The past is a disappointing romantic comedy

Last week was a bad week. Not as bad as being shot at in Afghanistan (actually, ignore the geographic specificity of that analogy; being shot at anywhere is at best really quite annoying) or contracting a rare, incurable disease or believing, if only fleetingly, that Michael Gove has the first idea about how to run a state education system in the twenty first century. Not as bad as any of those things no, but certainly sufficient to make arriving at Friday evening suitable for a slow-motion montage in which I wipe the battlefield dirt from my forehead, light a battered cigarette with a clunky old lighter and exhale a ribbon of smoke with a faint smile of pleasure, with eyes that bear silent witness to five days of horror of which I will never speak. (Except in voiceover, when one of my descendants is reading extracts from my diary in some tin-pot dramatisation of my life made for Albanian television). This moment would be scored by the live studio version of Ágætis Byrjun by Sigur Ros. These chaps are all just two feet tall and live in a volcano so they know something of sadness.

So what to do to extract oneself from the bony grip of a bastard week such as the one just passed? Well, eccentrically, I was given a bag of meat by a friend and this resulted in an immediate leap up the chipper scale. It seems that a packet of cured pig is one of nature’s most potent gifts to the ailing psyche. (Thank you Anna). I then went to the pub and sunk a couple of expensive ales (which despite now costing more than a small Korean car still taste as sweet as kissing a rainbow) before returning home and, after all domestic duties were dispatched, flopping onto the sofa in search of a filmic cuddle.

Films are like pants. (deep breath). There are good pants and bad pants. Pants that you wear when you want to be sexy and pants that you wear when you need some support. There are old pants that you should have thrown out years ago. There are new pants that you’ve tried a couple of times but just don’t feel right. There are lucky pants and nostalgia pants, ill-advised pants and emergency pants . . .

The analogy really doesn’t work well enough to justify the number of examples above but if I really stretch it (pun intended) then perhaps you’ll agree that a film that soothes a troubled mind at the end of a trying week is a little like a favourite piece of underwear . . .  . alright, I’ll stop. Anyway, my “favourite pants” (stop it!) film could well be “Shakespeare in Love” and it was to this 1998 multiple-Oscar-winner that I turned on Friday evening. I hadn’t actually seen it in years. I definitely saw it at the cinema when it was released and I owned a VHS copy that sat on the shelf in our house in Shepherd’s Bush for ages and presumably was watched every now and then. However, I recently bought a DVD copy for £1.00 (including free postage, stonewall bargain) from ebay and was waiting for the right moment to rekindle my relationship with this gentle, romantic comedy.

If I am honest, one of the main reasons why I enjoyed the film so much when I was  younger is because I “got” many of the literary references. Having been (and continue to be) a Shakespeare geek many of co-screenwriter Stoppard’s “clever” gags found their perfect audience in the somewhat pretentious and undoubtably smug younger version of myself:

Oh look, there’s an early shot of Shakespeare writing out his name several times, each with a different spelling . . .  oh, yes, he he, mmm, well, of course, of the six surviving signatures of Shakespeare, every one is spelt differently.

What’s that? Shakespeare getting advice on plots from Kit Marlowe in a bar? ….oh he he, snort, ha ha, mmmm . . .  well, of course, many of Shakespeare’s early plays owed a huge amount to Marlowe, even to the extent of him stealing some of Marlowe’s best lines.

And did you hear that? The boy with the mice who said he liked the violence in Titus Andonicus? Did you hear his name? He said “John Webster”. JOHN WEBSTER! HA HA HAR! JOHN WEBSTER WHO WENT ON TO WRITE THE DUCHESS OF MALFI WHICH OF COURSE AS EVERYBODY KNOWS WAS REALLY REALLY VIOLENT! HA HA HAR!

God I must have been such a prick. But at least I can see that now. I suppose I also enjoyed the chance to see “Shakespeare” the man; someone who I worshipped above any deity, actually alive, sitting at a desk and writing words on a page before leaping around, fighting, sighing lots and frequently kissing Gwyneth Paltrow on the boobs. Not a bad life all told. Yes indeed, it was a great, silly, utterly fantastical film that was to be the perfect balm after a shitty week.

But something was wrong. A disquiet came over me as I watched the opening scenes. Perhaps I had drunk too much wine too quickly. Perhaps I was still grumpy. Everything was ostensibly in its right place: Joseph Fiennes’ silly beard, Paltrow’s boobs, the line about comedy and a bit with a dog, hundreds of extras overacting in the background (Excuse me loves, could you just silently sell that fruit with slightly more MASSIVE gestures and expressions please), but still I could not settle. Still I could not yield to the film’s beckoning embrace. What was the problem? What was wrong with me? What was wrong with the world? My goodness, could it actually be that THE FILM IS NOT VERY GOOD????

Listen Shakespeare in Love, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have rushed back to each other like that. It is not you it’s me. I thought everything would be just the same as the late nineties, I thought I was the same man I was then. But you know, I’ve changed. You’ve changed. And I know we had fun on Friday night, it was a laugh and on one level it felt good but look me in the eyes and tell me that it was the right thing to do. We shouldn’t have done it. We should have been content with the happy memories. And now look what’s happened . . . .

As always I am being ridiculous. I did still enjoy the film but it had lost its magic. It had also lost one of its lines. I am CERTAIN that in my erstwhile VHS copy when Mr Fennyman (played by the ever-brilliant Tom Wilkinson) is offered the part of the apothecary he had a line about owning the perfect hat for the role. This made me and my pals laugh in 1999 because it reminded us of our friend Jonathan D, who we dressed up as a ringmaster to introduce a comedy show we were performing at the time. (And Jonathan was marvellous, standing on a platform in the rafters above the stage, with coat, hat and whip shouting at the audience “I SHALL CHAIR YOUR FACE!”). But on Friday night the line was missing so maybe I dreamed it. But then I couldn’t have because near the end of the film when we see Mr Fennyman in costume he points at his purple hat, a gesture that is largely pointless without the earlier line. Ah well, it is all deeply trivial but this omission, coupled with the fact that it now seems staggering that the Paltrow won an Oscar for dressing as a boy, flapping her chest around and sighing (even I could do all three of those to a pretty high standard) means that I am going to have to look for another “pants” film next time my week is a little trying.

Whilst on the SIL theme, I found this clip taken from the Adam and Joe Show – two men who are rivalled only by Michael Haneke and Richard Linklater in the pantheon of Long Arm man love – this is a brilliantly succinct and accurate summation of the film:

So maybe it is safer never to go back. Memory is not indelible but maleable and transient. Nostalgia is, by definition, a soft-focus version of the past and in that it is comforting. In this age of instant information the ability to access the sounds and pictures of the past may have huge benefits, and there is no doubt that the internet is a liberating and empowering force for good (The internet: overthrowing despotic regimes one amusing cat picture at a time), but it can also be upsetting. What happens when we revisit these past glories, these moments of epiphany and wonder and find then all just a little bit crapper than we remembered? The equivalent of noticing the curling brown dog turd next to your foot as you lean in for your first proper kiss with your first proper girlfriend. Our brains mythologise our past, bedeck our history in ribbons and airbrush our memories. And we are made stronger because of this.

So watch new films. Make new memories. Leave the past where it is and look back only to smile and nod in the knowledge that if it was great back then just think how good it is now.

And careful about revisiting old films. (Unless it is “Singin’ in the Rain”). I was planning to watch “Star Wars” next Friday night, for the first time in many, many years. Perhaps now I won’t. Perhaps it’s best left alone. Although I can’t believe that Mark Hamill delivers anything other the greatest male film performance of the twentieth century . . . . . surely?

P.S.  Beloved 80s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo is actually about a BROTHEL – and a kinky one at that – flying helmets and wet celery and all those gags about back passages – Rene is essentially a pimp! I only realised this when I showed it to my then French girlfriend and now French wife. (She didn’t laugh very much even though it is an accurate, moving and downright hilarious portait of occupied France). And I was shocked. What on earth were my parents doing letting me and my sister watch this filth when we were children???

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6 thoughts on “The past is a disappointing romantic comedy

  1. I recommend “Charade” – free on YouTube because they forgot to the copyright symbol on the print. Enjoyable not just because of its two fabulous leads, but also because Henry Mancini wrote the music, James Caan is being himself, as ever, and Walter Matthau is called Hamilton Bartholomew. Surprisingly he is not even exceedingly crinkly. Or watch Cesare Deve Morire.

    • I wholeheartedly agree. I think we should have one day a month dedicated solely to the passing of meat products to friends and lovers. I think this would be popular. Particularly in France.

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