Monday, May 31, 2021

My Cinemania

Ireland's cinemas have been closed for pretty much the entire duration of the Covid-19 lockdown, aside from a short spell when they reopened for a few weeks, back in the summer. I find myself increasingly craving the big screen experience, as I imagine are thousands of other Irish cinema fans.

This situation has had me looking back at the cinema infatuation of my twenties. I don't know if infatuation is the best word. Passion, obsession, compulsion, and mania might all apply just as well. I pretty much spent my twenties in the cinema.

I only really started attending the cinema in 2001, when I was twenty-three. I saw twenty-nine films in the cinema that year. (Figures are courtesy of a spreadsheet I put together, about a decade ago, of all the films I could remember seeing, with the help of a movie almanac. I've kept it updated conscientiously since then.)

After that it really took off. Here are the figures:

2002: 29
2003: 58
2004: 68
2005: 94

2005 was the peak. After that my cinema attendance dropped significantly, though it went up and down from year to year:

2006: 30
2007: 21
2008: 5
2009: 19
2010: 40
2011: 33
2012: 20
2013: 15

In 2013, I got married, and had more claims on my time and income:

2014: 9
2015: 1
2016: 4
2017: 5
2018: 5
2019: 4
2020: 1

My cinema-going really began in 2001, the year I started working in UCD library, where I still work. But actually it began before I started in UCD, when I was in a training course in a Christian Brothers research library called The Allen Library. My mother had died in January of that year.

Although I've loved films all my life, I'd avoided going to the cinema for so long for the most ridiculous reason. I was too timid to buy a ticket. It sounds utterly bizarre now, even to me, but I was unsure how to go about it. I didn't know what to say when I got to the box office. Somehow I got it into my head that there was a lot more to it than just naming the film you wanted to see. There it is. Shyness was the bane of my youth.

The few visits to the cinema in my childhood are some of my happiest memories. I was taken to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Young Sherlock Holmes, Biggles, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Batman.

As well as this, there was a Saturday morning film show in the community centre that my father helped to set up and run, back in the eighties. The film were shown on a big projector screen in a large dark hall with refreshments outside, and were often recent releases, so it was more or less the same thing as the cinema. I can't remember all the films I saw there. They included Back to the Future and The Karate Kid.

The first film I went to see in 2001, when I started going on my own, was The Mummy Returns. It was an inauspicious start. The film itself was poor and, for some reason I can't remember, I arrived late and left early. But soon I was hooked.

The first film that I remember really impressing me, in this first year of attending on my own, was a Canadian horror film called Ginger Snaps. It was about two teenage girls who find themselves turning into werewolves. The tagline was "They don't call it the curse for nothing". I was pleased at the idea that the cinema could address important features of the human condition, such as female puberty, in such a tangential way. Visually it was quite impressive, with its own dark and cluttered aesthetic.

Before I actually became a frequent cinema-goer, I wrote a poem favourably comparing an old single-screen movie house with modern multiplexes. Once I started attending the cinema, I quickly changed my mind on this. I'm a big fan of multiplexes. I like big, plush cinemas. I like knowing that other movies are being screened around me, simultaneous with the film I'm watching. The cinema I fell in love with (and the one I attended most frequently by far) was the Omniplex in Santry, a big, dark, comfortable multiplex with a large lobby, part of a busy shopping centre. I quickly came to feel very at home in its plebeian, unabashedly commercial atmosphere.

Cinema-going was a sort of spiritual rebirth for me. It was a new world, a new phase of my life. It felt as though both myself and the world had become younger. Although I had been to the cinema before, going on my own somehow seemed a completely different experience. It reawakened all of my senses-- the huge glowing screen, the echoing surround-sound, the scent of popcorn, the taste of my medium-sized Coke (Coke tastes better in the cinema than it does anywhere else).

Strangely enough, I felt this sense of awe most powerfully, not when I was watching the feature, but when I was watching the ads and the trailers beforehand. Even today, I feel like a visit to the cinema is half-ruined if I miss a single trailer. Some particular ads stand out in my memory. There was an ad for Orangina which featured (I think) a huge orange with arms and legs, dancing up a staircase to the tune "Cheek to Cheek". As you probably know, the song opens with the words: "Heaven, I'm in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak..." The first few seconds of this advertisement had such a profound effect on me that I've never forgotten it. The colours and the lighting, as well as the rendition of the song, struck me as heightened, otherworldly, even eerie (in a pleasing way).

The Carlton Screen Advertising intro, which is sadly now obsolete, also branded itself into my memory-- pun fully intended.

I developed a ritual: I would buy a medium-sized Coke and wait until the very first trailer to take my first sip. I never ate food in the cinema. Sometimes I would have a lemon-flavoured Lucozade while wandering around the shopping centre before the film. The cinema was about a twenty minute walk from my home, and I would always walk there and back.

I generally liked to go on a Saturday morning. I much prefer to go to the cinema in the daytime than at night. Walking out of the darkness into the daylight, with life still going on all around me, was a sensation that became familiar and then cherished. (Although I've only browsed it, I love the title Mornings in the Dark, a collection of Graham Greene film reviews.) Although morning has always remained my favourite time for cinema attendance, I did develop a habit (somewhere around 2004) of going on Friday nights, sometimes to premiers. I much prefer a sleepy, mostly-empty cinema to a crowded one, but a crowded one has its own pleasures.

It could be argued that cinema-going became compulsive to me, that it was simply a way of filling emptiness. I was single and in a steady but undemanding job. I didn't really have a social life. Aside from wanting to write (and I was writing), I had no real direction to my life.

But I really dislike that kind of assumption. I didn't go to the cinema because I had nothing better to do. I went to the cinema because I loved it, because it was an avenue to the sublime.

I felt a bit embarrassed because I was going on my own all the time, not having anybody to go with. I got so worked up about it that I imagined people assumed a man alone in a cinema was some kind of weirdo, and were looking askance at me.  I've changed my mind completely about this. Solitary cinema-going is the best form of cinema-going. Yes, talking about the movie afterwards is a pleasure of its own, but it's hard to really disappear into a film if you're always conscious of the person or people sitting next to you. Only, perhaps, if you go with a spouse or very close friend-- somebody you're not worried about impressing or entertaining-- can having company in the cinema not ruin the experience. Going to the cinema in a group is a travesty.

I also got a bit embarrassed and defensive about my cinema-going. Everybody at work would always ask me the same question: "Seen any movies lately?". I began to feel as though this was all anybody associated with me, that I had nothing else in my life. I even stopped going to the cinema for a period of months out of pure contrarianism, so that when people asked me "Seen any movies lately?", I could reply: "No". (Looking back, this was very silly. I realize now that everybody struggles to have anything to say to other people, and they're just grateful to have something, anything, to ask about.)

I went to see pretty much anything that was on. I would turn up at the cinema without any idea what was playing. I saw an awful lot of bad movies this way, but I also discovered some wonderful movies that were given a critical mauling, that I never would have tried if I was less adventurous in my cinema-going.

Sometimes I would even take days off work to see a particular movie; for instance, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill in 2003 (both instalments).

For a few months in 2005, I lodged in a house which was right next door to a cinema-- the Ormonde cinema in Stilorgan. As you can imagine, my cinema-going became particularly frequent at this time. The Ormonde had a very young clientele, and audience participation was intense. I particularly remember the film Red Eye, a thriller set on board an airplane, during which the hooting and screaming and laughing never seemed to stop. I enjoyed this greatly.

On about half-a-dozen occasions I've been the only person watching the movie. The first time this happened was The Alamo in 2004. It's a unique sensation.

The movies are a big, intense experience and they somehow bolster one's belief that life itself is a big, intense experience. They are a form of heightened, concentrated life. Maybe I overdid it-- I can remember how flat the experience sometimes became, during a particularly dull or clichéd movie-- but I don't really regret my cinemania, and I think it left a lasting legacy on my mind.

And I can't wait for the cinemas to re-open.

Friday, May 28, 2021

A Blog Post by My Father

My father, Peadar Kelly, died in May 2019. This is an article he wrote in The Ballymun News, a community newspaper (later magazine) that he edited and wrote (almost single-handedly) for almost thirty years. This article appeared in the November-December issue of 1996. I came across it when I was leafing through the few issues of the Ballymun News in my possession, and thought that it was worth sharing. Although it's specific to Ireland in the nineties, I think the same issues still apply in most Western countries today-- and further afield, for all I know.

Regular readers of the blog will see that my father had a huge influence on my outlook. RTE, as I'm sure all of my readers will know, is the Irish state broadcaster.

"RTE.-- Supporting the Arts", the voice on the radio tells us. And we are left with the beguiling image of the Director General passing round the hat in the Montrose canteen. It's not true, of course. What the announcer should be saying is, "RTE license payers-- Supporting the Arts". But since the poor sods who cough up the subscription fee under pain of a stretch in Mountjoy are never asked for an opinion on the matter (much less what branch of the arts they would like to support) the correction might prove subversive.

It's much the same with the National Lottery and the Arts Council. The punters paying the tax or buying the ticket relinquish all notions of ever calling the tune. We are simply too thick to be consulted.

The Ballymunners who will ever hear a live performance by an RTE orchestra, haunt the art galleries or occupy a seat in the Abbey may not be quite so rare as the Red Indian on the banks of the Potomac, but they run that endangered gentleman a close second in the rarity stakes.

We agree with the policy of support for the arts. Excellence should be promoted in any civilized society. The question is, what is art? How do you define it?

In our humble opinion, only time can determine what is or is not "Art". Contemporary art is a nonsense, only the judgement of the generations to come can bestow the "imprimatur". And it is our earnest wish that posterity will consign most modern art to the dustbin reserved for irrelevancies. Because, and we say this in all seriousness, if what passes for art today is still around fifty years hence, then western society will have become a jungle of which the most "red in tooth and claw" predator could be proud. As proof of what we say, consider the calibre of creative geniuses who would in all probability be turned down for Arts Counil funding if they made an appearance in Merrion Square in the morning.

Applicant: W.B. Yeats.

Reason for refusal: too many rhyming couplets; subject matter too transparent. Insufficient obscurity of theme, even a peasant could understand his stuff.

Applicant: Leonardo Da Vinci.

Reason for refusal: much too figurative; ears and mouths in the same old boring places. Lacks the imagination of the true artist. Should take up engineering or architecture.

Applicant: P.G. Wodehouse.

Reason for refusal: call this funny? 50,000 words and not a single expletive, not even a side-splitting reference to the natural functions. This writer is too sexually inhibited to be amusing.

My father, at my wedding

Applicant: Victor Herbert.

Reason for refusal: writer of tuneful jingles. Lacks the muscularity of a Bono or a Liam Gallagher. His stuff is redolent of such bourgeois concepts as romance, chivalry, monogamy and marriage. No future.

Applicant: J.M. Synge.

Reason for refusal: Writes a lot of twaddle about off-shore islanders. Unsympathetic treatment of female characters, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quinn, naming both after the man in their lives. No European context.

Applicant: Charles Dickens.

Reason for refusal: Excessively didactic. Can't make up his mind whether to be a novelist or a humanitarian reformer. Long-winded and mawkishly sentimental. Will never sell.

Applicant: Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Reason for refusal: Religious nut!

Feel free to add to that list as the mood takes you. And remember this; all of the above have survived the test of time because the great, unwashed public has recognised the outstanding talent they possessed. They had no compliant Arts Council to featherbed them in the pursuit of elitist indulgence, no Arts Minister prepared to spend public money on experiments and projects that are beyond rational comprehension. Even beyond the comprehension of the Arts Council, if they were to be honest about it.

A flying visit to the friendly town of Ennis last summer caused strange thoughts to enter the addled brain. Ennis and Ballymun have much the same population, 20, 000 plus, though in the matter of public houses, Ennis has about ninety to Ballymun's two. That statistic in itself speaks a multitude, but it was what was happening in those pubs that gave us pause for thought. We don't know how many traditional musicians there are in Ennis, but in pub after pub they were assembled in groups (as many as ten in one pub) and the sessions were a joy to the ear. Most surprising of all, there was never a harsh word spoken in any of the pubs we visited. And no sign of trouble on the streets.

We don't have traditional musicians playing in Ballymun. Male and female strippers, yes. Mr. Pussy, certainly. Rock bands, to be sure. And no shortage of macho morons (male and female) who feel the compulsion to kick somebody's head in as the appropriate way to end a night out. The question we ask ourselves is, why this savagely contrasting tale of two communities?

Ballymun as it was around the time of this article

Despite the heroic efforts of many individuals and groups to improve things, Ballymun remains a barren place for young people, a cultural and recreational desert. Parents are presented with two choices, abandon the children to the influence of the street or keep them indoors. We will give just one example of how dedicated intervention can extend their options.

Some years ago a nun moved into a flat in Ballymun. Armed with nothing more than her own musical ability, she set up an accordion band for boys and girls. With the help of a small group of supporters built up along the way, she trained and equipped the band. Today, it is an object lesson in social mobility to watch those young people, their stylish uniforms and expensive instruments proudly on display, make their way to band practice or to the buses taking them off to perform somewhere. That nun, her helpers, the band members and their parents, are the key to a civilized future in communities such as Ballymun. Those young people have their self-confidence strengthened, and their options expanded.

The nun we speak of is Sister Carmel Terry. We know that in the early days she had a Mount Everest to climb; we hoped things have eased for her, but doubt it somehow.

"Society is changing". The message is becoming monotonous. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the fact that those changes in society are having the most devastating effects on our children. The world they are coming into is not the world we experience fifty years ago, and nowhere is this more true than in the local authority estates. Will you find RTE promoting the arts on those estates? No. Will the Arts Council be active within them. No. Is money from the National Lottery being spent to ensure that children who are born with the odds stacked against them are given some chance to develop whatever talents they have, to discover the wonderful diversity of life, to enjoy, and this the most important of all, the potential magic of childhood? No. Money from the National Lottery is not being spent this way.

Government funding does come into the local authority estates. It comes in the form of remedial teachers, child psychologists, social workers, probation officers, intervention services of all kinds: the burgeoning industry that is growing year by year because we refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of cause and effect.

With more than a quarter of a century spent in the community affairs in Ballymun, years during which we have monitored the heartbeat of this community during good times and bad, we have no doubts on the matter. We need jobs for the parents and opportunities for their children. The jobs will be hard to come by, the opportunities can be provided. Government cannot legislate for happiness or contentment, for health or wealth. It can legislate for opportunity.

The Umbrellas by Renoir, one of my father's favourite paintings

In a world of concrete ugliness, art is a desperate necessity. And art, in its many forms, offers an opportunity for disadvantaged children to enter a world that is normally concealed behind the Iron Curtain of privilege. The more such children who avail of that opportunity, the healthier will our society be.

There are other benefits. George Moore said "Art must be parochial in the beginning to be cosmopolitan in the end." But art in Ireland is becoming the preserve of the eccentric and the outre. In music, painting, poetry, literature, sculpture, philosophy, architecture, it is assuming the characterisations of barbarism. John Keats belief, that "the excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate in close relationship with beauty and truth", is out of fashion today. The disagreeable is now the norm, beauty is sneered at, and truth is a variable.

The state has no right to dictate to the artist, other than the rights declared by public order. Equally, the state has no obligation to fund the brutal, the ugly, and the perverted. Let the artistic elite shift for itself, "put their lives", as it were, "in to the sting they give".

Support the arts? Yes. A thousand times yes. But do so by bringing beauty and truth into the lives of those chidlren who are being drip-fed a diet of drugs, crime, vice and official neglect.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

My Favourite Opening Passage of All Time

I love books. I've always loved books. I'm most definitely a bibliophile, although I'm not a connoiseur. I don't particularly get excited about first editions or the quality of bindings. In fact, being irremediably plebeian, I've always preferred paperbacks to hardbacks. They're more comfortable to hold in your hands.

I'm not a fast reader, and I'm not as well-read as I'd like to be. I wish I'd spent much, much more time reading when I was a kid. But books have always excited me in a unique way.

Whenever I find myself in a new house, I always drift towards the bookshelves, and wish I could spend more time just silently scanning them. I can rarely pass a bookshop without stopping in it.

I'm fascinated by all the aspects of a book-- the title, the dedication, the acknowledgements, the publisher's logo, the introduction, and so on.

One of the aspects that fascinates me is the opening. The curtain is pulled away and we see out the window onto-- what? It could be anything. The author addresses us for the first time, and we hear his or her unique voice, coming to us from some other time and place.

Of course, there are many famous opening lines. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." "Call me Ishmael". "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." "Gaul is divided into three parts." And let's not forget the much-mocked but inimitable "It was a dark and stormy night."

There are some not-so-famous openings that have stuck with me, too. For instance, these opening lines from Clive Baker's dark fantasy novel Weaveworld (a thumping great book that I never actually finished), which I think are worth quoting at some length:


Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that: though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the, shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter, woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden amongst them is a filigree which will with time become a world.

It must be arbitrary then, the place at which we chose to embark.

Somewhere between a past half forgotten and a future as yet only glimpsed.

This place, for instance.

(For a book I've never finished, Weaveworld has left is mark on me. Another line from the novel, one that is inscribed on a book of nursery rhymes-- "That which is imagined need never be lost"-- has gripped my own imagination for decades now.)

However, my favourite opening passage of any books does not come from a novel. It does not come from a classic that has been passed lovingly down the generations. It comes from a rather obscure book-- Redeeming the Dial, Radio, Religion and Popular Culture by Tona Hangen, a history of American religious radio programming between the wars. I reviewed it some years ago.

Here is the opening passage which I love so much:

Imagine a wind-scoured farmhouse and beside it a small barn, huddled together under an ashen gray Montana sky. It is 21 January, the dead of winter, so cold that a widow woman will not venture out for anything but to milk her cows-- and even then, not too early, not until long after daybreak. She is sixty-seven years old, farming alone, tending her herd with stiffening hands that have known hard times...Inside the barn, the air is a little warmer; the cows breathe by snorting clouds of vapour, which hang in the air. The woman sings and prays as she milks, listening to a radio set on a shelf amongst the pails and coils of baling wire. She sings a familiar gospel song, adding her voice to the rippling chords of a piano and a jubilant-sounding choir in sunny Long Beach, California, thousands of miles away. They cannot hear her, of course, yet she sings. Only the cows hear; the cows, and God.

I love so many things about this passage. I think I am going to have to resort to a numbered list:

1) It opens with the word "imagine", which is always a powerful word when used as an imperative. Think of the enduring appeal of John Lennon's song "Imagine".
2) It uses the phrase "the dead of winter", which is one of my favourite phrases. Along with the "dead of night" (the title of one of the best horror films ever made), I find it impossibly evocative. It helps that I like night and winter more than most people seem to like them.
3) The scene-setting in the first sentence is simple but potent. I've always disliked descriptive writing, lacking as I do a visual imagination. However, the imagery in this sentence is too simple to burden even the poorest visual imagination. 
4) The passage evokes remoteness in a way that it would be hard to equal. Montana is "big sky country". I've always loved the idea of remoteness. "The middle of nowhere", "the back of beyond". What makes the heart leap at such a thought? What makes my heart leap, at any rate? Is it the sweet fact that the world is big enough to allow such places, and so many of them? But perhaps analysing the appeal of such ideas is pointless-- each explanation would require another explanation. All I can say is that the thought of a wind-scoured farm in Montana excited me far more than the thought of Time Square or Trafalgar Square, or even the Grand Canyon or the Dingle peninsula.
5) The ghostliness of the voices on the air, the songs coming from the radio on the shelf. There is something magical about radio. As the cliché goes, "the pictures are better on the radio". Radio immerses us and yet remains invisible. I'm not a seasoned radio-listener, so in a way, the magic of the medium remains fresh to me.
6) The contrast of the cold Montana barn and "sunny Long Beach, California, thousands of miles away" is delicious. How much of life's pleasure is to be found in contrasts? Masculinity and femininity, salt and vinegar, ice-cream on a hot summer's day...I especially like contrasts such as this one. I used to live beside a tanning salon called Miami Sun, which had the silhouette of palm trees on its sign, and its front was painted hot orange. It was always a charming sight in the drizzle and darkness of a November night in Dublin.
7) The cold, the remoteness, the "stiffening hands that have known hard times" are all examples of the poetry of discomfort that I have tried to ponder in another post.
8) There is a particularly American flavour to the remoteness and rawness of this passage. The idea of the boondocks, the great open spaces, small town America, the heartlands, cornfields and apple pie and the family Bible. If you don't "get" the appeal of this, I doubt anybody can show it to you. But I'm guessing you do get it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

My Latest Article in Ireland's Own

My latest article in Ireland's Own is "The Magic of Writing", and is (I hope) a breezy piece on the creative processes and working habits of writers. It's a subject that fascinates me. It appears in the May Annual, pictured here.

I've had quite a few articles published in Ireland's Own now. My first was about newspaper letter pages (incidentally, the subject on which I wrote my college dissertation), and appeared in March 2017. Since then I've had articles on a wide variety of subjects published in it: "Slogans in Irish Life", "The Weird and Wonderful World of Sports", a look back at the Dublin Millennium of 1988, a piece on streets named after Irish people all over the world, a Christmas piece on the ghost stories of M.R. James (traditionally told and broadcast at Christmas), and a few others.

I even had a fifteen-part series on Irish lighthouses! Boy, did that take a lot of research...

I'm proud to have my articles appear in Ireland's Own. It's almost the only "family" magazine widely sold in Ireland. It's also one of very the few general interest magazines available here. The magazine shelves in Ireland (as elsewhere, I fear) are dominated by glossy women's magazines, car magazines, TV soap magazines, and other magazines which could be best described as "consumer culture and lifestyle".

Ireland's Own is also a legacy of the Irish Revival, first appearing in 1902. I've heard it described as the only survivor of a raft of similar publications which first appeared at that time.

I have happy childhood memories of reading Ireland's Own. My aunt Kitty, who lived on a farm in Limerick, had stacks of past issues. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories. The long-running column "Stranger Than Fiction", which chronicled stories of the uncanny, gave me many pleasant chills. It's still running today!

My aunt Kitty died in 2007, but her husband is still alive. I actually only learned this very recently, and I spoke to him (on the phone) a few days ago, for the first time since my wedding in 2013. He's just turned eighty-nine. When I was a kid, summer holidays were spent on his farm in Limerick. It was a huge contrast to Ballymun and made a big impression on me. It seemed quite obvious to me that rural life and rural ways were healthier than those of the housing estate where I lived.

It even led me to a (brief) religious conversion at the age of fourteen. Mass attendance was already dropping in Dublin at this time, so it was a new and arrresting experience to see a whole village attend Mass together. The gospel text that sparked my imagination was "I am the vine, you are the branches"...which, coincidentally, is also today's gospel text. My newfound piety didn't last long on my return to Dublin, however.

When I went to my aunt's funeral in 2007, I was becoming increasingly conservative and traditional. I'd always been something of a cultural conservative, especially when it came to poetry and visual art. But, by this time, I was moving more towards social conservatism, as well. I remember standing in the church at my aunt's funeral-- the same church where I'd had my fleeting conversion-- and feeling a powerful inner conflict. I could see clearly by now that the Catholic Church was the protector of so much that I found precious, but I couldn't simply believe on this account. It took a lot of thinking and reading and (I might even say) agonizing to take that final step.

Recently, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, an elderly gentleman who I knew somewhat passed away. I had been meaning to get back in touch with him for many months. When I finally emailed him, and got no reply, I discovered I'd been too late by a matter of weeks. This motivated me to get in touch with my uncle, and I was overjoyed that the case was different this time. Deo gratias!