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Two Centuries of Irish Cinema

The Eclipse

Fifth annual Cinagael Buffalo Film Festoval at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

In 1994, workmen demolishing a building in Blackburn, England discovered in the basement three metal drums containing more than 800 small reels of film. These proved to be short films made by the team of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, who in the first decade of the last century were among the largest film producers of their time.

I Went Down

The new art of cinema almost wholly favored documentaries of what now seems a mundane variety: People were amazed to see themselves and people like them on film, and movies showing workers on the job and play were wildly popular. The vast majority of such films are lost, and those that remain are an invaluable document of their time, which is why the content of those three metal drums was such a treasure.

The Mitchell & Kenyon Collection includes 27 films made in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork in 1902. A selection of those will be shown as the closing event of this year’s Cinegael Buffalo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s annual program of Irish films, which takes place Friday, June 3, noon-10pm. The films will be introduced by Dr. Heyward Ehrlich, Professor Emeritus at the Department of English, Rutgers, who will also provide context on film aesthetics and economics of the period.

Prior to this lecture at 8:15pm, Cinegael will present six somewhat newer Irish films, four features and two shorts. The program starts at noon with One Hundred Mornings (2010), a grim but compelling drama set at the time of an unspecified event that has broken down the social order. Two couples have decided to wait the situation out in a lakeside cabin near a small village, where they find they are unable to escape the unraveling of human ties. Filmed on a small budget by Conor Horgan (his first feature after a career in documentaries and commercials), it eschews special effects for an increasingly suffocating tension. It’s more reminiscent of Arch Obler’s cerebral 1950s post-bomb drama Five than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though hardly more hopeful.

At 2pm the mood lightens with 32A (2007), a coming-of-age story about a young girl dealing with the usual traumas confronting a 13-year-old. (The title refers to her first brassiere, a subject of much conversation among her circle of friends.) It reminded me of Gregory’s Girl, not for the humor (it’s not so much a comedy) as for its evocation of a particular time and place, in this case Dublin circa 1979. It marks the directorial debut of actress Marian Quinn, whose brother Aidan has a small role.

The rest of the afternoon features two films written by playwright Conor McPherson. At 4pm is I Went Down (1997), which was to the Irish independent film scene what Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was to England: a shaggy-dog gangster story in which the convoluted plot was less of a draw than spending time with the garrulous characters. Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson are a pair of sad sack petty criminals sent on a mission by a local ganglord to fetch a rival (scene-stealer Peter Caffrey). It was a huge hit at home, which makes it all the more mysterious that the film doesn’t seem to be available on DVD anywhere other than New Zealand.

McPherson also directed The Eclipse (2010), not to be confused with the third Twilight film, even if it does have a touch of the supernatural to it. The oversized but soulful actor Ciarán Hinds—you’ve seen him as villains in lots of movies—plays Michael Farr, a teacher in a small Irish town that hosts an annual literary festival. Still suppressing his grief over the recent death of his wife, he volunteers to help out by driving around some of the guest authors. These include Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle, the Danish actress who played John Cusack’s ex in High Fidelity), who writes about people who have been visited by ghosts, and Nicholas Holden, best selling author of popular drivel and a bit of a drunken asshole. Holden is played by Aidan Quinn with the kind of relish that comes when you get to shake off decades of being cast as nice guys: He’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s not a movie for impatient viewers or those who like everything spelled out for them, but the characters make it a most pleasant 90 minutes. Showtime is 6pm.

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