The New Cult Canon: Morvern Callar
by Scott Tobias
The New Cult Canon
Lynne Ramsay's 2002 film Morvern Callar was the inspiration for this column, because for all its bleakness and deliberate frustrations, I can think of no cooler movie. It's a wonder that theaters didn't have doormen standing behind velvet ropes, determining who was hip enough to step into its world of enveloping disaffection. Based on Alan Warner's novel, which was part of a brief flowering of Scottish literature in the wake of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, the film is an adaptation with a high degree of difficulty. It's one thing to adapt someone like James M. Cain, whose steamroller plots are action-packed and give off a lot of surface heat; it's another to capture a character's internal life, which is usually the exclusive province of novels. Working with a plot that could fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin, Ramsay has to rely almost entirely on cinematic effects—and Samantha Morton's revelatory performance—to decipher a woman who's so deep in an existential funk that her behavior is always curious and sometimes extraordinarily callous.
Before getting into the movie itself, a few words on Ramsay: To my mind, Lynne Ramsay is one of the most talented filmmakers in the world, even though she only has two features to her credit, and nothing since Morvern Callar. Ramsay has a background in photography, and in her movies, it's clear that she's a photographer first and foremost. Each frame is immaculately composed, and unusually focused on the minute details that are more characteristic of photographers than film directors, who are usually concerned with the bigger picture. After making a series of acclaimed short films, Ramsay shot her stunning 1999 debut Ratcatcher, which might have been another piece of UK kitchen-sink miserablism if not for Ramsay's extraordinary eye for finding poetry in the everyday. (Incidentally, three of Ramsay's shorts are collected as bonus features on Criterion's Ratcatcher DVD.) Though Ratcatcher wallows in the horrific world of its 12-year-old protagonist—a Glaswegian apartment-dweller in the early '70s who lives in the stinking squalor of a garbage strike—it nonetheless has moments of real beauty. As I said in my review of the DVD, "Just when Ratcatcher seems overly content to bathe in Euro-art squalor, Ramsay counters with passages so breathtakingly lyrical and improbably optimistic that they shake off the oppressive pall that too often passes for hard realism."
In recent years, Ramsay has suffered some discouragement in getting her third film to the screen. She won the rights to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones while it was still an unpublished manuscript, and watched it slip away from her as the book became an unexpected phenomenon. True to form, Ramsay reportedly loved the grim premise for the book—about a little girl who's raped and killed, and then watches the aftermath from heaven—but disliked its second half, which she found too sentimental. She worked for more than a year to craft a screenplay more to her liking, but the rights eventually went to the all-powerful Peter Jackson, who's currently filming it for release next year. Ramsay was later attached to direct an adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver's brilliant book about a mother grappling with her son's Columbine-like rampage. To me, it sounds like the ideal fit, but that project appears to have died on the vine, since I've heard nothing on it since 2006. So for now, there's only Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, and hopefully a young filmmaker who isn't too discouraged to keep pushing new boulders up a hill.
For High Fidelity types like myself, the mix-tape has always been an important (if somewhat feeble) form of romantic expression, the pop-damaged equivalent of sending a bouquet of flowers. And Morvern Callar features the mix-tape to end all mix-tapes, with tracks from bands like The Velvet Underground, Can, Boards Of Canada, Broadcast, and Aphex Twin, among others. Morton's eponymous heroine receives her mix-tape in the cruelest fashion: As one in a series of Christmas gifts given by a boyfriend who has just committed suicide. (She also receives a leather jacket, a Walkman, and a lighter.)
As the film opens, Morvern is curled up on the floor next to her boyfriend's corpse, with Christmas lights pulsing like a disco around them. He's left her a note on her computer screen: He apologizes. He tells her he loves her. He encourages her to "be brave." He also leaves behind a completed novel and a list of possible publishers to solicit, as well as his ATM card for money to pay for the funeral. Clearly bruised by her boyfriend's cruel departure, Morvern doesn't follow through on the dead man's wishes, to put it mildly. She changes the byline on the novel to her name, and rather than using the cash from his bank account for a funeral, she buys tickets for her and her party-animal friend (and supermarket co-worker) Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) to vacation in Spain.
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