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Issue 123

Life in Film: Gerard Byrne

In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice

BY Gerard Byrne in Critic's Guides | 05 MAY 09

Live and Let Die (1973) was the first. I was four. Star Wars (1977) was the second. I was eight. There were others in between, but the third was Stop Making Sense (1984). I was 16 and adolescent. That film incited riotous responses from a feverish audience in the Ambassador cinema in Dublin where it was the late show every Friday. I was a regular in this madness, which usually ended with police intervention. Being both teenagers and Catholics in an ideologically Catholic state, we were like the Punks and the Shakers from Dan Graham’s Rock my Religion (1984) all collapsed into one. It was around that time I first began to make the connection between sub-titles and nudity. Channel 4 had recently started in the UK, and was my introduction to European art house cinema. A slow realization dawned: there were other societies who couldn’t care less about the social mores we agonized over, and didn’t feel obliged to narrate everything through hackneyed idioms. We didn’t really understand anything much, except that everything interesting was coming from elsewhere.

Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense, 1984. Courtesy: Cinecom/Photofest

And yet I dislike the cinematic fetish within contemporary art. It always seems a misplaced and self-defeating identification. The film business is a brutal affair, where distribution dictates what gets made. That a few brilliant films survive this fraught process is a miracle. One survivor, Rocky Road to Dublin (1968), a scathing feature length documentary about Ireland, was starved of any distribution in that same country for more than 30 years. Directed by Peter Lennon, a Paris-based Irish journalist who luckily knew nothing about film-making, and financed from a friend’s windfall, the documentary is an account of post-colonial, post-revolutionary Irish society in the year before the Troubles blew everything apart again. ‘What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?’ was Lennon’s succinct rationale for the project, and the film captures everyone from young school children to aged censors unwittingly indicting the whole of post-independence Ireland as brainwashed and in the stranglehold of a KGB-like clergy. Disowned in Ireland, Rocky Road to Dublin was accepted for Cannes in 1968 where its screening was followed by an outburst in the auditorium from Jean-Luc Godard and others, declaring the film festival closed in solidarity with the student uprisings across France. Serendipitously prescient, Rocky Road to Dublin then began a distribution odyssey. Its first public screening was to students occupying the Sorbonne. Later it was screened to striking workers at the Renault factory, and subsequently it made the rounds of campuses and small film festivals. It was never shown in Ireland, where we were left to get by on Stop Making Sense.

If, in the Barthesian sense, Rocky Road’s political history is its studium, then for me its punctum lies in the completely uncomprehending frankness of Lennon’s subjects in front of the camera. Collectively they have a poignant vulnerability that echoes August Sanders’ photographs of Weimar Germany, or the 19th-century portraits by Hill & Adamson that Walter Benjamin describes in his 1931 essay ‘A Short History of Photography’. This sense of vulnerability amongst the film’s subjects, adult and child alike, as if the authority of the camera’s representational exactitude demanded appropriate deference whatever its ideological allegiances, is all the more moving because it is based on a misplaced and self-defeating identification with a camera that did not reciprocate. The cinematography, by the celebrated New Wave cameraman Raoul Coutard, was squeezed in between shooting Godard’s Weekend (1967) and François Truffaut’s The Bride wore Black (1968). Coutard was straight out of European avant-garde film, spoke no English, and later described the shoot as like stepping 50 years back in time. His loose camerawork establishes a frisson between camera and subject that makes the latent, extra-linguistic complexities of each interview palpable. One of the most ambiguous moments of the film is a real-time section of a balladeer singing the traditional song ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ in the hushed silence of a packed Dublin pub. The song, a 19th-century stock tale of a carefree Irish vagabond under British rule, charges the atmosphere, thick as it is with the melancholia of an oppressive post-revolutionary state. Between the pub’s heaving quiet, and the ballad’s literal meaning, a palpably evocative third meaning emerges, of politics in between bodies and voices.

Alan Clarke, Elephant, 1989

And such evocations did not go unnoticed. Throughout the 1980s, and into the ‘90s with the Troubles in full swing up in Northern Ireland, a ban was introduced in the UK on the broadcasting of voices of political representatives of ‘terrorist’ organizations (the Irish government predictably plumbed for a ban on their words as well). The ban manifested itself in the nightly news, in which interviews with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams would be over-dubbed by an actor. This strange audio-visual emasculation attempt made conspicuous both the politics and the mechanics of broadcast speech itself, and awakened in me a sense of television as a distinct political realm. Then, in 1989, I saw Elephant. Produced by the BBC for nationwide broadcast, and directed by Alan Clarke, it is 38-minutes long, with no dialogue. It consists of 18 vignettes, each of which is a reenactment of a murder from the Troubles. Set in banal locations, and shot with minimal dramatic affect, each scenario ends with an execution. The spare discipline of the production itself was extraordinary. Without recourse to dialogue or commentary, the work thwarted and mocked the censorial regulation of the ban and its fetishisation of speech by depicting a speechless politics, a somatic politics of gesture. 

What seems extraordinary is that the BBC would do it. It wouldn’t happen now. Even with a tenuous peace in Ireland, and the broadcasting ban lifted, and the incendiary Rocky Road to Dublin finally released in the Irish Republic, it’s increasingly hard to believe a revolution ever really happened.

Gerard Byrne lives in Dublin, Ireland. Earlier this year he had solo shows at the Whitechapel Gallery and Lisson Gallery in London, UK. In 2012, he had a solo show at Protocinema, New York, USA, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal. In 2007, he represented Ireland at the 52nd Venice Biennale.