The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular

homeHeaderTitleImage_en_USMy paper, “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular”, appears in the latest issue of International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen.

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

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

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

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Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

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

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

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

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

The conference website can be found at:

http://www.film-philosophy.com/conference/index.php/conf/F-P2014

Glasgow Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Glaswegian Nightlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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