“I am a man I never had time to get to know,” announces the film-maker John Boorman, director of Point Blank (1967) and Deliverance (1972), halfway through this not-quite memoir. “I suspected he was a fraud, a liar, full of hollow passion, best kept locked away.” It’s a pensive, unexpectedly self-chastening admission in a section titled “Solitude”. Mulling a little longer, he adds: “I can’t say I like him, but since it is just the two of us, we are learning to get along. I have even found it possible to forgive him. He no longer embarrasses me, nor do I feel the need to apologise for him.”
Why, one wonders, would Boorman ever have been embarrassed by himself? Born in Carshalton, south London in 1933, he left school at 16 and worked for a dry-cleaners, but was soon writing essays for the Manchester Guardian and as a critic for BBC Radio’s Under-Twenty Review show. During national service the lectures he gave to Korea-bound troops on the background to the war inspired one of them, Labour MP Ian Mikardo’s son, to declare he couldn’t serve in such an immoral struggle. Boorman was arrested and charged with “seducing a soldier from the course of his duty”, only for the court martial against him to be dropped when it became clear that the chief source for his seditious propaganda was the Times.
Boorman’s previous book, Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003) was a more linear account of his directorial career that included not only his notable successes but the box-office catastrophe Exorcist II (1977). Conclusions is more fragmented, a commonplace book that includes advice for budding screenwriters; tributes to the BBC where, as a young documentarian, he was given freedom to experiment and to “paint with light”; and fond recollections of the characters he has encountered in his years living in Ireland (among them a “poetic conman” with the splendid name Shit Mackey).
The chapters teem with gossipy though never mean anecdotes. He recalls the 1992 Cannes film festival where he often had to shake and sometimes punch Gerard Depardieu who, even though he was jury president, habitually fell asleep and started snoring as soon as the lights went down on the films being screened in competition. He marvels at how the famously bibulous John Hurt managed to win a best dramatic actor award in spite of the fact that “he had not read the script, did not know the name of the character he was playing, or even the name of the film” in which he had appeared.
Some of his stories can be unexpectedly moving. Burt Reynolds, shortly after he appeared in Cosmopolitan as a nude centrefold, confessed to him that he felt awkward about his new-found sex-symbol status. “He told me that women expected something amazing from their experiences with him. ‘But,’ he said ruefully, ‘I’m just a fumbler like everyone else.’” David Lean confides in him: “‘The tragedy of my life is that I always took the women who wanted me. I never had the courage to go after the women I wanted.’ ‘Does that apply to all five wives?’ I said. ‘Absolutely,’ he replied morosely.’”
Best of all is his account of Harold Pinter’s vanity and insecurity about his poetry. Every time it appeared in the Observer he would buy a bundle of copies and send them to friends who were expected to tell him how great they found the verse. On one occasion, Pinter sent a two-line poem to the playwright Simon Gray. (“I saw Len Hutton in his prime / Another time, another time.”) Not getting any reply, he rang Gray and asked him if he’d received the poem. And then: “Did you read it?” “I am only halfway through it,” Gray replied.
For all its gaiety, Conclusions is permeated with loss and a sense of time running out. Boorman notes the death of friends and conspirators such as Ken Russell and John Schlesinger. And words, the right words, increasingly elude him: “If I wait patiently, they float up, and I recapture them.” Nature is a partial solace. He includes his own poetry – about larches, oak trees, water – some of which is accompanied by hand-drawn sketches. The bigger loss, to which he often returns with eloquence and insight – is film itself. He mourns the shift to digital (“dirt and scratches on the screen are a thing of the past”), film’s shrinkage from big screens to laptops and smartphone, and the damage done to narrative structures by TV programmes financed by streaming platforms: “Movies are always seeking endings that grow out of the body of the story, that are earned and satisfying, whereas the series is searching for material that will let it continue. It must avoid endings at all costs.” The feature film, he believes, “is a director’s medium; the TV series is usually dictated by a producer or, as they are now called, a show runner … I find the results tedious, the obligations to watch a chore.”
In the end, what makes Conclusions so delightful is Boorman’s awareness of how absurd cinema is. Absurd as in non-rational, dreamlike, an escape from what passes for reality. Cinema as collective dreaming, a permission to dream. “Committing yourself to the life of a film-maker is to embrace a form of joyous slavery,” he writes. What romance!
• Conclusions is published by Faber (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free Uk p&p over £15.