Not so long ago I found myself on a smoky terrace surrounded by a handful of faces I did not recognize. In my hand, a near-empty can of beer protected my knuckles from getting burnt by the burnt out cigarette that rested between my fingers. Everybody knew my name and my story, everybody knew where I came from and where I wanted to be. However, I could not remember anybody’s name, it was as if I had just woken up from a dream, or a nightmare. At that precise moment, I mumbled to myself, “I guess these are my friends.” In hindsight, I assume that is how people become friends with one another, it feels like we are forced into a space of utmost hedonism to escape the pessimism of life itself. When we converge in this space, a cycle of rituals starts to take place that ensures bonding and strengthens the ties that bring us together.
Many films deal with friendship and its many faces, yet I do not think I’ve watched a movie that portrays friendship the way I described earlier, the way I have felt it, like Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail(1973). The film itself is magnetic. It catches your eye with a fast-paced structure and the iconic earthy colours of Michael Chapman’s chiaroscuro cinematography. However, where The Last Detail excels is in the relationship between Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows. The movie follows the first two sailors as they are given orders to bring the latter to prison following a petty crime. Then, Buddusky and Mulhall undertake a trip across the east coast of the United States to bring Meadows from Virginia to Pennsylvania.
Buddusky and Mulhall’s first reaction to Meadows is one of empathy. They see in Meadows the youth they have devoted to the Navy. They see the untapped potential and the innocence they once had, before they were chewed up and spit out by the dehumanizing world that surrounds them, a world Meadows has yet to stumble upon. The stark winter weather in which TheLastDetailtakes place acts as a reflection of the cruel world the three sailors live in. The alienating and bone-chilling winter serves as a background for the sailors’ trip, and the three men begin sharing and partaking in the hedonistic rituals of friendship.
In an attempt to calm Meadows down from a panic attack he has during one of their first train rides, Buddusky and Mulhall decide to get him to the city to blow off some steam. It is in this moment, walking through the ice-cold streets of Washington DC, that their friendship begins. Buddusky and Mulhall take a risk and resolve to trust Meadows—they take off his cuffs and start treating him like an equal, not a prisoner.
There are two remarkable aspects of this small yet powerful action. The first, and the most obvious one, is that the trust Buddusky and Mulhall give to Meadows is blind and baseless, as they take a leap of faith accepting Meadows as an equal and as a companion to the ensuing activities they are all going to partake in. Friendship in many cases—and I might dare to say all the time—is ignited by taking a shot in the dark, believing that someone is going to be good for you. There is no thorough selection process nor a critical filter, it is instinctual and emotional.
The second aspect is a bit more complex and lies in Buddusky and Mulhall’s intentions. It is understandable that Meadows, a prisoner, would accept the trust and friendship his superiors are offering, but why would two older, more experienced men spend their week ‘hanging’ out with a young man? It is here where hedonism goes front and centre. Buddusky and Mulhall have been in a system for so long that engrained pessimism like a tattoo on their foreheads, that they forgot that life is for living. The only way to wage war against the evident negativity and lack of hope is the carnal pleasure, the simple enjoyments that make the body trick the mind into having fun. This is then the first hedonistic ritual, not the entrusting of the peer, but the random act of selection that occurs when choosing who to ‘enjoy life with.’ However, as I will point out later, this decision is not as random as it seems.
After trust and companionship are established, the three sailors begin their journey within a journey—the search for pleasure. Their path begins with food, evolves to alcohol and partying, de-evolves into fighting, and finally culminates with sex. These series of events are the hedonistic rituals through which Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows will bond over; these are also some of the ways I have bonded with my peers.
The first stop on the sailors’ journey is food. Eating is the first thing they do together and one of the most important, as well as the most repeated ritual they perform together. From cheeseburgers to sausages, breakfasts and hot dogs, Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows are able to share several moments at the dining table. Eating together is one of the most crucial rituals in the sailors’ friendship because it helps them fill the missing role of family. Generally speaking, gathering around the table is synonymous with spending time with your family. However, Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows all have complex situations back home—Buddusky had a failed marriage, Meadows’ mom is hinted to be an absent alcoholic, and Mulhall still lives with his mom. The three sailors crave the feeling of unity and togetherness that dining in concert brings because they miss what they cannot have while in the Navy. Thus, eating is one of the main driving forces and rituals through which TheLastDetail’s sailors become friends.
The second ritual that brings the sailors together is drinking. If eating was the foundation of their friendship, drinking is like the beams from which the friendship will continue to strengthen. It is no mystery that drinking together helps to establish friendships, as alcohol is a social de-inhibitor (and a serious depressant, I do not encourage you to drink if you do not want to). Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows are at their most honest, vulnerable, and sensitive when they get drunk. Their clothes literally fall off when they begin downing beers in a hotel room. They have nothing else left to hide. The three sailors share their dreams and sorrows, they see each other with empathy, as humans rather than Seamen, Signalmen, or Gunners. This is the importance of the ritualistic act of drinking together; men begin to understand the emotional complexity of their peers and how it relates to them. On paper, getting drunk might look like a mischievous act of rebellion against the strict order of things. Nonetheless, this ritual is of utmost importance for the sailors to understand each other’s psyche, history, and emotions—a great step towards establishing friendships.
While the previous two rituals have been universal, the next two I believe are inclined more towards the sailors’ (and every other man’s) social constructions of masculinity and its toxicity. Fighting and aggressive attitudes are generally seen as an assertive way to manifest power and self-reassurance. As Navy sailors with military training, it might come as no surprise that Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows resort to violence and aggression. On several occasions, Buddusky, the self-proclaimed leader of the herd, picks fights in bars and bathrooms. As soon as the first punch is thrown, Mulhall and Meadows, without skipping a beat, resort to violence in support of Buddusky’s aggressive nature. They do not question Buddusky, laughing it off together, joyfully. Hence, fighting becomes a hedonistic/masochist ritual of friendship in which physical pain leads to bonding and emotional pleasure. The sailors rely on their abrasive aggressive personalities to fortify the sense of collectiveness.
Whereas fighting is a collective ritual, sex is the activity in TheLastDetailthat the sailors partake in as individuals. Sex, like fighting, appears to exist solely by social pressure, enjoyable but instilled by their peers. Buddusky and Mulhall, the more experienced men, push Meadows into having sex at a party, but when he is unable to do it due to his social awkwardness, they bring him to a brothel where he can achieve the mission and become like them. It is as if all the other rituals before this one were to prove he was friendship worthy, but this last step is to prove that he was also worthy and appealing outside of the herd. Sex ultimately produces a shift in dynamics of the rituals; from sharing, to getting the emotional and physical pleasure, to getting pleasure in an effort to belong.
Behind all the hedonistic rituals, the shared experiences, and the emotional connections, lies the undeniable fact that Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows are not actually friends. The codependent relationship the sailors share is forced by their superiors. In the end, Meadows is finally taken to prison and Buddusky and Mulhall return to the barracks where they will not see each other again. They only shared a speck of time and space, forced by their literal physical proximity to each other, in an attempt to find solace within one another and treat each other as friends.
But just like a milk carton with an expiration date, the sailors’ friendship was destined to rot. The dreaded winter that surrounds them continues, the cold dehumanizing world that engulfs them remains the same, but for a week, the sailors were able to enjoy the little things in life that pleased them. I guess that is life, too, as the nameless people surrounding me that day are no longer in my life because we no longer live close to each other, but the connections and the deep conversations became a memory and a story. Undeniably, the rituals we shared made it a bit better, but we jumped from one herd to another like scared scrawny chickens urgently wobbling under a hen’s wing, looking for solace in a new cycle of hedonism with different people that will make the world feel a little bit lighter.