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Irish Auteur

 

The Irish Auteur: Bob Quinn and Neil Jordan

Essay by Connal Parr

Contemporary Irish Cinema Research

Introduction ˜A most irrational place"


In an infamous speech to the Irish Labour conference in 1969 the late writer and politician Conor Cruise O'Brien made comments ˜to the effect that Ireland should close its diplomatic mission in Portugal and open one in Cuba instead". Unsurprisingly the remarks provoked sheer horror not just in his immediate audience but in most Irishmen and women of all political shades. Moral and religious condemnation was inevitably forthcoming. But he was not the only significant Irish figure to have viewed some nexus between Cuba and Ireland. Aside from the considerable number of references to the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Butcher Boy (1997), in a revealing 2005 interview the Irish director Neil Jordan sketched the kind of nation he grew up in and the subsequent engine of what many consider his most personal and impressive film:

The countrys changed beyond recognition from the place it was in the 1950s and
1960s. It was a most irrational place when I was a kid. Very much like The Butcher
Boy. Thats the most accurate portrait I can give of the Ireland I grew up in. People
talked about Khrushchev as if he were the corner boy around the next town. They
localize everything. Growing up in Ireland was like growing up in Cuba now. Very
much like growing up in an Eastern European country there was a very rigid social
system that seemed to have been there forever, that seemed to be unquestioned.

Bob Quinn felt O'Brien's controversial Section 31 legislation as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs both restricted and protected him. While the censorship tenets impinged on his work, through fear of Irish language-associated Sinn Féin (˜It is a statistical fact that members of the Republican movement tend, on balance, to speak Irish fluently" said one RTE producer), on the other hand the same 1976 legislation introduced measures to protect the RTE Authority or any of its members from being summarily dismissed by any minister without consulting both houses of the Oireachtas. Quinn acknowledges ˜I had reason to be grateful for that measure. He also found the country, if not like Cuba then certainly ˜most irrational" and this dynamic flows through his work. Along with his contemporaries Joe Comerford, and later Pat Murphy ˜who had started out in harder times" - he drew on ˜the dissonances and dislocations of modern Irish life to produce richly original and parodic interpretations. Quinn has been particularly keen to shatter the idea of Ireland as a homogenized Celtic mass, and generally shares Jordan's talent not just to spark debate but also to wind up sections of the media and Irish society and general.
This constitutes the terrain of this essay: the similarities and contradictions between two very different Irish Auteurs  Bob Quinn and Neil Jordan whose work ˜expresses a personal vision and view of the world through the detailed mis-en-scene, pursuing ˜certain themes, preoccupations and motifs that have recurred in subsequent films". Despite high-profile detractors of the auteur theory such as the screenwriter William Goldman, Lindsay Anderson wisely refined that the term did not suggest that these directors had actually written their films. It implied rather, or was concerned to reveal, a consistency of personality, of approach or of theme in the work of directors who had hitherto been undervalued or under-remarked, dismissed simply as artisans. Particular emphasis will be paid to what I consider to be Bob Quinn's most vital film Poi­tin (1977) and in Neil Jordan's case The Butcher Boy, though for the latter, better-known artist I will spread references to other works in his canon out to enhance the various points made. This is because, as film Producer Michael Algar notes:

In thirty years Neil has made 15 or 20 features, whereas in the same thirty years Bob
has made half a dozen. So Neil has had the opportunity to learn far more and of course
he was much younger to start with. And he's a writer turned filmmaker, where Bob is a
filmmaker turned filmmaker, and a television filmmaker turned independent.

Algar is correct to remind us of Jordan's background in literature with the collection A Night In Tunisia and Other Stories (1976) and his novel The Past (1980), intimating Jordan is really a writer who has got lost in the medium of film. Jordan is aware of the sense that ˜Ireland is a country with almost no cinematic tradition, but with a grotesquely rich literary one. Movies cost money, but words and fantasies are free. He has also spoken of how

"I was aware growing up in a country that had a huge literary tradition and no cinematic
tradition whatsoever. I suppose it's one of the reasons I found it so refreshing to make
films in the first place: there didn't seem to be any precedents here for that kind of
thing. There wasn't the overwhelming weight you get if you write...figures like Wilde,
Shaw, Yeats, O'Casey, Joyce, and Beckett they're quite large. In cinematic terms, its
like you had Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunel, and John Ford working in
the country at the same time. From my point of view, in film you had none of that.
Making films in a way was an escape from the weight of literature for me.

Jordan regularly reminds us that one of the reasons he shifted from literature to film was that Irish writing had gone over the same territory time and again. Bob Quinn's background is considerably different. Pat Murphy describes watching PoÃitin and other Quinn films for the first time, via prints in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as ˜a complete revelation because I thought there's something incredible building up there:

When I grew up in Ireland I didn't think there was such a thing as Irish cinema at all. I
guess there was exciting stuff going on that was coming out of RTE in the 60s and
Bob Quinn, although I didn't know it, would really have been a part of that. There was
an incredible, radical, and interesting group of people who were in RTE and I think the
sort of ground of Irish cinema, of that first wave of Irish cinema is actually rooted in
the connection with RTE. Bob Quinn worked as a producer in that time.

Bob Quinn himself took time out to outline his past:

I was lucky. I restarted filming in 1973, having abandoned RTE in 1969. The Station
would then accept anything from me because (a) I was trained by them and (b) I was
the only film maker outside the Pale and (c) I was occasionally inclined by my new
environment  Conamara - to use the Irish language in my films. I had it much easier
than Comerford, Black or Murphy. There were two opposed worlds emerging. The first
was freedom when we considered film as an art and a means of breaking through
establishment (e.g. Bord Failte) impersonations of reality. We worked on each others
films. The object was never profit except as a means of eating and drinking. The
second world grew up with Thatcher, Reagan and the Oirish version, the Progressive
Democrats, for whom everything was supposed to make a profit. That new insight
destroyed the concept of Public Service or any kind of idealism. It wanted film as a
profitable industry here rather than a means of saying anything useful.

A former chief executive of the old Irish Film Board confirms Quinn's subsequent trajectory:

He was filming with a crew - I think it was on Clare Island, off the West CoastBudawanny  and
he suddenly had a kind of epiphany and he thought To Hell with this and he just
bailed out and left the crew there, and went off to Connemara and proceeded to eke out
a living in this house that he had and gradually tried to develop a little kind of local
production industry like getting people to sponsor things and so-on, and he would also
organize screenings of films. He'd get up all the prints and he would screen them on
the gable wall of his house. Bob started trying to make almost like little newsreel clips.
He would kind of film the local community and then they would screen those films to
them and so-on, so it was like almost a local journalistic exercise, he would make these
little filmic exercises with local people and so-on and the culmination of all of that was
that he got the funding together and I think the Arts Council and probably some RTE
money to finally make this film called Poi­tin.


Poítin  & The Butcher Boy

Poitín was the first feature-length film to be produced in Gaelic and the desperation, despondency and motifs of human greed, unemployment and addiction  for the drunks read the junkies - of the material renders the film as one for our time. ˜Only for you and Michil we’d go dry’, the baseless chief village snoop Marcus (Tomás Ó Flátharta) swoons at Poítin-maker Michil (Cyril Cusack) and his daughter Máire (Mairéad Ní Chonghaile), before denouncing the unemployed agents Labhcás (Donal McCann) and Sleamhnán (Niall Tóíbin): ‘Dole and crack is all they’re good for’. A drunken but perceptive Tóíbin bawls in the pub that the town is ‘Dead! A dead place - for dead people!’ An ostensible viewing might class McCann and Tóíbin as the troublemakers getting loaded and tearing round the picturesque town as the problem, but a closer inspection reveals them more as victims of their environment, the final scenes revealing that the figure holding all the cards and the real terrorist is Cusack’s Michil. Even the semi-corrupt police – who sip the moonshine in their station (‘We can’t prove they had this on them’) - regard this character as 'cute' and give him a kind of respect for his illegal cunning, with a national deference for those with the money, property and boat.
When I put it to Quinn that the Cyril Cusack character of the Moonshiner hints at powerful, corrupt trickster Charlie Haughey and seems very much as of piece with someone of stature you would find in the Dáil after 1959, he replied:

You're on the ball about the Poitín-maker in the film. He was the real gombeen man,
the only real local industrialist, manufacturing Poitín. The two lads represented well
the desperation I encountered here in Conamara and which owed a lot to the insights of
the recent Civil Rights movement. Again the intention was to explode the pretty Paul
Henry myths of Conamara.

Pat Murphy concurs that

someone like that is invincible, how his intelligence is kind of invincible because he
has everybody sewn up. And the guys are never going to get to him. They’re kind of a
dispossessed male energy with nowhere to go, which a lot of young men – I don’t even
mean potentially delinquent or criminal young men – have. Where else is that energy to
go but to go to England?

Ruth Barton echoes this parlance in defining the main theme of The Butcher Boy as ‘the failure of all forms of authority to be either controlling or compassionate. What characterizes the community is its blanket inertia, one that will ultimately suffocate the only source of energy – Francie’s.’
While both films portray a backward world, Poítin in particular depicts a medieval society of peasants (Tóíbin, McCann) and kings (Cusack). The latter holds the two men in the palm of his hand through the substance and the power he wields in the village. Despite doing the village’s menial jobs the two central characters are brazenly despised within their own community and are generally dirt poor, sleeping in a car. Marcus suggests ‘They might go to England like all their kind’ to which the Michil’s daughter spits ‘They can’t go soon enough’. The options available to the men are emigration or death, and indeed Poítin confirms emigration as perhaps the vital lifeblood – in the vampiric sense – of Irish society, with its male population viciously urged to get out. By the end the two agents appear really as big kids (‘Go and do your wee wee’ Tóíbin says to McCann), like schoolboys when throwing spuds at each other and shielding themselves with bin-lids. While Tóíbin’s character is more intelligent and capable of insight, he is not as empathetic as McCann who is connected and obsessed with the dog (‘Has a dog a soul?’), illustrative of Quinn’s occasionally demented, often madcap humour. Pat Murphy believes Poítin ‘attacks a kind of hypocritical view of what the West of Ireland is about, which is about the landscape and simple folk leading simple lives’, and goes hand in hand with Quinn’s derision for the Pale:

He hates Dublin. I remember having a big argument with him in the early-80s because
I was saying that this whole opposition – Dublin and the West - is really 19th century,
you know it’s the thing about Yeats thinking that the true Ireland is there, in
Connemara, and I said the reason it’s all wrong is that the true future of Ireland is the
North/South axis - it’s not East/West. So we used to have these arguments about that.

Murphy is correct to identify Quinn’s antipathy for Dublin, which he has called ‘that Taiwan of international features where, as Roger Doyle said to me, they don’t make films, only career moves’. By contrast Neil Jordan’s work is undoubtedly more concerned with the North/South axis, as well as being more favourable to modernity in general.
Initially withdrawn and scornful of analysis of his work (dismissing Poitín as little more than ‘a simple anti-romantic film with fine actors and a tough story’) Quinn expanded later that the film

was made purely to show we didn't need the old-fashioned Boorman/Smith steadicam
studio concept - you'd think John Cassavetes or the French Cinema never existed - to
make decent films. Poítin was pared down to nothing – no makeup, no costume design,
no music as such. Just a brilliant and tough cameraman (S. Deasy) and sound man
(Brendan) a trio of fine actors plus a magnificent cast of local actors and a wife who
worked like a slave to make it happen. The language was authentic - very important.

Poítin ‘upends stereotypes of the Irish landscape’ with its ‘philosophy of indigenous filmmaking’, and McCann’s primeval howl at the end is Bob Quinn’s ultimate wail at Irish cinema. The piece is framed and structured as a folk tale or fable, allowing in some way for the bleakness that follows. Rapping at the door in the morning Cusack enquires who is calling: ‘Your servants’ the elfin Tóíbin sneers sardonically. Even his failed rape of the pedlar’s daughter highlights their impotency; a reflection on the two men in general and their human status, close to that of the film’s dog whose fate they end up sharing at the end of a rope (‘Get your dirty paws off !’ Maire upbraids at the beginning). Anthony Slide, in a book surveying Irish cinema, found Poítin so ‘brutal and at times unpleasant’ that he felt compelled to comment on ‘a new breed of filmmaker very much alive and well in the Republic of Ireland. He (and she) owes nothing to the Ireland of John Ford or Celtic romanticism’ presenting instead ‘an image of the country that is both realistic and honest. The myth has been forgotten. The reality is all that matters’. Quinn must have been delighted.
If dogs are the natural symbol of Poítin then pigs are The Butcher Boy’s. Some feel the film is Jordan’s zenith and the most visionary of his works. Perhaps the most vivid scene is when the townsfolk are moving their furniture and carrying statues of the Virgin Mary around in the rain, a powerful image and the kind of drab tackiness that many thought they would never see being reflected in an Irish film. It is certainly Jordan’s most political film and the fiercest denunciation of repressive, conservative Catholicism and it’s effect on Ireland, in Colin McCabe’s phrase: ‘a society in which everyone and his brother was best friends with Michael Collins or Eamon de Valera and where the bitter Irish Civil War of 1922-23 was both perpetually remembered and completely forgotten.’ This is the society of The Butcher Boy. Language, as ever,

was crucial. This was to be a film shot in the accents of Monaghan and all the actors
who were not native speakers went to considerable trouble to master this tongue, which
is neither Dublin drawl nor Belfast rasp. Stephen Rea, for example, was to spend two
days with McCabe making sure he could get the inflections right and indeed Benny
Brady and Francie’s voice-over in the film sound very similar to Patrick McCabe.


Music and Sound – ‘You could almost transpose the whole lyrics over to Ireland’

Jim Sheridan’s ‘lasting memory’ of Jordan – who was a contemporary of his at UCD - was ‘of him in the middle of the water with the sax over his head’ at Burrow Beach on Dublin’s north side following a theatrical performance on a beach when a posse of kids began lobbing sand at the instrument. Popular song titles have of course constituted the title of many Neil Jordan pictures: The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and Breakfast On Pluto, while The Butcher Boy (another song title) opens with a musical version of Mack the Knife, establishing the hidden menace and bizarre doom of the film as well as the significance of music to Jordan’s oeuvre. Angel (1982) was originally ‘conceived as a musical’ minus the political theme and Jordan compares the Irish to the African-American experience with the playing of Billy Holiday/Lewis Allan song Strange Fruit about the lynching of blacks in the Deep South (‘You could almost transpose the whole lyrics over to Ireland’). The second time Strange Fruit is sung is to a roomful of the insane in a mental institution. Angel’s detective Bonner (Donal McCann) says once you take up the gun ‘you only have the one tune’ as the music is substituted for violence. Jordan also uses music ironically, such as the strains of The Quiet Man playing out in the fantasy sequence representing the inception of Kitten (Cillian Murphy). Then there is Jordan’s frequent, occasionally political casting of musicians such as Sinead O’Connor – most famous in the US for tearing up a picture of the Pope on prime-time television in 1992 - as the Virgin Mary in The Butcher Boy, as well as Brian Ferry and Gavin Friday in Breakfast on Pluto (2005).
Music, or more specifically the sound of the language, is just as fundamental to Bob Quinn. He confirms: ‘The language is the most important aspect of Poitín in that the sound track of a film is more important to me than pretty pictures’, and sonically the patois has an Easter-European quality of Polish and Romanian voices now heard in the modern Republic. McLoone argues his ‘commitment to the Irish language...is not just the repository of a long and radical tradition in Ireland but also the most effective bulwark against being subsumed into an Anglo-American cultural universe’. Quinn has observed how

the bilingual people of South Conamara who actually knew the US and the UK
intimately, whose sweat had built those faraway places, were nearer to Boston than
Dublin before Thatcher or her Irish gauleiters Harney, MacDowell and McCreevy were
spawned. They and their fluent language were a tangible challenge. If we couldn’t
include them – on their terms! – in our weltanschauung, what chance had Travellers,
American Indians or black babies in our scheme of things?


Technique and Practices – ‘You wouldn’t do that to an American actor’

Neil Jordan’s sets are notoriously uncomfortable places for the crew. When asked of the difficulties of working on a Jordan set Paul Barnes, a 2nd unit Director who worked on Michael Collins (1996), assures anyone who will listen: ‘I could tell you some stories.’ Furthermore the actor Ian McElhinney, who plays the Belfast detective incinerated in a car virtually on arrival in the same film, suggests Jordan pointedly manufactures an awkward atmosphere on set which he feels is conducive to creativity and getting the best out of his team, almost as part of his technique (and in contrast to Jim Sheridan, who he has also worked with). Pat Murphy identifies this as a method ‘to unbalance people, to make people wrong-foot it slightly, and the notion is that kind of tension produces a certain kind of creativity and they want that’. In fact Jordan’s mentor John Boorman was initially ‘doubtful he would make a director’ as he ‘was inarticulate, guarded, tense. People were careful in his presence, wary’. Jordan ‘found it painful to conduct the ordinary exchanges of everyday life. It was more than shyness, it was a kind of anguish, a dysfunction.’ This seems to be corroborated by a story, again from the Collins shoot, when Alan Rickman, who portrayed de Valera, arrived to play his first scene in front of a crowd of six thousand. Rickman objected to this being his first filmed scene but pulled out the stops over two takes. Jordan describes going ‘to his trailer to tell him how great he was. He glares at me balefully and says: You wouldn’t do that to an American actor.’
This would also appear to be countenanced by Jordan’s choice of Stephen Rea as his principal actor, who many feel reflects Jordan’s uneasy and spiky persona. Boorman has revealed he tried to convince Jordan to cast a young Liam Neeson in Angel, but Jordan persisted with Rea, admitting to always finding ‘him inexplicably moving, in whatever part he plays. He serves it. He makes you feel thoughts, on the screen.’ Rea meanwhile affirms ‘He doesn’t have to tell me too much. I believe that acting is about getting out of the way of the material, not imposing yourself between the material and the people receiving it.’ To some extent Jordan has been vindicated by the acclaim and success of the films he has made with Rea – in particular The Crying Game – who is in any case one of Ireland’s greatest living actors as one of the founders of the Field Day theatre group. It is also worth mentioning a dissenting viewpoint. Stuart Graham recalls:

I had a very positive experience working with Neil. I remember before starting on
Michael Collins that a few people had talked to me about the difference between Neil’s
and, say, Jim Sheridan’s sets. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that while Jim’s
sets were quite organic in terms of the action evolving from the actors, Neil’s were
more regimented in terms of trying to tell the story with pre-designed shots. My
experience both on Collins and Butcher Boy was completely the opposite. I remember
very clearly an assassination scene on Collins that wasn’t working. As a young actor I
didn’t want to overstep the mark so said nothing and went and sat down. A few
moments later Neil sat down beside me and asked “Why isn’t this working?” I said that
I thought the scene just had a middle. No beginning, no end, just a middle. He thought
about this for a minute and then said, “Okay. Give me a beginning and an end”. Then
he walked off. On the next take we started the scene about ten seconds earlier in
“story” time and let it run about ten seconds longer. It meant a lot to me as an
inexperienced actor not just that he bothered asking my opinion about a problem, but
that he took the time later to come and thank me for fixing it.

Colin McCabe points out that Jordan’s ‘method of directing, which is to remind actor’s where they are in the story, seems particularly effective with novices’ such as Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game – who was nominated for an Academy Award - and of course Eamonn Owens as the eponymous Butcher Boy. And while Bob Quinn’s sets are a distinct counterpoint to Jordan’s (‘If there is any continuity on the trade they will work for modest fees and quite regularly give their services for nothing’), he is not averse to ‘playing games’ with his actors in order to achieve specific results, as exemplified by a story he relays from the filming of Budawanny (1987):

Once when Maggie (Fegan) forgot my stricture that there was to be no “acting” in this
minimalist film, I turned angrily on Donal (McCann) and accused himself of the sin.
As prearranged between us he stormed off the cottage set. I followed him and we
giggled outside. Maggie was perfect after that.

Michael Algar suggests ‘Bob doesn’t believe necessarily in finessing everything: he just wants to get on and do it’ and can be ‘a bull in a china shop. He’s not into, necessarily, any kind of subtlety and everything else – he knows what he’s trying to do and he just goes to do it.’ Visually, Pat Murphy does not discern any particular style or technique from one Quinn feature to the next, contrasting the documentary Vérité of The Family (1978) with Lament For Artur O’Leary (1975), but due to the constraints ‘necessity imposed on him’– such as the use of 16mm film and the small running-time (65 minutes) – it is hard not to see a distinctive muddy and grainy style in Bob Quinn’s most visceral work Poítin. Algar argues the obstacles ‘all suited his attitude’:

the immediacy of the cinema Vérité approach, well Bob was much more into that than
anybody else, that he wanted to get these images on film whatever it took, and he went
to enormous lengths to achieve that. He was determined – hell or high water – to get
these projects made. Now, he was more on one extreme. Joe Comerford was close but
not quite as radical in terms of desperation to get stuff made, and then, slightly going
the other way then Pat was more into ensuring that she had the money to get the stuff
done. I suspect Joe and Bob are closer in terms of ideology and the way they go about
trying to get projects made than any of the others. Bob is still out there, railing at the
wind, and trying to get his projects made.

Barton has noticed that Quinn’s ‘constrictive shooting style’ contributes to ‘his refusal to romanticize the West of Ireland’, and the man himself states ‘I don't remember any limitations imposed (except with the ITGWU) and if there were, I ignored them’.


The Crossroads at Wexford – ‘Self-imposed martyrdom’

The keynote meeting point between Bob Quinn and Neil Jordan was the tumultuous 3rd Celtic Film Festival in Wexford in 1982, where a screening of Jordan’s Angel was boycotted by other Irish filmmakers and industry workers and then-Minister of Finance Albert Reynolds shut down the National Film Studios of Ireland. Jordan’s mentor John Boorman clashed publicly with Quinn (who launched ‘a scathing attack’ on Boorman from the podium) and duly backed and promoted Jordan, firstly with the £100,000 loan from the nascent Irish Film Board and then with ‘a distribution deal for the commercial release’ of Angel. Boorman’s blessing of Jordan and spat with Quinn seems to have duly sent their careers along respective curves. Interestingly Boorman commented that his critics, who at the time erroneously accused him of diverting funds into his own pocket, were ‘malcontents and mad dogs. They are in love with martyrdom. After years of this self-imposed martyrdom, they are in a position to make films. Instead they complain.’ Quinn is now reticent on the subject (‘To go into the Wexford scene would require a long chapter. Enough to say it was a minor squabble in a larger ideological war’) but he clearly remembered enough to mischievously taunt several years ago, ‘might The Crying Game have travelled so far if the heroine hadn’t revealed her mickey?’ To the present day he retains some of the ‘martyrdom’ of Wexford. In reference to the current economic downturn he opines: ‘Poverty may be bad for the mortgage, but is good for the soul,’ and ‘All we lack is the courage not to want to be rich’.




Conclusion – ‘a more complete disguise’

If anything unites both Bob Quinn and Neil Jordan it is that both seek to unearth and promulgate original and diverse interpretations of Ireland. Quinn has written of how ‘timidity in the heart of me, long camouflaged by an abrasive shell, is emerging like an attic picture; the 23 years of wearing a protective Conamara cloak of resilience is peeling away and leaving me exposed to myself and inevitably to others,’ which chimes with Jordan’s admission that ‘I feel almost embarrassed by the sense of personal revelation. And don’t want to be questioned about it. And remember that I always felt that way. Maybe I took up making films to get a new suit, a more complete disguise.’ Poignantly both directors use their work as a veil, and while the ventures of the ever-prolific Jordan continue apace, as the coffin of the Celtic Tiger drifts across the water it may indeed seem that Bob Quinn is having the last laugh: ‘Personally I’m old enough to be encouraged by the general collapse of the madness - with the present welcome economic disaster, our souls may be cauterised back from the ludicrous fairyland we have inhabited for too long.’


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