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RESISTING CONVENTION: THE FILMS OF JOE COMERFORD JERRY WHITE Throughout his career, filmmaker Joe Comerford has fiercely challenged mainstream ideas about Irish selfhood. Juxtaposed with the images of Ireland that have filled film screens until the 1960s, Comerford’s work is assertively anti-romantic and offers a rigorously anti-colonial critique of the “New Ireland.” In his treatment of landscape, for example, Comerford eschews traditional preoccupation with the picturesque—with the conventional iconographic project of making Ireland look beautiful, or, alternately, harsh and rugged. His unstable landscapes connote danger and anxiety rather than beauty or grandeur. Further, his work explicitly concerns itself with those on the margins: drug addicts, the desperately poor of Dublin, traveling people, gay men, and criminals on the run. This concern with the periphery breaks down essentialist ideas such as fíor ghael or the “Celtic Tiger,” and interrogates Ireland’s confrontation of its postcolonial future. Drawing on a wide variety of visual and narrative strategies , Comerford intentionally offers “imperfect” solutions to the problem of representation raised by modern Irish culture. In fact, the notion of imperfection itself figures prominently in the debates into which Comerford hurls himself. CONTEXT Although Comerford participates in a blossoming indigenous motion picture community that seeks to correct conventional visualizations of Ireland , his work stands apart from much of the recent Irish cinema receiving international attention. Comerford’s densely constructed films, which should be viewed in both a national and international context, offer contradictory mixtures of narrative, political, and avant-garde strategies. Echoing both the French New Wave and the Third Cinema movement, they combine traditional narrative with techniques that undermine illusionistic realism. THE FILMS OF JOE COMERFORD 134 Comerford aggressively avoids Hollywood’s1 choice to subsume both formal innovation and explicit ideology to the demands of realism. His work is unusual not only because it is confrontational or anti-authoritarian , both formally and politically, but because it clearly chooses to be so. These films distinguish themselves from popular cinema by asserting themselves as ideological representations. Whereas most of Comerford’s films have a narrative drive,2 complete with a beginning, a middle, and an end, he never bypasses formal and political concerns in favor of an obsessive focus on narrative linearity and closure. Neither entirely avant-garde nor entirely conventional, his work has an ambiguous relationship with dominant models of cinema. To some extent, Comerford’s films evoke French New Wave productions of the 1950s and 1960s; his 1988 Reefer and the Model, especially, recalls the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard. Innovative French filmmakers were deeply, albeit self-consciously, influenced by Hollywood, and Comerford ’s derivative relationship with Hollywood is similarly complex. His first feature, Traveler, draws on elements of the Hollywood road movie; Reefer and the Model on the heist film; and High Boot Benny, on the boarding school melodrama. In each case, though, like his French colleagues of the fifties and sixties, Comerford radically transforms the conventions he exploits in ways quite specific to his own national and historic condition. The concept of “Third Cinema” is equally important in understanding Comerford’s films. First appearing in a fiery and idealistic manifesto (“Hacia un Tercer Cine,” or “Towards a Third Cinema”) by Argentine Fernando Solanas and Spaniard Octavio Gettino,3 the term stresses skepticism toward illusionistic/realist narrative. Solanas and Gettino assert THE FILMS OF JOE COMERFORD 135 1 The term “Hollywood” should not be taken to mean films made only in Hollywood, California, but films made in a realist style, produced in an explicitly commercial framework, and generally fulfilling a schema outlined in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson’s seminal text, The Classical Hollywood Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). 2 Exceptions to this would be his short experimental films Withdrawal (1974), a nonnarrative portrayal of the tormented psyche of a drug addict, or Waterbag (1984), which deals with a woman who has just had an abortion. These films are not discussed in this article, which is restricted to Comerford’s features, or in the case of the fifty-one-minute Down the Corner, his featurette. 3 Published in the Cuban journal Tricontinental in 1969, the essay first appeared in English in Cineaste 4:3...


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