“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
— The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
— Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5) by William Shakespeare
“I’m stuck with a valuable friend,
I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too.”
— "Ashes to Ashes" by David Bowie
In a particularly navel-gazing and solipsistic article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph on May 24th, British journalist Rosie Boycott reflected on her 60th birthday, concluding with the following paragraph:
When I was 18 and listening to a Rolling Stones concert beside the Serpentine in Hyde Park, I assumed that people like me would never be old. Back then, 60 was the same as death. But, oh, how nice it is to have a head full of memories, while also knowing that the fights to prove myself are largely done. Once again, we baby boomers are finding the way to reinvent the expectations of a decade. It may indeed be time for a party. [emphasis mine]
Stuff like this is almost beyond parody, but here’s a stab at it anyway: "I'm really great and I changed the world and I did everything and now I'm a bit bored 'cause I'm old, but actually, this is a terrific reason to talk about how great I am in embracing turning 60! Because we of the '60s generation re-invented everything and, oh boy, we’re still at it. Next week I'm going to talk about the existential crisis inherent in the act of putting on shoes — a challenge, of course, but I'm so wonderful that I'm sure I'll be able to overcome that by being great!"
Here is the thing: I can't even go near the subject of the '60s without foaming at the mouth in a blind rage. You can stick your swingin’ London up yer arse, mate. The only story there is how a lot of very deluded individuals rode the greatest explosion of wealth in the history of mankind and somehow convinced themselves that it was their doing. What a bunch of wankers. My own personal favorite on the list of “things you should be ashamed of, but don’t seem to stop you from singing your own praises” is newsreel footage of British students demonstrating against Uncle Sam and his involvement in Vietnam, going on about Trotsky and Chairman Mao, and at the same time accepting their degrees as paid for by America! Right on, brother.
As I talked about in this very column last week, today’s pop culture is tainted by nostalgia, and the sixties receive their fair share of it, both from the boomers and those who don’t even know what a boomer is. The problem is not the hippie movement (which, alas, could never sustain itself anyway). Despite its inherently juvenile histrionics, even a cynical old fart like me could not muster up that much ire for a bunch of doped up idealists that ultimately believed in peace and love and all that good shit. But the sixties were a direct by-product of the post-war economic development of the West. All that hippie stuff was fine, but in the decade’s DNA was pure vicious capitalism: the birth of PR, marketing, consumerism, postmodern shite. Ultimately, the decade itself was nothing but another stage in the development of the political economy of the human race. Not a Valhalla, and not a rite of passage, either. It was simply another phase in the evolution of Western capitalism from a manufacturing based system to a service- and speculation-based one. And it was dismal.
This gloom is captured perfectly in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I, recently named by Time Out London as the seventh greatest comedy film of all time. Robinsons’s 1987 film has a bit of a cult following in the United States, never quite infiltrating the popular zeitgeist, but it is venerated as a bona fide classic on the other side of the pond. Set in 1969, the film chronicles a lost weekend of sorts as two out-of-work London-based actors (Richard E. Grant in his career-defining role as Withnail and Paul McGann as the titular “I,” also known as Marwood in the script) try to recover from drinks, drugs and general despondency by embarking upon a trip to Penrith, Cumbria, to stay at Withnail’s lascivious gay uncle Monty’s (Richard Griffiths) country cottage. They find that the country air does not really agree with them, are ambushed by Monty (who makes the trip from London with his eyes firmly set on “I’s” asshole), things fall apart and, eventually, the pair go their own ways. There is no plot to speak of, which is so very welcome.
Already a personal favourite, Withnail and I has occupied my DVD player rather frequently of late, seeing as recently, I, too, went on holiday by mistake. I could make other connections, like also living in a crammy old London apartment just out of university or the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol, but those would only be the very obvious, and thus superficial, ones. No, the reason the film has occupied my consciousness so much lately is due to two things: its unflinching portrayal of the sixties and its use of endings as its leitmotif.
Britain at the end of the sixties was waking up from a fever dream and into a nightmare. The glory days of the fifties boom were coming to an end; the OPEC crisis was just round the corner and the country was unable to sustain itself under the duress of either terrible manufacturing practices or unrelenting labor unions. A decade of political upheaval that would only be mitigated by 18 years of Conservative was just around the corner. What the boomers still advocate as the greatest decade had been a sleight of hand, a bridge between the boom of the fifties and the bust of the seventies.
And elsewhere it was the same. In 1969, the Six-Day War was only two years passed. America was getting more and more involved in Vietnam, with a President that was tapping all and sundry. Khrushchev’s era had been over for a while in the Soviet Union, and Brezhnev had started consolidating his power. And in the wake of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, Mao’s China was on the brink of collapse, held together by an iron fist of oppression. In Europe, things were the same. France was still burning, with the Paris Commune and the 1968 movement having eventually produced nothing but discourse (which is to say, nothing tangible). And Czechoslovakia was still burning, too, the previous year’s Soviet invasion a clear sign to the rest of the Communist Bloc: “Don’t even think about it, motherfucker!” In hindsight, that the Altamont Speedway Free Festival took place on 6th December, 1969 was all too apt.
Withnail and I does not romanticize the 1960s. Early in the film, sitting in a squalid Camden café and coming down from a speed trip, Marwood laments to himself, “Thirteen million Londoners have to wake up to this. The murder and all-bran and rape? And I'm sitting in this bloody shack, and I can't cope with Withnail. I must be out of my mind. I must go home at once and discuss his problems in depth.” And what’s Withnail’s most pressing problem when Marwood gets back to the flat? “I have some extremely distressing news. We’ve just run out of wine. What are we going to do about it?” In this instance, it is clear where the two characters diverge, and what Withnail truly represents: the callously self-obsessed legacy of the baby boomers.
Withnail is the driving force of the film, though he hardly ever takes the wheel during their ill-advised trip to Penrith (the one time he does is on the way back to London and he is shitted out of his skull). My friend, the eminent academic Matthew Whittle, describes Marwood and Withnail’s relationship as that of a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde. Withnail is concerned only about himself; a true narcissist, he wants the world’s riches handed to him on a silver platter without making even a smidgen of an effort (the real Withnail, Vivian MacKerrell, an erstwhile flatmate of Robinson’s, apparently betrayed the same unflinching qualities). Withnail is the true spirit of the sixties generation: stuck eternally in an immature bubble of false idealism and self-worship. He never realizes that growing up is a part of life. To make the effort to become one with society is not about acquiescing to the system, to “the man,” but rather about being on the same playing field. Marwood realizes this (Whittle points out, in a much longer piece that he and I are working on, how it is Marwood who ventures out to get coffee, searches for food in Penrith or otherwise makes the effort to acclimate the two to this “jungle”), and carries Withnail on his back for as long as the relationship can be sustained.
But it can’t be sustained. It must end. It always does. Withnail and I is a testament to human solitude, and it achieves this by being about endings. The film’s first shot is deceptive in its simplicity. When we first see Marwood, obviously depressed and downtrodden, we see a 30-something man at the end of his tether, drowning in angst. A desk lamp, the single light source, and the books and notepads scattered over a desk betray the possibility that he is a writer. The rest of the filthy furniture has that all-too-familiar aura of the maudlin British middle class. All this, combined with the sluggish zoom of the camera and the melancholy use of the last ever King Curtis live performance of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, presents the audience with an irrevocable feeling of dénouement, almost as if this is the film’s final shot and not its first.
This sense of finality permeates the rest of the film (just look at the wreck outside the pair’s flat or the shots of destruction set to “All Along the Watchtower”). Later in the film, we see Marwood reading R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (could this possibly be the play he’s auditioning for in Manchester rep?). During a walk on the moors, as the effervescently camp Monty talks about an older flame and how “there can be no true beauty without decay,” Withnail remarks “Legium pro Britannia” — “Requiem for England.” Earlier still, Monty intones, “My boys, we're at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that 'set in.' Shat on by Tories, shoveled up by Labor. And here we are...we three...perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” The choice that is eventually presented is obvious: stay within the comfortable decay or venture out into the scary new.
Withnail and I’s message, and I do believe it has one, is that things end. Yes, endings are sad. But they can hold promise. Once the rot sets in, it’s impossible to revert back to a purer form. As such, the film's most improbably touching (and strangely ironic) line comes from the affable dealer Danny (Ralph Brown): "They're selling hippie wigs at Woolworth's. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over." Alas.
Even though it is set at the tail end of the sixties, even though it ostensibly laments the passing of an era (or an idea thereof), Withnail and I’s true greatness is that it has a wider scope. It's a reflection of a universal: giving up, going straight, getting your hair cut, letting go of a childish dream and becoming a proper human being. And also an elegy for those of us who never quite manage it, I suppose.
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog. Occasionally, he updates his personal blog Cerebral Mastication. In addition, his writing appears on various film and pop-culture sites on the blogosphere. You can follow his updates on twitter at twitter.com/aliarikan.