WHAT'S MISSING FROM IRISH CINEMA
In the program for the recent Irish Cinema 1993-2003 retrospective organised to co-incide with the Irish Film Board’s 10th anniversary, Rod Stoneman celebrated the huge growth in Ireland’s filmic output of the last decade, as assisted by the IFB – in comparison to “the preceding two decades, when the very term ‘Irish Cinema’ had yet to be coined yet or used with any confidence.”
It could be said, as Stoneman implies, that Ireland now has a significant enough body of work to use the said term with confidence (76 films were screened in the 10-year retrospective) – but that’s only if one looks solely at the numbers, and not at the individual worth and achievement of each film. If one adopts that approach, it becomes quite clear that, as Tony Keily said in Film Ireland 90, “there is still no sign of anything we could call Irish Cinema.”
Of course anniversaries are a time of congratulation, and I don't mean to suggest that the IFB's contribution to Irish film in the past 10 years has been negative – but it concerns me that such a congratulatory tone may give the dangerous illusion that we have a healthy film culture in this country, on a par with the rest of Europe, if not the world. We simply don’t – and we need to realise how much Irish cinema has failed to achieve if we want to move forward. That's why if I'd been asked to write about the board's 10th anniversary, my article would have been something along the lines of, "come on, lads – we can do better than this."
It’s in that vein that I want to make some suggestions as to what’s missing.
It’s often wondered why, given our rich storytelling tradition, Irish films are generally so mediocre – but I suspect a focus on “storytelling”, at least a certain conception of it, is one of the main problems: people are telling “stories” too much and not focusing enough on that other thing, life; on real lived experience. This is obvious in the genre films (chiefly crime and romantic comedy) that are being churned out with more and more regularity, but it is even the case for most of the political and historical “based on a true story” flicks that have become a staple of Irish filmmaking – most of which mythologise the events to some extent (Michael Collins) , or use real life facts to shape a generic, social injustice/triumph-over-adversity tale (In the Name of the Father, amongst many others.) While not without value, these are still essentially “stories” – fantasies that, while perhaps containing ideas pertaining to real life, have little to do with actual, lived experience.
These films are universal in the wrong way – generic forms or story types that are immediately familiar to anyone anywhere. The more important kind of universality, the kind so desperately needed in Irish cinema, is the kind illustrated by filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami or Edward Yang – films dealing with real life on an intimate level, and consequently with love and communication and emotions and all the other incalulably important things that are relevant to everyone; films so specific, they’re universal. To assume big stories of important people and dramatic events are necessary to talk about things that matter undermines everything you and I do everyday – if our daily lives don’t matter, why bother? It’s also not necessary to filter that ordinary, personal stuff through established formula. Characters don’t have to try to raise money by robbing a bank or set up a band and try to make it big – or any of that other goal-oriented bullshit – in order to make it a real movie.
Of course the other kind of universal isn’t really wrong, but we also need films of a more personal, specific nature, that deal directly with real people and experiences. All we have our films set in Ireland but divorced from real Irish life.
In talking about a cinema dealing with real life, I don’t mean films that all fit into the neat little category of “realism” or anything like that (the concept of objective realism is fantasy in itself) – quite the opposite. There are so many ways of looking at the world, of perceiving reality, that this would result in a vast, diverse body of work, far more wideranging than what we’ve come up with so far. We need greater diversity, and the more unique and personal an approach is taken, the better chance there is of this occurring – and in a much more profound way than having a diverse range of comedies, thrillers and fantasies (which we also need) – instead we’d have a range of you’s and me’s; filmmakers who are their own genre.
Screenwriting has often been brought into focus as one of Irish film’s main problems, but I think a cinema less focused on the writing aspect would have more chance of capturing the Irish flare for storytelling. Like Truffaut said, the best scripts don’t make the best films – because what a makes a film great can’t be reduced to words on the page. In fact it can often be restricted by them. Such focus on the written word, perhaps as a result of our strong theatrical and literary traditions (where the written word is central), only serve to distract from the real, unique nature of film – which is why it’s never reallly been successful.
This limited view is evident in the education system too. For the Leaving Certificate exam, film is reduced to the English course “comparative study” where its treated as just another literary text. This co-opting of film into an existing area of study is indicative of a general failure to accept cinema as something fundamentally different from other arts, requiring its own particular methods, both in its creation and criticism. This isn’t to suggest that there’s one right way to make a movie, but just that you can’t import techniques from elsewhere – you have to tackle the language of film directly, and find your own way of speaking it.
One area that seems to me particularly unexplored as a result of this is the involvement of actors – I’ve heard it said many times of Irish films that the actors were good but the writing, characterisation, dialogue, was bad. I would say the answer is not to put more work into the script, through endless drafts and rewrites, but to involve the actors more in the creative process. It seems the benefits, and the possibilities, of greater collaboration with actors has yet to be discovered in Irish cinema; and the ways in which this could affect all kinds of Irish films could be huge. We all know there are many great Irish actors, and yet there are few, if any, great Irish movies. The fact that actors are classified as “interpretive artists” in government legislation, whereas writers are “creative” and tax exempt, doesn’t exactly help matters.
Maybe Irish cinema’s late development has in someway hindered our exploration of alternative methods of filmmaking. Instead of discovering things for ourselves, we’ve tended to simply take what’s been handed down to us both from other countries and other art forms, and taken this as the accepted way of doing things. A certain amount of reinvention is necessary to counteract this; as Joe Comerford has said, we need to reclaim the forms of storytelling.
Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins is an example of a film that doesn’t so much reclaim the forms of storytelling as adopt existing ones for its own purposes. It enlists a Hollywood concept – that a big, important, dominant, heroic figure is necessary to make a movie – in order to tell a part of Irish history. In doing so, the film becomes more a celebration of the myth of Collins – the age-old attraction of the brave, idealistic hero – than a treatment of the struggl e for independence.
It’s this same sort of mythological potential that attracted Jerry Bruckheimer and friends to Veronica Guerin. Modern Hollywood is based on the principle of repackaging the same old stories over and over again; stories that illustrate the power of the individual, triumph over adversity, etc. That’s why it was perfectly logical for Bruckheimer to feel no obligation to the facts – like he said, he was just telling another “universal story.”
It’s the method of looking for stories in life that “sound like a movie”, instead of looking for things in life that mean something to you, that you want to express or ask questions about. Consciously or not, films like Michael Collins buy into this; they invert Godard’s plea and make “political films” instead of making films politically. The virtues of this approach are easy to see – it makes them immediately accessible to the general public and, significantly, overseas audiences – but it also limits, simplifies and sometimes distorts the issues that are being presented.
Taiwan is a good example of a cinema that, in the work of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has consistently dealt with matters of national identity and history without pandering to the audience through some accessible Hollywood form. Edward Yang’s skillful use of a teenage coming of age story to explore Taiwan’s coming of age in his masterpiece Brighter Summer Day – is perhaps the finest example of how an engaging, incisive and provocative examination of national history can be achieved without compromising a unique, personal style.
How many times have you heard a film described as “the Irish equivalent of...”? In our effort to work in internationally accepted forms, we’ve forsaken what other countries have uniquely – we’ve forsaken any sort of unique cinematic character. The French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realists, Taiwanese or Iranian New Waves . . . none of these would have emerged if they’d taken as gutless an approach as most of Irish film has.
Even filmmakers such as Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, whose work is never overtly political, have captured something quintessentially of their country – by starting from where they are, not from pre-existing formulae, making films about what they see and feel around them, according to their own unique way of looking at things.What Irish film or filmmaker could claim the equivalent? Some might say Neil Jordan or Jim Sheridan – probably the only two “name” Irish directors, but also two of the most overrated.
People still seem to refer to Sheridan’s My Left Foot as the ideal of an Irish success story. Why? Because it won an Oscar? In all fairness, prestigious though it may be, it has to be acknowledged that the Oscars have nothing to do with how good a film is: My Left Foot won because it plugged into the usual cliches that Hollywood are suckers for – “you can do it if you really try”, triumph of the individual over adversity, etc. . . .
I had thought at one time that the restrictive costs of, and difficulty financing, film production in Ireland was causing this distance from real life and studious attention to “stories” – commercially viable, tried-and-tested formats necessary to make your money back. But after attending this year’s Galway Film Fleadh where 7 new Irish films were premiered, all low-budget and 3 shot on digital video – it’s been hard to hold on to that thought. With the exception of bl,.m, Sean Walsh’s Ulysses adaptation, which although not entirely successful, at least tried to do something different – the films screened were mainstream, crowd-pleasing comedies, crime thrillers, romances and combinations of the above.
Of course this is nothing bad in itself – and I firmly believe a film should be judged on what it does and how well it does it, not on how it compares to what you want it to do – but surely there is something wrong when this is all that’s getting made, especially on a low-budget level. Is this an indication that filmmaking requiring any level of funding in Ireland cannot do anything new or different if it wants to get made? Or perhaps that this is all Irish filmmakers want to see, or are willing to risk maybe? It’s certainly not all Irish audiences are willing to see, as the continuing popularity of venues like the Irish Film Centre proves.
I have a worrying feeling that some critics are going to latch on to this new batch of Irish films as some sort of “New Irish Cinema”, an impulse generated perhaps out of desperation at what else is on offer, or maybe just shortsightedness. And though I can understand how any decent Irish film that stays away from the Troubles or the rural past could receive a warm welcome, it would be downright deluded to see this as some sort of rebirth or even coming-of-age of Irish cinema.
Maybe this is just another phase. We’ve milked the Troubles and rural Catholic mores for all their worth (although some still try), and now we’re turning to crowdpleasing genres and formats set in hip, urban settings. Surely we’ll eventually run out of subjects and styles to copy and will have to look at our own lives?
The ultimate problem isn’t that most Irish films are terrible. It’s worse than that – they’re unambitious. If they rarely fall below a certain standard it’s only because they never try to aim far above it. We settle for too little, maybe because we fail to realise the medium’s potential.
A good film to most people is one that’s competently made and reasonably amusing, gripping or exciting. In other words, entertaining – it distracts you for 100 or so minutes. A well-placed shiny object can distract most people – this simply isn’t asking enough from one of the most important, sophisticated, unique, young and relatively untapped mediums of expression and communication of the 21st century.
Even many who recognise cinema as more than just entertaining, still sell the medium short; seeing it just as a way of getting across ideas or arguing points. If you really think about it, it’s just too simple a way to look at it – it’s too limited a frame of reference if all your looking at is “ideas put there by the director”. Like Einstein said, “Knowledge is limited – imagination encircles the world.” Film can be more effective if it goes beyond intellectual understandings – if you don’t, you sacrifice more effective, complex and evocative experiences.
Ultimately the true potential of cinema, and the ways in which it can effect us, is beyond words – but let me take a stab at it. How about a film that expands your mind, alters your perspective, awakens your senses, shows you things you hadn’t noticed or realised before, teaches you things about life, about humanity, about the world – makes you think and feel in complex, indescribable, profound ways, changes you, makes you a better person, makes you a different person, brings you closer to God – brings you closer to Life? How about a movie that does that?
If any of the above seem unlikely or impossible, particularly in relation to Irish cinema, then there’s two possible conclusions. I’m completely wrong and cinema’s really just an amusement, at best maybe a platform for ideas, on which terms Ireland’s been doing perfectly well and deserves a pat on the back and maybe a bit more funding. Either that, or cinema’s just as powerful and potent as any art form, if not more so, and certainly less developed and explored – in which case we’ve certainly got a long way to go as a filmmaking nation. We might as well admit it – and get to work.