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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Having a fifth

I suppose it is only what I deserve that, when I once again escaped from all my family responsibilities for a few days, and came to Dublin for the annual Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, that I was immediately confronted with, well, men having trouble facing up to their family responsibilities.

The first movie I saw upon arriving in Dublin was the Oscar-nominated Venus, about an elderly actor, played by the legendary Peter O’Toole. Since he is played by O’Toole, we can’t help but love the old fellow, even when he is angling to do all sorts of weird things to the great-niece of his best mate. As the story progresses, we learn that he deserted his wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, when they had three children under the age of six. Lovely chap. Made me feel like running back to the car and heading straight home.

Maybe the next movie will make me feel less guilty about deserting my wife and child, I thought. That one was Ed Burns’s serio-comedy The Groomsmen. Whereas O’Toole’s character was nearing the end of his life, the one played by Burns was just starting his familial life. Well, actually, he had already started it. He had the house and the woman and a child on the way. Now, they were just getting around to the business of the wedding. Strangely, that seems to be the trickiest part. Burns’s character has all kinds of conflict about this final nail in the coffin of his youth. And his brother and cousin—two of the four titular groomsmen—aren’t doing much better. One has become a complete jerk and treats his wife miserably. The other has just broken up with a woman, who couldn’t deal with his obsessing over his baseball collection. Well, at least he wasn’t always leaving her and going off to film festivals.

Things didn’t get any better for the image of movie husbands on the second day of the festival. In David Cronenberg’s 1991 film Naked Lunch, the main character shoots his wife in the head while playing a drunken game of William Tell. And in The Painted Veil a bacteriologist, played by Edward Norton, deliberately brings his wife into the middle of a cholera epidemic in rural China.

So, I guess that confirms it. Since, being non-Catholic, I don’t get any of the guilt that seems to come with Lent, my own version is to feel guilty about going to the Jameson fest. Hopefully, this year won’t be as bad as four years ago when, while I was away in Dublin enjoying myself, lightning (sort of) struck our house, where I had left my wife and daughter on their own. But how could I miss it this year? This is the fifth year since the Dublin International Film Festival rose from the ashes of the old Dublin Film Festival. And who could resist a fifth of Jameson? (Ouch.)

Despite the guilt induced by the first two movies, I was compensated by two interesting Q&A sessions after the screenings. As seems typical for film festivals, each Q&A featured an interviewer and two guests. By convention, the two guests include the person everybody is really interested in seeing and hearing (usually an actor or director or, occasionally, both) and also a producer, whom nobody is particularly interested in and gets maybe one or two questions out of politeness. In the case of Venus, the actor guest was veteran English thespian Leslie Phillips, who plays Peter O’Toole’s best mate and the grand-uncle of the titular Venus. Phillips has had a long film career (dating from the late 1930s), appearing in well over a hundred movies, often playing aristocratic characters with noble titles. He corrected festival director Michael Dwyer, who thought that Venus was his first collaboration with O’Toole. In fact, Phillips reminded him, the two had both appeared in the 1991 John Goodman vehicle King Ralph. As always, interviewer Dwyer looked for an Irish connection, and he found it with The Other Eden, apparently the first movie to be made at Ardmore Studios, one of several filmed plays from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The constant search for Irish connections, however, got a bit strained when, after an extensive chat about Vanessa Redgrave and the Redgrave clan, Phillips seemed at first not to have heard of Redgrave’s son-in-law, Liam Neeson. “Oh. Liam Neeson. I’ve met him,” said Phillips very tentatively, after a bit of thought.

The Q&A after The Groomsmen was mainly with Ed Burns, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in it. Burns patiently endured some of the most convoluted questions from his interviewer (not sure who it was) and seemed to relish being featured at the festival’s Midweek Gala. Especially since the film, as Burns readily admitted, didn’t do very well when it was barely released in the U.S. last year. Burns talked about the trade-offs of maintaining control over his own films versus getting better financing in exchange for surrendering casting choices and script changes. The movie was made for $3 million and was shot in 25 days. He allowed that it was sometimes a relief to work simply as an actor on someone else’s movie. (He had a role in Saving Private Ryan and said he declined to give Steven Spielberg advice on camera positioning.) In response to a question from the audience about whether he would ever write or direct in genres other than his usual working class New York Irish-American slice-of-life pieces, he said that he had already bowed to movie business reality and that his next film (Purple Violets) would be a remake of Japanese hit man movie. But, he added, in his version, it would be about New York Irish-Americans. And in a later time period than Gangs of New York.

If guilt seems to be an eternal feature of my brief visits to the Dublin film festival, another one seems to be acts of provocation toward Irish nationalism. Last year Irish nationalists were provoked by a busload of elderly unionists driving down from the North for parade that was to be called Love Ulster. That resulted in a riot. This year the provocation may come from the English rugby team. This weekend England plays Ireland in a tournament called the Six Nations. That is nothing new. What is new is that, for the first time ever, an English team will be playing in a Dublin stadium called Croke Park. The history is kind of involved but, to make a long story short, Croke Park is under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association, whose raison d’être has always been to support indigenous Irish sports as opposed to foreign (i.e. British) ones. For many years, one could lose one’s GAA membership for playing a non-Irish sport like soccer (never mind that every country in the world also plays it) and, until a couple of weeks, no non-GAA sport was allowed to be played in Croke Park. To its credit, the majority of the GAA finally realized that it was time to enter the modern world, and Croke Park was opened to non-GAA sports. The barrier was broken a week ago last Sunday when France delivered a heartbreaking defeat to the local team in the Six Nations. Now, the English are coming. For some, that is provocation enough. But what has a lot of people uncomfortable (even many who otherwise are ready to move on) is the fact that protocol requires the anthems of the two competing countries to be played before the match. For many, the idea of “God Save the Queen” being played in Croker is just too much. After all, the stadium terrace known as Hill 16 was built literally from rubble of the Easter Rising. And it has been only 86 years since British police auxiliaries, in retaliation for the killing of 14 British intelligence officers by Michael Collins’s men, entered Croke Park during a Gaelic football match and killed 12 spectators and a player.

I don’t mean to make light of such tragic events that are still relatively fresh in people’s minds. But if Irish nationalists could hire a life coach, like Dr. Phil, he might tell them that, by letting the English get them so upset by doing no more than, well, being English, they are giving the English incredible power over themselves. If they truly respect themselves and their own country, they wouldn’t let other countries bother them—no matter what the history. Of course, that’s easier to say (especially for an outsider) than to do. So Sinn Féin will organize a protest march for the day of the match—just as they did last year on the occasion of Love Ulster. It’s all a bit like, well, an Irish interviewer looking crushed when a doddering old Englishman doesn’t seem to remember whom Liam Neeson is. (Hint: he’s the one who played Michael Collins in the movie.)

-S.L., 22 February 2007

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