Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Home Viewer (5): Go, Erin, Go!

So, to introduce this month's Humble Viewer version of the monthly column I write for our local paper--which will be online after this Thursday, so why do I bother posting it here? Ah, vanity, vanity--anyway, in trying to be cute, I searched an "Irish Proverbs" site to find something appropriate to get us started, and found this: In winter the milk goes to the cow's horns. Say, kids! Submit your own impenetrable sayings! Here's the column, on movies about Ireland or Irish people.

St. Patrick’s Day as we celebrate it in the U.S. may have as little to do with Ireland as corned beef and cabbage, but such fabrications and confusions still make a fine feast, whether at the table or in the movies. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats is supposed to have said of someone, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” So, when one accuses the Irish of whimsical melancholy—or vice versa—they have only themselves to blame—and perhaps the film world as well, mightily fond of Ireland and its people, whether just as they are or as we (or the Irish themselves) would like them to be.

Emerald Isle, Lucky Charm

Few Hollywood filmmakers understood the reality-fantasy of Ireland better than John Ford in The Quiet Man (1952). He took his favorite leading man, John Wayne, and the most durable leading lady he could find, Maureen O’Hara, and plunked them down on the Old Sod to brawl their way toward marital bliss. Watching Wayne shoulder beneath those cottages’ low ceilings, exasperated and withdrawn—before exploding for fifteen minutes at a time, whether at O’Hara or her brother (Victor McLaglen)—I’m reminded how well he worked with Ford—and the Ford “family” (Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, McLaglen)—especially in this film, which re-imagines Ireland without “The Troubles,” and offers perfect peace between Catholics and Protestants. Even the IRA seems genial.

Such light spirits persist in Irish films: The Snapper (1993) paves the way for the recent Juno with its tale of twenty-year-old Tina Kellegher (Sharon Curley), who becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Much of the film’s focus is on her curmudgeonly “Da,” Dessie (Colm Meaney), whose clueless bluster and one-liners lead to a gradual acceptance of his role as Modern Grandfather. Once (2006) is also set in Dublin—and set to music, as the nameless “Guy” and “Girl” form a compelling, magical duo, their lives expressed as song; to be sure, an Irish ideal.

Irish Troubles

Unfortunately, it isn’t all merry eccentrics and lilting melodies. From the Blight to the Famine, from Home Rule to the Easter Rising, from outright war with England to civil war among themselves, Ireland has had its share of “The Troubles.” Many great films have risen to accept the challenges of this tragedy; a few stand out:

In the Name of the Father (1993) Daniel Day-Lewis proves once more his ability to deeply affect an audience—here, as Gerry Conlon, who in 1974 was wrongfully accused with three others of an IRA bombing. The film pours outrage and sorrow on the errors and malice of a system so intent on laying blame and righting wrongs that all it accomplishes is radicalizing the innocent.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) Ken Loach’s bitter history lesson. 1919 brings revolution, with civil war quick on its heels. The film eventually becomes a classic brother-against-brother story, brutal and heartbreaking.

Odd Man Out (1947) Carol Reed directs James Mason (as Johnny McQueen) in this fable-like tale of a Belfast Nationalist on the run. More “Ulysses in Nighttown” than action flick, Reed’s quasi-surreal epic leads McQueen in almost total silence through a world whose shadows are as menacing as the politics that drive him.

In America

Over the past two centuries, the Irish story has been also an immigrant’s story. Movies such as In America (2002) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) have interpreted the decision to travel “into the West” as struggle, reconciliation, and sometimes triumph. But once in America, and generations pass, the climb seems steeper, the terrain less certain. In The Last Hurrah (1958), John Ford follows the Irish to the political arena, in which party machines, mass media, and entrenched corruption pit themselves against Ford’s typical hero: unassuming, optimistic, tenacious. Spencer Tracy gives one of his rough-tooled/fine-tuned performances as the mayor (based on real-life Boston Mayor James Burley).

Even harsher battles are fought on the streets of Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), which begins like a particularly engrossing Law and Order episode, but, under Ben’s direction and with its remarkable cast—especially his brother Casey and Amy Ryan—the film explores guilt and innocence, sin and salvation, with fierceness and rueful acceptance.

Roaches and Rabbits

In America, the earliest “Gangs of New York” hurtled at each other with fanciful names—Roach Guards, Ducky Boys, Dead Rabbits—and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 picture attempts to capture those bloody collisions as an immigrant tale of rejection and assimilation, followed by oblivion. It was Yeats, once more, who writes of Byzantium that it is “no country for old men”—and the gangster Irish America is no exception: the young themselves may not survive the bludgeoning. Scorsese continues his interrogation in The Departed (2006), a cell phone-infested, bullet-ridden proving-ground. Nicholson’s Frank Costello asks a man, “How's your mother?” and the fellow replies, “I'm afraid she's on her way out”; without missing a beat Frank replies, “We all are. Act accordingly.”

In the end, though, it seems that even in their murkiest incarnations, the Irish never lose an otherworldly sensibility—at least in the cinema. With Miller’s Crossing (1990), the Coen brothers situate their Irish, Jewish, Italian and what-all gangsters in an alternate 1930s universe of snappy comebacks (“Where’d you get the fat lip?” “Old war wound. Acts up around morons.”) and wind-blown hats, where “Danny Boy” becomes a Tommy gun ballad of casual havoc and cool under fire—in short, a movie in which everything that can go wrong, does—citing a law that, not coincidentally, appears to be named after one “Murphy,” assumedly an individual of Irish descent.

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