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The Vacuum Issue 1 spacer Issue 1
On Location - Belfast on the big screen
by Neal Alexander
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Most of us know that The Crown bar is famous for something, but can rarely put our finger on what: "Wasn't it in some oul film or other?" In 1947 Carol Reed filmed Odd Man Out, based on the novel by F.L. Green and starring James Mason. Mason plays Johnny McQueen, head of 'the Organization', who leads a botched raid on a mill in which a clerk is killed and McQueen injured. Abandoned and bleeding, McQueen stumbles through the dark, wet streets of the film's anonymous Northern Irish city, pursued by his friends and the police alike, encountering a number of characters who each have their own reasons for wanting to help or sell him. As the city's fury builds, and the hunt for McQueen gathers pace, he is forced from one makeshift sanctuary to the next, finally crashing through the doors of The Four Winds bar and collapsing in one of its distinctive wood-panelled booths. The city of Odd Man Out is, of course, Belfast and The Four Winds is The Crown, or rather a meticulous studio reconstruction of The Crown which could accommodate Reed's unusual camera angles. However, sealed within his wooden box, McQueen's inevitable death seems closer than ever, for he is surrounded by (but concealed from) a potentially hostile crowd of drinkers who are all talking about the mill robbery. His sanctuary is at the heart of a lion's den. This juxtaposition of danger and security is also extended to the city as a whole, whose dark corners and entries echo with the sound of footsteps and distant voices, or are briefly illuminated by the headlights of passing cars swishing past on gleaming metal wheels. Furthermore, Reed's Belfast is a profoundly symbolic terrain, for McQueen's semi-delirious wanderings also trace his inexorable journey from life to death, his time literally running out in a series of recurrent shots of the Albert Clock. By the film's conclusion, McQueen has been briefly reunited with the woman who loves him before being cornered at the docks; as a bell tolls, she fires two shots and Joycean snowflakes fall upon the living and the dead.
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Odd Man Out is a good thriller, offering more than mere 'thrills', and Reed's Belfast is multi-faceted, ambiguous, prefiguring in important ways the Vienna of The Third Man. Since the most recent outbreak of the 'Troubles' in 1969, however, Belfast has been the subject of a procession of more mechanistic thrillers, wherein Belfast is reduced to a colour-coded 'tribal map' of run-backs and no-go areas, burning barricades and endless expanses of waste ground. The very titles of films such as Harry's Game and Patriot Games emphasise the potential for macho war games, with the city itself figuring as "the adventure playground par excellence for the urban terrorist" (Gerald Seymour, Harry's Game). Eamonn Hughes has argued that, depicted in this way, "Belfast is not Belfast at all; it is simply a void, a blank space filled by novelists and film-makers with stock properties". What is more surprising, however, is that Belfast has literally been absent in a number of other films supposedly set in the city. In the Name of the Father, which tells the story of the Guildford Four, opens with thriller-style riot scenes in working class 'Belfast' before moving to an outwardly tranquil, hippyfied 'London' soon to be torn apart by an IRA pub bombing. The film was shot entirely on location in Dublin and Liverpool. Northside realism plays the part of "poor troubled Belfast", and the Northern city itself exists most potently in the memories of Giuseppe Conlon, who leaves his prison cell every night to accompany his wife up the Cave Hill road. Similarly, when Jack Clayton decided to film the quintessential novel of Belfast in the 50s, Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, he had Moore's earlier screenplays rewritten and filmed entirely in Dublin. The novel is crucially concerned with the geography of isolation and decline as it is mapped onto the mid-century city, and one crucial scene is set against the stultifying backdrop of the City Hall. Moore was understandably disappointed with the transition to film: "They made the ending much more hopeful than it should have been. Setting it in Dublin was a big mistake because everyone in Ireland said this was a book about Belfast".
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In recent years, though, a clutch of films have been filmed in Belfast, responding to the mixed feelings of suspicion and euphoria that drive the post-ceasefire city, and more often than not eschewing the thriller template of the 70s and 80s. A good share of the credit for this resurgence is due to the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission (NIFTC), an agency that provides film and television producers with assistance and information when filming in Northern Ireland. More importantly, however, the NIFTC "promotes awareness of Northern Ireland locations, crews and facilities to producers nationally and internationally, and promotes films produced in Northern Ireland". Created in 1997, the NIFTC is primarily funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), via Invest Northern Ireland (INI). In turn they are funders by proxy, having been delegated by the Arts Council to allocate lottery funding for film in Northern Ireland. Recent beneficiaries include Parallel World, Hot Shot Films, and Fillum Ltd (all of Belfast), Besom Productions, Derry and Indi Films, Dublin.
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On Location
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All of this is good news, and there is little doubt that the NIFTC is doing its damnedest to create and nourish a vibrant film industry in the North. But how do they go about promoting Northern Irish locations (and especially Belfast)? Which locations feature prominently and how have they been featured in films assisted by the NIFTC? Well, besides having an informative and labyrinthine website (http://www.niftc.co.uk/), they have produced a "Locations Brochure". This is an ultra glossy affair with a good deal more pictures than script, interspersing panoramic landscapes and seascapes with stills from recent films and encouraging quotations from those who have gone before. Leafing through the booklet, it is easy to forget that it's not a tourist 'brochure', and there is definitely an attempt to merge prospective business with pleasure. Lush photography not only makes our (often drab, if we're brutally honest) six counties look thoroughly desirable, but also gives producers an idea of the images they can hope to achieve. The Giant's Causeway is somewhat kitschly shrouded in a 'Celtic' mist, the Fermanagh Lakeland is a watery netherworld, and the Mournes are brightly snow-dusted.
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But what about Belfast? It's represented by three images: Malone House and grounds on a misty morning; Stormont glowering palely down its long avenue; and a panoramic shot of the waterfront by night, illuminated against a purple sky. The brief snippet of text mentions the city's ring of "verdant hills", its predominantly Victorian character, and the changes of recent years, which have led to the juxtaposition of "classic imperial structures" with "some of the most striking examples of modern architecture". Good points, succinctly put, but I can't help feeling that a lot of Belfast has been left out. In the photographs, both Stormont and Malone House are distant white houses, perched aristocratically on 'verdant hills', whilst the city's streets are muscled out of shot by the Hilton and Waterfront Hall buildings in the riverside picture. City traffic is a red smudge on the right-hand edge. I'm not suggesting that streets are all there is to a city, but they're certainly an integral part of it. There's a blankness to Belfast without them, in spite of all the striking modern architecture - something important is missing. This is, of course, to be unbearably pernickety and even a little unfair, but it may be that this 'blank' presentation of the city is deliberate, designed to give the impression of leeway, flexibility, a 'blank canvas'. This interpretation is perhaps backed up by the following quote from the brochure: "Northern Ireland is the most compact 5,196 square miles ofback lot in the world. From mountains, glens lakes, loughs, caves, cliffs and beaches to cities, towns, villages and hamlets, it's all within reach of your schedule and budget". On the one hand, this is to stress the astonishing variety of landscapes to be found in our small parcel of the world, on the other it is to make Northern Ireland sound something like a Kinder Bueno - it can be whatever you want it to be.
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The NIFTC's "Locations Brochure" is clearly intended as an incentive rather than as a workable source of information, there is just enough to attract the attention of producers and to whet the appetite. However, I want to offer a brief appendix to their entry on Belfast, a role-call of some locations in the city that have been under-exploited as yet. The City Hall and its surrounding buildings tend to sneak into most Belfast films somewhere, but the bronze winged sphinxes perched on top of the Scottish Provident building (Donegall Square West) are an extravagant absurdity that has rarely been remarked upon. The mock-Tudor Alliance building on the corner of Shaftesbury Square stares out a pair of mutilated bronze angels impaled on the wall of the Ulster Bank building opposite. The entries off High Street offer shadowy potential and an historical dimension, as do the old Courthouse steps. Carlisle Circus could be an emblem of an increasingly secular (and carceral?) society, calling to mind Philip Larkin's "Church Going". The old Waterworks should be investigated, as should the newly landscaped Bog Meadows and its peewits. The Post Office building in Tomb Street (!) is crying out for Belfast's David Lynch.
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On Location
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In the 40s Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer warned against the incursions of an increasingly mercenary "culture industry" that "now presses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole in every part". They related this trend to the increasing anonymity of city centres, the rise of the postmodern 'everycity'. In the 21st century it is even more important than ever to resist such homogenising drives, by stressing instead the particularity of our urban (and rural) landscapes. Cities are complex and demand innovative representational procedures capable of conveying their incorrigible plurality. Directors need to explore and stretch their locations, rather than simply selecting a suitable backdrop as they would a roll of wallpaper.
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Recent films about Belfast have been a fairly mixed bunch, although there is a growing trade in the romantic comedy (the successor to endless across-the-barricades tales). The best of these, like Wild About Harry, blend pseudo-political farce, a mild critique of local broadcasting, and a 'grown-up' love story to fairly agreeable effect, while the worst, like The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, limp along on less than half an idea. Even worse is An Everlasting Piece, which strings out a rubbish pun on toupees and the 'piece' process for an excruciating length of time. On the other hand, Divorcing Jack is a solid black comic caper that usefully recycles the thriller format. Titanic Town and Resurrection Man revisit the bad old days of the 'Troubles' with occasional flair, focusing upon events in Andersonstown and the Shankill respectively. There is, therefore, a growing variety of perspectives upon the city and its inhabitants, which can only be welcomed. Indeed, Wild About Harry could be interpreted as commenting allegorically upon Belfast's changing representational circumstances. Brendan Gleeson and Amanda Donoghue are getting divorced, but Gleeson, a TV chef, suffers a blow to the head and lapses into a coma. When he awakes, he has no memory beyond his eighteenth year, before he and Donoghue were married and it all started to go wrong. Difficult adjustments ensue and the couple are nudged tentatively towards reconciliation. By the end, they get divorced, but there is the potential for a second chance, to begin again and do things differently. Belfast can't be allowed to forget its 'Troubled' past, but it does now seem to have been offered a fresh start, a chance to re-imagine itself, and is already reaping a strange harvest.
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Standing on the eleventh floor of the library tower at Queen's, looking north towards the city centre, the first thing you notice is the cranes, all in primary colours, stalking, long-legged, through the streets, building new angles into the skyline. With a "squint of the imagination" (pace Ciaran Carson), the whole city looks like a film set. Under Construction. Coming soon. The lights of Holywood wink across the lough.
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