Poets at the Movies (Part 3): The Lunar Mice of My Generation
“In a word, the image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected as in a drop of water.”
—Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
SINCE I FIRST SAW Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999), my relationship to the film has hovered somewhere between the intensely personal and the deeply private. As strange as it is to admit, I’ve never been able to watch this film with another person in the room. Foolishly, I think Ratcatcher is my film. Which is to say, it doesn’t speak to me, it speaks for me. It’s that rare experience where an artwork upends one’s life and imagination so completely that it becomes the definition for art itself. I have particular admiration for the films of the Scottish writer/director because she belongs to my generation, those of us who came of age under the trickle-down thumb of the Reagan–Thatcher era. It’s completely unsettling, in the best possible way, to look to one’s peers for the same artistic inspiration one finds in the art of the past. The films of Lynne Ramsay, the music of Jason Molina, and the visual art of James Everett Stanley have all been touchstones in my life as a writer. But it’s Ramsay who stands out as a model for rejecting the trappings of convention and cultural pressure, for making impulse and instinct the twin gods of the artist.
Ratcatcher centers on a community living through a garbage strike in a Glasgow public housing tenement in the early 1970s. The narrative unfolds, primarily, from the point of view of James Gillespie, a junior high–aged boy who, during the first few minutes of the film, accidentally injures and drowns his friend Ryan Quinn in the nearby polluted canal. James runs away from Ryan in a fit of confusion and terror, and tells no one about the tragic accident.
For James and his community, the neighborhood during the strike is a sort of black hole where every aspect of life is pulled toward its mysterious center by an unrelenting gravity. Ramsay makes claustrophobia a virtual character by giving few visual cues to hint at a world beyond the tenement. No great city in the distance. No bit of geography to suggest an alternate reality. Along with the canal, ever-increasing piles of uncollected garbage bags are a visual refrain — some are bloated like roadkill, others torn open and spilling onto lawns, the street, and across walkways. Rachel Portman’s ethereal film score pins us in place with its repeating themes and lyrical minimalism. The sounds of muted piano strings accent Ramsay’s color palette (grays and drab earth tones punctuated by fleeting moments of brightness), creating the sense of a monochromatic existence. Ramsay’s films are concerned with those at the margins of society, yet she never relies on upstairs/downstairs motifs. In a Ramsayscape, neither place nor people are framed in terms of social otherness. As in a still photograph, a reality is formed and held in place, everything existing within the context of itself.
Ramsay knows what’s expected from working-class art: the physical world, hard labor, tough times, victims, and aggressors — in short, a haves-and-have-nots mode of linear storytelling strictly moored to the exterior and narrative. But Ramsay’s impulse isn’t to reduce or be reduced, it’s to expand and subvert. She rejects the stock-footage-of-the-mind that plagues so many artists who identify with a particular sense of class and place. In essence, Ramsay offers us no prepackaged narratives to hang our sympathies on. She doesn’t represent or politicize or summarize; she creates.
As someone whose imagination was completely formed by a particular working-class community and its ethos, I’m naturally drawn to art that holds up familiar sets of mirrors. When I started out as a poet, I found myself yo-yoing between an allegiance to the tangibly narrative and unexplainably elliptical. I was the go-between for two artificially and unnecessarily separated modes of expression. And it doesn’t take long to become utterly bored with artists who drift toward aesthetic partisanship. Among Ramsay’s gifts is her keen sense of the image, which ranges from the quotidian to the surreal. In doing so, she keeps us off balance, vulnerable, in a world reduced to a kind of poetry. And I’m not using the term “poetry” as an analog for the visually beautiful or sensuously elevated. Ramsay creates as a poet would, distilling the world to essential images that let us see things not as they are but as they mean. Let me illustrate using a few exemplary scenes from the film.
During the opening credits, Ryan Quinn twists himself up in the low-hanging curtains of his mother’s apartment. The curtains and Ryan’s body are partially out of frame, and the image is atmospheric to the point of becoming surreal. The tones and associations created by this image are contradictory: the sense of being trapped is tempered by a sense of domestic intimacy and childhood whimsy. Ryan is encased in both a death shroud and an image of impulse, play, and freedom. Ramsay’s audio overlay also creates multiple tones — though Ryan is shown twisting in slow motion, the film is awash in the real-time sounds of children playing outside, as well as by a droning, gray noise of one’s head underwater. In the hands of a less-capable director, this tonal layering would be lost and the resulting scene would become merely an obvious foreshadowing of Ryan’s death. The film speeds back up as Ryan’s mother delivers a reprimanding slap to the side of his head, scolding, “For God’s sake, look at the state of my curtain. Look at you.” We, too, are slapped back into the narrative. Ryan and his mother leave the frame, and the curtain untwists like a light-diffusing apparition. From its start, the film highlights one of Ramsay’s delicate touches as a director, her ability to craft images from the familiar world that act as two-way valves of character interiority and narrative exteriority.
I understand the impulse to engage in what the visual artist Dan Flavin chidingly referred to as “easy quickie look-a-like games,” stuffing individual artworks into readymade categories. It’s true that Ratcatcher can be defined as working-class art or Social Realism or Domestic Realism or Poetic Realism (see J.M. Tyree's postscript below), but it’s also true that erecting such scaffoldings denies the elemental impulsiveness of the film. There’s a leap of image-making midway through that propels Ratcatcher far from the nets of easy categorization: the flight of Snowball, a pet mouse belonging to Kenny, the developmentally delayed boy of James’s age who also lives in the tenement. A menacing group of teenage boys play a cruel game of keep-away with the mouse, tossing it back and forth, convincing Kenny that it can fly. The mouse is thrown to James, and Kenny asks, “Where’s it going to fly to, James?” The group tells James to “fucking kill it,” to “fling it against the wall.” James answers Kenny, “to the moon.” In the following scene, Kenny leans out of his second-story window with Snowball tied to a red helium balloon with the word “Kenny” on it. He releases the balloon to the wind. In the next scene, Snowball has just left Earth’s atmosphere. We then see what looks like grainy black-and-white news footage of mice teeming on the surface of the moon.
With this intrusion of the fantastical, Ramsay conflates the literal and metaphorical. What the viewer knows to be true in the narrative world is inarguable: Snowball didn’t float off to join a frolicking lunar colony of mice, he was swept away to his inventible, early death. Is the distance between life and death that short? Just one innocent shove into the canal, one release of a balloon? Is our fleeting existence tied to our place in the social food-chain? If so, can one find redemption and seek shelter in the inner life? Ramsay uses the image to question, contradict, and conflate. She never uses the image as a didactic funnel. Ratcatcher raises many questions and refuses to answer any of them. If we lean on Ramsay for commentary regarding adolescent cruelty, or if we want her to strum up neat definitions of home, family, and class, then this image certainly makes us lose our balance.
During the editing of Ratcatcher, Ramsay was encouraged to cut the lunar scene because it scrambles the film’s narrative continuity, its literalness. But Ramsay followed her impulse. It’s difficult to imagine Ratcatcher without this defining and unsettling leap, this moment of exposure to Ramsay’s film-logic, to a world of literal and figurative simultaneity. There are pressures (and at times financial incentives) to construct art under the right-angled framework of conventionality. Wouldn’t it be easier if there were an agreed-upon tragic death in a predetermined narrative that we could all point to as a way of collectively washing our hands? With this scene, it’s clear that Ramsay has loaded all of the lazy habits of artmaking and sentimentality onto a burning raft and sent them out to sea. Ramsay could have made a safe, albeit realistic and heartbreaking, sketch of modern working-class life. Instead, she builds a point of departure from such tropes. She invites us to take part in a collage of images that refuse to be neatly packaged or defined. And she impulsively leaps all the way to the moon.
What’s astounding is how Ramsay allows us to see the world of linear narrative fiction (where we have a strong foothold) while sending us adrift into her characters’ deepest inner landscapes. Ramsay respects the complexity of raw human experience by refusing to draw a line between the real and metaphorical — she makes us participants, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the lives of her characters. I’ve walked away from Ratcatcher with the gloomy sense that Ramsay is a pessimist (or perhaps even a nihilist), and I’ve also walked away with the suspicion that Ramsay is an optimist. For the most part, however, I’ve simply been crushed between the shores of those emotions, caught in the Ramsay-induced hinterland where tidy packaging and color-by-numbers catharsis just don’t exist. Nothing better illustrates this than the final scenes of the movie: James jumps into the canal, fully dressed, and drifts down to the bottom. He makes no effort to swim for the surface, and we are left to believe that he has drowned himself. Again: is this a literal suicide or a figurative image that represents James’s emotional state? Then, in what appears to be the final scene, James and his family are shown carrying their furniture, walking through a bright field of wheat toward a newly constructed housing development. The film fades to black with James looking directly into the camera, releasing a gentle, comforting smile. As the credits roll, however, the slow-motion shot of James drifting underwater returns to the screen. Some part of James and Ryan and the entire community has died in the canal, while something else lives and moves forward through all that swaying wheat.
Getting Away With It: On Lynne Ramsay
By J. M. Tyree
(A postscript in the form of a footnote, or, For a new New Wave)
One reason why I often enjoy talking about movies with poets more than with fiction writers is that poets aren’t so relentlessly zealous about adhering to conventional psychological realism. This peculiar pseudo-genre of contemporary fiction — which more accurately might be called Hollywood Realism — is neither particularly novel nor especially lifelike. Instead, it apes the conventions of characterization and plot development used in whatever genre of movie into which it hopes to be adapted. What’s worse, many fiction writers don’t even seem to recognize or acknowledge that they’re choosing to operate in these dingy and sad confines. It’s too bad that “literary” and “experimental” fiction got separated in the mall, but one can always read Anne Carson or Lydia Davis to inoculate oneself from the Realist Plague. Poets seem to genuinely enjoy novelty and even obscurity; on the whole they seem less eager to dismiss anything that is even the tiniest bit difficult to digest.
While Lynne Ramsay is already known as a “literary” film director — having adapted the books Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin, and having quit the production of The Lovely Bones, which she was supposed to direct but wanted to adapt against the grain of the novel — she also could be seen as a poet’s filmmaker. For one thing, Ramsay, perhaps more than almost any other contemporary director who has achieved a degree of popular success apart from David Lynch, can build a compelling narrative almost solely from images. Her films often remain in the memory as still photography from a kind of ongoing anti–fashion shoot, in which character is revealed by glimpses of visual information, then stitched together in collages or stanza-like progressions that might be described in terms of T.S. Eliot’s well-worn phrase about “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” In the opening moments of We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example, we see Tilda Swinton joyfully taking part in a sunlit European tomato festival; we’re not told where she went or what she did or what it meant to her, but we know that she will spend the rest of the film in Lionel Shriver’s caustic nightmare version of America as a place of emptiness and violence, regretting giving up her solitude. (Cue certain anxious and defensive American reviews of We Need to Talk about Kevin…)
Ramsay, particularly in Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, often seems to be riffing off of (and playfully subverting) a certain classic mode of filmmaking known as Poetic Realism. Typically the term is reserved for a particular set of French films made in the 1930s with somewhat similar themes and styles. The classical works of Poetic Realism — Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine and Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows, to name only two examples from 1938, both starring Jean Gabin — feature working-class characters, often antiheroes or star-crossed lovers mired in gritty and bleak atmospheres of doom. In this regard, Poetic Realism is considered a precursor to film noir, while also recalling the Naturalism of Zola (from whose 1890 novel La Bête Humaine had been adapted): life sometimes goes badly and free will is a bit of a cruel joke for those who are trapped by circumstance, especially those born without money. The stylistic side of these films — the poetic aspect of Poetic Realism — had to do with filming impressionistic or even surreal episodes that would reveal the inner states of the characters, using stylized cinematography to indicate these flights of fantasy. When it screened We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles suggested that Ramsay’s early films were contemporary examples of Poetic Realism. In an interview about Ratcatcher for The Criterion Collection, the director remarked:
I was very interested in doing something about where I came from […] there have been a lot of films about, you know, it’s kind of like “social realism,” some people would say, but I felt like there had never — or hardly — been kind of more poetic films from that kind of background.
While Ratcatcher updates some of the elements of Poetic Realism, Morvern Callar basically slices and dices them, and then purees them, and then smears the results in its viewers’ faces. (We Need to Talk About Kevin represents a full-on descent into the noir-est noir, while retaining the stunning fragmentary poetics of her earlier films, and recasting motherhood as a horror movie, as Mark Fisher noted in an insightful review for Film Quarterly.) Morvern Callar is, among other things, a witty joke at the expense of film history’s seemingly endless parade of punished women, a sort of noir-tinged feminist anti-noir. Its eponymous protagonist (played with remarkable subtlety by Samantha Morton) is a grocery store clerk living in the lower depths of Scottish chintz. Morvern wakes up after a binge next to the dead body of her boyfriend. He has killed himself at Christmas in their apartment, leaving behind a series of gifts (including a nice jacket, a lighter, and a mixtape) as well as an electronic copy of his novel, which he wants Morvern to send off to publishers. But his posthumous flourish doesn’t pan out as he intended. Morvern deletes his name and types in her own before submitting the manuscript, then dismembers his body in the bathtub (to the soundtrack of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking with You”), buries him on a deserted hillside, and then jets to the Costa de Sol with her best mate from work (Lanna, played by Kathleen McDermott), using the cash her boyfriend had set aside for his own funeral.
As everybody knows from watching Alfred Hitchcock movies, a young woman fleeing from controlling men into the unknown with a little bit of money always winds up in a swamp. Hollywood insists (for a long time, it insisted by quasi-legal obligation) that crime doesn’t pay. If Morvern’s boyfriend doesn’t come back from the grave, then some random meeting with a stranger on a train will end badly, without a shadow of doubt. But Morvern’s life turns out differently than it would “in the movies,” so to speak. After her single act of lunatic self-assertion, she seems strangely charmed. To the extent that anything at all happens to her, it’s either not that bad (a crazed car ride through the Spanish mountains to a village that is running a bull through some kind of procession), fairly innocuous (poolside flirtations, druggy club nights filmed in stunning trips of sight and sound), or downright lucky (fawning publishers turn up and offer her one £100,000 for “her” novel). The film’s grimly fiendish hilarity grows more and more droll with each non-event that unfolds in the shoddy yet metaphorically named “ApartHotel” in which Morvern and Lanna are staying. It’s a complete demolition act on Psycho’s Bates Motel in which, one senses, passive and harmless straight men can be used as recyclable Eurotrash.
Spoiler Alert: unlike the young women on the run in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1984) and Oliver Assayas’s Cold Water (1994), two other films in the same lineage as Ramsey’s, Morvern finishes the film alive. Whether she is alive and well is another story. Morvern’s rootless amorality and zombie drifting through all tomorrow’s parties may wind up becoming its own repetitive little pool of hell, a subtle problem posed but never solved by the film. But, on the other hand, the film seems to ask, why not? Why shouldn’t Morvern get to enjoy her days on earth? Just because she has no real money of her own, or because she has to cut up her boyfriend’s dead body and plagiarize his novel in order to escape to the beach? So what? Are we concerned for the state of her soul, for real? Do we see anybody suffering because of her crimes?
If Movern Callar is all about getting away with it, the film is doing the same thing as its protagonist, since it relies on its viewers to assume that some dark fatality awaits, one whose postponement becomes a joke at the expense of plotting, genre expectations, and, in a sense, the whole apparatus of storytelling as a series of dramatic episodes building upon one another in a rising action until a climactic moral decision-point is etc. etc. But since the results here feel so strangely lifelike and oddly dreamlike simultaneously, we’re left to reconsider whether realism, at least as it is conventionally defined, is really all that realistic.
In his 1955 essay “From Realism to Reality,” Alain Robbe-Grillet recalls visiting the ocean-side landscape of Brittany in order to attempt to recover a clear and distinct memory of how gulls looked when they were flying. “But from the first gull I saw, I understood my error,” he wrote.
The only gulls that mattered to me at that moment were those that were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany, but they had been transformed, becoming at the same time somehow more real because they were now imaginary.
Lynne Ramsay reveals the gulls inside her characters’ heads, the real altered by the imaginary, almost always with disquieting results. This project aligns her with the Poetic Realists more than the radical experiments of Robbe-Grillet, but perhaps all of them might be aligned against the saccharine dispensers, against conventional fiction, and in favor of new kinds of openness towards projects, narratives, and image-making, whether in cinema, fiction, or poetry. Perhaps, as David Markson once remarked, we are looking not only for a good story but also for “a good read.”
J.M. Tyree’s most recent book is BFI Film Classics: Salesman. His work on cinema and culture has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Film Quarterly, Sight & Sound magazine’s Greatest Films Poll, and on The Organist, the podcast of The Believer magazine and KCRW Los Angeles.
Michael McGriff’s books include Home Burial, Dismantling the Hills, To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry and Translations of David Wevill, and a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. He is the founding editor of Tavern Books.
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