Mr. Vengeance

Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas's autobiographical trilogy
by Michael Atkinson  posted September 22, 2008
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It's possible that no filmmaker has used cinema as a personal time machine as obsessively, and with such undiluted rage and precision, as Bill Douglas. What's become known as "the Bill Douglas trilogy"—a brace of short features/featurettes made between 1972 and 1978—is one of those rarely seen, rarely exhibited, distributively cursed legends skulking around the borders of the modern canon, revered by the few but largely ignored, and sprouting from a swatch of time in its national cinema when there was little else worth noting. (Consider the macro view of British film in the '70s otherwise: a few Loaches, Stuart Cooper's low-budget indie Overlord, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—that's about it.) Douglas's films are, for that matter, not distinctively British in form or strategy; they belong much more cohesively to Douglas's distinctive and intensely personal worldview than to any film-culture stream of influences or traditions. Taken together as a single film, the trilogy may be the most concentrated and merciless act of family vengeance in cinema history.

There is nothing in the films—My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), and My Way Home (1978)—that didn't originate in Douglas's life, which began in the backward mining hellhole of Newcraighall, a suburb of Edinburgh, during the Depression, and which hardly saw a single respite from evil until Douglas was fully grown and involving himself in theater workshops and TV series, in the early '60s. The production of My Childhood, he commonly said in interviews, began the happy ending that authentically ended the trilogy's howling tale of impacted misery. Watching it, there's no mistaking the sulfurous odor of trauma. Returning to Newcraighall (filming on his old street, or in his old, seedy miners'-lodging flats?), Douglas shot all three movies in stark, grainy black-and-white, and rarely moved his camera (rarely moved it, that is, away from or around the suffering), limning out the day-to-day nightmare of Jamie (Stephen Archibald), Douglas's avatar, a filthy stray preteen whose twisted family situation only comes to light in fitful bursts of crisis. No one speaks of the unspeakable. Jamie is illegitimate, we figure; his barely middle-class father lives one door away with his legal family and pretends the starving boy doesn't exist; his mother is bedridden in an asylum. His older half brother (same desolated mother, different deadbeat dad) suffers as Jamie does with the task of simply finding enough to eat (Jamie forages for coal chunks in mountains of dumped dust), as the boys live with their semi-psychotic grandmother, who speaks so little it hardly comes as a surprise when she's found dead by the fireplace and the brothers are definitively on their own.

A more extreme evolution from the British New Wave's kitchen sink realism is hard to imagine—My Childhood does not even offer relief in the form of character business or story progression. Douglas's structuralist agenda leaps over entire hunks of plot, stranding us time and again in the corners of these squalid, undecorated rooms or on the street with an uncomprehending child whose only response to the malevolence and injustice around him (and that includes the soul-stealing regimentation of school, and the viciously hostile treatment dished out by the father's family) is to close up, shut up, and regard the world in every waking moment with the stare of a whipped dog. There are no responsible or sympathetic grownups anywhere in sight (excepting a German P.O.W. field worker to whom Jamie teaches English); the social tenor suggests a post-apocalyptic breakdown into scarred barbarity. (But then, all authentic films about poverty do.) Bresson's catatonic victims are unavoidable corollaries, but Douglas's concrete use of landscape reveals its own narrative of despair and oppression. Jamie's lone effort at escape, in what is the trilogy's most famous scene for Edinburghians, is to clamber up a steel railroad bridge as a locomotive passes underneath, and get enveloped in the clouds of steam. But the suture-less unfolding of the film prevents us from linking adversity with any convenient idea of resolution or we-can-take-it determinism. Had the ellipses been fleshed out, Douglas would've had a conventional feature, but the terrifying lostness of My Childhood would've vanished—with its stylized silences and bad-dream feel, the film is manifesting the sense of a youth muddled and callused by neglect and abuse, not simply recreating it.

My Ain Folk (as in, my own folk, and also the name of a nationalistic 1945 Brit-Scottish musical) continues and ticks up the tragedies: the authorities show up and separate the brothers; as his big brother gets dragged to a state boarding school, Jamie is more or less (we're never witness to the decision-making of adults in Douglas's films) forced to live with his father and paternal grandmother. As the former shows no interest, the latter quickly becomes Jamie's bête noire, a scheming, rabid nut who hides a mousetrap in the apple bowl for her grandson's fingers to find. As other family members—a grandfather, an uncle, a half brother—appear suddenly and without context, and begin mixing in, Douglas's syntax fragments even further, breaking the accumulation of domestic cataclysm into haiku friezes (an old man holding a spoonful of porridge in the air, a casket delivered through a low window, a still life with an apple gifted to a sick man). In a kind of climactic seizure, the scrounging uncle beats Jamie offscreen (for the sake of a piece of hockable jewelry), but Douglas allows us to see only the grandmother's placid face watching—finally interrupted by a posed shot of Jamie screaming silently, his head up against the hearth grate. What happened? We can only guess.

Five years later, Douglas and Archibald (now 19) reunited for My Way Home, where Douglas's work begins to accrete into something awesomely testimonial, even as Jamie's iron path to hopelessness becomes brightened, albeit ineffectively, by a new boarding school's responsive and kindhearted headmaster, and eventually by a stint (launched by a single cut) in the Egypt-stationed RAF. The elliptical skip-flow continues: Jamie's taken from the school by his father (we get to know that shabby brick block of flats as well as our own living rooms), but then he's back; he buys a suit and chucks it; he's taken home from school by a sympathetic spinster but steals her apples (again) while she sleeps and runs away. The barracks of the school get swapped for the barracks of the flophouse and the military, and as the time passes we become aware that Douglas is also painting an unsparing portrait of himself as well, a soured teen punk all but completely dead in the heart. Still, in Egypt Jamie finally escapes from himself, into the lazing Sahara friendship he establishes with an older compatriot, who introduces him to literature and eggs him out of his bitter shell. (The real-life counterpart is Peter Jewell, revealed in the DVDs' supplemental documentary as Douglas's devoted friend and platonic roommate until Douglas's death from lung cancer in 1991.)

Triumphant resolutions are not forthcoming; even the production of the trilogy by the BFI cannot be considered an unalloyed breakthrough, as Douglas fought unsuccessfully to make films thereafter, realizing only one other project, the calamity-haunted and criminally underseen lefty-historical epic Comrades (1986), before he died. Likewise, Archibald, whose iconic, heartbreakingly crooked face stood as a kind of living simile for Douglas's memories, saw no fortune shine on him: Douglas wanted to cast him in the ensemble of Comrades, but found at the time that the 26-year-old Scot, whom we had seen grow up in the films, was hopelessly behind bars. The trilogy, looking back to Gorky and forward to Terence Davies and unfurling with abandonments and bile like the black trail released by a dying plane, has a desperate essence. But the concision and released fury Douglas brings to his own history is youthful, invigorating, and helplessly grasping at life in a 20th-century-punk way that suggests the triumph of life itself. The dehumanizing forces of industrialized society have had fewer more eloquent interrogations, while the defiant will of the lone lad has exacted its reprisal. 


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Courtesy Facets
Bill Douglas's My Ain Folk
Photo Gallery: Mr. Vengeance


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

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Author's Website: Zero for Conduct