JDIFF Irish Film Review: The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist

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Emma O’Donoghue checks out Cecily Brennan’s part documentary, part dramatised art-piece which investigates the connection between madness and artistic creativity.
 

‘We misunderstand madness and we misunderstand creativity.’
Cecily Brennan

Directed by Irish artist Cecily Brennan, this part documentary, part dramatised art-piece explores the supposed link between artistic creativity and insanity – the tension between order and disorder. It interweaves snippets of interviews on the subject of art and madness with emotive scenes of a young artist ‘Paul’ (played by Marty Rea) struggling with the onset of a full mental breakdown.

Though short (35 minutes), The Devil’s Pool is a potent mix of visceral intensity and cerebral stimulation, raising many questions and inviting the audience to examine their own attitudes towards the subject matter. Dr Simon Kyaga of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm discusses studies that have been done on incidents of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder among the creative professions, while Prof. Patricia Waugh of Durham University explains how, throughout history, artists seek expression through the ‘breaking of habits’, yet this has always been seen as threatening to bourgeois society. Playwright Frank McGuiness and poet Paul Muldoon speak about the illusive idea that embracing insanity might somehow ‘unlock’ new levels of creativity previously unknown to the restrained and conformed mind.

These fascinating interviews are intersected by scenes of Paul in a white space – some unknown place in the pit of his mind. He desperately tries to take control of this space by carefully drawing thick ruled lines on the walls, with the words ‘I am not going mad. I am in control’ written on them. But Paul cannot find the words to express his inner torment, nor can he contain the sloshes of black paint that swirl around his feet, devouring and blackening this clean, white place. There is something inescapably grim about these scenes. They overwhelm the senses by providing a visual representation of the frustratingly slippery and painfully isolating world of insanity – that ‘unavoidable darkness’.

In a brief Q&A after the screening, Cecily Brennan said, ‘we misunderstand madness and we misunderstand creativity’. Throughout history, the greatest problem for the artist is that there has always been a dangerous allure and romanticism surrounding the notion of being driven insane by your art, when in fact there is no art in madness. In melancholy, despair and insanity there can be no illumination, nothing can be created. As Paul Muldoon explained, artists like Sylvia Plath were ‘driven mad by the myth’, believing that transcending sanity was a door to true art, when in fact this is nothing but an insidious fallacy.

This is a provocative piece of Irish filmmaking that delves into the dark recesses of the mind in an effort to extract some insight. It daringly explores a side of art that is often discussed, but seldom understood.

Click here for further coverage from the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist screened on Tuesday, 18th February 2014 as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (13 – 23 February 2014).

 

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Dublin Fringe Festival: ‘The Far Side’ Review

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Emma O’Donoghue ventures to The Far Side, which plays at the Light House cinema from 11 – 18 September as part of  the Dublin Fringe Festival.

A shoebox … siblings at a breakfast table … a dance in a bingo hall. Memories that lodge in the mind, vivid and intact despite the passage of time and the hindsight of experience. Dreams of the young and memories of the old. Animal nicknames, stormtroopers and singing competitions. Welcome to The Far Side.

Over the course of two years, artist Feidlim Cannon (Brokentalkers) conducted a series of writing workshops with seven people, all hailing from within a one-mile radius of Drogheda, Co. Louth. He asked them to speak openly and candidly about their experiences and memories of growing up there. Their images sit and look out at us. No fuss, just stories told with wry humour and heartfelt honesty. Behind them the screen depicts their stories; the strange and wonderful recesses of their minds are brought to life.

A uniquely enthralling approach is used to present these stories. Through the use of live performance, clever visuals and music – both classic and contemporary – a mesmerising and sometimes surreal social history of Drogheda is created before our eyes. Little glimpses of life-changing events and fond reminiscences are witnessed. Past and present mix fluidly. The audience is engaged with and carried along from beginning to end.

Everyone has a story to tell, an insight to give, no matter what age they are or life experiences they have had. Some of these are hilarious, some are heartbreaking, some are deeply familiar. Experiences, no matter how seemingly insignificant to the outside world, form us as people. They make life more interesting. The Far Side takes a simple idea, the idea of sharing a small part of oneself, and creates a ‘living history’, executed with creativity, sensitivity and a good dose of divilment. This is well worth seeing.

 www.fringefest.com/programme/the-far-side 

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DVD Review: Death of a Superhero

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Emma O’Donoghue takes a look at Ian Fitzgibbon’s Death of a Superhero, available on DVD and on-demand.

Based on the book of the same name by New Zealander Anthony McCarten and directed by Ian Fitzgibbon (Perrier’s Bounty, A Film with Me in It), Death of a Superhero pours new life into the well-worn themes of death and mortality by exploring them through the medium of teenage fantasy.

Fifteen-year-old Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is coping with all the usual pitfalls of teenage life – self-consciousness, the general irritation of overly-affectionate parents and the constant bafflement of the opposite sex. However, these concerns are further complicated by a much more serious problem. Donald is slowly dying of leukaemia, his chemotherapy simultaneously extending his life and draining it from him. As he watches his parents rail against a disintegrating grief, he finds solace in his remarkable talent for art and graffiti, reimagining himself as a stone-faced superhero battling a villainous doctor known as ‘the glove’ –  a hero who is both irresistible to women, yet unable to consummate any kind of physical relationship with them. Donald is terrified and, understandably, obsessed by death – in an effort to control it he makes several suicide attempts, to the horror of his parents who want to see their young son embracing what life he has left. After being sent on a series of failed counselling sessions, Donald finally meets psychiatrist Dr Adrian King (Andy Serkis), a wry and erudite thanatologist (thanatology being the study of death) who calmly asserts that ‘death always wins’ but that it is not something to be afraid of. Dr King must attempt to win the trust and friendship of Donald before his young patient completely loses control.

For a bleak story, Death of a Superhero vibrantly glows with humour and optimism. There are moments of genuine comedy, for example when Donald’s dad allows him to smoke weed to calm his anxiety, and when his other brother and friends take it upon themselves to find a ‘special lady’ for Donald to lose his virginity to before he dies. Beautifully shot in many familiar Dublin locations, the city comes alive through Donald’s eyes. The narrative is interspersed with comic-book style animation, a visual representation of Donald’s dark fantasies of fear, sex and death. Meanwhile, his attraction to the highly intelligent and self-possessed Shelly (Aisling Loftus) gives him a momentary distraction from his illness and a glimpse of what a ‘normal’ life could be like.

The casting in this movie is what makes it work so well. While the plot borders on predictable and clichéd, it is the performances of Brodie-Sangster and Serkis in particular that make this worth watching. The subjects of illness and death are handled with sensitivity and realism; where Death of a Superhero could easily have veered down a schmaltzy, over-sentimentalised path, it instead delivers a unique and powerful story that manages to leave the viewer both emotionally drained and uplifted by the end.

Emma O’Donoghue

Death of a Superhero is available on DVD and on-demand from Volta.ie

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DVD Review: The Gingerbread Men

 

Written and directed by Dubliner and relative newcomer Dáire McNab, The Gingerbread Men follows on from his 2009 debut horror The Farm. This movie switches genres, exploring the strained and touching relationship between two Trinity College students and housemates – surly womaniser Charlie (Elliot Moriarty) and hapless virgin Ken (Kenneth Conway), whose facial scars have removed his last shred of confidence, making it almost impossible for him to engage with women. Ken observes Charlie with a mixture of awe and envy as the latter effortlessly seduces various women he meets in bars, only to coldly dismiss them the next morning. When Charlie meets Nicole, however, he is consumed with confusion as he realises he is falling for her but is terrified of getting too attached. Meanwhile, Ken relies on misguided humour to fumble through the treacherous passageway between hope and rejection. Though he never relinquishes his pursuit of love, he furtively carries with him the pain of his scars and the memories of how he received them.

This movie sensitively portrays the two young men’s everyday experiences; while it shows them out partying, getting drunk and laid (well mostly Charlie), the heart of the story lies in the quieter moments. Set primarily in their small apartment over the space of a couple of months, there is a sense of the closeness of the pair, both emotionally and also physically because of the close quarters they share. Although Charlie is often indifferent towards everyday life, due in large part to a fractured relationship with his father, he genuinely cares about Ken and his plight, even if he is not always adept at expressing this. Ken’s awkward, self-deprecating nature – coupled with his inability to vet his thoughts as he verbalises them – makes him an endearing character and he provides a good-humoured remedy for Charlie’s churlishness.

There is a familiarity in this movie that is vaguely reminiscent of RTÉ’s Bachelors Walk – the streets, bars and scenery are all recognisable Dublin locations; these are typical students we all could have bumped into at 2am in a dodgy nightclub at some point in time. The intermittent narrator endeavours to provide a light-hearted tone – this doesn’t entirely work, but the attempt at doing something different is commendable. The Gingerbread Men is about a moment in time, a snapshot of two intersecting lives heading towards unclear futures. For now, however, the pair find a strange solace in one another, both heavy under the weight of their individual burdens. Like every other college student facing into the real world they are just trying to get by as best they can, doomed like so many before them to learn inalienable truths the hard way.

 

Emma O’Donoghue

The DVD can be ordered from http://www.secondwavefilms.com/buy-dvds.html and is available at various outlets.

Written, shot, directed & edited by Dáire McNab. Produced by Robert Kearns, Simone Cameron-Coen & Dáire McNab.
CAST: Elliot Moriarty as Charlie, Kenneth Conway as Ken, Gillian Walsh as Nicole, Louise Cargin as Marie.
Narrated by Damian Clark.

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We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – The Butcher Boy

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…


We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film

 

The Butcher Boy

(Neil Jordan, 1997)

‘… Funny, tragic and shocking, The Butcher Boy is both fascinating and disturbing for its unique depiction of psychosis…’

Emma O’Donoghue


In the early ’60s in a small town in Co. Monaghan, two best friends Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) and Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle) spend their days playing Cowboys and Indians, reading comic books and playing by the town’s fountain and stream. To Francie, Joe is the only stability in a chaotic and cold world. Francie’s mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) suffers from bouts of serious mental illness and his father (Stephen Rea) is an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic whose frequent outbursts of anger cause Francie to retreat into his own imagination – one which is rampant with aliens and communists and, in times of deep emotional distress, involves occasional visitations from a straight-talking Virgin Mary (Sinead O’Connor). Francie’s spiral into a world of sociopathic and violent behaviour is both aggravated and catalysed by a neighbour, Mrs Nugent (Fiona Shaw), who Francie believes is filled with ‘airs and graces’ and who frequently refers to him as a pig. Her overt snobbery towards him and his family enrages Francie, causing him to ransack her house and subsequently get sent to a home for boys run by ‘Fr Bubbles’ (Brendan Gleeson). It is on his return to his hometown and a very changed reality that Francie’s already fragile psyche is pushed to breaking point. The realisation that he has lost Joe as a true friend, and who worse still has befriended Mrs Nugent’s son Philip, is the final straw after a series of tragedies, pushing him to commit his final act of brutality.

The Butcher Boy

Feck off, you round tub of Guinness!

Based on the book of the same title by Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy was skilfully directed by Neil Jordan in 1997 and features a plethora of well-known and talented Irish actors. Although the movie explores solemn and tragic subjects – abuse, neglect, loneliness and mental illness – it is not entirely grim. Its upbeat soundtrack and lively performances provide a surreal quality that gives the movie a comic-book feel, making the horror slightly easier to swallow and giving us a sense of what it is like to live in Francie’s world. His increasing detachment from reality allows for a light comic relief as his inner monologue (an adult Francie played also by Stephen Rea) laughs, jokes and wilfully rejects reality, instead preferring to hunt monsters and aliens and fantasise about the bygone good times with Joe.

This is a phenomenal performance from Owens who we both pity and fear. He simultaneously embodies the playful recklessness of boyhood and the dark rage of a deeply troubled mind. The merit of the movie lies in blurring the lines between innocent childhood rebellion and dangerously psychotic behaviour. Funny, tragic and shocking, The Butcher Boy is both fascinating and disturbing for its unique depiction of psychosis, spreading from its quiet roots to its cacophonic fruition.

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Report: ABSOLUT Fringe Festival 2012 Launch

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Emma O’Donoghue reports from the launch of the ABSOLUT Fringe Festival 2012, Ireland’s largest multi-disciplinary arts festival. 

It was a full house at the Button Factory on Wednesday at the launch of the ABSOLUT Fringe Festival 2012. Now in its 18th year, the festival has reached adulthood and is planning to celebrate with its most eclectic selection of music, artistry and performance to date.

Providing guests with a glimpse of what they can expect from Ireland’s largest multidisciplinary arts festival, the night included speeches of warm appreciation by festival organisers and an unsurprisingly rollicking performance by the Rubberbandits. The plastic-bagged duo will returning during the festival to perform, supported by trad/rock band Pop Céilí, at Meeting House Square on 22nd September.

Stack-loads of impressively designed brochures were circulated among the crowd, sporting the tagline and this year’s theme ‘Occupy Your Imagination’. These luminescent booklets detail all of the acts that are on offer over the course of the festival and give a brief synopsis of each piece. The list is extensive, showcasing both emerging home-grown as well as international acts.

The Fringe Festival proposes to turn Dublin into a sixteen-day ‘dream factory’, with acts sprouting up all over the city in venues including the Project Arts Centre, Smock Alley Theatre, the Workman’s Club and the Samuel Beckett Theatre. There will also be events that move through the city, bringing the audience with them; one act will even bring you up the river Liffey. All signs point to a rambunctious medley of performances comprising theatre, discussion, games, music, dance and circus, all hoping to enliven the jaded mind, channelling both the sublime and the ridiculous.

The ABSOLUT Fringe Festival runs from 8–23 September. Further details, this year’s programme and tickets are available at www.fringefest.com

Emma O’Donoghue

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