Talking Movies

December 31, 2013

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ published in the Irish University Review

In 2010 I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun‘ to the Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture conference in the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD. I’ve written about that very stimulating conference in a previous piece on this blog, and now I’m pleased to report that a revised version of my paper has just been published as an article in the 2013 Winter edition of the Irish University Review. The online version can be read here.

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This essay takes up the challenge of Joe Cleary’s provocative characterisation of John McGahern’s work as naturalism that retreats into pessimistic fatalism by instead considering Rising Sun as the end-point of a career-long journey fraught with Kierkegaardean implications. Kierkegaard’s concept of infinite resignation in Fear and Trembling is noted in McGahern’s characters Bill Evans and Johnny Murphy, but John Quinn raises ethical problems soluble only by considering the co-existent presence of precepts from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This Stoicism, it is argued, is Aurelian through the prism of O Criomhthain’s An tOileanach, which McGahern greatly admired, so the characters are religiously Catholic and simultaneously philosophically Stoic in response to the harsh landscapes that order their lives. The inhabitants of this lakeside community lead messy spiritual lives that are Stoic and Kierkegaardean, with the Catholic Church continuing to be an important source of ritual. This eclectic but harmonious combination represents a hopeful new mode of life as play, exemplified by Jamesie, which is worth passing on. Rising Sun can thus be read as the end of a Kierkegaardean transition from infinite resignation to exulting in finitude through a vision of the absurd.

December 4, 2012

A Whistle in the Dark

Druid stunned the brutalised Gaiety audience into silence at the Dublin Theatre Festival with Tom Murphy’s coruscating 1961 debut. Depicting violent Irish immigrants in Coventry trapped in self-mythologies of violence’s utility and “learning”’s futility it still packs an emotional sucker-punch.

A Whistle In the Dark

Michael (Marty Rea) is married to a Coventry girl and living there, but in a tense situation. His house is being shared with three of his brothers. The brutishly violent and ignorant Hubert (Garrett Lombard) and Ignatius (Rory Nolan) are intimidating presences but Michael’s wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) is rightly most frightened of Harry (Aaron Monaghan), the street-smart brother who is running a prostitution ring. But there’re more Carneys yet…

A Whistle in the Dark was infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, yet the novels of John McGahern attest to the baneful reality of monsters like Michael Senior (Niall Buggy), who arrives to visit with the youngest son Des (Gavin Drea). The battle of wills to mould Des’ future is an incredibly tense and bleak affair essentially pitting barbarity against civilisation.

Nolan and Lombard are terrifying as primitive thugs, in their second outing as brothers after 2010’s Death of A Salesman, but while the ensemble was uniformly flawless Buggy’s self-pitying and savage turn as the patriarch must be singled out as being truly remarkable, while Rea was agonisingly sympathetic as the good man inexorably being dragged down to his father’s level. Garry Hynes’ direction rendered a realistic set a febrile battleground.

Graham Price and I couldn’t help but note how indebted Pinter’s The Homecoming is to Murphy’s primal scream of familial power plays, but while both have the resonance of Greek myth this is not black comedy but darkest tragedy.

5/5

September 5, 2012

Lawless

Director John Hillcoat reunites with his The Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for another brutally violent piece of period film-making about savage brothers.

Virginia in 1931 finds the real-life Bondurrant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and Howard (Jason Clarke) thriving in the wettest county in Prohibition America. Boardwalk Empire’s bootlegging looks understated by comparison with the Christmas tree appearance at night of this locale as illicit stills fire up to make liquor with the full conniving permission of the local law. A tough federal agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to stamp out bootlegging, or rather restrict it to those who pay off the new and viciously corrupt DA. Local legend Forrest is unwilling to do so, and, being reckoned indestructible, doesn’t think Rakes can force his hand. But when Rakes declares war Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the new waitress at the Bondurrant diner, and Jack’s polio-stricken friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), as well as Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) are more vulnerable targets…

John McGahern said that fiction operated under the burden of having to be plausible, when life could be as implausible as it liked because it was real. Despite being based on a true story it is implausibility that sinks this film. What appears to be a huge shock killing, in a scene worthy of The Godfather, transpires to be a truly bizarre refusal to shock. The finale is then marred by the equally unlikely survival of another patently fatal injury. Cave inserts some delightful touches in the soundtrack, listen for the bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ sound-tracking a bootlegging montage, and his interesting collapsing of time with the new preacher’s flock, who could as easily be a flock from the 1860s, is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. This film’s problems, however, largely stem from his screenplay.

Lawless is inhabited by ciphers rather than characters. Jason Clarke’s Howard is totally undeveloped, while an oddly-made-up Guy Pearce is underused as a psychotic dandy. Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner really only has three scenes, as if his sole purpose was to remind us, with a machine-gunning scene and a good rant, that Oldman used to be the crazy villain of choice once. Hardy’s character is given to grunting rather than talking, and, while Hardy actually makes this expressive, it leads to a ridiculously gratuitous scene with Jessica Chastain which feels like a dramatic jump-start for a romance Cave couldn’t be bothered to write. And that’s before the film loses interest in Forrest in favour of young Jack’s attempts to both romance the preacher’s daughter Bertha and outdo Forrest in the bootlegging stakes with the help of his friend Cricket who has an unexpected talent for souping up car engines…

Lawless prioritises unrelenting violence over character development and leaves very good actors trying to flesh out characters the script has left un-nuanced.

2.5/5

March 9, 2012

Stella Days

Martin Sheen plays a parish priest in 1950s Ireland who defies his Bishop by opening a cinema in this tonally odd film that mixes some charm with considerable menace.

Fr Daniel Barry (Sheen) is an Irish priest who studied at Catholic University in Washington DC but has ended up in self-imposed exile in Tipperary after being passed over for promotion in the Vatican archives. 1950s Borrisokane is in the throes of rural electrification, and Stephen Rea’s morose features are put to wonderful use as prospective TD Brendan, the local head of the oddly unnamed ‘Party’, who’s delightfully mocked by Fr Barry at the beginning for offering a Dev launching RTE style equivocation on electricity perhaps being a boon. Fr Barry is in turn mocked for his learning by Bishop Hegarty (Tom Hickey) who instructs him to fundraise to construct a new Church. Barry’s decision to rebel is spurred by the arrival of new schoolteacher Tim (Trystan Gravelle) who lodges with Molly (Marcella Plunkett), whose husband is labouring in London.

Stella Days is a tonally odd film. It starts off as a charming recreation of a by-gone era in which a cinephile scholarly priest is inspired by a similarly fish out of water Dublin teacher to defy both his cinema-hating bishop and local penny-pinching worthy Brendan and convert the parish hall into a cinema rather than spending the money on building an unnecessary new church. A curiously underused Amy Huberman is on perma-smile as the local ESB cookery demonstrator explaining the new mod-cons, and there’re delightful touches like an absurdly recurring confession. But then proceedings take a sub-John McGahern turn as Molly’s son Joey (the kid from The Guard) observes without understanding the inevitable attraction between Tim and Molly, which causes local scandal courtesy of a terrifying cameo from Garrett Lombard as her absent husband – an extremely menacing 1950s teddyboy.

Sheen is on good form as a priest struggling with his own narcissism in a position he never wanted, as his mother had the vocation for him. Stella Days, like Catholics, is another Sheen film in which faith is always doubtful. Oddly for such a staunch Catholic Worker as Sheen only his role in Entertaining Angels as Dorothy Day’s mentor has really explored the power of faith. Jim Wallis, in God’s Politics, convincingly posited religious fundamentalism as primarily a reaction to fear. Bishop Hegarty is explicitly frightened to death of the world changing. This causes him, just years before TK Whitaker’s famous economic intervention, to think building churches like Cardinal Cullen a century earlier will revive the country. Brendan, another purveyor of stasis, also has complicated motives for his railings; including memorably condemning From Here to Eternity.

I have no idea who Stella Days is aimed at as it falls between two stools in its scripting, but Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s direction renders it consistently engaging fare.

3/5

July 12, 2011

Richard Yates Studies and Hollywood’s Gravity

It seems absurd to quibble about Richard Yates Studies when it’s such a triumph that there finally is such a field as Richard Yates studies, but I fear Hollywood’s gravity…

I fear it for this reason:

ACADEMIC 1: I’m speaking tomorrow on the comparative panel.
ACADEMIC 2: Who are you talking about alongside John McGahern?
ACADEMIC 1: Richard Yates, American writer, roughly contemporary.
ACADEMIC 2: Ah, yes, yes. (beat) What did he write?
ACADEMIC 1: (strained pause) Revolutionary Road.
ACADEMIC 2: Oh yes, the one with-
ACADEMIC1: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yes…

It’s a simple truth that, despite the glorious Vintage reprints of the past few years, the long critical neglect of Richard Yates has left its mark. And it’s all too easy for the fact that the first (incredibly belated) film adaptation of his work was of his debut novel, about the 1950s, to perpetuate the unfair perception that Yates wrote one great novel in 1961 and then deservedly disappeared. This ignores his bibliography. His stunning trio of novels Disturbing the PeaceThe Easter Parade  and A Good School, which between them incisively dissect American life from the 1930s to the 1970s, all appeared within three years of each other in the second half of the 1970s.

It’s also a danger that Sam Mendes’ film will type Yates as a gloom-merchant of unrelieved tragedy. Yates is the poet laureate of failed dreams, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere in relation to the film, there is terrific comedy on the path from hope to disappointment that his writings customarily traverse. I saw the 1972 film adaptation of Peter Barnes’ demented play The Ruling Class just before the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference last year. I thus suggested to David Fernley that a way to correct any Mendes-inspired popular perception of Yates as miserabilist would be to quickly film Disturbing the Peace with non-naturalist sequences drawing out Yates’ dark humour. After all Peter O’Toole’s description of The Ruling Class as black comedy with tragic relief fairly characterises some of Yates’ work.

Finally I fear Hollywood’s gravity could unbalance Richard Yates Studies on two fronts. It’s easier to write on an obscure text by a well-known author, because there are less existing critical readings defeating your attempts to say something original, but it’s also easier to write on a well-known text by an obscure author than it is to write on an obscure text by an obscure author. Name-recognition does count at some level, even if it’s in the subconscious of an academic planning an article for a refereed journal and worrying that an examination of two short stories by Yates might prove just too niche for a non-Yates journal. I plan to yoke together Revolutionary Road and A Special Providence because they nicely link for an unusual argument, but I’m convinced I thought of that argument because I subconsciously also felt that Revolutionary Road would add weight to A Special Providence in the same way that John McGahern said short stories in a collection can lean on each other for support.

The second front is a more consciously considered problem than the prospect of everyone writing about Revolutionary Road to improve their chances of publication. It is the problem of getting Yates onto curriculums. Getting a non-canonical writer onto an American Literature course wins plaudits but in a world of modularisation it’s not as simple a task as it might once have been when core courses covered a canon and selected alternatives to that canon at the whim of the lecturer(s). If students have a choice of competing modules common sense and basic economics says modules will start to bend towards attracting students by including books, canonical and alt-canonical, they’ll want to read. Revolutionary Road rather than The Easter Parade will always appear then because, thanks to the Hollywood hype machine, students will recognise one title and not the other.

Those are my fears about how Hollywood may skew Richard Yates Studies, but the wider idea of cinema bending literary studies will be returned to…

December 15, 2010

Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture

I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ to the ‘Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture’ conference held in University College Dublin in May this year. With that paper now revised and submitted as a journal article I thought I’d look back at the proceedings held at the Humanities Institute of Ireland in UCD and organised by Graham Price and Liam Lanigan.

HI

Friday 21 May

Panel 1: Beckettian Aesthetics
Chair: Dr Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘‘‘Antiquarians and Others”: Beckett’s Irish Modernists’
Alan Graham (University College Dublin)

‘The Phenomenology of Pain in Beckett: The Tedium and the Message’
Siobhan Purcell (University College Dublin)

Panel 2: Gender, Culture & Society in Ireland
Chair: Dr Anne Mulhall (University College Dublin)

‘Desire Lost and Found: Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Kate O’Brien’s As Music and Splendour’
Maggie O’Neill (NUI Maynooth)

‘Kate O’Brien’s Modernism – Selves, Subtexts, “Mixed Media”’
Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka (Independent Scholar)

‘“A Sweet Colleen and a Salty Sinner”: Conceptions of Irishness, Catholicism, Homosexuality and Modernity in the Fiction of Emma Donoghue’
Annie Galvin (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 3: Comparative Modernisms
Chair: Dr Sharae Deckard (University College Dublin)

‘“A Place on the Road to Somewhere Else”: The Fictional Writing of Colm Toibin in the “World Republic of Letters
Sonia Howell (NUI Maynooth)

This Side of Princeton: Ireland and F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise’
Gavan Lennon (University College Dublin)

‘Adding “new beauties”: Joyce and Rushdie’s critical works’
Pauric Havlin (University College Dublin)

Keynote Address: Moynagh Sullivan (NUI Maynooth)
‘Space & Interspace: Medbh McGuckian’s Poetics, Maternal Aesthetics, and Matrixial Borderspaces’
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

957894

Saturday May 22

Panel 4: The Evolution of an Irish Modernist Aesthetic
Chair: Dr Lucy Collins (University College Dublin)

‘Modernism and Modernity in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘“Pealing out a living message”: Sean O’Faolain, The Bell and The Artist’s New Ireland’
Muireach Shankey (University College Dublin)

‘“Dear Dirty Dublin” or “The Parable of the [Fair Trade] Plums”: Representing Dublin in Ulysses
George Legg (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 5: Consumption, Globalisation and Tradition in Recent Irish Fiction
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

‘“A Simple and Genuine Sense of Homecoming”: Transition in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer
Eoin Delap (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Binge and Purge: Excess, Ekstasis, and the Celtic Tiger’
Niamh Campbell (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

There were a number of universities represented at the proceedings and an even greater number of writers. Beckett finally triumphed over Joyce by getting his own panel which illuminated his off-beat early literary criticism and the philosophy of pain in his mature work. Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen and Emma Donoghue were usefully placed in a continuum of female writers complicating received notions of gender and sexuality. Joseph O’Neill justified the Gatsby comparisons for Netherland by not feeling out of place after a paper on F Scott which brought out his Irishness to a surprising degree. Moynagh O’Sullivan’s keynote address meanwhile was a suitably dazzling display of theoretical fireworks used to illuminate the dense rich poetry of Medbh McGuckian. My own panel looked at work by Brian Friel, Kevin Power, John McGahern and Paul Murray, proving that not only is Irish literature engaging with modernity, despite the constant complaints by some commentators, but that a hefty reading list of must-read Irish novels of the last decade could be jotted down from texts cited in discussion of any one panel of this conference.

Ireland remains a republic of letters…

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