Nurse of such Bitter Dreams
One of the strands of the University Course I did in Film Studies was in "Irish Cinema". This was at an Irish University, after all. But studying Irish cinema is not like studying Irish Literature as part of an English course. Irish writers have contributed more to Literature than the writers of many nations of greater importance and with larger populations. Ireland produced arguably the greatest novelist (James Joyce), Poet (W.B. Yeats) and Playwright (Samuel Beckett) of the 20th Century, and this rollcall would grace the literary ranks of any nation or culture: Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, G.B. Shaw, Bram Stoker, Brendan Behan, Sean O'Casey, J.M Synge, Frank O'Connor, Flann O'Brien. It makes sense to study Irish Literature, because Irish literature deserves it, even demands it. Irish Cinema, on the other hand, does no such thing.
That course was probably the one I paid least attention to, daydreaming through classes, missing a screening or two. I was in love with American Movies and discovering International Cinema, and I had no interest in the cinematic heritage of my homeland beyond the work of the couple of Irish Directors making films in Hollywood - Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan. But I had to answer a question on it in the Final Exam. I had nothing prepared, had taken little or no notes all year. I figured that my grades in the other papers would be good enough to make up for an awful grade in that paper. And I got lucky. One of the questions focused on the treatment of the Irish diaspora in American Cinema. My lecturer meant us to discuss the work of John Ford, the quintessential Irish-American. But I had a pretty good memory of an essay about racial politics in the screenwriting of David Mamet, and I adapted that idea to discuss the Irish presence in American Crime and Gangster films, including James Cagney, Tom Hagan in the "Godfather" films, Sean Connery in "The Untouchables", "State of Grace" and "Millers Crossing" (ever since then whenever a new film appears with Irish Gangsters in America at its heart - from "The Departed" to "Road to Perdition" - a part of me regrets that it didn't exist then so I could have used it). I can't remember my argument but it must have been convincing, because I got my highest grade for that essay. That was because I was discussing American cinema. Much of the study of Irish Cinema is concerned with films made by American and English filmakers in Ireland, with Irish casts, tackling Irish subject matter. I probably could have handled something in that area, too. If I had been forced to write about truly Irish films, I would have been in serious trouble.
Ireland was poor in the 1980s, when I was growing up. I wasn't aware of it at the time, and its only looking back now, with the benefit of the EU Billions that have changed the country so radically that it seems obvious. Unemployment reached a high in the early 80s, young people left in consistent streams for the UK and the US, there were problems with the countries infrastructure and economy that the Government was too poor to do anything about. Back then, Ireland didn't feel like part of Europe. It felt like a backwater, mired a few decades previous, with the Catholic Church still enjoying far too much influence and young people expected to know their place. It was certainly too poor to have a proper film industry. So the odd Irish film squeaked out into cinemas, was a big story at home, then promptly disappeared. I remember the releases of such Irish films as "Eat the Peach" (1986) and "The Courier" (1988) as really big deals in the small pond of Dublin. But Irish film pre-1980 barely existed, save for the odd no-budget indie and numerous patronising Hollywood depictions of Irish life. The 90s Boom in Dublin and the "Celtic Tiger" changed all that. Irish directors began to make films about Irish subjects, often funded by American and British backers, but still an improvement on what had gone before.
Few of these films impressed me. Writers and directors tend to be attracted to the more heavily mythologised rural life of Ireland, so there is a surfeit of films full of country pubs and silent farmers and town squares and parish priests. I recognise this world - half of my family comes from it - but its not my world, not my Ireland. My Ireland was sporadically portrayed in the cinema of the 1980s (in films like Cathal Black's "Pigs" (1984)) and was given a comic, strangely glorified treatment in the adaptations of the work of Roddy Doyle. But it wouldn't be truly represented in cinema until the new century, when filmakers began to grapple with the problems facing the new Ireland, post-boom. Films like "About Adam" (2000), "Intermission" (2003) and this years lovely "Once" all approach modern Dublin differently. "About Adam" tries hard to be a sort of Woody Allen-lite romantic comedy, casting the City the same way it has its pretty leading actors - purely for its attractiveness before a camera. But Dublin isn't all that attractive a city, and the film feels bizarre and contrived to a native in the same way many London-set films get London - in terms of geography, character and tone - so wrong. "Intermission" opts for an Altmanesque multi-character approach, and like many such films, some stories work better than others, unbalancing the narrative. But at least the Dublin portrayed in "Intermission" is a virtually anonymous any-city, all drab suburbs and bland sidestreets. The film does a good job of communicating that the citys qualities all emanate from its people, not its architecture or setting. "Once" is not dissimilar in its portrayal of dingy Dublin flatland, with a single, idyllic trip to the coast breaking the poetic-realist spell only very briefly. But by far the best of this cycle of films, and also my favourite, is Lenny Abrahamson's "Adam & Paul" (2004).
Heroin became an epidemic in Dublin's inner city and certain suburbs in the 70s, and its never really gone away. Poor communities were ravaged by the drug and at one point in the 1980s Dublin had proportionately one of the biggest populations of addicts in Europe. Growing up in the city then you quickly became familiar with the type - the thousand yard stare, the shambling, shaking gait, the cracked voice. "Adam & Paul" was the first film to address this world. The film is a tragi-comedy which follows 24 hours in the lives of the titular characters, a pair of childhood friends turned junkies, as they wander the city in search of money and their next fix. Sounds hilarious, I know. But it maintains an almost Beckettian grim humour from the first scene, when the duo awake in a wasteland behind Dublin's Ballymun estate. The tall one - they are never assigned names, and people greet them with "Alright Adam and Paul?" - finds himself glued to a mattress and the first words uttered are "Ah for fucks sake." They swear throughout, as do most of the people they encounter in the course of their day, which is extremely authentic to Dublin. The comedy mainly comes from the small one, who is the slapstick clown of the pair. He is clipped by a moped crossing the street: "Me fuckin leeggg!!" He hurts his hand trying to smash a car window: "Me fuckin hand!!" He throws up by the side of a motorway, he takes an emergency shit crouched in an alley ("I'm not wipin meself with a tayto bag") and he bungles an attempt at shoplifting, then cannot even open the milk carton he has escaped with. He maintains a pathetic, whining tone throughout. And yet he is the more sympathetic of the two, his puppyish eyes and dependence on his friend and constant repetition of "sorry" making him seem absurdly vulnerable and pitiful. He bemoans their life when they are at their lowest: "Why can't things be easy, just for once...and to be lucky?"
There is also comedy in the duo's slow-motion verbal ping-pong, underlined by their slack-mouthed, heavy-lidded, slow-blinking smackhead personas. The tall one is the boss, the thinker, and he carries an air of grim regret and melancholy, as if he knows what he is and is helpless to do anything about it. When they are reunited with their old friend, the now clean Janine (in a lovely, silent moment of imagined mental communion), it is suggested that he may even be the father of her infant child. But he is determined in his pursuit of their next high. He carries on, without looking back, dragging the small one in his wake. They are outsiders, always out of place in company, their smalltalk stilted and awkward. They meet some acquantances in a park and it is like a scene from a wildlife documentary - a pack including children, two women and a watchful alpha male are encountered by these two comedically predatory rogue males. The male, in due course, warns the pair off. But they are never sentimentalised or glamorized. They ruthlessly mug a downs syndrome boy they see waiting for a bus. They are close to stealing Janine's new tv. The narrative is sprinkled with suggestions about their role in the death of Matthew, an old friend and fellow junkie whose funeral they have attended a month before (and whose family they encounter). They seem stunned and unsurprisingly numb at the grief they encounter, their immersion in their own addiction blotting out all else for them. And the film, to its great credit, does not shy away from giving that addction a sort of climax. Adam and Paul do score, and their high is depicted as an extraordinary, blissful rapture. The film's colour palette briefly changes, as does the music, and the screen is aglow for one scene, full of light and vivid imagery. This high is eventually followed by the inevitable consequences, however, and they give the film a moving, low key ending, as do the terrific performances from Tom Murphy (as the small one) and Mark O'Halloran (as the tall one).
Dublin here is the city I recognise and love while hating : the film perfectly captures the grey, grimy, litter-strewn streets of the Inner city, the working class heart that still beats on the outskirts of the tourist-choked area of the centre. Aside from the heroin scene, the colours are muted throughout, the skies overcast, the sunlight hazy and diffuse. Skin tone is mottled, colours lose their allure under the dull weather of an Irish midwinter*. Abrahamson is a subtle stylist, seldom moving his camera but choosing his shots economically. He indulges himself with a few moments of hard urban poetry in his many compositions showing Adam and Paul as figures framed against a landscape, whether it be crossing a rain-soaked back-street or begging on a corner. He seems interested in modern Dublin and how it works as a city. Adam and Paul exist in the margins, flitting between mainstream lives. There they encounter a Bulgarian man, allowing Abrahamson to examine the complex relationship the Irish - a traditionally emigrant people - have with the Immigrants who have recently flooded their newly wealthy country. He exposes their prejudices ("Yeah, Our Country," the tall one says. "Fuck off back to Romania") before telling them that Dublin is a shithole, full of Romanians. Earlier, a homeless man has berated a store security guard by yelling "You wouldnt have thrown us out if we were black!" Adam and Paul, though definitely outsiders within Dublin, still see themselves above the foreigners filling its most menial positions, and even Irish people from outside the city - "Fuck off back to the country" they shout to another security guard.
Films set in the World's legitimately great citys often rely on a shorthand. Heres a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Look, its Big Ben, and theres a Red bus. That sort of thing. Nothing in Dublin is as instantly recognisable, except to its inhabitants. Abrahamson steafastly refuses any cheap establishing shot and avoids most recognisable landmarks to emphasise his heroes strange isolation. Until the High, that is, which occurs on one of the Liffey's bridges, and the haunting final scene, when one of Dublin's most recognisable Industrial structures towers in the background in what seems an ironic thumb of the nose at the very idea of such gestures. This contrarian streak is itself a very Dublin trait, and it may have helped Abrahamson make what is the greatest film about the city.
*Which reminds me of John Boorman's reasons for shooting "The General" in black and white - he said that the colours of modern Dublin were gaudy and ugly. Splashes of awful manmade colour - tracksuits, football shirts, shopfronts, sparkling cars - against the granite and limestone and glass of the city itself. He saw no poetry there, after making so many films hymning the beauty of nature itself and greenery specifically ("Zardoz", "the Emerald Forest", "Excalibur"). Altough the younger Boorman was able to find the beauty in the angles and spartan lines of Los Angeles in "Point Blank" 30 years earlier...