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Poverty and neglect
on 29 March 2017
Poverty and neglect. The first damages one physically through undernourishment, malnutrition and illness, the second through emotional deprivation.
Bill Douglas (1934-91) was born poor in a home without love and support. His father was cold and distant, his mother mentally unstable. He grew up in working-class Edinburgh in the 1930s and ‘40s. Depression and war had exhausted Britain, the economy depleted. People everywhere were struggling and suffering, the poor in particular.
The trilogy is an autobiography of his early life. It begins when he is 6 or 7 and ends a dozen years or so later when he is a young adult.
Freud said the foundation of character is formed and fixed by age 7. If he was right, we see the state Bill is in at that age: morose, bored, confused, unfocused, ill-disciplined, lost, his attention span and patience short. He is too young, too immature to understand his circumstances. But he can feel them. He responds sometimes by lashing out, throwing and breaking things. Other times he accepts them in a catatonic stupor of lethargy and ennui. The camera lingers on him in stillness, its motionlessness mirroring the empty state of his mind. He rarely looks at the lens or into anyone’s eyes, and he never smiles, only scowls. He sits and hangs his head. It rests between his knees. He’s escaping the world, fleeing from it with the only freedom he has, giving up on it, retreating into himself, to a place where it can’t touch him.
The character who plays Bill is Jamie. He in turn is played by Stephen Archibald, a street lad Douglas met at a bus stop in Edinburgh. Archibald, too, was born poor. Douglas saw his early self in him, put him in the film, allowed him to become him.
Home is really an emotion, not a place. It’s a feeling of belonging, of having a place to call home. It can be anywhere, but without the feeling for it one is lost, marooned in the world. Jamie is lost. He eats and sleeps in rooms that are not his. They could be his granny’s, his neighbours’, the local school’s, even those of the Salvation Army. He shuttles between places, sometimes collared and kept there, other times running away from them. He knows he is unwanted, unloved. He can’t say what love is precisely, but he knows the feeling of its absence. When occasional kindnesses come his way he’s unsure how to respond to them, hardly able to process them. He sometimes destroys gifts, physical objects, perhaps failing to see them as symbolic tokens of affection. More important than gifts is food, which he steals when it isn’t given to him. A German POW befriends him. So does a kindly schoolmaster. Even his grandmother sometimes hugs him, especially when drunk and incoherent (which is frequent). The adults are not to be trusted. He inhabits their world, the one they have made, but it’s a world that lets him down. He doesn’t know what to make of anything apart from eating and sleeping, the two constants he knows and requires. In a way he is a feral child, an animal of appetites only, made wild by a lack of care, affection, guidance.
He is dirty most of the time and always cold in winter, his clothes tattered and torn. He can’t see the point of bathing, of being clean. Clean for what? He is given a new suit of clothes at one point but throws the necktie and coat away. He prefers his manky jumper with holes in it. It’s dirty from the coal he occasionally gathers, stealing it from the local pit. Perhaps the jumper is a magical thing, a secret suit of armour he wears to protect himself.
Tommy is his half-brother (same father, different mothers, two or three years older). They often tussle and fight as young boys will, the fighting binding them together. They take out their frustrations and misery on one another, though consciously unaware of what they are doing. It happens naturally. When Tommy moves away to the house of a relative Jamie is alone again, back to his natural state. He is stranded. Even among others he is solitary, withdrawn into himself.
His life is desultory, a series of displacements between adults. In each place he is uncommitted. There are no roots, no contiguous history. There is only dislocation and drift.
Jamie is older in the third film in the trilogy, perhaps 19 or 20. He has somehow survived childhood and joined the RAF. He is sent out to Egypt. In one scene he stands before one of the great Pyramids. His regimental mate Robert, an Englishman, says, “Don’t you see it? It’s one of the seven great wonders of the world.” Jamie looks but doesn’t see, the structure devoid of wonder, just a collection of stones piled in the shape of a pyramid, a blank in his education and mind. But Robert is kind, non-judgemental, patient. He works with Jamie, works with his heart and imagination. And because of him Jamie begins to find new parts of himself, undiscovered and untapped areas of mind. He begins to draw, to see with the eyes of an artist and understand beauty for the first time.
They both love movies, both he and Robert, and go to the picture shows often. Jamie puts up photos and posters of movie stars in his locker. Marilyn Monroe, impossibly glamorous, is a favourite. The movies grow on him — and in him. One day he realises he wants to make movies. He has never wanted anything before, but now he knows he wants this. And so Jamie as Bill will do that, will love movies, and one day Bill will tell his story in moving pictures through Jamie. This is that story. It’s sad and heartrending, callous and brutal, but also inspiring. Poverty was supposed to crush him. He wasn’t supposed to be anything. But he confounded its limitations and made himself into an artist, a film auteur, and one of Scotland’s finest.
He spares little here. He tells the truth. It’s bleak and hard, but it’s the way it was for him. This is what he came out of — what we see on the screen. He goes back to it with many things: a patient heart, clear mind, steady camera, long takes in austere black and white.
The pace is slow and dreamlike, a dizziness perhaps made by hunger. The sets are simple, almost bare. Spoken words are few. Natural sounds dominate: dripping water, shoes on the pavement, a crackling fire in the hearth. There is music (sung by people) but no soundtrack. Poverty is sparse; so too this sparse depiction of it. You might think you’ll be depressed and bored by it. You could be, but if you surrender to it you won’t be. It takes you where it thinks you need to go and shows you how it was.