ARTYFACTS: Scotland in Film - mythological or pathological

Monday, August 20, 2012

Scotland in Film - mythological or pathological

Culturally, Scotland too often dresses itself up in Salmond pink, a pale egalitarian red laced with tartan. So exhibitions with the word ‘Scotland’ in the titletoo often flatter the funders with non-critical displays. It tarts up, even tartanises, its often lean pickings.
So it is with this show on Scotland in film at the National Library of Scotland. Exhibitions in libraries are usually no more than paper objects in cabinets, and it is no different here - mostly print not film, put together by librarians. A timeline of boards, with far too little actual film on show. But its biggest failure is that it doesn’t SAY anything. Let’s be honest, film and Scotland have an uneasy and at times downright awful relationship.
From the earliest days of film Scotland was represented as a mythical, tartan kingdom, where the natives all wore kilts, held staffs in their hands and wore bonnets with feathers. When MGM failed to find a suitable location for Brigadoon in Scotland (read that sentence again, it’s says it all) they painted Scotland on studio sets in Los Angeles, and even in 2012, with Brave, Disney/Pixar are still at it. We’ve been reduced to a culture of clichés and ciphers, a phoney Scotland that doesn’t exist and never did exist. Film has done for Scotland in the 20th century what Walter Scott did in the 19th century – made us look like fools. Braveheart, Rob Roy, Highlander, all of those ‘warrior’ movies reinforcing the highland ‘hardman’ stereotype. Just as bad is the whimsy of Whisky Galore or Local Hero.
Luckily, there are some bright spots, as one would expect in a century of movie making, but they’re rare. Gregory’s Girl was, at last, a film about real people in a real place doing real things, not a kilt or piece of tartan in sight. It captured the authentic Scotland, especially the humour and humanity, without being maudlin. But it wasn’t to last, as even Bill Forsythe resorted to highland mythology for Local Hero. We had to wait for some time for the next episode, Trainspotting, where a real Scottish author could take Scotland’s shameful underbelly to the screen, and let his characters scream with rage on Rannoch Moor about our saccharine image of ourselves. Other highlights include, The Flying Scotsman, Red Road, Ratcatcher, and two Ken Loach films, Sweet Sixteen and My Name is Joe. Even here, it’s a largely odd and dysfunctional Scotland that gets all the attention.
Scotland in film is a tale of thin pickings. We swing between the mythological and the pathological, with little in-between. We’re a location not a real place. Oddly, we are better represented by our film actors than our films, Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton (Scott-ish), Brian Cox, Alan Cummings and Doug Ray Scott. We are, after all, a nation of individuals and film is an act of collective creation, not a natural Scottish trait.


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