QUINTESSENCE OF DUST

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In “Call What’s-his-name and ask him about his house” we saw an early scene from the 1987 cult comedy-drama Withnail and I, written and directed by Bruce Robinson. It starred Richard E. Grant (in his first film role) as “Withnail” and Paul McGann (as “I”).

The film explores the roller-coaster relationship between two chronically unemployed actors in London in 1969. They spend their time getting drunk, getting high and getting into trouble.

A. O. Scott (The New York Times) described Withnail as an egotistical blend of Lord Byron with Mick Jagger whose greatest talent appears to be squandering his talent. The “I” character (so called because we never learn his name) is frequently capable of responsibility and diligence, in marked contrast to his friend.

Despite the movie’s frequent hilarity, there are bleaker moments of near-despair plus a pervasive sense that this friendship must be finite. Something has to give.

 

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In this extract, the movie’s conclusion, we witness the pair’s final parting of the ways. A miracle has occurred. When they return from a disastrous weekend in the country home of Withnail’s lecherous gay Uncle Monty, “I” suddenly finds himself employed. He’s won a plum role in a play and must now straighten up and fly right. And he must leave promptly for rehearsals in Birmingham. We see the pair walking to the train station, drinking a bottle of vintage wine stolen from Uncle Monty.

As Withnail returns to the filthy flat he’d previously shared with “I”, we’re left to ponder his future. Bruce Robinson later admitted that his script originally had Withnail committing suicide. But then Robinson had second thoughts. Better, he thought, to leave that young man’s fate in the lap of the gods.

 

 

 

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“THE WRONG POOR SON OF A BITCH”

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“I SAID, ‘EVERYBODY LIVES WITH LIES’!” showed a pivotal scene from Arthur Hiller’s black comedy The Hospital (1971, written by Paddy Chayefsky). It starred George C. Scott in the role of Dr. Herbert Bock, the Chief of Internal Medicine at a large, prestigious teaching hospital in Manhattan.

You’ll recall that Bock is a man in crisis. He’s started hitting the bottle as his stormy marriage finally breaks down for good. His kids hate him. His beloved hospital is falling apart before his very eyes. Callous incompetence surrounds him. He’s in despair.

 

The early scene from The Hospital shown here opens just as the supervisors have finally untangled the identity of the young corpse found in the bed assigned to a recently admitted elderly patient named Guernsey. During the night somebody must have secretly moved old Mr. Guernsey to another bed.

The question here arises whether one of the junior doctors, a Dr. Schaeffer (nicknamed “Sammy Stud”) moved old Guernsey in order to use his bed for a brief but passionate rendezvous with his latest girlfriend, one of the hospital’s lab technicians.

At one point during the night, while “Sammy Stud” lay unconscious (but why was he unconscious?), two nurses followed protocol by plugging a 5% glucose solution into his arm, thinking he was old Mr. Guernsey. The sign on the bed said GUERNSEY, after all.

Unfortunately, Dr. Schaeffer was a diabetic, so 5% glucose was fatal. This is the first in a series of macabre – and fatal – incidents involving patients and the hospital staff. All further proof to Dr. Bock that the hospital he loves is rapidly going to the dogs.

(If the actress playing the chief nurse – Mrs. Christie – looks familiar, it’s because she played the lead character’s mother in the TV series The Sopranos.)

 

 

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BAGS OF HANGUPS

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sex, lies, and videotape (1989) is the finest depiction of sexual repression you are ever likely to see. The story concerns four people in their early 30’s.

John Mulaney, an up-and-coming lawyer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a confident go-getter and an enthusiastic philanderer. His wife, Ann, however, is a prudish bundle of nerves. She has regular therapy sessions in which she describes her various obsessions and the problems in her marriage. Her biggest marital problem, though, is the one she knows nothing about.

That problem concerns John and Ann’s sister, Cynthia Bishop. Cynthia is Ann’s exact opposite, a free spirit who lets nothing stand in the way of physical pleasure. The sisters barely get along: the one frequently expressing her disapproval and the other frequently expressing her disdain.

The film opens with Ann complaining to her therapist that John had – without consulting her first – invited his old college buddy Graham Dalton to visit them. Graham is independently wealthy. He’s a semi-nomad, crisscrossing America by car. Despite  his wealth he leads an ascetic lifestyle, wishing to get by with as few possessions as possible.

Graham has all the advantages. He’s intelligent, handsome, rich and charming. But he’s undergone many changes since his student days with John. For one thing, he now has even more deep-seated psychological problems than Ann. His sudden arrival in Baton Rouge starts a chain of events which drastically affects how the other three people see themselves and how they relate to each other.

 

 

 

 

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BURN!

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From 0′ 15” to 3′ 22” the 1968 Italian film Burn! (Queimada!) features one of the most powerful opening credit sequences in cinema history.

Watch that part of the film if nothing else.

It was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and starred Marlon Brando. Set on a Caribbean island in the early 19th century, the story centered on a revolution cynically orchestrated by one colonial power against another colonial power and the fallout resulting from things not going entirely to plan. (Do they ever?)

 

 

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Believe me, I have your best interests at heart.

 

Problems dogged Burn!‘s production. The budget spun out of control, and diplomatic pressure forced the producers to set the film in a Portuguese rather than a Spanish colony. Since the Portuguese were never active in the Caribbean, this created historical inaccuracies beyond Pontecorvo’s control. Brando was his usual moody self, frequently clashing with the director and generally getting in everyone’s way (although he later claimed Burn! contained some of his best work). And finally, at Brando’s insistence, the production was moved – with only two weeks of shooting left – from Colombia to Morocco.

The word frequently repeated during the opening credits is abolição, Portuguese for “abolition”. The slaves were manipulated into a general uprising which overthrew colonial rule. The abolition of slavery then led to all sorts of complications. The heavy hand of imperialism sought to smooth out these complications, like a falling boulder smooths out a bicycle. ‘Twas ever thus.

 

  • You may find it necessary to rewind it back to 0′ 15″ to catch the whole opening credit sequence. 

 

  • Unfortunately the American distributor cut about 20 minutes from the original, making the English version seen here unnecessarily rough and jerky. It was an artistic affront, but nobody needs me to remind them that Hollywood is ruled by accountants.

 

 

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“CALL WHAT’S-HIS-NAME & ASK HIM ABOUT HIS HOUSE”

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The link below is an early scene from the 1987 independent comedy-drama Withnail & I. It was written and directed by Bruce Robinson (who’d earlier written the script for The Killing Fields). Withnail & I is the story of two chronically drunk, chronically unemployed British actors in 1969. The film has spawned, among other things, a drinking game based on the characters’ prodigious appetite for alcohol.

Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant in his first film role) was inspired by a real life character, Vivian MacKerrell, a minor thespian with emphatic appetites. As McKerrell’s digestive system ceased to function he took to injecting alcohol directly into his stomach – and elastic ethics. Such was the character of Withnail likely to wind up.

Just before this scene, the “I” character (so called because we never learn his name) suggests calling What’s-his-name (Withnail’s uncle) to ask about using his country house for a brief getaway from London. As he goes to the men’s room, the perfume he’d accidentally spilled on his shoes provokes a reaction.

This interlude soon results in Withnail and the “I” character (played by Paul McGann) experiencing a chaotic weekend in the rural cottage owned by Withnail’s lecherous gay Uncle Monty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE!”

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Continuing our little homage to the screenwriting genius of Paddy Chayefsky, this scene comes about midway through the 1976 film Network. 

The man seated at the table is Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), the anchorman of the prime time news program on an ailing national TV network. His worsening depression results in him telling millions of viewers during a recent broadcast that he’s “tired of all the bullshit”. He then announces his plan to commit suicide.

The network’s panicky reaction is neatly turned on its head by an ambitious programming executive, Diana Christensen (portrayed by Faye Dunaway). She convinces her superiors that in fact most Americans out there are also “tired of all the bullshit” and readily identify with Beale’s rage. Let him keep articulating that rage every night, she argues, and everybody will want to watch it.

The head of the news department (Max Schumacher, played by William Holden) is Beale’s old comrade-in-arms. His spirited protests that allowing a lunatic to remain on the air violates every canon of responsible journalism fall on deaf ears. Beale’s obvious insanity – he claims to have conversations with God – is of no concern to the board of directors. They sense that Christensen’s radical idea to milk the anchorman’s madness for profit will succeed. The evening news then becomes a platform for Howard Beale to rant and rave about whatever issue is bugging him at the time. It turns out Christensen was right: the ratings skyrocket, prompting the other networks in turn to seek their own Howard Beales.

 

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During one “news” program Beale urges his 60 million viewers to contact their congressmen to protest Saudi Arabian investors taking over a major American corporation. He’s convinced the takeover will have dire consequences for the U.S. economy. It’s at that point he’s summoned to the office of the network’s owner, Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty).

Jensen’s lofty position has kept him aloof from the whole Beale controversy, since his only concern has been the network’s profitability. But Jensen has a vested interest in this Saudi takeover. He feels the urgent need to rein Beale in and teach him a few facts about the world of business, the most important of which is that the world itself is a business.

Beale must take this “evangel” – Jensen’s preacherly histrionics were quite deliberate – to heart. The owner’s final comment Because you’re on television, dummy refers directly to what the newsman had told everybody was the reply when Beale asked God the same Why me? question. Beale now becomes eager to spread Jensen’s philosophy to his vast television audience. But, as we see later in the movie, this all leads to several unintended consequences.

 

 

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