The James Clayton Column: cinematic tales from the sick bay

A spell in hospital leaves James cut off from cinema, and desperate for a return to geekdom. Still, at least he hasn’t mutated into a giant swan. Yet…

Dear Den of Geek readers,

I hope this column finds you well. To be totally honest with you, it doesn’t find me that well, I’m afraid – at least not well enough to run around in the big wide outside world with its contaminated air, acid rain and hobos with shotguns.

Doctors conducted some very vigorous investigations and decided it’d be better if I spent some time in hospital. Don’t worry though – I’m getting better and it’s a relief to be in here while Contagion is spreading that nasty virus around multiplexes. I’m having fun recreating One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest when things get a bit dull, and have made a fortune by stealing drugs from the ward to sell on the black market. I feel like Orson Welles in The Third Man. All I need now is one of the nurses to learn how to play The Harry Lime Theme on the zither and for Joseph Cotten to come and visit me.

On reflection, the film noir fantasy I’m currently trapped is more appealing than the regular nasty world that lies on the outside – a place where, according to Rutger Hauer’s aforementioned Hobo With a Shotgun, “You’re more likely to wind up selling your bodies on the streets, or shooting dope from dirty needles in a bus stop.” In hospital, the nurses only use sterilised needles and never shove a sawn-off in your face and shout “I’m gonna sleep in your bloody carcass tonight.”

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All’s well then. I haven’t been poisoned or turned into bedsheets by wicked doctors, and treatment is progressing. I’m optimistic that soon I’ll be healthy and firing on all cylinders, thus able to challenge shotgun-toting hobos to a proper duel. The ward’s resident Ghostbusters have already extracted the parasite poltergeists from my insides and I’ve been assured that, in time, the stress rashes and spontaneous black feather sprouting will cease. The lack of mirrors in hospital means that I can’t see myself turning into a monster swan, which has definitely put my mind at rest and aided my recovery from ill health.

That’s all very good, but the worst thing about being stuck in here is the lack of movie action. As a film nerd and self-affirmed out-and-proud cinema-crazy geek, it’s been extremely trying. The NHS can afford Ghostbusters but not ultra-fast Internet connections that would enable me to stream flicks and, of course, there’s limited opportunity to get out to the cinema.

I’ve managed to escape a couple of times to catch current releases, and those trips have really made me appreciate an habitual pilgrimage I usually make several times a week. To quote Joni Mitchell’s song about them paving paradise and putting up a parking lot to fill with violent hobos, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

Yes, Joni, that’s how it does seem to go, and incarcerated here, cinematic visions are out of reach and I’m forced to sit in a dark room with only a nurse struggling to drag a tune out of a zither for entertainment.

These circumstances have reinforced how much I value freedom and film, as well as vividly highlighting my overall attitude and individual approach to movie viewing. I have an intimate relationship with them, and going to the cinema or sitting down to watch a film on DVD or online is a very personal affair where I totally immerse myself in the screen world’s alternate reality, seeking a deep experience.

Not everyone relates to movies in the same way, though, and when the cinema-crazed end up confronted with more casual folk, the potential result is awkwardness, confusion and complete communication breakdown. This is what I’ve been grappling with over recent weeks, as a spell on the sick bay has meant prolonged exposure to characters who just don’t care about movies as much as I do, and don’t appreciate them in the same manner.

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My social circle has become a social square with sharp, uncomfortable corners that just can’t be smoothed. Confined to hospital, I can’t just nip to the pics and hang out with my film buff amigos. The crappy wi-fi connection also limits my ability to engage in the pop cultural conversations that flow around cyberspace, and I’m less able to interact with online brethren who share the burning geekstreak and ‘get it’ just like I do.

Instead, I’m sitting with a new set of strangers with whom I have less in common, travelling down hopeless conversation threads that are never going to knit into the mutual nerd dialogues I crave. The other day, for example, I ended up loudly proclaiming Hanna the best movie of the year, because it kicks arse as a modern action movie that subverts genre clichés, charmingly weaves fairytale elements, arthouse flourishes, a striking soundtrack and underpinning psychological aspects into a visceral experiential work of sublime grace and power.

The response: blank looks. I’m an oddball outcast by virtue of the fact that I took film studies at university and have spent epic lengths of time watching films, reading about films and channelling my energies into a deep relationship with films. According to my perspective and cosmological outlook, filtered as they are through the immense pop cultural paradigm, this is all very cool and completely understandable.

For my fellow patients and the staff members, however, it makes me a curious eccentric with an affected brain. I saw their concerned, worried expressions as they observed me having a quiet geekout during the Harryhausen Hydra battle in Jason And The Argonauts. (It just happened to be on the common room TV in a moment’s reprieve from daytime soaps.)

Talking about ‘the scariest film you’ve ever seen’ ahead of Halloween has caused similar problems, as I’ve struggled to sell obscure black-and-white chillers from the 60s to them. Onibaba – a Japanese art feature that manages to conjure up the most unbearable dread and human-based horror from only three characters, an inanimate mask, a hole in the ground and windswept countryside – would not go down well with these guys.

I’m a lonely freak locked up in here – perceived as a pretentious weirdo who talks esoteric tongues and dabbles in strange cult worship.Never mind, though. We may all be separated by the common language of culture, but we’re all human. At least, I am when I’m not having another one of those swan metamorphosis episodes…

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James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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