What is Scottish cinema? Does a nation with a population of around five million struggle to produce a cinema that it can call its own, and is this a good or bad thing? Breaking the Waves is one of the greatest of 'Scottish' films, but most wouldn't be inclined to see it as Scottish at all. It was directed by Danish auteur Lars von Trier, and stars an actress from Islington (Emily Watson) and an actor from Gothenburg (Stellan Skarsgaard), shot by a Dutch Caribbean cinematographer (Robby Muller), and made with Danish money. Its Scottishness lies chiefly in its locations: the west coast and Skye. But it also lies more broadly in a Protestant sensibility that the Catholic convert von Trier wanted to examine. As he would later say, semi-facetiously, in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2006): "I guess I wanted to be religious. But that doesn't mean that I am. I saw Catholicism as being much more of a healthy religion than Protestantism. I know this is difficult to understand for people who have to live under Catholicism. But as a Protestant you simply have all this guilt and will never get rid off it; as a Catholic you can. That's kind of practical. You say your Hail Marys and all your sins are forgiven. That's wonderful." He found in the Hebrides an extreme form of Protestantism perfect for his own needs, and managed to explore a sensibility familiar to the west coast of Scotland. According to Ian Jack, "Lewis and Harris contain about 20,000 people and 43 Presbyterian congregations (as well as three Scottish Episcopalian churches and one each for the Catholics and Baptists)." Of the various denominations, "the Free Church is by far the largest. The doctrinal differences between them seem (to me) slight; you would need the theological equivalent of a wine-taster's nose. But all are devotees of the fourth commandment and therefore natural supporters of the Lord's Day Observance Society..." (Guardian) Von Trier set his film on the slightly less rigorous Skye, but the point was to access a culture capable of superstition and that observed strict codes, as if finding in seventies-set Scotland an equivalent to an earlier period of time in Denmark where one of his heroes, Carl Dreyer, had set some of his rigorously religiously centred films. Breaking the Waves wasn't so much a Scottish film as a film by a Danish maestro seeking a useful setting.
More Scottish would surely be a Ken Loach film set in Scotland, including My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, set in Glasgow and Gourock respectively. The actors are Scottish, but director Ken Loach is from Nuneaton, cameraman Barry Ackroyd from Oldham. The producer Rebecca O'Brien is from London. Loach was as drawn to post-industrial poverty as von Trier was determined to examine Presbyterian extremes and Scotland was as good a place to look as any other. Loach may be less thematically preoccupied than von Trier, less obviously an auteur with a vision, but nevertheless his ongoing concern for the dispossessed found a natural home in Scotland. As Eammon Fingleton says of collapsing Scottish industries in pre and post-Thatcherite Scotland: "Its rollcall of exporting titans included Renfrew-based Babcock and Wilcox, which made boilers for the world's power stations. Other major Scottish exporters included North British Locomotive and the William Beardmore castings company. In Dundee there was National Cash Register's major British subsidiary and in Kirkcaldy the Nairn linoleum company." Fingleton adds other companies that suffered. "The list went on and on, and at the top was the John Brown company. Although then one of the world's most technically advanced manufacturers, John Brown is largely forgotten today. Its products, however, are not. They included the Lusitania, HMS Repulse, the Queen Mary, The Queen Elizabeth, the QE2 and others. John Brown was the cornerstone of a Clydebank shipbuilding industry that built nearly a third of the world's ships." (Guardian). Loach paradoxically started producing films in Scotland based on the lack of production in Scotland. This was the workless workforce, the proletarian dispossessed, a fertile ground for Loach's Socialist political perspective. As he would say in Movie City News, "I hope we didn't do the city a disservice. In fact, we could have set this movie in any number of cities and towns, in Europe and in America."
Other films that have put Scottish cinema on the map have done so without always too much consideration for its geography. Manchester-born Danny Boyle's Trainspotting was filmed mainly in Glasgow, while insisting on the Edinburgh setting vital to Irvine Welsh's novel. It has none of the vivid sense of immediacy Loach's Scottish films achieve but that was the very point behind the production. Producer Andrew MacDonald said after its release, "we didn't want to make a film on location." Boyle adds, "if we had a chance to go back to Trainspotting, we'd make even more of it in the studio." (Sight and Sound) Nevertheless, Andrew O'Hagan writing on the film in the same issue, believed "it is to the likes of Trainspotting that people will go for a sense of what life is like there, for a sense of what has gone wrong [in Scotland] - and it will offer rousing clues." Trainspottinghyperbolizes Scotland's impoverishment and sells it abroad. Yet is this not a variation of what Scotland also does with its history? O'Hagan draws a distinction between Braveheart and Trainspotting, but we might be more inclined to see the similarities. Trainspotting may be much fresher in its aesthetic choices as it adopts canted camera angles, fixed frame shots for irony and humour, freeze-framings and wide-angled images, but they both hyperbolize the subject matter all the better to give international audiences a vision of Scotland. Are either Braveheart or Trainspotting Scottish films?
We do not offer this especially as a value judgement: von Trier utilises Scotland for his own ends; he isn't interested in an authentic Scotland as Loach would appear to insist upon, and consequently he makes a maverick masterpiece while Loach makes fine verisimilitudinous films. But few would regard Breaking the Waves as a Scottish film over a Lars von Trier work: like the Dane's Manderlay, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, he makes films that reflect his own obsessions and insists on distanciation, thus leaving no one under the illusion that they are watching a drama of verisimilitude. Braveheart and Trainspotting are in between: works that in different ways play to the crowd and that crowd is far from an indigenous one. As Macdonald says, "as a producer, I hope it appeal to people in London. It has to appeal to people in London. Otherwise we're fucked. In terms of the accents and so on we wanted everybody to be able to understand it. We wanted to play in the UCIs and for people to go and see it." (Sight and Sound) We could see this as part of a broader question of loyalty or otherwise that Boyle interestingly couches in the context of his own life, as well as Welsh's and central character Renton's. "You learn a bit about Irvine and Irvine is an entrepreneur...The people who I grew up with are all still in Radcliffe, where I come from, near Manchester. They're still there. And some of them are a lot brighter than me. But they stayed there, they stayed friends - and I got out. I left. And that's what Renton does." Trainspotting isn't a film about Scotland - it is a film about getting the hell out of Scotland, evident in the famous scene where the gang hit the Highlands and realize they have no feeling for the place.
Yet this is often seen as part of the problem, one that suggests Scotland should look outward rather than inward to comprehend itself. This was central to a project in the early eighties called Scotch Reels by Colin McArthur, and also McArthur's essays decade later, 'In Praise of a Poor Cinema'. McArthur and others have noticed two main traditions in Scottish culture: Tartanry and kailyard - the historical perspective typified in the novels of Scott's novels, but also central to shortbread, kilts and porridge boxes. Kailyard will cover films like Whisky Galore and The Maggie, but also perhaps the more contemporary Local Hero too, as well as such popular comic books as The Broons and Oor Wullie. Here we have canny Scots getting by and getting one over on others with their clever, simple ways. We wouldn't wish to underestimate the reality evident in this perception of Scottishness, an approach that suggests a low level of ambition meeting with a keen understanding of what matters. In Whisky Galore, the locals run rings round the outsiders as they hide the whisky supply, but for some this rings no changes in the perception of Scottishness. As L. Scott Malcomson notes, the Scotch Reels writers hoped that a different approach to Scottish representations could lead to a different relationship with Scottish consciousness. Malcomson was not so sure: "It is doubtful whether any number of Scottish Straubs or Wollens or Snows - the ideals of Scottish cinema held up by Scotch Reels organiser Colin McArthur - would be able to pry the cherished Sunday Posts from working-class hands." (Film Quarterly)
Malcolmson might be exaggerating McArthur's position but it is clear, in McArthur's excellent essay 'In Praise of a Poor Cinema' written in the early nineties, that he still believed Scottish film could benefit from working on low-budgets rather than making films at great expense which would lead to the anxiety for success illustrated in MacDonald's comments about Trainspotting. Looking at the Scottish Film Production Fund and the Scottish Film Fund, in the essay, McArthur saw them packed with people leaning toward the commercial end of cinema and wondered if this was the right direction for a small nation to take. While McArthur admired the low-budget early work of Bill Forsyth, the films of Bill Douglas, as well as the work of Margaret Tait, Mike Alexander and Timothy Neat, this was a cinema that perhaps could only have gained traction if it had been supported either by a clear movement or at least a discourse surrounding it. The latter was precisely what McArthur suggested was necessary, saying a journal "without being a hype or a lapdog journal, would have as its main aim to outline what is happening in Scottish cinema..." (Sight and Sound)
Instead what happened was that Scotland several years later became a representational sensation rather than an aesthetic success: either the films were made by important directors utilising Scotland, or by commercial filmmakers cashing in on Scottishness, "...vistas of pure romance which have nothing to do with the lives being lived in that country", according to O'Hagan in his Trainspotting piece. Films made between 1994 and 1999, included Breaking the Waves, Braveheart, Small Faces, My Name is Joe, Loch Ness,Orphans, Mrs Brown, Ratcatcher, Rob Roy, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Regeneration. These were generally medium to high budget films, often made with casts from outside Scotland, and frequently the crew as well. Some of the films were of greater artistic value than others (Breaking the Waves and Ratcatcher, but also perhaps Rob Roy, Small Faces and My Name is Joe), but Braveheart and Trainspotting offered very different views of Scotland while at the same time representing the culture worldwide. An innocuous piece like Loch Ness played up the tourist aspect and played into the hands of Americans who wanted Scotland with a TV star (Ted Danson). This was all very well, and some could claim that McArthur was so wrong about where Scottish cinema should have been going, When he compares a medium budget film like Prague to low-budget films like Neat's Play Me Something, it would be the medium and high budget films that would win out and help Scotland become a country people recognized on the screen. As Duncan Petrie would say in Cineaste in 2001, "one of the most interesting and significant developments in British filmmaking in the 1990s was the emergence of a distinctive cinema in Scotland."
But we can still sympathize with McArthur's position and wish that alongside this more commercially oriented cinema, which nevertheless had within it aesthetic success, low-budget filmmaking that could examine Scottishness without the expectations of big-box-office or given formats could have flourished too. When McArthur says that while it is fair enough that filmmakers learn from the screenwriting manuals of Syd Field and Robert McKee, "one of its effects was to fetishize the classic two-hour Hollywood and forbid other ways of thinking and making cinema". ('In Praise of a Poor Cinema') There was an opportunity here to make films that could make money and represent Scotland to the world, while at the same time working on tiny budgets that could explore and examine what it means to be Scottish, living in Scotland, or to examine the myths and history of a nation.
In many ways the two filmmakers who most clearly represented the two sides of this coin were the two bills, so to speak: Bill Forsyth and Bill Douglas. Forsyth's initial budgets were low: That Sinking Feeling was made on a budget so modest (5,000) that Philip French in the Observer pointed out "that the whole 5,000 budget (which made into the Guinness Book of Records) had been raised in Scotland." "You mustn't compromise yourself" Forsyth was told, according to Forsyth Hardy in Scotland in Film, but while the budgets increased, Forsyth's first four films, all made in and about Scotland (That Sinking Feeling, Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy) showed no signs of compromising an original sense of humour that allowed for slow burn gags and the eschewal of punch lines. Humour in Forsyth's work often lies in the surprise of incongruent elements and the acceptance of one's deeper wishes being greater than one's external ambitions. Whether it is young Gregory getting the girl but not the one he thought he fancied, or Happer realising he wants an observatory over an oil refinery in Local Hero, Forsyth allows space for the wayward in various manifestations. Local Hero's budget was 3m and made almost six million dollars in the US alone. Forsyth was something of a local hero himself, a Scottish director who could make commercial films without an overtly commercial sensibility. What was that sensibility? Alexander Walker explores it well in National Heroes. "...The point is Forsyth is Scottish before he is British: the Northern lights illuminate his characters, giving them a 'foreign-ness' distinguishable from those people down south called the British. He has even more in common with Truffaut and Rohmer, to judge from his films about adolescence; and he can slyly insinuate a bit of behavioural comedy, a la Tati, into a fleeting observation..." What could be more exciting for Scottish film than to have a humorous humanist making films out of that distinctive sensibility, one which wouldn't at all be a compromised vision?
The answer would be Bill Douglas, a filmmaker whose vision was human but hardly humorous, who could make art but not quite money, someone whose three short to medium length films through the seventies formed what was called the Bill Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home. These are films of such formal precision that they must be read rather than seen: we must infer what the images mean rather than merely watch what the image conveys. When we watch a film that shows us a long shot of the village, then cuts to a medium shot of the house, and then a close up of the person inside it, we do not actively infer that this is the case, we passively and conventionally accept it. In My Childhood, Douglas shows a bike outside, cuts to an interior shot of the grandmother, and focuses on her face as we hear off-screen someone speaking to what we will assume are the two boys we see in the next shot. The film then returns to the grandmother and then cuts to a shot from behind the boys' head and in the long shot we see is the man putting a bird in a cage on a table. The cutting can seem awkward because of the conventions that are eschewed. Douglas asks us to think about the language of cinema, passing through Sergi Eisenstein and Robert Bresson to explore ways in which film can be an art form which doesn't so much film reality as piece it together. If Eisenstein believed cinema should be made up of what would call montage cells, then Bresson reckoned that joining these isolated aspects of film should allow for ever more complex thought processes in relation to them. Eisenstein believed that "the shot is by no means an element of montage. The shot is a montage cell." The filmmaker would put together these shots to create a dynamic relationship that would allow the images to collide and create an effect from their very conjoining. They were not simply there to tell the story, but to create an impact. "And old thing becomes new if you detach it from what surrounds it," Bresson believed and so the shots were not supposed to generate an easy familiarity, but to make the viewing experience new; to make the viewer think through the relationship between images.
This is exactly what Douglas's films insist upon, and this is the type of cinema McArthur seeks in his essay on poor cinema. By working on tiny budgets filmmakers can work through new ways in which cinema sounds and images can be created, and thus allow for new ways of seeing. At the same time, we propose that a cinema with the two Bills at work would be a very viable and healthy means by which to progress a film culture. An uncompromised but nevertheless commercially oriented filmmaker like Forsyth in his earlier films can work alongside filmmakers like Bill Douglas to generate alternative visions without one necessarily canceling the other out. To add to the mix we might think of Lynne Ramsay, a director whose films demand bigger budgets yet are nevertheless also determined to find their own form. But this is not the cinema we presently have. Ramsay made two features in Scotland (Ratcatcher and Morven Callar) before working more or less Stateside with We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here. Forsyth has stopped making films (his last was Gregory's Two Girls in 1999) and Bill Douglas died at the age of fifty-seven, having made only the Trilogy and a film on the Tolpuddle martyrs, Comrades. It is when viewed in this manner that we can see Scottish cinema as one of curtailed lives and lost opportunities. We can also wonder how much it reflects a broader Scottish problem. The two actors, non-professionals, who appeared in Douglas's trilogy, Stephen Archibald and Hughie Restorick, were both dead, like their director before the end of the 20th century, the latter a suicide.
© Tony McKibbin