Sabtu, 25 Februari 2012

Tenancy Culture Studies: Withnail and I

Today's subject of study is the 1987 share housing cult film, Withnail and I.

Set at the close of London's swinging 'sixties, Withnail and I is the tale of two flatmates and 'resting' actors, Withnail (Richard E Grant, in the role that made him) '... & I' (that's how Paul McGann's character is referred to in the credits; never called by name in the film itself, he's 'Marwood' in the screenplay, so that's what we'll call him here).

Despairing of unemployment, fuel poverty, chemical abuse and the squalor of their rented London flat, Withnail and Marwood flee the city and connive a holiday at the country cottage of Withnail's appalling Uncle Monty. Country life, however, presents new difficulties for the flatmates, and no respite from their old ones. So they return to the city and their flat, to find their drug dealer asleep in a bed and an eviction notice for rent arrears awaiting them.

From here one of them finally makes a decisive break.

Withnail and I is, so to speak, one of the finest films available to humanity. It's certainly one of the funniest, but it is more than that. Beneath every joke and quotable quote there is something deeper going on. Withnail and I is full of profound and sad truths. And both in its humour and in its sadness it has a lot to say about share housing.

Withnail and I's depiction of share housing rings true for many people. There is, of course, the horrific state of Withnail and Marwood's kitchen sink, and the funny side of getting wasted. But more importantly, Withnail and I truthfully reflects the personal relations that are made in share housing. It can make intense attachments: for Marwood, it is in large part the anxious dependency of the drug-addled. (See how he gets the fear in the cafe in the opening sequence:'... 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.') For Withnail, as we find out in the film's achingly sad final scene, the larger part is something else.

As well as their making, Withnail and I also reflects, necessarily, the unmaking of share housing relationships. It is in their nature that they won't last forever. It's a point obliquely made in the comments on the passing of an age by both Monty ('Ah, 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. Shovelled up by Labour. And here we are. We three. Perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.') and Danny the drug dealer ('They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of the world is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.'). Indeed, the film's period is a layered metaphor for the share housing experience: ostensibly a time of liberation, it becomes, through its conflicts, injustices, and deprivations, something from which to escape.  

It is also fair to say that there have been more than a few share households that have made themselves a reflection of Withnail and I. The decayed grandeur of the flat's decoration is much imitated, and many of the film's lines have passed into the language of share houses, like Monty Python for a seedier set. But again, the significance of Withnail and I for share housing – in itself, as a film – goes deeper. Referring to the film, or watching it together, is a way for housemates to subtly check or test one another, to see how tolerant or otherwise ('bald', as Danny would say) they are, and perhaps even kick off a great share housing friendship.