Ciara Chambers, University College Cork (UCC)
9 May 2023
When the curtain fell John hoped that his life would flash before his eyes just like so many people had said in films and books. In this flurry of images, he hoped to glimpse the missing pieces, all of the moments and faces that were concealed for him in his waking life.
Tantalisingly mysterious, Hole in the Head is simultaneously utterly original and self-consciously cineliterate. An ode to obsolete audiovisual formats (small-gauge film, analogue video, tape), the film effectively combines the conventions of narrative with experimental form. A dizzying array of textures is deftly interwoven by director Dean Kavanagh and producer Anja Mahler. The film is a spellbinding celebration of the image and its extricable link to an enlightened understanding of the human condition. It tells the story of John, a cinema projectionist who has no memory of his life before his seventh birthday when his parents disappeared, leaving only home movies and his father’s photographic collection behind. John, who hasn’t spoken since the disappearance, hires actors to restage the 16mm family films in an attempt to unlock his past.
The film’s labyrinthine bricolage of formats and modes of viewing makes it a clever (and often darkly comedic) reflection on the essence of spectatorship. Its exquisite cinematography is full of painterly landscapes overlaid with immersive soundscapes. The placing of John in epic natural settings neatly symbolises the complex question of nature versus nurture in identity formation. This train of thought is expanded upon through John’s constant association with equipment – film cameras, tape recorders and the mechanical voice emanating from the phone he uses to type his sentences. Kavanagh’s composition is also masterful; each shot is beautifully framed and every sumptuous interior presented with an impeccable mise-en-scène. Every object, every colour, every word, every image in this film are expertly constructed – nothing is redundant – and the result is captivating from beginning to end. In a film with performativity at its core, the actors offer accomplished, nuanced and intricate performances. There are countless reminders of the constructed nature of the audiovisual – edits in camera, a slip of the needle on vinyl, video distortion, static and white noise – all of these point to the mediated nature of what we see and hear and the precarious lifespan of obsolete formats. It is striking that the protagonist appears to die in a cinema while he watches a piece of film crack and burn out of existence on screen. There are many such reflexive interactions between the filmer and the filmed, the creator and spectator, where the roles are interchangeable and the viewer must realign their perception of what is unfolding.
The film’s cinematic allusions are wide and diverse, from Michael Powell’s story of perverse image-making by both father and son in Peeping Tom (1960), to Bill Morrison’s experimental tribute to decaying cinema Decasia (2002). There are nods to the lone hero of the Western, grappling with an individual quest against forbidding but beautiful landscapes, and the head-exploding moments are undoubtedly Cronenbergesque. It is also reminiscent of the work of Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley. Egoyan places video at the centre of complex family dynamics in Next of Kin (1984) and Family Viewing (1987) while Polley controversially staged Super 8 films using actors in order to solve the real-life mystery of the identity of her father in Stories We Tell (2012). In his independent spirit, Kavanagh also been influenced by Co. Down-based amateur filmmakers the Spence brothers. Twin brothers Roy and Noel Spence have garnered a cult following (and many awards) for their prolific catalogue of B-movie-inspired films which they screen in their non-commercial cinemas, utopian spaces of filmic heritage. Kavanagh himself has written about how these spaces are constructed like Frankenstein’s monsters “using cannibalised artefacts of the now defunct or ‘deceased’ cinema theatres of their youth.” Hole in the Head reminded me of another important amateur filmmaker, Terence McDonald, known for socio-political films often made in collaboration with John Hume. Alongside his documentary work, McDonald produced award-winning experimental films such as Nebelung and Zwischen, both made on 16mm in 1978 and both of which focus on image-making and cinema projection.
Kavanagh and Mahler worked with a collective of creatives and some scenes were shot in the Irish Film Institute, the heart of artistic cinema exhibition and film preservation in Ireland. We see both the public and private spaces of the IFI: the cinema screens, the basement archive and the preservation vaults. In one sequence John is positioned offscreen with an archivist, authentically played by real-life archive legend Manus McManus, also a cinephile of great distinction. We see a Steenbeck laced with what appears to be John’s home movies (one reel of 16mm film “spliced together from odd and ends”) while the archivist describes the complex nature of acquisition. Flickering shots of the vaults filled with cans of film and shelves of tapes serve as a reminder of personal and collective cinematic heritage, essential for both family myth-making and nation-building.
The crux of the film for me is a heart-stopping moment where two hands are joined across different formats and timeframes through a cine camera. We see John in the present day setting up his 16mm camera, positioned to shoot a painterly landscape evocative of the work of another independent and aesthetically-awe-inspiring image maker, Patrick Carey. As the camera whirrs, John moves his hand in front of it; there is a cut from digital video to cinefilm, from John’s hand to what we are led to believe is the hand of his mother. As Barry Monahan has suggested, “the cinematic medium is ideally constructed for the symbolic capturing of memory” and within this function, the hand may constitute “a character’s means of accessing personal recollections, and the psychic trigger concurrently becomes the site wherein the memories reside” (2022: 127). The symbolic function of two hands performing the same gestures across generations and formats creates an achingly nostalgic moment that seems to capture everything that we seek in trying to understand our existence. In this way the film is profoundly philosophical, questioning identity, familial relationships and the significant place occupied by image making in the contemporary world.
The textural and temporal move from the digital video of the present to the 16mm cinefilm of the past.
In Kavanagh’s foray into narrative filmmaking he has not abandoned his experimental roots. This is, thankfully, not a film with a neat ending –we are warned at the beginning: “John Kline’s story is one of many unknowns.” As spectators, we watch but do not fully understand what we see; often meaning appears intriguingly just out of reach. As Godard once suggested: “He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” This is a brave and unique intervention into the Irish cinematic landscape (one funded by the Arts Council), and it is both exciting and inspiring to see its critical success. As Donald Clarke noted, it “shows there is space in Irish cinemas for the avant-garde” and it paves the way for other filmmakers to share experimental work unapologetically with “mainstream” audiences. Hole in the Head will no doubt make its way into the canon of Irish film (and the vaults of the IFI Irish Film Archive) and it is best enjoyed in the sacred space of the cinema.
Hole in the Head will screen at Seattle International Film Festival on 16th and 17th May 2023.
Clarke, Donald (2022) “Hole in the Head: An imaginative and infuriating cut from the edge of Irish cinema.” The Irish Times (August 6). https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/review/2022/08/12/hole-in-the-head-an-imaginative-and-infuriating-cut-from-the-edge-of-irish-cinema/
Kavanagh, Dean (2018). “Keep Watching the Skies: The Cinema of Roy Spence.” (July 18).
Monahan, Barry (2022). Hands on Film: Actants, Aesthetics, Affects. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Ciara Chambers is Head of the Department of Film & Screen Media, University College Cork, a council member of the International Association of Media and History, and co-PI of the AHRC/IRC-funded Make Film History, in partnership with Kingston University, BBC Archive Editorial, The Irish Film Institute, The British Film Institute and Northern Ireland Screen.
Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.