Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Themes of "momism", Communism and Conformity in 1950's American Cinema

As the 40's reached their end and post-war America neared completion of its transition to the peacetime socioeconomic environment of the early 50's, new concerns began to preoccupy the minds of the American people. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty associated with the changing shape of the social and political situation that the country was facing began to permeate the collective consciousness of the American population. With the defeat of Axis, creating a vacuum of ideological opponents, and with the emergence of the Soviet Union as a seemingly equal yet diverging superpower on the international political landscape, it would seem only natural for the USSR to have been the prime candidate for filling this vacuum in the United States. Diverging political ideologies, however, are not enough to paint a whole nation as an enemy, as it was not enough for the Nazi ideology to paint Germany as an enemy until the US was actually attacked (the fact that they were actually attacked by Japan, was not an issue, since Japan was allied with Germany at the time and the US already had plans for an offensive on Germany and Italy, according to the "Plan Dog Memo"[1]). Without actually being at war with the Soviet Union, America began to slowly paint this picture of their enemy based on paranoia and the post-war psychology of having to live in a world that, unlike that of the 40's, had no clear enemy or a clear war to fight.

This gradual process of demonization of the USSR leading to the general anxiety and paranoia of the 50's, was fuelled by two major themes observable in motion pictures produced in America at the time. The first theme, namely the concept of "momism", coined by Philip Wylie to refer the excessive attachment to one's mother and conversely the over-protectiveness of thereof[2], but more broadly to the general attitude of "playing it safe" instead of the more risk-taking attitude that Wylie professed, would be a major theme in the psychological justification of the USSR's demonization in the US. The second element was the actual presence of the USSR on the international political stage and the power struggle that ensued following the defeat of Germany, the split of Europe and the technological advancement that gave birth to nuclear warfare, which positioned the Soviet Union on the same international superpower level as the United States. Combined, these themes, present in one form or another throughout 1950's American cinema, would contribute in shaping American society's view of Communism, the Soviet Union and inadvertently but perhaps more importantly - their view of themselves.

Examining four of the decade's motion pictures, namely My Son John (1952), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), will help to understand these themes and further show how they were conveyed, as well as how they contributed to shaping American society's view of itself at the time.

Returning to the concept of momism, Wylie talks of the mother being (as opposed to quoting) Thomas Jefferson and becoming the "American Pope"[3], referring to the increased importance and influence of the mother figure in the American male's life. He concludes that this eventually leads to "young men" fighting for security, as opposed to freedom, while "the enemy explodes uranium, plutonium, hydrogen", exclaiming: "But where's man's freedom?"[4] This search for freedom in the face of momism is perhaps best exemplified by James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, who is not afraid to get in a knife fight with the local bully or take the risk of dying in a car crash to defend his pride. Similarly, he is rejecting his dad's complacency (representing Wylie's "fight for security") and rebels against his mother's treatment of his dad (suggesting at some point that his dad should use violence against her to solve their problems). But while Jim's mother is not exactly the "self-righteous, hypocritical, sexually repressed, middle-aged woman" that Wylie describes[5], she does indeed seem like a woman that lost the preindustrial woman's household functions and got men to worship her[6] as is seen when Jim's dad is bending down with an apron to clean instead of her. John's mother in My Son John, further fulfils this image, as she is hardly able to hold her "household functions" due to her physical/mental state. Her confinement to the house (as Wylie would have suggested for a solution to momism) only furthers her problems, most likely being the cause for them to begin with[7], and causes her to eventually leave the house in search for her son, thus furthering her role as an active participant in her son's eventual exposure as a communist. But while this conforms to Rogin's idea of the mother being the "polar opposite" of communism, the opposite of the subversive in the family[8], and even despite Wylie's own equating momism to "McCarthyism"[9], momism was ultimately seen as leading to communism.

My Son John, Rogin claims, implies that "John has become a communist… because of the liberal ideas and sexual availability of his mother"[10]. In this sense, My Son John placed the threat to the free man "less in the alien Communist State than in his loving mother"[11]. Further, considering the case of homosexuality with Sal Minelo's Plato from Rebel Without a Cause, caused no doubt by his lack of a father and despite his mother's non-presence, but nevertheless due to the momistic treatment he gets from the maid, which, due to the perceived national weakness associated with "sexual transgressions", again places momism as "leading down the path to communism"[12].

This same view, placing the threat not so much externally, in the Soviet State, but rather internally, was also shared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers where anybody you know in your little town could be a threat (much like Soviet spies, but more importantly like American communists) and while "danger might come from without… what needs to be defended against is the wish from within"[13]. But while Invasion of the Body Snatchers worked as a "Red Scare" film, it also worked as a "protest against pressures for political conformity"[14], not only because the initial ending had the main protagonist, actor Kevin McCarthy, sharing the name of Joseph McCarthy, yelling "you're next" but also because the alien pod invasion was similar to the "unnatural, menacing, even alien…bloblike growth of the postwar, self-replicating suburbs"[15].

This concern with the loss of independence but more importantly the loss of the desire or even the idea of independence,[16] was one that was explored by Mills in his 1956 The Power Elite, which described the man in the mass society without the transcending view allowing him to observe and evaluate what he is or he isn't experiencing[17]. This in turn leading to, according to Mills, a unified and organized elite that has power over the "drifting set of stalemated" middle class and powerless lower-class[18]. This idea is explored to a certain degree in Sweet Smell of Success which presents the image of the corrupt top elite embodied by Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker and his media conglomerate, which grants him almost absolute control, even above the law (using his corrupt policemen). In this portrayal, communism isn't so much an actual threat, but rather yet another extortion device used to discredit an honest American (Martin Milner's Steve Dallas), which, despite not saying that the threat of communism isn't real, places it in a position where the consequences of being deemed a communist are actually worse than actually being one. As such, the fear and anxiety become not the prospect of being invaded (ideologically or otherwise) by communists, but rather of losing your place in society for being associated with them by a member of your own society. Portraying this in a film might have gone over several of the guidelines in the "Screen Guide for Americans", which served as a McCarthyist production code, though treated more as suggestions rather than actual rules. Specifically, the sections forbidding to "smear industrialists,"[19] "wealth"[20] and "success"[21] would have been in violation, all 3 of which are accomplished in the portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. As such, the film functions as a critique of the elite, of american society and its ideals and strives for a liberation of Mills' mass society man from his binds of conformity (most obviously exemplified by Steve's attempt to break free but more importantly by Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco's various attempts to stand up to J.J) as well as the difficulties encountered when such non-conformity is attempted.

In conclusion, 1950's America under the apparent threat of momism and communism, through film, managed to explore issues that were germinating under the surface of the power politics at play, both on the international and national levels. As such, these films constitute a unique view into 1950's America and into how certain issues were expressed, both overtly and covertly.

[1] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the sun : the American war with Japan, (New York: Free Press, 1985), 65.

[2] Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers, Newly Annotated By Author, (New York and Toronto: Rinehart & Company, 1955. First Published, 1942), 197.

[3] Ibid., 207.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 242.

[6] Ibid., 242.

[7] Ibid., 243.

[8] Ibid., 240.

[9] Wylie, Generation of Vipers, 196.

[10] Rogin, Ronald Reagan, 251.

[11] Ibid., 252.

[12] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 96.

[13] Rogin, Ronald Reagan, 266.

[14] Ibid., 266.

[15] Ibid., 266.

[16] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 323.

[17] Ibid., 322.

[18] Ibid., 324.

[19] Ayn Rand, Screen Guide for Americans." In Journals of Ayn Rand, David Harriman ed., (New York: Dutton, 1997), 358.

[20] Ibid., 359.

[21] Ibid., 360.


Sweet Smell of Success. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. United Artists, 1957.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

My Son John. Directed by Leo McCarey. Paramount Pictures, 1952.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Rand, Ayn. "Screen Guide for Americans." In Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman, 356-366. New York: Dutton, 1997.

Rebel without a Cause. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1955.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel. Allied Artists Pictures, 1956.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle against the sun : the American war with Japan. New York: Free Press, 1985.

Wylie, Philip. Generation of Vipers. Newly Annotated By Author. New York and Toronto: Rinehart & Company, 1955. First Published, 1942.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Form and Meaning in Peter Rose's Secondary Currents and Michael Snow's So Is This

Produced at a time when avant-garde film making experienced a newfound marginalization due to the normalization of film studies in academia[1], Peter Rose's Secondary Currents (1983) and Michael Snow's So Is This (1982) constitute a kind of filmic answer to the academic efforts to theorize film in writing, using the "theatre space as the medium for communication", in writing. This situation was described by Snow himself, in his 1989 and 1990 interviews with Scott MacDonald, where he refers to the "academic theorists" who believe that "the subject" is "totally culturally shaped" and his disagreement with the opinion, opting instead for a view that favours nature more than nurture, and which is further evidence of this feeling of marginalization that avant-garde film makers might have felt at the time, having to defend their creativity in light of film theorists' (textual) analysis[2]. While an essay analyzing this practice could be seen as the very thing which these two films are an answer to, and as such risking to even further marginalize avant-garde film-making, it is the very recognition of this risk that renders the analysis even more relevant. Further, as opposed to the supposed film studies work of the 1980's, that would have marginalized avant-garde film making, and which would have concentrated on commercial cinema, exploring the convention of entertainment[3], a text dealing directly with two avant-garde films, should only render avant-garde cinema as more relevant (one would hope), as opposed to marginalizing it.

Through film and text combined, the two works function in conveying an understanding of both means of expression that neither can provide by itself. As such, Both Michael Snow's So Is This and Peter Rose's Secondary Currents allow for a deeper understanding of constructed meaning that goes beyond the meaning presented in text or film in and of themselves.

To see how this is accomplished, I will commence by exploring the formal elements of both films, both visual and (in case of Secondary Currents) aural. Following this, I will look at the concept of time as it is present in both films and the way that it affects our understanding of the text conveyed. Finally, I shall observe how these two elements converge in creating meaning and how this contributes to our understanding of this meaning that neither element can fully achieve by itself.

Beginning with the formal elements of the films - both constitute of primarily white text on a black background, making the films almost entirely text based. Such an approach might seem like it would be going against the very medium used to convey the message. Snow's own admission that such a form is "inconsistent with the nature of the medium"[4], coupled with Brakhage's condemnation of verbal language, stating "Imagine a world before 'the beginning was the word'"[5] might make it seem as though the films are going against the very experimental film tradition from which their creators come. A deeper examination however, reveals that both work very well as structural films. Considering Sitney's definition of structural film, we can find most elements (fixed camera, flicker effect, loop printing, rephotography) that he considers the building blocks of structural film[6], in both Rose's and Snow's films. Other than at the end of Secondary Currents, there is no movement at all in either film (camera movement or text movement). The rapid succession of words in So Is This, at times gives the impression of flicker, and the rapidly alternating words at the end of Secondary Currents gives a similar impression. Finally, in So Is This, Snow employs rephotography (after the segment announcing "Let's Look Back:" there is a brief recap of the first part of the film through rephotography of the screen[7]). Despite exhibiting many of the elements that would deem it as a bona fide structural film, Razutis claims that Rose's film merely has its "roots in structural films" but "nevertheless exceed(s) the prescriptions that have strangled structural film"[8]. While this view that structural film is "strangled" by its own prescriptions might seem somewhat extreme, one can clearly see how both Rose's and Snow's films go beyond the structural film dogma (as defined by Sitney, if one exists) and employ a range of other strategies not necessarily associated with structural film. Rose's film, for example, draws on foreign art house films both in the aural delivery of the dialogue by Rose (alluding to Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini[9]) and through the visual representation of the text, playing "with the viewer's assumptions about how subtitles will be organized"[10].

Snow, on the other hand, proclaiming in So Is This that "the rest of the film will look just like this" raises the possibility that film is just what it seems to be, that it is "purely visible"[11] something that, on the surface, would conform to Sitney's notion of structural film, insisting on its shape with minimal content that is subsidiary to the outline.[12] Despite this, however, we are placed in a sort of pedagogical position, in front of a blackboard, with all our expectations of narrative pleasure intact[13], giving the film its "educational" nature, that goes beyond what it seems to be and beyond it being "purely visible".

Moving beyond the audiovisual elements of the films, let us now consider the element of time in Secondary Currents and in So Is This. In Rose's Secondary Currents, there are two instances where time is a factor in our understanding of meaning (or lack thereof). The first is when an extended passage narrated by Rose's "woman" voice, in something that sounds similar to Italian, spends around 8 seconds at about 0'05'49" in the film[14] saying something that is "translated" in one single word (the word was "nonsense") pointing to the reality that what was heard wasn't adequately represented by subtitles[15]. The second instance is towards the end, when the "translation" becomes increasingly complex, and as consequence increasingly indecipherable due to the fact that the sentences must be presented only a phrase at a time[16] leaving the viewer little time to form a coherent meaning of the sentences. Both of these instances show how Rose uses the element of time to control our understanding of the text's meaning.

Snow's So Is This, on the other hand, uses time as a means of controlling the pace in which we read his text, not bound by the timing of the made-up narration like Rose was, by doing so he places us, the viewer, at his mercy.[17] MacDonald refers to this as Snow "frustrating our ability to read" and "turning film loose on the experience of reading".[18] But why would Snow do this? Mellencamp talks of the political dimensions of silence, in the gaps and quiet spaces in between words in a world of constant sound, talk and speeded up imaging.[19] But Snow's whole film is silent, and the gaps and quiet spaces between words are represented visually by a black screen. Elder, then, suggests that since the words present themselves one after another, like moments in time, So Is This challenges the apparently obvious truths that what is given in the present moment is fully present, since the viewer needs to remember words presented and anticipate what words are yet to come in order to construct meaningful sentences from the individual words.[20] He further elaborates that the isolation of single words in So Is This is used to reveal that words are not meaningful in isolation, but only in context, therefore in language, like in time, nothing is ever simply present or simply absent.[21] Further, Elder expands on the notion of absence and presence to reach the notion of meaning: the words in So Is This are by themselves meaningless, since meaning is not something given but rather "constructed by an intellectual act of synthesis" as much from the traces of the absent (our memory of the words we've just read) as from the present (the word that we are currently reading). As such, meaning is "constituted by stepping out of the succession of particularized words and rising to a realm of timeless meaning"[22].

Finally, after having explored how the formal elements of Secondary Currents and So Is This function to go beyond the structural film and how the element of time in the films works to elaborate on our understanding of the nature of meaning, what is left is to see how these two converge in giving meaning to the films and how they contribute in our understanding of this meaning. In So Is This, Elder points to the structure of the film that constitutes of an introduction, a flashback of this introduction (through rephotography) and a conclusion, deeming the film as a film whose main body of text is a text without a main body. Further going on to say that this lack of main body is similar to the paradox of the non-being of meaning and presence, and that the whole film is built around this paradox.[23] As an example, he cites the portion of the film that states "There'll be not one word about El Salvador, no mention of Trudeau"[24], a paradox since the very mentioning of those words not being mentioned constitutes them being mentioned, which points to their absence by their presence. And inversely points to the presence in absence when mentioning the part about censorship ("a trace of what is censored always remains")[25]. Here we see how meaning is constructed through the choice of having or not having something mentioned, but even further by pointing out the fact of this mentioning or not mentioning, elevating it to yet another level ("why isn't something mentioned/not mentioned?"). But it is Razutis, commenting on Rose's films, which ultimately points to the significance of the text film, as a response to the "academicised debates on narrative and structure, and in spite of the hegemony of theory", there is still "excellent, inspired work being conducted", which "once again allows us to engage in visual pleasure, experience of self and world within a cinematic practice that is irreducible to paradigms or simple combinational rules"[26]. According to this, the text film's importance and meaning is a kind of escape from the binds of academicised debate and theory towards a work that does not fall within some sort of film-studies formula which, with its prescriptions, has managed to strangle even the structural film[27]. As such Rose's Secondary Currents not only escapes this discourse, but further goes to mock and burlesque it, parodying the increasing complexity of writing about film[28] ("an unrepentant dilution of constructed meaning whose meandering lucubrations foretold the essential entropy whose euphostolic processes and peregnations re-invitriafied by the subcoholate of an ecstatic generative demuneration…"[29]).

Snow on the other hand is more direct in asserting that So Is This is a comment on the "business of using the art object, in this case film, as a pretext for arguments that the writer considers of more interest", and deems this practice as "a misuse of the stimuli" referring to the feeling of "producing [a film] for other people to advance their own interests and arguments"[30]. As such, Snow's film (or rather the meaning expressed in the interview with him about the film) is one that expresses a real concern regarding the use of his films to advance an idea separate (or at least diverging) from his initial intention for his work.

To conclude, we have seen how the formal elements in Michael Snow's So Is This and Peter Rose's Secondary Currents work along with the element of time in the films in expressing meaning. We have also explored the notion of presence and absence conveyed through these two elements and how this notion brings to a better understanding of meaning. Finally we have observed how the meaning in both the films is used as a comment on the state of film theory and academic discourse at the time of their production, as well as the individual filmmaker's ways of dealing with this situation, both in their films and as expressed through interview. While this view seems valid and justified, one would hope that experimental film (and particularly the text-film) has managed since to peacefully coexist with academic discourse (such as this one) regarding these kinds of works. While one could indeed see how the films would have been deemed as "poetic justice" for "people who make a fetish of the ability to write and read sentences"[31], and similarly see how this very text could constitute the fulfillment of said fetish, one would hope that this sort of justice is not produced out of a need to go against such kind of discourse, but rather as an artistic expression not driven by a reaction to its hypothetical use (or misuse) in advancing any interest or argument other than the artist's own. Realizing that this ideal might, inadvertently constitute the death of art criticism as a whole and considering the "dog-eat-dog" nature of today's art circle, one wonders if this is in any way a realistic ideal, or if it should simply be deemed as naïve and overly idealistic, dismissing the contemplative lament on the subject in favor of a full scale defense of academic writing about film (and possibly a similar full scale attack on experimental text-film).

[1] Scott MacDonald "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s." In A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989, Stephen Prince, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 439.

[2] Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 75.

[3] MacDonald, "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s", 439.

[4] R. Bruce Elder, Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture, (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989), 317.

[5] Stan Brakhage, "From Metaphors of Vision", The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, P. Adams Sitney, ed., (New York: New York University Press, 1978), 120.

[6] P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, 1943-2000, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 348.

[7] So Is This directed by Michael Snow, 1982.

[8] Al Razutis, "Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism: An Eliptical Introduction to the Films of Peter Rose." Opsis 1, no. 2/3 (1984), 23.

[9] Scott MacDonald, Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995),m 157.

[10] MacDonald, "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s", 441.

[11] Elder, Image and Identity, 322.

[12] Sitney, Visionary Film, 348.

[13] Patricial Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-garde Film, Video & Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 90.

[14] Secondary Currents, directed by Peter Rose, 1983.

[15] MacDonald, "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s, 440.

[16] Ibid., 441.

[17] MacDonald, Screen Writings, 137.

[18] Ibid., 137.

[19] Mellencamp, Indiscretions, 90.

[20] Elder, Image and Identity, 319

[21] Ibid., 319.

[22] Ibid., 324.

[23] Ibid., 320.

[24] Ibid., 322.

[25] Ibid., 323.

[26] Razutis, "Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism, 23.

[27] Ibid., 23.

[28] MacDonald, Screen Writings, 157.

[29] Rose, Secondary Currents

[30] MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, 74.

[31] Ibid., 74.


Brakhage, Stan. "From Metaphors of Vision." In The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, edited by P. Adams Sitney, 172-183. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Elder, R. Bruce. Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.

MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

MacDonald, Scott. "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s." In A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989, by Stephen Prince, 390-444. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

MacDonald, Scott. Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Mellencamp, Patricia. Indiscretions: Avant-garde Film, Video & Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Razutis, Al. "Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism: An Eliptical Introduction to the Films of Peter Rose." Opsis 1, no. 2/3 (1984): 16-23.

Secondary Currents. Directed by Peter Rose. 1983.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, 1943-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

So Is This. Directed by Michael Snow. 1982.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Identity Politics in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game

Neil Jordan's Academy Award for the screenplay to The Crying Game (1992), while leading to the film's worldwide success and general increased recognition for Irish film around the world, has contributed to (if not directly responsible for) the reactivation of the Irish Film Board and the increased government funding for Irish film.[1] This increased international recognition for the film constituting an achievement that was beneficial to both Irish film and Ireland, one must wonder why an Irish film would have had to prove its worth (whatever worth winning an Academy award is) outside of Ireland before it was recognized inside of it. Financial considerations aside, one must turn to the representation of the Irish identity in film and the perception of this identity (both in Ireland and globally) to better understand the issue. Would this representation of the Irish identity require some sort of "validation" on the international "theatre of war" before it can be accepted at home? Perhaps it would help to observe how the subject of the Irish identity is explored in the filmic portrayals of the struggle for this identity. As Benedict Anderson notes in his definition of the nation, it is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,[2] as such, the struggle to define its limits and achieve its sovereignty might aid to understand the nation's identity. This struggle provides the canvas for Jordan's The Crying Game, operating within the framework of the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland to establish said identity. Similarly, Carol Reed's film noir Odd Man Out (1947) acts as a British counterpart of this portrayal, providing a (relatively balanced prima facie) look at the subject from "the other side" in the early post-war era. With an analysis of these films, I will show that both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game construct the Irish nation through the displacement of the Northern Irish struggle onto a humanistic plane that transcends the politics which form the backdrop of their respective narratives.

First I will explore the way that the 'troubles' are represented in the two films and how this representation works in terms of the subject's political nature versus its apolitical representation. Following, I will consider the representation and importance of identity - how is this concept used at both the national and the personal levels in the films. Finally, I shall look at how these elements converge in constructing the idea of an Irish national identity and the meaning of having this identity constructed in such a way.

Starting with the representation of the 'troubles' in Odd Man Out, one can consider the fact that the choice of aesthetic (film noir) constitutes a depoliticization of the (highly politicized) subject, which in turn constitutes a politicization in itself. As John Hill points out, this decontextualization reinforces "pre-existing views of the 'troubles' as largely inexplicable"[3]. Hill further goes to point out that this decontextualization leads to a level of abstraction in which socio-historical determinants are evacuated, becoming irrelevant, and ultimately all the political problems are resolved at the level of humanism.[4] As such, the problems due to the 'troubles' in Odd Man Out only become moral and political problems at the level of specifics, but are essentially meaningless in abstract.[5] This idea is further explored in Cullingford's reading of the piece from Corinthians that Fergus recites to Jody in The Crying Game, about being a child and thinking as a child and then putting away childish things when becoming a man.[6] Cullingford makes the link with both the original quote from Reed's Odd Man Out [7] which gives it its "weight", but also with the original context from St-Paul's celebration of charity, deeming the quote an "intertextual reminder that the commitment to the cause of Ireland must be accompanied by the love towards one's fellow men"[8]. This love, according to the apostle, is more important than the willingness to become a martyr[9], and if we substitute the IRA for the early church[10] we can clearly see the humanist message that this quote takes in the context of a film about the 'troubles'. Harlan Kennedy proposes that The Crying Game "rhymes the nation's Troubles with the troubles of all of us" and "explores identity and frontier not just in the map of nations but in the human psyche"[11]. As such, the film's "politics of self and a humanist agenda… replace old orthodoxies and liberate the individual from the claims of nationalism"[12]. This preference for a humanist view of the 'troubles' in both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game then point not necessarily to a depoliticization of the 'troubles' but rather to a displacement of the political nature of the subject to a nature more concerned with the politics of identity and self within the nation as opposed to the politics of the nation among other nations.

Hill points out that while it may seem as though Odd Man Out evades politics, it in fact displaces politics to a realm of de-socialized and de-historicized humanity which renders the cause and acts of its protagonist as fatal irrationalisms[13] (as opposed to more meaningful causes and acts driven by socio-historical issues). While it might be true that Odd Man Out works in this manner, it does not necessarily refute the validity of the political struggle but merely points to another facet of this struggle found deeper than the one observed on the surface through the 'troubles'. This struggle, which works on this displaced realm of humanity, is the struggle for an identity deeper than the political one defined through the struggle in the 'troubles'. Kearney explores the subject of the IRA's strategy of arousing sympathy through failure[14], which goes against the earlier quote from St-Paul that seems to oppose this sort of martyrdom[15]. Further, taking into account the parallel made between the IRA and the early church, it would seem that this struggle for identity on the humanist level is in conflict with not only the IRA's strategy but even with the church doctrine itself. After all, the Christ was himself a martyr - does this mean that the struggle for a true Irish identity is a struggle against Christ? In a way - yes. While not in a literal way, this struggle is "fought" against the very imagined community which gave birth to the IRA. In The Crying Game, Brain Neve points to Fergus' loyalty to Dil as being "a questioning of all our imagined communities and the identities on which they are based"[16]. This questioning is further confirmed by Jordan himself, deeming his film as an exploration of the Irish people's (and the IRA's) identification of themselves and their ability to change. He reaches the conclusion that when the 'masks' that people use to exclusively identify themselves (as Catholic, Protestant, Unionist or Nationalist) are stripped away, we begin to see that there is a human underneath[17]. This places the film, and indeed the Irish identity represented in it, in a place where it is able to define this identity not through the struggle for political freedom, but through a presentation of an identity free of this struggle despite its existence. What it manages to say is that despite there being political turmoil due to the 'troubles', our ability to assert our identity not through this turmoil, is the very thing that identifies us as a nation. As Barton points out, The Crying Game is best read as reflecting the assertion of the validity of identity politics over state politics[18].

Acknowledging the assertion of identity politics over state politics, however, does not, by itself, define a nation. We have seen that both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game opt for a humanist representation of the 'troubles' which in turn is used to convey the subject of identity politics. What is left now is to see how this is used in defining the Irish nation. It is perhaps here, that Odd Man Out and The Crying Game diverge in readings and drive for alternate definitions of (Northern) Ireland. In his reading of Odd Man Out, Pettit points to the "tragic narrative, the reluctant, passive IRA man and the over-riding fatalism associated with the film's stylistic preferences" as neatly coinciding with the British view of Anglo-Irish political history[19]. He further goes to suggest that the film is "imaginatively prefiguring and morally underpinning the legislative incorporation of Northern Ireland into the British state"[20]. While this would seem to be a rather extreme reading of the film, especially considering its relatively favourable reception in Northern Ireland by both Unionists[21] and Nationalists[22] alike, one cannot completely dismiss it, especially considering it was a British production. The Crying Game, however, is not a British production (despite taking place primarily in Britain, as opposed to Odd Man Out, which happens exclusively in Belfast), and while it is not a pro-IRA film in any sense of the word, it does manage to convey a more cohesive Irish identity than Odd Man Out does. In this identity, the protagonist is not defined through his belonging or rejection of the political ideals as defined by the IRA, but rather by his attempt to break free from the necessity to make a choice. Fergus' identity is explored (by us and by himself) both through his departure from the IRA and through his need to deal with his identity in view of his unexpected relationship with Dil. He needs to re-evaluate his values and by extension his own identity (both as Irish and as heterosexual). His desertion of Ireland for a life in exile as well as his reluctant acceptance of Dil's gender, points not only to his ability to change (as discussed by Jordan[23]) but also to his acceptance of an identity that does not fall into the strict rules imposed by being part of the IRA or not, but rather by his own personal will and beliefs as a free human. The fact that this freedom allows him to make the choice of going to prison can be seen as Fergus' redemption for Jody's fate, but it takes further significance as he makes this choice to avoid Dil's imprisonment - an act which, as discussed before, points to the questioning of the imagined community that Fergus comes from[24]. In this sense, the film "no longer 'represents' the process of national and gendered disorder but rather comes to stand in place of it" - a fact that makes Kirkland deem The Crying Game as "an exemplary instance of a long-hoped-for ideal Irish Cinema"[25]. According to Kirkland's reading of Kennedy, this ideal Irish cinema is one which insists that "humanity can coexist with history myth and reality" and that "personal destiny can be both example and weapon against the obdurate imperatives of political destiny"[26].

In conclusion, we have seen the way that the IRA and the 'troubles' are represented in both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game. We have observed how, despite the apparent differences in both representations, both drive to a humanist reading of the 'troubles' - a reading that displaces the political reality of the Northern Irish conflict to a personal one that leads to a struggle for identity. We have further seen that this identity and the struggle for it, in both films, constitutes a different kind of politics than the ones forming the backdrop of the films' respective narratives. Finally, we have seen that the National identity is defined, in both films but primarily in The Crying Game, through this identity searching and the ability to change. This search for identity, in face of the one imposed by one's political views of the 'troubles' and perhaps despite them, is ultimately what constitutes the identity of contemporary Northern Ireland. In this respect, Rockett's irony of Irish life, which he links to colonialism, regarding Irish talent requiring the endorsement of large metropolitan centers before being recognized at home, works on an even higher level than the one of cinematic recognition[27]. In terms of international recognition, the 'troubles' and the IRA are (unfortunately) one of the most famous and most associated-with elements of Northern Ireland on the international front. But ironically, it is this very element of military conflict recognized by the world that prompts a re-evaluation and questioning of the identity politics within Ireland that culminates in the eventual (yet ever-changing) idea which now constitutes the national identity of (Northern) Ireland.

[1] Kevin Rockett. "Irish Cinema: The National in the International." Cinéaste 24, no. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 1999), 24.

[2] Benedict Anderson, "Introduction." Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991), 6.

[3] John Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, (London: BFI, 2006), 126

[4] John Hill, "Representing Violence: The British Cinema and Ireland." Ireland's Terrorist Dilemma, Yonah Alexander and Alan O'Day, eds., (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986), 129.

[5] Ibid., 129.

[6] The Crying Game. Directed by Neil Jordan, 1992, (00'33'32")

[7] Odd Man Out, Directed by Carol Reed, 1947, (1'40'19")

[8] Elizabeth Cullingford, Ireland's Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 61

[9] Ibid., 60

[10] Ibid., 61

[11] Harlan Kennedy, "Shamrocks and Shillelaghs: Idyll and Ideology in Irish Cinema." Film Comment 30, no. 3 (May 1994), 40

[12] Ruth Barton, "The Deflowering of Irish Cinema: Gender in Contemporary Irish Cinema." Irish National Cinema, ( New York: Routledge, 2004), 128.

[13] Hill, "Representing Violence", 129.

[14] Richard Kearney, "The IRA's Strategy of Failure." The Crane Bag, M. Hederman and Richard Kearney, eds., (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1982), 700-702

[15] Cullingford, Ireland's Others, 60.

[16] Brian Neve, "Film and Northern Ireland: beyond 'the troubles'" European Identity in Cinema, Wendy Ellen Everett, (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR, USA: Intellect Books, 2005), 95

[17] Mario Falsetto, Personal Visions: Conversations with independent film-makers, (London: Constable, 1999), 172-173.

[18] Barton, "The Deflowering of Irish Cinema", 128

[19] Lance Pettit, Screening Ireland: Film and television representation, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 63

[20] Ibid., 64.

[21] Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, 127.

[22] Ibid., 128.

[23] Falsetto, Personal Visions, 172-173

[24] Neve, "Film and Northern Ireland", 95.

[25] Richard Kirkland, Identity Parades: Northern Irish Culture and Dissident Subjects, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002), 72.

[26] Kennedy, "Shamrocks and Shillelaghs", 40/

[27] Rockett, "Irish Cinema", 23.


Anderson, Benedict. "Introduction." In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1-7. New York: Verso, 1991.

Barton, Ruth. "The Deflowering of Irish Cinema: Gender in Contemporary Irish Cinema." In Irish National Cinema, 113-129. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Cullingford, Elizabeth. Ireland's Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Falsetto, Mario. Personal Visions: Conversations with independent film-makers. London: Constable, 1999.

Hill, John. Cinema and Northern Ireland. London: BFI, 2006.

Hill, John. "Representing Violence: The British Cinema and Ireland." In Ireland's Terrorist Dilemma, by Yonah Alexander and Alan O'Day, 123-144. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986.

The Crying Game. Directed by Neil Jordan. 1992.

Kearney, Richard. "The IRA's Strategy of Failure." In The Crane Bag, edited by M. Hederman and Richard Kearney, 700-702. Dublin: Wolfhound, 1982.

Kennedy, Harlan. "Shamrocks and Shillelaghs: Idyll and Ideology in Irish Cinema." Film Comment 30, no. 3 (May 1994): 24-40.

Kirkland, Richard. Identity Parades: Northern Irish Culture and Dissident Subjects. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002.

McLoone, Martin. Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: BFI, 2000.

Neve, Brian. "Film and Northern Ireland: beyond 'the troubles'" In European Identity in Cinema, by Wendy Ellen Everett, 87-96. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR, USA: Intellect Books, 2005.

Pettitt, Lance. Screening Ireland: Film and television representation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Odd Man Out. Directed by Carol Reed. 1947.

Rockett, Kevin. "Irish Cinema: The National in the International." Cinéaste 24, no. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 1999): 23-25.