Stephen Totterdell checks in on Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary about Neal MacGregor, an English artist who died alone aged 44 in a cave on the remote island of Inishbofin. The Stranger screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Camus’ Mersault is the obvious association. Whenever a character like this appears; a character who chooses to live outside society – no, rather a character who refuses to engage in the “busying oneself” that makes up much of modern life – we think of Mersault. A character who refuses to lie, to engage in social practices for the sake of it. The young Neal MacGregor first strikes us with his good looks and charm. The narrative dissonance of his life – that a talented London charmer should end up a recluse on an island off the west of Ireland – is irresistable. It’s like a story out of a Roberto Bolaño novel.
Sometimes, perhaps, a little too irresistable. Whilst the interviews with Neal’s friends provide insight into his youth, there are repeated references to “What happened”, as if his move to the island was the result of personal difficulties that suddenly came upon him. Some suspect a bad acid trip. This kind of conjecture runs through the coding of an otherwise fine and intriguing film. Sometimes the narrative is a little too eager, or engages with the tortured artist complex a little too much. It wants there to be a mystical secret to Neal’s life.
For example: when the interviewees describe Neal wandering to the back of the island, they suggest that this was “Out of bounds” for the island’s residents, and that Neal disregarded this mystic barrier in order to explore “the back of the island” (read: his tortured soul).
Nevertheless, it is one of the more interesting documentaries of late, and its trawl through West Ireland culture certainly provides plenty of interest. Given that Neal’s identity is constructed through hearsay and half-forgotten memories (he died in 1990), that he should be remembered as a larger-than-life figure makes sense. The Cult of Neal. That the documentary takes as its subject an interesting non-celebrity reveals shades of Karl Ove Knausgaard and the new trend for authenticity. Much of what Neal did on the island was fascinating only because of its context. The obsession with minutiae and of building his identity through language is one of the great appealing traits of the modern age. It also has ties with Roberto Bolaño, whose novel The Savage Detectives consists of memories and fragments of characters who never appear directly before the reader.
It would be interesting to hear if, from all of the recorded interviews, Neal emerged significantly differently in the accounts of the Irish speakers versus the English speakers of the film. If language is how we perceive reality, and our identities consist of the ways in which we utilise language, and if Neal lived as an Englishman on an island where Irish was spoken, then perhaps his identity is caught between two languages, in the shades in between.
What makes a man desert society to live on an island? The interviewees speak as if there are reasons. Some people do things differently. “Neal enjoyed being alone,” says one interviewee, “That’s sad.” Why is it sad? It’s different. This is the Mersault problem.