The Power of Three

Forgive my magical thinking but in storytelling the number three is said to have magic properties, a trope of folk tales such as the one I’m currently working on. Oddly it’s taken three attempts to write this post, not helped by the opioid haze of the last 600 (and counting) days and an existential crisis where I try to reconcile my desire to make films with the reality. At such times I remind myself that filmmaking – the good stuff – is supposed to be hard even if it’s on a spectrum ranging from ‘thankless’ to ‘futile’.

Another reason I’ve avoided writing is because I don’t wish to dwell on the negatives. ‘Scottish film isn’t the hill I’m prepared to die on,’ I tell my husband. ‘Hummock, more like,’ he replies. He’s right. I recall a conversation I once had with a writer acquaintance outside a local supermarket about the goings-on at a Scottish film awards do. I was taken aback when my companion said casually, ‘Oh, and so-and-so won the keep breathing award,’ referring to the recipient of a lifetime achievement honour.

I thought about this for a long time.

‘Keep breathing’: to think this is the highest accolade one can expect from a lifetime of creative endeavour in Scotland is as unsurprising as it is shameful. In many walks of life but especially in the realm of arts and culture it seems to be Scottish is to be eternally disappointed. Any grand award won by a Scot, be it the Oscars, the Grammys, the Booker, the Nobel, means one’s enforced arrogation by the auld country and a dose of hyperbole from its media. Non-conformists can expect the tall thistle treatment.

‘So don’t write about Scottish Film,’ cautions my husband. He also tells me to stop being so grandiose and up myself. To be fair, it’s well-intentioned. Besides what more can be said about the train wreck that is indigenous film without incurring a cease-and-desist letter? Or, as happened recently, to receive an unsolicited and intemperate email from a Screen Scotland employee that to me confirmed how little has improved within our public agencies, least of all courteous communication. Not that I replied. What little energy I possess is better spent on my work.

Given the trials of Covid-19, Brexit and the through-the-mirror spectacle of Scotland’s political circus, who isn’t feeling down? On the anniversary of the first lockdown I realised how few people I interact with IRL. Recently I had to self-isolate for 14 days in advance of an operation – my third – to remove a screw from my knee joint. It was hardly a privation and made barely any difference to my life but, on a bad day, when one’s mind is blurred and one’s thoughts are dark this level of isolation is bad for one’s mental well-being.

I try to keep the faith. On good days I make progress with my latest project, Tilo In Real Life. Were I to pitch the story to a third party I’ve no doubt it would be rejected. ‘What’s your film about?’ is a question to which there is no right or wrong answer. All that counts are the bankable assets: the stars, the genre, the marketing budget, none of which I possess.

In the case of Tilo, I ask myself, ‘But what’s the film REALLY about?’ The people who know me know I’m making a film whose protagonist is a young German shopping trolley who is removed from his supermarket and has to find his way home. Only that’s not what the story’s about.

No amount of conceptual (some might say grandiose) underpinning – Object Oriented Ontology, say, or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the writings of the Frankfurt School, Surveillance and Disaster Capitalism or the Brothers Grimm’s original Märchen of 1812 – can disguise the fact that my film’s principally about young male suicide.

Write what you know, the saying goes. For the second time my husband cautions me not to go there, knowing my obsessive tendencies. I protest that it’s a bit rich since I’ve worked on this project on and off for five years and he’s well aware of its premise and themes. ‘I need to face the truth,’ I say, ‘to tell the truth.’ I also want it to be funny.

The truth of what, though? What is there to say about those who choose to end their own lives? The answer to this I already know because suicide runs deep in my family. In a previous blog, The Devil’s Plantation I cited the suicide of my brother, Ross Eakin who, aged 40, succeeded on his third attempt in September 2010. His death, a pointless event in a Melbourne suburb, left many unanswered questions.

There’s also the suicide of my nephew, Calum Barnes AKA Lumo, aged 21, well-known in the Glasgow rap scene who, in September 2017, booked an Uber to the north bank of the River Clyde and in full public view hurled himself in. Due to tidal undercurrents his body went unrecovered for another week or so.

Suicide among young men is well-documented but not exclusive to any one group. During the 1970s, my mother made at least two attempts to kill herself. A long-term grass widow raising four children in Pollok, a council scheme in the south-west of Glasgow, she held down two jobs while my father worked at the Atomic Reactor at Dounreay, Caithness.

My parents only wanted the best for the family. They acquired a fridge, a (second-hand) twin-tub washing machine, a (rented) colour TV, a stereo and a ‘private’ phone line. These trappings came at a cost – my mother’s already fragile mental health. Long story short: one Sunday evening my sister and I, both in our early teens, broke down the bathroom door to find our mother slashing her wrists with my father’s spare razor.

My memory of the episode is vivid. To this day I can summon the smell of TCP which that evening gave me solace, suggesting that by taking such care my mother didn’t mean to top herself. After binding her wrists in a towel and dragging her bodily along the blue vinyl floor tiles (laid by my father) down the narrow hall to the parental bedroom, we ministered to her wounds with Germolene and Elastoplasts then gave her a mug of tea and a Gypsy Cream. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ she insisted. She wasn’t. She would never be fine again. Nothing was ever said to my father and, between us, the female trio of the family, the incident was never mentioned again.

If I’ve learned anything about suicide it’s this: it cannot be prevented. Indeed, it’s a category error for governments, charities and the media to propose it is achieveable. In 2019 the WHO designated September 10th as World Suicide Prevention Day. However September is not a great month for me because it marks the anniversaries of the deaths of friends and family. Last year while travelling with my husband to escape the city, I had a Roy Andersson moment when, driving on the M8, each overhead gantry sign repeated a message from the Government – SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY. I sat, totally captive and disbelieving until, finally, I caved into the absurdity of it all.

In tandem with this initiative the Scottish Government published a 25-page action plan, Every Life Matters with, I’m sure, every good intention but saying it doesn’t make it so. How exactly do you measure how many people don’t kill themselves? Awareness, yes. Prevention, no.

‘So if I can’t write about Scottish Film or suicide’, I ask my husband, ‘what can I write about?’ ‘Write about what you do,’ he replies, ‘how you work, what you think when you’re in a space with nothing but inanimate objects, because what you do is a kind of miracle. Plus it’s more interesting than your sollipsism.’ Third time lucky, I thought.

Miracles apart, loss and grief were loitering in my consciousness when last December, in pursuit of a scene for Tilo, I borrowed an empty flat from a friend prior to her moving in. It was the kindest of gestures since I had no reply to my request from a local housing association, having shot exteriors at one of their properties. This I put down to Covid. Thankfully my friend’s alternative provided a decent match.

Arriving at my location on a grey, drizzly morning, next to the entrance I watched an elderly (older than me) woman leaning out of her ground floor window as she casually tossed a cigarette end into the shrubbery below then looked straight at me with an audacious grin. I wanted to tell her how much she reminded me of my late mother but thought better of it.

Hauling my camera kit and props up two flights of stairs, I was stunned by a physical and psychic shock that stopped me stone cold on the half-landing. Normally I’d put such an episode down to a lack of mobility, seasonal affective disorder or residual grief for my dead family, present yet eternally irretrievable. At that point it would have been easy to turn back but the weight of quitting was heavier than my equipment. Illogical as it seems, I felt as if I were about to intrude on the dead – and in a way I was. Such is the power of my imagination.

The scene I had come to shoot occurs towards the end of the film and involves a house clearance of a recently deceased woman. A conversation takes place between Tilo and the last remaining piece of furniture in the living room. Between them is a pile of VHS cassettes that, all being well, will assume a symbolic significance in a later sequence. I’ll know more when I finish the screenplay.

Built in the late 60s/early 70s, my friend’s flat fits the estate agent’s cliché of bright and airy. In a good way. I admire its period details: a mushroom-coloured bathroom suite with wooden taps and square shower head, a pearl-grey faience fireplace and a glazed panel on the the front door. There’s something solid about the place, I thought, something secure.

While setting up my camera and props, I mused on my task. This is filmmaking? How does this work? How do I take a bunch of random objects, place them in a room, record them as a series of zeroes and ones then process the acquired data and make narrative sense out of it? As I worked I half-listened dreamily to BBC Women’s Hour as a young metropolitan female talked about how “empowered” she is, the “agency” she feels. Being only human and weary of life lately my soul felt crushed, by both her inviolate self-belief and by decades-long received opinions of my own inadequacy.

I don’t often write or speak about ‘process’ or ‘praxis’ but my organising principle is to create stories through a character or characters. As in any Aristotelian drama, I contrive to make it more than the sum of these parts. Perhaps it’s the nature of the stories I create, often those of outliers and underdogs but, as the maker, I’ve long understood the mechanics and limits of conventional narrative film, its utility and futility.

Whether it’s two unknown actors in a no-budget indie or the starriest of casts in a hyper-oxygenated franchise there’s only so much emotional and psychological investment one can make in a film. Those featured onscreen either talk or don’t talk, move or don’t move, their actions and behaviours constrained to whatever allows the plot to limp along to its predictable conclusion.

Meanwhile back in the room I found myself curiously drawn to the living room carpet, an acid trip of swirling reds, ochres and russets that judging by its folksy style dates back to when the flat was first occupied. Gazing at it, I reflected on the past year or so and the hardship and loss faced by countless thousands. I thought too about my late mother and how she would have struggled to buy a fitted carpet. Not that she would have bought this one. ‘Never buy a carpet that hides the dirt’, she once said, no doubt to chastise me, her lazy and feckless daughter.

Shortly after the shoot, on the dreichest of days, I had a sudden urge to revisit the flats where I shot the exteriors. It was a shock to find the building reduced to a mound of rubble; another landmark gone. I knew for a long time that the building was scheduled for demolition but didn’t expect it to happen mid-pandemic. Obviously there’s no chance of any pickups in the future so I hope I have all the shots I need.

In my shed, wrestling with a way to close this post, I’m distracted by a book on my desk, Nietzsche’s Aphorisms on Love and Hate where, writing of ‘the advantages of psychological observation,’ he states that by meditating on all things human, ‘one can secure presence of mind in difficult situations and entertainment amid boring surroundings.‘ I try, I try, I try.

The above image is a detail of my friend’s carpet which I understand has now been lifted. I found it strangely comforting, a feeling you get wherever you can these days.

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