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Limeys in America


There are many fine moments in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). One in particular stands out. Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is relaxing after a busy Fourth of July. Sitting in his jail is English Bob (Richard Harris), an aging snob and ersatz gunslinger come to town to collect the bounty placed on the heads of two ranch hands who cut up a local whore.

Having already physically kicked the shit out of English Bob, Little Bill goes after his psyche. Hackman does wonders with this scene, flashing between sarcasm and menace as he mocks Bob's dubious legacy of chivalry and gunplay, detailed in the pulp biography written by a nebbish scribe tagging along with the hapless limey.

This comic deconstruction of Bob's trumped-up biography speaks eloquently of the enduring and volatile relationship of the colonies to England as portrayed in the movies. What makes the scene so stunning is that even though Bill means to put Bob down and keep him down, he nonetheless conveys a certain grudging respect for his counterpart. Bob's come to big sky country to enjoy the same things Bill has — open space and an open future. And if guns are a means to an end, so be it.

Across the pond, this weird mix of enterprise and piety is both alluring and off-putting. England, for all the blather about a multicultural "Cool Britannia" and the recent timely demise of peerage in the House of Lords, is still a country hidebound to tradition, including a caste system to rival that of India, the other England. Once working class, always working class. Conversely, go to the right schools and the world is your oyster. Alas, England is a very small oyster indeed.

America — big, bold and beautiful — will have none of this. Never has. This, of all the places in the world, is where you shed a skin or two and put on a new set of clothes, all scored to a jukebox full of blues and soul. As long as you're not a politician or a celebrity, good self-invention is usually rewarded with cheery suspension of disbelief.

Part of the fun of watching North by Northwest (1959) is the barbed repartee between Cary Grant and James Mason. Grant, whom Americans considered a debonair Brit, was in fact a working-class boy from some Dickensian hellhole. Nonetheless, Hitchcock puts him on the screen as an (assimilated?) American, forced to run hither and yon across the picturesque West to stop snooty Mason from leaving the country with top secret documents and top-heavy Kim Novak.

Something else is in play, though. Just ask David Hockney, arguably the most famous British expatriate living in the United States, now that Quentin Crisp has minced off this mortal coil. In England, Hockney was known as a painter. A gay painter, I might add. When he arrived in the U.S. during the mid-'60s, he switched to photography. And what photography it is — snapshot collages that imitate cinematic "pan and tilt" and are imbued with natural colors and vibes that are unmistakably California. When you look at a Hockney, you're looking at a man at home.

California has long been Eden for gay men, a place where the sun kisses young, taut bodies and inspires the libido to act on such visions of loveliness. Gods and Monsters (1998) would be much the lesser film if James Whale (Ian McKellen) were hustling his young gardener (Brendan Fraser) in Brixton rather than Beverly Hills. But he's not and the California of the silent movie era seems both a wonderland and a wasteland for Whale. Beautiful, yes, but lonely. Deathly so. When he drowns in his swimming pool, it's an entirely fitting death: The dream takes the dreamer.

And what of the Brit who comes West and is not impressed? Such is the case in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (1999). The title says it all. Wilson (Terence Stamp) is an unwelcome man in Cali. He's just been sprung from the big house and travels stateside to avenge the death of his only daughter at the hands of Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a clapped-out hippie turned music producer. With a plot straight out of a Charles Bronson film and a look highly reminiscent of John Cassavetes circa The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), The Limey has a '70s vibe without seeming kitschy.

Both Wilson and Valentine are men literally out of time. Valentine seems numb with nostalgia and regret for a life long since sold out. Once California was his paradise, the promised land. Now he's just a relic of a broken dream. Wilson can't shake impressionistic visions of his youth — cleverly lifted from Ken Loach's Poor Cow (1967), featuring a roguish young Terence Stamp. And Soderbergh photographs Southern California through Wilson's grieved and peevish eyes — a bleached-out dystopia of warehouses, scrub and big houses filled with empty pretty people.

There's nothing to stay for and, once business is taken care of, Wilson doesn't. Better to go home than get lost in a paradise gone to pot.

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