University of Illes Baleares, Spain
by E. Guillermo Iglesias-Díaz. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Carlos Menéndez Otero.
Salamanca: Amarante, 2017. 248 pp.
From popular music to academia or the appearance in theatres of The Rebel (a musical about Pádraig Pearse), increasing interest about Ireland in Spain is evident and the publication of a book in Spanish dedicated to the representation of the Irish in film should be a matter of celebration (in particular, for researchers in film and Ireland). Nevertheless, Irlanda y los Irlandeses en el Cine Popular (1910-1970) leaves the reader with mixed emotions: it is true that the style is straightforward and easy to read; the documentation work is outstanding and the profusion of film titles is, on occasion, overwhelming; and it cannot be denied either that there are glimmers of sharp analysis dotting the pages here and there. However, after reaching the end of the book, one has the feeling of the missed opportunity, the lost chance of going beyond the mere informational to offer a deep analysis of thought-provoking issues about the Irish diaspora in the US, from its relation with the homeland or its decisive role in the construction of Ireland as the nation that it is today, to the influence of Hollywood (understood as industry) in that construction, or the stereotypical gender roles (both male and female) when depicting the Irish, just to mention but a few of the wide range of possibilities. Thus, even though most of these issues are addressed, the approach is fragmentary, often superficial and in most occasions boiling down to just a description of sequences and plots.
The fact that the content is organized following the chronology in the title contributes to the fragmentation and dispersion of arguments and if, for instance, the author introduces the treatment of Irish female roles in film, we see sporadic (and too brief) comments depending on the film or the decade dealt with in that particular section. Just to offer but one example, stereotyping is tackled throughout the book: one of the first examples is the reference to clichés in film and theatre (22), though there is no further analysis about the origin or purpose of such stereotyping, who and why propagated it and how it affected the Irish community. On page 72, the author includes a good analysis about the WASP stereotype of the drunken, lazy Irishman, permanently living with nostalgia for their lost homeland. However, Menéndez does not explore the implications of the stereotype, what those portrayals meant at the time in US society, or the “coincidence” with a long literary tradition in British colonial culture. Moreover, there are references to ready-made tropes in terms of the setting, with the classic opposition between an idealized community of rural bliss as opposed to urban decadence presented as the space for violent turmoil. Once more, the author fails to identify these oppositions as part of a discourse imposed by a colonial literary tradition that places the Irish at a far remove from modernity and civilization.
Before focusing on some specific issues, a last comment on the organization and content of the book should be noted: if we take into account the time lapse setting the limits of the field of analysis, the reader will notice the inclusion of films which go well beyond 1970s in the last section, dedicated to films of the post-classic era. Menéndez includes some titles connected somehow to the films in the 1950s and 1960s dealing with Irish folklore (165) but, surprisingly, no mention is made to, arguably, the two living and most popular Irish filmmakers since the 1980s, Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, an absence that is perhaps related to the author’s conception of “politicization” in film representations about Ireland.
In this sense, it is shocking the way in which the term “politicization” is used, to refer exclusively to those films in which the story deals with explicit political issues. For example, there is a simplistic reference of this kind (26) about the “politicization” of the historical melodrama just because of the presence of “nationalist topics” in a film such as Shamus O’ Brien: if nationalism or “politics” were ignored at the beginning of the twentieth century in the representation of Ireland in film, maybe another kind of politics was being carried out, that of silencing a people who were demanding deep changes in their country and fighting British colonial rule. In this respect, there is another instance (106-8) when the film Parnell (John M. Stahl, 1937) is discussed and the historical figure is described as somebody who “was never a revolutionary or a secessionist, but a clever political strategist who unified and consolidated Irish nationalism” (my translation) and somebody who knew how to take to the British Parliament “some of the reforms about land distribution and political autonomy which had fueled traditionally the violence in Ireland” (my translation), a statement which, in my opinion, falls short if we want to offer a rigorous analysis to explain decades of violence before and after independence. The author fails to acknowledge the difference between a hegemonic nationalism (as was the case after independence) and one of resistance and opposition to colonial rule. And these are but two examples of several which can be found throughout the pages of the book: just to offer one more, in page 60 we find probably the most questionable statement about “politics”, when immigrants to the US in the 19th century are described as “politicized”, leaving the reader wondering how you can avoid politicization when your country is living under colonial rule and you are aware of your good luck for escaping death during the Great Famine and surviving the (in)famous coffin ships. This politicized Irish community gave way to a new generation who, according to the author, in the first decades of the 20th century started being “accepted” by the hegemonic WASP society, another questionable way of putting the issue.
Menéndez states that this gradual process of acceptance started as early as the 1920s, though there are plenty of examples contradicting this hypothesis, for instance, the campaign by the Republicans against the Democrat candidate to mayor’s office in New York just because he was a Catholic (as the very same author admits in page 45) or, decades later, in the 1960s, when J.F. Kennedy had to face similar prejudices. Nevertheless, Menéndez points out that it was in that decade at the beginning of the 20th century when films about the Irish diaspora in the US started including characters of Irish descent moving up the social ladder. However, there is no further explanation or comment as to how and why in this particular decade the Irish community gradually started being considered part of the “founders of the nation” beyond the suggestion that it was the WASPs who welcomed the Irish after some decades of mutual distrust (9, 79, 80-1, 95, 126). Such examples include Little Old New York (Olcott, 1923), about a rich Irish immigrant living in the first decades of the 19th century, and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1925), about the Irish workforce in the construction of the trans-continental railway. What I find particularly interesting is that Menéndez also mentions films (such as Whitewashed Walls or Fortune’s Mask) where Americans of Irish descent are represented as supporters of the Monroe doctrine that justified an aggressive imperialist attitude of the USA in the continent from Cuba to Nicaragua, Haiti or Dominican Republic (44). However, the author fails to link explicitly the acceptance by US hegemony of the Irish on condition they adopt their most conservative values, appointing them to the role of keepers of the American essence, that is, the heteropatriarchal family, (white) American nationalism and (Christian) religion as the basic foundations of society.
On the other hand, bearing in mind that the scope of the book reaches 1970, it is hardly surprising that the bulk of the work (134-158) focuses on that sort of black hole of Irish film culture we are all irremediably drawn to, known as The Quiet Man (1952) and John Ford’s masterpiece about his forebears’ homeland. Menéndez does not hide his keenness on the film and transmits his enthusiasm in the analysis he carries out in, possibly, the best part of the book: he introduces the film by framing it in that sub-genre called “outsider narrative”, and it is the first time that a connection is explicitly established between popular films and ideology, describing how the colonial narratives about Ireland always put the blame for the wrongs of Ireland on the shoulders of the Irish (and their natural tendency to irrationality and violence), on the extreme climate or on the wild landscape that in turn exerted a bad influence on the Irish character. However, despite mention of the concept of “self-exoticism” (128), the author never addresses the implications of the term and how problematic it may be when applied to Ford (141): once again, some deeper analysis about national identity and diasporic communities is missed. Moreover, the author never makes a reference to the influence of the (Irish) diaspora in the construction of (Irish) national identity or, more in particular, the decisive role of (literary or cinematographic) narration in the construction of a collective identity, as many specialists have pointed out since, at least, the late 80s.
In this sense, the question of “authenticity” and “reality” glides over the work, but Menéndez never seems to challenge the concept and, although he includes several references to the metanarrativity in Ford’s film (140), he insists on opposing the imaginary Ireland in the film to a “real” Ireland that exists, we understand, beyond the filmic frame. Furthermore, the imaginary Ireland seems to exist exclusively in the nostalgic memories of the diasporic Irish, as if Ireland were not an “imagined community” itself. On the other hand, if metanarrative devices are used to underscore the discursive nature of the narration, they also blur the “fiction/reality” divide: as Patricia Waugh stated some decades ago, those formal and narrative resources establish a parallelism between the reality inside the film and the reality outside, as in both cases it is a reality that exists because of (narrative, social) conventions.
Dealing with conventions and The Quiet Man it is impossible not to address the role of Maureen O’Hara playing Mary Kate. There are plenty of references to the role of women in film, mostly as femme fatales, mothers and/or colleens (85-6) but the analysis is merely descriptive and there is no further comment about those patriarchal constructions or the fact that they have features in common with other national cultures, from Spain to India, with the female body as idealized or belittled, but always objectified and subaltern to the male. There is a reference (145) to the idealization of Mary Kate (in parallel to rural Ireland) in the first scene, but without any further comment about the well-known patriarchal strategy of glorifying the female body just to keep it under control and this is but one example to the kind of descriptive analysis Menéndez offers: in page 149, for instance, he describes the scene in which Mary Kate cleans the house, lights the fire and Sean “steals” two kisses from her, but again, the analysis just stops there.
The analysis of Mary Kate is carried out by contextualizing the role in Maureen O’Hara’s career, comparing her with other female archetypes in some other classic narratives (Katherina in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, or Eve and Mary in the Bible). All in all, the author does not comment on the actual portrayal of Mary Kate in the film. Any criticism as to the explicit sexism in the film is attributed to the patriarchal society in which the film was produced (excusing somehow Ford’s open sexism) and how O’Hara was used to promote a role-model that could still be “the object of the male gaze” and, at the same time, “channel her rebelliousness and strength” towards the economic recovery after WWII (149-50) (my translation). Of course, as we know, both O’Hara’s and Mary Kate’s is a controlled rebelliousness although, once more, Menéndez seems to ignore it and discusses the “symbolic taming” of the red-haired shrew, a fact that only occurs when Thornton recovers his “Irish masculinity” (whatever that means though, I’m afraid, it is nothing good…) and leaves behind his “anglicized” self: at this moment, following the interpretation of the author, Mary Kate does not need to rebel any more (152). I must say I would rather have a more complete analysis of what we actually have in the film as, for instance, that sequence that still provokes angry reactions in feminist quarters (despite the “ironic distance”) when Thornton picks up a stick which, significantly, an old woman (as embodiment of tradition) gives him and treats Mary Kate as a cow. According to the author, if Mary Kate was introduced as a little shepherdess in an idyllic rural setting at the beginning, now it is Sean’s turn to be introduced as a “symbolic shepherd” who will tame the shrew into the “Irish-community flock” [sic] at the same time as he becomes part of that community by means of a “violent and at the same time festive ritual…” (155). There is no interpretation of the sequence or the implications of the portrayal of these forever ex-centric Irish people, just a description (more or less accurate) of what we see on the screen. Actually, maybe that ironic distance set by Ford is not appreciated by the wider public and since its release the film has become a classic in the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the US and, as the very same author acknowledges, after the film, thousands of American tourists have travelled to Ireland looking for the places where the action took place (157).
As a conclusion, I still believe that the publication of a book in Spanish about the Irish in film is to be celebrated, although Irlanda y los Irlandeses en el Cine Popular (1910-1970) does not fulfill the expectations: the general impression is that the author includes too many titles and film plots, but the analysis in most occasions is fragmentary (due to the organization of the content into decades) and superficial, also because of the great amounts of topics he tries to deal with. Paradoxically, many other issues are left out, from the construction of a national identity and the influence of the cinematographic narration in that construction, to the relation between the Irish diaspora and the homeland, and the role of the Irish community in the United States.