I Could Read the Sky and an Irish Avant-Garde
White, Jerry, Film Criticism
Irish cinema has never been thought of as having a particularly strong tradition of experimental film. There have been a few important examples, such as Pat Murphy's early films Maeve (1981) and Anne Devlin (1984) (which had links to counter-cinema) or Thaddeus O'Sullivan's early films A Pint of Plain (1975) and On a Paving Stone Mounted (1978) (which were formally eccentric mixtures of fictional and documentary techniques). In terms of aesthetic innovation or radical aspirations, however, none of this comes close to the neo-romantic avant-garde of the United States or the political avant-garde that was so important in England.
Nicola Bruce's 1999 film 1 Could Read the Sky, while building on some of what Murphy and O'Sullivan had accomplished, actually exists in a different cultural and aesthetic space, and so it is especially important to consider in the context of a re-born, internationally acclaimed Irish cinema. The film is equally close to two influential models for the avant-garde: Paul Willemen's notion of an "avant-garde" practice as opposed to one of "modernism" and Peter Wollen's notion of the two avant-gardes. Even though it integrates the political and social awareness that these two critics are interested in, I Could Read the Sky is a fundamentally visual work, one that is about the interior life of a single central figure. What is most interesting about this film, though, is that it is defined by mixture. Like the photo-book by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke upon which it is based, it is neither a straightforward remembrance nor a non-linear meditation, neither a dreamy music video nor a rigorous political intervention. The schema that finally works best for the film is contained in "Uses of Photography," an essay by John Berger (who wrote the preface for the O'Grady/Pike book) about how photographs appear to be linear but are in fact elliptical, dense with memory and association when used in a way that maintains their public identity. My position that the film is best interpreted using an essay called "Uses of Photography" is not inorganic; it is instead indicative of the way that I Could Read the Sky breaks down boundaries between photographic, textual, video, and filmic aesthetics. All of these forms of art seem freely mixed, in the end becoming inseparable. Because of this spirit of mixture, I Could Read the Sky seems an exemplary experimental film for the 21st century.
Some explanation of alternative cinema is important at this juncture, if only to illustrate how earlier formulations do not quite work for my purposes here. Peter Wollen's idea of the "two avant-gardes" is especially relevant. In his essay of that name, Wollen sets up a split between a romantic, personal avant-garde, which he writes is "loosely identified with the co-op movement" (92), and a formally rigorous, political avant-garde. He writes that "the second would include filmmakers such as Godard, Straub and Huillet, Hanoun, Jancso" (92). In his description of this second avant-garde, Wollen evoked what John Berger might call the moment of cubism, the modernism of the 1920s, writing that this moment featured "a change of emphasis from the problem of signified and reference, the classical problem of realism, to that of signifier and signified within the sign itself" (95). Paul Willemen, drawing on the Wollen schema, sees the split in less semiotic terms, arguing that the central tension in an experimental aesthetic practice can be seen as being between traditions of modernism and avant-garde. "One, as its name indicates, is a politics of modemisation, that is to say, a bringing up to date of values and procedures in order to establish, maintain or preserve a particular power-regime," he writes. "Modernisation is procedure to increase efficiency within a given framework of production and of values. The other [avant-garde] is a politics of negation and transformation aligned with a process of change in a socialist direction, that is to say, a transformation instead of a modernisation" (1994:145-6). …