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Bright and Beautiful: Bill Douglas’s “My Childhood”

Bright and Beautiful: Bill Douglas's "My Childhood"

“Grim,” “bleak,” “unrelenting.” This sort of derisive terminology is almost always employed in discussion of the Bill Douglas Trilogy (My Childhood [1972], My Ain Folk [1973], and My Way Home [1978]), even when the Trilogy is being cited as a high point of British cinematic tradition. The films depict the director’s upbringing in abject poverty in a Scottish mining town, with a main character named Jamie as Douglas’s alter ego. My Childhood shows Jamie and his cousin as they care for their maternal “Grannie” at the end of World War II; My Ain Folk follows Jamie’s life after Grannie dies and he is taken into his estranged father’s abusive home; My Way Home reveals the final chapter of Jamie’s childhood as he runs away from his family and joins the British army in Egypt. Though the plot of the entire trilogy seems straightforward, the films themselves are complex; if brutally realistic in their depiction of childhood anguish, the three works proceed as if a dream or memory, jumping elliptically between scenes. The films were shot in color but developed in a smudgy, old-fashioned black-and-white, and while the characters’ speech is loud and clearly Scottish, Douglas’s filmmaking evokes the methods of silent cinema, and, particularly, Soviet montage. Exposition is arrived at through dialectical editing rather than through dialogue; the viewer is left to decipher relations, motivations, and meaning from the juxtaposition of characters and images. As such, the films require multiple viewings in order to comprehend the consequence and order of events, and further to discover the moments of humor, pathos, and poetry, amidst what at first glance seems like a relentless procession of miserablism. The films are thus rewarding to the viewer who recognizes empathy in Douglas’s imagery, but can be confounding to those who find the abundance of upsetting events and hysterical voices unapproachable—this perhaps explains why the films are so highly revered by some, but are rarely screened or discussed. Read the rest of Caroline McKenzie’s contribution to the Reverse Shot Sounds Off symposium.

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