On Holiday By Mistake: rekindling the flame for Withnail & I

Posted by Kells, March 11, 2009 05:39pm | Post a Comment

Today Northern California was treated to another brisk yet glorious morning of blue, cloudless skies. This is a most welcome respite from many weeks draped in a drab grey layer of drizzle, rain and heavy downpours resulting in deluged drains all over the city and local newspaper headlines pointing fingers in jest at the Governator's now weakened "worst drought ever" claim. I love rain and I love seeing tourists in San Francisco -- both mean great things for our fair state. But what I love most about rain in San Francisco is watching tourists deal with it because whether they're curtained in plastic panchos, or struggling with Chinatown-cheap umbrellas (rendered useless by sudden gales), or clutching upside down, sopping wet sight-seeing schedules (inexpensive print ink bleeding from the page) with arms weighed down with souvenir bags (pakced full of chocolate, magnets, mugs, keychains, more chocolate and "Alcatraz Swim Team" T-shirts) they still manage to make the most of their cold, wet pre-season, bargain-priced, best-value vacation. Perhaps they'll leave nothing of their hearts in San Francisco when they leave, their inundated ephemera safely stowed. I often wonder when I spy these hapless yet brave winter visitors (and their shivering, fog-weary summer counterparts) if they ever question whether or not they might've been swindled by a capricious Mother Nature. After all, pleasant yet drought-like weather predictions were widely published recently, before the storms hit, and they could have only anticipated the best weather ever. Packed wet and disheveled into drafty, wet cable car cabins, however, their faces seemed to say, "we've gone on holiday by mistake."

If you recognize the above reference then it's time for you to watch Withnail & I (written and directed by Bruce Robinson, 1987) again. If, on the contrary, the quote means nothing to you, then I am jealous of you because that means you get to watch one of the greatest, infinitely quotable "buddy" films of all time for the first time -- and what I would give to relive that initial viewing again. Every time I see that cinematically understated opening sequence, steeped in misery and ominous drear, I feel a wave of comfort and nostalgia rush over me not unlike the pleasant feelings one gets from meeting a kindred spirit at an old haunt where time seems suspended and conversations remain forever open-ended. It settles and preps me for the bountiful barrage of verbal gems that follow, falling from the screen preciously like booty from buried treasure. Recent lovingly oft-quoted films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad, Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin are, when compared to Withnail & I, like cup noodles prancing in the shadow of soul food. I think a more comparable modern counterpart to Withanail & I might be found in The Big Lebowski, but there's an undercurrent of poetry that Withnail carries which, sadly, Lebowski hath not. 

Some of that poetry recently went up for sale. According to BBC News, Sleddale Hall, or Crow Cragg as it is called in the film, was put up for sale in late January and was listed as being "in the veiled parlance of a slick estate agent, in need of a bit of modernization." Though the shoddy, semi-derelict cottage perched among the steep rolling hills of England's picturesque Lake District is only accessible via a dirt track miles away from any real roads and requiring special permission to trespass, a steady stream of fans make the pilgrimage to, if for no other reason, scribble some of their favorite quotes on the walls. "Uncle Monty's cottage" sold at a lively auction (described by The Times as "almost as melodramatic as Richard E. Grant's performance as an alcoholic actor convinced he is destined for stardom" in reference to the Withnail character in the film) packed with fans who shouted lines at each other before ultimately being sold for £265,000 to Sebastian Hindley, a politician and pub-owner local to the area where the run-down farmhouse turned cult-film-junky-mistaken-vacation destination lay. "Free for those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can't" is not a Withnail quote that Hindley seems to favor for he claims that he hopes to make the cottage available to all who love the film and quote it ceaselessly (on the walls and especially on the front door of the beloved "Crow Cragg.") 

Some of my favorite quotes from the film provide me with what I like to believe to be a portrait of what the sixties were like for those who can't remember it (meaning those who really lived it, not those who weren't born yet like me.) Take, for example, some of the stellar morsels delivered by Ralph Brown, who portrayed Danny (the drug dealer) in the film, like: "I don't advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight" and "If you're hanging on to a rising balloon, you're presented with a difficult decision — let go before it's too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworth's, 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." The quotability never ends and neither does the fun, although it could kill you. 

Last week a friend of mine (and fellow Amoeba "professor of the arts") informed me of the dangerously appealing existence of a Withnail & I drinking game in which viewers attempt to match drink for drink, ounce for ounce every whiskey, cider and wineglass of fermented beverage downed by the players in the film. This is of course "appealing" because the only thing the characters do more than deliver memorable lines is drink booze (which, in turn, kind of makes viewers wanna drink booze) and "dangerous" because of the sheer amount of alcohol that is consumed constantly (and over a period of a weekend within the film) is not limited to wine, sherry, cider, gin, and whiskey alone, but also includes a swig of lighter fluid. I don't know anyone anymore who could play this game and win, whatever "winning" means. I remember reading in Richard E. Grant's film diaries that he was initially "too fat" to play Withnail (though he's fairly trim) so he restricted his diet to eating melons until he took on that "wasted" look pictured above. It's interesting to note that he didn't smoke or drink at the time when the film was made (and I suspect he still doesn't) --- which just goes to show what a fabulous actor he is. I don't know if he ever "played the Dane" as his character so cock-surely announces an intention to do so in the film, but every time I see his final scene in this film, Withnail playing Hamlet in the rain to caged wolves, I always want more. Just a little more.