22 November 2006

Nichola Bruce's
I could read the sky
painting memory on the screen

This film is from 1999 – but I didn’t discover it until recently. It’s one of the most astonishing cinematic works I’ve ever encountered – director Nichola Bruce has accomplished something for which most filmmakers strive but never achieve: an artistic representation of the workings of memory, played out on the screen.

The premise of the film seems simple – an elderly man (portrayed by the great Irish writer Dermot Healy), born in rural Ireland, has lived most of his adult life in England as a laborer. Retired, living in a small apartment on a pension, he comes to the understanding that he cannot prevent his memories from washing over his consciousness – so he gives in, allowing them to take him back through the days of his life, accompanied by all of the emotions one would expect: feelings of loss, loneliness, good times and bad, love, grief and more. The trick when attempting to make a film such as this is to find a way to depict the way memories come to us – not as a film played out in our head, which is how they’re too often rendered, but in the waves of awareness that roll into and out of view in our mind’s eye. Nichola Bruce utilizes a multi-layered technique – both in visual images and sound design – to bring this process to life. To my eye, ear and mind, she’s done it with amazing success.

Because memory is an experience with myriad components, Bruce and her able crew have taken multiple images – sometimes as many as five or six, it appears – and overlaid them, applying varying degrees of transparency to each, in such a way as the standard linear view is replaced by one which is more like what we experience when we remember a time or event. When our mind travels backward to recall something from our past – whether we consciously single out an event, or it comes to us seemingly of its own accord – we remember it in bits and pieces: the feel of the sun on our shoulders, the scent of the grass beneath our feet, the sounds as well as the sights, the emotions we felt at the time. All of these things join together to make the memory whole, to allow us to come as close as possible to actually reliving the moment.

When the old man goes over events in his past, it’s in a stream-of-consciousness monologue – sometimes it becomes more conversational, as he addresses not only people in his memory, speaking to them as if they were in the room with him, but the camera itself, and through it, the viewer, effectively drawing each of us into his story, into his life. When he speaks of the farm on which he was born and raised, images of the Irish countryside, its hills, streams and fields, merge and flow into one another, leading to a view of a small, humble house set with its back to a hill, then inside to the warmth of a room filled with family, friends and music, warmed by a fire and whisky, alive with song, dancing and laughter – a moment later, the scene grows more reflective: a closeup of a hand exploring, almost caressing the edge of a table, with a single male voice softly singing a Gaelic ballad.

Through the course of the film – an incredibly rich 86 minutes – we learn about the old man leaving his home as a young man to come to England for work. He labors hard, taking mostly construction jobs – work that wears a man out early in life. He falls in with old friends who have emigrated years before, part of a large Irish laboring community in Britain – he travels the country with them, following the available work, sending money home and soothing the pain of his loneliness with music and drink and companionship. The great Irish actor Stephen Rea offers up a wonderful performance as the old man's friend PJ.

Healy's character returns to Ireland twice – once to bury his father and once to bury his mother. He meets an Irish girl in England, courts and marries her – and in his love for her he sees a chance to have the happiness that he thought would always be denied him – but this joy too is short-lived. He works until he cannot work any more, then retires on what little pension is available to him to pass his days as tolerably as possible and ruminate on the meaning of his life’s experiences.

Dermot Healy is absolutely perfect in his role as the old man – more amazing in the light of it being his first work as an actor (a fact that he reveals in one of the many ‘extra item’ interviews included on this disc). This is a part that is full of subtlety and nuance – one that would compel any actor to walk that ‘fine line’ between drama and naturalism, a tightrope from which many have fallen. In once scene, the old man recalls a fight he had with a carnival boxer called ‘Tornado’ – one of those tent matches where the amateur pays a fee to go three rounds with the boxer, standing to win more if he prevails (which of course rarely happens). Healy improvised this scene, shadowboxing with himself in the tiny apartment, giving a blow-by-blow description of the bout, excitedly at first, growing more somber and quiet when recounting being knocked out by the boxer, observing ‘strange that it didn’t hurt…’

Another element that makes this project so effective is the sound design and music. Like the visual components, the audio is layered carefully to enhance the feeling of memory washing over us in waves. The music is stunning, composed and assembled by Iarla Ó Lionáird of the group Afro-Celt Sound System. Bruce approached him about providing some music for the film, but as he began working on the project, he asked to do the entire soundtrack – a contribution that greatly adds to the film’s effectiveness.

The film is based on a book of the same title, comprised of photographs by Steve Pyke and text by Timothy O’Grady, which was received with wide critical acclaim on publication. Nichola Bruce admired the book and saw the cinematic possibilities – and obvious challenges – it offered, and worked closely with Pyke and O’Grady throughout the process of transferring their work to the screen. Her previous work had been with documentaries, shorts and music videos (she directed Peter Gabriel’s Play full-length concert video, for example) – after seeing I could read the sky, I sincerely hope that she finds more dramatic / narrative projects to address in the future. Some might say that this film is a case of every element falling together perfectly in a one-time chance occurrence – but I tend to believe that it happened largely due to her talent and perseverance, and the vision of the work shared by herself and her crew.

It’s a shame this film isn’t available in a region 1 DVD (North American format) – I don’t think it’s even been released on VHS in this country. Being seven years old at this writing, it’s something that won’t be cropping up at independent theatres in the US unless there’s a local demand for it. It’s an incredible piece of work – one that will find its way further into the deepest emotional recesses of the viewer with each experience.

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