Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Gaeltacht grand guignol

Two things wandered into my line of sight earlier this month, which made me appreciate the contributions made by Irish speakers to the world of film.

The first was a screening of the David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter on the Irish language television station TG4 (pronounced “tea gee car”). I feel a bit of a connection to that film because we can actually see a couple of the locations where footage was shot for it from the vantage point of the living room in The Missus’s house in the wilds of southwest Ireland. At least until the wall gets fixed. (Just kidding. There’s a window.) Now, this fact doesn’t make for nearly as strong a connection as I feel for The Quiet Man which, as I have noted before, was filmed in Mayo, very near where The Missus was born and raised and which, in its tale of an American wooing, wedding and taming a wild colleen in the west of Ireland, more or less echoes my own recent life. And, while The Missus isn’t exactly a redhead, our Little Munchkin does have flaming hair that would do Maureen O’Hara proud.

At the time that Ryan’s Daughter was released in 1970, I assumed that it was a hit and a classic simply because David Lean had directed it. After all, this man had made such immortal movies as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. And, if I personally found the film long, occasionally tedious and a bit overdone for its slight story, well, that must be because of my own ignorance. As it turned out, Ryan’s Daughter wasn’t completely successful (although it did get John Mills a supporting actor Oscar for playing the town idiot), and the experience was traumatic enough that Lean didn’t make another film for 14 years (his last one, A Passage to India). Still, the film had stuck in mind for years, and it was exciting when I discovered that I was spending extended periods of time within not many miles of where most of the movie was filmed. Seeing the film now has all sorts of new resonances since I can recognize scenery on County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula—not to mention having a somewhat better understanding of Irish history.

TG4’s screening of the film was followed, to my delight, by an Irish language documentary, with subtitles (thank goodness; my Irish is pretty much limited to the occasional sláinte during a drinking session), called Rosy Ryan’s Dowry, which told the story of the making of the movie from the point of view of the locals in and around Dingle. I hadn’t realized how much this movie had affected the standard of living in the area, directly because of the big studio money spent and over time by having the incidental effect of making Dingle a holiday destination for international travelers for years to come. What a culture shock it must have been for the people there, who would not have seen too many movies, to suddenly find themselves in the midst of a Hollywood outpost. The cultural barrier would have been magnified by the fact that the locals were not generally English speakers. A visitor to Dingle today, despite bilingual shop signs and road signs in Irish, could be forgiven for missing the fact that this is an Irish-speaking region. Lots of outsiders have flocked there and made the place more or less cosmopolitan. It is useful to be reminded that not very many years ago, this westernmost point of Europe must have seemed very isolated indeed. The biggest shock of the documentary: learning that the weather-worn village in the film, which The Missus and I both swore must have been some old abandoned village, perhaps on one of the Blasket Islands, was actually built from scratch for the film—and then torn down again afterwards.

The other thing that caught my eye, regarding the Irish language and film, was an article in the Culture magazine of The Sunday Times. The writer, Gerry McCarthy, did a great job of surveying the new wave of Irish language films, which generally are shorts and subsidized by the Irish government. If you have never been to Ireland, it would be easy to be unaware of the fact that there is an Irish language. Even if you have spent time in Ireland, it would be easy to believe that the Irish language (a variant of Gaelic) is dead or dying. And maybe it is. From a strictly linguistic point of view, the portents aren’t great for the language’s long-term survival. Still, the language has great significance politically. It represents authentic Irish-ness, as opposed to English, which is still more or less regarded as the language of a foreign colonial power. (Never mind that becoming an English speaking nation is one of the best things to ever happen to Ireland economically.) As McCarthy explains, for a century national leaders more or less told the Irish people that the Irish language was somehow genetically coded into their brains. “A generation of Irish language teachers acted on this belief,” he writes. “Rather than try to teach Irish like an ordinary language, they acted as if it were already buried deep inside their unfortunate pupils, waiting to be extracted by force.” Ouch.

There was a time when Irish language films would have been characterized by tales of rural poverty, simplicity and steadfast devotion to tradition. Somehow, in the hands of young filmmakers, Irish has become the language of a weird, Gothic sort of place. Kind of the way Washington state was portrayed in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. McCarthy speculates that the existence of a language other than English for these filmmakers to work with allows them more room to deviate from the mainstream and to be more subversive. Those of us who attended the recent Irish Reels Film & Video Festival Journal in Seattle certainly saw this trend in such strange films as Tubberware (a twisted look at cultural pollution), Limbo (an indictment of church insensitivity), Dillusc (an odd tale of spiritual pilgrims) and Caca Milis (a sordid story of a chance encounter on a train). This is just the tip of the iceberg. Particularly intriguing is something called The Dentist’s Daughter, about a town under the thumb (apparently literally) of a brutal dentist.

Will we ever see a full-length feature film in the Irish language? I don’t know how likely that is, but I for one would welcome it. In a way, the filmmakers working in Irish somehow manage to capture the true spirit of Ireland better than many of their colleagues working in English, who too often have their eye calculatedly placed on the international market and what it expects.

* * *

Allow me one last word on last week’s topic, which was the amazing revelation that George W. Bush is actually a huge fan of Austin Powers. (And, no, it’s not because he mistakenly thinks that “Austin Powers” is the name of a high-flying Texas energy company that contributed to his election campaign. At least I don’t think so.) One wonders if the president is aware that the second Austin Powers sequel is due out this summer and if he has already made plans to see it. Perhaps it will even be screened at the White House? The mind boggles. Even more boggling, however, is what the family values-oriented prez thinks of its title, Goldmember? An obvious takeoff of the classic James Bond flick Goldfinger, somehow I don’t think it refers to the dentally challenged British spy’s status with American Express.

-S.L., 25 April 2002

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