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The Bill Douglas Trilogy
Bill Douglas was a Scottish filmmaker of high regard and low output; his brief career produced a trilogy of short films and one feature release. Facets' The Bill Douglas Trilogy contains his critically celebrated autobiographical films My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home.
The trilogy is an intense autobiographical study. Restricted by his budget, Douglas chose to draw from vivid personal memories of his grindingly deprived childhood in Newcraighall, a poor mining town near Edinburgh. Recreating the squalid living conditions of his depression-era youth was no problem because little in Newcraighall had changed in four decades. There seems to be no vegetation, only muddy wet streets and sooty dark houses. Douglas saw two children smoking at a bus stop and realized that he had found his leading players, half-brothers living in conditions barely better than his own. The British Film Institute funded Douglas' project only because a sympathetic producer believed in the cinematic values of his prose screenplay, which set up situations but was not broken down into a standard script form.
The trilogy begins with 1972's My Childhood, a tale of misery that makes Charles Dickens' visions of impoverished childhood seem benign. Young Jamie (Stephen Archibald) and his older brother Tommy (Hughie Restorick) live in an ancient ruin with their feeble grandmother during WW2. Jamie's mother was stricken due to some complication at his birth and has been institutionalized ever since -- a tragedy that befell Bill Douglas's mother as well.
Fierce and unjust family grudges make Jamie and Tommy pariahs in their own household. Abused and ignored, they grow up without a single permanent friend or loyal family member. Most every event in their lives contributes to a soul-crushing despair. Tommie's dad shows up with a gift of a pet canary, which doesn't last long in the violent household. Jamie's dad gives him sixpence but is otherwise unable or unwilling to stand up for him. German POWs work the fields and the unloved boy hangs around their trucks. Jamie makes fast friends with a prisoner named Helmuth (Karl Fieseler), only to be traumatized when the man is repatriated to his own country.
My Childhood establishes Bill Douglas' intense style of direction. Douglas believed in the camera's ability to record a human truth beyond acting. Instead of going for narrative clarity the director concentrates on static individual shots that force us to examine his characters at length. The adults are passive and defeated, or unreasonably spiteful to the point of hysteria. Frantic women communicate in wild accusations and screamed threats. Jamie's only defense is to refuse to interact with other people. A typical shot shows the unwashed kid standing uncomfortably, with a pained look on his face. Jamie frequently hides under furniture, or sits with his head lowered or buried in his hands.
Jamie's grandma dies and the child-care authorities seize Tommy. Escaping to a nearby block of shabby apartments, Jamie takes up residence with relatives that blame him for his mother's poor choices in life. My Childhood ends with an image of Jamie seeking escape on a coal train, but in the second film My Ain Folk (1973) he's back with his in-laws. Jamie spends time with a disdainful older woman. His father is encouraged to remarry. Jamie gets along for a time with a doddering old grandfather. Director Douglas uses apples as a metaphor for broken human ties. Jamie is offered or denied a basket of apples depending on how he's being treated; he also steals them. When he brings an apple for his mindless, incommunicative mother, the nurse quietly pockets it right in front of Jamie's eyes. Back in part one, Jamie used the word "apple" to teach Helmuth English.
My Ain Folk begins with a Technicolor clip from Son of Lassie, in which Scotland is a green paradise and every kid has a beautiful dog. Then we see Jamie watching the movie in the shabby local theater. Jamie's life back home is a constant hell of slammed doors, vile threats and verbal abuse. Relatives want to recover grandmother's pearl necklace, but Jamie's hatred is such that he buries the heirloom in the coal pits rather than turn it over to them. We see Jamie being raised into something like a Frankenstein's monster, unloved, abused and isolated. His face takes on a complex combination of anguish and resentment.
This second chapter concludes with a handsome shot of kilted bagpipers marching through the bleak village as Jamie is carted away to the orphanage. The final film My Way Home(1978) begins with Jamie's pathetic performance wearing kilts in a Christmas play. The orphanage is a dreary hall overseen by Mr. Bridge (Gerald James), a genuinely good man who wants to be fair. So as not to promote jealousy at Christmas, he gives his orphans identical harmonicas.
Jamie doesn't respond. He withdraws into silence or lashes out in destructive rages of despair. Mr. Bridge places him in a foster home, where Jamie spends only a few hours standing tense and miserable before stealing some apples and running away. Although he thinks it's a mistake, Mr. Bridge has no choice but to hand Jamie over to his father, who has remarried. Jamie returns not to a new home, but to more screaming abuse. He has a new half-brother, a filthy lout. A miserable older relative gives Jamie a copy of David Copperfield but he tears it to pieces. He's berated and belittled for claiming that he wants to be an artist.
At this point Douglas jumps the story to Egypt, for a disjointed final episode several years later. Jamie has apparently enlisted in the Royal Air Force but we only see him inhabiting a desert barracks with fellow serviceman Archie (William Carrol). Archie is frustrated by Jamie's lack of communication and social skills. At one point Jamie stammers out that he simply doesn't like people.
The trilogy ends on an unsatisfactory note, with Jamie's predicament in an undefined state. The 11 year-old's anguished face held our rapt attention, but the dull-faced soldier seems unconnected from his younger self. Jamie loved the movies and talked about wanting to be an artist, but we see few signs that he's developed an artistic sensibility. Jamie is completely uninspired by a visit to the pyramids, even when the enthusiastic Archie tries to get him to express his thoughts.
Facets' two-disc set of The Bill Douglas Trilogy will present problems for average viewers. The movies were filmed in 35mm but indifferent authoring makes them look more like 16mm. The soundtrack is very difficult to understand because the dialogue is all in Scottish dialect. English subtitles are sorely missed. We literally cannot decipher 70% of what's being said. Jamie states that he wants to be an artist three times before we realize that he's saying, "artist" and not "outcast." We're hard pressed to figure out the exact relationships between Jamie and his in-laws. That we follow the story at all is a credit to Douglas' skill at creating such an intense visual experience.
The influential filmmaker-critic Lindsay Anderson considered Bill Douglas to be a genius struggling against rejection in a harsh film climate. As an extra, Facets includes Andy Kimpton-Nye's Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image, an hour-long documentary composed of interviews with the director's associates. A taskmaster and perfectionist, Douglas wore down producers with his demands and took out his frustrations on his crew. But everyone seems to agree that his films are works of genius. After the trilogy was finished Douglas spent the next twelve years trying to get more projects afloat. His solitary feature Comrades (1987) won festival prizes but few bookings. He died of cancer in 1991.
A recently released Region 2 BFI disc set of the trilogy contains more extras -- and more critically, a set of much-needed English subtitles.
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