Film & Media at Institute of Art, Design Technology, Dun Laoghaire
Director: Paddy Breathnach
Screenplay: Pearse Elliot
Cinematography: Cian de Buitléar
Cast (Principal): Allen Leach, Ciaran Nolan, Tom Murphy, Sean McGinley, Pat Shortt, Fionnula Flanagan
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Producers: Simon Channing-Williams, Robert Walpole.
Man About Dog (2004) is an Irish comedy-caper-road-movie about three Northern wide-boys who manage to get their hands on a prize-winning greyhound. They travel from North to South in pursuit of their fortune chased by a big-shot greyhound breeder and a group of Irish travelers, who are intent on claiming their winnings.
In the film many aspects of narrative structure, theme and visual style that have come to be identified with New Irish Cinema,1 intersect, tracing key developments in Irish cinema at large and in particular, the ongoing relationship between southern and Northern Ireland since the re-activation of Bord Scannan na hEireann/Irish Film Board in 1993. This film reveals how identity politics and film narratives have shifted significantly during this period, with the emphasis on the ‘national’ being, in more recent times, eschewed. While the discourse of national identity has served Irish film well over a long period, providing a cogent methodology for examining Irish cinema’s First Wave (1975-1989), off-shore2 and foreign productions over the past 30 years, its value to the analysis of contemporary indigenous film-making is less pronounced. Film-makers in Ireland today appear less concerned with the exploration of national identity; contemporary Irish cinema reveals an identity formation that is more aligned to mainstream popular culture relying on cultural universals rather than specificities. Where identity is specific, it is at the level of consumer products that cross easily between national borders, mainstream cinema being one of the dominant cultural underpinnings. Many of the transformations in style and content within Irish film over the last decade or so can be surveyed microscopically in the film Man About Dog – illustrating developments in the macroscopic practices of New Irish Cinema at large.
Man About Dog can be categorised as a “post cease-fire” film, whereby the North of Ireland is used as a location backdrop with little exploration of politics in the story line and almost no reference to the “Troubles”. In a similar way to Accelerator (2000),Sunset Heights (1998) and The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (2001) the backdrop of Northern Ireland is used to launch the narrative and locate the story. While the premise of the plot may be linked to the “Troubles” or remnants of the conflict since the cease-fire, the central dramatic theme is usually more universal and often humanistic, less locally specific and rarely political, a characteristic of contemporary Irish writing that, on a surface level, could take place ‘anywhere’.3
As Martin McLoone (2001) has argued, although many films set in Ireland since 1993 are not necessarily political films, one can engage with them in a political way, suggesting that far from being ideologically neutral, these films reveal a political nuance in its broadest sense. Whether as a reaction to the perceived notion of what an Irish film is or to thirty years of political violence in Northern Ireland, recent Irish writers and directors are increasingly appropriating the political situation in the North for comic purposes. The collective response among film-makers in Ireland, possibly reflecting a wider reaction to the cessation of political violence, is not to analyse and reflect through the medium of film, but to laugh, creating a catharsis of relief having finally discarded the fighting Irish stigma and stereotype that has sustained many Irish film narratives. Comedy is the chosen method by southern film-makers to explore the Northern situation which often eclipses an overtly political resonance. The record-setting box office receipts for Man About Dog, (€2.5 million in Ireland, making it the highest grossing Irish Film Board film since its re-activation in 1993) suggests that the domestic audience is responding favourably to this type of exploration.
Despite challenging the notion that a national cinema exists, in an article entitled “The Myth of an Irish Cinema”, Michael Gillespie (forthcoming 2006) states that ‘a film industry [in Ireland] does exist, but, from the beginning of the last century to the present, the efforts of foreign and national filmmakers have been indistinguishable from one another at every level of the production process’. His argument heralds a new way of examining Irish films like Man About Dog and those mentioned above that eschew and reject the parameters of national identity as a framing device. What he suggests is that now is the time to shift focus, to look for the ‘Irishness’ in these films rather than claiming them as ‘Irish’. Certainly, looking for the ‘Irishness’ inMan About Dog poses a challenge. Firstly, the viewer must sieve through the ‘Americaness’ of the film which is much more overt. Referencing popular culture is not a new phenomenon in film but appears to be a trademark of recent Irish film (When Brendan met Trudy, Kieron J. Walsh 2001). In Man About Dog, the references span a whole range of mainstream films fromMad Max (1979) to Pulp Fiction (1994), either through deliberate appropriation or straightforward self-reflexivity.
While the iconography of the “Troubles” has not been left behind – murals, west Belfast, isolated farms – the American road movie dominates with its symbols of isolated diners and gas stations against a ‘sublime’ landscape which evoke notions of rootlessness and aimlessness. Just as the road movie is often associated with male existential angst, Man About Dog complies by satisfying the expectation of a restive and recuperative function. The purpose of the road movie is to allow the character travel, and as Baudrillard suggests, the thrill of travelling to different places is the realisation of immortality rather than revelation through experience. Travelling, by freeing the character from the social, puts him/her on a different plane and thus evokes a spiritual dimension, a central tenet of the American road movie. However, this reconfiguration of the journey as a mythical voyage is notably absent from the recent spate of Irish road movies (I Went Down (1997), Accelerator). Clearly, identity in these recent Irish films is constructed by reference to popular culture, principally the movies, yet the enduring spiritual and mythical resonance of film has not been appropriated alongside the iconography and visual style.
Thus the aesthetics, narratives and stories emerging since the re-activation of the Irish Film Board in 1993 and since the cease-fire of 1994 reveal that Irish cinema is functioning within a medium that combines an international shape with national elements – principally by integrating universal (humanistic), global approaches to narrative and theme while firmly rooting their elemental expression to a local and often idiosyncratic milieu. Seeking the ‘Irishness’ in Man About Dog and other films of this era as Gillespie suggests, reveals a characteristic Irish humour, identifiable local actors and recognisable locations. Far from making films that might travel to an international market through their universal themes (such as the pursuit of a dream, of love, of ambition for example), it appears that this combination is addressed to a domestic audience. These films tell stories that are structured within a mainstream American narrative combined with strong local resonance and inflection, thus suggesting that identity in Irish film is still a live issue and pertinent to cinema analysis. However, identity occurs at the level of affiliation to products of popular culture – American generic film, and not Irish history and politics – yet the comic and dramatic references in Man About Dog are culturally specific and far from universal. While shaking off some of the domineering devices of the past, Irish cinema has still many contradictions to work out. Man About Dog reveals New Irish Cinema’s capacity for the task and suggests that identity politics is a much more complex framework for analysis than the national dimension would suggest.
- New Irish Cinema is a term Ruth Barton uses in her book Irish National Cinema (2004) to describe Irish cinema since the 1990s. [↩]
- Off-shore productions refer to films made in Ireland by foreign producers, principally US film-makers. [↩]
- While Irish producers / directors / screenwriters have not completely abandoned the “Troubles” as inspiration and story matter [Bogwoman (1997), Bloody Sunday (2002), A Further Gesture (1996), Some Mother’s Son (1996), H3 (2001), Silent Grace(2001), High Boot Benny (1993) Nothing Personal (1995) and The Boxer (1998)], these productions are being replaced by stories less concerned with the political situation than using Northern Ireland as a location back-drop, since the dawn of the new millenium. [↩]
Barton, Ruth. (2004) Irish National Cinema. Routledge.
Gibbons, Luke; Hill, John & Rockett, Kevin. (1987) Cinema & Ireland. Routledge
McLoone, Martin. (2001) Irish Film: The Emergence of Contemporary Cinema. Indiana University Press.
Gillespie, Michael. (2006) “The Myth of an Irish Cinema” in Sionnach (Irish Studies Journal), Creighton University Press.