NEW IRISH UNDERGROUND FILM
NEW IRISH UNDERGROUND FILM
Irish cinema has never been renowned for harboring a vibrant underground or experimental film scene. There have been significant exceptions (most importantly, aspects of the Irish “First Wave” of the 1970s), but it’s only in recent years that a body of films has emerged that offer a powerful rebuttal to that perception. While to announce a fully-fledged “movement” would be premature, it is safe to say that the work of the four filmmakers featured in this series – Rouzbeh Rashidi, Maximilian Le Cain, Dean Kavanagh and Michael Higgins – represent an important new direction in Irish cinema. Working with minimal and usually non-existent budgets, primarily on video, with zero crew and casts typically drawn from friends and family, all four filmmakers have been developing at a prolific rate over the past few years. Between them, they have produced 32 features since 2008 – though it must be admitted Rashidi, who in 2012 alone directed 9 features and 76 short films, has been the most insanely fertile contributor. All the filmmakers are members of the Experimental Film Society, an international organization founded by Rashidi aiming “to produce and promote films by its members” who are “distinguished by an uncompromising, no-budget devotion to personal, experimental cinema.” As this series will make clear, they have also been known to appear in each other’s films, and even collaborate on film projects together from time to time. (Strangely enough, Rashidi, Le Cain and Kavanagh have even released three albums of sound art together, under the collective moniker “Cinema Cyanide”.)
For the most part, the films operate in an uncanny space between experimental and narrative film. On the one hand, generally eschewing plot and any conventional notion of “eventfulness” in favor of the immediate sensuousness of images and sounds and their juxtaposition – on the other hand, using performers, locations, lighting and sound design to evoke affects and atmospheres more readily associated with genre cinema, especially the horror film. Le Cain, also an accomplished critic, once wrote about David Lynch that he “frees the paranoia of noir from the straightjacket of narrative … [drowning] the plot in a great tidal wave of emotion”, and one can identify a similar impulse at work across many of these films. Le Cain adds that “the most unsettling aspect of [Lynch’s work] is that the fear seems to come from a source that is deeper than the plot indicates.” It’s this deeper level that these filmmakers mostly concern themselves with. As the title of our opening film, There is No Escape from the Terrors of the Mind (2013), makes explicit, the unease evoked is existential rather than circumstantial: it’s much more about the nature of perception, memory and consciousness than anything that can be resolved, or even expressed, through action or dialogue. Usually forsaking plot entirely to tackle these depths head-on, the films mostly seem to reside in a strange, subterranean world free of the typical “narrative” trappings of our daily life. Jobs, money, the State, even social interaction, are rarely visible. Instead, there are bodies and there are spaces, there are sensations and there are memories, and there is the coming-into-being and intermingling of each of these through processes of perception (and cinema).
When language is foregrounded in these worlds – for example, in Higgins’ Birds on a Wire (2011) or Rashidi’s Bipedality (2010) – it is usually fragile and woefully insufficient. Le Cain has described Bipedality one of Rashidi’s last films to feature extensive dialogues, as a study of “how inadequate language is to communicate feeling, or to grapple with the mysteries of existing in any given moment in relation to another person or simply to the world that surrounds one”, a world that is, in contrast, “almost overwhelmingly vivid and sensuous.” It’s our primal and problematic relationship to the world in this sense, that each of these filmmakers focus on in different ways: not the world before the Word (in the sense of Brakhage’s “untutored eye”) so much as a world beneath the Word, a subterranean field of sensations that is always available to us but which we can rarely share or articulate in social or verbal terms.
Although it’s worth thinking through the question of whether this aesthetic direction is ultimately limited by its rejection of social or political contingencies and distrust of verbal expression, Le Cain’s thoughts on Rashidi make an opposing case that could apply to all four filmmakers: “He is not interested in cinema as a record or replication of communication, but in what cinema can itself best communicate through sound and image. … He is concerned with the intensely private experiences of perception that perhaps cinema alone has the tools to communicate adequately.” Or put another way, we could pick up the idea of filmmakers Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni from their recent film In Search of Uiq (2013) that, “In our universe, we are tuned to the frequency that corresponds to the reality of capitalism … An infinite number of parallel realities coexist with us in the same room, although we cannot tune into them.” At their best, Rashidi, Le Cain, Kavanagh and Higgins have found ways to tune into some of those other frequencies, and now invite us to join them.
Programmed by Donal Foreman, with special thanks to the Experimental Film Society.