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.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

Walking Through Glasgow

DSC03883The name of the city of Glasgow comes from the Gaelic words “Glas Cu,” which mean “dear green place,” and it certainly is that. In California, there is currently a drought, and when I mentioned this to my Scottish hosts, they laughed, suggesting that we arrange some sort of weather exchange between our two countries. There is more than enough moisture falling from the sky in Glasgow, and the green surroundings bear testament to this fact, just as California’s golden hills and empty resivoirs bear testament to its current dry spell.

DSC03749I stayed with my cousin Amanda and her husband Andy, who were kind enough to put me up in their flat during the time I was in Glasgow. Their place is in a neighborhood on the south side of the River Clyde called Strathbungo. Strathbungo was incorporated into Glasgow in 1892, before which it was an independent village. It still feels like a village in some ways. There is a town council that enforces rules governing local architecture, ensuring that the neighborhood buildings retain their stylistic integrity.  On the streets people know one another and exchange greetings.  Amanda and Andy tell me that Peter Mullan, the actor and director of such Scottish film masterpieces as Orphans and NEDs,  is a regular around here, often seen on the streets or in the pubs.

One of the neighborhoods adjoining Strathbungo is the infamous Gorbals, which features prominently in the 1935 novel No Mean City, a story chronicling the rise and fall of Johnnie Stark, a gangster who slashes his enemies with straight razors, thus earning him the honor of being called the “razor king.” I was eager to see the Gorbals, since it plays such a key role in Glasgow’s popular image as a rough place; and yet I was also eager to avoid having my ears sliced off and handed to me as a gift. My cousin assured me that it is no longer the dangerous place that it once was and that I should not hesitate to wander around and see what there is to see. So I set out on foot toward my destination, eyes open, alert to my surroundings and prepared to flee if I met any razor kings. As I approached Gorbals Street, I did hear someone coming up behind me, so I turned to see who it was. My heart skipped a couple of beats. There was a Glaswegian skinhead in all of his gear: cherry red Docs, a black flight jacket, suspenders hanging down from his pants. A sense of relief overcame me when I realized that he was completely uninterested in me and solely concerned with taking his grocery shopping home. Just a Gorbals skinhead running his daily errands!

DSC03909To me, the Gorbals looks like many other neglected and destitute locations. There are a lot of crumbling buildings, housing projects, litter in the streets and signs for charity services. But there are also signs of renewal. There are new buildings being constructed, operating businesses and a highly visible and established Citizen’s Theatre that stages regular productions and that engages in education and community work. The place didn’t feel particularly unsafe or unfriendly, and there were plenty of school kids and prosperous looking adults wandering about. A banner adorning one of the new, very nice and upscale apartment buildings made reference to the “New Gorbals,” demonstrating that this is still, however, a place aware of its lingering reputation.

DSC03786I left the Gorbals, crossing the Glasgow Bridge and making my way downtown to George Square. This is the location where the beginning scenes of World War Z were filmed. In that film, Glasgow acts as a stand-in for Philadelphia, but Glasgow has also stood in for San Francisco (in Cloud Atlas) and for New York City (in The House of Mirth), suggesting something interesting about the nature of Glasgow. While it is a metropolis with its own unique culture and style, its urban atmosphere is also similar to, and in some ways perhaps even indistinguishable from, other world cities.  The streets form mazes of shops, restaurants and clubs that play host to hundreds of shoppers and tourists. Many of the usual corporate DSC03780store names are there: Starbucks, McDonalds, Apple, Dr. Martens. But there are also variations: instead of TJ Max, there is a TK Max, and the most popular pharmacy is called Boots, which somehow seems like an appropriate name for a Scottish store. The downtown shopping district is buzzing with consumers buying things and overindulging, just like in any other prosperous city. It is the perfect place for a zombie invasion!

DSC03885I wandered down Sauchiehall Street through the West End and toward Kelvingrove Museum, which was to be my destination for the day. The West End neighborhood is quite nice; there are pubs and cafes and even a restaurant named after the Big Lebowski. The whole neighborhood has a really good feel to it; there is a sense of vibrancy and signs that various sorts of cultures are now making contributions to Glaswegian life. The streets are lined with more than just a bunch of drinking establishments; there are Hindu and Buddhist temples and Italian, Japanese and French restaurants.

DSC03803All of the museums in Glasgow are free of any entrance charge –  something that should be the case everywhere in my opinion – but Kelvingrove Museum would still be a bargain even if you had to pay San Francisco-sized admission prices.  Upon entering this museum, my ears were filled with the deep, ominous sounds of a pipe organ. The instrument occupies an entire wall of the central hall, and it dwarfs and engulfs the organist, who sits perched up on high as DSC03862he plays. It is an awe-inspiring sight, and coupled with the organ’s sonic effects, I felt like I was entering a solemn place – until I saw the Spitfire airplane hanging from the ceiling! This vehicle swoops down from above, creating a quirky and rather humorous atmosphere, giving the sense that this place is both serious and weird; and that’s a good thing in my mind! A grotesque Elvis statue helps to reinforce the feeling.

There were a few exhibits at Kelvingrove that I especially enjoyed during my visit. First of all was the exhibit on Scottish myths; a topic directly related to my sabbatical research. It is quite apt that alongside the current push for independence there is a renewed sense of the distinctiveness of RobbieBScottish culture and a heightened urgency on the part of the country’s cultural institutions to debunk many common stereotypes about Scotland. In the “Scottish Identity in Art” exhibit at Kelvingrove, ideas about the origins of tartantry, the use of weapons, and the real lives of Mary, Queen of Scots and Robbie Burns are called into question. My favorite image from the exhibit is one of Robbie Burns reimagined in the style of the revolutionary Che Guevara! (I’ll have more to say about Burns in another posting.) Overall, this exhibit conveyed the sense that Scotland is an underdog of a country that still has to fight in order to gain respect on the world stage.

DSC03824In the gallery right next to the exhibit on Scotland’s depiction in art is a truly stunning painting: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross. The piece occupies a room all to itself, which serves to highlight the dramatic nature of the image. Apparently, after the museum acquired this painting in 1952, a visitor to the exhibit tore the canvas in two and tried to destroy it. You might think that this was the result of religious outrage or something of that nature, but in fact the vandalism was motivated by the fact that the patron considered it was a very bad likeness of Christ. He should know, since  he claimed to be Jesus, and the painting looked nothing like him!

DSC03830I mentioned in an earlier posting that there are aspects of Glasgow that remind me of Buffalo. Well, I found yet another reminder of Western New York in the Kelvingrove Museum: a statue depicting two women in bed with one another. This is a casting of a piece of marble funerary art that adorns the plot owned by a lesbian couple in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. It was installed before gay marriage was legalized there. The artist, Patricia Cronin, writes that “In death, I make official my ‘marriage,’ which was not legal for most of our relationship.” It’s a great quote, and it made me think back to when I lived in Buffalo and would spend hours wandering around Forest Lawn, reflecting on death and how stupid life can be sometimes.

I’m sure that I’ll be doing more of that kind of reflecting in the days to come when I make my way over to the spectacular Glasgow Necropolis. But on this day I still had to walk back across the city to get ready for a Burns Night Supper. I’ll be posting the sordid details of that event soon.

Sabbatical in Glasgow

Glasgow-City-CrestCircling in the air above the city of Glasgow, Scotland before landing, I was surprised at how much the surrounding countryside reminded me of Western New York.  Clusters of houses sit here and there against a background of gently rolling, green hills. From the air, the landscape outside of the city looks mostly like farmland; just like the areas surrounding Buffalo, New York. As it was winter, there was a low cloud deck and a constant drizzle was falling. Everything looked cold, wet and not the least bit exotic.

From the sky I could see tiny cars racing down streets between the various clusters of buildings below, and something about this particular detail was a sure the tip-off that I was not in the US. First of all, round-a-bouts punctuate the roadways. This is something quite rare in the US where they would probably be considered an impediment to our freedom to get from point A to point B in the shortest, most efficient period of time. Secondly, the cars were all traveling on left side of the street; the “wrong” side from an American perspective.

I was not in the US. I was touching down in Glasgow, Scotland. This was the birthplace of my mother. It was where my mother met and married my father. It was where my sister was born. It was a place that I visited regularly as a child, but which always felt foreign, exotic and somewhat antiquated to me. It was a place that my parents referred to as “the old country.” Now that my parents are both dead and gone I have, bit by bit, developed a desire to understand this place better. This “old country” is now something new to me.

When I was a kid, I did not understand the fascination that some of my peers had with foreign countries and cultures. It struck me as weird and even a bit embarrassing. We were Americans, after all. We lived in a “melting pot” where our differences were supposed to be distilled away and we were meant to focus on how we were similar, not different from others. Perhaps this was an attitude encouraged by the fact that my parents were immigrants who were chronically aware of how much they stood out and were different from those that we lived alongside.

My mother spoke with an accent that marked her as Scottish, and my father spoke with a heavy Polish accent. As a kid, I was aware of the discomfort some people had around my father. I often got the feeling that they were scared of him, and that they thought he was an unrefined brute . My father was a gardener, and when we moved into a nice, upper-middle class California neighborhood when I was about 7 years old, some of our neighbors were quite puzzled as to how a manual laborer could afford to live side-by-side doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals. I presume that this arrogance bothered my dad, but it was my mother who was most vocal about her annoyance.

My mother got along well with most of the neighbors, but the veneer of civility was thin. During the first Gulf War, when I was serving in the Army and my mother was afraid I might be mobilized, she got into a verbal altercation with a pro-war neighbor in the supermarket who finally yelled at her, “Go back to wherever it is you came from!” Even after spending the largest part of her life in America, her accent gave her away. She was different, and that meant she couldn’t fully be trusted.

So maybe it was this type of experience, and the fact that my parents left the “old country,” thus rejecting it, that encouraged me to avoid too much fascination with non-American places and people. I’m sure it is more complicated than just that; but I’m just as certain this describes at least part of the dynamic that played a role in the development of my psychology. Nonetheless, up to the present day, lying behind all of this manifest indifference to other cultures there has also always been something else lurking: a longing to understand how I came to be me, and to understand how far back I can trace the influences that have contributed to my own obsessions, quirks and preoccupations.

My first inkling that Scotland was a good starting point for exploration of this sort occurred to me when, about 6 years ago, I traveled with my mother back to Glasgow. It was her last trip home before her death a few years later, and as we wandered the city, she pointed out the places where significant events in her life had occured. She showed me where she attended the “School of Domestic Sciences” and where she held her first job after graduating. We saw the hall where she went dancing on the weekends, and the movie theatre where my father took her to see Polish films that she could not understand. She showed me where my father lived before they met and we drove past “Rottenrow,” the hospital where my sister was born. (To this day my sister can’t stand the name of that hospital!) We went to my grandfather’s old neighborhood in Possilpark, now a veritable slum populated by rival gangs and drug addicts. We also scrutinized the inscriptions on a monument dedicated to WWI war casualties, looking for my grandfather’s name. Family mythology had it that my grandfather had been mistaken for dead after being hit with mustard gas and that his name had ended up here. As it turns out, like so many family tales, this was not true. My grandfather was hit with mustard gas, his face horribly burned and disfigured, but his name does not appear inscribed on the memorial.

DSC03901The experience of traveling with my mother sparked a realization in me. This “old country” was still a part of my mother, and thus it was also a part of me. There was too much family history here for me to make a clean break. So when my sabbatical leave was granted this year, I proposed a line of research that would not only be academically interesting, but one that would afford me the opportunity to spend some time in Scotland – and Glasgow in particular – in order to get in touch with the culture of the place, and hopefully to understand myself a bit better in the process.

More to come…