Monday, May 19, 2014

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: Three Early Shorts

Small Deaths (1996)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Lynne Ramsay

Kill the Day (1996)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay

Gasman (1998)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay went to film school – but because of her photography background went for the cinematography tract – but quickly realized she wanted more control than that – that she wanted to direct. Eventually she was able to move into the director’s program, and made her first short, Small Deaths, as her graduate project. The film went on to win a Jury Prize in the short film section of Cannes in 1996. Two other shorts followed in the next two years – including Gasman, which won her another Jury prize at Cannes, before she got the funding to make her debut feature – Ratcatcher in 1999. All three short films are worth watching, not just because they offer a glimpse into Ramsay’s early promise and her visual style, but because they work brilliantly as shorts as well.

Surprisingly, my favorite of the three is her first – the film she made as a student, Small Deaths. The film is only 11 minutes long, but tells three separate incidents in the life of Anne Marie (played by Lynne Ramsay Jr. in the first, Genna Gillan in the second and Anne Marie Kennedy in the third). The title refers to how each incident represents Anne Marie losing something – a part of her innocence – and how that is often done in small steps, not one huge one. In the first, Anne Marie watches as her mother helps her father to get ready to go down the pub. This is presented as a normal day for this family – the wife working hard, the father getting ready to go out, get drunk and return late that night, if at all. She watches the way her father treats her mother with casual cruelty, and then leaves. The second, taking place a few years later has Anne Marie playing with some friends in a field – and making a grisly discovery of a dying cow –once again showing the cruelty of the people around her, who do not see anything wrong with what they have done. The third takes place, again a few years later, as Anne Marie and her boyfriend are hanging out in the staircase of a rundown apartment building – when her boyfriend announces he has to go “upstairs” for a minute – and leaves her behind. Shortly after, he calls for her to come up – and plays a cruel joke on her, with the help of the many junkies living in that apartment upstairs.

Small Deaths is about the death of innocence, one drop at a time, as Anne Marie comes face to face with casual cruelty again and again – and seems to be the only one who registers it as such. The film conveys this almost entirely through images – there is not much dialogue and what there is, is rather perfunctory. The movie takes Anne Marie’s point of view – which Ramsay will do throughout her career – and allows us to see things as she sees them. It’s a dark little film – and different from most loss of innocence movies, as it doesn’t take one large moment at the reason for the loss, but rather the slow accumulation of small details.

My least favorite of the three shorts is her second one – Kill the Day – which isn’t a bad short by any means, just not quite as good as the other two. Once again, Ramsay mainly tells her story through images – very little is spoken in the 18 minute short – and is locked onto the main characters point of view. The film is about a junkie (James Ramsay), who in the films best sequence, steals a backpack out of a locker in order to get money for drugs – and hides in the bathroom stall of the Ladies room as he goes through it (the shot of him slowly raising his off the ground so he cannot be seen or heard is the film’s best image, in a short full of them). Like Small Deaths, the film also takes place over the span of years – we see him in prison, being taunted by the guards, we see him later, out of prison, trying hard to go straight. At times, we flash back to his younger days.

Kill the Day is a more ambitious film than Small Deaths – Ramsay is trying to play with time a little bit here, mixing the chronology up, instead of having three different set pieces like in Small Deaths. The film works as a portrait of a junkie, from his point of view, as he screws up his life, and tries to fix it – but perhaps Ramsay was a little too ambitious with this film – trying to do in 18 minutes what normally would require a feature. It is still a striking visual film, just not quite as good as her other two shorts.

Ramsay’s best known short is probably her third – Gasman – made in 1998. Once again, Ramsay locks into one characters point of view. This time, it’s a young girl. The first few minutes of the movie have all the heads of the adults cut off – representing the way the girl sees everything at eye level. It’s Christmas time, and the girl is getting dressed up to go with her daddy to a Christmas party. She, her dad and her brother head off to the party – as they are walking, they stop and talk to a woman. Her dad gives her money, and she’s angry that it’s not enough. He then takes her kids with them as well to the party. There is singing and dancing – and everything seems to be going fine. But why is that other little girl sitting on her daddy’s lap? Why is she also calling him daddy?

This 15 minute short is masterful in many ways – most notably for how it adopts the point of view of a child who doesn’t fully understand what is happening, or what she sees. She just knows she doesn’t like it very much – and she behaves like many children would – by acting out towards the other little girl, around the same age as she is – who is trying to take her daddy from her.

The film is linked with Small Deaths in many ways – this easily could have been another sequence in that film – as it shows a small moment in the girls life that will mark her forever – a loss of innocence, where she realizes that things are not quite how she thought they were –even if she doesn’t fully understand what that means.

The individual shorts are all wonderful – especially Small Deaths and Gasman. Kill the Day is undoubtedly the most ambitious of the three films, but it’s also the least successful – Ramsay doesn’t quite pull off what she attempting in that film. She does in the other two. It’s easy to see why Ramsay went on to direct features after these three shorts – all of which are connected to what she would do later in her career. They are interesting as part of Ramsay’s career – but also as shorts unto themselves.

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