Tuesday , May 28 2024

Joyce and Beckett In Bruges with Martin McDonagh

The most important text of Irish (European?) contemporary literature, Ulysses, was not written in Ireland.

The most important author of Irish (European?) contemporary theatre wrote almost nothing in Ireland and, to better distance himself from Ireland, he wrote in French and German, too.

James Joyce and Samuel Beckett are cold dead and buried since a long time: not in Ireland, of course.

I don’t know if Beckett or Joyce have ever been in Belgium. Nor in Bruges. But writing has its mysterious ways, writing doesn’t care for living and dead, writing can do everything.

So, finally, Beckett and Joyce got to Bruges: Martin McDonagh, another sui generis Irish, brought them there.

The outcome? A bloodbath.

You know it when you see it. When you watch Blade Runner you know it’s a cult movie. When you see Donnie Darko you understand at once that it’s a cult movie. When you watch In Bruges you understand immediately it’s a cult, since the very first Ray’s [Colin Farrell] line, in voice over:

I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was.

It’s in Belgium.

Ray’s words. Your words: because you’ll get to Bruges after you have watched the movie. And I’m not even sure you know that Bruges is in Belgium…

Personally I got to Bruges because Bruges became, with In Bruges, part of mine Irish literature landscape: my landscape (it doesn’t matter how and why, here and now). And Irish literature is a literature of landscapes, of places. Not Beckett’s literature, for sure: Beckett doesn’t give a damn about places, Beckett destroys places! But Joyce’s literature is about places. And McDonagh’s literature too. And it doesn’t matter if Bruges is in Belgium. Because a distinctive feature of In Bruges is its Irishness, the Irishness of The Irish Male at Home and Abroad, quoting Joseph O’Connor, not Joyce and Beckett’s disdain for Ireland.

Because Joyce and Beckett are not tourists, they are voyageurs

And if Joyce and Beckett are not tourist, they don’t go to Bruges for a holiday: McDonagh deports them there, by train, like Jews to Auschwitz. Last stop Before Bruges train station is Beernem. Nobody cares of Beernem. But Beckett and Joyce pass that station, to get to Bruges. Ray and Ken [Brendan Gleeson] pass there. Where people live, but without tourists.

Am I telling that Ray and Ken are Beckett and Joyce?

Yes. No. Perhaps.

And we must not forget Harry [Ralph Fiennes]…

After watching In Bruges five or six times, meanwhile I was being completely drowned in Irish literary and cultural quicksands since a long time, I seemed to grasp a series of possible interconnections between McDonagh an the two Grand Old Men.

The question is: are Ray and Ken Beckett and Joyce?

The answer is: yes. And no.

But I was speaking about a cult movie: brilliant lines, actors perfect for the role, the… postcard town, Bruges, as another perfect character: that’s what makes In Bruges a cult.

It seems that Martin McDonagh (writer and director, half of the couple of brothers already named the Irish Cohens, or the McTarantinos: John Michael’s The Guard, again with Brendan Gleeson, will probably become another cult movie) had the very first idea for In Bruges screenplay casually: He was in Bruges and he got annoyed. Then he imagined a couple of killers stuck in Bruges. And it seems absolutely impossible that two killers could have a reason to be in Bruges (a commissioned murder in Bruges? It is a bit over-elaborated…).

I think Martin is cheating: otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this... Otherwise In Bruges wouldn’t have become a cult.

But, why Bruges? Because Bruges is a perfect mirror for Dublin: another town related to Vikings, another town with a bad, big neighbor (not English, this time, but French), another town you can’t cross without passing a pub (but, perhaps, in Bruges pubs are named differently). So, it is in this fake Dublin (Martin McDonagh is an expert about loci reinvented for his personal, literary use: it has been the same for the Arans and Connemara) that McDonagh plots this story of a triple redemption, writing and shooting it with cultural and imaginative tools of a true post-modernist Tarantino-watcher (it’s easy to imagine Ken and Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield [Samuel L. Jackson] having a seat in front of a couple of Duvel, chatting about their own codes of honor and Royale With Cheese) but also with the tools of a Beckett and Joyce reader.

So we are back to the two Grand Old Men

Joyce is often quoted claiming that if Dublin were to be destroyed in some catastrophe it could be rebuilt, brick by brick, using his work as a model.

I have the impression that, voluntarily or not, consciously or not, McDonagh tried to mimic Joyce with In Bruges, in an easier, smaller town (Postmodernism thinks more little…), and disguising Ireland… in Belgium.

But he needs two made in Dublin puppets: Ray and Ken. Ray and Ken are the muppets of an operation with which if Bruges were to be destroyed in some catastrophe it could be rebuilt, brick by brick, using In Bruges as a model.

Which Bruges would you have back? Not the real one, probably, but at least the postcard Bruges, the tourism-infos-leaflet Bruges (take a look at Flanders Tourism website and you’ll find out who really wrote the tourist Ken’s lines…) where you find info only about history, and history, quoting Ray, It’s all just a load of stuff that’s already happened (and with this line Ray is really close to Dedalus: history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. For sure, Ray‘s whole experience in Bruges is a nightmare!). So I’m here to tell that Ray and Ken are Dedalus and Bloom, Guinea pigs of a self-styled (not so much) Irish writer who plays at being Bruges’ Joyce.

Let us try playing this game, then.

Dublin: Dedalus tries to imagine pupil Sargent mother’s love for her son. Meanwhile Ray, who escaped from London to Bruges, after killing the little boy, must – or better, he will have to, reckon with the love of the killed boy’s mother: this is the burden that he brings with himself to the labyrinthic Bruges.

Ken is a Bloom who has irremediably lost his Molly and Ken is for Ray, as Bloom is for Dedalus, a fatherly, even if inadequate, figure.

As in Circe (Ulysses, episode 15) Bloom and Dedalus have to deal with prostitutes and they get involved in a brawl in a hallucinatory sequence, so Ken and Harry, on drugs, chat about a war between the blacks and the whites (Blacks and Whites: like chess pieces that remind us of… S.B.) and they fight with poor Jimmy in karate style. And if Ulysses (excluding Molly’s monologue) ends with Dedalus alone in the night and Bloom back home, Ray too remains alone with his demons (demons with Bosch paintings’ masks: Bosch is not just one of the spastics…) in the cold Bruges night, while Ken finally comes back home, indeed, to his Molly, on the notes of Raglan Road (written by one of the few Irish who didn’t leave Ireland: Patrick Kavanagh).

That’s all. Credits. Fade to black. 

But I had started assuming that Ray and Ken are Beckett and Joyce, not Dedalus and Bloom.

And that I had to remember Harry.

Because if Ray and Ken are, together as Dedalus and Bloom, the Joyce deported to Bruges by McDonagh, a Joyce split between an abandoned son and an inadequate father (you should ask Lucia Joyce what she was thinking about his father: she started showing signs of mental illness in 1930, while she was dating Samuel Beckett. With such a father and boyfriend, you can imagine how easy it is to become completely mad!), Harry is Beckett deported in Bruges by McDonagh. The bait used by McDonagh is irresistible, juicy: a dead boy. Or something worse (something better…): a killed boy. A boy who reminds us of Rudy, Bloom’s dead son, but who is above all necessary to McDonagh to nail down Harry and with him Beckett too, in Bruges.

Harry at the same time lies and tells us the truth about what Ray has done: Harry is a blind avenger with high principles, overwhelmed by the fact that his existence has, in the light of Beckett’s perspective, no meaning.

The Beckett who, to his own premise:

Did you ever wish to kill a child? [Pause.] Nip some young doom in the bud (All That Fall)

answers to himself, sure enough, by committing suicide, because if killing a child means nipping some young doom in the bud, it is also true that:

Everyone is a parent, that is what keeps you from hoping (The Expelled).

And haven’t you too to be worried, after Harry’s death, about his kids, in London, now alone with a mother who perfectly knows what her husband was (so what can she really do for her them?) and a Philippine babysitter? Don’t you think that Harry’s children can only Fail again, fail better (Worstward Ho)?

So Martin McDonagh brings to Bruges Beckett and Joyce, he bottles them up in a tourist snowball for the shootout (shootout: that’s the word used by Harry when he speaks to Marie), the shootout between Joyce and Beckett that never took place.

Because it’s so easy to imagine Jimmy and Sammy, seated in a café in Paris (and, I’m sure, both regretting about not being in a pub, because, Jaysis, it’s not the f*ing same thing!) while they are watching each other, hating heartily each other (they remind me of a quote of I don’t know which one of the Beatles, it sounds more or less like this: I thought I was God, but close to me there were three other guys telling the same thing), meanwhile Sammy is inventing XX century’s theatre to demonstrate to Jimmy that I’m better than you at something, in the end!

Martin McDonagh roleplays that shooutout in Bruges, and in such a shootout it’s Beckett’s brain that gets blown out, because despite everything, despite the rigged bullets (the dum dum bullets provided to Harry by Yuri, a character who is a pile of crumbs left by McDonagh on the path leading to Beckett’s agnition: – the actor is Eric Godon: maybe the name too is a hint? – Yuri waits for a Godot-Harry with another mound of uselessness, moreover a half blind character, Eirik [Jérémie Rénier] – as, simply, in Beckett there is no more reason to watch; Yuri is unable to speak because language doesn’t work anymore, hoping that all Europe speaks English is just an illusion: it is Alcoves the right word? Is the right pronunciation Dum dum or Dam dam?; Yuri is a Clov who keeps the weapons for Hamm, already knowing that the battle is ended, and lost) with which Harry-Beckett tries to kill Ray-Joyce, and with him the meaning of life (which is, naked truth, not a meaning: it’s just the protracting of the original sin of being born), despite all of this it will be Ray, the bad boy, to survive the beckettian definitive loss of sense: between white and black figures (between midgets and high, normal, people?) of McDonagh’s Chessboard there is no endgame that corresponds to a double loss, there is no corpse of a boy broken on the rails (yes, Jimmy dies: but he is not a boy and Harry is wrong, while Ray, as a boy figure, as a son figure, has a misadventure on the train, but we are not, here, in the tragedy – desirable and desired by Beckett – of All That Fall), but there is the light of hope and redemption in the glare of the ambulance and in Chloe’s [Clémence Poésy] tears, even if only after Ray will have had crossed the selva oscura of a Purgatory (Purgatory: it’s like supporting Tottenham …), a Purgatory which has, in the scenery of the touristic town, the strong colours of Hieronimus Bosch’s pictorial madness, with its masked faces that even Ray finds appealing: this one’s quite good and an atmosphere which still hovers the foggy cobbled alleys of Bruges, as demonstrated by Dieter Van der Ougstraete, who remixes in his works Boschian stylemas in a postmodern vision, contaminating them with comics’ characters and ecological thematic. McDonagh doesn’t kill the hope, in Bruges.

That’s all.

And now how could you not watch In Bruges or not go to Bruges..?

A special thank to Sanja and @EleoRatti for the editing!

About QRob

Massimiliano "Q-ROB" Roveri writes on and about Internet since 1997. A philosopher lent to the IT world blogs, shares (and teaches how to blog and share) between Ireland and Italy.

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