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Five Minutes With… Irish Film Historian Dr Kevin Rockett
03 May 2012 : By Eva Hall
Kevin Rockett with President Michael D. Higgins and Emer Rockett
Celebrated film historian Dr Kevin Rockett has been credited with shaping Irish cinema over the last 25 years through a number of his published works on the subject.

Dr Rockett has written, co-written and edited 13 books in total on the film industry in Ireland. His 1987 book ‘Cinema in Ireland’ has been hailed as “the Bible of Irish film studies” and is widely regarded as the seminal text on Irish cinema. His other work includes ‘Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries’ (2003), a biographical look at the master director’s films, and ‘Irish Film Censorship’ (2004), which has been credited as the key text on the subject by John kelleher, former Director of Film Classification in Ireland.

Dr Rockett is currently Professor in Film Studies, School of Drama, Film and Music at Trinity College Dublin. He is due to give a talk on silent films at the Coca-Cola Cinemagic International Film Festival for Young People, held in various locations around Dublin from May 14.

He is also a committee member of the inaugural John Ford Ireland Film Symposium, which is run by IFTA and will take place from June 7-10. IFTN caught up with the film-buff to discuss why John Ford is one of the most influential filmmakers in Irish history, how technology is changing the face of film, and the future of Irish cinema.

Were you interested in film from an early age?
As is the case today, every young person went to the cinema regularly. In my twenties I started engaging with cinema as a topic of serious critical and academic interest and that led to my research on the history of Irish cinema which led to the book ‘Cinema in Ireland’ I co-authored with Luke Gibbons and John Hill. It is regarded as the foundational text of Irish film studies and this year is the 25th anniversary of its publication. Since then I’ve written, co-written and edited another 12 books on Irish cinema and related areas.

Can you talk me through your research process when you’re researching for a paper/book?
Basically what we’ve done, not just myself but colleagues, is reconstructed the history of Irish cinema and offer critical interpretations of it and that has been an ongoing project since the 1980s, with more than 20 books now published on a range of topics dealing with Irish cinema and how the Irish were represented in British and American cinemas.

How have advances in technology changed your approach to researching?
Well, the difference between working in the 1980s and now is that a great amount of material is available online. For example if you’re researching newspaper data you used to spend weeks or months in the National Library looking up newspapers one by one, but now you can very quickly find the film title or director or whatever you’re looking for through a simple word search. This has saved researchers a huge amount of time.

Other website areas include our own Irish Film and Television Research Online website at Trinity College (www.tcd.ie/irishfilm) which is the principal source for Irish film research where we have catalogued 40,000 Irish film and television productions, and put up a lot of bibliographical references and film censors reports. We’ve also put up three hours of restored Irish silent films from 1910 to 1915 so the difference really between research now, such as we have on that website, and previously, the sort of work that we had to do to reconstruct the history of Irish cinema, is just that you can do research much quicker now, so that is probably the main change.

This trend is likely to continue with an increasing number of films available on DVD, on YouTube and other websites, so there is now less reliance than in the past on film archives, though film archives generally are slow in making their collections available online.

What kind of technology is used during the digitising of archive footage?
Well, part of the difficulty of getting material online is that obviously there are copyright issues, so unless the owner of the copyright makes films available then clearly that’s not going to really happen. Film copyright works like music copyright, however; it expires after a certain amount of time, so one positive thing is that it has allowed for us to put the 1910 Irish films online. All pre-1924 American films are out of copyright so that has made that issue easier.

As regards the technology, there’s an increasing amount of computer software that has allowed for the restoration of films. I won’t say in an automatic way, but it has made it much quicker than traditional ways, so say a 16mm film can be digitised and then run though a computer software programme to actually clean it up. That’s what we did in Trinity working with people from Electronic Engineering who had developed this software.

When you’re writing your books what audience do you have in mind? Do you write for academics or film enthusiasts?
It is not journalism, it’s serious, it is a level of interpretation. Journalism is usually driven by either description or impressionistic comment, and thus is not engaging with critical or cultural work. And what we’re doing is trying to seriously engage with topics up for discussion, whether it’s to do with genre, film directors, film period, national cinema or whatever. But it’s also ensuring that there is a context in which cinema can be discussed and explored. What I really mean is ‘Cinema in Ireland’ reconstructed the history of Irish cinema which had never been done before but at the same time, by working with two colleagues, Luke Gibbons and John Hill, we also looked at how the Irish were represented in British and American cinemas, something which had an impact on how the Irish had been seen on screen. There has been far more films made about the Irish by American’s than the Irish themselves.

Why is that?
Because we had no film industry until very recently. There were few resources put into Irish films as there was in other European countries. Of course, the American film industry has been the strongest in the world for 100 years in that sense, we in Ireland have almost no domestic market, we still have an extremely miniscule one, whereas Hollywood has encountered something like 50 per cent of the world film economy.

What do you think Ireland can do to combat this issue?
It’s doing what it can. There is a tension between trying to produce films for that international film market often by making genre films which it has been doing in recent years. Other people may say it’s more important to make films which are culturally valuable to the Irish, such as films that speak to the Irish in the first instance, that aren’t trying to imitate horror or romantic films or the American model generally.

Bearing in mind, however, that Ireland is only one per cent of Europe alone, and less than that in comparison with the USA, so clearly a film of any sort of significant budget is not going to make its money in the domestic market. As a result there is a tension that is always there with the US, not just in Ireland but with European national cinemas in general. Do you make a film that is culturally and socially interesting, that is speaking to the home audience in the first place, or is it a film that should try to imitate the powerful genre films of the American film industry?

Is there not such a film that can do both?
Some filmmakers have worked between Ireland and other film industries quite successfully, operating big budget films, probably the one significant filmmaker being Neil Jordan. Jordan has made films like ‘The Miracle’ and ‘The Butcher Boy’ in Ireland for example which have been culturally very interesting, and he has made ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and other films in America which are big budget blockbusters, so he’s moved back and forth between the two, small scale Irish projects and international major commercial films.

Most of the filmmakers who have tried to make horror and romantic comedies and the like which have little or no resonance in Irish topics or Irish society or culture have not done particularly well when they’ve been distributed elsewhere. So, such films sometimes don’t work in either country. Of course, it’s been an historical problem for any European filmmaker to make a breakthrough into America. That’s what makes the work of say Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan exceptional. Others simply have not been able to do it. Jordan has been the most commercially successful Irish filmmaker ever, with ‘The Crying Game’ and ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and indeed other films.

What do you think is the most influential Irish film in the last 20 years?
You can’t pick out any one film to say that it stands out. As I’ve said Jordan and Sheridan are undoubtedly the most public influential filmmakers of the last 20 years. They are filmmakers whose work is certainly dominant since ‘The Crying Game’ and ‘My Left Foot’. But even before that, before ‘My Left Foot’, Jordan’s films in the 1980s in Britain, Ireland and America were also well received. But of a younger generation I would say certainly the most critically interesting filmmaker of the last decade is Lenny Abrahamson (Adam and Paul, Garage).

Part of the problem is continuity of production for any filmmaker. There’s a great wasteland of filmmakers who have managed to make one or two feature films and then fall by the wayside. This pattern exists throughout Europe and indeed even in America. So it’s a great reflection on certain filmmakers to be able to keep going in a way. And to be able to continue to make films in what is a marginal filmmaking culture in Ireland which only really began to emerge internationally when ‘My Left Foot’ was released in 1989.

What do you think the future holds for Irish cinema?
I think it’s the same level of uncertainty. There is an incredible amount of production that is going on and there is a vast amount of short films and young filmmakers coming through; there’s a huge amount of films being made. What is replicated right throughout society are people who don’t go near film schools are making their own films and distributing them online. The whole reconfiguring of distribution from community filmmaking to young filmmakers and all of the way through has been transformed by the internet and the role of YouTube and other distribution outlets. They won’t find their way into a cinema, either as shorts or otherwise, but they are perhaps among the most interesting films being made.

Have you got a stand-out short or independent film?

I wouldn’t like to choose one. But the general impression I get from what is being produced is that many of these people even before they go to college are making films on their camcorders or on their phones. That is a process that’s going to continue with the generation who are teenagers or in their early 20s. So I think we’re in a period of transformation and flux, bearing in mind that less than one-fifth of the income of a Hollywood film is coming from cinema release; most is coming from other distribution outlets. How internet-posting filmmakers can get some of that income is a big challenge for them.

Do you think filmmaking in this amateur way, when people are not trained in the field, is lowering the standard of films in Ireland?
Sometimes film training can be a bit too narrow. People are of course being extremely well trained, at IADT in Dun Laoghaire most especially. They are extremely well trained, coming out as quite professional filmmakers. What I think is happening with other young filmmaking is that the films that are being produced are not as technically accomplished as say film school graduates, but they often have a wider and wilder range of ideas in them. While cinema of course needs to be polished and professional and well presented and nice to view, what really distinguishes a good film from others is its engagement with ideas. Not just engagement with the history of cinema but the ability to be able to produce ideas about the culture and society, a filmmaking vista of ideas.

If there was one thing you want your students to take from your class what is it?

I would say what is more important than the polished finished film is to have a cinema of ideas. Ideas in term of aesthetics, new ways of thinking, new subjects; to move beyond the narrow range of genre cinema which has been dominant in recent years. It is the ideas that distinguish somebody like Neil Jordan. Of course, he’s then able to transform that into an aesthetically interesting project, with a lot of professional film people to assist in the process. But it is in many ways what distinguishes interesting films from uninteresting films are the ideas that are conveyed through them and that is what we try to do in terms of our courses in Trinity. We offer modules such as the history of Irish, American and European cinema to give students the historical and critical tools to be able to engage with cinema and to apply those ideas to new ways of seeing. It’s ultimately new ways of seeing and thinking through the cinema which is most important.

You are giving a talk at this year’s Coca-Cola Cinemagic Film Festival for Young People. What exactly will you be sharing with the young people?
I’m giving an introduction to silent cinema for 12-16 year-olds in UCI Cinema in Coolock. It will precede the screening of ‘The Artist’ so it’s in a way setting the context for ‘The Artist’ but also really trying to explain what was silent cinema and to touch on films such as those by the Lumière brothers and Geroegs Melies, as explored in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo,’ which is one of the most interesting films of recent years. What we’re explore is the interest in silent cinema in the present and whether contemporary cinema may be trying to get back to the roots of cinema, as is the case also with 3D.

Do you think we’ll see a surge of silent movies following the success of ‘The Artist’?

I don’t think we’ll see a surge but what is interesting about ‘The Artist’ and ‘Hugo’ being acknowledged by the Oscars is the fact that these are films which remind us of the rich heritage of cinema before 1930, something people don’t often realise. This is especially seen in ‘Hugo’ as much as in ‘The Artist’, that is the richness of the movement, of colour, of even sound in relation to silent cinema. People have been exposed to a version of silent cinema that is often very crude, not presenting it in its original way so that the jerky black and white film often really overlooks the fact that these silent films are being played on modern projectors rather than using the correct film speed. Essentially, watching a film in 1910 was as visually relaxing as it is at present.

You are also on the committee for the John Ford Ireland Film Symposium. What is your role in the Symposium?
John Ford would be regarded as one of America’s most important film directors of the classical period, working for almost a 50-year period from the mid-1910s through to the mid-1960s. He made well over 100 feature films. He is very much associated with making westerns, made some of some of the really classic westerns, but, on the other hand, he is best known in Ireland as having made a number of Irish-theme films, some of which go back into the silent era. He is of course best known in Ireland for ‘The Quiet Man’ from 1952, which is regarded by most observers of his work as probably the most significant film ever made about Ireland or indeed in Ireland. It’s probably the most influential film ever made about the country.

Do you show ‘The Quiet Man’ to your students regularly?
Oh, yes, and Luke Gibbons, of course, who is also the other academic and writer who is on the John Ford committee, has written the definitive work on the film. Luke contributed to one of the chapters in ‘Cinema in Ireland’ which includes an influential section of discussion of ‘The Quiet Man’. Luke and myself have been working with (John Ford Ireland Film Symposium programmer) Liam Burke to shape the Symposium and to bring in many of the scholars who have worked on John Ford’s films.

What the Symposium is designed to do is bring a number of Irish and international scholars, such as Joseph McBride and Charles Barr, together to speak. A number of people from Irish universities and colleges who have worked on Ford are also speaking and, of course, a number of film practitioners will also contribute.

It’s an event which combines accessible scholarly work, accessible talks, with comments and contributions from filmmakers and others which will go to make a very lively event. Some of Ford’s key films are also being shown. This is going to be an annual event so the Symposium in June should be a really excellent mix of serious but accessible scholarship combined with people from the film industry, all engaging with Ford’s work.

For most people Ford himself is probably one of the greatest visual artists of the cinema going back into even into his silent period, and this is not just confined to his westerns. He made a great range of other genre films, and he’s the touchstone for a great many filmmakers, such as Clint Eastwood, who is the first recipient of the John Ford Award, or Martin Scorsese, who would see him as the most important figure in American cinema.

Do you think any modern-day directors can match John Ford?
Ford largely operated in the studio system, although he moved away from that in the late 1940s with his own independent company. Filmmaking during the studio era was a very different type of film production environment to now because a lot of Ford’s work were assignments that he was given by producers in studios. Now, of course, people are not operating in the studio system, in what we’d call the post-classical era after classical cinema ended around 1960, and far less films are now being made. For example, there are no directors, actors or cinematographers on continuous hire outside television.

So it’s a very different film production environment with the amount of feature films being made. For example, by the time that Ford was into his 60s he probably had made about 10 times the amount of films that Neil Jordan has been able to make. And to take Martin Scorsese, I would say Ford made four or five times the number of films he has made.

Do you think that’s odd considering technology makes things quicker these days?
Well it is, but there’s issues around distribution, which is more centralised. Things are maybe going to come in to a different sort of balance with the new technologies but it’s still an extremely expensive activity, whereas in the classical era the studios not just controlled production, they also looked after distribution and exhibition. Although the whole production environment is more globalised than ever before, it still doesn’t make it any easier unless you stick your cheaply-made film up on the internet, but you don’t get any money for that. There’s still a struggle for people to make films which are still fairly costly and the push towards blockbusters since the 1970s has made it perhaps more difficult for independent productions to come through.

Are you looking forward to the John Ford event?
Oh yes, I think it will be a great event. I think it will have something for everyone, for serious film people interested in the nuances of Ford’s work and for the general public who will be able to become aware of him through attending accessible talks. The richness of Ford’s work and his continuing influence on filmmaking in the present will be explored. The Symposium is essentially going to look at why Ford was the most important filmmaker in 20th century America.

 





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