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May 16, 2010

Non-Influences & Drinking From The Same Lemonade Stand

I think it was James Ponsoldt who first asked me if Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher was an influence on St. Nick. I told him I hadn't seen it. He then asked if I'd seen Victor Erice's The Spirit Of The Beehive, to which I also professed ignorance (in fact, I don't know if I'd ever even heard of that film at the time - one of those pictures that had inexplicably fallen through the cracks of my cinematic consumption). That was eight months or so before St. Nick premiered, after which I heard those same two titles named again and again in reference to my film. I assumed that, in tone and subject matter, they might be somewhat similar; I hoped not so similar that people thought I was a ripping them off, but nonetheless, I continued to plead sincere innocence and press forward under the belief that my vision of childhood was my own.

It was, of course, not. During a recent week in which I discovered the unheralded satisfaction of watching films immediately upon waking, I decided to give Ratcatcher its due. At first I wasn't worried. Tonally and stylistically, it occasionally dovetailed towards a pursuit similar to my own, but beyond that it was not the same film...

...at least until a certain sequence hit, about halfway through, wherein Ramsay's young hero happens upon an abandoned building. Suddenly, I felt like I was watching - well, not my own film, but a film that I might have once seen and absorbed and forgotten about and then subconsciously reconstituted into my own work. For one thing, there's the abandoned building as a symbol of a young boy's wants and desires; but beyond that there are the details, little fragments, things one might seize upon and preserve. The moment where the boy pees in the broken toilet, for example. It's a charming, offhand detail in Ramsay's film, and it shows up in St. Nick, too, but as a scene unto itself, painted in rigorous chiaroscuro - which is precisely how memories will often render the most casual of things.


Which, I reminded myself, is the overall difference between her film and mine. "A boy's story is the best that is ever told," Charles Dickens once wrote, and Ramsay took the implicit meaning of that quote and pasted it across a broad social context, while I eschewed context entirely and burrowed inward. Hence, the same image rendered as a verite fragment and as a crystallized portrait.

But in the very next second, on the screen, the boy absconded through the window, running headlong into the outlying fields of golden wheat, and suddenly I felt like I was actually watching my own movie. Aside from issues of filmstock and focal lengths, this scene could be seamlessly intercut with an early one in St. Nick. You can even tell that they were shot in a similar fashion, with a handheld camera plunging headlong after an actor let loose to his own whims.

ratcatcher_stnick1.jpg ratcatcher_stnick3.jpg

Later in the film, the boy's younger sister crawls into bed with him, throwing her arm around his neck. He shrugs her off at first, but she persists. The framing and lighting is similar to the children's first night in the old house in St. Nick, and the content calls to mind the later scene when the boy doesn't want to sleep with her any longer. In both films, hints of burgeoning sexuality precede and color the interaction. There's even a cut to a nearly identical close-up of the sister, drifting off to sleep...


I don't mean to catalog the similarities between Ratcatcher and St. Nick - for indeed, by and large the films are still distinct and different - but simply to marvel at the fact that I had not seen Ramsay's film prior to making my own. There must be something to the collective spirit of childhood that imposes certain choices upon those trying to evoke it. Certain images, certain textures, certain gestures, certain broke-down porcelain, and all those fields stretching rolling outside of every window.

Those same fields make an appearance in The Spirit Of The Beehive, which I watched the next morning. There were no alarming moments of recognition this time; instead, I found a comforting sense of esprit de corps. This film exists on a parallel plane to mine, but there are no direct points of intersection, nothing to make me think anything other than that, should my film be thought of alongside this one in the pantheon of great films about children, I'll bear that honor proudly. The same goes for Ratcatcher, which is just as much a masterpiece, and which I'll never be able to consider with the same sense of detachment. Sometimes you watch a film and wish you made it, and I guess sometimes you watch one and realize you already did. It's a curious thing indeed.

Posted by David Lowery at May 16, 2010 10:27 PM


Wow, amazing! Great post. I still have not seen The Ratcatcher, but I love her shorts on that DVD.

Posted by: tom at May 17, 2010 2:30 PM