Table of Contents
The evolution of the Irish film industry has finally come of age and is at the point where it can compete comfortably with Hollywood and the British film industries. Indeed the journey has been long and difficult and at times hopeless, however, it has evolved as both an art and an industry. Today it is able to accommodate various categories of film making, starting from experimental video, to large-budget productions. The impressive history of the industry in terms of filmmaking is perhaps best captured in the movies that presented original Irish themes, without borrowing much from American movies. The unique history of filmmaking in Ireland triangulates around the language shared with the other English speaking countries (especially Great Britain and the United States), and the global distribution of Irish people, their heritage and culture, pinched between the juggernaut of Hollywood, Ireland’s post-colonial relationship with Britain, and the cultural influence of the Irish Diaspora, as well as lacking a robust tradition of indigenous filmmaking. Irish cinema can thus be productively examined as a macrocosm of the globalised cultural industry, exhibiting transnational exchange of imagery and iconography, themes and tropes, personnel and resources (Scott, 2004).
However, of the genres that have been produced by the Irish film industry, none has attracted as much attention as the crime and gangster category. It is from these crime films that Hollywood has based most of their movies on. Some of the most famous ones in Ireland include The General and Ordinary Decent Criminals directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan and produced in 1999, and also The Vicious Circle, directed by David Blair and produced in 1999. These movies depict the true picture of the Irish society in the 1990s and capture the factors present in the society at that time.
However, the focus of this paper is on the movie, The General and the theme of crime as a genre and as a commentary on the Irish society of 1990s. Genre is most usefully defined as a tool of critical explanation, as our most powerful and reasoned way of justifying the value we place on a literary text. The movie depicts the real-life story of a Dublin folk hero and criminal Martin Cahill, who successfully pulled off two dangerous and daring robberies in Ireland, but as a consequence, attracted unwanted attention from the police, other authorities and even from the members of his team. The General is a classical film in its structure and form. It is set in Dublin and draws upon main political and social threads by defining Irish life. It resembles the typical rise-and-fall plot of the gangster film. It has tentative links to factual reality and is set in a clever manner, almost compelling the audience to admire their criminal protagonists but always reminding the audience not to emulate their behaviors. The movie acknowledges social realities like poverty, urban life, crime etc.
Cross-Cultural Exchange and Genre
The General is particularly distinctive of the Irish society as it involves the usage of grammar, expressions and look with a ‘locale’ accent. It shows the concepts that are unique to the 1990s’ Irish society. As a commentary, the General depicts the society in its rural, traditional and modern bias. It is a society with a very strong sense of its own history and proud of its own heritage. This is highlighted through a bright display and relished important images of the urban profanity, individualist and consumerist US culture of which the screen gangsters were emblematic. According to Lance, the 1990s Irish society strove to capture the look, sounds and emotional view of people’s experience in the organized crime world as had been mediated through television and press, whilst also recalling other cinematic images of the Irish and other ethnic gangsters. In The General, the society is therefore shown as a society that is devoted to its own culture and traditions, and appreciates its inherent characteristics.
However, the aspect of cross-cultural exchange and emulation of other societal behaviors looms large in the movie. Firstly, the movie being shot in black and white is similar to the classic American gangster movies such as Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) and Scarface and follows a similar pattern of exalting the gangster hero. It invokes the classical gangster theme of struggling to live within the social order, during a time of economic upheaval or hardship, and the exaltation of the gangster heroes similar to the American movies. Similarly, the timing of Martin Cahill’s career as a criminal can be seen in parallel to the social and economic conditions of the U.S that gave a rise to the classical gangster genre, demonstrating one channel of social relationship with the genre. The General also exhibits another instance of cross-cultural exchange as shown in the robberies and interrogations of the criminals. The movie creates these scenes with low-key lighting which is commonly associated with the post World War 2 Hollywood movies in the U.S. There is also a suggestion of a noir-ish influence as shown by the fatalistic, circular narrative structure, which in turn raises questions of parallels with the noir films beyond the stylistic, such as common cultural influences including instability in economic and social change. (Scott, 2004)
Crime and Institutions
The General tells a story of a society that has institutions and relies on the institutions for governance and performance of different functions that are vital to the life of people in Ireland. The issue of institutional crime and corruption is aptly shown in the movie and it is this rigidity of institutions that Cahill loathes. He is inflamed by Dublin’s establishments such as the church, the police, the pols and even the media. Cahill hates institutions so much that he has contempt even against fellow Catholics in the IRA which he looks upon - for its radicalism - as nothing less than rigid organizations. His image in the movie can be viewed as a symptom of a country shaking of its catholic past and tumbling towards an uncertain future in Europe (Boorman, 1998). He represents the anti-authoritarian strain as he rallies against the police, priests, civil servants, legal officers and even banks (Lance 2004). The role of the media in fighting crime is also highlighted in the movie. There are carefully choreographed scenes constructed around the criminals’ performance in the media, their recording and commenting on his behavior, and his subsequent reviewing of the actions with his family, in the newspaper or on television (Barry, 2005). How the media presents this to the public has a big role to play in the fight against crime. The outstanding question on the role of media is whether it can be used as a weapon against criminal activity in the country or it is a deterrent to the fight against crime. The issue of institutions and crime represents the state of social division and corruption, which populate a cultural landscape, thin on contemporary heroes, but full of socioeconomic upheaval.
Therefore, the constant rebellion of Cahill against establishments, class loyalty, and revelation of corruption on both sides of the law, is structured to appear at the time when there is a clear social division in the country that results in the arrival of a new layer in governmental oversight resulting into the change of the socioeconomic landscape in the country. Consequently, this provides a structured genre that represents the past and contemporary socioeconomic turmoil as well as an avenue for the film itself to participate in the contemporary market place.
Poverty and Crime
In his article Pettit looks at the movie as a crime genre and as the one that raises different issues. The movie highlights the conflicts between state authority figures, populist individuals and liberal\ humanist reformers, between the police and the gangsters. The issue of an urban setting and how it is shaped and rearranged is also highlighted. The issues of capitalism and alternative economies; anti-authoritarianism; sexuality and its aberrant forms are also displayed in the movie. The society in the 1990s is shown to be economically stable and the development rate is seen in the existence of modern buildings of unique architectural designs, and also the run down areas of the city where criminals hide. Crime as a genre is associated with a poor and deprived society. The separation between the haves and the have nots is distinctive in the urban setting of the movie where the high class areas of the town is inhabited by the rich while the run down areas of Dublin is the home of criminals. Consequently, it is from these deprived areas that the criminal, Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) comes from. This is depicted by Cahill’s rise from his poor origins in the Holyfield’s buildings (Lance, 2004).
Gender and Crime
Ireland, until recently, has always been considered to be a highly patriarchal country with women occupying much diminished positions in the society. This is evident in many movies that were produced in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, patriarchy was practiced in every sphere of life as the benefits were available in job opportunities under paid employment, the family and even the state. Irish women, regardless of their age, life stage and class position, and regardless of how they defined themselves, were surrounded by structural and cultural barriers which defined them as women. Patriarchy has been defined as “a set of social relations between men who have a material base, and who, though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women” (Lydia, 1981).
In the movie, The General, the crime genre is specifically associated with a particular kind of patriarchal masculinity. Consequently, men are the ones who form criminal gangs and carry out criminal activities. Women are not in this role as they are considered weak and incapable of managing or being the perpetrators of the brutality that some of these roles may require them to do. This trend is similar to the early Hollywood movies, in which only men could play the lead roles of being criminal gangsters. According to Lance Pettit, the gangster’s world is a homosocial one, and the subservient roles of wives or otherwise referred to as ‘molls’ of classical gangsters, is carried into these Irish variants, where the gangsters’ wives perform purely basic domestic duties as seen in the movie. Similarly, even where women are reduced to wife material and restricted to performing purely domestic duties, they do not get any respect from their gangster husbands, as those continually and freely engage with single ladies in gambling, drinking, doing drugs and enjoying prostitute sex. However, Martin Cahill has been represented in different light by other criminals in the movie. He is given a human value, being a man who loves spending time at home with his family. This character endears him to the audience; he is also a pigeon-fancier who is content in a domestic environment (Lance, 2004). Women are therefore not associated with crime and their roles are reduced to being obedient and submissive wives. This aspect exalts and confirms the patriarchal nature of the Irish society. Thus the genre of crime is strictly associated with the male gender of the society while women play their roles as wives and girlfriends of the gangsters.
The Irish Society in the 1990s
The General incorporates several concepts in the movie, all of which have been mentioned in the paper, that are a representation of the type of the Irish society from the 1990s. Being a country that was under the British Colonial Empire, the movie exhibits a number of characteristics that indicate the existence of British influence on the culture and traditions of Ireland. However, despite this influence, certain aspects are clear as to the status of the country in the 1990s period. The role played by Martin Cahill represents many ideals that are realities for the Irish society.
Firstly, the tradition and culture of the society is shown by Cahill’s character of being a strong traditionalist. He abhors foreign cultures and almost always depicts the character that could be associated with a pagan despite the strong Catholic influence in the country. Ireland has always been an occupied country, first by the British during the colonial period, then by the Catholic Church. The role of the church has been repressive and has inhibited the growth and development of the Irish country to its full potential. It is this repressive nature that Cahill fought against and as thus it can be said that he resisted the abrasive nature of the church. The traditional nature of the Irish society is shown in the movie through the usage of grammatical constructions and expressions that are familiar to the Irish society. Cahill is similarly shown as a tribal Celtic Chieftain and this represents a large section of the Irish society.
The Irish society in 1990s and prior to the 1990s, was a large patriarchal society as stated above. Although this may not be expressively depicted in the movie, the mere absence of women in major roles is a clear indication of how patriarchal the society was while producing the film. The strongest protagonist in enforcing this state of female marginalization is Catholic Church. The church, being the unchallenged authority in the country, provided the ideological basis for sexual repressions which ensured the pattern of late marriages and what came to be called ‘permanent celibacy’, which was to become the norm in Ireland right up to the second half of the 20th century. This is captured in the movie in the roles given to women as being girlfriends and wives of the gangster groups. Moreover it is also seen in female roles as being sexual objects used to provide sex to the gangsters for enjoyment purposes. Another societal aspect that comes up in the movie is the influence of interaction with other cultures on Irish . This is the aspect of cross-cultural exchange which plays a critical role in the movie to make it successful. Firstly, the director exhibits a lot of American influence and this is shown in a lot of scenes borrowed from American style and execution. The movie exhibits Hollywood formulations and expressions by representing in American and British forms. This is used to show the amount of influence that the Irish society was under in the 1990s as they were represented in media, education, health and even culture.
In looking at cross-cultural exchanges, it is also important to note the use of an actor in the movie who was not of Irish origin. This can be used to show that the Irish society of 1990s was a society that still required help in different areas of their development such the economy, the medical sector, the film industry and even the education sector. Through these cross-cultural exchanges, the Irish culture then suffered an increased influence.
The General highlights the growth of the Irish film industry in the production of high quality, deeply educative and entertaining movies, with the ability to compete with those of Hollywood and Britain. The General tells us a story of a society that straddles between foreign influence and its own traditional culture, a society that is breaking away from the institutionalized corruption and the fight against organized crime and criminal activity. The movie shows the effect of poverty onto the society and the impact of class wars. It is a movie that exalts the criminal protagonist but is quick to remind the society not to emulate his behavior. It also shows the state of women in the society and how marginalized they were. The General brings to the fore the importance of education for children as it is the lack of it that influenced Martin Cahill to become a serious criminal in the history of Ireland. In assessing The General, it is important to note the role that every institution has to play in the fight against crime.The underlying theme of the movie is perhaps that no one can be above the law. In the end, the law catches up with every wrong doer and deals with him.. This movie is perhaps the leading one of all criminal genre movies.