ROTTERDAM 2000 REVIEW: Excuse Me While I Read the Sky
by Mark Peranson
(indieWIRE/1.31.2000) -- Opening Sundance 2000, fest director Geoffrey Gilmore brought special attention to the increasing presence of both female directors and films shot on digital video. By these criteria, Nichola Bruce's debut feature-length film "I Could Read the Sky" would seem the ideal "Sundance film," but its aggressively experimental mode of story-telling would preclude it taking its place beside Park City screwball comedies and crowd-pleasing Miramax schlock. Rather, this is a clear "Rotterdam film" - aggressively non-commercial art, an attempt to make a film for the future about the millennium just ended.
Adapted from a critically acclaimed, collaborative photo-novel by writer Timothy O'Grady and photographer Steven Pike, Bruce's dreamy tone poem depicts the frazzled, associative operation of an Irish migrant worker's aged mind (poet and author Dermot Healy, delivering a heart-felt performance drenched with weary melancholy). As the old man's life nears its end, he struggles to make sense of his chosen exile with a voice-over of working-class poetry, calling on one of the only tools he has left: his still active memory.
He painfully enunciates the tracks of his tears, sitting on the edge of his bed and leafing through photographs of his lost family and dead wife, compiling his own form of vivid portraiture. A jack-of-all-trades who shuffled from job to job, he stares into the camera and narrates: "What I could do. I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring. Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky." Yet he also says what he could *not* do, punctuated with: "Stop remembering." Clearly living his memories in the present, he recalls the chill of his spine when his hands touched with his (now dead) wife, Maggie, and the feeling of burying his mother and ending up trapped in the plot. (Did I say plot? Sorry.)
In the book's preface, art critic John Berger describes the interplay between O'Grady's text and Pike's images: "The photographs are a reminder of everything which is beyond the power of words. And the words recall what can never be made visible in any photograph." Bruce, both director and screenwriter, adopts this same process to her filmed nostalgia, beginning with swirling visuals that mold the colors together, courtesy of cinematographers Owen McPolin and Seamus McGarvey (the lenser behind the precise widescreen photography of Tim Roth's "The War Zone"). Quickly and with confidence, she establishes a painterly approach which recalls the heavy impasto of Van Gogh or distorted visuals of Bacon. (Bar scenes in London, made familiar by the appearance of Irish perennial Stephen Rea, are reminiscent of John Maybury's "Love is the Devil".)
But all of this visual trickery, whether in the form of extreme close-ups, multiple exposures, or fantastical morphing, however stimulating to the eyeballs, often acts as a distraction; Bruce seems torn between bringing her viewers into Healy's mind and keeping them at arms length, often veering away into asides - a brutal abattoir scene hints that Bruce might possess a mean vegetarian streak, and she devotes excessive screen time pondering the visual meaning behind the bricks that make up a building the old man built with his hands - always returning to the worker in his cheapo cell. Of equal importance to Bruce is the film's soundtrack, a collision of Sinead O'Connor and traditional tunes - often provided by the old man's accordion (which, predictably, he finds more difficult to play as the years of hard labor accumulate.)
As I've made oh so clear, "Angela's Ashes" this ain't. Bruce's often abstract style separates this from your traditional tale of Irish woe of a life besotted by exile and The Drink: It's more Maya Deren meets Marcel Proust. The sum total is of a notebook of jotted down memories of a specifically Irish life spent in exile under the specter of an empire in decline. It's a well-intentioned, introspective experiment that fails just as much as it succeeds. If last year's Rotterdam was the year of hardcore sex (e.g. "Romance"), then the early indication seems to be that we're headed - another Ian Kerkhof film and Zentropa's "Pink Prison" notwithstanding - towards the pelvic thrusts and shrill orgasmic screams of artistic creation.
[Mark Peranson is the editor and publisher of "Cinema Scope" (insound.com/zinestand/cscope), a contributing editor to "Shift" and a regular contributor to Toronto's "Festival." His writing on film has appeared in "The Village Voice," "Chicago Reader," "Cineaction," "Take One," and "Now."]