I’m a beginner. But then we are all beginners, always. We become adept only in order to begin again. Each moment is another beginning just as each New Year is new. I’m made aware of this with every film I undertake to do. In the past couple of years I’ve been involved, in one way or another, in what will amount to sixteen short films (counting The Drama Sessions as twelve). I’ve written all of them, produced all of them and by my reckoning directed five of them. Five short films, five opportunities for me to ponder my shortcomings, to practice a kind of lectio divina on my mistakes. But then who doesn’t make mistakes, who hasn’t made mistakes? And isn’t each new beginning merely the first step on the road to new mistakes? The test, surely, is the manner in which we live up to our mistakes, in which we confront our errors, even have a conversation with them. Personally I prefer to listen carefully to mine and, as best I can from the semi-permanent position of ignorance which is my life, learn from them. And I think I can honestly state that I’ve learned quite a lot, certainly sufficient to be able to leave certain errors behind in expectation of others as yet no doubt waiting in the wings. Of course, there is much still to learn, technical aspects for which I’m completely reliant on those more competent in such matters than I. But one thing I am sure of is that in a relatively short space of time I’ve become increasingly decisive about the kind of films I want to make.
So what kind of films do I want to make? Why do I want to make films at all? Why does anyone? They entail a lot of hard work and engender a lot of stress. Perhaps, for some, the thought of making a film might appear glamorous, perhaps for them the lure of money and fame and a possible Hollywood contract is the spur. I have to say that I’ve reached an age and a sensibility where the pursuit of money and fame holds absolutely no attraction for me. Naturally I want money and, all things being equal, would be a fool to turn it down if offered. And if fame can be equated with success, the success of any individual project, I’m not such an idiot as to be averse to that either. But to make films with fame and money as the overriding primary objectives appears to me vacuous. Does a poet write poetry with a view to fame and financial reward? If so then he or she will, in all probability, be hugely disappointed. I suppose I want to create films because I have something to say, more and more so, and the kind of films I want to make thus constitute the form in which this having something to say can best be expressed.
But having something to say and finding the means by which to express it in a personal way has its difficulties. I became acutely aware of this when embarking upon my first film, White Space in a Painting. I was cognizant then of my lack of experience, that I knew nothing where film making was concerned. I was therefore eager to do ‘the right things,’ to say ‘the right things.’ I wanted the film to be liked and was willing to stifle my own voice in pursuit of that goal, (though in truth at that stage I wasn’t entirely sure what my own voice was). I was told that one must do this or one must do that and I nodded because, of course, everyone knew better than I did. I was prepared to follow the sound of their collective voice at the expense of my own individual one. This was a type of fear that I knew eventually I would have to face and overcome. While the struggle for self-expression is incredibly arduous, whilst it so often feels that life would be easier if one were simply to give up and fit in, (another gangster movie perhaps, another zombie extravaganza, linear storytelling, an edit that must conform to this or that rule because that’s what those in this or that online forum have decreed), I’ve always been buoyed, indeed comforted, by certain indelible influences, those directors who dared to speak and act from their own inner convictions.
I remember years ago reading a book by Paul Schrader, (writer of Taxi Driver and Mishima). It was entitled Transcendental Style in Film and it focused on the work of three of the world’s greatest directors of any era, Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Since then I’ve seen all of Bresson’s and Dreyer’s work and a good deal of that of Ozu. I remember being shocked at the cruelty depicted in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, a film I still find difficult to watch, at the beauty of A Man Escaped, at the abrupt ending of L’Argent. I recall being perplexed at the long, static takes of Dreyer’s Gertrud and at the powerful pent-up emotions evinced in Ordet and Day of Wrath whilst at the same time being astounded by the psychological insights projected in extreme close-up in The Passion of Joan of Arc. As for Ozu, his ability to make epiphany-like revelations about life employing the slenderest of means in such films as Tokyo Story, End of Summer and Equinox Flower was to my mind akin both to moving poetry and to poetry that couldn’t fail but move. Watch just two minutes of the films from each of these directors and we feel ourselves in the presence of voices unmistakeably unique. And there are others. Antonioni, Rossellini, the early Olmi, Mizoguchi, Godard, Rohmer, Renoir, Kurosawa, Cassavetes, Bergman, Ray, Akerman, Varda – each one of them found the means, sometimes through great struggle, of presenting a voice that they could rightly claim to be theirs and theirs alone. Every work of art implies a personal statement that no one else can make by virtue of its being personal.
Let’s now take Violin and Where Fairyland Begins as examples of what a personal statement from me might look like. One of Bresson’s films is A Diary of a Country Priest. France, while ostensibly a Catholic country, has always had a strong undercurrent of anti-clericalism running through it. So when a young priest is sent to a parish in the French countryside he is met with at best indifference, at worst hostility. People laugh at him, rumours circulate about him. And in the end, to cap it all, he is diagnosed with stomach cancer. There are two famous lines in the film. Martin Scorsese’s favourite is “God is not a torturer.” Mine comes at the film’s conclusion, “All is grace.” All is grace. All. This is something I happen to believe. A look, a gesture, an everyday, inconsequential smile, a moment, merely a moment. A phrase played on a violin. A light dancing on a kettle. The smile of a child in which grace is made truly manifest and is in consequence perhaps the greatest blessing of all. Mere moments but which say everything and mean everything for being unmerited gifts. All is grace. This then is a personal statement of belief and as a personal statement is absolutely fine. However, in art all such statements have a duty to be communicated to as wide an audience as possible. And it’s here that the form of a film takes on enormous importance. It’s the form that acts as the vehicle of communication. The form conveys the content.
As far as I’m concerned the form of both Violin and Where Fairyland Begins need to represent, to be a reflection of, what I want to say. For me, Violin is about waiting. A family is waiting for one of its members to die. A child struggles with the meaning of loss, with coming to terms with loss. It was essential, therefore, to project an idea of stillness. Nothing is happening except waiting but at the same time everything is happening. And this mention of ‘happening,’ of ‘event’ leads me to another point about the nature of these films. The literary critic Northrop Frye once observed that the word ‘God’ is invariably considered to be a noun and is used in that way. But if we take it to be a verb instead, (another translation of God’s statement in the book of Exodus, I am that I am, might also read I will be that I will be), and the whole idea of God alters. So it is with our definition of a ‘happening’. For us in the West something that happens is at the very least something that won’t try our patience. We wait impatiently for something to happen, we long for something, anything, to happen and these days boredom is our most pernicious enemy. We have a particular view of the nature of an event and when such and such doesn’t conform to our view we say that nothing is happening, meaning that to our minds there is a self-evident vacuum. And yet…
The other day I watched Five by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. It was originally shown at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival alongside Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy and Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2. It was not entered into the festival as an art house production. So what is Five about? Well, while it isn’t about anything it’s certainly not about nothing. It’s subtitle is 5 Long Takes. Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu. The first take lasts approximately 10 minutes and shows a piece of driftwood being tossed about on an incoming tide. Part way through a piece of wood becomes detached from the main block. The second take shows people promenading this way and that along the sea front. A group of men stop and talk for a few moments though the distance makes it impossible to hear what they are saying. The third take is a long shot of a pack of dogs by the sea. Because Kiarostami didn’t change the settings on his camera the picture eventually whites out leaving the dogs as mere blobs on an indefinite horizon. In the fourth take a line of ducks runs from one side of the screen and out the other side only to return again. The final take consists of a reflection of the moon in a pool of water. The sound of nature is all around. A storm develops then passes. This take has lasted a good 25 minutes. For many people, when viewed in comparison with Troy and Kill Bill nothing happens in Five. However, I would say that that clearly indicates a definition of what an event is that is severely limited. My opinion is that the statement about the film made in Screen International, “Five will still be around long after fashionable hits of the day are gone and forgotten,” will hold true. The fact is, a lot happens in Five, a lot that could easily go unnoticed due to an insular and sharply proscribed opinion of what it is for something to ‘happen.’ Basically this is a sort of blindness due to a defective understanding. The fault lies not in the occurrence but in the definition as accepted by the viewer within a certain cultural milieu. (The events in Five may be likened to those that occur in the paintings of Vermeer and Vilhelm Hammershoi or in the music of Webern and Kurtag. We only recognize that things are happening after we’ve permitted ourselves to see and hear them).
Things happen in Violin and Where Fairyland Begins in much the same way as they happen in Five though there is a much clearer narrative thread in the first two films. As already stated, Violin is about waiting. In the end, the editing process focused on taking shots out that might be deemed inessential to the story and its emotional core. More and more I find myself completely uninterested in cut-aways and reaction shots if all they are about is conforming to a ready-made, off-the-peg grammar. Nor am I interested in movement for its own sake. If a person starts at position ‘A’ and we next see them at position ‘B’ it’s clear that they must have moved. On the other hand, if movement tells us something or does something, if for instance we follow someone as they walk through a scary house thereby ratcheting up the tension, it has served to justify itself. Where Fairyland Begins is about searching and here the task will be to strike a balance between stillness and movement. The difference between the two films might best be exemplified in the single exterior scene that belongs to each of them. In Violin, the boy is in the garden. Hardly anything stirs, save for a bee alighting on the flowers. There is a hush, a kind of holding of breath. In contrast, the exterior scene in Where Fairyland Begins is set in the wide expanse of a park in which the little girl runs around wildly, ribbons streaming behind her. This shift from stillness to motion will continue in the third part of the trilogy where there will be almost continuous movement in a much more urban environment.
I have a long way to go. Though Violin was the first film in which I feel I was able to project my voice it is still not there, not entirely, not a hundred percent, not as definitively as I’d like it to be. Perhaps no film is ever completely ‘there,’ and certainly not for its director. There will always be something lacking, something forgotten, something wished for that has in the end proved elusive. Every film is a work in progress, never finished, but merely, as someone once said, abandoned. Of course, Where Fairyland Begins has not yet been edited and I can only keep my fingers crossed for the outcome. I continue to search for the perfect form in which to encapsulate my personal standpoint. But I know that at its heart is simplicity. Simple stories simply told, simple statements simply said. I’ve talked about certain influences in the world of cinema and in passing have mentioned figures from painting and music who have also travelled a similar road. In literature too one can find moments which correspond to what I’m looking for.
The Dead is a story from James Joyce’s Dubliners. In 1987 it was made into a wonderful and to my mind still underrated film by John Huston. Though on dvd it has yet to be given an adequate transfer. Amazon describes the story thus: “The Dead takes place at Christmas in turn-of-the-century Dublin. To mark the occasion, two spinsters throw a party, inviting, amongst others, their nephew Gabriel and his wife Gretta. During the course of the evening, a haunting rendition of an Irish lament has an overwhelming effect on Gretta, who is moved to remember a long-suppressed romance in her earlier years.” A beautiful film of a beautiful and beautifully composed tale. The final paragraph sees Gabriel gazing out of a window at a snowy landscape. ‘He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’ A moment then. A man at a window. Snow falling. A soul swoons. Nothing. Everything.
At the end of The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy the peasant girl, Marty South, mourns at the grave of Giles Winterbourne. ‘”Now my own own love,” she whispered, “you are mine, and on’y mine; for she has forgot ‘ee at last, although for her you died. But I – whenever I get up I’ll think of ‘ee, and whenever I lie down I’ll think of ‘ee. Whenever I plant the young larches I’ll think that none can plant as you planted; and whenever I split a gad and whenever I turn the cider wring, I’ll say none could do it like you. If ever I forget your name let me forget home and heaven!…But no, no, my love, I never can forget ‘ee; for you was a good man, and did good things!”’ For you was a good man and did good things. What could be simpler yet at the same time more telling and more moving than that?
I have no idea whether I’ll ever attain to the level, indeed the depth, of expression that I would like to. Violin and Where Fairyland Begins are the start of a journey that for all I know might never end. It may be that my talents and abilities are limited and that what I desire will never live up to my reach leaving a destination forever tantalizingly on the horizon. Who can say? The third part of this loose childhood trilogy will be filmed at some point next year. But in any case I don’t think I’ve finished with the theme of childhood which in many ways I see as a means of being able to express the things that are important to me. A few years ago I began writing a full length feature entitled Adam and Grace. It’s about a six year old girl and eight year old boy. The seasons come and go as evidenced by degrees of growth on their grandfather’s allotment, by an ebbing and a flowing, a greening and a browning. Then Adam is diagnosed with a brain tumour and is taken to hospital and Grace is left alone amongst a family desperately trying to cope and understand. Little enough happens; few words; most of the time none necessary. I think, perhaps, that I’ve at last found occasion to dust off the script in preparation for completion.
My hope is that Violin and Where Fairyland Begins and indeed the third film of childhood will touch and move and give pause. Time will tell. But whatever the final result, I don’t think that’s a bad objective.