I Saw a Film
(over and over)
A couple of starving would-be actor types are freezing to death in a harrowingly filthy London flat circa 1969. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann are our suffering protagonists who, while attempting to locate booze and freedom and maybe paying gigs, hit upon a brilliant plan to take advantage of an uncle’s unoccupied country house. A good portion of the humor is simply centered on homophobia, but it’s very well accomplished and no one is badly abused. We accepted the sequences as a bit of kitsch, possibly the most 1969 aspect of the movie (and being young men, it’s hard not to be completely amused with, perhaps terrified by, such gayness). The uncle, Monty (is fabulously played by the recently late Richard Griffiths) is a former actor himself, lamenting his never having played Hamlet, but clearly relishing the company, and, of course, the fantasy of sexuality with the boys. Poor fellow, he’s not going to get much play, despite the titillating excitement. And that too, is something all of us can attest to, the wildness of desire flamed and sorrowfully dowsed. Maybe if we just try one more time . . . no? Dammit.
As a lad seeing this film, as I was about the age of the characters when this film made its way to Providence RI and played at the Avon theater basically on Brown University’s quirky commercial district, Thayer St. I was with my friend, Kerry, who could have been a stand-in for Withnail. While we weren’t by any means actors or even very artsy, we were underemployed students, largely friendless, and at least I, was without female attention (there are no sweet women in the film for the lads). Seeing this film was like a kind of eye-opening psychiatric trip. When the wrecking ball slams the building timed perfectly to “All Along the Watchtower” it has to be understood that the concept of a perfect music video was still a fairly new idea. And neither I or my friend had access to cable television to watch endless hours of MTV. It was a powerful jolt focusing our attention. This all came together like the first time you read Portnoy’s Complaint, and you suddenly realize you’re not the only stupid asshole crying forlornly into your pillow.
Of course, we never had a Monty to take care of us and hit on us, nor were we spending much of our time drugging ourselves into an oblivion to escape the hardships, but we had our own means. We were also amateur film buffs and spent long hours consuming, almost competitively (which I intend to revive), the worst we could find, and naively reviewing our finds for ourselves and friends. Remember this is all pre-internet. The reality is 1987, was not remarkably different culturally from 1969. The semiconductor revolution had not quite lifted off, or at least, reached us yet. Withnail & I had to be sought out, traveled for, and sat on hard seats to watch. It wasn’t a push-button world yet.
In the film, the things we attached ourselves to weren’t the big comic moments with Monty or the country folks. We were enthralled with their friendship and their nearly hopeless poverty. My buddy Kerry liked best that the fellows were always pretty much dirty. This film was truly a remarkable experience, in much the same way our punk rock experiences with British bands like The Fall, PiL, or Echo and the Bunnymen would be (by the time the Clash landed with Combat Rock, they were only playing stadiums, I’d missed their previous small venue touring being underage at the time). Our blue collar world resonated with Withnail & I and these Brit bands the way few things in our American experience did. Brits were and are better attached to the struggles of class and hopelessness than Americans who stubbornly maintain denial.
Returning to the film, there are several powerful moments, one when the boys return and find their flat occupied by some of the most indecipherable (for a Yank) well-medicated squatters, who proceed to challenge Withnail about self-medicating, getting some amazing reactions and exchanges that, as far as I’m concerned, rival anything acted in the last forty years. Richard E. Grant should have become a major star, instead of a comic background character (despite his excellence in such parts). I suppose his gangling form will limit him to certain roles, but I think he really proved himself in this film. As far as the &I character, Paul McGann he’s really there to mainly give Withnail a board to work off of.
I won’t spell out the ending, but I’ll tell you that despite the lack of gunfights and rape sequences, the shock is still strong enough to be plenty memorable. In many ways, Withnail & I is the perfect movie. A stirring reflection of remembrances past laced with poignancy and pressing home the cyclical wheel of so-called “fate” in our lives. As we rise, so shall we fall, and as we achieve so shall we . . . uh, unachieve . . . you get the idea.
Also, where are these friends now, these amazing characters who influenced and aided, or parasitized and frustrated us . . . so many long gone beauties and moments never to be recaptured, except in really well executed art.
Thanks for reading –
Good Luck finding this gem, it’s not available on Prime / Hulu / or Netflix. I own my copy.