University College Cork
Patrick’s Day (Terry McMahon 2014)
To immerse oneself in the world of Terry McMahon’s Patrick’s Day is to be challenged by a film written and directed according to the rules of the central treatise on the construction of narrative: Aristotle’s Poetics. But McMahon’s fidelity to the realm of necessity is neither heavy-handed nor explicit; rather, his aesthetic seems entirely faithful to, and respectful of, a piece that allows specific evolution of his characters. Everything about the film seeks to offer the audience a direct and unsensational depiction of its schizophrenic protagonist, Patrick Fitzgerald (Moe Dunford).
The story develops from the fraught and dysfunctional relationship between Patrick and his mother Maura one life-changing Patrick’s Day when she takes him from his institutional home, as she does annuallyto celebrate his birthday. On this occasion, having become separated from her, he encounters Karen Prescott (Catherine Walker), who has been contemplating taking her own life for reasons that are not detailed. Without knowing anything of her situation but taken by her frankness, Patrick falls for Karen, who reciprocates his interest with some hesitation, and they subsequently consummate their feelings.
This new emotional connection develops tentatively over the course of the film, but disturbs the maternal-filial bond as Patrick’s mother perceives it and she sets out to prevent the relationship with maniacal intensity. She attempts to separate the two by pushing Karen away – in spite of her knowing that Karen is now bearing Patrick’s baby – and by pretending to Patrick, after a severe course of shock therapy, that Karen has never existed and is no more than a figment of his schizophrenic imagination. The narrative presents some of the most destructive elements of distorted and dysfunctional human relationships, and does not pull punches in requiring that we confront directly the issues. The film is handled so as not to get carried away emotionally, or facilitate easy access for its spectator into the story world, the characters, or their circumstances and motivations.
In an early scene, for example, when air hostess Karen first meets Patrick on the steps of the hotel in which they are staying, they have a conversation about their position as social “pariahs”; forced to smoke their cigarettes outside. Her address to him is delivered with a clipped turn-of-phrase that would not be out of place in a 1940s’ film noir. Punctuated with phrases like: “That’ll be your cue, kiddo … light me up”, as she offers him her cigarette, and the later flippant aside “Part of this town died the day they banned smoking in bars”, her lines place her in an unreal, protected place where she uses clichéd demeanour to shield a deeper psychologically troubled situation. When he finally responds to her one-liners, she snidely quips: “So, it speaks”, thus emphasizing the emotional distance still between them. McMahon maintains the taciturn tone of the exchange, and where we might otherwise expect a gradual thawing in their relationship or a softening of her brashness, neither occurs, and the scene concludes abruptly as she bursts his red balloon with her cigarette.
This tentative, unsentimental tone persists up to the moment they consummate their relationship. Outside her hotel room door, where typically we would expect a disingenuous hesitation, she confronts him – and his “motives” – with frank bluntness:
Karen: What’re you waiting for, an invitation?
Patrick: I’m schizophrenic.
Karen: Aren’t we all!
Karen’s emotional directness, the cynical attitude of investigative cop, John Freeman (Philip Jackson) and the relentless, pathological Oedipal severity of Maura (Kerry Fox), will likely alienate many viewers. However, as they are presented to us, the very point seems to be that we can only come to an understanding of Patrick and his position of social marginalization by dis-relating with the characters that surround him. Thus, our point of view is gently aligned with Patrick’s, a position that is visually communicated with cinematic intricacy.
Although the hospitalized protagonist, whom society has confined so that he is alienated as “contained insider” and we occupy a position of “privileged outsiders”, McMahon reminds us in subtle ways that this situation can be easily overturned, and the inside/outside separation is based just as much on perception as it is in reality. One example of the film’s constant asking us to question this received perspective on the mentally ill occurs early on. In the opening shots as Patrick wheels the stock trolley of convenience store between the shelves, spinning it around as he goes, it is we, the spectators, who are placed inside the “cage”, looking out at him and the store. Later, before Patrick and Karen make love, it is he – not she – who is bathed in soft, intense light. The picture is slightly over-exposed, and the image is softened in a way that renders Patrick’s emotional state expressionistically, yet prevents Karen from being objectified and fetishized under his gaze. At another moment that aligns us with his thinking and his emotional situation, he runs her business card along the inside of the window of the room in the institution where he lives. The shot that frames this simple action, with the illustration of an airplane running up along the window is underscored by the slight, but again unmotivated, sound of a plane taking off. At Patrick’s moment of imaginative escape, where he hears the jet engines, the viewer is granted access to his intimate thoughts.
This metaphorically weighted use of Karen’s business card is one example of an objective correlation – the symbolic concrete manifestation of more abstract concepts (in this instance, as a signifier of Patrick’s relationship with Karen) – that McMahon uses to rich effect throughout the film. Others include the Ferris wheel (on which Patrick gets stuck shortly having become separated from his mother at the beginning of the film), which neatly represents the cyclical Oedipal circumstance in which he is caught; his red balloon which Karen bursts, signifying her intervention into his situation; The Shining-like labyrinthine hotel corridors with their drab repetitious banality; and the use of vertical lines – such as those of the mirrors – that graphically match Patrick and Karen across a number of cuts, and serve to connect and unite them rather than split and separate them as individual “damaged” personalities. Significantly, this is reiterated visually, but for contradictory effect, to mark the sterility of his mother and the policeman’s – John Freeman’s – relationship and their failure to connect (across the divided pane of glass in the station).
Other moments are marked by oppositional symmetries and asymmetries, such as his mother’s obsessive control over him (marked by her annual addition of a birthday photograph to the wall of her living room) compared to his more liberated asymmetry as he playfully swings randomly around on the shop’s stock cart. Another shot of Patrick walking down the centre bank of a dual carriageway, echoes in its composition the earlier shot of Karen walking up the centre of O’Connell Street in her Aer Lingus hostess uniform.
McMahon’s dialogue is noteworthy in his general tendency to stifle any sentimentality that might soften characters problematic relationships, or shortcut audiences’ response to the characters and their situation. While I have noted the controlled and brusque dialogue used in the first scene between Patrick and Karen (at the end of which she bursts his balloon), this tendency in the writing is carried over most notably in John Freeman’s turn of phrase. Self-identified in his stated preference for a certain kind of one-liner joke, Freeman says: “You see, I prefer the ones where the punch line is part of the joke itself,” and goes on to betray insensitivity towards those suffering with schizophrenia. His disparaging language about the mentally ill, expressed as it is by other similar characters whose speech is awkwardly littered with the words “they” and “these people”, serves further to define positions of institutional insiders and outsiders: people marked as pariahs in their social marginalisation and ostracisation, and the attitudes of those implicated in that alienation.
It is likely that some might charge McMahon with pandering to American audiencesin his deployment of Irish (American) cultural iconography throughout the film. However to deny the usefulness of these commodified cultural contact points would be to reject the economic imperatives that face any filmmaker confronting the realities of the transnational cinematic financial networks. What is important, as McMahon shows us the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and its paraphernalia, the famous speech made by JFK to the Dublin parliament in 1963, the “Discover Ireland” board game, the immediately identifiable music on the soundtrack, and even the very title of the film, is that he restrains their metaphorical connotations so that none becomes mere moment of cultural kitsch. At every juncture the writer-director fine tunes and regulates his characterisation, mise-en-scène and dialogue, with a precision that subtly positions the audience in an empathetic relationship with the eponymous protagonist and the world in which other characters may implicate us in the ignorance and alienating complicity of the characters who surround him. It is a daring, and risky, venture, but not unprecedented in the history of film narrative, at which moments writers and directors have decided that the relegation of audiences’ identification with secondary characters is necessary for creating empathy with a protagonist with whom consideration, or emotional connection, is not so easily accomplished. McMahon courageously presents Patrick’s situation not only indirectly for us through his cinematic narration, but acutely, directly by aligning our experience of the personalities who surround Patrick, with his understanding of the same people.