Douglas Trilogy - Film (Movie) Plot and Review





Director: Bill Douglas


MY CHILDHOOD

UK, 1972


Production: British Film Institute Production Board; black and white, 16mm and 35mm; running time: 48 minutes.


Producer: Geoffrey Evans; screenplay: Bill Douglas; photography: Mick Campbell; additional photography: Gale Tattersall, Bahram Manocheri; editor: Brand Thumin; assistant director: Nick Moes; sound editor: Tony Lewis; sound recording: Bob Withey; sound mixer: Mike Billings.

Cast: Stephen Archibald ( Jamie ); Hughie Restorick ( Tommy ); Jean Taylor Smith ( Grandmother ); Karl Fiesler ( Helmut ); Bernard Mckenna ( Tommy's father ); Paul Kermack ( Jamie's father ); Helena Gloag ( Tommy's mother ); Ann Smith ( Nurse ); Helen Crummy ( Schoolteacher ).


Awards: Silver Lion and Critic's prize, Venice 1972.


MY AIN FOLK

UK, 1973


Production: British Film Institute Production Board; black and white, 16mm; running time: 55 minutes.

Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood
Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood

Producer: Nick Nascht; screenplay: Bill Douglas; photography: Gale Tattersall; editor: Peter West, Brand Thumin; sound editor: Michael Ellis, Peter West; sound recording: Peter Harvey.


Cast: Stephen Archibald ( Jamie ); Hughie Restorick ( Tommy ); Jean Taylor Smith ( Grandmother ); Bernard Mckenna ( Tommy's father ); Munro ( Jamie's grandfather ); Paul Kermack ( Jamie's father ); Helena Gloag ( Father's mother ).


MY WAY HOME

UK, 1978


Production: British Film Institute Production Board; black and white, 35mm; running time: 72 minutes.


Production supervisor: Judy Cottam; screenplay: Bill Douglas; photography: Ray Orton; editor: Mick Audsley; art director: Olivier Boucher, Elsie Restorick; assistant director : Martin Turner; sound editor: Peter Harvey; sound recording: Digby Rumsey.

Cast: Stephen Archibald ( Jamie ); Paul Kermack ( Jamie's father ); Jessie Combe ( father's wife ); William Carrol ( Archie ).


Awards: Firesci Prize, Berlin 1979. Trilogy: Interfilm Jury Special Prize, Berlin 1979.


Publications


Script:

Dick, Eddie, and others, Bill Douglas—A Lanternist's Account , London 1993.

Books:

Dick, Eddie, From Limelight to Satellite: A Scottish Film Book , London, 1990.

Dick, Eddie, and Andrew Noble, and Duncan Petrie, editors, Bill Douglas: A Lanternist's Account , London, 1993.

Articles:

Variety (New York), 13 September 1972.

Wilson, D., Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1973.

Torok, J.-P., "Village of the Damned" in Positif (Paris), December 1975.

Wilson, D., "Images of Britain" in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1974.

Variety (New York), 20 November 1974.

Sussex, E., Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1974.

Hardwick, C., Jeune Cinema (Paris), September/October 1973.

Cannière, P., "Portrait d'enfance" in Cinéma (Paris), Summer 1978.

Pym, J., Sight and Sound (London), November 1978.

Pulleine, T., Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1978.

Variety (New York), 15 November 1978.

Elley, Derek, " My Way Home ," Films & Filming , December 1979.

Malmberg, C.-J., "Hem till natten," Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 24, no. 2, 1982.

Hassan, Mamoun, and J. Caughie, "His ain man : The Way Home ," Sight & Sound (London), November 1991.

Hodgson, P. and, B. Douglas, " My Childhood ," Trafic (Paris), no. 23, Fall 1997.

Bénoliel, Bernard, "Ma vie de chien," Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1997.


* * *


The three intimate autobiographical films written and directed by Bill Douglas under the auspices of the BFI production board in the 1970s collectively represent one of the most original and visceral contributions to British cinema during a decade remembered more for its mediocrity than its inspiration. Yet the Trilogy remains as a testament to the power of the image to fundamentally move the viewer, even when rendered with a quiet and deceptive simplicity. The films chart the harrowing and poverty-stricken childhood and adolescence of a boy in a Scottish mining village in the aftermath of World War II. Jamie's path towards adulthood and the acquisition of understanding of self and others is relentless in its brutality. Yet this is ultimately a tale of redemption, of the triumph of the human spirit over material suffering, which avoids the usual sentimental and melodramatic impulses of such narratives.

The force of the Trilogy is rooted in Douglas's idiosyncratic approach to the medium. Eschewing the visual pyrotechnics which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, Douglas pares his aesthetic to the very bone. The black-and-white images are marked by a profound stillness in both space and time. Not only is there minimal camera movement in the three films but individual shots are frequently left to dwell, slowly absorbing the subject matter. The only exception is the 360-degree pan around the room at the very end of My Way Home , a shot which signifies a subjective return to the house where Jamie spent much of his childhood. The soundtrack is also largely subordinated to the image. The dialogue is minimal and non-diegetic music entirely absent from the Trilogy , evoking an affinity with silent cinema.

This desire for stillness is related to Douglas's humanistic belief in the power of the camera to reveal certain ontological truths. This also explains his casting of non-actors in many of the key roles, including those of the two young boys in the film, Jamie and his cousin Tommy—the idea being that real rather than imagined experience would be rendered on screen through the faces of the performers. The pained expression of Stephen Archibald, aged beyond his years, which haunts the Trilogy bears witness to the success of this strategy. But Douglas is also well served by the professionals in his cast, particularly Jean Taylor Smith as the wraith-like maternal grandmother, fighting both the rigours of poverty and extreme emotional distress in the struggle to raise her two grandsons.

Yet while the images of Bill Douglas invoke poets like Dreyer or Bresson, these images are contained within highly formalized montage structures derived from Soviet stylists such as Donskoi and Dozvhenko. The Trilogy is constructed out of filmic blocks which progress in a relationship of dialectical tension described by John Caughie in terms of "aesthetic distance and intense intimacy," serving to both objectively analyze the material poverty of Jamie's childhood while providing insights into his own limited understanding. The films also resound with narrative ellipses and echoes, providing an almost organic coherence to the meticulously crafted structures.

My Childhood centres around the triangular relationship between Jamie, Tommy, and their grandmother. The narrative is one of a groping on the part of the child towards a self knowledge. The confusion over his parentage—his mother is confined to an asylum, his father as yet unknown to him—leads him to seek companionship in Helmut, a German POW, who works in the local fields. Helmut cannot speak English, yet communication between the two is achieved through emotional warmth rather than language. There are also powerful juxtapositions of almost casual brutality with fleeting moments of tenderness which tragically capture the tenacity of humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances.

My Childhood concludes with Granny's death. My Ain Folk leads Jamie to the house of his paternal grandmother, an embittered old woman whose intense jealousy fires her hatred towards Jamie's mother and by extension to the young boy himself. He spends much of the film cowering in corners or hiding under the table. Yet he can never escape her malevolence. There are enough glimmers of pathos to cast her as yet another victim, a product of a brutal uncaring existence. My Ain Folk also extends the narrative to take in the wider community. The film begins with the image of a Technicolor sequence from a "Lassie" film. We see Tommy's engrossed face watching the movie in wonderment. The next cut is to a view of the mine workings, an image framed as if by a cinema screen. The camera then descends into the earth as we realize that this is the point of view of the miners starting their shift. In a later sequence which begins with Jamie fleeing his grandmother, the individual suffering of the child opens out into the context of the classroom where he sits in a puddle of his own urine. This then cuts to a shot of the miners going to work signifying an inevitable progression, a grim future for the children already mapped out. By the end of My Ain Folk Jamie is taken into care, echoing Tommy at the beginning.

My Way Home shifts the attention away from childhood onto the problems of adolescence. Jamie, at last, has found some comfort in the children's home yet the world of work beckons. He returns to the village but quickly realizes it has nothing to offer but a life down the mine. He lodges with a foster mother in Edinburgh and starts a job but rejects both and ends up in a dosshouse. After a final desperate return to his village the film cuts to the bright sunlight of the Egyptian desert. James has been called up and is serving in the canal zone. This journey away from home is to inadvertently provide the means whereby Jamie finds himself (the way home proving to be a rather different kind of journey) through his friendship with Robert, a young Englishman passionately interested in the arts who opens up undreamt-of horizons. The seeds of hope and redemption have been sown enabling Jamie finally to grow and realize his own humanity.

—Duncan Petrie

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