Glorious Ireland. A Short Visit

SO, MAINLY IT rained; dull, light-absorbing veils of fine, misty rain that would occasionally belch a heavier downpour, spritzing any hope for a glorious view. It was as though the entire world had turned glaucomic. Then again, this was Ireland. And this was late September.
You takes what you gets!

And then, occasionally, announcing the ‘better’ days to come with an unexpected glare of what could be Nabokov’s “brief crack of light”, the curtains would part, and a glorious, glowingly green world of rolling pastures, calm unhurried ports and lolling cows would reveal itself to skeptical eyes. It is not the green of vernal English pastures; this is a green undercoated with bright photons of yellow and blue. The result is a singular kind of luminescence…Irish emerald.

Kinsale, our first stop, is a small pretty village that embraces a crowded armada of yachts. Too small to boast its own cinema (yikes). But large enough for the three book-jammed bookshops and a full blown literary festival. This presence of a literary love spilling out into the hurly-burly of everyday life was something we came to recognize (appreciate?) as quintessentially Irish. All that and a belly-full of tempting restaurants would deny any categorization that Kinsale is a mere tourist seaside resort. (Though from the vantage point of our holiday villa felt it very much like that)

Cinema lacking, notwithstanding, the place is rich in history. Created in 1223, it’s the site of a famous battle (of Kinsale) in 1601. Here, a mongrel army of Spanish and Irish soldiers were defeated by the English. The Spanish went back home to their tapas. And the old Gaelic culture of Ireland died on the battlefield.

But this would not be the first attempt of the Irish to wrest themselves free from their colonizers. Four hundred years later (in 1921) after sporadic battles and never giving in to the English yoke, Ireland was partitioned and became an independent republic.

Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone and mythical heart of Irish eloquence, is not far away. It’s a stunning castle hewn out of a mountain rising into a cloudy sky, framed by a necklace of blossoming flowerbeds and undulating brooks. If you’re prepared to queue for an hour and hang upside down suspended by belts, you can kiss the stone. You don’t need to. Get in to any taxi and experience the ongoing one person stand up (or sit down) routines of endlessly engaging storytellers.

Pubs, penance and palaver. Ireland in four words.

Of the surrounding towns, Clonakilty, birthplace of Michael Collins (commander in chief of the Irish Free State movement) is a pleasant, if forgettable market town. It does have one grand claim to fame though: it’s the home of world famous (they claim) Clonakilty black pudding…which certainly deserves its fame.

It is the even smaller town nearby – Timoleague – that’s more interesting. Here, legend has it, beekeeping and honey had its beginnings in Ireland. But more dramatically, this is the location of the grand, dark, ruined majesty of Timoleague Abbey. Founded in 1240 by Franciscan monks, by 1620, it was a centre of European learning; a hub of visiting philosophers. Twenty years later, Cromwellian soldiers – a rapacious nasty lot – sacked it and burned it down.
It’s not only ignorant ISIS jihadists who, fearing knowledge seek to destroy history.

The centre of the attractive city of Cork, famed for its rebels and its harbour, boasts a magnificent airy local marketplace on one side (the English market) and a fascinating art museum/opera house/theatre on the other. Food and culture. They represent one dimension of the city. But the web of stores that knit these two places together – Boots, WH Smith, Next, Top Shop, Fat Face, Starbucks, H&M etc – are another dimension; they suggest that a hundred years after the victory for independence, England and global businesses have once again colononized the place.

For all it’s attractive architecture (and there’s a gasp inducing cathedral – St. Fin Barre’s – at the far end of town) the heart of the city looks just like any other town made faceless by globalization. It is the little cobbled back streets that give it its soul.
Cork seems poised between a little city that could and a little city that could have been.

The graceful river that threads its way through the town (with the wonderful name, the Lee) is not embraced by the city; it seems more a problem to be overcome (build bridges) than an asset to be celebrated (build boardwalks). But follow it Eastward and the girdles that hem it in soon loosen and at Cobh (pronounced Cove), the river exhales into an expanse of cold clear water flowing toward the sea. It was from here that the Titanic set sail; as did almost three million citizens, bound (mostly unwillingly) for brave new worlds.

It’s a pretty little town easily reached by a short train ride.

After all those martial shadows, nice to arrive at this elegant, humming city of literature. Dublin (from the Viking, “Dyfflin”) is birthplace to Yates, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Goldsmith, Stoker, Swift, O’Keefe, Sheridan. Oh, and Bono too. An entire Eng. Lit. 101 born in a single city. The place simply reeks of culture. It must be the water…and the way they distill it here with hops and barley.

No wonder the city revels in its literary traditions. There are statues, an entire museum dedicated to its writers, murals, landmarks and, it seems, daily celebrations of its gorgeous, mellifluous reinvention of English. How nice it is to bump into a statue of Joyce and not some obscure slave-owning colonial overlord. Trinity College Dublin boasts a library that holds over 200,000 rare manuscripts including the famous Book of Kells, an illustrated bible that dates back to 800ACE. A limited edition copy is yours for a mere £22,000.

This pub-dense city is split down the middle by the River Liffey.

Each side of the divide considers their side best. The choice seems to be between the style and erudition of the South v the polyglot proletarian energy of the North. The genteel v the gritty. Of course, in this island, there are more profound North/South divides. But we won’t go there.

And, to us wandering strangers, apart from the liveliness of the touristy Temple District, there are two landmarks that seem to visualize the South: The rarefied academia of Trinity College Dublin, founded by Elizabeth I (and resolutely Protestant since then) and the hallowed Guinness brewery (attested here by this delightful park: one of the man public spaces donated and created by the Guinness Foundation), an alcoholic shrine to the black stuff

The North felt like a place of transformations: a marsh turned into a village, a church turned into a pub, a maternity hospital turned into a cinema, a cinema turned into a McDonalds, a Street turned into a boulevard…

and best of all for both North and South, a colony turned into a Republic.






HERE’S ANOTHER coming of age drama; this one with the added trendy frisson of SSA (same-set attraction) to give it “edge”. Set in the 90’s, Chloe Grace Moretz is the eponymous Cameron Post, a quietly rebellious teenager, whose lesbian relationship with a fellow schoolmate is unmasked by her (male) Prom night date when he comes upon them making out. It’s a nice touch that this inversion of (the then) accepted code of heterosexual attraction would occur during the very night meant to underscore American coupling: the bizarre tribal mating ritual of Prom Night.

Cameron is promptly dispatched by her troubled aunt (For some reason that really has no relevant reason, Cameron’s parents are both dead) to God’s Promise. This is a place of Christian fellowship where the aim – of its brother/sister team (John Gallagher Jr and Jennie Ehle) – is to forcefully pray away the gay of its small group of troubled teens. These spiritual leaders are really a stand-in for the mores of the broader society that, based upon the scriptures, has deemed homosexuality a sin (like murder).

What the movie never interrogates is the extent of their honesty or cynicism. What it does make clear, is that sexual choice is an integral part of who we are. We exist as sexual beings. So any attempt to deny this, to change it, is an inevitably doomed enterprise. The teens at God’s Promise (all seen through the prism of their sexual “deviance”) are faced with the stark choice of self-loathing (and in one case, traumatic self-harm) pretense or rebellion. But in the end, no amount of self-righteous bullying or piously mouthed prayers will contain natural desire. We all need the freedom to be who we are (duh!)

The movie certainly offers enough flashes of shouty self-hate drama to give an impression of real people in the throes of identity loss and confusion. But essentially the narrative arc of the movie goes nowhere very slowly. Cameron morphs from gay teen to…gay teen, during which time her expression changes from pouty rebel to… pouty rebel.

Chloe Grace Moretz has masses of on-screen presence. We want to be on her side. But that’s it. (Compare her one note performance with the magnificently moving one by the young Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted). Ms Moretz lacks the nuanced ability to take us into her internal drama. The result is a movie that feels curiously flat.

Gay conversion is as laughably as it is frighteningly absurd. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post has nothing new – no new insights, no new ways of seeing – to add to our understanding (and collective liberal rage). It merely confirms what “we” already knew. It’s a movie smugly happy to have a conversation with itself.

(That said, the Miseducation of Cameron Post this is one of those rare movies driven by a strong cadre of outstanding women: director, writer, editor, cinematographer, art director, costumer director etc. A small crack in the Hollywood glass ceiling)


THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. Dir: Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior).. With: Chloe Grace Moretz (The Equalizer), Sasha Lane (American Honey), John Gallagher Jr (TV: The Newsroom), Jennifer Ehle (TV: The Looming Tower). Writers (from the novel by Emily Danforth): desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behavior). Cinematograher: Ashley Connor (First Match). Composer: Julian Wass (Tangerine)


AMERICAN ANIMALS*****Outstanding

FROM THE GET go, the movie asserts that it isn’t “based on a true event”, it is true. And by such an assertion, the outstanding American Animals immediately taps in to the zeitgeist of the moment: just what is truth? Who gets to define it?

Certainly the events – the sad story of what unfolded – are “true”…at least real. But the memories of these events, filtered by time and distortion and the collective amnesia of panic, make for other layers of truth and lies and fuzzy ambiguities.
The facts are straightforward: four naive college students (played by Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan and Jared Abrahamson) hit upon the dumb idea of stealing a number of rare books (First edition Audubons, Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” etc) from their college library. To them, this isn’t grand larceny, it’s a heist that they’ll pull off with the easy panache of Danny Ocean and his Eleven. It’s their romantic idea of self-transformation…of creating identities that’ll lift them away from the sea of human sameness they see around them.

And thereby hangs a tale.

The entire collective experience of this group of kids in how to pull off the job is gleaned from heist movies and Youtube. There’s no real getaway plan, other than someone’s mom’s station wagon; there’s no thought-through means of “fencing” the stolen loot, or, for that matter, how to (harmlessly) incapacitate the librarian in charge (the wonderful Ann Dowd from The Handmaid’s Tale). Their big idea is to disguise themselves as old men (based on the -true- insight that nobody notices old people).

But as their juvenile plans morph into realities; as their feeble attempts to back away (to not “cross the line”) crumble under the inertia of events set in motion, the personal identities they’d hoped to construct for themselves degenerate into their public identities…as losers, criminals and jailbirds.

Slick heist turns into comic caper and ends in bathos.

Director/writer British BAFTA winner Bart Layton structures his brilliant narrative about truth, memory, identity and time by interspersing the drama of the action with interviews with the real persons involved. Now, ten years after the event, their personalities and memories reshaped by the passing time, they look back at who they once were with rueful sadness.How could they have done such a stupid thing? It’s the question their parents, teachers, others ask throughout the film.

The answer, director Layton suggests (and my reading of the meta narrative) lies in his critique of existentialism. Four young men are determined not to let their societies’ expectations program their futures and bury their individualities. Their need, as with every person at that cusp of adulthood, is to make an identity based on personal desires and ambition, not the desires and ambitions of parents and peers…To find “being” in “nothingness”.

These four fulfill the existentialists’ ideal of becoming true and unique individuals. They also end up in jail. They end up needing to remake themselves, chastened and shorn of the fiction of their existentialist imaginations.

Sadly, truth will out.

The style of the movie, as befits a director who cut his teeth with documentary style video journalism almost feels like a docu-drama. There’s an un-showey, often deliberately down beat naturalism that gives the drama a compelling energy. It’s a clever style that encourages the feeling of “truth”, its central theme.

There’s another fascinating layer to this richly intelligent film. As things begin to come crashing down, these dumb-ass kids, so propelled by the adrenaline of the moment…living in the now…suddenly become aware of the banal reality, not the glorious dream of “what the future holds” for them. Their naive attempts to craft who they are, run smack into the realization of what they’ll become. The present collapses at the idea of the future.

The interviews with the “real” characters (narratively) exist in the present…as they reflect on the past. In its insights into the nurturing and formation of identity – our sense of self – the film plays on the link between identity and time. The past of course no longer exists. It “exists” only through the filter of memory, which Layton shows as an untrustworthy guide, yielding many “pasts”. But since identity (who we are now in the present) is the cumulative impact of these untrustworthy memories and the unknowable future, identity remains ever elusive and unknowable.

The movie ends with a kind of truth: the synopses of what the four men do now: write, paint, teach, go back to college. It’s their way of remaking themselves; of making a lie to a past that labeled them criminals. But, criminal or painter? Criminal or writer? Who really are they? Can we ever really know the “truth” of a person? Is a person’s identity static, or are we all ever-evolving Darwinian animals?

Only time will tell.


AMERICAN ANIMALS. Dir/Writer: Bart Layton (The Impostor). With: Evan Peters (X-Men, Apocalypse), Blake Jenner (Billy Boy), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared Abrahamson (TV: Travelers). Ann Dowd. Cinematographer: Ole Bratt Birkeland (TV: The Crown). Composer: Anne Nikitin (Calibre)