Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Alan Parker's The Commitments (1991)

Parker's adaptation of the Roddy Doyle novel by the same name is an early work produced during the first Celtic Tiger boom that provided (according to McLoone) 'one of the most consistent visions of urban Ireland'[1]. Despite pointing out the Hollywoodness of The Commitments, along with its urban and Irish clichés that make it 'recognisable' as Irish to the Hollywood audience, McLoone nevertheless recognizes the film's worth as showing the changing urban working class along with a changing society[2]. Doyle (and consequently Parker) sets up the mood for the background of his characters through comedy when Jimmy explains: 'The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin'[3]. While Jimmy was trying to bridge the gap of soul music's predominantly black artists and his troupe of Dubliners, the line takes on a second meaning about the place of the Irish in the socio-economic milieu that they've been occupying until the Celtic Tiger economic boom of the 90's. Equating Ireland's poor economic status to the oppressed African Americans that gave birth to soul music might seem a little extreme, but it works in terms of conveying a feeling shared by many Irish. Further, in the context of the emerging Celtic Tiger boom, it conveys the feeling of those who were on the less fortunate side of the economic improvement. It is no surprise that Jimmy refers to Ireland as a Third World Country when the unemployment officer inquires about his intention of getting a job. As the majority of the characters are artists or in an otherwise dire financial situation (Bernie and her family) it is conceivable that they were slower to feel the improved economy in terms of social conditions. But as McLoone points out, 'to begin to sort out social problems, these had to be recognized, filmed and shown in the first place'[4]. In a way, The Commitments managed to do this, albeit in a more romanticised way than it must have been. The constant problems encountered by the troupe however, paired with the fact that they disband in chaos at the end of the film, show that despite it seeming fun, song and dance do not solve everything, as would have been the case in Hollywood. As such, The Commitments can still function as an example of the needed social realist work to refer to when representing the city in Irish cinema[5]. And while the film is indeed sprinkled with Irishiana (Irelandiana?) throughout, it is also full of references to outside influences: Jimmy's infatuation with the great legends of soul, his dad's interest in Elvis, Dean's preference to Kim Basinger's nipple (why not Sinéad O'Connor's nipple?), even father Molloy's mention of Percy Sledge. Further, at least 2 characters wear, at several points in the film, a German army jacket. While it could simply be a fashion accessory of the early 90's, it could also be a sign of solidarity with Germany, along with other west-European nations, following the fall of the Berlin wall 2 years prior. This could show that socially, even within the less fortunate of Irishmen, there was a sense of belonging to the larger European community than previously felt when asserting the Irish national identity was of much larger importance than it was in the midst of the Celtic Tiger boom. Nevertheless, The Commitments is a good example of contemporary urban Irish reality that would become a standard for works to come dealing with the subject.

[1] McLoone, 2000, p205

[2] McLoone, 2000, p205

[3] Parker, 1991, (00'20'04")

[4] McLoone, 2000, p203

[5] McLoone, 2000, p203

McLoone, M. (2000). Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: BFI

Parker, A. (Director). (1991). The Commitments [Motion Picture]. Ireland/United Kingdom/United States: Beacon Communications

John Crowley's Intermission (2003)

Crowley's first feature, boasting an impressive Hollywood calibre cast, presents a contemporary image of urban reality in Ireland, an image that is not defined by classic pre-Celtic Tiger elements of the rural ideal of days past. Produced during the 2nd wave of economic boom that started in the 1990's, Intermission shows us a modern, urban Dublin, inhabited by characters not constrained by tradition, religion or economic hardship. Rather, the characters face challenges defined by Ireland's inclusion in and influence of not only the European Union (part of which it has been for a while now) but also the larger economic and social sphere that the Celtic Tiger boom brought with it. As McLoone notes 'Having abandoned the imagined community of nationalism for an ideology of national progress, there is a sense of displacement about contemporary Irish life that increasing affluence only exacerbates … Ireland now inhabits a cultural space somewhere between its nationalist past, its European future and its American imagination'[1]. And indeed, the film lacks a certain Irishness that one would expect to find in pre-Celtic Tiger films. Of course, the characters sip on Guinness and speak with thick Dublin accents, but their problems are of an international nature. Adultery, trouble with the boss at work, trouble with the law, unwanted facial hair - these are all issues that would otherwise not have been present in Irish-er works, which instead might have opted to explore the more 'common motifs of Irish film like religion, rurality, inter-generational conflict and politics', issues that are almost non-existent in Intermission[2]. The film is not completely devoid of elements from the past however. As Ryan notes, Intermission is a ' realist Irish film that pays little attention to idyllic fantasies of the past, and where it does, [Crowley] uses them to portray their complete incompatibility with postmodern life. In that sense [Crowley] portrays a postmodern form of nostalgia tempered with irony in the character Jerry Lynch. Lynch’s nostalgia for a past of Celtic mysticism is redolent more of nationalist endeavours and a vigilante form of justice'[3]. Essentially, the film asserts (in an admittedly entertaining way) the Irish urban reality of today, a reality not defined by the elements of the past (church, family, Celtic tradition) but one that is rather concerned with more modern challenges - relationships, employment, money, sex and crime. The fact that most of the characters are living a reality that did not benefit from the Celtic Tiger boom (many are either unemployed, on minimum wage or criminals) invites the post-modern approach that the film has taken, according to Ryan's Baudrillardian reading of Crowley's work. Crowley's film 'gives voice to the local narratives that are of greater meaning to a group of individuals living the flipside of the Celtic Tiger dream in a way only a postmodernist approach can facilitate'[4]. In conclusion Intermission, while being highly entertaining and one might say of Hollywood calibre, is also very much a work relevant to the time during which it was made. Despite being overly colourful and drawing on many elements already explored in other films of the 'euro crime-romp' genre (Trainspotting, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), the film manages to present to us a reality of Ireland not often represented in Irish film output of the time. As such, it is not surprising that it was awarded IFTA's best Irish film award in 2003, along with best director (Crowley) and best script (Mark O'Rowe). Regardless of what actual merit winning an IFTA award has, it is indicative of at least some form of achievement within the small Irish film community and as such, Intermission as well as Crowley, have received some much deserved recognition.

[1] McLoone, 2000, p7

[2] Murphy, 2006

[3] Ryan, 2008

[4] Ryan, 2008

McLoone, M. (2000). Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: BFI

Murphy, P. (2006). Interrogating Intermission. Kritikos: journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image Volume 3, January 2006.
Retrieved October 13, 2008 from:

Ryan, M. (2008). Answering the Question: “What is Intermission?” – An Exploration of Intermission as a Postmodern Film. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 5, Number 1, January 2008.
Retrieved October 13, 2008 from:

Bob Quinn's Atlantean (1983)

Despite appearing, for all intents and purposes, as a run-of-the-mill documentary (albeit with somewhat of a questionable subject), under the surface, Quinn's Atlantean trilogy functions as a comment on both colonialism and nationalism in contemporary Ireland. Employing a documentary aesthetic and many familiar documentary techniques, it is conceivable that the film would have been sold as yet another documentary to be shown alongside nature or history documentaries. Shooting exclusively on-location and employing a voice-over narration for the most part, the film is instantly recognizable as a documentary. The filmmaker often participates in interviews or addresses the camera directly as do some experts on the subject. Were it made by an outside filmmaker, that had no previous relation to Ireland, it would have been easy to classify this film as purely anthropological in nature. In fact, the film works rather well as an anthropological study which makes it so much more difficult to distinguish from a documentary proper. A closer examination, however, reveals several elements that point to the fact that there is more to Atlantean than a mere exploration of Connemara and the origins of its inhabitants.

One of the more prevalent clues is the constant questioning of Quinn's own thesis within the film. In fact Quinn declares early on in the film that he will probably not succeed in proving said thesis. While this would serve to destabilize the much needed authority that the narrator relies on in a documentary, Quinn in fact uses this to reinforce it, claiming that he only thought like this 'because he had a 'colonised mind''[1]. What this does, is provide the viewer with a reason for why he might not be convinced by the film's argument (because the viewer, like Quinn, has a 'colonised mind'). More importantly however, what this does is convince the viewer that he does, indeed have a colonised mind. As any Irishman that has grown up with the Celtic identity taught to him/her in school and at home (or any non-Irish with some notion of geography) might be inclined to do when faced with Atlantean's hypothesis, the viewer is quick to dismiss it as unrealistic. This very dismissal however, while it might not help to prove that Atlantean's claim is true, might more effectively prove that the viewer has a 'colonised mind'. So while destabilizing his own hypothesis throughout the film does not contribute to prove it, it does contribute to the viewer's questioning themselves and the reason that they might be dismissing it in the first place. Further, Quinn presents a very nationalistic image of west-Ireland throughout, showing us people with a developed culture that are proud of their traditions. The fact that Quinn uses this image to destabilize accepted notions of the Irish national identity (e.g. 'see the people of Connemara' à 'see how rich their culture is' à 'see how non-Celtic/European it is') only comes to show (or rather put into question) that these notions might be a product of colonialism. It is precisely this colonialist product White refers to when he talks of Quinn's 'project of eradicating the identity forced upon rural people by those in positions of usually illegitimate authority' which he deems 'a classic anti-colonialist mission'[2]. While White's referencing Solanas and Getino's Third Cinema manifesto[3] might seem a bit extreme (Quinn's films are far from the militant works that inspire aggressive activity of which Solanas and Gentino speak) there is no doubt that his work in Atlantean strives for an alternative notion of Irish nationalism that is not blemished by colonialism. While his Atlantean theory certainly has its valid points, it is much more effective in arousing doubt and questioning the status quo of Irish national identity

[1] White, 1995, p6

[2] White, 1995, p6

[3] White, 1995, p9

White, J. (1995) The Films of Bob Quinn: Towards an Irish Third Cinema. CineAction 37, June 1995, p. 3-10.

Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947)

While, on the surface, Odd Man Out presents itself as yet another film noir, this very presentation constitutes the inescapable politicisation which the film tries to avoid. When considered in the context of film history, Reed's film has most (if not all) of the elements that one would find in a bona fide film noir. Aside from the fact that it was directed and photographed by the same director and cinematographer that would 2 years later rejoin to create one of the most famous film noirs (The Third Man - 1949), we can also observe many of the same aesthetic and thematic conventions that one would associate with a film noir. Visually, the use of low-key lighting, dramatic shadows, chiaroscuro and location shooting using night-for-night are all elements used heavily throughout Odd Man Out, elements which are often favoured and associated with noir aesthetic. Common themes found in Odd Man Out and associated with film noir are the element of crime (specifically murder), the ensuing criminal investigation, the morally flawed protagonist and the eventual bleak ending. For all intents and purposes, Odd Man Out is a film noir. If one were to transpose the story to some other location (the streets of New York perhaps?) it is conceivable that it would make little difference to the film's ability to function, draw an audience, advance a plot or otherwise exist as part of 40's film-noir. If that is true, how can we possibly claim any political nature related to this film, given that we've just shown that it follows an apolitical genre that can work regardless of its geography? It is however, this very choice of aesthetic when dealing with the otherwise very politicised subject at hand that is the very politicisation of a film which presents itself as apolitical on the surface. As John Hill argues, due to 'the film's choice of aesthetic conventions, the politics of the film reside in the very repression of those factors that would invest the film's events with a social and political dimension'[1]. Hill further claims that 'the film's de-contextualizing aesthetic tends to reinforce pre-existing views of the 'troubles' as largely inexplicable'[2]. But while it would be easy to dismiss the film as having a unionist bias that is repressive of the nationalist point of view through a de-politicisation of the film, Hill is quick to point out elements of the film that render it favourable to the nationalist view. Specifically, the film's tragic structure that uses a big box-office star as a dying IRA agent encourages a degree of sympathy[3]. He further goes to make a link to the Irish republican tradition of 'failure' and suffering, quoting Richard Kearney's suggestion that 'the capacity to arouse sympathy and support through suffering (as in the hunger-strike) has been one of Irish republicanism's strongest weapons[4]. Therefore, the film seems to cater to both ideologies through different means, while appearing to cater to neither (which allowed it to be made and shown). In conclusion, Hill points out that 'virtually any film dealing with Northern Ireland is liable to become the subject of competing interpretations given the inferential frameworks that local audiences will bring to bear on any film with a local connection'[5]. In this respect, that is true of any film dealing with a highly politicised subject in a non-politicised way. When the film takes a stance, it is easy for the viewer to either identify with or resent that stance. When it pretends not to take one, however, each viewer involved in the issue will attempt to find clues to an either pro or con stance that the film might take, even if those clues are not there or when they are there unintentionally. Finally, Odd Man Out strikes a nice balance, and manages to work as an apolitical film noir for those audiences not involved in its politics.

[1] Hill, 2006, p126

[2] Hill, 2006, p126

[3] Hill, 2006, p126

[4] Kearney, 1980

[5] Hill, 2006, p126

Hill, J. (2006). Cinema and Northern Ireland. London: BFI

Kearney,R.(1980). The IRA's Strategy of Failure. The Crane Bag. Vol. 4, No. 2.