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“Throw yourself into the road, darling!”

22/05/2010

Well, it’s that time of year: graduation is upon us. I assumed it would stop meaning anything to me when I left college last year, somehow forgetting, as self-absorbed as most people, that my best friend still had a year to go at the same institution. So a few days ago I saw him off; into the same world that’s treated me indifferently over the course of the past year. He has the wanderlust (while in spite of my travels, I’m essentially a domestic creature) so I don’t know when I’ll be seeing him again; besides which, our friendship was so intense, and so tied to the miserable place in which we found ourselves, I think we both sense we need a sort of…mourning period before that relationship can become something else. Anyhow, it put me in mind of what is possibly the funniest, and certainly among the most depressing films ever made: the British cult comedy Withnail & I.

It’s hard to describe this film which is really simple in its premise. Two failing young actors try to kill time, and indirectly themselves, waiting onsuccess. One of them (the unnamed “I”) suggests a trip to the country: his more volatile and flamboyant friend, Withnail, spits back: “I’m in a park and I’m practically dead.” The film is a sustained exercise in the sort of comic dialogue perhaps only the British are capable of. My favorite part must be when Withnail, reading the paper, happens across the story of a shot-putter who is giving up steroids: “My God, this huge, thatched head with its earlobes and its cannonball is now considered sane.” A man remarkable for being huge and taking illegal drugs is newsworthy; Withnail, arguably a genius, languishes in obscurity.

Above: “I am a trained actor…reduced to the status of a bum!”

Why is that I, along with so many others, consider this so true to life? Not everyone’s situation (not even every young artist’s) is this desperate, with Withnail downing half a bottle of lighter fluid in place of booze, then asking for antifreeze. But it belongs to what I think of as the Aesthetic of Losers. So many films are about attractive people whose failures provide plot points; few actually linger, in a profound and unsentimental way, on what my jacket copy of Howard’s End calls “the grim edge of poverty and ruin.” To quote another cult classic, The Catcher in the Rye–after one of Holden’s teachers describes life as a game, he reflects, “sure, if you’re on the side with all the hotshots. But what if you’re on the other side, what kind of game is that? No game at all.”

The thing is, if we grow up in any kind of stable environment, we’re inoculated by society to believe it will look after us. It doesn’t. If a society is constructed on any sort of sound principals, it’s meant to insure “the greatest good for the greatest number.” What about the people who fall through the cracks?

When I saw Withnail last summer, I called my friend immediately and said, “you’ve got to watch this. It’s about two guys. It’s not that one reminds me of me, and the other of you; but they remind me of us.” It wasn’t the same situation by a long shot. In the film one of the characters eventually finds success; leaving the other–one imagines not without considerable pain–essentially, to die. I did happen to find some success. But my friend, unlike me, doesn’t aspire to be famous. He does feel the pain and injustice of life (or I should say, society) very sharply, and doesn’t yet know what he wants to make of himself. I know; the question remains, for me, if I’ll be allowed to make it of myself.

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