Viewer Indiscretion

Brian by Jeremy Cooper. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions. 186 pages. $18.

The cover of Brian

I HAVE FREQUENTLY BEEN SEATED in the dark near those who have variously been called “the pilly-sweater crowd,” “cinemaniacs,” or “Titus-heads” (referring to the two main movie theaters at MoMA). They are pejorative terms for a certain type of New York City cinephile, one whose zeal for the seventh art seems to have been leached of all pleasure and has instead transmogrified into grim compulsion. Demographically, they are often (but not always) white, male, and middle-aged or older.

The eponymous protagonist of Jeremy Cooper’s novel Brian fits that profile, yet he is a Londoner. At age thirty-nine he becomes a “buff” or a “regular” at the BFI Southbank (known as the National Film Theatre from 1951 to 2007), anodyne terms that he accepts, though “categories and titles worried him, a form, he felt, of social control.” When his colleagues at the Camden Housing Department (where he is responsible for keeping lease and freehold records up to date) call him a “movie geek,” he recoils at the expression, “prepar[ing] in response the simple description of himself as a man who loved cinema.”

It is the only love in his life. A volcel of ambiguous sexuality—“bi or nei, he used to say to himself, nei being his abbreviated term for neither”—Brian lives alone in a small, rented apartment on Kentish Town Road. He is a creature of tenacious habit, lunching at the same Italian café every day at 2:15, “to avoid the crush.” Though he had wanted to become a member of the British Film Institute for years, he failed to do so because of his general terror of anything new and his lifelong tendency of “dwelling on the multiple possible consequences of a single act and feeling the need to precision-weigh the varied benefits and costs.” But finally realizing “that he needed release somehow from the pressure in his head,” he becomes a member, his visits to the BFI gradually increasing from once every two weeks to nightly.

Brian is the seventh novel by Cooper, whose several works of nonfiction, including books on nineteenth-century furniture, YBAs, and artist’s postcards, plus his frequent appearances on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, suggest wide-ranging enthusiasms akin to, if not as monomaniacal as, the title character’s for film (Cooper has described himself as a “frequent visitor” to the BFI from the late 1980s and throughout the ’90s). The novel spans about thirty years, from roughly 1988, the inaugural year of Brian’s buffdom, to 2018, by which time he, now a few years into retirement, is watching two movies each evening. Told in close third person, Brian unfolds neutrally and with little at stake, the frictionless description of the extremely circumscribed life of its protagonist often segueing to plot synopses and analyses of the scores of movies he takes in.

Yoichiro Yoda, Jackson Theatre, 2018, oil on canvas, 20" × 24". Courtesy: the artist
Yoichiro Yoda, Jackson Theatre, 2018, oil on canvas, 20″ × 24″. Courtesy: the artist

The titles of the films themselves, their release dates easy enough to google, help establish the passing of the years, as does reference, usually fleeting, to historical events: the Lockerbie disaster, the death of Princess Di, the Iraq War, the London bombings of 2005, the ubiquity of digital devices and streaming services (and their baleful effect on cinema attendance). Biographical details about Brian are parceled out sparingly—we don’t learn his surname until well into the book’s second half—but we do find out that his birth and childhood were marked by events so harrowing that he has had no contact with any of his family since the funeral of his mother, who died when he was sixteen.

His early life was filled with such agony, in fact, that this string of imperatives, repeated twice in the book, serves as his mantra: “Keep watch. Stick to routine. Protect against surprise.” For a psyche as wounded as Brian’s, is his cinephilia, and all of its attendant rituals, salve or symptom? Maybe it’s to Cooper’s credit that he’s largely indifferent to the question. Or, more damningly, perhaps I am guilty of conflating London’s cinephile culture, about which I know very little, with New York’s, which I know intimately and which on occasion, among its outer fringes, has revealed sociopathic behavior (most notoriously that of Gary Cabana, who last year stabbed two employees working behind the MoMA film desk after he was denied entry to a screening of Bringing Up Baby because his museum membership had been revoked, owing to two earlier “incidents”). But when coming across the expression “the benevolence of buffery,” a phrase deployed by Jack, another BFI regular and the lone person who could be considered Brian’s friend, I wondered why Cooper avoided exploring movie fandom’s more malevolent aspects.

There are some light digs at the hygiene and sartorial choices of Brian’s BFI cohort: he “catch[es] a stale whiff of sweat from one or two of his lot” and “consider[s] none of them properly dressed, drab at best, semi-derelict at worst, not a primary colour in sight on top and a forest of fawn trousers below, either too long or too short.” But despite a brief mention of a buff with a “disjointed state of mind,” Cooper’s novel remains dully sanguine. “This was another of the wonderful things about film, Brian reminded himself, the limitless legitimate points of approach, all interesting, all worth discussion,” Cooper writes, describing the bonhomie at the BFI. In my twenty-seven years of regular attendance at New York’s repertory redoubts, I have great difficulty recalling any such amiable conversations among the cinephile set who most closely resemble Brian and his band; what I am more likely to overhear are futile, endless exchanges about movie running times.

Does Brian’s extreme allegiance to the BFI free or restrain, if not imprison, him further? More the latter, Cooper allowing his character’s desolate thoughts to uncoil only so far. “Whenever . . . Brian began to feel self-conscious about the limited life he led . . . all he could think of doing was to close the doors of his mind yet tighter against everything other than film. There was no point in questioning his choices now,” he writes. But this bleak resignation is immediately followed by a cheery, complacent afterthought: “Before despair could take hold, Brian had been able . . . to remind himself that the reason why he was a regular at the BFI was because it made him feel part of something outside. . . . Without people like him to watch it, film did not exist and the brave work of directors like Güney, Loach, Kiarostami, and other politically motivated artists would be meaningless.”

This timid, terrified man is thus imbued with a kind of nobility simply by being an attentive spectator. The claim is too grandiose. More prosaically, Brian’s habitual treks to the BFI represent “the safety of repetition,” no matter how absurd; should he find himself significantly delayed for hours on the Underground, “as a matter of principle he always completed the journey to the BFI, even if the night’s films were finished by the time he arrived.”

After retirement, his eyesight failing, the heretofore meek Brian does begin to erupt into rages, at one point becoming so angry at an audience member who arrives four minutes after a film started that he punches him in the stomach. The outburst brought to mind the bizarre behavior I’ve witnessed over the years by one MoMA regular in particular, an innocuous-seeming man who once almost came to blows with another viewer for talking too loudly during the final credits of a Ginger Rogers movie. Where does cinephilia end and derangement begin, when does a putative love of movies mask darker, danker impulses? The questions are not rhetorical; with my own waxing and waning cine-gluttony, I have tried to ask them of myself, probably not as often as I should have. I wish Cooper had wrestled with them more, too. 

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.