Barry Monahan
University College Cork | Views:

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Garage (2007)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Written by Mark O’Halloran

Principal Cast: Pat Shortt, Anne-Marie Duff, Conor Ryan

Produced by Element Pictures: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe

It would be empirically impossible to prove the assertion that Irish cinema has traditionally been firmly grounded in the spoken word.  In very general terms, the number of literary adaptations, and the background of two of Ireland’s most successful directors — Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan — in the novel and theatre respectively are notable, and the loquaciousness of the Irish stage and film character has been a recurring defining trait.  Also significant are the adaptations for screen at key moments in the history of Irish cinema of what Colbert Kearney has called “the three most famous laments in Irish literature”.1 Juno Boyle’s renowned supplication in the O’Casey play and Maurya’s lament in Synge’s Riders to the Sea both appeared in the early years of sound cinema, and Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, directed by Bob Quinn in 1975, became an important Irish feature film in its challenging earlier American and English depictions of the country.  Against the background of previous Irish films that may be considered verbally intricate or profuse, Lenny Abrahamson’s second feature Garage offers a gentle silence, a measured rhythm and a hollowed dramatic space.

If the film moguls in the mid-1920s were in any way justified in their expression of doom and fear of the demise of purer cinematic expression with the imminent arrival of sound, many subsequent literary adaptations and occasional examples of verbally cumbersome cinema might have retrospectively confirmed some of their fears.2  In parallel with this type of post-talkie cinema there has existed a perennially recurring history of films that facilitate a harmonious visual marriage of cinematic space and the silent cinematic protagonist: each mutually born from, and encapsulated by, the other.  Garage is a perfect example of this lyrical, visual harmony.  We discover its protagonist, Josie, comfortably situated in its landscapes as he is “intended” into the natural setting, like a moment of phenomenological consciousness.  Wide shots of open countryside are established before he enters the frame, and often shots linger as he turns to walk away from the camera.  His relationship with nature is further marked by association with water, the beats given each time that he looks over the bridge where the bag of puppies has been thrown, and in his connection to the horse.  Significantly, all of these moments are associated with his awkward dealing with, or alienation from, society.  His ease in the natural context draws attention to his discomfort in the social one, and this is characterised by his clumsy use of language and awkward turn of phrase.

The proliferation of meaningless interjections and the repetition of words and phrases draw attention to, rather than fill, uncomfortable silences.  What happens in the relationship between action, landscape and frame is echoed in Mark O’Halloran’s script, through the excessive and textured (and ultimately futile) attempts by characters to communicate.  This texture is immediately evident in Josie’s repetition of the word “now”, each time given a different inflection that invites audiences’ engagement with the character without leading them, or using a short-hand stereotyping by the describing minute details of his thoughts and feelings.  Other repeated utterances serve the same tonal effect: Josie’s decision to move “the oils”, his reference to the lustful activities of truckers “in the cab”, as well as his story of “the eels” which is used awkwardly to avoid the issue of the emotional suffering of Mr. Skerrit (played by Tom Hickey).  In a similar way, many of Josie’s actions are exaggerated for tonal effect but not practical purpose.  Time given to gathering beer cans meticulously only to have them carelessly tossed into the ditch, to carefully winding flex around hand and elbow to have it thrown on the ground in a slapdash manner, and to other minor actions like making tea, arranging biscuits on a plate and going through daily routines, all intensifies the cinematic drama by exaggerating the emptiness and inviting instantaneous spectator engagement with, and consideration of, the character.

The revelation of Josie’s solitude and the way in which he is socially ostracised, is handled by a fluctuation of the spectator’s perspective and sympathy, in much the same way it was accomplished in Abrahamson’s Adam and Paul(2004).  The suggested social alienation of the heroin addicts in that film is one in which the audience is gently implicated as our attention and empathy oscillates from our perception of Adam and Paul as victims, to one where they are perpetrators of illegal acts or inhumane actions.  The regulation of the emotional audience/protagonist connection occurs differently in the case of Josie.  In Garage, we are positioned sometimes watching in disgust or embarrassment as other characters humiliate or mock him sarcastically, while at other times we are involved in laughing at his simple-mindedness, turn of phrase or uncomfortable demeanour.  These shifting perspectives create the sense for the onlooker of a fragmented community of individuals who at times approach certain personal and emotional interaction without ever making the ultimate connection.  A series of tangential and unresolved narrative threads provides a diegetic setting for the main plot.  Among the most prominent are the suggestion of Breffni and Carmel’s fraught relationship and separation, the allusion to Pauline’s divorce, and Mr. Skerrit’s bereavement.  The inference for the future is equally problematic, and while the teenagers seem to represent a socially cohesive group, gathering for alcohol parties and pairing off romantically, David’s position with respect to the gang is hesitantly and awkwardly poised as just as liable to fall on the wrong side of the social set.  In an ironic marking of the villagers’ failure to function as a healthy community, Josie tells David: “The town looks out for its own, David” and the teenager responds with due doubt “It does, I’d say.”

In a recurring blocking and compositional motif the character/audience connection is given prominence over the equivalent character/character relationships.  Frequently, conversations are filmed with those in dialogue sitting or standing facing the camera and not each other.  In the rare event when characters face each other during exchanges, standard shot/reverse shot is often withheld.  Profile compositions are established with strong backlighting that creates a dramatic tension equivalent to moments of awkward or failed communication between characters facing the camera.  Notable scenes include the discussions that take place at the pub table, in the evening scenes at the bar, or between Josie and David behind the garage.  However, the conversation already mentioned between Josie and Mr. Skerrit on the bench by the lake is one to which Lenny Abrahamson has pointed as pivotal to the thematic and character concerns of the film.3 As it formally echoes the bench sequence where Adam and Paul encounter the Bulgarian, it reproduces the dramatic tone of a similar climactic moment between Gar Public and S.B. O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!4 ; a scene intensified by the tragic failure of communication. Inviting the audience to empathise with his characters, and emphasise the disjunction in their relationships, the film’s director of photography Peter Robinson shoots these scenes front-on and respecting the temporal and spatial integrity of the moment.

Appropriately, a lot is left to the spectator’s imagination as to how the connection between Josie and the horse is interpreted.  Further emphasising the visual strength of the film, the bond between the two need not rely on any metaphorical verbal translation.  It might be suggested that their primary connection is as social outsiders inhabiting a space peripheral to the community; that this moves to an association between Josie’s arrest and his discovery of the horse tethered; and that, ultimately, the union becomes a spiritual one.  However, even this verbal description deemphasises the richness of how that sub-plot works visually, as the film accentuates connections between Josie and (non-verbal) nature over (verbal) society.  In the placement of Josie against a natural landscape, it is important that he is sensitive to what other characters fail to see, as in the brief, economical exchange with the pub owner:

Josie:Lovely sky tonight.

Val: Was there?

Josie: There was.Beautiful.

The inserted landscape and skyline shots that punctuate the film, situating it in a place that seems suspended in an anywhere location paused between nature and civilisation, are marked in a specific iconographic way with the ubiquitous train tracks of the frontier film.  Also notable about these images of the Irish locations are their cold hues, their bleak composition, and the fact that they are unaccompanied by any extra-diegetic music.  This minimalism functions in perfect tonal harmony with the aesthetic of the rest of the film, but it also infers gently what may be seen, paradoxically, as a more hopeful movement into the third act and a more positive interpretation of the ending.  In the scene before Josie is arrested, a series of cuts shows a warmer morning skyline than previously presented, and the transitional sequence is underscored by the only musical cue in the film since the opening credits.  These shots are echoed by the warmer, softer colours and more romantic mise-en-scène and composition of the penultimate scene that, without undermining the tragedy of the events, serve further to connect the protagonist with his landscape, and separate him further from the malevolent society in which he never fitted comfortably.

  1. Colbert Kearney, The Glamour of Grammar: Orality and Politics and the Emergence of Sean O’Casey  (London, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000)  p. 90.  []
  2. Scott Eyman  The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the talkie revolution, 1926 – 1930  (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)  []
  3. Personal interview with the author, 8th November, 2007.  []
  4. Brian Friel  Selected Plays of Brian Friel  (London: Faber & Faber, 1984)  Philadelphia, Here I Come!  EPISODE THREE, PART II, pp. 94 – 5.  []