We Need to Talk About Lynne

This is an academic paper on the analysis of  Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s career, persona, and films (with a significant focus on her recent feature “You Were Never Really Here”), and how all these factors define her personality as an indie or independent filmmaker. 

Within the context of American cinema, writer Michael Z. Newman proposes a flexible continuum which encompasses three distinctive forms of cinema – the mainstream, the indie, and the independent. The slipperiness of the term indie, in particular, allows many filmmakers to take different positions on this imaginary scale. If indie defines a filmmaker’s persona and filmmaking style that focuses on subverting elements of the mainstream, then the filmmaker may place somewhere between the mainstream and the indie. However, if the indie filmmaker aims to have no relation with mainstream filmmaking and aims to display their independent vision in a purely apolitical way, then they, as Newman suggests, borrow majorly from the European art-house school of thought. The placing of a filmmaker and their filmography along this continuum does not provide a defining label for their work. This oversimplification of complicated texts and personas would, in fact, be reductive. However, from the struggle to understand where filmmakers place along this continuum, there is a possibility to appreciate their personas and films better.

The films and persona of the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay further complicate this ordeal of placing a European director on a scale that Newman proposed distinctly for American cinema in the Sundance-Miramax era (1990-2010). However, because of the elasticity of this scale, Ramsay’s films find their place somewhere along it. As with many American filmmakers, however, placing Ramsay precisely in a position on this continuum is exceptionally challenging. The edges around Ramsay’s films – her working-class upbringing and education, the state-funded financing and production and independent distribution of her films, her infrequent and blunt interactions with the media, and her glowing reputation in the critical community – suggest that the director may certify as a traditional European art-house filmmaker. However, her actual texts demonstrate a minor shift from independent to indie filmmaking because the director, in her recent films, allows for slightly more significant focus on narrative and subversion as opposed to reliance on haptic narratives and ambiguity that majorly defined her earlier work.

Ramsay’s upbringing and education inform critical decisions for this style of independent filmmaking that emphasizes visuals over dialogue, and her brutally honest persona. Born in Glasgow, Scotland to a working-class family, Ramsay had no previous connections to the film industry. Her mother worked as a cleaner, and her father did a variety of working-class jobs, which meant that her journey to making films began very much from scratch, again emphasizing her position as an independent and relatable filmmaker for the majority of aspiring filmmakers. Ramsay’s initial interest in photography is what however that suggests a significant influence on her trademark visual style that informs her reputation as a European art-house auteur as opposed to an indie one. The Scottish director went on to study it at Napier College in Edinburgh, after which she specialized in cinematography and direction at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England. While making films at the college in England, Ramsay frequently faced problems in getting hired by people as the camera operator due to her short height. This disadvantage, however, did not discourage her, as she continued to work and build her reputation up as a filmmaker. Unsurprisingly, her first three short films – Small Deaths (1996), Kill the Day (1997), and Gasman (1998) – and first feature film – Ratcatcher (1999) – all take inspiration from her life in Scotland and display her preference of what some critics call “pure cinema” (Kermode, “You Were Never Really Here”) to demonstrate significantly European art-house sensibilities in terms of filmmaking.

The state-financed production of Ramsay’s films (both short and feature) following her graduation film, Small Deaths, too signals her reputation as something of national treasure for Scotland that further adds to her status as a distinct auteur who holds the burden of representing her nation, as opposed to an American indie filmmaker who works towards serving their vision. The combination of British Film Institute (BFI) Lottery System and subsidies from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) fund majority of Ramsay’s low-budget projects to allow her the freedom of expression they think she deserves. This form of funding is instrumental in forming Ramsay’s career because it allows her the ability to execute her vision without any restrictions. However, this freedom granted in production by the state sometimes comes in conflict with new financers who provide additional funds for Ramsay’s films, and distributors who seek to promote her projects. Most notably, during the production and marketing of Ramsay’s second, and arguably most oblique feature about the coming-of-age of its protagonist after her boyfriend’s sudden death, Morvern Callar (2002), the misinterpretation of the film as a female Trainspotting (1996) by the Canadian co-producer and distributor Alliance Atlantis led to the inappropriate marketing and poor performance of the project at the box office. (Meir 139) This form of conflict in production and distribution has luckily evaded Ramsay’s career for the most part due to the involvement of state funding, continuing to enhance her reputation as an independent filmmaker, who only makes minimal concessions in executing her vision on screen.

However, Ramsay has had several problems merely getting projects started outside the United Kingdom because of her outspoken attitude and inability to compromise her art for the commerce. Two heavily publicized controversies involving the Scottish director indicate that Ramsay fits the traditional definition of an auteur, which is again more akin to the European art-house director. Unlike writer John Alberti’s attempt to re-define the role of the auteur as a “facilitator,” (Alberti 2) these controversies heavily imply Ramsay as an auteur in the Stanley Kubrickian authorial sense – an obsessively controlling genius whose equates collaboration to control. The first of these controversies involved the production of the film The Lovely Bones (2009), for which the Hollywood production companies deemed Ramsay as too much of a commercial risk and dropped her in favor of Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), even though she had worked on the script for over two years. She publicly thrashed Jackson’s version of the film post its release in an interview, suggesting that “the levels of misinformation and outright bullshit surrounding that film were fucking Shakespearian.” (O’Hagan et al.)

The even more significant controversy surrounding Ramsay took place on the (supposed to be) first-day production of the film Jane Got a Gun (2015) when the Scottish director walked away from the project without informing the crew and the production team of Scott Pictures Labels. The infuriated head of the production and financing team, Scott Steindorff, filed a lawsuit against the director, accusing her of demonstrating unacceptable behavior on set, and acting unprofessionally. Ramsay refuted the claims and further went on to suggest that the reasons for departure from the project for her were due to creative differences.

The combination of these accusations, and much more importantly, her unique visual and narrative style to films has won Ramsay enormous critical acclaim, especially in film festival circuits, most notably, Cannes. Small Deaths won the Jury Prize for Short Films at the festival in 1996, and Ratcatcher opened to a rapturous response from critics in the out of competition section in 1999. Even most recently in 2017 her film, You Were Never Really Here screened at the festival and won the prize for Best Screenplay for Ramsay and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix. This form of praise from the critical community, especially at a festival like Cannes that prides itself on promoting cinematic auteurs accentuates Ramsay’s standing as a European art-house filmmaker. In her native country, moreover, the Scottish director receives much praise for both her uncompromising attitude in choosing projects (which critic Mark Kermode criticizes the industry for mistaking as “difficult”) and her unique vision. In his review for Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Kermode succinctly sums up the sentiment most critics in the United Kingdom (and to an extent even in international territories) share about the female director when he announces the film as a “riposte to anyone who ever doubted he talent or her working methods.” The long-time Ramsay admirer then continues stating how the film “reconfirms Ramsay as one of the most thrillingly distinct and daring film-makers of her generation.” (Kermode, “You Were Never Really Here”) In fact, with the exception of Ramsay’s third feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, (2011), which proved divisive amongst some critics for having an over-stylized approach in depicting the traumatic state of a mother after her child commits a high school massacre, all her feature films and short films have received this form of universal acclaim.

Whether it is the exploration of Scottish river banks and the life of a swimmer as he continues to breast-stroke his way past the seemingly never-ending water currents in her experimental black-and-white short Swimmer (2012) or the exploration of guilt, trauma, and helplessness that Joe faces in her film You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay continuously uses subjective narrative effectively to explore the psychology of broken characters in her films. The use of this form of storytelling concurs with Newman’s description of the different styles of narratives that indie filmmakers use to distinguish themselves from the mainstream. Ramsay’s characters, in fact, also occupy a somewhat realistic landscape, which also allows for comparisons between her films and films of the “indie realism” (Newman 87) strain as Newman defines it. However, her use of narrative trickery, formal compositions, expressionistic soundtracks, heightened sound designs and most importantly, apolitical explorations of her characters act as a refutation of her films belonging to indie realism. Even in her recent movies that involve backdrops of child trafficking, and high school massacres, Ramsay prefers to explore the disturbed and confused minds and lives of her characters as opposed to their relationship with the society outside. However, an in-depth exploration into her recent foray into genre films and her subversion of them, mainly in You Were Never Really Here, positions her filmmaking style interestingly somewhere between the European art-house filmmaking style and the indie style.

Ramsay’s films use the template of subjective narratives, but not in the playful way that Newman proposes indie filmmakers do. Newman suggests that indie filmmakers employ game-like narratives, like in films like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) that require the audience to appreciate this form of narrative as “play, as opposed to [possessing] deep thematic meaning or an exploration of the human condition.” (Newman 193) All of Ramsay’s films always use this subjective narrative as a way to explore the mind of the character, unlikely to be wanting to be appreciated merely for play. The ambiguity and fragmentation of the narrative, in fact, tends to replicate the psyche of the protagonist, painting a story full of visual touches that only allows the viewer to absorb the protagonist’s world in small scraps. (Trotter 139)

The opening scene of her most recent film, You Were Never Really Here, accurately captures this concept of haptics that she has used consistently in all her short films and feature films. Much before the appearance of the first seemingly static underwater shot, the director fills up the screen with the heightened sound of a train passing and coming to a halt, eventually making a screeching noise as the credits of the distributors of the film (Amazon Studios, Film4, BFI, and Why Not Productions) appear on the screen. While the first ambiguous shot of water appears on screen, Ramsay again emphasizes colliding whispers of voices counting numbers and speaking before she cuts the screen abruptly to black and then immediately cuts to an extreme close-up of a man’s head wrapped up in a plastic bag, struggling to breathe. The director then uses a match cut to show an extreme close-up of a child looking directly at the audience, while the gasps of the man continue to haunt the audience along with other voices that whisper, “I must do better.” The film then cuts to another extreme close-up of the photo of an Asian girl which begins to burn as the voices on the TV continue to engulf the screen. The next close-up emphasizes the hand of the man holding that photo, but the rest of the room remains in shallow focus, and facial identity of the man remains unknown. Then, the man proceeds to drop the Holy Bible on the still burning photo of the girl in the trash can to extinguish the fire. It is only after five minutes into the film that Ramsay pans down to reveal the face of the man as Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), the protagonist of the film, walking out of a dingy back alley as the police sirens and alarm bells continue to ring. This technique to directly put the audience in the person’s perspective, without even calling attention to the form, distinguishes the way Ramsay employs subjective narrative – by disguising a familiar situation into an unfamiliar one. (Trotter 139)

In the same film, however, Ramsay displays also an element of pastiche playfulness that tends to be missing from almost all her films. One primary reason for the lack of game-like tricks in her movies is that they tend to deal with dark subject matters and attempt to explore them in a way that does not allow room for playfulness. However, in adapting Jonathan Ames’ pulpy ninety paged novella of the same name, Ramsay seems to enjoy in toying with genre conventions and throwing in obvious film connections that a section of the audience recognizes. The appearance and mention of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) on television in the scene the audience sees Joe’s first interaction with his mother, for instance, suggests a type of twisted Freudian relationship that exists between the mother and son. Instead, Ramsay wrong-foots the viewer’s expectations as one of the only achingly loving relationships Joe has left in his life is with his mother. Furthermore, the way Ramsay subverts the quintessential action scenes in the film suggests that she deliberately refrains from giving the audience what they expect.

The way the trailer of You Were Never Really Here (notably, the US Version) promotes itself to the audience, by emphasizing a #BringTheHammer and by including footage from the movie that highlights the louder, more action-oriented beats of the film aids this subversion even more. The trailer uses the most violently expressionistic musical piece from the original score of the film (composed of rising orchestral guitar strings) to underscore the minimal moments of gun shootouts, and fight scenes present in the film. Furthermore, the trailer also suggests that this film is more plot-oriented than it actually is, implying that the “You” in the title refers more to the antagonists of the film because of how “brutal” the protagonist is. However, in actuality, the “You” clearly refers to the main protagonist. The director uses the music used in the trailer too in the least familiar places. (when Joe is traveling from one place to another) Lastly, during the action scenes, Ramsay decides only to show either the aftermath of a gruesome incident or shoot it from a distance, using surveillance cameras. These techniques reflect the psyche of the character, but they also imply, in part due to the trailer, another form of the messiness of genres that Ramsay typically does not produce.

This new form of playfulness and slightly greater clarity in narratives, mainly in We Need to Talk About Kevin, suggest that Lynne Ramsay’s filmmaking sensibilities may slightly shift towards Newman’s definition of the indie, especially concerning the use of subjective narratives to tell stories in films. Her inconsistent production rate of movies, either due to personal reasons or production conflicts, outspoken attitude, and experimental short films, however, do suggest that she has not veered off too far away from her European art-house independent roots. If before, however, she was always really only associated with the European art-house sensibilities crowd. Now, she may well be a tiny bit closer to indie sensibilities that Newman proposes.

Bibliography

  1. Alberti, John. “The Director as Facilitator: Collaboration, Cooperation and the Gender Politics of the Set.” Indie Reframed: Women’s Filmmaking and Contemporary American Independent Cinema edited by Linda Badley, Claire Perkins, Michele Schreiber, and Michele Schreiber, Edinburgh Press University, 2016, 1-15.
  2. Kermode, Mark. “You Were Never Really Here review – a hitman with a conscience?” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/11/you-were-never-really-here-review-lynne-ramsay-joaquin-phoenix
  3. Meir, Christopher. “Lynne Ramsay, cross-over cinema and Morvern Callar.” Texts and Contexts, Scottish Cinema (2008), Manchester University Press, 2015, 73-96.
  4. Newman, Michael Z. Indie Film Today, Columbia University Press, 2011.
  5. O’Hagan, Sean. “Lynne Ramsay: ‘Just talk to me straight’.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/oct/02/lynne-ramsay-interview-about-kevin
  6. Trotter, David. “Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher: Towards a Theory of Haptic Narrative.” Paragraph, Vol. 31, No. 2, Cinema and the Senses (July 2008), Edinburgh University Press, 138-158.

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