The Hurler on the Ditch: Film Criticism in Ireland

by Keith Hopper

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Stuck in the stubbornness of stale reality, people pursue their fantasies through the agencies of myth. This is why we still find sanctuary in the cinema, that dark chamber of public desire. When I was kid I wanted to be Butch Cassidy, which might explain why I became a writer; a cowboy craving immortality. (My daughter wants to be Aladdin, and this worries me - I'm scared she'll end up selling carpets).

Butch Cassidy remains for me an abiding, archetypal hero. (In fact I named my first puppy 'Butch', after Paul Newman). Ironically, while Butch and Sundance became my first introduction to cinema, historically it signalled farewell to the great tradition of the Western. This was symbolised in many of the film's sequences, including the scene where Butch performs tricks on a bicycle to impress Catherine Ross, to the sweetly inane backing of Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. This scene is completely out of kilter with the more stolid conventions of the genre, and seems more suited to a musical. But with its soft-focus camerawork it becomes a nostalgic lament for times gone by. Technology and progress has rendered the frontier outlaw redundant, and it's significant that Butch performs his Indian horse-tricks on this new-fanged contraption, a bicycle, which he inevitably crashes.

The most attractive thing, especially from a child's perspective, is the central pairing of two irresistable anti-heroes. Butch and Sundance want no part of organised society, but realise that in the 20th Century they have become anachronisms. In comparison with contemporary buddy-movies an endearing innocence is celebrated which becomes quite subversive. They pursue pleasure instead of violence, and when violence does happen it's imposed on them. Sundance only kills when he has to and Butch has never killed at all, until, with deliberate irony, he goes straight and is forced to kill while lawfully guarding a payroll.

The only shoot-from-the-hip philosophy espoused here is verbal: keep thinking, says Sundance, it's what you're good at. Even in the end, surrounded by the entire Bolivian army, Butch is still plotting their escape. This relentless hope is all they need to leap out defiantly, and face the brute authority of the state. It ends in classic freeze-frame: iconic, ambivalent and eternal.

This is where cinema - and criticism - began for me. In tears I turned to my mother, asking her if Butch and Sundance were really dead. Her reply cut to the heart of the myth: it all depends on what you believe.Twenty five years later it still depends on what you want to believe. It's been said that criticism is the revenge of the intellect over the imagination of art. Much criticism is parasitical, anxious, cynical, or masked in jargon. It often adopts a superior moral tone because deep down in the rag-and-bone shop it feels inferior to the object it studies. But it doesn't have to be like that. Good art celebrates life, and good criticism should be a celebration of this art. Unfortunately good critics are as scarce as good film-makers; hemmed in by an economic culture where homogenicity is more lucrative than originality.

Is it any wonder then that the critic tends to deride? When I first started reviewing cinema I still believed in Butch Cassidy. Five years on, after a steady diet of straight-to-video nasties, dodgy summer blockbusters and prententious art-house slush, my faith in the value of cinema and criticism has diminished. Within the current post-modern climate everything has become an amorphous mass of relativity. Classicism (in art and criticism) only exists to be parodied, and kitsch and burnout have become fashion statements. As a result the back catalogue of my own reviewing has become a minefield of invective, frustration and disappointment; at best tasty sound bites and ironic word-play to entertain the reader when there's little of real value left to be said. Genuine illumination has sometimes given way to tired truisms - fragments of re-usable ideas which can be applied to different situations. For example, I have a long-time store of casual ready-made phrases for martial arts movies that can be applied to any Van Damme/Seagal/Norris vehicle. Everytime I'm forced to review a Van Damage number I just call up one on the WP and voila! - instant Wildean wit to impress. Here's the punchline to one I prepared earlier: "Brando he ain't, but Jean-Claude is the proud owner of a roundhouse kick that makes Chuck Norris look like a morris dancer on cider." (I've used that in at least two other reviews, and no-one ever noticed.) (And here I got to use it again - money for nothing and your flicks for free).

The situation is worse for the Irish critic. It's fine when you're dealing with a Hollywood product but when it comes to writign about an Irish film you're torn between tribal loyalty and critical honesty; afraid to condemn lest you be tagged as that most viscious of native animals, the begrudger. Irish films are so few and far between that it seems churlish to be negative. But good criticism needs to be honest in order to retain its integrity, and only then can it have constructive value.

I remember reviewing Into the West a few years back, and deciding before I saw it that I was going to be nice to it, thereby establishing a pernicious double standard - one set of criteria for the Paddies, another for efveryone else. To bolster my argument I foregrounded its better qualities: the way its "Ossianic motif was neatly moulded onto a contemporary landscape, thus creating an eclectic pastiche of magic, cinema, folklore and realism." I saw in its storyline (by Jim Sheridan) the emergence of a new cultural maturity: two children repossess a horse to embark on a voyage into the west "with ne'cry a paycock, playboy, or pasty-faced priest in sight." I remarked on the intelligent way it drew out the inner taboos of a hidden Ireland like a poultice, and revealed the atavistic bigotry between travellers and settlers without being patronising. Most of all I was stimulated by the way it deconstructed assumptions on whihc such bigotry is nurtured, in the way it questioned just who were the cowboys and who were the Indians. I called it a "turning point in the Irish renaissance", and losing the run of myself completely noted how "ancient shibboleths are torn up and reconstructed, incorporating the old into the new, the magical into the rational .." Whoa boy! (as Butch might say). What really happened?

Well, proud of my nativisit insularity I handed the piece over to the editor of that particular, himself a noted philistine. "Bollix to this cowboys and indians stuff" he said, "I thought it was about two knackers stealing a horse."

So much for deconstruction and flag-waving. What this exchange revealed was that I was right about Irish bigotry in general but wrong about the significance of that film in particular. In truth it was a nice film, not a great film, even if it was a brave attempt. As Jim Sheridan himself once remarked, he's not an Irish film-maker who happens to be Irish, and these are the terms of reference that a critic must observe.

It still comes back to what you want to believe. Like Butch Cassidy the good critic is neither a begrudger nor a sychphant. he is the last honest outlaw, and not a protector of payrolls. In an Irish context we have the perfect model for criticism in the image of the hurler-on-the-ditch, a figure traditionally held to ridicule. But the hurler-on-the-ditch has a crucial role to play in any culture. After all, the players on the pitch own the ball, the rules, and the big sticks - they even own the pitch itself. In short, the players control the game. Alone, on the ditch, stands the lonely hurler-of-abuse; up for nobody but in love with the beauty of the game for its own sake. It's cold out there in the rain, shouting in the wind, but honesty has its own integrity: Keep thinking Butch, it's what you're good at.

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