Please drink responsibly: Alcoholism, cinema and the existential void

What happens when you mix time, alcohol and the creative temperament with storytelling?


Questions cloud your mind the morning after a night of heavy drinking. What exactly happened? How did I get so bad? Did I do anything stupid? And why the hell did I get so wasted in the first place? Such worries aren’t always easy to allay, confounded as they are by mental black holes swallowing all sense of clarity and chronology.

Emptiness typifies the best movies about boozing, many of which are full to the brim with distressed protagonists who drink to fill the void within. Negation destroys part-time writer and full-time alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, a sweaty melodrama that still sours the palate seventy years on.

The Lost Weekend, 1945

Cornell dropout and inveterate sponger, Don is a man who drinks ‘because of what he isn’t rather than what he is’, sating his inner sense of lack with a gargantuan bender across the Big Apple, redeemed only by the saintliness of puppy dog girlfriend Jane Wyman.

Suicide mission

Hollowness reverberates throughout, as Don rolls pathetically from one bar to another, as listless as the empty rye bottles that trundle around his brother’s apartment floor. But don’t we all feel that way after a mega blow-out: leaden, gutted and unfulfilled?

Writing and alcohol are explicitly linked in The Lost Weekend. Both pastimes attract the insular and the introspective, and both can easily turn from being therapeutic to self-absorbed to downright maddening. Wilder’s film finds its modern-day drinking buddy in Leaving Las Vegas, whose lead character is also an inebriated scribe on a prolonged suicide mission in a city of sin.

The film’s neon-soused setting and freewheeling jazz score wonderfully capture the hedonistic freedom of a night on the tiles, just as they evoke reckless careering into a psychological abyss

Yet whereas Wilder’s movie strives towards a salutary social message, Mike Figgis’s picture is drenched in fatalism. Scant reason is offered why Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) drinks his way to becoming a DT-debilitated cadaver, aided by appropriately-named hooker Sera (Elisabeth Shue). What will be, will be in Leaving Las Vegas, a romantic film in the saddest sense of the word, in which two lovers snatch a temporary state of grace from the jaws of compulsive disease.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

The film’s neon-soused setting and freewheeling jazz score wonderfully capture the hedonistic freedom of a night on the tiles, just as they evoke reckless careering into a psychological abyss surrounded by miles of arid, unforgiving desert.

Paranoia and parochialism

Space is why many people drink, after all. Intemperance may be a social lubricant turned social cancer, but it’s also a vacation from life, as it is for Ben, a realm where you can get away from your past, your future and the futility of your situation.

Two of cinema’s most hilarious escapees are Withnail and I (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann), a duo of dishevelled actors who flee the squalor of their Camden flat for the tranquillity of the Lake District. Sadly, the only tonics to be found are paranoia, parochialism, a sexually-rampant Richard Griffiths and the shotgun-wielding menace of real-life alcoholic Michael Elphick.

Withnail and I (1987)

A spiky cocktail of puerility and pathos, Withnail and I’s seediness is enough to dampen anyone’s methylated spirits. Set in 1969, the film is about calling time on good times, a bittersweet farewell to what drug dealer Ralph Brown calls ‘the greatest decade in history’, in which two socially-awkward thespians wallow in the bitter dregs of a party to which they were never invited in the first place.

The Overlook is in a similar paralysis too, the psychic residue of its grisly past surging back in moments of clarity, blood saturating its corridors like the finest Château Margaux

Nostalgia for a bygone age is one of many acidic undertones in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where time, reality and sanity dissolve spectacularly into a beguilingly empty horror show. Aspiring writer and recovering pisshead Jack Torrance is seduced by the eerie solitude of The Overlook hotel, then driven punch-drunk crazy by the toxic blend of a grating wife, phantom bourbon on the rocks and the responsibility of looking after so much empty time and space.

Making time stand still

Deciphering Kubrick’s endlessly cryptic film is like piecing together a chaotic night through a mind’s eye bloodshot with hangover. The Overlook is in a similar paralysis too, the psychic residue of its grisly past surging back in moments of clarity, blood saturating its corridors like the finest Château Margaux. So it’s fitting the film closes with an image of Jack partying like it’s always 1921, the life and soul amid a pack of Jazz Age booze hounds, frozen in time and forever free of history and consequence.

The Shining (1980)

In the end, succumbing to alcohol is as much about making time stand still as it is about avoiding responsibility. Whether it’s the night you never want to leave, the past you’re desperate to be rid of or the tomorrow you can’t bear to face, diving into a bottle is like jumping into your own existential chasm, a place where you can cease to exist and drown momentarily in the sweet nectar of oblivion.

Withnail finds himself on such a precipice at the end of his movie. In a lonely, rain-swept London park, he recites his beloved Hamlet to no one in particular. As he wanders despondently off into the distance – directionless, abandoned by his friend, without any hope for the future – you shed a long overdue tear of pity for the man, and imagine that for him, as for all alcoholics, to be or not to be really is the question.

The Links

‘Maybe I shouldn’t breathe so much’ Leaving Las Vegas, 1995

‘What a piece of work is man’ Withnail and I, 1987

A momentary loss of muscular co-ordination’ The Shining, 1980

Divine Transcendence: War, Francisco de Goya and The Third of May 1808

In an era when the death toll of war is narrated so casually and quantitatively, an early 19th century Spanish painting reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed.

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco de Goya (1814)

The poor, plainly-dressed labourer has only moments to live. His arms are held aloft in a final, defiant assertion of his humanity, while his face droops downwards, more out of resignation than fear.

Nothing will save him from joining the tangled heap of corpses which lies on the ground to his immediate right. Within seconds, he’ll be just another victim of the cold, efficient massacre that’s taking place on Madrid’s Principe Pio hill at 4 o’clock on an icy black morning in May.

Time is a dominant presence in Francisco de Goya’s most famous painting. Its title is a time itself – The Third of May 1808 – and the picture was intended to commemorate a specific event in Spanish history. On that date, hundreds of Madrilenians were shot dead by Napoleonic insurgents, whose usurpation of the city the previous day had provoked the populace to rebellion. Goya’s painting depicts the savage reprisals that followed: a systematic mass execution of civilians at point blank range.

Six years later, after the French had finally been vanquished, Goya proposed a sequence of paintings to the Spanish government that would remember the sacrifices his fellow citizens made that night. The Third of May 1808 was the second of two delivered, prefaced by its companion piece The Second of May 1808, which portrays the pandemonium of the uprising itself in the city’s Puerta del Sol, where ordinary folk set about Napoleon’s crack Mameluke troops with knives and fists.

Facing the implacable void

There is a powerful journalistic feel to The Third of May 1808; such is the reportage style there was even speculation (now discredited) that Goya himself was an eyewitness. Its lack of artsy contrivance and in-the-moment dynamic gives the picture an unpolished immediacy that’s antithetical to the grand, aestheticized historical paintings of contemporaries like Jacques-Louis David.

Goya’s vision is hyper-gritty and bleak, especially for a canvas designed to invoke nationalist pride (perhaps this was one of the reasons it was discreetly placed in storage by the powers-that-be). The protagonists are neither knights or noblemen, princes or politicians. They are commoners, victims of circumstances, supporting players in history’s drama – and there is no epic grandeur or compressed narrative characteristic of early 19th century commemorative pictures like The Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David (1801)

Instead, it feels like you’ve turned a street corner and stepped unwittingly into a crime scene. A group of civilians huddle together near a bloodied pile of bodies, cowering against a nauseatingly-coloured hill. Opposite them and exceedingly close – as if Goya deliberately squeezes the spatial field to heighten the drama – are a faceless group of Napoleonic riflemen, ready to discharge the fatal blasts. Above them all is the heaviest and deadest of nights, an implacable void oppressing the gruesome scene below.

We can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space

Graphic horror was Goya’s stock-in-trade. After a successful spell as the Royal court painter, he suffered a serious illness (most likely due to poisonous vapours emanating from his pigments) and became stone deaf. Troubled, withdrawn and operating on the margins, Goya responded to his disability by producing a visual arsenal of shocking intensity. Absorbing pieces such as Yard with Lunatics, an unforgettable image of madness, and his infamous engraving The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is like watching a mind unravelling before you.

A visceral and spiritual experience

This culminated in his illustrative series The Disasters of War, a sequence of 82 prints that together constitute an indignant scream at the stupidity of conflict. The Third of May 1808 was produced during this same period, and it marks the high point of Goya’s violent, extremist art. The painting’s emotional power lies in how it replaces the gothic surrealism of The Sleep of Reason with a kind of vivid, abrasive hyper-reality, and in its contemplation of a new kind of military terror being unleashed on humanity.

In the 21st century, we’re now so desensitised to murder on an industrialised scale – the Somme, Auschwitz, Sarajevo, Rwanda – that we can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

These tightly-focused assassins form a radical contrast to the crumbling chaos of the victims, a grisly knot of limbs accentuated by a sly shift in perspective which sees the dead man face down in the foreground almost tip out into the viewer’s space. Goya’s painting is the artistic equivalent of a thump on the nose; he grinds the scene into your consciousness in the same way he applied the wet-on-wet painting technique to cake red onto his canvas, making Spanish blood an indelible feature of the sun-scorched earth.

There is darkness a-plenty in The Third of May 1808 – but there is light too. For a painting about imminent death, it pulses with a strange, life-affirming energy. Chief counterpoint to the executioners is the image’s central figure, a humble labourer bathed in the light of the soldiers’ lantern. Goya illuminates this figure with all the tools at his disposal – space, composition, colour, shape – the X pattern of his spread-eagled posture drawing your eyes towards the intense luminosity of his clothing.

The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer

Here, the artist’s deafness proves his trump card. Depriving someone of one sense tends to intensify the receptivity of the others, and there’s no question Goya makes you feel the contrasting visual effects of light and dark more than most painters. The chiaroscuro effect is not simply a visceral device though: it imbues the picture with spiritual overtones that elevate it to a whole new level of resonance.

Sporting white and yellow clothes (the heraldic colours of the papacy), the central figure is as much holy martyr as he is salt-of-the-earth. His arms are spread wide as if being crucified and his palms bear the scars of stigmata, a gesture that would be reimagined by Picasso in Guernica, where two outstretched hands reach skywards from the Fascist-inflicted cubist rubble.

Everyman and Superman

Elsewhere, the glowing lantern recalls the Roman soldiers capturing Christ in Gethsemane, a light source so aggressively bright that it makes the victim seem almost supernatural, other-worldly, as if he is about to rise Saviour-like to a higher plane of existence. The effect is compounded by a spectacular breach of proportion. The labourer is kneeling down, but if stood up would tower over his assailants. Both Everyman and Superman, he transcends himself at the very moment of death.

In Christian doctrine, this is what’s known as transfiguration, named after the episode in the Gospels when Jesus transforms before his disciples so ‘his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light’ (Matthew 17): that moment before death when we metamorphose into a more spiritual, beautiful state.

The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer; capturing a pure drop of divinity as it ripples through an ocean of depression. The ordinary turns extraordinary, the anonymous becomes the archetypal – and The Third of May 1808 transforms into a potent symbol of tragedy, a single image of iconic status similar to the scorched nakedness of Phan Thi Kim Phuc seeking refuge from napalm.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc (left of centre) fleeing a napalm attack (Nick Ut, 1972)

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” says the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism. In an era where the death toll of war victims is talked about so casually and quantitatively, Goya reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed. That’s why whenever I look at The Third of May 1808, I feel humbled, blessed, glad to be alive – and savour how my life’s troubles fade into the background before it, like shadow being gradually extinguished by light.

For the journey of Goya’s labourer is the journey of the artist and the viewer. When faced with the penury of death, the peasant achieves true spiritual wealth and immortality. When all sound had died away, Goya channelled this emptiness into a supernova of light. And when we gaze upon this scene of squalid murder, and reflect on the competing energies raging within it, we appreciate more than anything life’s preciousness and beauty, and hope that when our time comes, we can strive to be as bold, as brilliant, as divine.

The Links

A Guide to The Third of May 1808  Official Website of the Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Complete Works of Franciso de Goya,

Iconic War Photography The Guardian, 26 April 2013

The Great Unsaid: Time and transition in Yazujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Unspoken pain is part of the furniture in Yazujiro’s Tokyo Story, a majestic study of family life and what it means to be human.

Tokyo Story (1953). Pictures courtesy of The Shochiku Company

It’s called the tatami shot. The camera is fixed on a short tripod, the lens positioned at waist height and the actors sit on the floor, level with the viewer’s eye line, to give the impression we’re sitting among them. The depth of field is increased, the camera doesn’t move and our perspective stays fixed and unwavering as the drama unfolds slowly before us.

Named after the traditional mat found in Japanese living rooms, the tatami shot is a stylistic hallmark of film-maker Yazujiro Ozu. Voted by movie directors in 2012 as the greatest film of all time, his 1953 work Tokyo Story is the tatami film par excellence, an immersive, penetrating study of an elderly Japanese couple who visit their grown-up yet ever-busy children in the capital. Treated as an inconvenience and ushered coldly from house to house, the parents eventually return home before the movie’s sad final act plays out.

It’s a simple story but a complex drama. Thanks to Ozu’s stationary, static style, our appreciation of the domestic events in each home is somewhat restricted. We never get a total sense of where we are and what’s happening, receiving only partial glimpses into the characters’ interior lives and regularly having to make sense of the action based on what’s not said or done.


Action is the wrong word, for precious little happens in Tokyo Story. The threadbare plot unravels sedately, major events are omitted, the performances are understated and dialogue is often confined to awkward social pleasantries. Together, they cloak an undertone of disappointment and indifference that aches throughout every scene, resulting in a beautifully-crafted vision of dysfunctional family life. Unspoken pain is part of the furniture, all of it captured in a sober cinematic style that feels both curiously immersive and detached, a stillness exacerbated by the fact that only one tracking shot is deployed in the entire film.

Instability and uncertainty

Despite that, there’s movement everywhere, and in the most profound sense of the word. From the opening shot of the pupils walking to school to the closing shot of the boat cruising through the harbour, Ozu’s film is one about transition – a couple’s train journey to a city, the transformation of children to adults, the relentless modernisation of society, the increasing demands of professional life, the inexorable dissolve of familial bonds, the regression of adults back to childlike dependency and the final, inevitable move from life to death.

Tokyo Story forces us to sit, reflect and come to terms with what we’re watching. When the movie ends, you realise there’s so much more to it than first meets the eye

Through it all, Ozu forces us to confront those difficult, eternal questions. Can families survive the passage of time? What obligation do children owe their parents? How do we best prepare ourselves for the end? And what’s the best way to remember and dignify those who are gone? For a film so overtly calm and austere, Tokyo Story is replete with instability and uncertainty, a mood revealing itself in subtle ways – the disappointed glances, the growing spatial distances between characters, the feeble social rituals that fail to articulate what’s really going on, and, most of all, the long, thick silences, which Ozu creates by lingering his camera on a scene long after the talking has stopped.


Tokyo Story forces us to sit, reflect and come to terms with what we’re watching. When the movie ends, you realise there’s so much more to it than first meets the eye – and that you’ve spent two hours under the spell of a true cinematic master. With remarkable patience and tenderness, expressed through judicious editing, delicate writing and a love of the human face in all its wonderful complexity, Ozu’s worldview is brilliantly elucidated, the sadness of his scenario bearing down on you with all the quiet force of gravity.

There’s nothing special about this family though. As the title implies, this is just one story among millions in the world’s most populated city

Tokyo Story isn’t a pessimistic film though. Rather it’s a wise film, and that wisdom seems born out of time itself. Time is everywhere – in the family heirloom of the watch, in the changing landscape, in the characters’ anxiety about the past and the future, and in their inability to find more of what is life’s most precious resource.

Conflicted and unknowable

Moving both surprisingly quickly and excruciatingly slowly, time changes people, moves them apart, brings them back together and pushes them away again. Time is a relative concept to Ozu, and relative is the operative word here, with time strengthening and weakening family ties in ways we can all identify with.

There’s nothing special about this family though. As the title implies, this is just one story among millions in the world’s most populated city. But the experience of this group of people feels so unique and vividly etched that you can’t help recall the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.

Tokyo Story is equally as great a work of art, and has a similar sense of life as conflicted, tragic and, in some ways, unknowable. Yet it is majestic too, and in the face of all the pain and disappointment, Ozu teaches us to look, to imagine and to feel this quality – and to remember that this life, and this family, are the only ones we’ll ever have.


The Links

Tokyo Story Official Trailer, YouTube 

The Pillow Shots of Yazujiro Ozu, British Film Institute 

Ozu vs Avatar, David Thomson, The Guardian