On December 20, 1909, Ireland got its first full-time movie theater when the Volta cinema opened on Mary Street in central Dublin. The venue's mastermind and chief programmer was an impecunious writer named James Joyce. Returning to Ireland from his self-imposed exile in Trieste, Joyce thought he had hit on a surefire moneymaking scheme, and he came with the backing of four continental investors. Alas (or not), the pot of gold at the end of his cinematic rainbow never materialized. Some blamed the rain, others faulted Joyce's programming, but the venture was short-lived. Joyce soon returned to poverty, and writing, on the shores of the Adriatic.
As an augury of the future of Ireland and cinema, this anecdote cuts in two directions. From one angle, it's a gloomy parable of ill omen and failure: bad timing, bad weather, bad judgment, financial collapse. From the reverse angle, that same sign could not be more auspicious: What other national cinema can claim to have been birthed at the hands, not of some addled inventor or carnival huckster, but of that nation's most celebrated artist--in Ireland's case, the paradigmatic auteur of the 20th century?
Flash forward a half-century, to another dubious conjunction of Ireland, cinema and a young writer-in-waiting. Doing the math, I figure I must have been 8 years old when I saw Robert Stevenson's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), a Disney children's film set in Ireland and concerning a garrulous yarn-spinner who becomes friends with the King of the Leprechauns. Could this have been the first movie I ever saw? Surely not. But in memory it has long played that role. It's the first movie I recall the experience of seeing, and the reason for that has never been in doubt: It scared the bejesus out of me.
Having been subjected to the lethal scenarios of Old Yeller, Bambi and so on, I've long suspected that Disney in decades past was run by a cadre of sadists who derived their jollies from putting their young, unsuspecting audiences through all manner of horrific, psyche-scarring fantasies. (Dr. Spock, where were you when we needed you?) Of Darby O'Gill, a recent edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide has this to say: "An utter delight, with dazzling special effects--and some truly terrifying moments along with the whimsy." If you were 8 years old, those terrifying moments morphed into something truly mind-bending--the most traumatic event since childbirth, I might argue in retrospect. The film added the word "banshees" to my prepubescent vocabulary, and the memory of those ghostly creatures' blood-curdling cries gave me nightmares for days on end. So, now, do I curse it for that assault, or thank it?
As with James Joyce's unhappy enterprise, the implications are contradictory. One might say that Darby O'Gill destroyed my innocent trust in cinema, and forever after made me suspicious and circumspect concerning its wiles. On the other hand, perhaps it guaranteed a lifelong fascination and an eagerness to grapple with those wiles through analysis and writing. One returns always to the scene of the trauma, trying to penetrate its mysteries.
In any event, I didn't have occasion to reflect on whether this sort of paradoxicality might characterize Ireland's actual cinema--as opposed to the imaginary Ireland I'd encountered in various movies--until I was asked to give a speech at the 13th annual Galway Film Fleadh (pronounced "flah," fleadh is the Irish, or Gaelic, word for festival; this was not the event's only linguistic felicity--the Irish, I learned, pronounce "film" as two syllables: "fil-lum").
The invitation came from the fleadh's managing director, Miriam Allen, a woman of gruff charm, ready wit and inexhaustible energy. Allen wanted an American critic to speak on "The State of Irish Cinema," a title that filled me with immediate trepidation. Considering that I knew no more about Irish cinema than most American critics (which is to say, some, but not a lot) and that I would be speaking to a roomful of Irish film folk in Ireland, I wondered if I were not being led into some sort of ambush. I could picture standing on a stage, surrounded by screaming banshees.
Miriam and I came to terms in two ways. First, I resolved to do my homework through reading, and seeing a stack of Irish movies. Second, she agreed that we amend the talk's title to "The State of Irish Cinema in the Light of Changing World Cinema," so that I could include some thoughts on the impending impact of digitization and globalization, which will surely affect the state of every national cinema. I was eager to come to terms, because accepting the gig meant a trip to Ireland, my first.
Galway--the fleadh and the place--did not disappoint. Reputedly Western Europe's fastest-growing city, which essentially means a spiral of suburbs rapidly cutting into the surrounding countryside, Galway is still a small place, with a population under 100,000 and a city center that clusters around a single quadrangle of banks and hotels. The fleadh mainly takes place around the Town Hall Theatre, an old municipal facility that's yards away from the placid Corrib River. Waterside sits the Rowing Club, the setting for the festival's prime post-screening activities: drinking Murphy's Stout and Jameson's, talking movies, and watching the ducks as the late summer light slowly fades over the Corrib.
You can have Cannes and Sundance. Besides its relaxed pace and enveloping sociability, Galway boasts a location that has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful in Europe. I didn't make it to the Aran Islands, a 40-minute boat ride to the west, but one day there was time for a long drive through the pristine pastures and seascapes of County Clare to the south, and another day a few of us motored through the constantly shifting vistas of Conemara to the north, stopping to take pictures at the rustic stone bridge where a key scene in John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) was filmed.
When I stood up to speak at the fleadh, I said that as a Southerner I understood Ireland's desire to have its own cinema. Just as the images and cinematic myths of the South have largely been imposed on us by outsiders, Ireland spent most of its history seeing nothing of itself on screen but images supplied by Hollywood and Britain, from which Ireland won its independence in 1922. The Quiet Man and Odd Man Out (1947) may be great movies, but they belong to outsiders, and many other movies' visions of Ireland replaced their art with unforgiving expanses of cliché and condescension.
Ireland's indigenous cinema gained some crucial momentum in the '70s and '80s through the efforts of filmmakers such as Bob Quinn and Joe Comerford, whose work may not be much known beyond the shores of Ireland but offered the most enjoyable discoveries of my research. As for Irish cinema's ascent to the world stage, that was accomplished in the past dozen years, largely by two Oscar-winning movies: Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989) and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992). The day after the latter film received its Academy Awards, the Irish government moved to create a comprehensive strategy for supporting filmmaking in Ireland. The resulting subsidy system, besides benefiting imported productions such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, has been an effective stimulus to the steady growth in native filmmaking.
During the 1990s, Ireland, in effect, gained control of its own images, making everything from expansive, Hollywood-beating historical dramas such as Jordan's Michael Collins and Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, to a spate of leaner, grittier, indie-style productions. Lately, there've even been some polished romantic comedies, including the Miramax-distributed About Adam.
Compared to what existed only a decade or so before, all of this activity can strike an outsider as a quantum leap forward. But Irish cinephiles, I discovered, seem more querulous than pleased over the current situation. They see too many mediocre films being subsidized by the government, and too much obeisance to the images and influence of Hollywood. Put in the curious position of defending Irish cinema to the Irish, I came away with the impression that a sometimes excessive zeal for self-deprecation must be part of the Irish makeup. It's a quality that doesn't always do much to combat the provincialism that it invariably bemoans.
Nevertheless, many of their criticisms were on the mark, and I had my own. Since the Irish films I've seen so far have been dominated by earnest topicality and little interest in style beyond a functional realism, I suggested that greater playfulness, wit, eclecticism and imagination--this, after all, is the country of Swift, Shaw and Wilde--would be needed to move Irish cinema to a new level of achievement in the next decade. I pointed to Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy (1998), my favorite Irish movie of all, as the model of a film that combines penetrating social insight with a delirious, multileveled, veritably Joycean explosion of cinematic language.
Speaking of Joyce, the best Irish film I saw in Galway, a short called Nowhere Land, by Grace Joliffe, was a precisely honed narrative gem worthy of Dubliners. The story of a boy tossed between his wildly alcoholic father and a companionable billiards champ who may or may not be a pedophile, it's both socially exacting and ultimately mysterious, and beautifully filmed in every respect.
Current Irish features at the fleadh, meanwhile, often pointed toward the weaknesses indicated above. Two of the most highly anticipated titles, Les Blair's H3 and Maeve Murphy's Private Grace, treated the ordeals of political prisoners (male and female, respectively) with more sincerity than imaginative force. The one real crowd-pleaser I encountered, Sarah Share's music documentary If I Should Fall from Grace, succeeds largely due to its riveting subject: never-sober former Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan.
What does Irish film culture most lack? High-quality independent exhibition, surely; there are presently only four art houses in the whole country (Galway itself has none). I also heard some cinephiles bemoan the lack of influential critics. On that subject, though, you can bet the Irish would be characteristically contentious. Brendan Behan, after all, declared that the snakes that St. Patrick expelled from Ireland swam to New York and became critics. But then there's Oscar Wilde's bon mot, which I'm thinking of having tattooed on my left foot: "Criticism is the highest form of autobiography."