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.


Glaswegian Nightlife

Crazy_womanGlasgow is a city with more than enough nightlife to keep a visitor engaged once the sun goes down. There are vast numbers of pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as a vital arts scene that assures a good selection of music and live theater almost every night of the week. While I was there, the city center was vibrant and active well into the early hours of the morning, even on Sundays when the weather was horrible and I imagined that locals should be deep in slumber before the start of the work week. Who needs sleep anyway!

The center of neighborhood nightlife, for better or worse, is the pub. I write “for better or for worse” because I found, over the course of the month and a half I was in Glasgow, that the steady stream of alcohol fueling Scottish nightlife quickly wore me down. I’m not normally a drinker, but since the pub is the neighborhood meeting place, drinking is a central, and daily, activity that is hard to avoid. Scarlet Johansson, while she was in Glasgow filming Under the Skin, noted that the city has a real “drinking culture,” and this is true. Scotland has the 8th highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, which contributes to something known as the “Glasgow Effect;” a name given to the fact that those living in and around the city have significantly higher rates of physical and psychological morbidity than people living in other parts of the UK.

Nonetheless, there is something appealing about walking down the street for a pint and being able to socialize with neighbors and their dogs. Yes: the family pet is welcome to hang out along with everyone else at the local pub, since in addition to a drinking culture, Glasgow has a real dog culture as well. If you don’t like dogs, then this is not a place for you to be.

Church_barI discovered more evidence of how important drinking is to Glaswegians when I went out with my nephew one night to the West End for dinner. After having a meal at an Italian restaurant, our first stop was a place called The Lane Bar, which occupies part of a converted movie theater. After that we stopped at The Book Club and then ended up at Oran Mor, which is a bar in a converted Church. All of these places were busy and crowded with hipsters having a raucous and loud Saturday night. This is not unusual in any big city of course. However, what fascinated me was, first of all, that a bar had been incorporated into a movie theatre and, even more, that a Church had been converted into a bar and nightclub. I have seen two other churches in Glasgow that have been converted into apartments and condominiums; which indicates just how far the death of God has progressed in this Scottish city. When churches are converted into bars and living spaces, it seems obvious that religion has lost at least some of its hold on the population. Couple this with the conversion of movie theaters into drinking establishments, and you get a sense of how people’s priorities here have changed.

DownloadedFileMy own favorite Scottish beverage is not whiskey, but Irn Bru, that bright orange-colored, sugary and vaguely citrus-flavored soda possessing pretensions toward somehow being good for you. This is a drink that I never get tired of, and I think that there should be bars established that serve it exclusively. This is, in fact, what I ended up drinking toward the end of most of my nights out. It helped me to flush my system and to wash down the various sorts of deep-fried street foods that are inevitably consumed at the evening’s conclusion; things such as deep-fried potatoes, deep-fried fish, deep-fried haggis and deep-fried sausage. In Glasgow it seems that everyone has their favorite “chippy,” or fish and chip shop, where you can get battered and deep-fried anything, including such bizarre items as deep-fried slices of pizza, meat pies, and of course the infamous “Mars fritter,” a battered and deep-fried candy bar. At the end of a night out on the town, these are the sorts of foods that bring festivities to a close.

I think I experienced something of the “Glasgow Effect” during my stay, as I became very sick for about a week and so missed seeing a couple of bands that I had been looking forward to: Control and The English Beat. Nevertheless, I did get the opportunity to see a couple of other acts, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The first was Nathaniel Rateliff, an alternative folk singer from Colorado. This show was at a venue called Broadcast, which is nestled in amongst a number of other small clubs along Sauchiehall Street. The performance space is in a basement underneath the main bar, reminding me of many punk rock clubs from days gone by. The club was packed and the band’s reception was enthusiastic and rowdy. I was surprised that a small, alternative folk band from Colorado would have such a large following here in Glasgow, but it was clear the audience, who stood crushed together while singing along with the lyrics, loved the music. Initially I wasn’t all that excited about it, but as the show progressed, I eventually got into the mood and rhythm the band created. They projected a self-consciously down-home image, with the lead singer sipping whiskey as he drawled on about growing up in the rural countryside, about his great grandfather’s adventures making moonshine, and about his own troubles in love. It was a good act that was entertaining, if not completely convincing.

HomosexualsLater in the month, in connection with the Glasgow Film Festival,  The Homosexuals played at the Center for Contemporary Arts. This was a tremendous show. Originally formed in the mid-1970’s, the first incarnation of The Homosexuals was called The Rejects. They were part of the early wave of British punk rock, playing at the Roxie in London with other legendary acts such as Wire, Sham 69 and Chelsea. I had never heard of them before, and it was only because I had tickets to see a documentary about the life of the lead singer, Bruno Wizard, that I became acquainted with their music while in Scotland. Their sound reminds me of the Buzzcocks, with Bruno Wizard delivering snotty, sing-songy lyrics against a stripped down and raw backdrop of guitar, bass and drums. This is simple, energetic, emotional music from the days when punk was unmarred by commercial aspirations or the desire to please anyone. Watching this band, I was swept away by the driving power of the songs and the passion of the message. Bruno Wizard is a man who has stayed true to his ideals over the course of his life, and his music testifies to this fact. I have not enjoyed a punk show this much for quite some time.

The music scene in Glasgow is quite healthy, even if many Glaswegians are not. I couldn’t help but think how lucky they are to have such a steady stream of great bands playing in their city. After I departed for the US, The Stranglers, Motorhead and Stiff Little Fingers all were scheduled to play. That must be what Sparky Deathcap means when they sing Glasgow is a Punk Rock Town.

Citizens_TheaterIn addition to the city’s food, drink and music, I also sampled the local live theater, attending a performance of Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre. Glasgow Girls tells the true story of a group of seven high school students who, in 2005, mounted a campaign in order to keep some of their immigrant classmates from being deported from Scotland. My cousin Amanda, who works doing educational outreach for Glasgow University, supervised Amal, one of the real-life students who appears in the play, so there was a personal connection to this story that made it especially interesting.

In addition to being emotionally moved by the performances, I was fascinated by the cultural references that occurred throughout this play. Glasgow Girls unapologetically caters to the native audience. It is filled with in-jokes and references directed specifically toward Scots. One character is flattered to think that Peter Mullan might portray him in a movie; Glasgow is sung about as being “basically OK”; Robert Burns’ poetry is turned into protest music; public artworks on the road between Glasgow and Edinburgh put in appearances. I found particularly interesting a line spoken by Noreen (played by Myra Mcfadyen), an older woman who is a resident at the public housing complex where Jennifer (played by Karen Fishwick), one of the Glasgow Girls, lives. In response to the young girl’s lament that all her hard work and effort to keep one of her friends from being deported has resulted in failure, Noreen responds, “Well, welcome to Scotland!” The audience responded to this line with uproarious laughter and a round of applause. It is a sentiment that in many ways seems to summarize the Scottish self-image. Whether it is in the realm of politics or sports, cultural recognition or economic development, the Scots see themselves as underdogs who fight against the odds and often fail to triumph in the end.

This last point – about the Scots as underdogs – is one that I encountered continuously during my visit to Scotland. When I was out on the town, in the pubs and at the night spots, I always tried to remember to ask those around me what being Scottish meant to them. Without fail I was told that being Scottish is special. It is an identity unique, precious and difficult all at once. Scots are proud to be Scottish, but they also have a sense of being like the small kid on the block who needs to fight for respect. From the Scottish perspective, life is not a fun game, but an ongoing struggle against forces that continuously threaten to undermine one’s dignity. A history of English domination, bad weather and poor health are just some of the factors that have shaped the Scottish worldview. Through all of this, however, there remains a stubborn resistance against pessimism and despair. To be Scottish involves exercising a sense of ironic and dark humor toward life and everything it throws at you. There is tragedy here, but it is a good-natured tragedy that, even while it recognizes the inevitability of failure, still affirms life as something worth while.


By the time the train arrived at Waverly Station in Edinburgh, I felt like shit. My throat was burning, my sinuses were blocked and if I tried to walk for more than a few minutes, a Edinburgh Castlewave of fatigue overcame me. I feared I was coming down with the flu, despite getting a vaccine before leaving for sabbatical. I hoped it would all pass sooner rather than later. The fact that I was booked into a very nice hotel gave me hope that I would have the chance to relax in luxury for the next two days as I recuperated.

My nephew is the manager for a chain of restaurants in Scotland, and he was able to secure a couple of complimentary nights at the Waldorf Astoria for me in the city center of Edinburgh. I have never stayed in such a high-end hotel in my life; and absent my nephew’s kindness I would never have been able to afford to do so. When I arrived in my room, I was amazed by the view. Edinburgh Castle sat framed in my window like a scene from a postcard. That night, the same scene was illuminated by colored lights, like something out of tourist brochure.

I was sick, but I was also in Edinburgh, so I did not want to waste my time. After lying down for an hour or so, I felt strong enough to venture out of my room and into the streets. I had visited this city a few times before – as a child, and with my mother and with my wife on two separate occasions a few years ago – but this time I was looking at the place with special eyes. I wanted to get some sense of how this Scottish city differs in atmosphere from Glasgow. With a limited amount of time, and depleted physical vitality, I decided to set off to visit a couple of locations that I had never been to before: David Hume’s grave and Calton Hill.

Scott MonumentWalking down Princes Street, one thing immediately becomes clear: there is no mistaking Edinburgh for any other place. Unlike Glasgow, which is in large part nondescript in its appearance, Edinburgh is distinctive and unique. First of all, there is the castle, sitting atop a hill overlooking everything else. Dating back at least to the 12th century, Edinburgh Castle is located in a commanding position. It is impossible to ignore. Additionally, there are spires everywhere. As you walk down the street, they punctuate the skyline, like jagged rocks on a mountainous terrain. The most imposing of these spires is the Sir Walter Scott Monument, built in memory of one of Scotland’s most treasured literary figures; the author of such classics as Waverly and Ivanhoe.

HumeMonuments to, and statues of, literary figures are to be found everywhere in Edinburgh; and this is another aspect of the city that makes it quite unique. I don’t think I have ever been in a city where artists and writers are so central to the spirit and identity of the place. In addition to Sir Walter Scott, there are monuments and statues dedicated to Robert Burns, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith, and of course David Hume, the great Scottish skeptical philosopher who is one of my heroes. Why his statue depicts him bare-chested and adorned in Greek robes is an anachronism that mystifies me, but the fact that his image occupies a prominent place on the Royal Mile is nonetheless exciting.

Hume's GraveHume’s resting place is in Calton Cemetery, which sits toward the opposite end of Princes street from the Waldorf Astoria. By the time that I had made the approximately half mile walk, I was already beginning to feel poorly. Nonetheless, here I was, in the place where the remains of the author of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding lay buried! The inscription on his grave, like the Greek robes on his statue, is puzzling. It reads:

Behold I come quickly. Thanks to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.

Hume was a notorious atheist, so this inscription definitely seems out of place. Perhaps those left behind had a need to tame the radical nature of the dead philosopher’s ideas, making them less troubling and more palatable to the mainstream. That could also be the reason for the robes on his statue. After all, isn’t that what philosophy is all about; being Greek and dead?

NeedleAs I walked away from Hume’s grave, I looked downwards and saw the first of a series of discarded hypodermic syringes that, as it turns out, litter the cemetery. I immediately thought of the book Skagboys, the prequel to Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. In that book Renton, the junkie main character has anal sex with one of his girlfriends somewhere around here. It seems that this place is, indeed, a magnet for junkies. How much more depressingly appropriate could it be that they choose to shoot up in a graveyard? Exploring further, I was alarmed to find a discarded cell phone with its battery removed lying near one of the crypts. This, I realized, was probably not a good place to be walking alone unless I wanted to get robbed, so I hastily made my way back onto the street and started up the road to Calton Hill.

Calton Hill 1David Hume’s presence is still felt at Calton Hill. There is a “Hume Walk,” established by the philosopher in order to encourage the people of Edinburgh to get some exercise; ironic since Hume himself was quite fat. The walk winds up and around the hill, leading to the top where there are panoramic views of the Calton Hill 2surrounding landscape. From one side you can view Arthur’s Seat, a picturesque rocky mountain that juts up above the city. From the other side you can view the old town, and in-between you can see the Firth of Forth and the new town. The top of the hill is also adorned with a number of monuments, including a Greek styled temple and a building in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson.

SkinsAt this point the battle taking place inside of my body was starting to reach a fever pitch and I had to find a place to sit down, so I started back down the road, stopping for a bottle of water and a muffin before heading back to the hotel. Along the way, on Princes Street, I passed a Dr. Marten’s store displaying a set of quite interesting advertisements. As part of an ad campaign focused on the notion of “standing for something,” there was a poster depicting a middle-aged skinhead couple engaged in leisure-time shenanigans. It struck me that this was the kind of ad campaign that would not work in the US. First of all, the man and woman in the ad look as if they are well into their 40’s. Second, they are skinheads; a subculture that does not have the most positive reputation. Third, the woman is flipping off the photographer. In the US, this is the sort of gesture that is routinely blurred out on TV. I like the fact that Dr. Marten embraces the tradition and history of the brand, but I also find it surprising (and a bit disappointing) that skinheads can be used for marketing. But then again, I guess things are different here in Scotland.

I ended the day with a veggie burger and an early night to bed. When I awoke the next morning I felt doubly terrible. My throat was even more irritated and I was blowing gobs of green mucous out of my nose. I felt worn out. I decided to eat some breakfast and then take a walk to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where I could wander around at a relaxed pace.

Hanging BodyIt was a short, rain-soaked walk to the museum, and upon arriving I was greeted by the none-to-comforting message “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE.” This was spelled out in lights on a scaffolding that sat on the lawn in front of Gallery Two. As if to put visitors’ minds at ease, the message “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” appeared in lights on the front of the building itself. I wandered around the exhibit of surrealist art, enjoying some of the works by May Ray, Duchamp, Dali, Max Ernst, and Picasso, before crossing over into the gallery’s other building where I found myself completely mesmerized by an Redexhibit of work by Louise Bourgeois. The works on display were both paintings and sculptures, but all seemed to focus on themes concerning the anxieties of embodiment. Hanging, black headless bodies dangled from the ceiling like dead sacks of flesh; a giant metal spider occupied an entire room; caged, screaming, red faces greeted visitors in another room; and sculptures of amorphous body parts appeared elsewhere. The mood was dark, anxious and Freudian. In my sick and fragile physical state – blowing my nose, coughing and feeling as if my own body was betraying me – this exhibit really struck a chord.

It was beginning to snow when I left the gallery, and I was feeling close to physical collapse, yet I could not resist walking around Dean Cemetery, which occupies the lot right next to Gallery Two. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with graveyards that has never abated. I find them sad, peaceful, sobering and ultimately comforting. The idea that everyone must die is reinforced by seeing the graves of all sorts of people next to one another:  the rich and famous as well as the obscure. Everyone dies, and while this is an idea that is certainly disturbing, it is also helps me to realize that death is an inevitability for which no one is responsible. It is not a punishment or an indication of what a person has done wrong, but a biological inevitability. We all have to die in one way or another and in this sense, none of us is alone. We are all in it together. Dragging myself along, coughing up green phlem, alternately shivering and then Gravebreaking out in a sweat, I had a moment of clarity in that Scottish location. I occupy a body, as did the junkies, skinheads, philosophers and artists who have lived and died in Edinburgh. No monument or work of art can rescue us from our personal mortality, but they can help us to remember the fate that we share as human beings.

Sacrifice in Glasgow and Dumfries/Galloway

DSC04304While in Scotland I delivered my presentation, “Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice” twice: once to the faculty of film studies at the downtown campus of Glasgow University and then to the department of interdisciplinary studies at the Dumfries campus. The experience was very positive, and it was a wonderful chance to meet a number of scholars whose works have contributed to my understanding of Scotland and its depiction in film; scholars such as David Martin-Jones, Ian Goode, David Archibald, Karen Lury, Benjamin Franks and Stuart Hanscombe.

DSC03980Glasgow University was founded in 1451, making it the fourth oldest university in the English speaking world. The main campus is awe-inspiring. There is a tall, gothic spire visible from the distance, and the main building around which the rest of the school is centered looks like a castle.  I delivered my paper in Gilmorehill Hall. From the outside it, like the main building, looks like a structure from the ancient past. Once you step inside, however, the place is completely modern, with a state-of-the-art movie theater, glass enclosed offices, and classrooms outfitted with full technology.

The Dumfries campus is unusual in that its grounds are shared with the University of West Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway College and the Open University. The whole campus is referred to as “The Chrichton,” which caused me some confusion when I was trying to find it. The idea behind this arrangement was to bring higher education to a region that previously had no established universities or colleges. Although Dumfries is only about two hours south of Glasgow, the town is small and most of the surrounding areas are rural, consisting of farmland, sheep pastures and ruins. This entire southern area of Scotland is referred to as the Dumfries/Galloway region.

DSC04277The Chrichton, like the main campus of University of Glasgow, is home to some amazing buildings. The most impressive is a gothic church called the Chrichton Memorial Church, which was completed in 1897. It stands in the middle of the campus, commanding your attention as you approach. This is the sort of structure that I always imagined as the anchor point of an old and respected educational institution; and it is a far cry from what I’ve become used to on the west coast of the US where most things are temporary and impermanent. There is something comforting about a campus where you know that the buildings have been around for a long time and that they won’t disappear tomorrow. It makes me think, in contrast, of my own school, the College of Marin, which is currently undergoing a radical transformation with most of the old edifices being torn down and shiny, new, modern ones being put up.

imagesI delivered my presentation first at the downtown campus and then drove south to Dumfries the following week. This gave me the opportunity for a road trip during which I  stopped along the way to explore some of the locations where the classic 1973 British film The Wicker Man had been filmed. My presentation deals with this movie extensively, and so this was a terrific chance to do some on-the-ground research that would enrich my understanding of how the actual geography of Scotland is related to its cinematic representation.

Renting a car, I followed the A77 down the west coast, and as I ventured further and further into this area, I developed an increasing sense of an ancient past that has not yet been overwritten by modern influences. I could imagine that the people populating many of these small towns and rural villages live lives in many ways similar in daily rhythm to their forefathers: fishing, ranching, herding sheep, going to church. As always, the driech, grey and drizzly weather contributed a dreary backdrop to the scenery, helping me to feel like there was something mysterious and a bit sad about the landscape.

DSC04105My first stop was Culzean Castle, which served as the exterior for Lord Summerisle’s residence in The Wicker Man. The castle itself was closed when I arrived, but the grounds were open, so I wandered around taking in the spectacular ocean vistas and surveying the castle and its gardens. As I walked up to the structure, I immediately remembered the scene from The Wicker Man when Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle at his home. The approach to the castle is exactly reproduced in the film, and being there gave me a weird feeling like fantasy was blending into reality. It was beautiful, majestic and a bit spooky all at once.

DSC04157I had booked a room in the coastal town of Portpatrick, so this was my stop-off point at the end of the first day. A storm was kicking up by the time I arrived, and the shoreline was a maelstrom of waves crashing against black rocks while rain poured down from the sky. The middle of winter is not the tourist season here, and yet I found myself feeling supremely happy that I was able to see this place under these conditions. As I stood by the shoreline, I was mesmerized by the chaos of the ocean and invigorated by the wind and pelting rain. A Scottish flag, planted in a hill of rocks by the harbor, flapped and snapped in the squall. There was no doubt about the fact that I was in Scotland, the severe, cold wilderness to the north of England.

The next morning I hit the road, this time traveling east on the A75. I dropped south onto 747 so that I could visit St. Ninian’s Cave and Burrow Head, both of which served as locations for the filming of The Wicker Man. The route southwards is very narrow and a bit treacherous. I think I probably pissed off many of the locals with how slow I was driving, but the last thing I wanted to do was to end up careening off of the side of the road and into a ditch, so I continued on at a snail’s pace to Whithorn, where I saw a sign directing me to my next stop.

get-attachment.aspxThe finale of The Wicker Man occurs when the character Sgt. Howie is lured to a rocky beach where he finds the young girl he has been searching for throughout the film. She is standing in the mouth of a cave, which in reality is St. Ninian’s Cave. The location is reached by way of a mile-long walk down a pathway that starts in a cow pasture, goes through a forested area, past a sign warning of dangerous bulls and ends up on the beach. When I arrived at the trailhead, the rain was coming down and I had to trudge through the mud in order to reach my destination. At first I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place as there are no signs directing you to the cave once you hit the shoreline. I looked about and finally found it. In reality it is less like a true cave and more like an indented opening in the rock cliff next to the water.

It was an unexpectedly moving experience coming to this place. St. Ninian is credited with being the first person to bring Christianity to Scotland sometime around 400 AD. The cave is supposed to have been where he prayed on a regular basis and now, in addition to being a film location, it serves as a point of pilgrimage for the faithful. All around the entrance lie religious mementos: crosses, rocks inscribed with prayers, memorials for dead loved ones, and flowers. This is obviously a meaningful place for many folks, connecting them with a man from hundreds of years ago who devoted his life to his religious mission. It makes sense that this was chosen by the makers of The Wicker Man as a spot in which to depict a confrontation between paganism and Christianity, as both world views really did encounter one another here.

DSC04250Continuing south, my next stop before heading for Dumfries was Burrow Head. Burrow Head is now a caravan park, perched right next to the water, and it is where the final burning of the wicker man took place. I immediately recognized the location when I arrived. A grass lined path leads down a small hill to a clearing, encircled by jagged rocks and crashing ocean waves. In the film, this is where the villagers stand as they watch the burning of their sacrifice on the hill above. Apparently there were three wicker men built for the movie, only one which was ignited. The remains on the shore are those of an unburned wicker man. Although the only things left are two wooden posts embedded in concrete, I still felt a surge of excitement as I reflected on the fact that this was where Christopher Lee argued about the nature of sacrifice with Edward Woodward before committing him to flames in the movie. Here was a not so ancient artifact, marking the landscape discreetly, but nonetheless acting as a significant reminder to visitors of how human beings feel compelled to alter their environment as they make things and engage in existential projects. I must confess that these two posts, despite their plain and simple appearance, were no less remarkable to me than Culzean Castle or St. Ninian’s Cave.

My own Wicker Man pilgrimage was completed by passing through Creetown and Castle Douglas, two more places that served as sites for the making of the movie, before heading off for two nights in Dumfries. After my presentation, I departed northwards, and back toward the west coast for a two night stay on the Isle of Arran. The trip requires a ferry ride, and though Arran is not a complete backwater, there is a feeling of relative isolation that comes from being on an island that is sparsely populated and separated from the mainland.

get-attachment-1.aspxArran is not a big island. It only takes a few hours to drive its circumference, and over the course of that drive most of what you see are sheep, ocean views, and collections of buildings too small to be called villages. I stopped along the east coast in order to take a hike across a sheep pasture to visit an ancient set of artifacts, dating to some 2000 years BC, which stretch out along a protected pathway in the middle of a flat moor. Along the path are a number of “cairns,” or burial sites where ancient tribe leaders have been layed to rest. Each cairn is marked by a ring of stones surrounding a mound of earth. As you continue along, there appear monoliths jutting up into the air in the near distance. These structures become more and more prominent as you advance, looming against the landscape like giant rock blades embedded in the earth. They are ancient pillars, placed in this location for reasons that no one is sure of, but which may have to do with the marking of tribal boundaries or with some sort of religious/cerimonial purpose. As with St. Ninian’s Cave and the wicker man legs at Burrow Head, there was something moving and sublime about these stones. They protrude into the air, standing about 15 ft tall, defying gravity as they jut upwards. Their stark, silent simplicity is dramatic and striking against the otherwise flat landscape. Here is a place where thousands of years ago people lived their lives, pursuing routines that modern humans can’t even understand. I felt a chill looking at this place, knowing that in the distant past there were human beings who methodically placed these monoliths here for some deliberate reason that is now lost. Today they still stand, for no utilitarian purpose other than for people like myself to gaze awestruck and to wonder why they are there.

This week-long adventure to the south of Scotland helped me to understand a number of things. Seeing these locations, walking around them, being in the spots where some of the key scenes from The Wicker Man were staged revealed how the actual geography of Scotland has contributed to the making of this modern cinematic masterpiece. My additional trip to Arran further helped to reinforce the sense of Scotland’s silent, mysterious and yet unmistakable prehistory. The legacy of human culture and religious practices here is ancient, going back to a time even before Christianity made its way to Britain. This landscape and the monuments that adorn it are reminders of the ongoing projects pursued by both prehistoric and contemporary humans.

The Scottish Screen Archive

DSC03968An important part of my sabbatical plans during my visit to Scotland involved visits to the Scottish Screen Archive, where I had the opportunity to view a batch of films that I previously had trouble tracking down. The Scottish Screen Archive is part of the National Library of Scotland, and they have holdings that go back about 100 years in the history of cinema. Their specialty, of course, is Scottish film, and so before leaving for Glasgow I reserved time to screen an array of Scottish films that I have read about, but never had the chance to see with my own eyes. All of them, in one way or another, engaged with nihilistic themes. When I arrived at the archive, the clerk, Ann, commented on this aspect of my viewing choices:

“That’s what we call ‘cinema dreich,'” she told me as she handed me my requested DVDs and videotapes.

“That’s a phrase I’ve never heard,” I responded, busily opening up my notebook to write this down. “How do you spell that? What does it mean?”

Ann sort of chuckled and pointed out the window. The weather outside was, as is normal for wintertime Scotland, drizzly, grey and miserable.

“That’s dreich!” she laughed. “It’s dreary, depressing and cold. That’s how we describe weather like that, and it’s also how we describe movies like the ones you are interested in.”

When later I mentioned this to some of the folks at Glasgow University, they  all found it quite funny – using the word “driech” (pronounced DREEK) to describe depressing Scottish movies – but they all also recognized the significance of the label. It is a good way to describe what is clearly a distinct sub-genre of Scottish realist cinema that focuses on desparate characters caught in the grips of alcoholism, poverty and violence. Apparently, The British Film Institute (BFI) film fund was, until recently, headed by a fellow who had a special place in his heart for this kind of movie, and so he developed a reputation for granting  funding to an inordinate number of them. This led to a phenomenon that many commentators continue to decry as “miserablist,” a complaint based on the notion that such depictions promote a negative image of Scotland; one that can be damaging to tourism. After all, who wants to visit a place that is filled with violent drunks, junkies and poverty? A dreich, miserablist country is not high on most people’s lists for a vacation spot!

While it may be the case that Scottish dreich/miserablism is not a great selling point for tourism, and while it may also be true that it is not a wholly accurate depiction of the real nature of the country, I think it is a mistake to condemn it altogether. For someone like myself who has grown sick and tired of the happy-ending, Hollywood-style kind of movie-making, there is something refreshing about the darkness of this kind of Scottish cinema. It offers a counterbalance to the cheery shallowness found in most American movies. Furthermore, I would insist that there is, in fact, a great deal of truth that such films express. As Ann at the Screen Archive pointed out, there is something already there in the Scottish surroundings, in the weather and social conditions and culture, that this sort of filmmaking gives voice to. There is a special sort of nihilism that Scotland is particularly familiar with, and, whether you think it a good thing or a bad thing, it can be sensed in these sorts of films. I would even say that insofar as nihilism is a universal condition of human existence, these treatments say something about humankind as a whole at the same time that they express something about Scotland. A kind of universal truth about the human experience is revealed in these “miserablist” films, unpleasant though it may be.

DSC03949When I reserved my time at the archive, I imagined I would be viewing movies in a slick theater, with a full-sized screen and a projectionist. This was not, of course, how things were set up. The screening room is more like the AV room in any library, equipped with a small monitor and a combination DVD/VHS machine. The facilities are entirely adequate for research purposes, but their stripped down nature did drain some of my excitement. Where I had imagined a darkened movie theater, there was instead a shaded cubicle sandwiched in between other offices from which phone calls and face-to-face meetings could be overheard. I nevertheless got down to business and for the next three days engaged in a non-stop carnival of Scottish gloom, misery and woe.

As it turns out, about one half of the films that I reserved for viewing, even though they had a miserablist/dreich/nihilistic veneer, ended up on the whole being rather anti-nihilistic in their messages. These non-nihilisitic films – American Cousins, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and Ae Fond Kiss –  all culminated in happy endings, despite dealing with otherwise unsettling or depressing material. This goes to show that simply because a film deals with issues related to suicide, racism and gang warfare, that does not automatically qualify it as miserablist, driech or nihilistic.

Another surprising discovery was how many of the darkest and most depressing of the films I viewed were categorized by the filmmakers and production companies as comedies, proving that the Scots do black humor like no one else! This reveals another important fact: just because a film is a comedy, that does not make it immune from miserablism or nihilism. A film can be funny and bleak all at once.

Take for instance Scotch Myths (1982)the first film that I viewed. I was not sure what to expect with this one, as it is unclear from the description whether it is a documentary or a comedy. I suppose today we would refer to it as a “mockumentary,” as it uses a documentary-like approach in order to make fun of a variety of myths that have come to characterize Scotland since the nineteenth century. The movie follows a group of tourists and their cynical tour guides who tell the story of how Scotland has come to be a place of “crumbling ruins, selling tragedy” that offers “gore and lore in equal balance.” Scotch Myths was made before the “miserablist” tradition really gained steam in the 1990s, and it is notable that the criticism it offers of Scotland is that the Scots are overly eager to sell a commercialized image of their culture to the rest of the world.

Overall, the film is a comic, cynical and at times almost hostile parody of Scottish myths. It uses the image of whiskey as a symbol for how Scottish stereotypes have been packaged, sold and used to market the country as a commodity for tourists. “Whiskey distills Scottish history. It contains over 45 incidents in historical history. It is a 26 part TV history of Scotland condensed into a 26 ounce bottle.” With this we see Japanese tourists wearing bonnets, drinking whiskey and speaking Gaelic to Scottish guides who don’t understand the language; we see cash registers playing little Scottish songs every time someone buys another bottle of liquor; and we see grotesque, somewhat frightening images of red-haired, bearded and toothless Scotsmen in tartan, laughing drunkenly.

The tour guides in the film act out the story of how the current image of Scotland came to be. Robert Burns makes an appearance, as does Sir Walter Scott, who is made fun of for “rediscovering” the tartan regalia of the Highlanders. James Macpherson’s Ossian is ridiculed, as are Victoria and Albert’s romantic ideas about the Scottish Highlands. The message is that Scottish identity is not authentic and organic, but a mythologized construction that has been manipulated and then reabsorbed by contemporary Scots who have no real connection with the past. Though presented in a comic manner, the film has quite a bleak message: the Scottish people are in fact rootless, without a real history, and spiritually homeless. This is raw nihilism packaged as a weird kind of entertainment that is, at least for me, more unsettling than it is funny. Aristotle claimed that in comedy we laugh down at lowly characters, and that is precisely what seems to be happening in this film; we are encouraged to laugh at the Scots for their eagerness to sell a fake image to the rest of the world.

Nihilism was also pervasive in all of the films I screened in which Peter Mullan played a key role: Dog Altogether (2007), Orphans (1998) and Young Adam (2003). Mullan is nothing short of a celebrity among the Scots that I have met during my visit, so it appears that his bleak worldview does not seem to offend the men and women on the streets. I mentioned in an earlier post that he lives in the same neighborhood as my cousin and that he is a familiar face in the pubs. There is a great sense of admiration that the locals have for him. One of my cousin’s friends told me that when she saw Mullan speaking in a thick Glaswegian accent in a recent, international film, it made her feel very proud. Another of their friends told me that when she saw him in a local pub, she fell all over herself telling him how wonderful he is, and he graciously thanked her and bought her a beer. The only vaguely critical comments I have heard about Mullan have come from academics who suggest that he is more bourgeois than he would like the public to believe.

220px_dogimage2480Dog Altogether is a short film (16 minutes) and an almost perfect example of miserablism. It involves a guy (Mullan) who kicks his dog, injuring it so badly that he has to kill it. Afterwards we see him menacing people around his neighborhood, sitting with a dying man in the hospital and then at someone else’s graveside. “Everyone is dying,” he cries at one point. Finally he is beaten by some shopkeepers that he harassed earlier in the film, after which he seeks refuge at a charity shop where a Christian woman prays for him. The themes here are all existential: the awareness of death, the anguish of existence, and the vain longing for some sort of redemption. This is the film that apparently served as the inspiration for the full-length feature Tyrannosaur (2011).

imagesYoung Adam, starring Ewan Mcgreggor, Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton, represents yet another example of miserablism. The story follows Joe (Mcgreggor) as he works on a barge hauling coal along the canals around Glasgow. The barge is owned by Ella (Swinton) and her husband Les (Mullan). In flashbacks we slowly learn the story of how Joe is implicated in the death of his girlfriend while he is also presently engaging in an affair with Ella. I found the film to be a bit mixed up, with the two threads in the story never seeming to really tie together. The main theme that the film seemed to be playing with had to do with the vain repetition of sexual relationships as a distraction from truly pursuing one’s dreams. This is, no doubt, a lesson that a lot of people would benefit from learning, but it is one which none of the film’s characters ever seem to take to heart. The film is bleak, bleak, bleak, but not entirely negative if you consider its useful message.

MV5BMTI5NzM1NzM5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTI1MzIyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_Orphans was the first full-length feature directed by Peter Mullan, and it remains a masterpiece. I love its description as a “Hard as granite drama with humour as black as a Scottish night.” It is true that there is humor in this film, but much of it is so dark that it is hard to even see. While Mullan claims that the film is not autobiographical, it nonetheless contains elements, experiences and events from his life in Glasgow that give it a very authentic feeling.

Orphans follows three brothers and their sister as they are preparing for the funeral of their mother. The action focuses on how they all react differently to her death. One son, Thomas (Gary Lewis) refuses to leave the mother’s coffin, even when his disabled sister (Rosemarie Stevenson) takes off in her wheelchair and gets lost on the streets. Another son, Michael (Douglas Henshall) gets into a fight, gets stabbed, and stumbles through the streets of Glasgow bleeding while the final brother, John (Stephen McCole) only wants to take revenge on the guy who stabbed his brother. Mullan apparently once stated that each of the brothers represent one aspect of his reaction to his own mother’s death, and in fact the film is dedicated to her memory.

Orphans utilizes surrealist elements to supplement the otherwise gritty realism of much of the story. The action is unleashed by the mother’s death, and this is symbolized by the eruption of a great storm that whips across the city, threatening to tear the place apart. Here we see how the passing of the mother has not only released a deep well of emotional pain and turmoil amongst her children, but how it has also removed the only real external impediment to their unrestrained bad behavior. Toward the end of the film, a statue of the Virgin Mary gets smashed and the roof of the church where the mother’s body is lying gets torn off by the wind, both events seeming to suggest that even religion and God are no real comfort in the face of death. The final scene has the children at their mother’s gravesite, finally deciding that they need to go “share a curry” and get out of the cemetery since it is “filled with dead people.” The suggestion seems to be that in order to keep on living, you have to care about and be kind to those around you who are also still alive, rather than engaging in old grudges and commitments to promises that don’t really matter anymore. There is a great deal of nihilistic bleakness here; although there also seems to be a gesture toward the idea that some comfort may be found in taking care of the ones that you love, even if God is dead and the world is a painful, terrible place otherwise.

Three more films I watched stood in contrast to the ones already discussed insofar as they, to great or lesser degrees, involved positive resolutions and happy endings.

UnknownThe first of these is American Cousins (2003). In this film, the main character, Roberto (Gerald Lepowski) is a man of Italian heratige who owns a chip shop in Glasgow. Since the death of  his father, he was forced to take out a loan in order to complete renovations to the business. Unfortunately, the gangsters that he borrowed money from want to take over the shop.

Roberto’s Italian gangster cousins, who have run into trouble back home, come to Glasgow in order to lay low, but when they find that Roberto is in trouble with Scottish thugs, they decide to step in and help him out. They teach Roberto that even though he is a fish-fryer, he is also still Italian by blood, and so a tough guy. As his relative says: “Do you think you can’t be a fish-fryer and a tough guy? Remember who you are. You are from a family from a tough place.” And so, as the story moves forward, we see Roberto learn to defend his business and succeed in defeating the bad guys, as well as getting the girl he loves, and even obtaining a rare stamp that he has wanted all of his life! He, in fact, gets everything that he ever desired with the help of his Italian cousins.

The two key metaphors in this film are: 1) Fish and chips; and (2) A special grape vine. The fish and chip shop is used to convey the situation of an immigrant who is trying to fit into a new culture. In Scotland, many of the chip shops are run by Italians; it is a common stereotype sort of like the American stereotype of the convenience store run by middle-easterners or asians. In this film the main character, by running a fish and chip shop and trying to fit in with Scottish culture, loses a sense of who he really is and so becomes unsure of himself. He loses his self confidence and it takes a reacquaintance with his Italian roots to reinvigorate his vigor and pride.

The the second key metaphor, a grape vine brought to Scotland by the Italian cousins, is a special hybrid capable of producing fruit in especially cold climates. Here the idea is that the vine taken from Italy has been modified so that it is able to thrive in a place as foreign and cold as Scotland. In the end, this is precisely what happens with the main character. He overcomes all hardships and establishes a hybrib Italian/Scottish restaurant that turns into a success.

At the end of the film, before the epilogue where we see the successful restaurant established, there is a battle scene where Roberto and his cousins survive an explosion by retreating into the unfinished portion of the restaurant that is housed in a neglected church. The imagery here is quite clear. Roberto, by turning back to the Church and his Italian roots ultimately gets everything that he ever wanted and the film ends happily ever after. There is nothing nihilistic or miserablist here. Just a comforting, conservative reaffirmation that life is good when you stick with your own and remember where you came from.

MV5BMTk0MjA0MTc2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjg0MzUyMQ@@._V1_SX214_When I asked the clerk, Ann, at the Film Archive for Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), she said, “More driech.” In fact it turns out that despite its title, this is actually one of the more upbeat films of the bunch. After the death of both his father and mother, Wilbur (Jamie Sives) loses the desire to live, and repeatedly tries to kill himself. His brother, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), who runs a used bookshop in which he also lives, takes Wilbur in so that he can keep an eye on him. Over the course of the film, Harbour falls in love and gets married, but is also diagnosed with terminal cancer. His wife and Wilbur start to carry on an affair behind his back.

The relationship between Wilbur and Harbour’s wife, Alice (Shirley Henderson) is the most unsettling part of this film, but it paves the way for the reestablishment of the family unit once Harbour dies. Both Wilbur and Alice love Harbour, and their affair is presented as something out of their control; it is, apparently, true love. Furthermore, Wilbur is depicted as a man that children are naturally attracted to. He works with kids, and Alice’s daughter adores him. The irony played out in the film is that Wilbur, who initially is so eager to die, exhibits a child-like youthfulness and becomes more eager to live as his own brother comes closer and closer to death. In the end, the brother who tried to keep Wilbur from killing himself takes his own life and Wilbur takes over as the head of  his brother’s family.

This film takes place in Glasgow, but it is Wales, not Scotland, that is picked on for its dreariness. One of the characters who once came close to death describes the dying experience as, “dull as dishwater, utter silence. It’s like being in Wales.” As in the Peter Mullan films discussed above, there is an attitude of atheism in Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, but there is also a sense that life can be worth living if you love and care about the people around you. Unlike in Peter Mullan’s films, however, the characters in this film seem to have achieved their goal. The ending is a relatively happy one.

arsvFilm_JKxQPLkRLZzTJVHDNUQiWWwdRqXOxWfQThe last of the films I screened was Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004), an entertaining but conventional love story about a young Muslim, Pakistani-Scot, Casim (Atta Yaqub), who falls in love with a Catholic, Irish-Scot, Rosin (Eva Birthistle). The film is interesting for its depiction of the specific sorts of culture clashes that occur in Scotland; among them religious frictions between Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. You can predict the issues: the family of the young Pakistani man object to him having a relationship with a white, non-Muslim woman while the Catholic Church objects to the young woman having a relationship with a non-Catholic.

One particularly amusing detail from the film highlights Catholic disapproval of Robbie Burns due to his bawdiness and drunkenness (see my posting on the Burns Night Supper). In fact, the title Ae Fond Kiss comes from one of Robert Burns’ love poems. Ironically, the poem itself is about a love that will never be, while the happy ending to this story has the young Pakistani man telling his family, “We’re Western, we’re not Pakistani,” thus breaking with tradition in order to follow his heart. Likewise the young woman leaves her job with a Catholic school to be with her true love. Unlike in American Cousins, in this movie it is a break with family and one’s religious legacy that is required in order to find happiness. And yet, in the end, there is nothing at all tragic about the outcome. The main characters easily turn their backs on the past and fall into one another’s arms with optimistic hope for the future. No nihilism here!

DSC03964On my final day at the Archive, a general feeling of sadness descended upon me as I took the train back to downtown Glasgow. Sitting by the window, watching the grey dreariness of the Scottish winter and the spray-painted buildings whizz by, some young toughs bantered back and forth behind me:

“Fuckin’ right. He marches up to me, all hard like!”

“So whit did ye dae?”

“Fuckin’ looked ‘im in the eye. ‘Dae ye want a square go, pal?’ I said.”

“Fuckin’ right.”

“Yeah. He went all fuckin’ Casper on me. Turned around and took off, he did. Fuckin’ right.”

“For fuck’s sake, what did the wee Jessie expect?”

“Wee fuckin’ pansy.”

The scene on the train echoed the spirit of the miserablist films I had been viewing for the last three days. There was something dreary and depressing – dreich – about it all. There was also a looming sense of violence and threat. And yet, as I sat there, feeling cold, alone and sad, a smile spread across my face, inspired by what struck me as the dangerous, but darkly comic nature of the two young men behind me. The Scottish films I had watched felt just the same; a mixture, in differing degrees, of tragedy and comedy, despair and absurdity. And I like the feeling they produce. It is a substantial feeling, as if I’ve come through something important. It is a feeling that doesn’t distract from the world’s realities, but rather attunes one to it’s deeper nature. Maybe miserablism is not something that sells huge numbers of tickets or that attracts lots of tourists. Nonetheless it is something that expresses a real aspect of Scotland’s – and the world’s – Truth.

My Robert Burns Night Supper

BurnsNight1Imagine a country where a poet is one of the most valued national treasures; a place that sets aside a night of drinking, eating and poetry reading in order to keep his memory alive. The place in your imagination is not America. Americans would never think of designating a night of celebration in honor of a literary figure. The birth of Jesus, the founding of the country or its independence are the sorts of events that we celebrate with overconsumption; not the birth of a poet. But in Scotland, things are different.

Robbie Burns Night is a Scottish tradition celebrating the birth of Scotland’s most beloved bard. Observed on or around January 25th, it involves the reading of Burns’ poetry, the drinking of whiskey and the eating of haggis. The parties thrown on this occasion range from the informal to black tie, and the first week that I was in Glasgow, my nephew invited me to one of the more formal affairs. I had not heard of this tradition before, and so I was not clear on what to expect. However when I told some of my other Scottish relatives about the invitation, they all nodded in an approving manner, all saying the same thing: “Aye, you’ll enjoy that.” And I did enjoy it; although it was an enjoyment that would be had at the cost of a terrible hangover.

DSC03956The event took place in the Grand Central Hotel in downtown Glasgow. It  was a fundraiser in support of Kiltwalk, an organization that raises money for various children’s charities, and it was hosted by Cat Cubie, a local television weatherperson, and Ally Bally, a radio personality.  The hotel is attached to the central train station, and the first indication I had that this would be a night of overconsumption was when my nephew and his wife, after picking me up, left their van in a nearby parking garage, telling me that we would be taking a taxi home. Sure enough, the first thing that greeted us were mixed drinks as we entered the hotel lobby to socialize and await the start of the festivities.

DSC03912As we stood in the lobby, sipping our drinks and being introduced to one another, I felt strangely relaxed and somewhat detached; like an anthropologist scrutinizing an especially interesting, yet unfamiliar, culture. Though the gathering was a mixture of both men and women, the atmosphere felt very masculine. There was some irony in this, from an American point of view, as a good portion of the men were dressed in kilts. These kilts, however, projected not the least bit of femininity or softness. Quite the contrary. The individuals who were so dressed moved about in a way that, while not necessarily aggressive, was self-assured, confident and proud. And there was something more going on here than the confidence you feel when you put on formal wear. It was deeper than that; as if by wearing their kilts these men were participating in a holy event. These were their vestments, and by wearing them they took on a special status that channeled an unspoken history and culture. By proudly wearing their kilts they were doing something much more than I was doing by wearing a suit. I was simply paying tribute to the formality of the event with my attire, but by wearing kilts these men were embodying the essence of the event. They made the spirit of the Burns Night come alive, and their kilts seemed to channel the pride they felt in being Scottish. There was no irony, no sense of anachronism in how they were worn. Instead, it felt as if in this place the kilt was a sign of seriousness and reverence. The atmosphere felt religious, as if we were in a place special and different from the rest of the mundane world. It was a place where Scottishness was worshipped.

DSC03915There is a structure to the Burns Night Supper that I was not aware of at the time. After the short period of drinking and socializing, the second part of the evening commenced with a bagpiper who began playing as we were ushered into the grand hall and to our seats at the dinner table. Once seated, the assembled revelers were admonished from the stage by Cat Cubie to “drink until ye canna tell your heid frae yer arse!” At the appropriate moments in her command she pointed towards her head (heid) and then at her butt (arse). And thus the alcoholocaust commenced. As we feasted on haggis, tatties and neeps, the drinking was continuous.

Wine was poured and buckets of beer arrived at the table at a consistent and steady pace. There was also whiskey, which I was careful to avoid as I knew that once I began drinking that, a blackout would soon follow. Things became fuzzier and more surreal as the night wore on and the booze had its intended effects. The swirl of activity, the kilts, the singing and the dancing all viewed through the haze of drink melded into something like a dream. This is the Scottish version of a peyote ritual. A hidden reality came forth revealing the unity of everyone in the room. There was no ill will, no suspicion and no hostility. Everyone blurred together as brothers and sisters. All were one.

DSC03936Through this haze, I recall the appearance of a vision from my childhood: Oor Wullie materialized, hamming it up with Cat Cubie and Ally Bally. Oor Wullie is a comic character whose adventures I adored when I was a kid. He is a little, blonde, spike haired boy who looks like a miniature Johnny Rotten. He wears big boots and dungarees with suspenders. He speaks in a thick Scottish brouge, sits on a bucket and is always in trouble with the local policeman, PC Murdoch. This is the Scottish version of Denis the Menace, and here he was at the Burns Night Supper, manifesting like a religious vision. I was aware that people were bidding on the opportunity to appear in one of Oor Wullie’s new comic strips, but I was too transfixed by this apparition and his enigmatic presence to even think about money.

After the departure of Oor Wullie, I recall speeches. Only later would I learn that tradition dictates there be speeches by both a man and a woman. The man is supposed to offer remarks about women, and the woman is supposed to make comments about men. This is good Scottish fair play apparently. While I cannot remember all that was said, there were some words so stunning they became burned into my memory, scorching my psyche like lightning bolts from another dimension. Cat Cubie’s recitation of some particularly dirty poetry by Robbie Burns referred to a woman’s “gash” and how she wanted it filled with something “as big as a baby’s forearm.” These were words from the greatest poet in Scotland, and as one of the other hosts  said afterwords, “You will never be able to watch Cat Cubie’s weathercast in the same way again.” In other words, we had all been transfigured by this mystical event.

There was a point at which all thinking and reflection ceased for me. I was just there, being with others and feeling like something strange and mysterious was unfolding all around me. Only impressions remain; people dancing together; a very tall kilted man who stepped aside, smiling, as I passed by; the earthiness; a passive feeling of abandonment to an encroaching void; contentment. I hope death feels something like this.

This celebration was all about words; poetic words that are cherished by the people of Scotland because they are written in the Scot’s venacular and because they encapsulate the Scottish spirit. These words embody what it means to be Scottish, and yet by the end of the Burns Night Supper, I was almost unable to speak. I was reduced to a babbling, emotional fool embraced by warm nothingness.