AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
by Harlan Kennedy
All great sound
movies aspire to a condition of silence. In time, memory washes away the
sound effects, music, dialogue – though the glitziest of that will be stolen
for posterity by kitsch-traders ("offer he can't refuse...,"
"round up the usual...," "bumpy night...") – leaving as
eternal shore-wrack those images we can't forget. Music amplifies; dialogue
explains; sound effects locate. But the greatness of a movie story lies in
what isn't made audible, just hauntingly seen and remembered. Vertigo's
Scottie standing speechless on his
Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, the best British feature debut in years, is full of silence and the poignancy of time. Set during a famous 1970s garbage strike, when black bags blobbed the land from Scotland to Land's End and rats thought Heaven had arrived early, the film all but equates detritus and disorder with life, and hope; order, cleanliness with death. Early on, a boy drowns in a muddy strip of urban canal. He is apparently unmourned, at least by 12-year-old James (bonyfaced, lantern-jawed, pixilated-looking William Eadie), who pushed him under the water during a fight and fled rather than stay to rescue him.
The death reverberates so deep inside him that we have to guess at its sounds, peer at its half-hidden movements. Its explicit resonance exists only in a mother's cameo'd grief and in taunts from local thugs: "You killed Ryan Quinn." Death becomes James's hugged secret and the barely heard ostinato of the whole movie. At the end he himself may have gone to "a better life," if we believe the Vigo-ish slo-mo shots of him sinking through the same canal's water while dreamy visions are intercut of his family carrying furniture through a cornfield to the gleaming new housing estate the boy has visited on two truant intermezzi. In this hallucinatory coda the back of the white sofa that Dad is helping to carry through the field bulges behind him like an angel's wing. Is the scene "real"? Is anything?
Ratcatcher, though, doesn't feel like a copy of anything. The perspective is both too large and too small to accommodate easy plagiarisms. The domestic realism is so in-your-face that homage couldn't squeeze into the gap between viewer and viewed: half-asleep dad on a sofa drooling spittle while Tom Jones yodels "What's New, Pussycat?" on TV, James and younger sister Anne Marie (Lynne Ramsay Jr., the director's niece) having lice combed from their hair in insect-crunching detail, a shared bath scene with James and promiscuous teenager Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen) whose intimacy lies in its very innocence, its pre-erotic sex-play. The next moment, the movie is up and away into reveries that seem surreal and outlandish and yet still, somehow, umbilical. In one sequence James's friend Kenny ties a pet mouse to a balloon and releases it into the sky. The balloon plus twitching cargo are seen in outer space looking down on Earth; next, they land on the Moon where the rodent joins other cavorting mice; finally this image is seen in black and white on the snowily flickering family TV and we zoom out to rejoin "reality."
Ramsay's feat is to put the viewer in a state of trusting suspension, a kind of filmic flotation tank. Her realism is not dependent on chronology or literal plausibility. Conversely, her poetry never drifts so free from character, setting, or themes as to become fey or escapist. That mouse is a Good Cousin to the garbage rats. It is James himself, lost and affectless scavenger, seeking meaning in a muck-ridden world or, failing that, transcendence in some mystical opening between dreaming and death. The boy he "kills" in the canal seems one moment to haunt him, the next to be forgotten by him. And when his dad later rescues a second boy from the canal (it is mouse-launching Kenny) Ramsay uses the incident for a transference of emotion. All the hullabaloo we didn't get with boy one's death is heaped on this episode, absurdly, comically – including a Mayoral medal for dad – although the dark coda to the applause is the hero-of-the-hour's beating-up by thugs on the way back from celebrating at the pub.
Ratcatcher freshens reality and outfoxes cliché by constantly decoupling cause and effect, and – more important – cause and affect. We never reach a final point where we can say of a character that we know how he/she will behave. Dad rescues a drowning boy but clouts his wife and sometimes moodily maltreats his kids. Little Anne Marie is the family stoolpigeon, telling Dad that James secretly spat in his beer, but later she finds a brotherly hug when she crawls into his arms on a sofa. And Margaret Anne becomes an unguessable but convincing complex of emotional greed and vulnerability. The interchangeable New Testament echoes in her relationship with James are surely intentional. She asks him to touch the wound on her knee, a stigmatum that Ramsay closes in on more than once. He in turn lovingly cleans her hair of lice, a pint-sized Jesus cleansing a mod Mary Magdalene.
salvation and transcendence seem far from high-falutin
in this film. Working-class
The other potential utopia for lost souls – the new housing estate – is an abstraction looking for validation by human occupancy. Ramsay makes this jigsaw-puzzle living space a Tati playground. The bath taps yield no water. The windows are glassless sutures with views, surreal as Magritte paintings. And when Jamie pees into the lavatory bowl, his urine leaks straight through the unplumbed fixture onto the floor.
The housing project doesn't seem any more real as haven or heaven than death: a fact both comic and tragic. (Dad has probably already scuppered the family's chance of a new house anyway. When two council officials visit during a hangover morning, he is stretched semi-naked and unwashed on a livingroom put-you-up, covered with cereal prankishly thrown on him by James. "Have we caught you at a bad time?" one official dryly asks.) You can't escape except in your mind, Ratcatcher says: another fact both happy and bleak. Bleak that for many where-you-are-born is likely to be where-you-will-stay. Happy that the imagination is no respecter of circumstance or geography and that going to another world doesn't have to mean – though it might – death. (The distant squeal of trains in a shunting yard, an aural leitmotif, suggests at once grim urban reality and a Di Chirico promise of travel, of escape.) Human beings make patterns of reality and patterns make poetry. James carving shapes in table salt; James seeing the mind's fluid world in the canal's waters; James's parents creating a momentary core of love and reconciliation as they dance in a fantasized pool of light in the livingroom.
Ramsay's determination to find beatitude in ugliness gives almost every image a double value, an ambiguity. The sprawling heaps of black garbage bags are a health-threatening eyesore one minute, an adventure playground the next. The canal – which Ramsay's crew built themselves, not being able to find a real one with the right picturesque squalor (progress?) – is at once a weeping scar on the townscape and a perverse dream-oasis. And in one shot, for me the film's most beautiful, the subtlest track-zoom overview of a street conveys the contrary-motion harmony – love and hate – of memory. For a moment the puddles in the street seem impossibly sky-blue and the same blue has crept into windows and reflective surfaces. A doomy world is given a facelift, even apotheosis, by an accident of light or an artist's wishful thinking. Hope will find a way, Ratcatcher says. For every rodent reign of terror there is a Pied Piper. For every city of dystopic despond there is an evacuation route – the human imagination.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN/FEB 2000 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.