We watched movies on consecutive nights: The Secret of Roan Inish by John Sayles (1993) and Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog (1985). Despite differences in cinematic and narrative style the two films are quite similar: a young child loses her/his mother, moves to a rural part of Ireland/Sweden, and is restored to fullness of being by the simple pleasures of pastoral living. Industrialization is alienating: the fathers either abandon their families for jobs in distant ports or spend their spare time slumped over too many pints at the corner pub. Worse, there is no comfort to be found, no one to hold you next to her bosom. For Sayles it’s the rugged isolation of the sea that brings the downtrodden city-dweller back to life; for Hallstrom it’s the idiosyncratic communalism of the remote village. Upward mobility offers no allure: in these two films we see no middle-class suburbanites, no bosses or financiers living the good life on the backs of the workers. Only two options are placed on the table: proletarian dehumanization or a return to preindustrial peasantry.
This was an old story even in our grandparents’ time. So why bother making this romantic kitsch yet again, other than to make the ironic observation that nostalgia is always a remake? And it’s clear that the bucolic past really is past, even for those few who return to it. Both stories are set forty years in the past, but the worlds they depict seem older than that. The Irish island of Roan Inish can house only a handful of families; the colorful Swedish communal home is really a boarding house owned by the company that employs all the villagers. The children who return to these places don’t find new mothers to nurture them. What they find isn’t comfort but freedom: to play without adult supervision, to take risks without being subjected to constant warnings, to imagine outside the constraints of ordinary reality.
I think it’s this last part, the work of the imagination, that comes through the strongest. The women are happier in these towns, but it’s the men who really come to life. In town the men are tense, silent, mechanical, but in these isolated villages they blossom into artists. The Irishman who with his bare hands plucks fish from the sea is the one who tells the dark legend of his people, a tale so fabulous it must be true. All the Swedish townsmen are glassblowers, acrobats, crackpot inventors, sculptors. Released from the tedium and brutality of the industrial age, men find the freedom to enjoy creating for its own sake. And these are hopeful stories, stories pointing toward the future: even as village life recedes into the past, it’s not too late for a child of the modern age to make passage into the freedom of the creative life. These places are gone now, but maybe through a kind of retreat and rebirth it might be possible to find these ancient sources of freedom and inspiration.
Why is it, then, that these two movies feel false? In Roan Inish the acting feels stilted, the storytelling a kind of artificial device. In the Swedish village we’re shown glimpses of darkness, but they’re whitewashed in quirkiness, quaintness and humor. It’s as if these two filmmakers are afraid to move beyond craft and archetype and into art and truth. Maybe that’s the intrinsic limit built into the archaic sources of free expression, a limit that can be superseded only by grinding it up in the machinery of the contemporary world.