Erik Jaccard contemplates what happens during an Intermission, and sometimes also the film of the same name.
Dir. John Crowley
It seems a fortuitous coincidence that I come before you today to re-view John Crowley’s 2003 dark comedy Intermission, seeing as his newest feature, the political thriller Closed Circuit, is set for general release this week. From what I can tell of the trailer, the overt gravity of Closed Circuit’s focus on terrorism and its clear play on cinematic spy culture and international intrigue is about as far as one could get from Intermission’s so-very-earnest take on quirky ensemble comedy. That said, one of the things I noticed in my re-viewing ofIntermission is that, despite its undeniably comic exterior and its endearing attempts at mining the lives of ordinary folk for moments of tenderness, spite, and humility, it offers its own version of the darkness that a film like Closed Circuit seems to wear brazenly. Indeed, the biggest surprise this time around was realizing that I was going to have add ‘dark’ to what I had already decided was a film devoted almost entirely to comedy. I think the film is better for it ten years later. In the following re-view I’ll try to explain why. But first we should dispense with the past.
November of this year will mark the third anniversary of my first re-view for Ten Years Ago. In that time I’ve managed to produce 20 re-views (this one included) and quite a bit of reflection on my life as an early-twentysomething in the years 2001-2003. Nearly all of the films I’ve touched upon and all of the personal texture I’ve woven through them derive from that very specific period in my life, the late college, early ‘real world’ period wherein I was still spending a great deal of time figuring out who I was and what I wanted from the world. That is a process that is yet ongoing; it may never entirely stop. But having thankfully figured a few things out in the last ten years, I can safely say now that many of the bigger questions I was asking myself then about my values, my priorities, and how I ultimately wanted to arrange myself have faded into the background, as such thing are wont to do as you move into your mid-30s. But back then the quest for self-knowledge was still in full-swing and, by the end of 2003, I had decided that whatever usefulness my Seattle status quo offered—which included my family, most of my friends, and pretty much everything I considered familiar and normal—was going to have to wait.
Like so many middle-class kids in their post-college years, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life, and by the middle of 2003 I was in something of a personal tailspin. I had a job and friends and a life that was by no accounts bad, yet I felt that I was missing something. The prospect of hanging around town and waiting for the perfect office job to come along depressed me, as did the notion that I had reached a standstill personally, emotionally, and intellectually. In short, I wanted out. I could slather the clichés on pretty thick here and say that I wanted to see if I could stand on my own two feet, to see whether I could fly having left of the nest, or to simply see what was, after all, so much greener about that grass over yonder. Really, though, as I’ve explained a few times to those friends and family that I left, I just needed to leave. I needed to experience something different after so long with what seemed, at least, like an endless cavalcade of familiarity that was at one comforting and maddening. So I left. And for nearly five years I lived in a little hiatus from my life, a strange and not always continuous sidebar to what had heretofore been my consensus reality. I bring this up here for two reasons. The first is that my personal historical context is now going to reflect the vagaries of this wandering. Beyond the general fun of being able to say “I saw X film in Y place,” I think this will also mean that my perspective will shift somewhat, sometimes even quite dramatically, as I move my little toy self across the maps of my own geographically diverse memories. Secondly, though, I really like the symmetry between my object of study here—Intermission—and the context through which my experience will be shaped, my own personal intermission. With that, I suppose I should get to it.
It was sometime in early 2004 when I first threw down ten Australian dollars to watchIntermission on my day off, late one sunny Tuesday afternoon in a fairly empty downtown Sydney cinema (I know this because Tuesday was $10 movie day at this cinema and I rarely missed it). I was, at that point, living alone for the first time in a good while, most of my erstwhile traveling buddies having moved on to other cities and/or adventures and my then-girlfriend having gone up the coast for a three-week holiday. While they weren’t lonely times, per se, they were certainly days in which I spent more time than usual alone, wandering the city, taking pictures of what seemed like artistically arranged shadows, drinking (too much) coffee, and scribbling in my notebook. It was autumn, which in Australia is actually pretty wonderful when you get over the fact that it’s no longer beach weather. But anyway, the beach isn’t as fun alone. So, on my own once again, I went to the movies on the one day of the week when it felt like I could afford it and, for a reason I can no longer entirely recall, chose Intermission without any idea of what it was about.
Well, there was probably more to it than that. I probably chose Intermission precisely because it was unknown and also because of the cast (At that point I knew and liked Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, Colm Meaney, and Colin Farrell). I don’t recall really knowing much about its content or its director. So I rolled the dice on an educated guess and, thankfully, liked what I got. I recall appreciating the film partly because it was amusing, partly because I enjoyed films with ensemble casts and interweaving storylines, and partly because it wore a certain genuine sweetness on its sleeve. And at that particular point in my life, I was high as a kite on lovey-dovey sweetness (I was in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship that would ultimately last 2 + years and adventurously whisk me further around the world). I would also say that I gravitated towards what I considered to be the film’s overt, endearing Irishness and the strange pull of a fresh experience that, at the time, felt equal parts familiar and exotic. The ex-girlfriend mentioned above was Irish and at that point I was spending most of my days with various Brits, Irish, and Aussies, whose acceptance of my less common Yankee heritage (I was the only American at work, for example) made me feel simultaneously different and special, but also as though I had been allowed access into an exciting new club. I relished this familiarity with difference, the ability to participate in conversations peppered with slang and a form of social experience which, if not actually all that different, had been only two or three months prior entirely unfamiliar and occasionally alienating. Watching films like Intermission made me feel proud that I could make it all the way through without having to strain to pick up the occasionally broad Dublin accents (something I’ve noticed since with other Americans, having re-watched the film a couple times prior to this re-view). In my own micro-universe, I could enjoy that a film so thoroughly dedicated to reproducing a certain version of ordinary Irish life could also seem to be hailing me, the outsider, asking me to appreciate and share in the nuances of its internal dramas.
But in pursuing the film for these somewhat superficial reasons, to which I would add a general aimlessness and a tendency to heap uncritical praise on all things ‘independent,’ I also managed to miss a lot. I failed to follow up on the many implications of the film’s title; I either consciously ignored, or just didn’t notice the film’s overt attention to class and politics of ordinary life; I likely read right through the narrative’s occasionally incoherent plot threadings and its equally as occasional fits of somewhat absurd writing. In fact, my dominant reaction to the film this time around was to wonder how the hell I had missed so much. I fear that what I’m about to say is becoming something of a broken record for me, as my re-views pile up and I find myself continually reaching backward to shamefacedly sort through the debris of my own former ignorance. But really, I have to admit that I watchedIntermission back then as just another quirky indie comedy featuring actors that I enjoyed and as a story that, despite some minor incoherence, held together and gave me the kind of happy ending I desired.
Ten years later, however, I’m stuck with this overwhelming feeling that this movie has changed dramatically, for me at least. I’ve got tons of things to say and not enough space or time in which to communicate them all with the thoroughness that is usually both my strength and weakness as a writer. So, despite my verbose tendencies (how have I managed to make it to a third single-spaced page without really discussing the film?!?), I’m going to rein it in and focus on three specific things, each of which I’ve already mentioned in the paragraph above. Before jumping into that, though, I’ll pause a moment and provide the moment pieces for the blog are meant to provide. Intermission is, in my humble opinion, a very good film, if not a great one. It is a variation on a form of ensemble dramedy we’ve already seen done (and done better in some cases) that manages to string together multiple interlocking plotlines with a minimum of abrasive confusion and a surprising amount of genuine humor and charm. This charm remains undiminished ten years after the film’s initial release, though, as I’ve mentioned above, my perspective on it has deepened, making it, I would argue, an even more fulfilling experience this time around. If it isn’t still the warm, redemptive story I once took it for, it nonetheless continues to offer an interesting, offbeat look at the weird, loving, and hurtful choices people make for, with, and because of each other, and at the inevitable consequences that arise as a result. In fact, if you read it in relation to its director, West End and Broadway veteran John Crowley, it comes off as a very theatrical take on funny, average people doing sad, but often amusing, things at the expense of others and, oftentimes, their own dignity.
I have a lot of things left to say about the film. Really, this re-view could go on for another six single-spaced pages, such is my own analytical megalomania. But out of respect for your time and mine (and that of those around me), I’m going to rein it in and focus on one main idea. If there’s time, I’ll shunt a few of my other major observations in an ending section that will be more ‘leftover thoughts that could have been major thoughts’ than my usual, quippy ‘free-floating thoughts’.
So, though it may be predictable, let’s use the remainder of our time to explore one question that continually arose while viewing the film this time around: why exactly is this film calledIntermission? Sure, we could take the obvious cue from the film and read this as a direct reference to the ‘break’ in John and Dierdre’s relationship that seems to form the dramatic bedrock of the narrative’s otherwise disparate parts. But to do so seems not only to miss out on the many interpretive opportunities to which the word gives rise, but also to actively reduce the film to its romantic element (which is certainly emphasized but not, I would argue, dominant).
So, as most know, an intermission is a break, pause, respite, relief, or rest in any given sequence of events. As theatergoers are aware, it’s that moment in the play when you get to stretch your legs, quaff a drink, and chat about what’s transpired and whether you like it. However, what I learned by poking around in the Oxford English Dictionary in the lead-up to writing this re-view, is that an intermission is also an intervention, the act of a third party inserting itself into and mediating a given situation (this is admittedly a rare/obsolete definition). In thinking through the word, then, we would do well to attend to both of these meanings and to the seeming contradiction they create. For example, working from these definitions, an intermission becomes both a temporal space in which action ceases—that rest or respite—as well as an act of mediation which opens onto and animates that space. It’s a moment of pause that is not a moment of pause. What I like about this paradox is that it illuminates the idea that intermissions are never segments out of time, never actual pauses, but rather splinters that, when you look at the whole, seem like empty breaks, but which actually name spaces in which things happen, in which action continues. Thinking through the complexity of the concept and its possibilities actually unlocked something for me this time around that had remained random and disconnected on my first few viewings.
The film’s emphasis on the ordinariness of its characters’ lives, and on their dissatisfaction with what seems like a banal, day-to-day existence, helps us see how the entire narrative is an exploration of the idea that our lives are not good enough, that real life is ‘out there,’ in whatever fantasy we’ve concocted for ourselves, whether it be a life with a better job, more recognition, a new love interest, better sex, and so on. We sell these intermission-y spaces to ourselves as personal necessities, as things that need to happen for our own sake, as though they were quite logical. But they’re choices we make, compromises, and while I’m not ready to admit that they are entirely selfish, watching Intermission again has helped me tell the lie to my own personal mythology, and to see the ways my own active fantasies mediated and controlled not only the literal space of my personal intermission, but also the choices I made therein.
Nearly all of the characters have retreated into this form of mediating fantasy space when we meet them, and all of them are running from a life they feel has let them down in some way. John (Cillian Murphy) has split with Dierdre (Kelly Macdonald), wanting something new in his life, something the routine to which he has become accustomed cannot provide. Dierdre, spurned by the immature, volatile John, has run into to the arms of Sam (Michael McElhatton), an older and more settled bank manager who offers a respite from the vagaries of life with John. Sam has in turn left his wife, Noeleen (Deirdre O’Kane) for what seems to be a vision of a newer, more exciting life with the young, pretty Dierdre. Noeleen, somewhat predictably, turns her inner turmoil outward, taking up with John’s lonely, lovesick friend Oscar (David Wilmot), who, desperate for a human connection, allows her to vent her rage by proxy in the form of sexual violence. Then there is Dierde’s sister Sally (an excellently cast, impeccably frosty Shirley Henderson), who has retreated from the world altogether following an undeniably traumatic (if somewhat amusing) emotional scarring at the hands of a former beau (Sally’s fantasy world would actually be a the fantasy of the end of fantasy, a jadedness with possibility altogether). Colm Meaney’s exuberantly hostile cop, Jerry, turns in excitement to the prospect of being the subject of a television docudrama about his life on the beat, a forum in which he will finally receive the recognition he believes he deserves. Then there is Colin Farrell’s trickster-thief character, Lehiff, who spends most of his days lying and stealing, but who, in his spare time, dreams of a comfortable bourgeois existence complete with a furnished abode and a variety of housewares and home appliances. Each of these fantasy space provides an answer to the nagging feeling that life is simply not good enough as is, that the average person’s daily slog needs excitement, that it requires heroics (the film provides a bus crash, to date the most expensive single stunt ever filmed in Ireland), drama (there is an attempted extortion plot), hot sex, a new person, a new perspective, a new life.
The film is thus, in part at least, an exploration of all of the desperate ways people go about trying to make themselves happy by creating these fantasy intermissions, often selfishly, at the expense of others, and often when what they seek (actual human connection) is right there in front of them in the first place. As embroiled as I was in my own personal intermission when I first watched the film, it was very difficult for me to see that what I was doing was in fact a facsimile of this gesture, an escape outside of a life I’d decided was mundane and unoriginal and stultifying. As much as I craved personal development and growth in my time abroad, I’ve grown increasingly aware of how stubbornly I insisted on sheltering my own arrested development. While there were certainly a number of personally beneficial developments that did occur in that time, and which I treasure, it is undeniable to me now that my experience was also a form of escape, and ultimately of immaturity. This is something that could be said of nearly all the characters in Intermission. The problem, just as it was for me, is that it’s very difficult to see the complex effects your choices have when you don’t have access to all those plot lines that you necessarily affect with your decisions. Personal choices have consequences beyond oneself and in our hyper-individualized world in which we’re all supposed to want and get nearly immediately, it can be a seductive temptation indeed to simply close oneself off to the ramifications of one’s life. To return to that more complex definition of ‘intermission,’ I forgot that, in leaving off from the main story of my life, the act of leaving off was itself a form of action. I didn’t just disappear into a hole carved carefully into the side of things, after which the world calmly went about its business. If you think about it, that would actually be pretty depressing. It would be the obverse of what George Bailey learns in It’s A Wonderful Life, that the hole you leave in the world can and should mean something once you’re gone. And while I’m happy that my absence did mean something to those who love me, I’m simultaneously ashamed at times that the best answer I can muster to the charge that I consciously disappointed those people was that ‘I just needed to go.’ My explanation is really no better than Sam’s or John’s, no matter how I was ultimately able to rationalize it to myself.
The problem with these fantasies we concoct is that we don’t recognize them as fantasies and, as such, we let them organize our lives, quite oblivious to the fact. Or else we know what we are doing and we do it anyway, at least partly aware of the outcome(s). I hope that I’m oblivious in this way, because if not, I’m actually far more cynical than even I recognize. That’s not a possibility I’m excited about contemplating. But at the very least, re-viewingIntermission ten years later has helped me see that shying away from the thought is the same thing as reproducing it. The film’s resolution of this dilemma for most of its characters is mixed and uneven, but for John and Dierdre, more than anyone else, it at least seems like there might be some horizon of rapprochement and, what’s more, one built on mutual recognition. For my part, one of the things I hope to accomplish as my life and its attendant values continue to shift and change is an ability to see that there are no breaks, no free passes. Trite as it may be, we’re left with Intermission’s final consolation, one that doesn’t need be bitter if we only consider what it actually means for us:
Shit happens you can’t change. You’ve no choice but to deal with it, adapt to it. Try to make yourself happy.
You persevere—what else is there?
Thanks for reading.
Thoughts and ideas that didn’t make it in
- In a film so self-consciously loaded with ‘quirk,’ there are bound to be a few comic gems, and one of my favorites is the scene of the four partially-masked would-be bank robber tough guys rolling down the street to the soothing sounds of Jerry’s Clannad cds.
- Second to this would be Jerry himself hunting down Dublin’s ‘scum’ to the sounds of the same soothing ‘artistes,’ as he calls them, except that these scenes also seems sadder and drearier.
- Of the many quirks on display in the film, one of the most amusing to me is John’s constant experimentation with ‘brown sauce,’ a generic name for the mix of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce that Britons and Irish like to eat with meat and potatoes of various types. He slathers it on toast like the Aussie’s do with Vegemite, except that brown sauce is not intended for toast, nor is it intended for tea. John’s endorsement of ‘tea and brown sauce’ provokes one of the sillier/funnier moments in the film, when Farrell’s Lehiff, predictably revolted by the sight of the gooey brown liquid being poured into the Isles’ sacred hot drink, is nonetheless forced to admit that “that’s fuckin’ delish!”
- An inevitable side effect of making a film about ‘common people’ is that one must generally engage with what it is that makes common people’s life so common. And the setting of Intermission, which I didn’t realize before exists in large part of both ‘traditional’ Irish locations (green fields, rock walls, wood-paneled pubs) and newer, generic/globalized locations evocative of dreary wage-slavery (supermarkets, departments stores, malls), adds muted but significant backdrop to the lives of these average Dubliners. Living day to day in the era of ‘the Celtic tiger’ economy, we see that, while they are certainly a far cry from the working-class mythos of old, part of what makes their lives so miserable is the sheer, repetitive mundane existence many of them live (and have to live).
- One of the problems with a sprawling cast of characters is not how to contrive a plot in which each one’s life intersects with the others—relatively speaking, that’s quite easy. The problem is how to simultaneously forge characters and relationships between them that come off as more than superficial, trite, or banal. Thinking about Love Actually, I’m trying to remember how and why I connected to the people in the film on anything other than a superficial, contingent level, and whether I was not, actually, merely connecting vaguely with the abstraction their interactions were meant to indicate—love. Many of the moments in the film are undeniably sweet, touching, sad, and thrilling, to be sure. At the same time, they don’t seem to carry the same force as we might expect from a sustained inquiry into one human relationship, or two. In fact, with so many characters and storylines, it’s difficult to grasp onto anything genuine created from their interactions. What we end up with is essentially faith in the larger concept or conundrum that ties them all together. If we’re talking about ‘love,’ then I would actually say that, just as in Love Actually, there are few times when I really felt something genuine while watching Intermission, at least this time around. This might be as simple as making the distinction between what I know and what I feel, or else thinking of it in terms of writing, as something told rather than shown or illustrated. In both films we know there is love there as much because we are told as we do because we see it unfold before our eyes. At best, we often have to read backwards from dramatic moments, taking a facial expression or an off-hand remark and, following the breadcrumbs, finding our way back to some tangible human connection. To its credit,Intermission provides us with these moments, but you have to be looking out for them, because they sometimes pale in comparison to the moments when we’re supposed to ‘see’ love brandished in front of our eyes most obviously. Just as in Love Actually, moments of ‘love’ (and not sweetness or superficial sentiment) emerge indistinctly and fleetingly. They appear not when Brian O’Byrne’s Mick explains to John how enamored he is with his wife, but rather in the brief flash of grief that flicks across Kelly Macdonald’s face when she sees John get shot. It appears less, I would argue, in Oscar and Sally’s film-ending promises to love and cherish one another than it does in Sally’s tearful admission that her own self-imposed exile from the world has left her emotionally destitute.
- I want to believe that Intermission doesn’t hate its characters in the same way that Jerry hates the ‘scumbags’ and ‘filth’ he so dramatically and egotistically hunts down and incarcerates. There is enough about the film that is light and pleasant and amusing that I’m willing to stand behind the assertion that, whatever misanthrope may be lurking at the margins of the narrative, it remains there, acknowledged but rebutted. For my part, I’m willing to let this be a mark of complexity rather than inconsistency. I think that, in order to do that, we have to look sympathetically at these people as every bit as ordinary as ourselves. If they are nasty, they are nasty in ways we have all been nasty as some point or another.
- Intermission is, frankly, a bit difficult to follow at first, and this isn’t always a good thing. Part of it has to do with the nature of the interconnecting plot lines and part with the (for Americans) Dublin accents, which you acclimate to eventually, but which at first nearly always make me want to turn the volume up on the tv to make sure I’m not missing something.