I Could Read The Sky Review

I Could Read The Sky is a film that grew out of a series of projects in writing, photography and music that was presented as a book, as a series of multi-media readings and finally as a film. Based on the theme of Irish immigration and exile, the film relates the memories and experiences of one of those immigrants.

The promise of work in England led many from Ireland to leave their family and friends for the post-war reconstruction of London and many other English cities. In I Could Read The Sky an old man (Dermot Healy) reflects on his life, escaping the rural west of Ireland to work as a labourer in England. He relates stories of families broken up, brothers who vanish, love, friendships and companionship between the many other Irishmen who made the same journey and shared the same experiences.

It is presented quite theatrically – not at all naturalistically – and a very avant-garde theatrical experience at that, showing influences of Beckett and Joyce - appropriately as these are the two most famous Irish exiles. The narrator speaks often speaks to the camera to relate his story, while faces and events are also seen from the narrator’s point of view, often looking and speaking directly to the camera. The language of the monologue narration is lyrical and poetic, as is the impressionistic visual language employed by director Bruce, a visual representation of stream of conscious. Working on a very limited budget, the film is shot in Digital Video, but the limitations work both for and against the film. As he narrates his story, images overlap, mix and blend together as memories come to the surface - gazing at the carpeted floor, it morphs into a field, while faces blend together and a blur of alcoholic haze is effectively conveyed with the overlapping images. On the other hand, the nature of high-definition video is a little too clinical and detailed to capture human warmth and memory.

While other presentations of the project in different media seem to have been very successful, the film fails to make a connection with the viewer. This is not one person’s story, it is the shared memory of thousands of Irish immigrants. For the most part the stories in the film remain anecdotal and there is nothing much here that adds up to either a story or an experience. Living in Ireland myself, I don’t think there is anyone I know who could not name a father, uncle or grandfather who made that journey, so the stories here have a ring of authenticity and familiarity to them, if none of the character and personality.

The film’s visual presentation on the Artificial Eye DVD could hardly be better. Filmed in high-definition Digital Video and immaculately lit, the image is crystal clear with tremendous amounts of detail. It almost looks like a direct digital transfer where it not for only one or two barely perceptible white specks throughout the whole film. Pretty much flawless then, but for a slight shimmer that appears here and there, a side effect of the manipulation and effects used in the digital photography.

It’s unlikely that the film, with a low budget, came with a surround-sound mix, so the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix on the DVD is also probably as good as you could expect it to be. Dialogue is strong and clear and there is good stereo separation to allow the film to experiment with overlapping and echoing voices, as well as blend in with the musical score.

Interviews and Biographies
The interviews with director Nichola Bruce (14:48), writer Timothy O’Grady (11:37), Steve Pyke (9:15) and composer Iarla Ó’Lionáird are excellent and explain the process and development of the whole project and the film itself. There is quite a bit of blurring of lines between writing the book, compiling the photographs and making the film, one form influencing and directing the other.

Deleted Scene (1:20)
A short scene of two girls talking. It’s hard to see where it would have fitted into the film – it doesn’t seem to relate to the narrator’s experience. It was perhaps an attempt to encompass the wider range of experiences offered by the book.

Live Events
The book was presented as readings, exhibitions and musical performances and a variety of those very different multi-media events are sampled here – a reading at Filthy McNasty’s pub (2:25), where much of the source material was obtained, an opening at the Photographer’s Gallery, Dublin (3:20) and a reading/projection/concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (4:58).

Six galleries of photographs and drawings are presented here – Steve Pyke’s Book Photographs, Production Stills, Set Drawings, 1st Stage Drawings, 2nd Stage Drawings and 3rd Stage Drawings.

Book and Soundtrack
Information is provided on the book and soundtrack.

This is an interesting, experimental film, but it only really works as part of an overall project. The DVD has tried to present the film in this context with the highly relevant and informative extra material on the events and media surrounding it. I get the impression however that the subject would work much better in a live context, in the company of other people, reading, telling stories and performing over a few pints. That seems the natural environment for this kind of oral-tradition storytelling, rather than under the cold harsh light of digital photography.

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