School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
That one of the two leads in Nick Kelly’s feature debut aspires to a rock n roll career as a drummer reflects the director’s long immersion in the world of music. Though probably still best known to Irish fortysomethings as the lead singer of early 90s Irish rock outfit The Fat Lady Sings (and someone who still sporadically releases solo albums), Nick Kelly’s day job for more than two decades has been a freelance advertising copywriter. In that guise he has created some of the more cinematic moments in the Irish commercial short form: his 2003 and 2005 Guinness ads see explorer Tom Crean struggling across Antarctic wastes and another Kerryman (a pre-global fame Michael Fassbender) swimming across the Atlantic to arrive in a New York bar and apologize to a friend. Music plays a key role in both – Crean is awakened from his frozen reverie by an echo of “Oh the Days of the Kerry Dances” while Fassbender’s “Man” is prompted into action by hearing Mic Christopher’s “Heyday” on the radio.
In parallel with shilling alcohol, Kelly has made several forays into short film. Funded under the Irish Film Board’s Short Short scheme his 2003 work Delphine follows a demure schoolgirl as she makes a weekly pilgrimage to a music shop to play on a borrowed guitar. Why the Irish Dance that Way, produced for the Arts Council/RTE “Dance on the Box” project in 2006 offered an extended visual joke on the origins of traditional Irish dance. Only Shoe, the Academy Award long-listed tale of man contemplating suicide lacks an overt musical connection.
Shoe was funded under the Film Board’s now defunct Signatures Scheme, one designed to allow directors regarded as on the cusp of more ambitious work to work with more generous – €75,000 – budgets before graduating to full-scale features.
That feature has arrived in the form of The Drummer and the Keeper. It immediately reminds us of Kelly’s knack for the arresting visual image demanded by the narrative economy of commercials. Opening on the naked buttocks of a man dragging a sofa to the waters edge on Dollymount Beach, the camera watches him set it alight then return to the hearse that brought him there. As the camera cuts to a wide-angle long shot, the film title appears framed by the flames and the Pigeon House towers.
Thereafter the film moves to a much more intimate scale. The man is Gabriel (Dermot Murphy soon to be seen as Bob Geldof in the much-delayed Bohemian Rhapsody), dishevelled drummer in a three-piece band starting to attract record company (and groupie) interest. 24 year old Gabriel is something of a tortured soul. Both parents are dead (his father through a heart attack, his mother by suicide), he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder “with psychotic and delusional episodes” and is self-medicating with a cocktail of booze, drugs and late nights. And of course, there is the pyromania: after the sofa incident, his sister Alice (Love/Hate’s Aoibhinn McGinnity) and bandmates Pearse and Toss (Charlie Kelly and Peter Coonan) stage an intervention, insisting he gets himself sorted.
Psychotherapist Dr Flahavan (Annie Ryan) prescribes medication plus therapy in the form of a weekly football training session with the patients attending St Cosmas, a care centre run by Eric (Adrian Hudson). On the field of play, Gabriel encounters goalkeeper Christopher (Jacob McCarthy in an effective glass-eyed, monotone performance) who is on the Aspergers spectrum. Placed in St Cosmas by his mother and stepfather, Christopher expects to return to his family home after he turns 18. After a rocky start, the two strike the beginnings of a friendship, based initially on mutual convenience: Christopher needs someone to practice penalties with, Gabriel (or rather his band) need a roadie (something Christopher’s eye for detail makes him preternaturally gifted at).
While mental health pathologies have been a recurring theme in Irish cinema, (All Souls Day, 1997; Eamon Owen’s schizophrenic Francie in The Butcher Boy, 1998; and Cillian Murphy’s suicidal Jonathan in On The Edge, 2001), explorations of the distinct categories of intellectual disability and/or developmental disorders have been less common. Screenwriters may have balked at the challenge of adequately representing characters who lack the resources and opportunities to express their own perspective. Jim Sheridan and Shane Connaughton could use the works and words of Christy Brown to use as source material for My Left Foot, but there are few, if any, equivalents from Irish authors with autism or on the Asperger’s spectrum. (Such texts do exist: witness for example David Mitchell’s recent championing of Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida’s “The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism”).
There are also a multitude of political sensitivities to be negotiated, not least of which is the potential for dangerously inaccurate nomenclature. Though sometimes carelessly treated as synonyms in popular discourse, “mental illness”, “intellectual disability” and “development disorders” describe very different conditions. As The Drummer and The Keeper suggests, even those with such conditions may not grasp these distinctions. When Gabriel refers to Christopher’s as having “mental health… issues”, he is immediately corrected: “I don’t have a mental health issue. I have Aspergers, it’s a syndrome… You have a mental health issue”.
Nick Kelly is better equipped than most to negotiate these kind of hurdles given that his own son has Aspergers. And it is tempting to suggest that the possibility of making this film now owes something to a particular moment in the development of identity politics. And though, on the surface, Kelly’s accessible text is structured as a hybrid of the fish out of water and buddy movie genres, it repeatedly invokes and explores the competing discourses used to construct the identify of those with mental illness or developmental disorders.
While the text sets up overt parallels between Gabriel and Christopher – one orphaned, the other de facto abandoned by both parents, both institutionalized – their respective conditions place them in very different situations. Delusional episodes aside, Gabriel can usually “pass” as normal. Indeed, he is determined not to be identified with his condition. Fearful Christopher’s constant referencing of his bipolar disorder will further alienate his bandmates Gabriel begs him not to mention it again (“I kind of need to be seen as together right now and you’re not helping”).
Christopher does not have this luxury. Though high-functioning, he finds it difficult to cope with novel social interactions for which his learned-by-rote behavioural routines are inappropriate. Even when they do kick in, they may be misapplied: apologizing for his initial engagement with Christopher, Gabriel is told he can return to football training if he can be “friends” with Christopher. Christopher immediately sets in train a chain of pre-patterned behaviours triggered by the term “friend” oblivious to Gabriel’s obvious discomfort with this. Asked by Gabriel why he persists, Christopher quotes from his internal rule book: “that’s what friends do”.
Through its two leads the film discreetly invokes two contrasting discourses relating to people with disabling conditions. The medical discourse, embodied in the pivotal figure of Dr Flahavan (Annie Ryan) identifies conditions such as Gabriel’s bipolar disorder as immanent to the individual and treats them accordingly. She instantly recommends recourse to drugs as the main course of treatment (“any regime other than the clinically approved route … would be a huge gamble”) and curtly dismisses the talking cure. Asked how long Gabriel will follow the regime, she replies “For the rest of your life”. Even the football sessions she prescribes are primarily intended to offset the physical side effects of the drugs – they are not treated as therapeutic in themselves.
By contrast Christopher’s character permits some exploration of the social model of disability. Commonly applied to physical disability, the social model suggests that individuals do not “have” a disability but rather are disabled by a built environment primarily designed for the mainstream of society. Applied to those who are mentally or socially divergent, the social model suggests that every individual occupies a space on a spectrum of states of mental health. As a result those lying on the more challenging end of that continuum should no longer be regarded as ineluctably different from “normal” people. Christopher is depicted as having struggled to enter the mainstream end of that continuum through learned behaviours but the film emphasizes that the challenges he continues to face are less of his making than the social context he encounters. When Gabriel complains to Eric that Christopher cannot get upset every time “every little thing doesn’t go his way” if he is to cope with the “real world” Eric resignedly concedes that the intransigence of mainstream society is such that it may never permit Christopher to fully participate within it.
The film offers a complex negotiation of these discourses. Having dutifully taken his meds and “gone straight” as demanded, Gabriel’s bandmates complain that he no longer plays like he used to and move to replace him with another drummer. The suggestion that creativity is connected to (indeed perhaps dependent upon) psychological divergence has plenty of antecedents: Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemmingway have all been identified as having bipolar disorder. It creates an impossible bind for Gabriel, however: his wish to be identified as a drummer dependent upon precisely the identity he wishes to suppress.
Christopher’s main life goal might be summarized as “belonging”, symbolized by his wish to move back in with his mother’s. His efforts to internalize behaviours acceptable in mainstream society represent steps on this path. However, at his 18th birthday party, this is blocked by the “pragmatic” Jeremy (Phelim Drew), his mother’s partner, who makes it clear that Christopher’s Aspergers makes this impossible. Given that Christopher is presented as largely independent it is evident that the issue lies with Jeremy who simply does not want to deal with difference, however minimal.
In a further nuancing of the social discourse, it is suggested that, even while mimicking normal behaviours, Christopher also embraces Aspergers as a key component of his identity. As Christopher is reeling in the wake of one of Gabriel’s more destructive episodes at St Cosmas’s, Roly, another kid with Asperger’s rushes to Eric with crushing news:
Roly: They’ve abolished us. There won’t be any Aspergers any more, we’ll all just be autistic.
Eric: Says Who?
Roly: The American Psychiatric Association.
Eric: It was just a label Roly.
Roly: Yeah but it was our label.
Christopher also has no truck with these blurring of identities. Actively distancing himself from a profoundly autistic patient at St Cosmas, he observes: “I have nothing in common with him”. By defending the boundaries of Aspergers, Christopher and Roly assert a coherent identity of their own even if this potentially cements their “otheredness”.
It is not always clear as to where the film situates itself in relation in this regard. That the medical discourse is mainly expressed by the glacial Dr Flahavan, who continues to rely on the same professional protocols which failed to prevent Gabriel’s mother from committing suicide, seems calculated to damn that discourse by association. Yet the film also depicts the catastrophic consequences of entirely rejecting the pharmaceutical route. Desperate to secure his place in the band Gabriel deliberately goes off his meds to regain his “feel” for the drumkit. When this fails to convince his former comrades, an unchecked Gabriel spirals out of control, literally and figuratively damaging everyone around him, including Christopher and, ultimately in a final instance of his pyromania, himself.
The film does seem to endorse the social discourse even while acknowledging that it will demand a see change in social attitudes to become operative. In Madness and Civilisation, Michel Foucault traced how following the Enlightenment, the categories of sane and insane emerged as structural binaries, one element of a larger process of social classifications ultimately designed to facilitate the workings of capitalism. The social model harks back to a pre-Enlightenment (yet arguably more progressive) model which suggests that all individuals exist on a continuum of mental health conditions. The film is certainly keen to stress that aberrant behavior is just as common among the notionally normal characters: bandmates Pearse and Toss are portrayed as self-interested abandoning Gabriel as soon as they perceive him to be a liability; a groupie with whom Christopher has his first sexual experience turns out to be exploiting him in order to get back with Gabriel; Christopher’s stepfather is a reactionary brute while Dr Flahavan’s robotic adherence to her professional guidelines is not obviously distinguishable from Christopher’s coping strategies.
Indeed, ironically, it is Christopher, the character who experiences more difficulty than any other in making empathetic connections who emerges as the most sympathetic character in the film. He persistently forgives those who trepass again him (provided they submit a formal apology), goes out of his way to be helpful to Gabriel (“that’s what friends do”) and after Gabriel’s second act implosion emerges as the figure who ultimately resolves both his own and Gabriel’s problems with a leftfield but internally logical proposal that makes a virtue of combining his and Gabriel’s disorders.
In truth that conclusion feels a little pat, driven more by the structural demands of the buddy movie structure than anything else. Although its novel take on the “You complete me” line sidesteps the monstrous egotism of its original deployment in Jerry Maguire, the consequences that follow from Christopher’s proposal seem too neat. The end does partially succeed in resolving the competing medical and social discourses: Gabriel negotiates his twin identities as musician/person with bipolar disorder by going back on his meds and becoming a music teacher at St Cosmas while Christopher finds both acceptance and a new home with Gabriel. The film leaves Gabriel and Christopher as an inverted reincarnation of the Odd Couple: though both are intrinsically odd as individuals, as a unit they are depicted as amounting to more than the sum of their parts. Ultimately the film concludes that one’s mental status is less important than whether one is a fundamentally decent person or not.