The Cinema of Neil Jordan: Dark Carnival

July 3, 2008

Quite a few film directors have written novels - Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Erich von Stroheim, to name some of the most eminent - but it's rare for an established novelist to sidestep into film directing and make a career of it. Neil Jordan's first fictional publication, the short-story collection Night in Tunisia (1976), won him The Guardian Fiction Award, and when he followed it up in 1979 with an equally well-regarded novel, The Past, his future as a leading Irish novelist seemed secure.

But in 1982, having been bitten by the movie bug while working as a script consultant on John Boorman's Arthurian fantasy Excalibur, Jordan made his own directorial debut with Angel. Since then he has directed 15 or so films but has published only three more novels, and has become far better known as a director than as a writer.

Even so, he has scripted, or co-scripted, almost all his films, and has brought to them a density and complexity that could well be called novelistic, were it not a term that carries overtones of "talkie". Jordan's dialogue, on the contrary, is lean and evocative, and his films never lack visual flair and acuity.

In this, the first book-length study of Jordan's films (beating Maria Pramaggiore's volume in the Contemporary Film Directors series by a matter of weeks), Carole Zucker is fully alive to the conceptual richness and dark intensity of Jordan's work. At times, indeed, a little too much so. So concerned is she to bring out the multilayered resonance of the films that they risk becoming obscured by the thickets of multicultural cross-reference she plants around them, the disquisitions on Celtic twilight, Jungian archetypes and the mythopoeic structure of folk tales, the citations from Wordsworth and Blake, the lengthy quotes from Ernest Jones and Northrop Frye and a good deal else.

Still, if any film-maker's oeuvre can withstand this kind of academic overkill it would be Jordan's, offering as it does a rich mine for exposition. He is, as Zucker points out, "a director who has a deep investment in the mysterious shadow side of humankind", and he himself has questioned "whether human beings answer to rational modes of thought or are inspired by things quite irrational and unknown to themselves". In working "to create stories that illuminate the soul rather than the brain", Jordan makes films possessed of a strong oneiric element, sometimes - as in The Company of Wolves or Interview with the Vampire - shading over into the explicitly supernatural.

Rather than trace the development of Jordan's work chronologically, Zucker examines it thematically, often pairing films that she sees as exploring a common nexus, such as parenthood (actual or surrogate) and fairy-tale archetypes in The Miracle and The Butcher Boy. The only films to receive short shrift are the ill-starred pair Jordan made in Hollywood early in his career: High Spirits and We're No Angels, both dismissed in the space of a paragraph as, respectively, a botched job by "producers from hell" and a doomed collaboration with David Mamet.

This apart, Zucker digs deep into the dark, sensual soil of Jordan's films, uncovering the tensions, obsessions and anxieties that germinate there. Occasionally, her enthusiasms lead her astray. The Good Thief is widely considered an unsubtle remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1956 classic Bob le Flambeur, but rather than address (and possibly refute) this view, she gets sidetracked by her evident crush on its star Nick Nolte, "a devastating talent... a lone wolf and a force of nature".

But as a pioneering study of one of the most original and audacious film makers currently working in the mainstream, this book upholds the standard of Wallflower Press's burgeoning Directors' Cuts series.

The Cinema of Neil Jordan: Dark Carnival

By Carole Zucker. Wallflower Press 224pp, £45.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9781905674428 and 411. Published March 2008

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