A recent feature in the magazine Sight and Sound (one giving the impression of filler material it must be said, even though it was extended to a cover feature), looked at the impact of the now rarely seen Double Feature billing. Contrary to the suggestion of the article, it’s always been my personal experience that rather than being complementary, the juxtaposition of two similarly themed films more often leads to one film, which on its own might be a perfectly good film, being seen in an comparatively unfavourable light when compared to another feature which correspondingly gains from the deficiencies that it highlights in the other film.
Such is the coincidental experience of having this week watched Roy Andersson’s You, The Living more or less side-by-side with Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage. On the surface both films would seem to have much in common, a sense of comic absurdity at the condition of man, given a minimalist treatment, wallowing in the mundane elements of everyday setbacks and disappointments. Viewing them in proximity however merely underlines the utter lack of any real understanding of human nature in Roy Andersson’s feature, revealing it for mere miserabilist pose and TV commercial style over substance. By contrast, O’Halloran and Abrahamson’s simple, low-key tragicomedy has on the surface nothing to recommend – there’s no sparkling script (half of it is unintelligible, the rest of it is everyday banalities and smalltalk) there is no impressive surreal imagery, no pithy or insightful moments of revelation, yet Garage still manages to touch a deep chord within the viewer through its humour and the bitter reality that gives rise to such sentiments. Much as I am loath to slip into cinema-poster quote shorthand, Garage manages to channel the peculiarities of Irish comedy and language into a deeper sense of the underlying condition of what it means to be human, connecting it to the landscape and the community in a manner that evokes a sense of Father Ted meeting Sátántangó by way of Samuel Beckett.
On the surface, there’s little sign of it being possible to draw any deeper levels of meaning from Josie’s situation as an attendant at a dilapidated and out of the way garage on the outskirts of a small Irish country village. It’s rare that a car trundles past on the road, much less stops to fill-up at the garage, but still, the owner Mr Gallagher thinks that trade might be picking up at the weekends and that Josie (Pat Shortt) could use a little help, so he sends him a young trainee David (Conor Ryan) to learn the ropes of the car valet trade. Hardly a major development, but in a small town where little happens, it’s enough to get the locals talking and speculating. A simple man at heart, it’s all too complicated for Josie to worry about. He expect nothing more from life than a few pints in the bar, the sharing of a few moments with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff) the girl at the local grocery store that he fancies and, now that he has company at the garage, the enjoyment of a few cans with his young protégé and some of his friends after a busy day at work. If only life were indeed that simple…
As the outline suggests, it’s a simple enough situation of smalltown life crushing the individual, even one with seemingly no great ambitions in life. Josie has had his opportunities, impressing the young David with the revelation that he once “had a job lined up in Ipswich and all”, and in a meat-rendering plant no less. But, to put it simply and hence more eloquently than any justification could do, he just stayed – “I could have, but I didn’t”. The depth and humour of the film is often found in such simplicity within the script and within the performances. There’s no insightful dialogue that would be beyond the articulacy of the characters to express, but it’s all there in cadences and rhythms of speech, in the everyday little phrases and exchanges of small talk added to fill out a conversation or an awkward moment, revealing contradictory meaning and underlying sentiments. And that is funny – not in any obvious way, but in the recognition of the contradiction between what is being said and what is meant.
Yet at the same time, there is a bitter edge to such humour and irony, capturing in it the scale of human hopes and aspirations curtailed and restricted by the limitations imposed not only by the provincial mentality of a small town community, but by our own lack of imagination and failure to achieve one’s true potential. “The town looks after its own”, and it indeed looks after Josie, or at least never allows him to be anything more than the Josie they know. The perspective however is not just limited to the situation and condition of Josie, but takes in a wider view of the community, of the prospects for youth, about the social expectations placed on women in relationships and marriage, about the boundaries that are enforced upon us by social conditioning and a sense of propriety. Beautifully observed and wonderfully understated, assisted by remarkably naturalistic performances, they are not depicted as specifically provincial attitudes, but are fundamentally the same hopes, ambitions, failures and disappointments that anyone can recognise, both for the humour that arises out of them as well as the tragedy.
Garage is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
Another flawless transfer from Soda Pictures, there really isn’t any more you could ask from a DVD presentation of the film. The image is clear and perfectly balanced every level, allowing appropriate detail, colour and tone to suit the situation, whether indoor, exterior, close-up or landscape. The transfer is progressively encoded and anamorphically enhanced, allowing for a smooth presentation free from any flicker, movement or macro-compression artefacts.
The DVD comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, and there’s not really much to choose between them. Either is more than sufficient for the purposes of the film and its soundtrack, presenting the film perfectly, as it’s meant to be heard, with no flaws whatsoever.
Sadly, there are no English subtitles provided. Now I’m Irish, but a city-boy through and through, so even I had trouble deciphering some of the phrases muttered in a deep west of Ireland brogue, so I’m not sure how everyone else copes with the dialogue. Clearly however, it’s not so much the words used as the intent and delivery that is important and that still comes across clearly from the performances. I’d still mark this down for failing to provide subtitles for the hard of hearing, but am inclined to be lenient here since the full shooting script is included as a pdf in the extra features.
Writer Mark O’Halloran and director Lenny Abrahamson talk about the casting of the film, particularly the crucial role of having comedian Pat Shortt in the main role, and speak about how this affects the overall tone that they were aiming for. Location is also important and there’s some time taken over the portrayal of rural Ireland. A few plot points and local humour are clarified, but nothing is over-explained. The approach to writing and filming is discussed, as are influences and references. Based on the first half an hour or so, this is good, but I’m not sure there’s much value in listening to the whole thing over the length of the film.
Eleven stills are shown in the photo gallery.
The full 96-page screenplay is included as a DVD-ROM feature and it’s simply a marvellous extra feature. As well as clearing up any problems you might have had understanding what was being said, reading the script on the page brings out the strengths in the economy of the writing, its incisiveness and its humour. Well worth your time checking this out.
The film’s trailer is included. The relatively quick edits and the exposition don’t really match the reality of the film’s premise, but it does set up an intriguing hook, which I suppose is the intention.
Taking a rather harsh look at the realities of life, the bitterness that laces conversation and humour and the way it establishes connections and understandings as well as maintaining distance, Garage is a much more subtle film than is apparent on the surface, but it consequently achieves the same depths in how it communicates with the viewer. This also makes it a difficult film to sell, so it’s to the credit of Mark O’Halloran and Lenny Abrahamson that they never feel the need to play to expectations of broad country humour or tone down the essential characteristics that make it work in order to make the film’s meaning obvious to the viewer. The film remains therefore uncompromising but brilliant, fully achieving a balance between the humour and the tragedy underlying it.