If you haven’t seen the film Stand By Me, be warned: spoilers lie ahead.
I leaned across to whisper in my companion’s ear as the title card juddered approximately in the space where the cinema screen was, ‘I hope they’ve cleaned the print up a bit.’
They hadn’t, and it didn’t matter. If you’ve ever wondered where the world’s fluff and grease got to, a goodly proportion is stuck to the surface of the copy of Stand By Me that I saw on Sunday at the Prince Charles Cinema, presumably from a couple of decades spent in storage at the bottom of a lint silo. The rest is around my office, the good ship MacGuffin, and no amount of elbow grease would be sufficient to remove it which is why so little elbow grease is expended by me in testing this hypothesis. I can’t remember the exact line from Oscar Wilde about putting talent into his life and his genius into his work (or is it the other way round?), but nobody today cares about the state of his carpets, and I hope one day to be in a similar position.
If you wanted to see a very literally filthy film in Soho on a Sunday afternoon, this was a good call. I’m sure I saw a frame onto which someone had written with a finger, ‘I wish my projectionist was this dirty,’ but it was a small distraction from a wonderful movie.
And as I say, it didn’t matter. Set in 1950s small-town America, the patina of crisps and nasal hairs gave the film an aged look entirely befitting the mood as the four boys who took the central roles followed the local railway line in the sultry embers of a long summer, seeking the body of a dead classmate, whose location is revealed by a couple of overheard n’er-do-wells.
I knew nothing about the film beyond the poster, that it was directed by Rob Reiner, and as I am a big fan of Misery, reckoned myself to be in safe hands. In common with Misery, there are laugh out loud moments in Stand By Me, and Reiner is a one of very few directors who understands what jokes do to an audience: they relax us, they make us take a side, and they heighten the drama when it comes.
I also carefully negotiated my way around the Wikipedia page, avoided learning more about the plot, but found out that the small town used as backdrop for the film celebrated the 25th anniversary of production by hosting a blueberry pie competition. Clearly this was a foodstuff that played a crucial part in the film, some sort of talisman or McGuffin* that was forever and irrevocably hitched to the movie’s folklore.
Running early, I scoured the shops around Leicester Square for a blueberry pie to bring out, Rocky Horror style, at the appropriate moment, and drew a big fat blank. I toyed with the idea of buying some blueberries and a regular pie, and substituting one filling for the other with my bare hands in the street, but even at that time Leicester Square is crowded, and though it has its share of crazies, I didn’t want such apparently insane behaviour to add me to their number, or find myself declared their King. Finally I settled for cookies: American, yes, less messy, and, when I saw precisely how blueberry pie featured in Stand By Me, in an unexpectedly graphic Mr Creosote-like Grand Guignol orgy of vomiting, felt relieved that my mission had been a lemon.
The shoddy state of the print, which drops whole lines of dialogue and turns smooth motion into angular jerks enhanced the sense of nostalgia, but as I wasn’t 12 in the 1950s, or in America, I have no idea where this nostalgia came from. I sat in the dark, dipped my cookie in my cardboard cup of tea, and went into a reverie.# When I was 12, I was at Scout camp in Norfolk, and managed to spend a week surrounded by knives, ropes, fires, stinging nettles and bodies of water without serious injury, largely because the bigger boys with hip flasks and their own cigarette lighters (none of that idling about with two sticks and tinderboxes in our troupe) steered me out of trouble and thumbed lifts from strangers rather than risking the perils of a nature hike. My parents were relatively relaxed about letting me playing outside as they figured I couldn’t possibly hurt myself outdoors any more than I managed to hurt myself indoors. My clumsiness would be legendary, if it weren’t for the empirical evidence of scars, missing teeth and my habit of operating glass doors with all the skill and finesse of a speeding seagull. I was told I would grow out of it. On Saturday I contrived to punch myself in the face by accident. I am 35.
My only two objections are of realism which is especially unfair as this is a movie and therefore not subject to the same rules as real life. The first is the camp fire sequence. Camp fires in films always crackle merrily through the small hours with no visible means of support, their gas line allowing the tiny wigwam of sticks to belch out heat with the reliability and longevity of an industrial blast furnace. The second is the body. You can feel the sunshine radiating from the screen, and I had wondered how they were going to tackle the messy reality of a corpse that had 1. been hit by a train and 2. been out in the heat for a number of days. Simple answer: they fudged it. The boy slumped in a bush like he was watching clouds, nary a blowfly nor scavenger in evidence, the producers presumably thinking that having put so much vomiting onscreen, they didn’t want a repeat performance in the movie theatre.
But these are small, forgivable potatoes. At one point, I eased my shoulders back in my chair and thought, This is wonderful, I could stay with these characters for the rest of the day. It managed the feat of being well paced without being rushed, and gave a sense of journey without being a drag. And although it’s a film about 12-year-olds, there is plenty in it for this old shuffler to enjoy (Alice in Wonderland is another story that, although about a child, always strikes me as a book for adults).
Some amazing performances coaxed out of young actors, who absolutely and convincingly carry the film. Proper moments of drama, in both the ‘my-parents-resent-me’ and the ‘here-comes-a-train-to-kill-us’ flavours, nicely balanced with the lightness of humour that casts a deeper shadow. We are taken to a familiar place of squeaky bike pedals, mechanical tills and bottled coke (‘of course it’s full of sugar, it’s supposed to be good for you’), with a ’50s soundtrack and a dark heart that reminds you these characters’ innocence is fast waning. They approach a grim reality with the wide eyes of children, and see more than they should.
And in this world of digital projection, high def and 3D, there was something pleasingly lo-fi and human about this crackling, messy print. Main character Gordie never gets his baseball cap back, just as we never get our childhood back, though sometimes a film maker lets us look through the letterbox and glimpse a passing fiction.
The film stock may have aged even more badly than me, but a cleaner version is available on DVD, and this effective and affecting movie would make a fine addition to any library. You’ll be humming the four chords of the theme song for days to come.
* Hitchcock’s, to my mind, poor spelling.
# Yes, this is a reference to A la recherché du temps Perdue – a much longer work than this posting, but with approximately the same number of jokes, ie. none that you can put your finger on.