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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Memory on screen

by Philip Martin | November 28, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.

We are in that time of year where we see a lot of movies. In a couple of weeks Karen and I will fill out ballots for various end-of-the year polls. I take my ballot more seriously than I take the polls, so I try to see as many as I can.

We get two or three or five invitations every day to view some filmmaker's precious product via computer link. DVDs are showing up in the mail. We've had a few in-person screenings this year. (We took our first covid tests so we could go to some.)

Still, there's no way to get to all of them. There's not enough time, and because technical issues often prevent the links from working. I'm very aware that there are a lot of good films I haven't heard of--one of my favorites this year is Talia Lugacy's "This is Not a War Story," which I would have missed had it not been among the movies Karen was sorting through as a member of a film festival's jury.

Movies are becoming like novels in that they can come from anywhere at any time; the digital revolution has put the necessary tools in every artist's hands. The trick is to get people to watch them.

Not every artist has the wherewithal of Kenneth Branagh and Focus Features. I had an eerie moment while I was watching Branagh's new movie "Belfast" the other evening. Tex Ritter started singing "Do not forsake me, oh my darling."

It was a song my father used to sing. One of very few. I hadn't thought about that in a long time.

"But I must face a man who hates me, or lie a coward, a craven coward, or lie a coward in my grave."

The song is "The Ballad of High Noon" and is featured in the 1952 Western "High Noon."

It fits in the context of the movie, in which a small actor named Jude Hill plays 9-year-old Buddy, obviously based on Branagh as a boy. It's set in the second half of 1969 and early 1970 at the onset of that 30-year period the Irish call, in their understated way, "the Troubles."

As befits a story told from a child's point of view, we're given only sketchy context about the Northern Ireland riots that kick the whole thing off. We only know that some Protestants are trying to drive the Catholics out of their homes and businesses. Other Protestants, who have no grievance against their Catholic neighbors, are being forced to choose sides by thuggish militants.

Buddy's family is Protestant, boisterous and loving, but not without strife. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) insists, "There is no our side and their side in this neighborhood." This is a dangerous position to take, and is compounded by his father's having to regularly leave the family to work in England.

There are money troubles, and things between his mother and father that Buddy doesn't understand, and talk of moving away from the street where everyone has grown up. Maybe to Sydney or Vancouver. Maybe to London. Might as well be to the moon, little Buddy thinks.

One of the little pleasures the family enjoys is a weekly trip to the movies, which take on color otherwise drained from the black-and-white film. The black-and-white "High Noon" is glimpsed on a TV screen; the soon-to-be emptied streets of Hadleyville echo with the barb-wire cordons of the mixed neighborhood in which "Belfast" is set.

Branagh's fictionalized father is the Gary Cooper figure in the piece, a working-class hero glimpsed through the heightened imagination of his 9-year-old son. It wasn't my experience, but it rhymes with my experience.

"Belfast" is what we big-shot movie people call a "memory play," a story based on the childhood experiences of the director--or more properly, in this case, auteur. It's part of a tradition of film that includes Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows, " John Boorman's "Hope and Glory," Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Enfants," George Lucas' "American Graffiti," Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," Mike Mills' "20th Century Women," Lee Isaac Chung's "Minari," Pablo Larrain's soon-to-be-released "The Hand of God" and big chunks of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood."

What the filmmaker is doing is presenting us with an impressionistic memoir of experience, building in the now of cinema a vanished but remembered world. In doing this the details don't have to be perfect--they just have to feel right. "High Noon" feels right; it would have been a film Buddy's father remembered from his youth.

In "Belfast" the adults look the way I remember grownups looking in 1969. They probably weren't really that glamorous; both Dornan and Caitriona Balfe, who stars as Buddy's Ma, have worked as models. The capri pants and cardigans mightn't have been what working-class people wore on the streets back them. Pa's haircut makes him look like a '60s golf pro. Maybe it's not correct. Yet it feels right.

And in cinema, unlike the real world, feelings can trump facts.

Branagh's Pa probably wasn't Gary Cooper either, though in the movie Cooper doesn't stand up to a pistol-carrying bad guy with only a brick in his hand. That might not have happened, but Branagh says another pivotal scene did--he once got caught up in a riot and looted a box of detergent from a grocery store; his Ma made him take it back.

Similarly, Branagh enlisted Van Morrison to do the music for his film; he wrote the score but some of the tracks used ("Coming Down to Joy," "Carrickfergus") are anachronistic in that they were recorded after the onscreen action. But they feel right.

Morrison must have permeated the Northern Irish air in 1969; he lived about three miles from 96 Mountcollyer Street, where Buddy lives in the film and where the Branaghs lived in real life. (Now, according to Google Maps, it's a vacant lot.)

Branagh is a rough contemporary of mine, one of those artists I check in on from time to time. I remember his "Henry V" and "Dead Again." I remember when he was very hot. I generally like his work but haven't paid too much attention to it in the last decade or so.

Not everyone who sees "Belfast" will respond to it the way I did. We all carry certain expectations and preconceptions into the movies we watch, and those expectations mingle with the actual display of light and sound to become our particular experience of the film.

We all collaborate with the filmmakers--and those under their direction--to make our own private feature.

None of us ever see the same movie as anyone else. And we never see the same movie twice.

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