September 16, 2004

Through the Ether

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I am fully aware that the above title could very well be the name of a Trent Reznor song. I’ve been functioning on minimal sleep and suffering from a systematically deteriorating left hemisphere of my brain, so cut me some goddamn slack. Besides, don’t even try to deny that in sixth grade you were a Nine Inch Nails fan. Yes, you thought The Downward Spiral was Sgt. Pepper, that the middle school bedroom lyrics were Keats, and you were engrossed in uncovering the multilayered metaphors and deconstructionist overtones of wanting to fuck another like an animal.

As long as we’re on the subject of Trent Reznor and ’90s industrial pop, I have to confess that I’ve been suffering from a bad case of trans-pubescent nostalgia lately. Not only was there a bevy of angst in the face of a booming economy and soaring job market, but there was some great art produced over those confusing years. And, contrary to popular belief, there were viable and influential films outside of Pulp Fiction. At the peak of my deliriously wistful fever, I revisited one of the finest films to come out of ’90s world cinema — Ratcatcher. Finally, Trent Reznor’s industrial grime makes an appropriate transitional fugue.

As for the aforementioned beautiful decay, I’ve never a film to which that statement would provide a more appropriate summation. Made in 1998, Ratcatcher was the debut work of Lynne Ramsay, a former still photographer turned film student, whose thesis film, “Small Deaths,” received a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Her training as a still photographer is evident throughout, as each shot seems to stand alone as static composition, inhabiting a world unto itself.

And such a fragmented approach is appropriate to the narrative, which in itself is loosely connected. We meet James Gillepsie (William Eadie), a boy growing up in working class Glasgow with an alcoholic father and an absence of authority. In the opening sequence, while playing at a garbage canal, James accidentally pushes his friend into the water, causing him to drown. It is an incident to which Ramsay prescribes no blame or sympathy, and an action that James scarcely has the faculties to comprehend. He knows he has violated nature, disrupted life, but his immaturity prevents him from telling anyone, let alone confronting it himself. The horror of this event weighs on him like a stone, it’s echoes visible in his eyes throughout the film.

What ensues is a haunting and lyrical meditation on life, death, waste, and adolescence. James’s world is literally one of filth — the film is set during Scotland’s national garbage worker’s strike in the 1970s. Play yards become saturated heaps of trash and debris litters the spaces of childhood. Games like football are replaced by savage hunts for rats and the search through bags for the carcasses of dead dogs. The aforementioned canal, shimmering and reflective if only because of its pollutants, stains the landscape like a terrible scab, a winding remnant of dead tissue.

But never have I seen urban decay rendered to such a breathtaking effect, to the point of being more lyrical than actual, natural beauty. Taking obvious influence from Terrence Malick (whose The Thin Red Line was the best film of the ’90s, but that’s another discussion), Ramsay turns the earthy tones and gray world of Glasgow into a veritable tone poem. The garbage canal becomes a luminous setting. In one shot, Ramsay tracks along one bank as James dashes down the other, catching the reflection of his motion on the surface of the trash-filled water.

In a decade whose films were typified by their volume and speed (see Pulp Fiction), Ratcatcher relishes in silence. Ramsay takes us to empty spaces, using the rhetoric of her camera to inject soliloquies into the scenery. When James sneaks into a housing development still under construction that his family dreams of moving into, Ramsay follows him through the empty space of the house as he sits in the bathtub, practices brushing his teeth at the sink, and urinates in the unconnected toilet. Or when James and his friend Margaret Anne sit nude in a bath together, the only dialogue being their seemingly endless laughter. Moments like these become achingly gorgeous, filling the screen with a sublime comfort.

Ramsay most recently went on to make Morvern Callar, perhaps just as visually engaging, but too disparate in its narrative. Ratcatcher still remains the great achievement of her young career, and one of the great films to come out of the ’90s. Decay has never looked so alive before or since.

Archived article by Zach Jones