Ocher skies weep gray water.... while the temperature at night continue to dive into the low 20's. Not the optimal weather for working in the studio- any wet-work in clay would freeze and develop rabbit's fur. Not a good interval for moving my 'Last Chance to See
' project forward. Instead, I'll continue with my musings on harbor seals. (Credit Kawika Chetron
for the imagery
Anyhow, I was teaching my comparative vertebrate anatomy class today. Skulls and bones week! We've got a glorious Phoca vitulina (harbor seal) skull in the lab
. Somehow, the whole class got sidetracked into marine mammal stories, leading, at one point, to a discussion of one of my favorite films, 'The Secret of Roan Inish
'. (Fair disclosure- the following is adapted from some commentary that I posted on Rotten Tomatoes a few years back. It's a busy week- sue me!)
I’m a notorious sucker for most things Irish. I play the music, love the culture and the landscape. There's really nothing in my heritage to explain it either. I'm Dutch-Croatian, and my parents musical palette was basically centered on gospel, classical music, Pete Seeger, and
The Prairie Home Companion. The connection i primal, however.
You know how it feels to treasure an idea, place, or image in your soul, and then see it misfire in a film? Contrast that to the rare, transcendent joy of seeing a film actually get it right.
So- when I heard that John Sayles- one of my all time favorite directors- had crafted a children’s film about the Selkie legend (mythical creatures- seal-like, that can shed their skins and take human form) I felt like my head was about to explode.
Fiona’s grandparents live on some unnamed stretch of the Irish west coast- perhaps Donegal, although I’m not sure. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the area, it’s a austere, uncompromising place, but still lovely, draped in rock and heather, transfixed by the boundless, stormy eye of the ocean.
For Fiona, landing with her grandparents is like a new birth. Her grandparents Hugh and Tess are gnarled and warm, suffused with local knowledge, and drenched in folklore.
The story starts with Fiona, a young girl living Dublin. She's first introduced as a pale, wraith of a child, wandering like a ghost through sweatshops and smoky pubs. Her father is nursing deep wounds, and has little time for the girl, but a kind publican convinces him to send Fiona to the ‘old people’ out in the West.
Fiona learns- first from Hugh, and later from Tadgh, her brooding , complex cousin- that her family are refugees, former occupants of a remote island in the Pacific, Roan Inish. She also learns that her youngest brother, Jaime, was ‘lost’ during a flight from said Island. Given that this film is anchored in the Selkie mystique, you can probably guess where things are going.
A large part of this film revolves around Hugh sitting by the fire and relating stories and legends about Fiona’s family. This sounds dull, but far from it. Sayles has a profound respect for local knowledge and the power of myth, and this movie is his celebration of these things.
Matewan and the earthy Zydeco in Passion Fish. I can make a more accurate assessment of the music in Roan Inish however, especially from a technical/authenticity standpoint. I play Irish music quasi-professionally, and listen to it voraciously.
Roan Inish has the best soundtrack of any Irish-themed film that I've encountered (only 'Waking Ned Devine' comes close). The tracks are beautifully played and arranged- Daring enlisted a core of respected players (such as Maire Breatnach ). I’m especially impressed by the authenticity and effectiveness of the original compositions. The music is utterly unpretentious and pure. To those who think that ‘Riverdance’ and its ilk are representative of Irish Music at its best, please go see this film.
Mason Daring, a long time Sayles collaborator, is a master at crafting haunting, vibrant soundtracks that are socially and geographically grounded and integral to Sayles’ storytelling. I love the bittersweet Appalachian strains in
Roan Inish: Two of my favorite scenes
1) The evacuation
The reason for Fiona’s family’s flight from Roan Inish is never fully articulated, but I assume it’s related to World War II. In any case, the family are depicted loaded their currachs (traditional Irish coastal fishing boats) while little Jamie sleeps near the water’s edge in his cradle- a strangely boat shaped rocker that traces its inception back to the family legend. The sky darkens, as a bodhran drum rattles in the background. The tide laps at the boat… and suddenly, Jamie is floating away through dark sheets of rain.
2) Lost in the mist
Fiona, exploring a currach by a jetty, suddenly finds herself holding a cut rope, drifting through fog, surrounded by seals. It becomes manifest that she’s being guided… but the intentions of the guides are unclear.
Roan Inish: A few classic pieces of dialogue
“He’s not lost, he’s just off with another branch of the family”
(cousin Tadhg, referring to Jamie)
“Superstitious old man!”
(Tess, referring to Hugh’s stories about Selkies. She then banks the peat fire in the parlor, dedicating it to the blessed virgin, and to the seven bright angels that gather around the throne…)
"...and he woke to their faces above him, all women and girls. 'Is this Heaven then?' he asked..."
(Hugh- describing the reaction of a near-drowned sailor upon awaking)