Luke Gibbons, review of Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries by Emer & Kevin Rockett,
in The Irish Times (10 May 2003)

Details: Luke Gibbons, review of Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries by Emer & Kevin Rockett, in The Irish Times (10 May 2003), Weekend Review, p.11; available online [orig. access date unknown]

0n the weekend before its demolition in 1996, the magnificent set of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins was opened to the public. As tens of thousands strolled underneath the tramlines, catching glimpses of themselves in shop windows meticulously recreated down to the last cigarette packet and bottle label, some could be forgiven for thinking they had strayed into another cityscape, that of James Joyce’s Publin. The resemblance was more than superficial. Joyce had imagined that Dublin could be rebuilt from the pages of Ulysses; Jordan’s imagination took him at his word and, with a touch the master would have relished, relocated his born-again Dublin in the grounds of Grangegorman mental hospital.

Just as naturalism in Joyce - for all its ‘scrupulous meanness’ - serves as a point of departure for more elusive, recalcitrant worlds, so also Jordan’s marvellous eye for detail as a film-maker has been exercised not in the cause of realism but that of fantasy, dream and imagination. Cinema is not a reflection of reality but a projection of desire, and it is the essentially unfulfilled nature of desire that animate’s the endless quests that drive the characters forward - or backwards - in his films. As Emer and Kevin Rockett point out in their exemplary study, the long-awaited first book-length treatment of Jordan’s work much of Irish cinema since its resurgence in the 1970s set itself the task of disenchanting romantic Ireland, bringing images on the screen up to date with the harsh realities of contemporary (or, for that matter, traditional) Ireland. Jordan, by contrast, set to work on imagination itself, exploring the submerged fears, anxietiesand longing which give rise to romanticism in the first place - albeit through a decidedly off-beam, modernist sensibility.

Not least of the strengths of the Rocketts’ study is the, extensive use made of the Jordan papers in the National Library of Ireland. (One can only surmise - in a manner not, entirely foreign to the cyclical narratives of the movies themselves - that some of the papers were read at the actual desks where they were written two decades earlier.) Attention to Jordan’s early output - the prose fiction of Night in Tunisia and The Past, the radio/television play; Miracles and Miss Langan - reveals a thematic consistency that has ebbed and flowed through an extraordinarily wide range of films, but has never subsided. Central to this - and the ceaseless striving of desire - is the cyclical nature of narrative, receiving its emblematic, Hitchcockian expression in the image of the Ferris wheel in the background of the opening seduction scene in The Crying Game (1991), but given a more literal Mylesian spin in Michael Collins (1996), when de Valera turns the wheel of an upturned bicycle as if attempting - however vaingloriously - to control what history has in store for the painful birth of the Republic.

The tendency to go round in circles - Michael Collins’s fatal revisiting of his birthplace, the charred remains of the ballroom in Angel, Francie Brady’s search for ‘Beautiful Bundoran’, in The Butcher Boy (1997), or Jimmy’s repetition of his own conception overlooking the promenade in Bray in The Miracle (1991) - is related to the fraught and complex variations on the Oedipal triangle which recur in Jordan’s work. In the emotional underworld of these films, two is company but three is a couple (to quote psychoanalyst Adarn Phillips). If the past few decades have witnessed a concerted attempt by Irish women to get out from under the shadow of ‘Mother Ireland’, this takes on a Gothic twist for the beleaguered males in Jordan’s films, who in their quest for - or escape from - primordial attachments, find themselves repeatedly returning to the scene of a crime.

Or maybe the crime is in the return itself. More often than not, Oedipal relations consist not so much in two men competing for the love of the same forbidden woman but struggling with their forbidden love for each other. Throughout their study, the Rocketts point out that no more than with ‘reality’, ‘normality’ is also one of the first casualties of a Jordan film. Boundaries are there to be crossed, but yet a sense of hubris remains that somehow there are larger forces at work which are not subject,to choice, lifestyles or the mutations of desire. This is starkly brought out In The Crying Game where, for all the erotic masquerade and startling reinventions of sexuality, the story still turns on the parable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the scorpion kills the creature who helps him across the river for no other reason than that ‘it’s in my nature’. The authors quote the American critic, Bell Hooks [sic], to the effect that the crossing of boundaries ‘does not disrupt conventional representations of subordination and domination’ and it is perhaps this thin line between mere inversion and subversion which has fuelled the prodigious creative energies of Jordan’s work in the past three decades.

Commenting on Ulysses, James Joyce remarked on one occasion that only a transparent sheet separated it from madness. For the characters in Neil Jordan’s films, that sheet is the camera lens itself, and the authors of the present book are to be commended for adding their own critical focus to the work of this most versatile and visionary of Irish film-makers.


[ Luke Gibbons is Professor of English, and Film, Television and Theatre, at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His most recent book, The Quiet Man, was published last year by Cork University Press. ]

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