An 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.
When 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.
Dog 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).
Young 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
The 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!
On 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.”
“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.