Withnail & I (1987), dir. Bruce Robinson

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During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.

Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.

Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.

In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.

Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.

Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.

As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884). 

Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.

Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.

Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.

Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration behind Withnail, died in 1995. As Robinson reflects in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the screenplay:

[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.

In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.

Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.

Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.

Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”

What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.

Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.

Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.

McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.

My 2016 in Film: The 1970s

The 1970s as a decade are perhaps most notable for coinciding with my parents’ coming-of-age. My dad’s CD collection has basically ensured that I’m enamoured with any and all progressive rock released in the early 1970s. Whenever I’m watching a film from the 70s, I end up thinking in the back of my mind that my parents have probably watched it at some point.

The Last Detail (1973), dir. Hal Ashby

Released by Indicator later this year, The Last Detail is something to get excited for. Although Hal Ashby is better known for Harold and Maude (1971) and Being There (1979), The Last Detail is one of the greats. Jack Nicholson’s performance as a foul mouthed naval signalman is one of his best, as we see him and Mulhall (Otis Young) moving a teenage sailor (Randy Quaid), through Washington, Philadelphia and Boston over to a naval prison in Portsmouth. Part of the film’s appeal are the locations, giving a fly-by tour of the East Coast of America. But more than that, the film is just genuinely hilarious.

In its evoking of radical new spirituality, and a city populated by brothels, the film might feel somewhat dated, still lingering from the radical late-60s LSD trips of Easy Rider (1969). Yet it never loses any of its interest; its datedness still reveals a timeless narrative about three men in an uneasy situation.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), dir. Joseph Sargent

Tony Scott’s 2009 remake may be better known today, and though I’ve not seen it, Sargent’s film feels like the definitive version. There’s something unquestionably claustrophobic about the Subway. The Subway is an icon of New York City. With daily commutes and tourist travel, we may become complacent with it – but it’s still an underground tunnel, cut-off from the outside, descending into the unknown. The Tube is one of my biggest fears – it becomes almost suffocating, though I can just about deal with it. Projecting these anxieties into a fear of the unknown creates a gripping negotiation thriller. Though our focus remains on a contained space, the film never feels slow and never loses any tension, occasionally cutting to other parts of the city as the mayor decides to negotiate, assigning the police to shift the money over at near-fatal speeds.

Within the George W. Bush rhetoric of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, the film feels distinctly 1970s. Yet danger is still inherent with the Subway. In the short documentary Man Under (2015), we become aware of how suicides can affect the psychology of drivers working for the MTA.

Rather than merely an everyday space, the Subway is a multidimensional space, connecting people from all walks of life, run by many different people. The film remains thrilling to the very end, as we close on an in media res ending. We never get a truly developed insight into the motivations of the film’s trenchcoat-wearing terrorists, yet as we see their disorder and squabbling, they become far more interesting than what could have been characterised as a caricature of a street thug or a Muslim (or Russian) terrorist.

The Day of the Locust (1975), dir. John Schlesinger

The Day of the Locust‘s biggest problem is that it runs too long. Yet in spite of this, its incredible exploration of life in 1930s Hollywood forgives its overlong length. At times, the film is difficult to get through, but in the end it’s worth it. Adapted from Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel, written on the brink of World War II, the film shifts from contemporary to reflective, approaching the 1930s 35 years later. If told today, the film might feel too romanticised, or detached from the era it’s meant to represent. Yet here, there is still a sense of attachment to a period much of the film’s crew would have lived through.

Donald Sutherland excels in his portrayal of the alcoholic and angry Homer Simpson, whose namesake was reportedly borrowed for The Simpsons (1989-present) itself, becoming far more iconic than West’s character (or Sutherland’s portrayal) ever was. Sutherland is terrifying, and justifies watching the film alone. The film’s most powerful scene is in its final act, as we see a riot break out outside the famed Chinese Theater, and chaos descend in the streets. The film forces the viewer to look away because of the scene’s power. It has the power to make everything feel sinister: even nursery rhymes.

Jeepers creepers,
Where’d you get those peepers?

Deep Red (1975), dir. Dario Argento

Dario Argento is perhaps the greatest example of a filmmaker whose focus is on style over substance. The cinematic image in itself carries primacy to Argento. Mastering the giallo, every frame is seeped in colour. Visuals evoke other visuals, as the nighttime bar in Rome, still lit up in the darkness, alludes back to Nighthawks (1942). The mystery which frames the film may carry with it a narrative, but this is never the focus – Argento prefers the image and the setpiece.

Just as important is Goblin, who, as with Tangerine Dream in American cinema, became soundtrack giants of Italian cinema, scoring Zombi (1978), Beyond the Darkness (1979) and Contamination (1980), among many others. Argento’s film simply would not be the same without Goblin; their progressive rock score becomes so entwined with the film that it never leaves one’s mind.

Deep Red has some theoretical underpinnings – like with Brian De Palma, Argento becomes interested in the psychology of the female killer. Having explored similar themes with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Argento examines the notion of femininity through numerous characters, including in how he codes the androgynous drunkard Carlo as queer through feminine conventions.Yet, though the film opens in a lecture theatre, it never aims to be complex – and nor should it.

Network (1976), dir. Sidney Lumet

In my review of Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), I wrote about how that film carries a new relevance in 2016 in how it handles transgender issues, in the light of reports of trans women being sent to men’s prisons and Kayden Clarke being shot by police. Since I watched it back in April, Network has been heralded as messianic, predicting the rise of the modern news media, Donald Trump and fake news. I’m always dubious about these sorts of claims, just as I’m dubious about how Marshall McLuhan is heralded as predicting the rise of the internet. All narratives emerge from a particular cultural context.

Network is a film about prophecy masquerading as news; it should not be taken as a prophecy in itself. As with Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971), Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network frames it as a satire. But Howard Beale’s bullshitting deconstructionist news anchor doesn’t come across as Donald Trump to me, but as Russell Brand, using a platform earned over many years and shifting towards manic outbursts accepted as part of his character, a newfound spirituality (Beale delivers his speeches to large audiences in a studio framed by stained glass church windows) and a rambling, politicised assault on the mainstream media. The irony being, the assault on the mainstream media occurs within its very doors, critiquing itself yet changing nothing, repackaged as entertainment.

Network has its strong moments, yet its focus on secondary and tertiary characters, like network president Max Schumacher (William Holden)’s affair which his colleague Diana (Faye Dunaway), detracts from the film’s focus on Beale and his quotable, still relevant speeches.

Black Sunday (1977), dir. John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer is perhaps his most interesting at his most conspiratorial and political. Like the Korean War communist brainwashing of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the paranoid visions of Seconds (1966) and the political dealings of Seven Days in May (1964), Frankenheimer interests himself in the figure of the political assassin, focusing on Palestinian terrorists planning to create as much damage as possible at an NFL game – a game the President is attending. Though the film is inspired by the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics by Black September, it isn’t difficult to trace these very same tactics to the same ones employed by ISIS in tragedies like the Bastille Day attack on Nice last year. But the film also has some tissue with the post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers of the mid-70s, as the film implicates the disillusionment of a Vietnam veteran and we move between many layers.

The film is an epic in proportions, shifting between multiple countries in its 143 minute runtime, as we see explosive statues of Holy Marys shipped overseas. John Williams’ score, in the wake of Jaws (1975) and just prior to Star Wars (1977) will never be his most iconic, nor his strongest, yet it is recognisably his and lends some tension to proceedings – though it’s somewhat odd to hear his music played over terrorist attacks.

The film is at its most iconic as we shift towards the attack on the Superbowl – an event which today seems to have more to do with advertising than sports. The proportions of the attack are immense, and we are given the sense of human culpability within events (the NFL determine they won’t cancel the event even with the possibility of an attack identified), but the scale never really fulfils its potential. Nolan may have realised such an attack better when emulating it in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), juxtaposed by The Star-Spangled Banner (1814) as in this film. In its conclusion, the gravitas (yet sheer joy) of seeing thousands of spectators killed by a rogue blimp is never communicated, resolved too easily by a disappointing conclusion that undermines the terror of the situation.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977), dir. Wes Craven

hills

Back in 2014, I fell in love with movies one degree further. I ended up scouring YouTube for old films, and burned through a ridiculous number of films in the space of a couple of months. I came across numerous films over this period: like this one, and other Arrow titles like Society (1989). But I wasn’t enjoying films; it was a background distraction, and I never gave these films the attention I was supposed to. Masterpieces became mediocre. Mediocrity became masterpieces. Watching The Hills Have Eyes in HD, rather than in some shitty 240p illegal upload, I was interested to see how my opinion of the film would improve.

But somehow, it got worse.

The Hills Have Eyes looks terrible, drenched in grain. It deserves to be seen in some grindhouse cinema that smells like a backalley that closed 40 years ago, displayed on a scratch-ridden 16mm print.

Cannibalism has often been a subject for the horror film: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Delicatessen and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), even The Neon Demon (2016). But The Hills Have Eyes never manages to communicate the horror of it, or the pleasures of the horror film to the audience. We never get to see human flesh reduced to the bone. The man on the poster with the deformed head casts a looming, terrifying figure, yet he is never able to become something terrifying in the film itself.

The film hinges upon its characters as a joke, and a sense of dramatic irony. The girl who jokes about becoming a human french fry. The barking dog, who has more of a sense of something out of the ordinary than the humans themselves. The caricature of the Christian mother who begs for them to pray to God before they go into the desert – in case something happens to them. Perhaps Wes Craven is defined by his stereotypes, a notion he would deconstruct in Scream (1996).

Perhaps the film is at its most interesting in its base concept of strangers in a desert and its primordial, devolved tribal cannibals, stripped from their humanity with carnivorous teeth, yet the film never does anything interesting with them. The essay in the booklet paints the film as the last political horror film, seeped within the nuclear age and post-Watergate paranoia – but these flourishes are scarcely there.

Beyond some cheap exploitation, the film cannot recapture the same sense of the unwatchable, truly sickening sense of fear that The Last House on the Left (1972) was able to capture.

Night of the Comet (1984), dir. Thom Eberhardt

Night of the Comet seems closer to Escape from New York than Dawn of the Dead. It’s a fun, humoured, if somewhat throwaway 80s flick that still tackles serious themes and subjects.

It barely constitutes a horror film; most of the time, the zombies are human in form, or appear briefly in a dream sequence, or in one or two other scenes. The film isn’t a fight against zombies, it’s a factionalised fight within a humanless world – fights amongst each other. Honestly, a 15 rating seems too much. The focus is squarely on our protagonists. It’s refreshingly familial, and fairly feminist with its two female leads. It’s a very 80s film, but that’s no bad thing. It’s a coming of age story within a world where there is no-one else, with all the responsibility, individuality and freedom that entails.

An apocalyptic event isn’t presented through CGI, but as the entirety of society turned to dust – a much more terrifying thought than a plague of zombies. It becomes a little more ambiguous. Through the conceit of how our leads have survived, there’s a dichotomy between the interior and exterior world. It is the teenagers and the mallrats, existing within the interior world of television and radio, that have survived to build our new world – not the adults, who stand outside with overpriced boppers waiting for a comet show.

Arthur Albert provides some fantastic cinematography, creating a portrait of a humanless, orange tinted Los Angeles, that lives on through routines and mechanisation – sprinklers spraying the glass for no human to observe; televisions playing to no viewers, that reminds me somewhat of Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

I edited a remix of these sequences on my Vimeo: