Sunday 26 May 2013

Withnail and I or: Searching for the "British Dream"

I was re-watching 80s binge drinker movie Withnail and I the other night, and either because I was in the middle of reading Hunter S. Thompson's classic gonzo adventure or because both works really are that similar, I was reminded a lot of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Actually, replace Las Vegas for English country green, and replace copious amounts of drugs for copious amounts of alcohol (and some drugs), and both are really one in the same. Fear and Loathing, the movie at least, was adapted from a book that summed up the trippy 60s and it's rough morning after: the 70s. Withnail, which itself received a similar case of moderate success followed by a cult following, seems like it wants to be a book. The narration and world always feel like they're missing out details the book explained to us. Like the characters are only adaptations of already memorable ink, and the story is - like the Fear and Loathing adaptation - simply picking out the best bits and re-arranging them to create an understandable film language out of the drug-induced ramblings on paper. Yet it isn't an adaptation, it's written by the same boozy guy who directed the movie, and the same boozy guy who just so happened to take 20 years off before returning to direct a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation in the form of The Rum Diary, an only decent movie that has still managed to become much underrated under the barrage of derision it received on release.

But back to where I originally was; traveling along a highway, headed away from the people and the noise and into the sparsely populated heart of Britain. Like Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo headed to Vegas with the clear-cut purpose of covering the Mint 400 race, Withnail and our main character; not even getting the name "I" until the end credits, set out for the Countryside to relax and get away from their dead-end acting jobs, and to escape their run-down, debt ridden apartment. But like Hunter Thompson's alter ego, our two heroes find they really have no idea why they are their, and ultimately find that the country is more dangerous than they had originally thought.

The story itself matters very little, this is a character piece, which of course only works if the characters are damn interesting. Luckily Richard E. Grant's Withnail is one of cinema's great creations. Like all things in this film it took me until that second viewing but a few nights ago to really appreciate the character; he's a total prick. As an audience we set ourselves to believe in our main characters and their supposed good intentions, and when they don't have any good intentions we believe in them because whatever they are doing they are doing with style, and passion. Withnail is such a solid character because he lacks any sort of redeeming feature or reason for any of the other characters to like him, but like all of the other characters who are so happy to spend their time with him, we enjoy to watch him to simply see what he will do next. His only real intention is to have a nice weekend in the country; at night he wants a nice place to sleep and during the day he just wants to get smashed and soak up the culture in the most hap-hazard way. Not really good intentions, but he does it with the wicked style and demonic passion that keeps you watching.

And we see all this through the eyes of I, or Paul McGann for short. He's a normal blue-collar man, or at least he hopes to be one day; billed as an out of work actor hoping to land a big role, that has unfortunately been dragged down by Withnail into the drug culture of a failing 60s Britain. They get the country home their staying at off of Withnail's uncle Monty (the recently passed Richard Griffiths) a jolly man who just so happens to be a raging homosexual.

So what am I actually trying to say about all Withnail and Loathing and Britain and dreams and whatever else anyway? Is this a review or a rambling essay on Britain and journeys? Well unfortunately it's the latter, but I might as well get all that reviewing shit out the way first. As I mentioned before I hated this absurdist monstrosity on my first go-around, but once I watched it again I've actually come to rebrand it. Maybe it was the hype of watching a cult classic, or any one of the many other nice things I had heard of this from what was most likely all British critics. Whatever it was, it made this movie look very mundane the first time I watched it. But the other night, as a (excitedly) gave this one another chance I truthfully knew deep down I was going to find it a lot better than I did long ago. It's a frequent occurrence for me. A film for whatever reason doesn't live up to the hype I had for it (and I mean long-winding cinephile hype, not that crappy studio-imposed hype that comes with every new superhero release) but it broods in my brain long enough, swirling around and connecting the dots my hype filled eyes were too blind to see, until by the time I watch the film again I am then able to enjoy it for what it is.

And believe me, there is riches to be found here. I wouldn't exactly brand this as a comedy as most do, but there is a dark cheek to watching Withnail get himself into all sorts of trouble, you keep watching for the same reason you would keep watching a nature program where a zebra attacks a lion (and if your not the type of person who would watch that, then I doubt your the kind who would watch this). Maybe it's not funny, buy then again it sort of is. But the comedy isn't why you would watch this, it's not the weird spectacle you expect from a cult film, it's actually a brilliantly written mini-masterpiece, the story itself revealing it's real brilliance only in retrospective (and in it's ending, one that meant nothing to me on first viewing, but on second viewing I noticed that it was the key to unlocking Withnail's character) and the direction is filled with a sort of ferocious energy that should feel out of place with the mundanity of the lives these characters, but it only adds to the bizarre world that is created here.

In review terms: I liked this movie a lot. It still feels like it's expanding in my mind. But for what it is now, it's a well acted and well made movie that really didn't need to do anything well in the first place, it's an alcohol soaked journey of one of the most brilliant characters ever put to screen, with all of this made possible by Paul McGann's I, who cements this whole world of weirdness, and is our constant lifeline back to reality. If you haven't seen this film already then I highly recommend it. 9/10 

But reviewing it wasn't what I set out to do here. I started this post about Hunter S. Thompson and now I can finally get back to that. Hell, just look at the Withnail and I artwork at the top of the page; the same sort of crude counter-art that Ralph Steadman filled the pages of Fear and Loathing with. But it's more than just some front cover scribbles which draw me to connect both works. Both Thompson and Robinson seem to have found the perfect formula for the boozy road movie; their set-ups in which one normal (well, more normal, at least) character cements the story from a more deranged lunatic who manages to charm his way into being the voice of reason at times. And what are these people trying to find? Well Duke and Gonzo's assignment states they are to find the American Dream (as well as cover the mint 400). To think about it the Nevada desert is as good a place as any for the American Dream to be hiding, or at least it was back in the 70s. All of the tripped out hippies of the psychedelic movement just a few years were closer than anyone else to catching this dream, and it's a damn shame they were too drugged up to notice; the reason they let it slip away without even so much as a fight.

And on the other side of the ocean Withnail and I are looking for something just as un-findable. It has no name, the fact that the "american dream" was given a name goes a long way to showing the commerciality of such a country; it's just a big advertisement for the country. It's only Duke and Gonzo, operating in a world most people read about because they would rather not experience, that have any chance of walking in on the dream, probably with it's pants down. But their english counter-parts are looking for something similar. The acting job they keep up isn't the dream. That's a goal and a career. A dream, as long as it isn't a foolishly over-elaborate one, should require no work at all; it should be as easy as closing your eyes at night. I don't have a name for what they're looking for, but as it's already in the title I guess I'm forced to brand their conquest the search for the "British Dream". Being a British man myself I know that-that title is a double negative; Britain isn't the land of the dreamers. The American Dream exists for people in Britain, not for people in America, or at least for those of us in Britain who can't see the colour in our own country, we see only the grey colour of it's personality.

The search for such a thing itself is reason enough to brand this a comedy. Because such a dream involves only going to the country where the characters can in part self destruct, and where the people they insult are not big burly men at the bar but old people addressing a tea party. They have no reason to run away from them, they can be as vile as they want, they are above that world.

And the ending of both films perfectly sums up each country. Or at least they sum up my personal experience of Britain and my mind warped image of America. The ending of Fear and Loathing (spoilers for both in the next two paragraphs) is different between the film and the book. On papar Duke ends his odyssey by taking some amyls (prescription drugs that he doesn't have a prescription for) and laughing at two marines; ending the 60s myth of revolution leading to peace once and for all, and in such glowing fashion: high on drugs and not giving a fuck. The movie ends with a different scene, but the same note. Duke just manages to get Gonzo to the airport, and after a decently uplifting sentiment from such a deranged man, Duke rides off, leaving the troubles of Vegas behind as we watch his red convertible disappear into the distance to the sound of The Stones' Jumpin Jack Flash. There's no uplifting sentiment at heart here, but because of the aesthetics put in place the heart felt feeling of a journey fulfilled and an era ended is still in place.

But we now transport across the pond, the sun-kissed desert has been replaced with water lashing from the sky and green on the floor. "I" manages to escape, he lands an acting job which allows him to escape. He goes to board the train; Withnail being left behind with the junkies and crack whores who we suddenly realize he doesn't want to be with. But in Thompson's vision we watch Dr. Gonzo leave on a plane, his horrific character protected by the country he lives in, while Withnail is left there, no plane or train to take him away. It's in the end (the same one I found so out of place on first viewing) where Withnail recites a paragraph of Shakespeare. And he's good at it. I didn't get this ending at first, but looking back I realize that Withnail's inability to find a job and escape this now failing decade has nothing at all to do with his acting skill or talents. It's with him as a person, he doesn't want to succeed. He is a swirling abyss of self destruction. It's this moment that turns Withnail into such a great character, and it's what in retrospective seeps tragedy over the rest of the film.

And such self destruction, such will to not succeed is what is so uniformly British about this film. As a man of English origin I don't see that as a flaw in the people of this country, or even as something new that no one but me has the balls to write. British people know better than anyone else that they don't aim to be the next president and don't believe their country is the best country in the world. If not through their own feelings then from such negative opinions when American people do such things. If Fear and Loathing takes you into the dark heart of America, and that's exactly what Thompson promises to do when you first enter on this journey with him, then Withnail and I is a look at the un-said truth about Britain and it's aspirations, the "British Dream" if you will.

Both works are fantastic. I'll probably feel the need to ramble on about Fear and Loathing in a separate post, but in case I'm killed before then - my final write up on both the film and book is that each represents some of the best stuff their respective mediums have to offer. They're actually a lot more witty than withnail is and the drug-induced imagery and hollywood escapades are things a British production of a story set in Britain couldn't keep up with. But there's a dark heart to Withnail that even Thompson (or Terry Gilliam for that matter) don't offer. Withnail is a fun movie, and also a perfect one in it's understanding of character and structure (a no bullshit approach to both). It's a tragic tale filled with it's fair share of exciting, memorable sequences that has a very tragic ending, but it neither feels tragic or exciting, and I mean that as a compliment. These characters simply exist, and while the 80s-made film is set in the 60s, it captures a time and place that is lost forever in perfect detail.

Ok, one last paragraph, filled with a sort of philosophical element that goes partly unexplained to end this drama in style. Near the end of Withnail, the two title characters sit back in their apartment, sitting back with Danny, their drug dealer, who along with the apartment itself bookends their journey. He is there with another drug taker: Presuming Ed. Here we are, at the end of the 60s, although we and the filmmakers are looking back at it. It's in Fear and Loathing which came out in the early 70s that looked back in horror at how such a brilliant decade had ended. Now sitting back in their apartment, Danny says "They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black". Withnail's tragic walk into the distance, which presents a visual opposite of Depp's car vanishing into the desert, doesn't just end a friendship; it ends the decade. Both works wave goodbye to the 60s, both are one in the same really, but both are from opposite sides of the pond, which is what paints them so differently.

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