Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

pageHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference will take place July 2 to July 4 on the campus of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will be making a presentation on July 3 titled “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular.” Here’s the abstract:

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Doomsday (2008), Perfect Sense (2011), and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand-ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

The conference website can be found at:

Scottish Reflections

250px-Flag_of_Scotland.svgA month and a half is not a long time, but it was enough for me to get at a sense of Scotland’s unique character and way of life. Over the course of my sabbatical trip abroad, I learned a great deal about the ways that the physical and cultural landscapes of Scotland’s cities and rural areas are reflected imperfectly in the popular media, but perhaps even more importantly I learned how Scottish heritage is engraved in my own being, hidden but still recognizable among all of the other – mostly American – influences that have shaped me into who I am today.

I shall attempt here to sum up six of the most important things that I take away from my time in Scotland. These are the impressions that I’ve found myself turning over in my mind again and again since returning home to the US. They are the observations of an outsider; but of an outsider who has continuing blood ties to the country, a feeling of deep fondness for its culture and authentic care for its destiny. Consider these remarks as my own initial, tentative attempts to understand the spirit of Scotland and my relationship to it.

GlasgowMOMA1. Scotland is a place both ancient and modern. From the standing stones on the Isle of Arran, to the Medieval buildings of Glasgow University, the traces of human activity unmistakably mark the landscape of Scotland as a place that has a long, long history. This is a history so long that much of it has become shrouded in mystery or forgotten altogether. The stones on Arran, for instance, clearly were erected by human beings, but for what purpose and with what meaning we can only speculate. And yet, these ancient monuments still attract modern tourists who find pleasure in regarding them and in wondering about the civilization that left them behind. The castle-like buildings of Glasgow University, originally erected in 1451, still attract students and scholars from around the world. The Medieval exteriors contrast with the modern technology and architecture of the interiors, which have been updated in order to keep up with the wants and needs of a contemporary population. The city of Glasgow itself has gone through recurrent periods of growth, decline, urban renewal and renovation, and although it is not as exotic or distinctive in appearance as Edinburgh, it still retains a mixture of the old and the new that reminds us this is a place that has witnessed history, and which is still changing with the times. In both the cities and the countryside, the ancient and the modern co-mingle in Scotland producing a very particular sort of atmosphere.

2. Scotland feels profound. The fact that its past history has not been completely obliterated gives the landscape of Scotland an aura of permanence and stability absent from US cities. It is not just that the land itself has been here for a long time; it is that humans have been living here and altering this landscape for so long, making it a place harboring a multitude of stories and events that will forever remain untold. These constitute the deep roots of Scottish culture. They nourish the contemporary culture, linking those still alive to a past that goes back farther than anyone can remember. As this past informs the present, it acts as a source of hidden, yet palpable, meaning. Scotland is profound because its roots go deep, tapping into a history that cannot be fully articulated, but which everyone knows is there.

Bagpipers3. It means something to be Scottish. The Scots are proud of their heritage, even if theirs is a history that includes failure, defeat and domination by outsiders. There is a sort of tragic nature to the Scottish identity, a kind of fatalism that seeps into their humor, their scholarship and their artwork. To be Scottish is to be an underdog who fights against overwhelming odds in order to retain a sense of dignity and respect. This is, no doubt, connected to the long history of Scotland. A young nation, like a young person, is more apt to regard itself as invincible than is an ancient nation that has developed an awareness of the rhythms of ascent and decline that come along with longevity. Scotland has experienced many highs and lows over its life span, sensitizing it to both its strengths and its weaknesses. The people of Scotland are tuned into this, and they seem to embrace their collective successes as well as their collective failures. The failed rebellion of 1745 is as much a part of Scottish identity as is the defeat of the English at Bannockburn. The success of Clydeside ship building before WWII is understood against the backdrop of the decline of industry after the War. Glasgow’s current renaissance of arts and culture incorporates an awareness of its long-lived image as a gang-ridden “mean city.” The Scots that I met and talked with during my sabbatical all seemed, in their own ways, to embody these contrasts. They were proud to be Scottish, they were proud of their struggles, and they exhibited a kind of down-to-earth awareness of their own fallibilities. I experienced very little arrogance among the Scots, which was a refreshing change of pace from being among Americans!

4. Scotland is undergoing an existential crisis. At the same time that the Scots are proud of who they are, there is also a sense that they are currently struggling to figure out who they will be in the future. The referendum for independence is coming up in September, and while most of the Scots I rubbed shoulders with were in favor of independence, they also expressed uncertainty about where this would lead and what it would mean in terms of concrete consequences. There tended to be two related arguments that I heard repeatedly for independence. First was the cultural argument. Scotland is culturally different from England, and so it should be a separate country. The second argument – usually voiced as supplementary to the first – was an economic argument. Scotland contributes more to the UK in terms of money, resources and goods than it gets in return, thus it would be best for the economy if Scotland was independent. But even those in favor of independence seemed to lack confidence that the referendum will actually pass, and I was told that many supporters are counting on something called the “fuck-it factor,” which is the expectation that large numbers of undecided Scots will enter the polling booth and say to themselves “fuck-it,” voting for an independent Scotland on the spur of the moment and out of a feeling of sheer defiance.

The political controversy over independence is part of a more general cultural atmosphere of Scottish soul-searching and self-reflection, it seems to me. This concern with meditating on Scotland’s future is apparent  in the work of the Glasgow Urban Lab, which studies issues related to Glaswegian society, and in the efforts of various Scottish cultural institutions, like Creative Scotland, that have recently been established to promote Scottish self-expression. All of these efforts indicate that the Scots are currently in the midst of a period of national contemplation, trying to understand where they have come from, where they are going, and how they fit into the global community. In good existential fashion, they are thinking ahead of themselves, reflecting on the past and attempting to incorporate their history into a vision of what they hope to be in the future.

5. Scotland’s cinema is vital and exciting. Because it is going through a period of reflective reorientation, contemporary Scottish culture is dynamic and full of life. In my own research focused on film, I have encountered a lot of scholarly complaints about the supposed “miserablist” trend in Scottish cinema; that there are just too many films being made about the dark and sordid side of the country’s urban culture. However, I see this as just one more piece of evidence that Scottish artists are enthusiastically engaging with themes and ideas that are difficult, deep and important. Nihilism is an opportunity, not a curse, and the miserablist trend in Scottish cinema takes a hold of the chance to look inward and to confront some of the greatest fears and concerns that the Scots have about themselves. By lingering in contemplation on the lowest aspects of culture, Scots open up the opportunity to move upward and forward. “There’s nowhere to go but up when you’re down,” as the song says. It is in the clearing opened up between the highest ideals and the lowest realities that vital, creative and exciting activity may take place; and that is what seems to be happening in Scottish cinema today.

Queen's_View6. Scotland is a part of me. I was taken by surprise when one of the Scottish scholars I correspond with referred to me as a part of the “Scottish Diaspora.” The term “diaspora” is one that I associate with groups like the Jews or Africans who have a strong and solidified identity that unifies them, even when they are dispersed around the globe. Before undertaking my current research project, I never thought of myself as a part of such a group. Yes, my mother was from Scotland, but I was an American. The “old country” was a place to which I felt only very loose ties. My own personality and identity, I believed, were unaffected by my Scottish roots. After spending a more extended period of time in Scotland and thinking about the nature of Scottishness, I have come to realize that I have been shaped to a much greater degree by Scottish culture than I ever realized. This largely comes through the influences of my mother and how she went about raising me. From her I absorbed an uneasy mixture of pessimism and willfulness that she herself inherited from growing up in Scotland. This unstable mix keeps me from thinking of life in terms of achieving grand successes. Rather, I think of life as a struggle that involves the endless overcoming of obstacles standing in the way of goals that I have set for myself. I am responsible for desiring these goals, and though they can never be fully realized or completed, I take a kind of egoistic pride in knowing that they are mine. I am pessimistically resigned to the fact that I will fail again and again over the course of life, but I am also willfully stubborn in pursuing my own projects no matter what the consequences.

I remember my mother once telling me that she didn’t care if I became a bum; she just wanted me to be an educated bum. In her mind, education was the key to liberation, since it gives you the tools and the confidence to be self-regulating and self-directed. The particular goal that you apply your efforts to, in other words, is not as important as taking hold of your life and doing something – anything – with it. This is something that I still believe, and it is a distinctively Scottish attitude. I have always felt like an underdog, battling against forces in the world that are trying to keep me down, and that are trying to make me feel like my own goals and desires are unworthy. And yet this same feeling has made me stubborn rather than making me want to conform. I have a tendency to dig in my heels, take my licks and then carry on doing what it is that I have set my mind to do. My mother taught me this, and Scotland taught it to her.

To be Scottish is to be an underdog and to rebel even if rebellion is doomed to failure. It is to feel rooted to a mythic past that can’t be remembered. It is to accept the inevitability of history’s endless cycles of ascent and decline, while never using them as an excuse for despair. To be Scottish is to be a nihilist of the best sort.

Glasgow Film Festival

FilmFestBannerMy visit to Glasgow culminated with attendance at the Glasgow Film Festival, which ran from February 20th through March 2nd. Over the course of the festival I saw five interesting films, attended a couple of roundtable discussions and listened to a live performance by a punk band. The work of the organizers was praiseworthy, but I wish the movie tickets were less expensive so I could have seen more films! I also wish that the organizers could have made a printed copy of the program available in advance of the festival, as I found it difficult to identify all of the films and events that I was interested in attending by browsing the website. As a result, I missed out on a number of things that I would have liked to have seen.

The-Strange-Colour-Of-Your-Bodys-Tears-poster-250x350The first screening I attended was The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, a French giallo-style film directed by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. I love giallo – Dario Argento is one of my favorite directors of all time – and I have learned that in order to truly appreciate works in this genre, you have to allow yourself to become absorbed by the mood of the films rather than trying to make sense of story lines or the logic of plot points. That was certainly important in the case of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, a movie with a narrative so convoluted that I have trouble summing it up.  In rough outline, it has to do with a man who, upon returning home from a business trip, finds that his wife is missing. As he investigates her disappearance, he discovers that there are passageways behind the walls of his apartment. The passageways obviously are intended as a metaphor for the main character’s mind, and at the end of the film he reaches what appears to be a psychological epiphany: all of the women that he has ever been involved with turn out to be aspects of a single girl, who is someone that he encountered as a child. As the mystery unfolds there are plenty of bright colors, and images of blood, guts, mayhem and sex to keep you riveted. All of this is accompanied by a loud and pounding musical soundtrack, reminding me of Argento’s Suspiria. This is a movie that is visually exciting, fun to watch, but nearly impossible to make logical sense of.

I saw The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade, the following evening and was disappointed by it. I enjoyed the Dostoyevsky book, but Ayoade’s rendering of the story is a rehash of dystopian clichés piled one on top of the other. The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon, a mousey office worker who, despite his talent, just can’t get ahead at work because of his low self-esteem and inability to assert himself. His office is a retro-futurist nightmare of dim lights, malfunctioning technology, and bureaucratic dead ends straight out of films like Brazil, 1984, and 12 Monkeys. When his arrogant and aggressive doppelgänger James appears, Simon is taught how to get what he wants in life. Soon, however, Simon realizes that James is going to take away his job and the girl he loves, and so he must confront and eliminate his double.

Richard Ayoade attended the screening and answered audience questions afterwards. I have to admit that I was just as disappointed in him as I was in his movie. He came across as a hipster who was too cool to really say anything serious. When asked about the meaning of his film or his intentions in making it, he simply responded with answers like, “I don’t know what I was trying to do,” or other noncommittal statements to that effect. I actually left the theater before his interview was over since he seemed not to have much to say about his own work.

DownloadedFileAfter the disappointment of The Double, It was refreshing to see The Homosexuals play right down the street at the Center for Contemporary Arts. This show was in conjunction with the film festival, as the lead singer of the band, Bruno Wizard, is the subject of a documentary that would be playing the very next day. I wrote about the show in a previous posting, so I’ll simply say here that the band was very enjoyable. They are from the early days of British punk, and the music they play is thick with snotty, sarcastic and angry attitude. This is no slick, commercialized band, but an authentic example of what punk rock is really meant to be. Great show!

The Heart of Bruno Wizard, directed by Elizabeth Rasmussen,  played the next evening, and while it was an interesting film in many ways, it was not great. This was the director’s first crack at filmmaking. As she explained after the screening, she quit her job once she met Bruno Wizard and decided to make a movie about him; a fact which testifies not only to her own courage, but to the charismatic power of Bruno Wizard himself. You experience his charisma not only when he is performing on stage, but when he is speaking to a group or when he is encouraging the adoring young artists who seem to flock to him like seagulls around a fishing boat. I wish more of this came through in the movie, but I think the mistake that the director made was to focus too much on Bruno’s own life outside of the punk scene and not to give enough attention to his music. We don’t see enough of him singing and performing and we see too much of him painting his apartment and riding on the subway. While Bruno seems to have been through some rough times in his life, honestly, his struggles are not that unusual. What is truly interesting about him is his energy and creative spirit. Unfortunately the film doesn’t go far enough to convey this, so while I think that he is a terrific and inspiring artist, I would prefer to watch his band play than to sit and quietly watch a movie about his life.

DownloadedFile-1The Dance of Reality is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s newest film, coming almost 25 years since The Rainbow Thief was released. Jodorowsky’s newest movie is an autobiographical account of growing up in Chile, and as you would expect, it is surreal, bizarre, colorful and filled with an assortment of freaks, deformed characters and shocking acts. It tells the story of Jodorowsky as a small boy who is coddled by his big-breasted, opera-singing mother, while his Stalin-worshipping father treats him harshly and tries to make him into a hard man. The father is portrayed by Jodorowsky’s real-life son, Brontis, who was present after the screening to talk with the audience and answer questions. I loved this movie. It is an oddly touching and authentic attempt by Jodorowsky to make sense of his life now that he is an old man reaching the end point of his career.

The question and answer session with Brontis Jodorowsky after the film was very enlightening. He spoke about the difficulties involved in working on a film with his father not only as the director, but as the subject of the movie. The atmosphere on the set, he confessed, sometimes became very intense, as the elder Jodorowsky demanded that everyone remain solemn and serious at all times. This was his life being put on the screen after all! There was no joking around between takes, no monkey business to blow off steam. And yet, what comes across on the screen is something that, while certainly conveying deep and profound insights, still has a sense of humor and playfulness. The acting, Brontis explains, was intended to be rather stiff and cartoon-like in order to highlight the surreal qualities of the story. Here you have Jordowsky’s form of a waking dream in which the elements of his life are combined in a free flowing manner that, while not historically accurate in detail, no doubt are more true than any literal account could ever be. His mother, who was beaten by her own father for wanting to be an opera singer, finally gets to realize her dream in this movie by delivering all of her lines in song. His father appears as a stiff and cruel man, engaging in slapstick fights with amputees. He is finally redeemed by his wife, who baptizes him in a stream of her own urine. Weird, gross, fascinating and honest, The Dance of Reality is one of the best films that I saw at the festival.

DownloadedFile-2The last screening I attended was for a Swedish film titled The Hour of the LynxThis film tells the story of a young man (Frederik Christian Johansen) who murders an older, married couple and is then committed to an insane asylum. The young man has religious visions, and so his psychiatrist calls in Lisbeth (Sofie Grabøl), a female priest, to talk with him. As the two characters develop a relationship of trust, the young man opens up and discloses his background of abuse at the hands of his mother and his discovery of happiness with his grandfather in the very house later occupied by the murdered couple. This is a gripping film, well acted and well made, that addresses the points of convergence and the points of conflict between science and religion. In the end, religion is depicted as the hero, being shown as a far more appropriate and authentic avenue toward the exploration of personal suffering and turmoil than is the science of psychology, which is depicted as cold, calculating and overly rational.

None of the films that I saw during the film festival were Scottish, which was due to the fact that by the time I went to buy tickets, all of those movies were sold out. As a consequence, I missed Everybody’s Child, a documentary by Gary Fraser that chronicles his hardships kicking heroin in his hometown of Muirhouse, Edinburgh. I also missed Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starrring Scarlet Johansenn, which played during the closing gala of the festival. Under the Skin is about an alien who drives around Glasgow and the Highlands of Scotland picking up hitchhikers for nefarious purposes.

ScottishIndependenceDespite missing these films, I did get to attend some panel discussions dealing with Scotland and Scottish identity. The first was chaired by David Archibald from Glasgow University and focused on the effects that independence might have on the Scottish film industry. The participants represented a variety of filmmakers and scholars, all of whom seemed to have the same opinion on the state of Scottish film: it is not living up to its full potential. The consensus was that more needs to be done to support and promote film making in Scotland, and that there are not enough resources currently being devoted to this task in comparison to what is taking place in other countries such as Ireland or Norway. Ian Smith, in particular, stressed the need for the development of a greater film infrastructure – to include post-production facilities –  in order to attract filmmakers who will stay in Scotland in order to complete their projects after filming on location. Phillip Sclesenger also pointed out that the government appears to be more concerned about the status of television than of film, this being reflected in the “White Paper” issued by the SNP concerning their strategic plans after Scotland gains independence. Most of the hour and a half focused on the current, sad state of Scottish movie making rather than on how independence would actually affect the film industry in Scotland. A few voices in the audience objected to this, coming to the defense of Scotland’s creative vitality, suggesting that with independence there would no doubt be an explosion of excitement and pride that would contribute to even more creativity.

The other panel discussion I attended was titled “Writing and Filming the North.” It brought together a number of writers and filmmakers from the Shetland Islands to talk about the challenges and the rewards of working in the Shetlandic dialect. The participants read some of their poetry and shared their experiences as artists who are largely marginalized because of their choice to write in Shetlandic. “It is a kind of career suicide,” said one of the panelists. And yet, as others pointed out, there is a sense of pride that they experience by keeping the culture of these far northern Scottish islands alive.

I found the Glasgow Film Festival to be an exciting and invigorating experience. The selection of films, the various panel discussions and the associated musical events were informative, entertaining and just a lot of fun. As I mentioned earlier, however, it would be helpful if in the future, organizers are able to publish a printed version of the schedule before the commencement of the festival. This would help people like me who find it more convenient to browse a physical program than to search through a website when trying to select and plan which events to attend.