By Lynne Ramsey / A 1970s Christmas in Scotland
How did one arrive at looking at or watching a particular piece of art or music? Like this fourteen-minute film Gasman. How does one come to a particular piece of art? A certain song? A painting? A piece of writing? An image? How does one come upon this at a certain time in one’s life? In the life of a culture, a nation.
I came across this directly via something the cinematographer Adam Newport Berra said at the end of his interview for the film Runon at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival that never happened. He was asked to name his favorite short film. He named Gasman by Lynne Ramsey about a 1970’s Christimas in Glasgow, Scotland. Almost like a cinematic version of Joyce’s Dubliners. The brilliant perspective of a master modern filmmaker. Filmed in 1998 before all the magic of the digital era. But still, brilliant.
The beginning of the film, the lack of that establishing shot that gives the film audience that warm feeling that they know the context of the film. Here, this establishing shot disappears into a bunch of small views of a larger scene. We’re in a house a Christmas. A little girl is getting dressed. A boy pours sugar (as snow) onto a toy car. Scenes in a kitchen. A father taking his children somewhere on this Christmas holiday. But we get only pieces of a puzzle that we need to solve rather than some establishing shot that tells us everything. We are required to investigate what is happening. Where are we? What year is it? What genre is this film in? All valid questions from a movie-goer’s perspective.
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There are the looks in the children’s faces about this journey they are about to go on. The young boy does not want to go. The little girl has her doubts about it. The father and his two children leave their home and walk through town and then onto some railroad tracks. They walk down the tracks for a few moments. Old train engines are to the right in the picture frame. An industrial part of Glasgow.
The shape of another person moves towards him on the railroad track. A shape accompanied by a few small shapes.The father of the two children stops and talks to the woman. The woman has three children with her. There is a conversation between the father and the woman. He gives her a certain amount of money. She lools sad. Asks him how he is. He tenderly touches a lock of her hair.
But then, he is gone. With her kids and his. Down the railroad tracks.
Soon, they all arrive at a pub where he meets his friends. The kids have a good time as he sits with his friends at a table in the pub and drinks litres of beer. A little girl gets into his lap. It is the child from the woman on the railroad tracks. His daughter eyes this whole thing with much suspicion.
After their time at the pub, the father and the children head back along the railroad tracks. The woman is waiting for them and an exchange is made.
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What is this film about. Who is the father in the film. And who are his kids? Are some of his kids those gained from the exchange on the railroad tracks. Who is this woman? His past wife? Girlfried? Lover? They have had these children together and now they are handing them off for a special holiday of the year? Is this what the film is about?
The beauty of this film is that it is like the Antonioni film Blow-Up. It is not all that apparent what the film is about. An expected occurence according to McLuhan’s media theory. It does not attempt to argue its points with you. It simply presents its world to you. The presentation and control of a medium of communication is more important than the messages within this medium.