It may have been a long time coming but what brought me epiphany was 4-5 days of solitude. While I really enjoyed this last summer, it is over and, despite pleasant weather, autumn is clearly hurtling winterwards.
Although it doesn’t qualify as hibernation, I have been ensconced at home with few interruptions and getting on with some of the writing with which I amuse myself on long winter nights. Sometimes when I am deep into it, all else is blanked out—no music or radio, nothing to distract—but more often, I run the television at low volume as a kind of background white noise that smooths out noise interruptions from the outside world.
As often as not, it will be a movie, even one that I know well. But over the last few months I’ve found my tolerance becoming frayed and channel-hopping becoming more frequent. When this transition to grumpy old man, dissatisfied with what the rest of the world seems to enjoy, occurred is not clear. But what is clear is that modern video culture and I have parted company.
For someone who has been a film buff for sixty years, cutting my teeth in the local Playhouse on its three-films-a-week magic, courtesy of a tolerant granny (with whom I was living) and 2/- pocket money that got a six-year-old into the cheap seats up front and change enough for an ice lolly at the interval, this latest development is worse than losing my youth; it’s losing touch with modern culture the way my dad got culturally alienated by the Beatles.
Because there are no heroes any more. Caught between Statham in The Mechanic and Washington in Book of Eli, I could find no alternative and switched off. I have never enjoyed endless soaps, ritual reality humiliation or strobe-lit game shows. But in between superb but sporadic documentaries and the Simpsons, films were why I paid the licence fee. Except, it seems I don’t like film any more.
Now, Denzel Washington is an excellent actor and the whole visual mood of the cinematography in Book of Eli is crisp and innovative. But if the script is monosyllabic, the story is non-existent. It carries the warning “some brutal violence and language” but I channel-hopped after the twentieth corpse and there was no relief in Statham’s permanent scowl and ever-re-occurring ketchup. Were this weekend just a spurious phase in film and Hollywood’s output had been on a higher general plane, I wouldn’t feel this bad.
But, starting in the eighties with Heartbreak Ridge on through to Black Hawk Down, there were a series of Star-Wars-level military hoohah that goes a long way in explaining why the US has such a bully-boy ‘big stick’ approach to foreign difficulties. Forget Ahhrnold’s or Sly’s outings—it spilled over into supposedly close-to-real filmings of Clancy’s incisively researched books…but turning them into Rambo XXIXVI. Once in a while something of the stunning authenticity of Saving Private Ryan comes along but it drowns in the tsunami of sludge.
I do not expect to be wowed by rom-coms—even if I am appalled when greats like de Niro freewheel through The Fokkers nor is Disney ever likely to snare me again the way they did with The Lady Is A Tramp (I was only ten) but I do long for another stunner to match Khouri’s Thelma & Louise when the most we get is made-for-TV bubblegum where some successful-but-single lawyer hits the Pinot Grigio over love/louse/child/career/illness.
But what gars me greet is the genre that once made my young urchin self bounce out of the cinema way past my bedtime, filled with aspiration to be some mighty character as I had just witnessed, is no more, cannot be found. The cinematic world has become populated with characters who are not just flawed—good heroes were always flawed and therefore human (think of Rick in Casablanca or Lean’s El Awrance)—but hard and unsympathetic. Though the Die Hard franchise starts with MacLean vulnerable as well as tough, by 4.0 he’s wooden as Statham…or Will Smith in I Am Legend, or Matt Damon in any of the (interchangeable) Bourne trilogy. Good though Daniel Craig is as Bond, he is too much the automaton for me to feel for—let alone aspire to be—the character.
So, I have become my dad, a man at odds with the culture in which he finds himself living. There are some signs of progress from my pre-pubescent self. Fine films though they still are, black-and-white stalwarts like Above Us the Waves or In Which We Serve have aged culturally. But this week I came across a forgotten classic that threw all this into focus for me. The Professionals brings together a stellar cast: watching it gave the very rush of inspiration I felt half a century ago and thought I’d lost, especially in the spark between Marvin and Lancaster—both in cracking form at the top of their game.
The formula is one copied by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch but not so sympathetically: take a bunch of worldly-wise misfits who’ve been through things together on a perilous gun-totin’ mission, throw in feisty eye-candy (Cardinale) and baddie you come to like (Palance) and a goodie you come to hate (Bellamy), lace it with glaringly bright desert backdrops and a pinch of humorous banter and you have a buddy movie to beat the band.
OK, so it is fiction as much as any of the others. Extras tumble off horses until you lose count. But do I care for these characters? Yes. Would I want to share their obvious mutual trust and camaraderie? Yes. Do I feel inspired that grit and fortitude are the only proper companion’s to a man’s beliefs? You betcha. Despite its rather brutal vehicle, The Professionals again made me believe that, not only could the world be a better place but that I still had my own contribution to make towards that. Not bad for a few miles of 50-year-old film stock.
It could be just old age, but I really don’t think they make ’em like that any more.