While tying my shoelaces this morning (a feat that demands quite a lot of concentration from me, 4 times a day), I for no good reason whatsoever thought of the movie Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987). Although, I was feeling a bit defeated, and I suspect it involuntarily made me think of the last scene in this film. This is one of my all time favourites, so touching, that I have come to associate melancholia itself with a picture of a dejected Richard E. Grant in the rain, a bottle of wine in one hand, and an umbrella in the other. If not one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen, definitely one of the most convincing.

This film is one of those where the sum is greater than the parts. No-one involved ever got close to emulating their work in this film. It all came together, like some parties somehow just “work”. And you remember them for the rest of your life, without ever knowing the exact source of your nostalgia.

Richard E. Grant (aka Richard G. Esterhuyse) delivers what is without a doubt the best performance of his career, while Richard Griffiths as gay “uncle Monty” is at once believable and ridiculously eccentric . “Danny” will go down in history as the dope head to end all dope heads, and the joint he smokes as the joint to end all joints (it literally looks like something you could beat your wife with). I’m convinced many millions of brain cells have perished as a direct consequence of Ralph Brown's uncanny performance. The chemistry between the Withnail and I characters, I have no doubt, is one of most compelling I’ve ever experienced in a movie. They are the ultimate odd couple that somehow just belong together, complete each other: McGann, the neurotic “I”, and Grant, the impulsive hedonist that just does as he pleases, a drunk who’s allergic to alcohol. Their incomprehensible (but 100% devoid of any pretence) relationship is an entity in its own right, almost an extra character in this movie.

I think what sets this comedy apart from most truly funny comedies is how it succeeds in creating some of the most eccentric comic characters without ever sacrificing the viewer’s inclination to feel genuine empathy for them. You ultimately realize this in the last scene.

Anyone who hasn’t experienced this gem is doing himself a great disservice. It is easy to see why it has managed attract such a substantial cult following. One of the ultimate word-of-mouth films, in the same league as the Big Lebowski, Donnie Darko, This is Spinal Tap or any cult classic for that matter. Any self-respecting dope head should see this movie at least 10 times.

But to get back to the final scene:

The “I” character had just heard that he had won the lead role in a play (they are both struggling actors), against all expectations (especially Withnail’s). Withnail walks his friend to the train station to see him off. It’s clear at this stage that Withnail knows that their paths will part and that it’s the end of an era: nothing will ever be the same again. A successful career awaits “I”, one that Withnail has long ago resigned himself to never having. But more sad is that he is losing his dear friend. Up until this point he seemed like he only cared about himself and drugs and alcohol, and that he’s the type of person who just takes life as it comes. You unexpectedly and suddenly feel extremely sorry for Withnail, because you find out for the first time that he loves his friend more than anything, and he is lost without him.

He is ultimately a tragic figure. Then, in my all time favourite monologue, the pathos is only compounded by the ironic brilliance of Withnail’s haunting rendition of a quote from Hamlet, alone at a park after dropping off “I”, and hence a rendition no-one ever gets to see:

"I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this mighty o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire; why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a God! The beauty of the world, paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust. Man delights not me, no, nor women neither, nor women neither."


hein said...

I had the same problem with my shoelaces getting untied. That is, until discovered this method of tying: http://www.fieggen.com/shoelace/secureknot.htm

Truly a great knot

b said...

thanks, sincerely. i'll check it out, but i'm worried that if i learn how to tie my shoelaces i'll lose a part of my identity. i'm not completely joking, it's almost a trademark with me. since forever.

you make a good case though. ever thought of being in one of those infomercials where they interview people who answer (supposedly) adlib? i think you're a natural.

or it's just a truly great knot.


Anonymous said...

I remember my mother showing me how to tie my shoelaces. I remember how I got it right, well, I guess I remember the end-product looking pretty much like other people's. And then, of course, I never asked her how to do it ever again, seeing as I already knew how.

But then one day, I was already an adult, someone watched me tie my shoelaces and said: 'What the hell are you doing?' A demonstration followed, upon which I realised I do not know how to tie shoelaces. Properly. And then it all made sense. This is why I have to do it four times a day. This is why it takes me so long. This is why I can't tie a bow behind my back (in a woman's world you need to be able to do this).

And then it dawned upon me: I was neglected as a child. Any good mother would notice that her daughter lacked this crucial life skill. She probably doesn't even love me. Poor me. And now I am too old to learn.

This is what I think of every time I tie the damn shoelaces. They've become a symbol of neglect.

Thank God for Velcro. And so we move on.

And thanks b for the nice bit on 'W and I'.


Anonymous said...

Liezl wrote: "But then one day, I was already an adult, someone watched me tie my shoelaces and said: 'What the hell are you doing?'"

1. I was that adult.
2. Liezl omitted to mention the part where I explained that tying shoelaces shouldn't need to be like making an origami double helix.
3. Liezl owns no shoes with velco. They are all slip-ons.


Anonymous said...

Withnail: This place is uninhabitable.
Peter Marwood: Give it a chance. It's got to warm up.
Withnail: Warm up? We may as well sit round this cigarette. This is ridiculous. We'll be found dead in here next spring.

Monty: [reading sign on cottage door] "Here. Hare. Here."

You've got antifreeze.
You bloody fool.
You should never mix your drinks!

And if I spike you, you'll know
you've been spoken to.

Right. Now, we're gonna have to
approach this scientifically.
First thing we've got to do
is get this fire alight.

Then we split into two
fact-finding groups.

I'll deal with the water
and other plumbing.

You can check the fuel
and wood situation.
There's nothing out there
except a hurricane.
- What's that?
- The fuel and wood situation.

I dislike relatives in general,
my own in particular.
- Why?
- Because... I've told you why.
We're incompatible.
They don't like me being on stage.
Then they must be delighted
with your career.

Listen, I pay you
ten percent to do that.
Well, lick ten percent
of the asses for me, then!
Hello? Hello? Hello?

We mean no harm!

There can be no true beauty
without decay.

"A requiem for England."
- How right you are. How right you are.
We live in a kingdom of rains...
where royalty comes in gangs.
Come on, lads. Let's get home.
The sky is beginning to bruise.
Night must fall,
and we shall be forced to camp.

tinus said...

I don't have talent for writing so I'll just say this: I also liked this film. My friend Christoff (now a paranoid schizophrenic) introduced me to it.

b said...

tinus: welcome back

we feel really sorry for you. boo-hoo-hoo. i seem to recall a perfectly nice review of a film on a certain pattern tub.

but on a happy note:
christoff was a successful buddhist (two d's, i had to look it up) monk, and is currently teaching unsuspecting Chinese kids to speak English. sends gifts to his undeserving parents and everything.

he's probably happier than he's ever been.

Anonymous said...

My goodness. I got so caught up in the thing about the shoelaces I forgot to mention that the same Christoff introduced me to W and I. This was when he was living in his parent's servant's room and discovered that he did not have a knack for door-to-door sales. He brought it over on video tape; he had taped it off MNet himself. But he only got half of it. So I missed the scene Barry described so vividly.

Good to know the dear C is doing well. He is a wonderful person - bright, caring, passionate. But for the P.S. one could marry the guy.


tinus said...

I remember Christoff had a huge crush on Liezl.

I still feel bad about losing contact with him. Could someone get an email address?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to be the fucking arsehole that I am sometimes, but one fundamental english rule states that: if a vowel is followed by two of the same consonants, then the vowel is shortened. Hence, the pronunciation of Buddhist would have been lengthened to something in the line of Bukowski...pause a moment before you grab your wiktionary.

b said...

thanks anon

i don't really study the rules, it usually comes naturally. also, English rules are quite unreliable. But probably more relevant, Buddha is not really an English word...so the "rule" doesn't apply.

M said...

A friend of mine wrote a poem:

Never Before had I been so alone (by Mike Turner)

Anonymous said...


I concede that it is a borrowed base word. But, considering it attained a suffix to indicate a religious movement, it now behaves as any other english word would especially since it is no longer the same lexeme(if nouns could be defined as such).

I guess it happens to behave as any english word would in this case.

"We don't just borrow words. On occasion, the English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary". (James D. Nicoll)

At least I managed to amuse myself with my ignorance of the heritage of the word. It is so obvious that I just wanted to be otherwise...I am so pedantic sometimes and petty...thanks for setting me straight. I deserved that.

b said...

one of the many anonymouses

i'll meet you half-way: yes, it probably was unnecessary to mention i looked it up, since it is not an exception to the rule of thumb. i should just have kept quiet about it...i was really just referring to the limits of my own spelling abilities.

so we're cool?


iv said...
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iv said...
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