Bill Douglas, 1937-1991

In a singular denunciation of the insincerity of Hollywood rhetoric, Clifford Odets has his struggling movie star Charlie Castle say in The Big Knife, "This cheerful 'giving of hearts' chills my blood." I don't know when or how that level of fake piety and fake emotionalism infiltrated the rest of our culture (although the enduring popularity of Frank Capra leads me to believe that it predates television by quite a lot), but a lot of important words have been devalued as a result.

I'm thinking today of the word "tragic" in particular. I have heard/read the use of the word to describe everything from the destruction of the World Trade Center to a tough loss in a baseball game. The Merriam-Webster dictionary (which I refer to because it is available on-line and therefore close at hand) gives this series of definitions for tragic:

1 : of, marked by, or expressive of tragedy 2 a : dealing with or treated in tragedy <tragic hero> b : appropriate to or typical of tragedy 3 a : regrettably serious or unpleasant : b : marked by a sense of tragedy

And for tragedy is has the following:

1 a : a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man b : a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror c : the literary genre of tragic dramas 2 a : a disastrous event

Okay, pity or terror -- straight from Aristotle, that one -- applies to the WTC, but I'm not sure the average newswriter has as free a license to use "tragic" or "tragedy" as he may imagine. When Walter and Stella, our cats, died early this summer, I was deeply upset and the depression that resulted has followed me all summer, I readily admit. There was no reason for them to have died as young (8 years old) as they did, but that doesn't raise our loss to the level of tragedy.

The reason for this rumination -- other than my usual misanthropy -- is the program of films by the fine Scottish writer-director Bill Douglas, currently being shown at Anthology Film Archives
through the weekend. Douglas was only 54 when he died of cancer, and his entire output as a filmmaker consisted of the extraordinary trilogy of autobiographical films that bears his name and a marvelous historical feature, Comrades. Does this loss to film rise to the level of tragedy? I don't know, but what I do know from seeing the trilogy for the first time in 30 years at a press screening at Anthology is that Douglas was a very significant talent, a sure-footed director whose mise-en-scene was a brilliant blend of Bressonian minimalist rigor and character and social detail observed with the intensity of Dickens.

The three films of the trilogy -- My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home -- are a striking recreation and recollection of life in post-WWII Scotland in the most dire of circumstance, in a dying mining town where the prospects of escape or advancement are virtually non-existent. By leaping from his childhood to his time in the Army, stationed in Egypt in the '50s, Douglas deliberately sidesteps the urge to "explain" everything about his own departure from Newcraighall, that grim hometown, while still giving us a glimmer of insight into the forces that would lift him out of the Highlands and put him on the road to the British Film Institute.

The one thing that was missing from the prints that were press-screened, regrettably, was the visual sharpness, the skillful use of chiaroscuro and the sheer starkness that etched these three films so firmly onto my memory that 30 years after that initial viewing I could still call up images and vignettes from them. I hope and pray that those prints aren't the ones being shown at the public screenings, but even if they are, it's worth a trip to Anthology to see them. The films retain their great power, even under such adverse circumstances -- and how else are you going to see them on a big screen, they sure has hell won't turn up at the Ziegfeld any time soon.

But that's what places like Anthology are for. Consider just the programs they've done this past month -- Douglas, Pedro Costa, Minnelli melodramas, Barbara Albert, and the usual rotation of 'essential cinema' masterpieces.

At any rate, you have 48 hours to see some of the Douglas films. Now get going!