In Which You’re More of a Vibe
The 90’s were a nostalgic time. Not like the nostalgia we have now, which yearns for a past of simplicity and relief from existential dread, but a dream of a time with purpose. Coursing through the culture of 90’s was an undercurrent of generational longing for the days of conflict and ideology. So throughout the decade we see different forms of nostalgia burble to the surface as the culture, lashing about, and loofing for something to grasp and anchor upon. You see this coalesce in the cavalcade of WWII flicks. Films sending up the valor and moral certitude of the great war of the 20th century. The last time the Americans were the unambiguous victors on the front lines of history. You see this in the resurgence of reverence for the 1960’s and the counter-culture of that period. A moment of difficult politics and shifting societal mores where one could definitively make a stand and define themselves. The 60’s, from the vantage of the 90’s, was a era of forceful purpose and identity, unlike the irony drenched meh-ness of the last decade of the century.
But like all nostalgia, these notions were nothing more than bittersweet dreams. The remembrances of people who miss the possibility of youth and the culture they defined. Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 crime thriller The Limey cuts to the quick of this generational nostalgia. Probing how an unquestioning desire to retain the glow of the past can metastasize people in the present. That memories may hold the love for a golden time, but without moving forward we can be trapped in a cycle of violence that leads to destruction rather than preservation. The retaining of the past promoting only rigidity when their should be fluidity in life.
Soderbergh does this by positioning two Trans-Atlantic 60’s icons against on another. In one corner you have the titular limey manifested in Wilson (Terrence Stamp) an aggressive bruiser who has spent his life in and out of jail. Stamp revs up the energy by pulling a swath of British 60’s touchstones (mod music, swinging London, and social dramas) to position himself as a man plucked from the past to fight the present. In the other corner stands Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) who represents the psyched out West Coast cool of the late 60’s, all bleary sunsets and covert drug deals. Wilson comes to sunny LA to investigate the mysterious death of his daughter, Jenny, in a car crash, along the way pulling help from Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) to sniff out Valentine and get to the bottom of case.
It’s a pretty simple and straight piece of genre revenge. A pulp potboiler that wouldn’t seem out of place in a book rack in an airport. But as Soderbergh proved with his masterful adaptation of Elmore Leonard with 1998’s Out of Sight, he knows how to take the straight and screw it up into a beguiling, thoughtful, and thematically rich pretzel. The most notable trick here is the editing. Soderbergh and editor Sarah Flack absolutely shred the normal structure of a story in an effort to dig deeper and realize one the most fundamental aspects of filmmaking: that making movies puts you in control of time itself.
In The Limey it’s used to create an eternal present. A movie that pulls in thirty years of cultural knowledge and history only to compile it in a manner to create a neverending now; 88 minutes that exist both beyond the bounds of the frame and always within it. The most immediate being footage pulled from Ken Loach’s 1967 dram Poor Cow to serve as flashbacks for Wilson. This decision pushes the The Limey in to a rich metatextual place where we have to consider the arcs of the actors in real life as a part of their characters in the movie. It’s a process we do subconsciously already when we see a film. Our previous experiences with the people involved will undeniably change our perception of what we are seeing. What Soderbergh does in The Limey is literalize that process in the text of the film, we see the history of the actors and the history of the characters as one and the same.
And even though it’s more blatant for Wilson, the process is also liberally applied to Valentine as well. His character is the conceptualization of Peter Fonda in the popular consciousness, if not an actual replica of the real man himself. Valentine is, as his younger lover says, “more of a vibe than a person.” He represents what people like to remember about the 60’s. The free love, loose experimentation with drugs, a push to the radical in both politics and art.
But Valentine himself is quick to admit that these associations are probably nothing more than associations. He waxes nostalgic about his glory time in the sun, “it was a golden moment,” he says, “a place you dreamed about, but never been to.” But then quickly notes that the golden moment was just a moment, specifically, ” ’66 and early ’67.” Others point out that Valentine’s success came from taking the zeitgeist, packing it, and selling it out to a mass market. Valentine represents the nostalgia of the time, and all the curdled commercialization that came with it.
And so when the force of Wilson comes against the wall of Valentine, it’s a sad and violent end. These are two people who, because of their reputation and what they have come to signify in the popular culture, are unable to leave it in a peaceful manner. The dreamy promise of the past is just a shield built to protect oneself from reality. The ability to turn any situation on it’s head by saying, “remember when.” That shield is weak, and the conclusion of the film with Wilson tromping down Valentine like a flesh and blood revenant proves the fragility of those protections.
Valentine’s downfall is because he can’t give up the summer of love lifestyle he promotes. His compulsion to surround himself with young women and do drug deals spell his downfall. And the structure of the movie doesn’t let Wilson escape out of the single minded purpose of revenge, with the final moments transferring back to the beginning and the other way around. It’s a loop of death created by the lust for the iconography of the past, and if you live within it, there may never be an escape.
Odds and Ends
- Despite retiring, Soderbergh is a director I’ll have to beg to make another movie. He’s already released one earlier this year, and has two more coming down the pike.
- The opening credits are absolutely perfect. With Wilson’s arrival to LA timed to the galloping mod rock of early Who, with the song The Seeker cutting out right as we see Jenny’s name on a letter on screen.
- Also perfect is the infinitely memable scene of Wilson screaming, “tell him I’m fucking coming.” It’s both terrifying and funny, an ambivalent moment of tonal balance that the film amazingly retains.
- Soderbergh’s run from Out of Sight to Ocean’s Eleven (five films made in three years including a best director win) is still kind of mind boggling.
As always, twitter, letterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).
Another week where I’m open to suggestions. So let fate decide what next week’s article will be about.
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