Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Anglophilistine (Withnail & I)

Withnail & I was a recent assignment in the 1001 Movies Blog Club; I only just caught up with it this week. (Barely tangential sidenote: I may have mentioned at some point in what now seems like the distant past that I was making a concerted effort to stay focused on re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, to the extent that I was selecting movies to watch between novels which somehow informed the overall aesthetic of that literary magnum opus, e.g. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. That plan started going wobbly about the time that I was called on to select an assignment, picked The Great Escape, and then felt obliged to watch it at the designated time with the rest of the Club. This despite the fact that, as I recall, there is an actual jailbreak in Dark Tower volume VI, which I haven’t quite gotten to yet. I finished volume V a week or two ago, and I should devote a post to that at some point, but suffice to say it’s “the one with the robots that non-coincidentally look like Doctor Doom” which means any time during or immediately after would have been a good time to watch Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which is emphatically NOT one of the films anyone must see before they die, but has been recommended to me by fellow comics fans as “not as bad as you might think” and thus has been in my queue for a while. Instead, after Dark Tower V, I read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and watched a minor British black comedy from the 80’s. Plans are hard.)

As usual, I enjoyed the assigned film; given that we’re working from a nominally curated list and that I tend to pick and choose based on my own tastes (occasionally making the effort to broaden my horizons but generally avoiding experimental and impenetrable stuff) and I just tend to like movies on the whole, that’s hardly surprising. What was surprising to me was that this was the first time since I jumped on the Club bandwagon that I found myself wondering why the movie at hand was considered a must-see. Again, not that I thought it was bad, per se. It’s a rambling hangout movie, it has a misanthropic edge without being overwhelmingly ugly, it has some funny quotable lines, and I understand it has quite the cult following, particularly in Britain. But there are lots of other movies that fall into some if not all of those categories, and nothing in Withnail & I struck me as superlative. Doubtless that says more about me than about the movie itself or even the notion of Films You Must See; I expect anything on a must-see list to be great in at least one dimension, whether it be a trailblazing pioneer, or a paragon of a certain school or form, or a milestone in the historical development of cinema, or just have a brilliant script or pyrotechnic acting or gorgeous cinematography or the like going for it. None of that applies to Withnail & I. It’s a good movie, and devoid of context I’d give it my standard blessing: perfectly good for what it is. But not must-see.

Not for me, anyway. Maybe (almost certainly) it’s more resonant for Britons of a certain age and/or disposition. For all my exposure through everything from my wife’s family to James Herriot to the Sex Pistols to Top Gear &c., I still … don’t really get it. Life on the dole is, to me, like life on another planet. To be a young, healthy, aspiring actor who is unemployed but nevertheless has enough money to rent a flat, own a car and fill it with gas, drink and do drugs near-constantly, and take an impromptu holiday in the countryside seems like a complaint-free existence to me, but given that Withnail and Marwood are almost wall-to-wall miserable, I must be missing something. (I found myself thinking throughout the viewing time of Workaholics, which has many similarities in terms of the substance-based self-abuse and pitch black humor of the relative have-nots, but Blake, Adam and Ders actually have jobs. Socialism, amirite?) I can also see the subplot involving Uncle Monty and his semi-repressed homosexuality, which is played for laughs but is also handled fairly sympathetically, giving the movie some additional meaningfulness in the LGBT audience, particularly given the prevailing winds of the decade in which Withnail & I arrived. Maybe that’s the simplest explanation of all, that cult movies really most properly belong to the cohort that discovered them first, back when there was little or nothing like them; you can watch them at the remove of a couple decades, but by then their impact will be significantly diluted. So it subjectively goes.

1 comment:

  1. "To be a young, healthy, aspiring actor who is unemployed but nevertheless has enough money to rent a flat, own a car and fill it with gas, drink and do drugs near-constantly, and take an impromptu holiday in the countryside seems like a complaint-free existence to me..."

    In modern America, that sounds like science fiction to me. BOOM!

    I had the same experience you had. Withnail isn't a bad movie, but I can't see why it's considered a great or beloved one. It's just kinda...there.

    My sense was that you have to see it at just the right age, when you're old enough to see grownup movies but young enough to see Withnail as heroic and cool, rather than kind of pathetic. Like The Catcher in the Rye, which is deep and powerful and true when you're fifteen but silly and shallow when you're thirty-five.

    I'll never forget the night I introduced a bunch of friends to Repo Man. I'd seen it twenty times, but not for years. The others had never seen it. We were all about thirty or so. When it was over, I got a collective dope-slap for picking such a terrible movie. I was flabbergasted. "But...but...'Repo Man!' 'Plate of Shrimp!' 'Let's go do some crimes!'" Alas. Like a baby duck, I had imprinted on the movie as a youth, and love it beyond reason. (Repo Man is the prototype for Fight Club; why does nobody else see that? Argh!)