Withnail & I (And Us)

August 1, 2008

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If you’ve clicked on this entry, perhaps you’re familiar with the first two characters which makes you one of us. If you’re one of us, you might advise me not to threaten you with a dead fish, demand to know what’s in my tool box, and/or be prone to go on holiday by mistake. And if you’re not one of us, you are now extended an invitation to a delightful weekend in the country with…

Withnail And I – one of the great cult movies of all time.

So, you haven’t seen it, perhaps haven’t even heard of it. So what the hell is it all about? Set in the final months of the ’60s, Withnail And I is the story of two out-of-work actors living in a dilapidated flat in Camden Town. Possessing “nothing that reasonable members of society demand as their rights,” the pair – Withnail and the unnamed “I” (although some of us know him to be Marwood) – spend their time collecting their government assistance checks, consuming copious amounts of alcohol, and getting turned down for cigar commercials. Everything changes when they take their well-worn Jag to the country to “rejuvenate” at the Crow Crag, a ramshackle cottage belonging to Withnail’s Uncle Monty.

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson (who had earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the movie The Killing Fields), Withnail And I was produced by Handmade Films, a production company owned by the late George Harrison. The cast is little more than Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann who play the title characters, and Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty. Ralph Brown plays a smaller, but no less important role, as Danny the drug dealer (a character he reprised in Wayne’s World 2)

How has this small movie garnered such a following? Perhaps it is because it rings so true. Most people, particularly those just entering the “adult world” are likely to relate to the dire predicament in which Withnail and Marwood find themselves: no money, no women, and no prospects. Their banter, often – at least in Withnail’s case – drunken, is wittily scathing, slyly profound and surprisingly poignant, and never cliché. There’s also a wonderful soundtrack featuring music of the period as well as a heartbreakingly lovely original score.

At heart, it’s a movie of friendship and those moments in life where friendships change. Perhaps the best review I have ever read regarding Withnail And I described it “as deep as you want it to be and as shallow as you need it to be.”

So, you’ve been invited. If you care to join us, seek it out. You might soon find yourself yelling “Scrubbers!” at schoolgirls, pondering Jeff Wode stepping back into society and tossing his orb about, demanding cake and fine wine, or rolling a “Camberwell Carrot” (provided you have enough paper).

Now, I must leave. My thumbs have gone weird and I have to eat some sugar.

King Curtis – A Whiter Shade Of Pale
Would it be inaccurate to describe Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale as the Stairway To Heaven of the ’60s. This version by saxophonist King Curtis plays over the opening of the movie and sets the tone. Curtis, who was once bandleader for Aretha Franklin has an amazing list of credits as a session player. Sadly, he was stabbed to death with singer Sam Moore and Aretha Franklin witnessing the murder. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve read that the murder took place following the show from which this recording was taken.

Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
The soundtrack to Withnail & I has long been out of print. It’s said that one reason is due to pressure from the family of Jimi Hendrix who refuse to allow the guitar legend’s music to be used in any way that glamorizes alcohol or drug abuse. Whatever the case, it’s impossible for me to hear Voodoo Child and not think of it’s use in the film.

The Beatles – While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Harrison said that he was inspired to write While My Guitar Gently Weeps by the I Ching. The Beatles have rarely authorized the use of their music for films, but Harrison’s connection to Withnail & I made it’s appearance on the soundtrack possible.

David Dundas & Rick Wentworth – Withnail’s Theme
Dundas, as I recall, was a friend of Bruce Robinson’s and had scored a hit song in 1976 with Jeans On (if I know it, I don’t know that I do). Withnail’s Theme plays over the closing credits and as the movie has one of the most heartbreaking endings I know, this instrumental is melancholic perfection.

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Dith Pran Is Dead

April 3, 2008

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Pran was a journalist and photographer who served as a translator for The New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg in the waning days of the Vietnam War. When Phnom Penh fell in 1975, Pran made the fateful decision to remain in his native Cambodia – a decision that left him cut off from his family who had fled to America and in a day-to-day struggle to stay alive under the brutal rule of Pol Pot whose desire to return the country to “Year Zero” put anyone considered an intellectual at risk.

Like most people familiar with the man, I learned of Dith Pran through the critically-acclaimed 1984 film The Killing Fields (albeit several years later). My interest in the movie was due to the fact that Bruce Robinson, one of my favorite writers, had earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for chronicling the four years of Pran’s life under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (who killed an estimated two million Cambodians) and his subsequent escape to the States.

Starring Sam Waterston as Schanberg and first-time actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Pran, The Killing Fields is powerful, harrowing and chaotic, filled with heartbreaking imagery and scenes that linger long after its viewing. There are also moments of simple poignancy and unexpected humor. Ironically, Ngor, who had also survived the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and won an Oscar for his portrayal of Pran, was murdered in Los Angeles in a robbery.

As for Pran, regiments of traitorous cells managed to do what one of the most barbaric dictatorships known to man couldn’t when he passed away from pancreatic cancer this past weekend. Speaking of his illness, he said, “Cambodians believe we just rent this body. It is just a house for the spirit, and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave.”

What a wonderful world it would be if more people exhibited the courage, grace, and humanity of Dith Pran.

The Waterboys – Spirit

Bruce Cockburn – Postcards From Cambodia