Making movies

Adventures of a suburban boy

by John Boorman

(Faber & Faber)

By the mid-1960s, John Boorman was a young prospect being watched in the new British film industry. Born in Carshalton, on the leafy edge of south London, Boorman had not been to university, or been apprenticed in the theatre. But his work in television had shown an ability to transform routine magazine programmes with the fresh air of real, awkward lives, and with searching documentary. And despite being a suburban boy, he had lofty ambitions.

His first feature was about the Dave Clark Five. In the late 1980s, Boorman’s very personal picture, Where the Heart Is, had to suffer the dismay of its American distributor, and the bewilderment (or worse) in so many preview cards. Until he turned up a card that offered an untoppable commentary on his career: “John Boorman’s movies are unpredictable, subversive and crazed. Tell him to keep making them no matter what.”

If Adventures of a Suburban Boy is not quite (yet) the final or complete word on John Boorman, that is because, at 70, he sees no reason to think of himself as done. I cannot believe that his mind or his hopes for glory are any calmer than they were when he was 25. There is a new picture only a few months away (Country of My Skull), and I am one of those ready for anything from a masterpiece to — well … less than a masterpiece.

Boorman is still exactly what you wouldn’t expect to come out of Carshalton, a lower-middle-class background. He is, it seems to me, so much more unpredictable, passionate and wayward than that other suburban boy, the one he regards so highly — David Lean.

This is a matter of opinion, perhaps, but just as Lean was too sophisticated or worldly to get involved with a flagrant disaster like Boorman’s The Heretic (a sequel to The Exorcist) or even Zardoz (a well-intentioned but unintelligible excursion into Celtic myth), I don’t think Lean could have made anything as ambivalent as Hope and Glory, as terrifying as Deliverance or as close to a masterpiece as Point Blank — in which human figures have become like concrete blocks and electrical appliances, and in which the old set pieces of film noir are subject to a way of seeing, editing and knowing that is rich with New Wave discoveries.

This book is a record of the career, if that’s all you want. But it is far more an imprint of the life, and the way Boorman has struggled between being a decent guy, father, husband, lover and friend, and the kind of trickster who can keep getting movies made without going insane. The best part of the book is the first 100 or so pages — the early years. If Boorman remains a touch too restrained about his own love life — well, that is decent, thoroughly Carshalton, and a sign that nothing is over. — Â

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