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Dean Kavanagh: The Memory of Water

Maximilian Le Cain

First published: Experimental Conversations, Issue 9, Summer 2012

Dean Kavanagh is Irish cinema’s best-kept secret. Although still in his early twenties, this solitary cinematic poet can already boast of a prolific body of short films, 26 to date, that displays both a personal sensibility and a precision of technique developed far in advance of what most filmmakers have achieved with a lifetime of work behind them. Based in a small town in Co. Wicklow, working alone, without budgets and with casts more often than not drawn from his family, Kavanagh is a melancholy visionary of brooding isolation. His obscure narratives tend to focus either on the private rituals of home life or mysterious journeys to or from ‘home’, to or from memory. Memory seems to be the essence of his cinema, or, more specifically, the flimsiness of the divide between the intensity of the impression of a given moment and its memory, with the mechanics of image-making providing the solution in which these two states are dissolved. His is unquestionably a cinema of contemplation: places, objects, faces, atmospheres and their immediate emotional charge are his stock in trade. Rather than telling stories in any traditional sense, his best films generate a slow, throbbing ache that invades and haunts his viewers. His world is rainswept, claustrophobic, fixated on details, with even his urban images steeped in rural gloom. As for the faces, Kavanagh is a cinematic portraitist whose close-ups have a depth, patience and searching power equal to any created by Philippe Garrel in the ‘80s. Like Garrel’s, Kavanagh’s films are ‘sad and proud of it‘.

And yet there is an overriding mysteriousness present that prevents them from becoming abject or mere wallows, an elusive, lucid and disturbingly alien organizing principle at work that refuses to explain itself. Something so uncomfortably personal that it could perhaps never be truly expressed, certainly not in interpersonal terms, but which finds itself reflected in his cinematic syntax. Kavanagh seems to hide himself in his films, leaving an evocative collection of hints and clues but ultimately no key to discerning whose fingers are rifling these family images, whose breath it is that the audience feels so vividly on the back of its neck. This sense of mystery is becoming more pronounced and more sinister as his work develops. The bittersweet romanticism that was so present in many of his earlier films (exemplified by The Young Man [2008] and the superb Poor Edward [2009]) kept this aspect at bay, but as his work has become more abstract and moved away from the theme of the couple (lovers or friends), it has curdled and darkened, becoming increasingly preoccupied with its own voyeurism.

Kavanagh’s official filmography begins in 2006 (although he had been experimenting with video from a young age) and finds its first major flourishing in 2008 during which year he completed no fewer than eleven works. The major formal and thematic strands that run throughout his oeuvre are already present. Memory Room (2008) might in some ways be minor Kavanagh, but it’s a good place to start. First, there’s the unparallelled sensitivity to the smothering stickiness of rain. No one else can shoot a mucky day with the cloying vividness of Dean Kavanagh. So often, rain is used in film to heighten drama, as exemplified by Akira Kurosawa. But Kavanagh’s rain hangs so heavily that it becomes astonishing anything can so much as move under it.

The typically wordless Memory Room shows a middle-aged man entering what feels like an uninhabited house. He looks through some papers: an old death notice and what appears to be a teenager’s notebook, its pages covered in a list of band names. He is moved by what he finds, apparently lost in memory. The film ends with a poignant, lengthy tracking shot of a teenage boy running down a suburban pavement in extreme slow motion. Kavanagh’s short synopsis for his later film The Distance (2010) is: ‘A young man recalls a fishing trip from his childhood, but he is not sure if they are his memories‘. There isn’t a lot in the 2010 film to either confirm or reject this description, to the point that it might even be a red herring in keeping with the oddly elusive character of Kavanagh’s work. But ‘he is not sure if they are his memories‘ could be applied as a key to much in Kavanagh’s filmmaking that finds its most explicit expression in Memory Room. Is the man perhaps the dead boy’s father? Is it the boy who’s dead? Is the boy the man in younger years? If so, there is no attempt to disguise the anachronism of the boy’s 21st century dress and surroundings. The answer is that it doesn’t matter; what Kavanagh is doing is creating a cinematic construct to depict memory in abstract terms, with objects within the diegesis (here the papers the man looks through) prompting our reading of Kavanagh’s assemblage of images, here the rather obvious image of the boy running. This template would be refined until it reached the astonishing level of mystery and sophistication of Kavanagh’s masterpiece to date, Light From An Old Town(2011).

The reverent fixation on old objects, especially photographic relics, reflects a wider aspect of Kavanagh’s work, which is the way it stands slightly aside from time. All of his films are clearly set today, but the present is never an objective cultural one, rather a level of existence defined by private longings and perceptions. The films, and presumably the characters within them, exist in relation to their often opaque inner hauntings and the images around them, be they landscapes, faces, photographs or moving images. This condition allows for these elements to dictate time instead of being subject to it. This temporal blurring is most clearly foregrounded in another work from 2008, The Young Man. This touching and slightly forlorn record of a private ritual, shot (like most of Kavanagh’s films) in black and white, opens and closes with a close-up of an old opera record (significantly reprised in The Distance) playing on a turntable. The film lasts the length of the aria. The Young Man shines his shoes, stands before a mirror shaving, and knots his tie, preparing to go out. He is filmed only in tight close ups, surrounded in deep shadows so that, until the film’s last moments, it is impossible to tell if we have found ourselves in the early 20th or early 21st century. Only when he leaves the house does Kavanagh move to a long shot, revealing the Young Man’s jacket to be modern. It also shows him vanishing into a sinister nocturnal void, heavy with clouds and illuminated only by one ugly and very modern streetlight briefly visible at the side of the frame. The passage from private to public space is articulated as a passage through time, or from an image subject to personal control which is erased by the threat of external reality.

Two more of his crop of 2008 efforts announced significant aspects of his work. The excellent The Girl With The Straw Hat, a very short, fomalistic effort introduces a slightly uncomfortable strain of voyeurism which would sometimes recur. A hidden stills camera watches a young girl in a straw hat painting a bench in a sunny garden through a curtained window. Then there are two young girls in straw hats. Then it is revealed that one of the girls is taking the pictures; then both girls are inside. Variations ensue and even the opening title card is repeated. The bounds between image and image-maker, self and other, self and image are cleverly erased and time in the instant of making an image is stretched to the full extent of its possibilities. Or, at least, this is suggested. The Antonioni-esque 3 Over 4, shot in colour, demonstrates Kavanagh’s natural assurance at filming people absorbed by and in landscapes at a leisurely pace. In this instance, a brooding man is seen wandering by a roadside, through a bright yellow field of flowers and by a river, before returning home and making himself some food. The man is played by filmmaker Rouzbeh Rashidi, who was something of a mentor to Kavanagh at this stage in his career.

Kavanagh completed two outstanding works in 2009. They not only saw him attain maturity as a filmmaker but represent two often mixed tendencies in his cinema in clearer contradistinction than elsewhere. We can broadly define these as Kavanagh the Garrelian in Poor Edward and Kavanagh the Godardian in Early Hours of The Morning. An- as ever- narratively obscure but emotionally charged voyage to the end of the night, heavy with intimations of a ruptured relationship, the gorgeous Poor Edward is Kavanagh’s most relentlessly rain-sodden film. Dominated by the impressive, enigmatic presence of actress Julia Gelezova, Kavanagh’s black and white images savour textures and details of hours passing in a rural house as something is possibly being lost forever. Mention must also be made of the filmmaker’s always impressive sound design, here particularly noticecable. The colour Early Hours of the Morning sees Kavanagh, appearing onscreen, situate himself at the centre of a world collaged from still and moving images, home movies and found footage including shots appropriated from a film by Rashidi.

(M) (2010) and Detritus (2011) continue in the vein of Poor Edward but with more conspicuous elegance and a slightly lighter touch. November (2011) had a troubled production and doesn’t live up to its ambitions. The Man in Autumn (2010), on the other hand, is a miniature gem that unfolds in just four raw shots, each stretched into extreme slow motion. A lonely man watches a man and a woman interact by a river. The two shots of the man, played by Paul Dowling, are unforgettable, especially his first close up, with his face half off the bottom of the screen, staring like a wounded, unhinged bird of prey.

Throughout 2010 and 2011, Kavanagh made three films which consolidated his mastery. The Distance, Last Sunday (2011) and Light From An Old Towneach bring an aspect of his work previously explored to a new level of accomplishment. The crystalline sharpness of their DSLR colour photogrpahy lends them a cool, hyperreal quality that distances them from the grungy warmth of the various domestic or prosumer equipment Kavanagh had mostly employed previously. The Distance uses the totemic presence of an old object/sound (a record player, as in The Young Man) to infect reality with a uniquely ambiguous quality of memory. Last Sunday is a study of another young man (Kavangh’s brother and frequent leading man, Leon) spending time in his family home. Like many of Kavanagh’s films, it is wordless, transmitting the character’s impressions of place and atmosphere to the viewer. But this time the director registers these impressions with such exquisite precision that it almost hurts.

Impressive as these films are, it is Light From An Old Town that best expresses Kavanagh’s preoccupations. A man, as usual brooding over some inner anguish that we are not privy to, is on a nocturnal car journey. When he stops for petrol, a mysterious man he might or might not know shows him some old photographs that might or might not be related to him. Old video footage, apparently home movies from the ‘70s, landscapes and ghostly figures, punctuate his journey into the morning. The subtle rhythm of the film is hypnotic, creating an eerie, private mental space of recollection that doesn’t require the narrative hints of Memory Room. It is images stained with memory that carry the ‘light from an old town’ into a present always sensitized to absorb and reflect their aura, to ‘develop’ them through time.

After the almost neurotically tight craftmsmanship of this trilogy, Kavanagh’s more recent works are looser, freer. Good Evening (2012) is a simple self-portrait that manages to be both poignant and unsettling. Kavanagh himself is seen wandering around a rural graveyard, a ruined house, playing with some horses in a field. Then, at home, he has some tea and is next seen projecting erotic images from a film by Jose Larraz on to his body. The contrast between internal and external being is acutely identified. More elaborate, mysterious and exciting is Abandon (2012) which seems as much a statement of intent as a title. If its episodic structure feels more hit-or-miss than most of Kavangh’s recent work, it also feels like a liberating search for new forms. The magically luminous first five minutes, images of Kavangh’s sisters in a garden, are perhaps the most stunning Kavangh has ever shot. And the genuinely creepy Nocturnum (2012) seems to rework old footage, creating a nightmarish vision of teenage home life, drinking, dressing up, strange plays with Barbie doll casts. Its images are a return to the grungy black and white of some of his earliest works.

In recent months, Kavanagh has also been working on his first feature, a film called A History of Water, which he intends to finish this year. When I asked Dean about the project and its title, the first thing he did was to point out that water is supposed to contain a form of memory. This encapsulates his cinema better than anything: a fluid, mutable, translucent, reflective, distorting non-human agent of memory that runs throughout his films, often soaking his actors. Distilled memory. So that’s why it’s always raining…

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