ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS
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With the release of his latest movie, the big-budget Hollywood comedy We’re No Angels, Irish writer/director Neil Jordan completes the latest phase in an occasionally wayward artistic odyssey. Trevor Johnston reports.
10The List 1—14June 1990
"01d father, old artiﬁcer, stand me now and ever in good stead. ’James Joyce.
James Joyce’s A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man ends with this plea for strength from the novel’s protagonist, aspiring writer Stephen Dedalus, as he faces the journey away from his Dublin home to face an uncertain but creative future in a foreign city. The surname Dedalus plays on the Greek myth of the old artzﬁcer Daedalus, he who fashioned the wings with which his son Icarus took ﬂight, but whose enterprise ended in a swift and watery descent when the sun melted the wax holding the apparatus together. In Joyce’s hands the old legend is shaped into a metaphor that underlines the need for the Irish artist to create a means of escape from the confines of his native environment but also emphasises the perils involved in so doing.
The notion is as true today as it has ever been, which is where novelist, screenwriter and director Neil Jordan comes in. Like many a gifted son of Erin before him, he’s left the oul’ sod to seek his artistic fortune, first of all in England, and latterly in Hollywood USA, where he’s just completed We’re No Angels. There the 39 year-old from Sligo found himselfdirecting Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, and working from an original screenplay by David Mamet. A farcical comedy set in the Thirties that has Bob and Sean as escaped convicts taking refuge in clerical garb at a bordertown seminary, it’s Jordan’s highest profile offering to date, but after the debacle that surrounded the previous Jordan opus High Spirits (a movie that can claim to be the ﬁlm-maker’s one and only unmitigated turkey), it’s also donning the status of something of a comeback.
Each and every Jordan release is of course awaited with more than a modicum ofeagerness, but on this occasion, in the wake of We’re No Angels’ mixed critical reception and indifferent US box office, one can also sense a sharpening of the knives. For the moment the Atlantic-hopping auteur knows all about that old Icarus feeling, the pernicious inkling ofparanoia that your wings just might be about to flop rather than flap.
Today he’s facing a motley crew of British journalists to promote the new movie, and you can tell that this particular activity is not high on Jordan’s personal list of exciting things to make and do. Fidgety, initially monosyllabic, he continually shifts in his seat. Casting the most quizzical of frowns at the more inane queries, he looks for all the world like the kind of ciggy-puffing bundle of tousled Celtic shabbiness more accustomed to regaling the inside of a snug with all manner of restless, mind-expanding blether.
With a mild shrug he admits to being “well aware of all the horror stories you hear about working for the studios’ before he took on We’re No Angels, a Paramount Pictures’ production, budgeted in excess of $22 million, that saw the Irishman
undertaking the whole compromise-intensive process of working in the huge Hollywood fantasy factory for the first time. Jordan, of course, had every reason to be wary, for it had been the American co-producers of High Spirits who’d shaped the movie into a final frantically unfunny form that bore little resemblance to its maker‘s original intentions (”I would gladly have done serious damage to people’s joints’ remains his seething assessment of the whole adventure).
He’s been much happier with the whole experience of putting together We’re No Angels. “Paramount were surprisingly supportive all the way,’ he explains. "Basically everyone knew what the film was that we were trying to make. The serious problems arise when people don’t actually reveal their intentions to you.
In this case, as the narrative follows hardened criminal types Bob and Sean’s efforts at remaining inconspicuous amidst the seminary’s air of academic spirituality, Jordan still seems ill-at-ease with the pacing ofquickfire comedy and there’s also been a strongly adverse reaction to the facial hyperactivity of De Niro‘s extremely broad comic mugging. Yet, the thematic core ofthe film, which shows how "these not particularly bad but not particularly good men almost in spite of themselves are led towards doing good’, retains a healthily mocking sense of cynicism towards the priesthood and a concentration on matters of religion and faith that mark it out as somehow a very Irish film indeed.
One shouldn’t however forget that We’re No Angels can also be viewed as a kind of companion piece to David Mamet’s (from a Jewish background in Chicago, by the way) previous movie Things Change, where dapper Don Ameche‘s humble shoe-shine Gino is a kind of secular holy fool whose seemingly innate goodness eventually leads him to triumph over the unscrupulous Mafia henchmen seeking to frame him for a murder. The pattern in We're No Angels, internalises that very same tension between innocence and experience. as Sean Penn’s character in particular, when faced by the devotional atmosphere of the seminary, begins to question the waywardness of his worldy misconduct and hesitantly articulates his spiritual needs. The irony in the piece is that this runaway crook’s tussle with his beliefs seems much more earnest than that of the clerics spending their lives in full-time worship.
"It’s an anti-religious parable about redemption,’ explains Jordan, here working for the first time from someone else’s screenplay. "Which
was wonderful because what people want from religion (and what it never gives them) is the whole centre of their characters. Sean makes a wonderful speech at the end which expresses the whole thing. It’s about why people want to believe, and why the systems that are meant to give them belief never deliver. But, you
know, ifthey really want to believﬂ then what’s wrong with that?’
Look at the rest of his career and you’ll understand why Jordan could be attracted to such a project. Throughout his career in print and on the screen, the whole area of looking for a transcendent something that will both uplift and make more bearable our workaday experience IS a consistent concern.
In the early writing. it’s there in the existential headrush felt by the youngster blowing his dad’s battered Selmer sax in A Night In Tunisia the title story from his award-winning 1979 collection. One discovers a similar outline in the lushly erotic. animalistic fantasy landscape of his arresting second novel The Dream OfA Beast ( 1983) that was later to find a cinematic correlate in the lycanthropic adolescent sexual angstfest The Company of Wolves. Of his film output. both Angel( 1982) and 1986’s Mona Lisa feature central characters (Stephen Rea, Bob Hoskins) whose attraction towards a female figure ofcssentially innocent beauty helps them survive a visionary journey through an underworld of lacerating emptiness with their shambling integrity intact.
There‘s a line ofthought that marks this all down as part of the territory of hailing from the Emerald
Isle. "The Irish psyche is actually impatient with reality.’ Jordan reﬂected in a recent American interview. "You know there's a great quotation that it refuses to subject itselfto the tyranny offact. And it’s true. It’s much happier with lies than it is with truth. It’s much happier with inventions than it is with reality.‘
Living on the coast near Dublin allows him to explore the plentiful contradictions of the national character in full. Next door is the house where much of the action in Joyce‘s Portrait of The Artist actually took place, a fine location for an Irish artist to replay the old drama of exile and return. and to take stock of his own little set of conﬂicts. His current project is a modest "Oedipal film with very few actors’ to be shot in Ireland. so for the moment he’s chosen a small-scale personal film on this side of the big pond. as opposed to a megabudget assignment in Tinseltown.
He seems to want to leave his sense of creative identity suitably unresolved, but he doesn’t seem particularly chirpy on it. "There‘s a problem in that once directors start making bigger budget movies, particularly in America they find it very difficult to go back to smaller pieces. For one thing there‘s less money involved. and the kind of profile given to a studio movie is something you might miss at times. But I tell myselfthat’s what I have to do because I‘m not American.‘
Remember the old song Glad To Be Unhappy? It would make a great Irish national anthem.
We’re No Angels opens at the Cannon Sauchiehall Street and the UCI Clydebank on Fri 1 June and plays the Edinburgh Odeon a week later. See Film Listings for full details.