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Screening Scotland.


British Film Institute, London, 2000.

National identity is a defining, sometimes catastrophic, aspect of modernity and Scotland, most curiously, is the oldest of European nations. From its national foundations depicted in the saga of William Wallace to the physical and linguistic energy abounding among the 1990s drug-addicts of Leith, nationality has been a continuing question and concern. How much did Mel Gibson understand about what he was tapping into with Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995)? Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party between 1990 and 2000, commented:

In 1995, Braveheart mania broke out, and it had a pretty powerful political impact. The SNP campaigned on the back of the film, and surged to 30 per cent in the polls. I well remember 20th Century Fox sending the SNP a lawyer's letter demanding that we 'cease and desist' from distributing Braveheart leaflets outside cinemas. They changed their minds when I gently pointed out that while we may have appropriated the stills from their film, they had appropriated the story of our hero!

The Conservative Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth was roundly booed at the Braveheart premiere. The road was opening up to the 1997 referendum when the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resumed parliament, devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh. But to understand how the rising tide of national self-confidence in Scotland in the 1990s altered the country's political identity, Braveheart would have to be held alongside its contemporary post-punk version, Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996). They are the two sides of a two-faced coin, for what is Gibson's Wallace if not Hollywood's version of Mark Renton, and what is Ewan McGregor's Renton if not the defiant hero in extremity, taking drugs, as his author Irvine Welsh puts it, 'in psychic defence'?

There is a complex hinterland to these strange and unpredicted film successes. Representing the country and the people who live in it on screen is a story more complex than commonly known. The distinction of Duncan Petrie's refreshingly enthusiastic study is an eager appetite for all its multi-facetted aspects, the different streams and sources from which various achievements 'and catastrophic failures' have come. Hollywood constructions, the Grierson-led documentary tradition, the significant development of television versions of Scotland, new Scottish art-cinema, the institutions which have fostered production and the themes and ideas which preoccupied producers, and finally the nouveau-chic and nouveau-kitsch in popular representations of Scottishness, all feed into the story Petrie tells. They lead to a cautious but affirmative positioning at the outset of the twenty-first century, where the liabilities, embarrassments and cliches of the past can be seen in a critical but sympathetic light, and the potential for a more comprehensive understanding suggests a ground of unprecedented possibility.

This comprehensiveness distinguishes Screening Scotland from its most important predecessors, each with its own idiosyncratic value: Forsyth Hardy's Scotland in Film (Edinburgh University Press, 1990) and From Limelight to Satellite: A Scottish Film Book (British Film Institute, 1990), edited by Eddie Dick. Petrie's pitch is much more inclusive of television screening as well as film, and complemented by discussion of the economic and industrial modes of production in the whole political context of cultural change in the twentieth century. Serious scholarship, wide-ranging research and extensive factual data underlie the book and appendices, giving information about international funding for Scottish productions and short film production schemes, offer essential insight into the material means by which the images found their way into vision. However, Petrie is not constrained by factuality: his book is an account of the pleasures and potentials of screen representation, a recognition of what's been done and of what might yet be.

He begins with 'External Constructions', and identifies the context of Scotland's representation within the field of British and American cinema. The most damning indictment of representations of Scotland in film and TV came in the slim 1982 volume, Scotch Reels, edited by Colin McArthur. Petrie begins with McArthur's judgement that cinematic representation of Scotland and the Scots has been characterized by a total inadequacy in addressing historical and contemporary reality. McArthur called for film-makers to search for a path through the myths to reality, but Petrie also offers a critique of McArthur's study while acknowledging that it provides an invaluable starting point to thinking systematically and critically about the dominant cinematic representations that have defined a certain national image. Petrie's critique insists, however, that the antidote to the belittling image inherent in the cliches can be found not only in film but also in literary sources.

The dark visions in the novels of George Douglas Brown and John MacDougall Hay were contemporary demolition jobs on the benevolent Kailyard (cabbage-patch) fiction, where the focus was the small town looked after by a benevolent minister, a world of light romance, boy's-own adventures, and 'harmless escapism'. In Douglas Brown's novel The House with the Green Shutters, for example, nascent capitalism in a village community leads to a Greek extremity of tragic devastation, absolute and horrifying. Similarly, films like Bill Douglas's Trilogy (My Childhood, 1971; My Ain Folk, 1973; My Way Home, 1979), David Macdonald's The Brothers (1947), or even parts of Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), might be read much more critically to reveal their own interrogations of acceptable realism and comfortingly familiar tropes of Scottishness. The myths of Scottishness are not merely the masks which divert attention from underlying conditions of economic and class oppression--they are masks which might actually reveal those conditions. Crucial to this view is Petrie's proposition that Scotland has traditionally been seen as an imaginary space, where fantasies, desires, anxieties have been projected. Perhaps the epitome of this is the Hollywood producer Arthur Freed's declaration after he had been taken around the country, that he had to go back to America to produce a conspicuously studio-bound set for Brigadoon (Vincente Minelli, 1954): 'I went to Scotland but I could find nothing that looked like Scotland'. Yet in this light, the delightful absurdities of Brigadoon are not unrelated to the nightmarish foreclosures of The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973), where the blond trio of Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt help make one of the most bizarre depictions of a peripheral Scottish community in cinema history. Indeed, Petrie rather mischievously suggests that The Wicker Man can be seen as a re-fashioning of Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949) 'the principled, arrogant, authority-figure is outwitted and out-manipulated by wily locals'. Variations in this tradition might run from The Maggie (Alexander Mackendrick, 1954) to Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) and there are striking similarities in Irish films.

The potential value of the country's imaginary space was more often surrendered to pre-formulated imageries, however, these imageries held sway. There is what Petrie calls 'The Jacobite Legacy', from silent cinema to David Niven as Bonnie Prince Charlie (Anthony Kimmins, 1948), Walt Disney's version of Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue (Harold French, 1953) and Errol Flynn as The Master of Ballantrae (William Keighley, 1953). The latter turns to the pleasure of swashbuckle Stevenson's most completely tragic story and in the former, the tone is set as the Jacobite rising is inevitably depicted with a fore-or-dained outcome. There is little sense that the march on London was a real threat to contemporary British Hanoverian civilization and caused such panic among city financiers that the value of the English pound dropped to sixpence. Here again, the literary influence is close: Scott's post-Culloden Highlands of lost causes and tragic survivors and Stevenson's David Balfour, on the run from the redcoats in Kidnapped, are pervasive paradigms; Balfour's breathless chase prefiguring Richard Hannay's in a different genre. Petrie's summation is that the cinematic projection of Scottish history is dominated by the romance, the images, tropes and symbols of eighteenth-century Jacobitism.

There is an urban alternative. By 1911, Scotland was the most urbanized country in the world, after England. Edinburgh provided a deeply shadowed image of an ancient capital, a medieval city of body-snatchers, duplicitous lawyers, demonic doctors, needy students and necessary victims in an urban jungle of the well-to-do and desperately poor. From Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Reuben Mamoulian, 1932; Victor Fleming, 1941) to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969) the ambivalence of high principles and good intentions in the unrequitable human world of appetites, desires and vanities, seems to have been Edinburgh's prerogative. Glasgow, by contrast, became much more familiar as a post-Victorian, modern industrial city, progressive with industry and social consensus, home of shipbuilding, heroic with the huge ambition of capitalist enterprise and the pathos of the socialist effort. Clydesidism, Petrie quotes John Caughie writing in 1990, is the mythology of the Scottish twentieth century, the discourse which seems currently most potent, and not yet universally recognized as mythology. And it is one of this book's virtues that it proceeds from an understanding that such mythological histories are both mythologies and enormously potent ways by which people make sense of their own reality.

Petrie is very good at suggestively re-reading films that are either ancient familiars or forgotten curiosities. He has the engaging ability to make you want to see them again. For example, I Know Where I'm Going (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945) is a formulaic romance story yet the elements of Gothic chiaroscuro cinematography, baroquely self-conscious narrative and surreal characterizations that emerge in Petrie's reading of it are accurate, unexpected and invigorating.

Having considered these major areas of the Highlands and Islands as metaphorical space, the Metropolitan projection of 'Scottishness' into that space, the Jacobite films and the City films, Petrie begins the story again, firmly repositioning himself within the country. The second part of his study is entitled 'The Making of a National Cinema'. He quotes Jean-Luc Godard's provocative remarks from 1991:

There have been very few national cinemas. In my opinion there is no Swedish cinema but there are Swedish moviemakers--some very good ones such as Stiller and Bergman. There have been only a handful of [national] cinemas: Italian, German, American and Russian. This is because when countries were inventing and using motion pictures, they needed an image of themselves.

These comments indicate the dangers of complacency in trying to establish ground for national self-representation on screen. Yet Petrie's book demonstrates that the external construction of various Scotlands, has in some ways helped to create a multiple sense of possible developments. The constraints of caricature do not necessarily lead to straightjacketing categories in which creative energies are frustrated.

Considered in a context of national change in self-perception, self-definition and representation to both national and international audiences and readerships, Scotland on screen is an essential part of a larger story. Petrie is wise to introduce comments and questions from two of Scottish literature's major modern writers: Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Hugh MacDiarmid; in particular, MacDiarmid's speculations on the possible relationship between film and poetry and his insistence on the reciprocity of particular local actualities and universal significance. This points forward to MacDiarmid's championship of the short Orkney and Edinburgh films of Margaret Tait in the 1950s and 1960s, but it also links the writers with the documentary innovations of John Grierson in the 1930s. The fact that these documentaries were specifically crafted, edited and shaped, and were not by any means unprocessed footage of verite, connects them to the writing of Grassic Gibbon, for example. In his great trilogy of novels, Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, Gibbon created a linguistic idiom deliberately representative of the speech-idiom of Aberdeenshire, beautifully cadenced and vocal, but never so reeking in verisimilitude that it became incomprehensible to outsiders. It was an artistic balance, a compromise between authentic tones and rhythms of native speech and the capacities of an international readership to comprehend both the local and the universal in the characters. Something similar was going on in Grierson's work. That work continued from Drifters (1929) right up to the 1960s, and Petrie gives a detailed account of associates, developments and changes as they happened in the wake of Grierson's push, concurrently with the rise of television.

He is astute to perceive and discuss the coincidence of a nascent native film industry with Bill Forsyth's That Sinking Feeling (1979) and Gregory's Girl (1981) and the pioneering moments of a new relationship between TV and cinema in Britain with the advent of Channel 4, which began broadcasting on 2 November 1982. 'Scotland and the Television Play', forms a crucial sub-chapter. Once again the connections between film and literary culture are vital. Adaptations of literary classics, including The House with the Green Shutters and the Gibbon trilogy alongside television versions of theatre-plays like Roddy McMillan's The Bevellers and John Byrne's The Slab Boys led towards the radical television reinterpretation of John McGrath and the 7:84 Theatre Company's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. The distinction of this collectively-written work was to have taken theatre to people whose lives would normally never have taken them to theatres at all. The company's name derived from a statistic in The Economist, that seven per cent of the country owned eighty-four per cent of the country's wealth. The effectiveness of its adaptation to the medium of television was reflected in its splicing of contemporary documentary film from the North Sea oil-rigs about working conditions and the economic effects of the oil-boom in Aberdeenshire. This hammered out the message about the continuing, current relevance of the story of subjugation and exploitation which the play traced from the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Some Anglocentric critics at the time, while praising the televized theatre presentation, drew the line at the incorporation of documentary-style footage, complaining that it detracted from the play's impact.

Despite, one wonders, because of what Petrie calls this formal radicalism, the play remained something of an isolated experiment in television drama. But perhaps another reason for this is that at that time in Scotland the influence of Eastern-European theatre and especially Brechtian technique was giving way to the influence of American popular culture. Certainly these influences found unusual companionship in later years (in Trainspotting for example, unavoidably glamorized yet alienating and morally deeply unresolved), but in the 1970s, American popular culture was coming through very powerfully in the work of Peter McDougall. Of McDougall's TV plays, Just Another Saturday (1975) presents a version of Holden Caulfield as a young stick thrower in a Protestant flute band taking part in his first city-parade, having to pass through Fenian Alley, as if he were the scout at the head of a cavalry regiment riding through Indian territory in John Ford's Monument Valley urbanized to Glasgow. Just a Boy's Game (1979) had rock-star Frankie Miller as a Glasgow hardman forced to face up to a younger generation of toughs much as the gunfighter wanting to hang up his guns is forced out of retirement in countless westerns. In both texts, the geist of drink, rising unemployment, night-time wandering, comradeship and family betrayals also drew on the world of noir film and fiction from the 1920s on.

The excitement of the influence of American popular culture was a source of strength and sustenance. It might be traced back to the James Bond movie Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964), when, after the climactic battle in Fort Knox, Sean Connery approaches his plane and asks his American friends; 'I suppose I'll be able to get a drink on board?' The actor's words, accent, mannerism and body-language, all bespeak his nationality. In a sense, the moment marks the beginning of colonization in reverse: a trans-Atlantic action genre and international icon becomes fully inhabited by the century's most distinctively Scottish identity and voice.

The appropriation of American popular culture was most fruitful in Scottish television drama in the 1980s and 1990s in John Byrne's wonderfully ironic and unpredicted genre-shifting serials Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart (which reintroduced rock and roll and country and western music as crucial components of west-of-Scotland working-class culture). It's also evident in the international popularity of the police series Taggart which even survived its principle character's death in 1994. Work like this, Petrie comments, 'established a new image of Glasgow (and by extension, Scotland) as a vibrant, heterogeneous modern city, a space defined as much by culture as by heavy industry, populated by different ethnic as well as socio-economic groups'.

Alongside these developments in TV, Petrie discusses what he calls a 'Scottish Art Cinema', noting in the work of Bill Forsyth, for example, that as well as the popular qualities of charm and humour in his films, there are recurring themes of loss, loneliness and isolation. Petrie is thoroughly familiar and fluent with Scotland's representation on film and television screens throughout the 1990s and he describes the major development taking place at this time. It is a development in self-confidence and questioning humour in which new interrogations are enacted of the conventions of identity, whether defined by class, gender, age, locality or indeed nationality. Healthily derisive laughter at pomp and pretension is increasingly evident.

In a famous scene in Trainspotting, the main character delivers a coruscating verbal damnation of the notion that a landscape might make you feel proud to be Scottish: 'The Scots are the lowest of the low', he says, 'and all the fresh air in the world won't make any difference'. But this isn't an escape from nationality: it's one answer to the curse of limitation nationality might be. Duncan Petrie's book charts a successful journey away from the homogenized, platitudinous comforts of the small-town Kailyard version of Scottishness (when people talked of Grannie's Highland Home, without thinking about the state of its plumbing), a journey out of the ineptitude and infantilism unconnected to reality, a movement towards a tougher sense of what myths like Clydesidism are, how they are made and why they are needed. It describes a journey into a position which might demonstrate the expression of cultural specificity in terms that are both resolutely national and international in their relevance and appeal.

Alan Riach lectures in the department of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow.
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Author:Riach, Alan
Publication:Metro Magazine
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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