins’s operatic narration of the movie Alexander (2004). There is also a strong literary strain to these movies that, I suspect, gratifies their cult followers and further alienates the already unmoved: The Trip to Italy’s romanticism, The Trip to Spain’s organization around the elder Coogan trying to write an autobiography of a Spanish backpacking trip he took as a young man, and The Trip to Greece’s retracing of the journey of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, even as Coogan experiences premonitory dreams of his father’s death inspired by scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid.
Lest the unenthused reader be summarily turned off, it should be noted that the utter irreverence of Brydon is available at every corner to balance Coogan’s high-minded elitist education, be it in doing the voice of a small man in a box for the recast corpse of a glass-encased victim at Pompeii or talking over Coogan’s attempt to explain the significance of the Moors to Spain’s history in the voice of Roger Moore. The educated straight man/philistine funny man combo is at this point a traditional shtick for the travelog genre–think Michael and Jack Whitehall in Netflix’s Travels With My Father, or, more loosely, Andrew Graham Dixon and Giorgio Locatelli in BBC’s Italy Unpacked–but where in those erudition is balanced by more down-to-earth zaniness, Coogan is after all also doing a bit, playing the role of a posh know-it-all. And, more to the point, all of this culture and irreverence masks a deeper, ongoing conversation between Coogan and Brydon about mortality and the real meanings of human life.
These themes are especially scattered across the final three films. In The Trip to Italy, Coogan and Brydon talk about death and aging very forthrightly, stopping at the beach where Shelley was cremated; in The Trip to Spain, Coogan storms off angrily from a conversation with a younger traveler whom he invited to table with him and Brydon when the younger traveler attempts to tell him about the desirable stops, in Brydon’s words, because “He doesn’t like to be told things he thinks he knows.” Both feature Coogan dreaming imaginative cinematic or historical scenarios in which Brydon is in some way responsible for killing him. In The Trip to Greece, the specters of Coogan’s estranged wife and doomed father haunt his dreams, while he and Brydon make trips to, among other places, alleged entryways to the underworld (where they take the chance to praise the acoustics of the sea cave). The fear of getting older, the envy of youth but also the desire to offer mature insights to the young (especially Coogan’s fictional son, Joe, who goes from a late teenager catching the eye of young Italian women in The Trip to Italy to prospective father at the age of 20 in The Trip to Spain), and Coogan’s seemingly insatiable sexual appetite all spiral out of this more basic, almost childlike engagement with the awareness of death and the question of life’s meaning that runs throughout the films.
One could understand the advice these movies give for dealing with that problem in ways that skew more Epicurean or more Ecclesiastes, but either way, the essence of that advice would seem to be encapsulated by Qoheleth’s own words: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl 9:7-10). As someone on the far end of a variety of major life transitions that follow when one leaves behind the life of a student for that of a householder, I suppose I found something quite cozy in watching this advice play out before me in Coogan and Brydon’s humorous and occasionally thoughtful banter; I also just happen to enjoy a well-done impression and the atmosphere of two friends talking over a glass of wine.
And yet, watching these films also gave me some glimmer of the concept of a Christian pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is not a wholly lost art in the modern world, but it is these days a commercial industry that often makes the visitation of traditional sites a large headache for those who have the chance to go. (I confess here to the reader that I have not been so privileged, but have it on good authority from several of those who have that this is the case). Yet pilgrimage for much of Christian history was a chance to enact on a small scale the perceived journey of life, the end of which is death: leave behind your ordinary, daily experiences of work and leisure and go, on the Camino de Santiago, to Rome, to the monastery of St. Luke the Younger in Greece, to Jerusalem–wherever you must. Do this, for you must before you die: less because you will lose the chance in death, I might creatively wager, than because without the going you will not understand death half as well. Leaving behind the world and journeying arduously towards God (in the divine residence of whatever church or shrine or sanctuary or synagogue or masjid or whatever) is, after all, how most of the Abrahamic religions have traditionally understood the postmortem saga, in contradistinction to the contemporary Christian tendency to imagine an easy, painless transition from death to heavenly life: Purgatory, tollhouses, gilgul, the transition to Jahannan and Jannah–these things all imply some level of itineracy, some degree of struggle in the hereafter to make it to safe harbor, the typical response to which has been to remember and pray for the dead and make offerings in their names. But death also, importantly, invests life and its connections with new meaning: it is a cliche of all travel, but it is the simulated death and resurrection of leaving our ordinary world and coming back to it that we renew our sense of the importance of those diurnal rituals. It is only by the perspective of pilgrimage that they become once more sacramental: the drudgery of the Latin gerund, the pastimes of being one-and-a-quarter, the liberating, restful work of scrubbing at a spot of dried egg on the countertop. And, more to the point perhaps, the relationships of that everyday world shine for us with a newfound grace, as we see in the faces of family and friends once more the lively joy of love that Sheol knows not.
The connection was secured for me, though, in the shot that The Trip to Italy shares with its Rossellini inspiration, when Coogan and Brydon go to pick up Coogan’s (again, fictional) son Joe from the Fontanelle ossuary near Naples. In Journey to Italy, Fontanelle is the cemetery that Katherine Joyce visits with the Italian caretaker of the house that she and her husband have inherited; it is there that the woman, Natalia, admits to Katherine that she always wanted to have a child, and that she often prays at the ossuary that this will happen. Upon Katherine’s return, she and her husband, Alex, briefly decide to get a divorce before going to visit Pompeii, and only change their mind during a procession later that day for St. Genarro in the streets of Naples. Coogan and Brydon’s reception of Joe at Fontanelle is not half as transformatively meaningful. As they enter the catacombs, Coogan remarks to Brydon: “It’s a bit like being at one of your shows.” “A lot of people,” Brydon agrees. They remark on Byron’s habit of drinking from a skull, and then, by way of free association, briefly dispute a famous soliloquy from Hamlet in which the eponymous antihero holds Yorick’s skull, and which they perform almost antiphonally: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, / a man of infinite jest, of excellent fancy. He / has borne me on his back a thousand times…Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flights of merriment wont to set a table on a roar?” (Hamlet V.i.169-175). As Coogan finishes it, he smiles at Brydon–perhaps his Yorick–who in turn looks back at him surprised, and perhaps a bit touched (though no less annoyed for having been corrected).
David Armstrong is both very tired and based in St. Louis.