Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 7pm
Bill Douglas Trilogy
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
My Childhood, Bill Douglas, 16mm, 1972, 46 mins
My Ain Folk, Bill Douglas, 16mm, 1973, 55 mins
My Way Home, Bill Douglas, 16mm, 1978, 71 mins
Scotland, as seen in Bill Douglas's formidable cycle of films, My Childhood, My Ain Folk, and My Way Home, is bleak, hard, and colorless. "Old Europe" indeed, unvarnished and looking its age; a world of hollow winds, cruel families, and cold facts. The filmmaker shot the trilogy in his hometown of Newcraighall, a miners’ village on the fringe of Edinburgh, and used local residents for the roles. For the main character of Jamie, who suffers through a life of biting poverty and familial abandonment based closely on Douglas's own, he cast Stephen Archibald, a preteen delinquent who had asked him for a cigarette at a bus stop. Over the course of the three films, as Jamie emerges from a resilient adolescence into a more uncertain, fragile manhood, we watch Archibald grow, too. He offers us a tight-lipped performance that quavers on the brink of documentary.
Douglas was an illegitimate child, born during the Depression, whose mother was forced into a mental asylum. He was later raised by a stern, abusive grandmother. These elements remain in the trilogy, transposed onto Jamie’s story, though other details, like the tender, fatherly friendship of a German POW, were invented. One might wonder if Douglas, too, felt anything paternal, watching Archibald develop as he relived scenes from the older man’s childhood.
Douglas's withholding style could be likened to that of Robert Bresson or Charles Burnett, particularly in the sparse use of sound that accentuates his lingering, low-slung camerawork, drawing out the rough edges of reality. When dialog does occur, the lonely words bear iron weight. In one scene in the trilogy, Jamie lies in bed in the dark, muttering into his pillow, "I want to die. I want to die. I want to die," in a soft, boy’s brogue. It's a desperate mantra, a prayer spoken to the void, in a solitary moment when the typically hardy lad reveals the spiritual sinkhole within.
The trilogy is in stark black and white, save for two shots in the opening of My Ain Folk. Jamie is in a movie theater, watching MGM’s Lassie Come Home, and for a moment, full-color images of the iconic collie roaming Scotland’s green hills fill the screen. Douglas himself saw the cinema as a place of refuge during his teenage years, the only bright spot in his gray industrial life. “It was paradise sitting there in the cozy dark being hypnotized by the play of light,” he would later recall in his essay “Palace of Dreams: The Making of a Film-Maker.” “Up there was the best of all possible worlds. To enter this world, that was the dream.”
In My Way Home, after Jamie joins the Royal Air Force, the cramped insularity of Newcraighall gives way to the expansive sands of distant Egypt. Like a cage-raised animal set uncomfortably free, Jamie remains compulsively introspective, but Robert, an English airman at the same base, attempts to draw him out as the two become close friends, the first lasting bond in Jamie's life. The magnetic charge between the two plays out as something very much like romantic love—vulnerable, faltering, necessary—a depiction of male intimacy seen all too rarely on-screen. It is this friendship that slakes Jamie’s soul.
As the documentary Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image (2006) reveals, Robert's real-world analog, Peter Jewell, remained Douglas's lifelong companion after their service together; this would be the director's longest and deepest human relationship. The pair shared a collection of antique movie memorabilia and, eventually, a home together. Jewell even paid for Douglas’s tuition at the London Film School, allowing him to enter the world of which he dreamed. Interviewed in the documentary, Jewell clarifies that the pair weren't gay—their life together, he says, was "everything but sexual." The same could be said of many long marriages, so that point may not matter. Sex is only one bridge that can be built over the gulf that separates men from men.
While a student at the London Film School, Douglas made a thirteen-minute film entitled Come Dancing, in 1971. In it, two young men meet in an off-season seaside town. They seem to flirt with each other in an empty cafe: laughing, whispering, smoking. They descend together beneath the piers, amid the encroaching waves of high tide. Suddenly, the dark-haired man pulls a knife on his companion, threatening to stab him in the chest. You fucking queer, he says, seething with anger. I loathe your type. I loathe the way you walk. The way you talk. The way you smell.
Comrades (1987), Douglas's last completed feature film, likewise deals with relationships between men, but of a more collective nature. It's a mid-19th-century Empire-spanner (his "poor man's epic") about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a band of British laborers who formed a pre-union "friendly society" in the face of economic exploitation, then suffered through arduous exile in Australia. The coarse immediacy of the trilogy is lost in Comrade's lush color landscapes and eccentric period details, yet the odd blend of proto-Marxism and Merchant Ivory proves compellingly singular. Perhaps this tension emerged from Douglas’s own paradoxical relationship to cinema, seeing it both as a realm of fantasy and a way to picture otherwise unseen histories. "What you offer, sir, is illusion,” says one worker in Comrades to a traveling showman. “It's the real world I'd like to see. In our short lives we move about so little, we see so little."
Beset with financial troubles, the film took over half a decade to complete. A few years later, Douglas died of cancer, at age 57. At Bishops Tawton Churchyard in Devon, his gravestone includes a line of dialog from Comrades, reading:
Died 18th June 1991
We only have to love one another
to know what we must do.
In 1993, the BFI published a book on Douglas, entitled Bill Douglas: A Lanternist’s Account. It includes remembrances from colleagues, critical appraisals, and Douglas’s novelistic screenplays for his childhood trilogy, which are written more in the style of silent-era scenarios. Despite an otherwise exhaustive look at his career, chronicling the difficulties he had producing his work, and detailing the differences between his own biography and the events depicted in his films, there is almost no mention of any romantic life on Douglas’s part. “Bill’s only marriage was to be to the art of cinema,” critic Andrew Noble offers in his account. Many passages express anguish over the inability of the BFI and British cinema in general to support the work of such a visionary director. Scholar John Caughie remarks that Douglas’s passing was marked by “the distinct tones of institutional guilt.” Perhaps his erstwhile supporters felt they had unwittingly played the role of poor parents, rewarding Douglas’s talent and ambition with neglect.
Though Douglas saw the cinema as a place of escape, he filled it with harsh images of his own upbringing. The cinema is also place of solitude, where that dull longing that grows from loneliness may be safely fed. The masterly control he sustains in his trilogy speaks of a determination to leave his mark within the archive of human memory, and, in doing so, the need to let some things remain tender and raw.
- Ed Halter
Tickets - $7, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 6:30pm.