Towards a natural language of cinema: Island (Steven Eastwood, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews, Uncategorized

Steven Eastwood’s Island is a documentary about death and dying. It is set on the UK’s Isle of Wight, where we follow four main people, Alan, Jamie, Roy and Mary, as they suffer from terminal diseases.

The film is sensitive and beautiful, although surely it may not be for everyone given its subject matter and different people’s experiences of/with death and/or their attitudes towards it.

It is not that one can really give spoilers for a film that is about death and dying; the inevitable is bound to happen. And yet, I shall be discussing the last images of this film later on in this blog, so be warned that it does reveal in some respects how the film ends.

However, I would like to start with the opening image, which is of a ferry emerging from fog as it heads towards the Isle of Wight. For, what I wish to suggest in this blog is that cinema can offer us a natural language, not in the popular sense that everyone can more or less understand it, but in the sense that the world (nature) possesses a kind of language that is there for us to decipher if we so choose to. In this way, not only can cinema help paradoxically connect us to the natural world, but it can show us not just metaphors of the world, but a sense of its natural language. That is, cinema can be a system not just for symbols and meaning, but for a sort of folk or natural wisdom.

In order to take our first steps in this direction, let us consider the opening image. Fog is of course an indicator of mystery, and thus the arrival of the unknown, while the ferry signifies transition as one passes over the sea from one location to the next. Meanwhile, the sea itself suggests a realm that is more or less alien to the human. Yes, we can swim and we have invented submarines, but on the whole the depth of the ocean remains hard for humans to fathom. In this sense, the ocean represents a sort of alien presence, something along the surface of which we can drift, but down into which we cannot descend without often dying.

From its opening image, then, Island suggests the arrival of the unknown, almost invisible because shrouded in fog, and yet which is here perhaps to transport us into a new dimension.

We might say that the film therefore deals in metaphors, or at the very least that it offers us a specifically human perspective on matters (since fog is not necessarily mysterious to fog itself, just as the depths of the ocean are not alien to giant squids; that is, the meaning of fog is different to different species). Nonetheless, the film invites us to connect with the world presented in these images, and to read fog, the sea and a ferry not just in a literal sense, but in terms of what they mean… what they say to us about our own relationship with the world.

There is a discussion of fairies and then angels in the film. As the French philosopher Michel Serres might suggest, angels are evidence of and provide scope for us to perceive hidden dimensions within our world. It is not that we see cherubs with halos as per classical religious iconography. Rather, every encounter that we have and which allows us to see the world anew is in effect an encounter with an angel; marvelling over a gust of wind, overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, seeing an animal up close. In other words, angels open up new angles of the world, showing us hidden dimensions that lie within plain sight, and yet which often we do not see. To see an otherwise hidden dimension, then, is not suddenly to find secret realities in the sense of popular science fiction film. Rather, it is to realise how limited my vision is of reality when I do not notice animals for what they are, when I do not consider the importance of the wind and when I do not expect strangers to be kind. To be reminded of those things reveals to us the limited nature of our own vision, allowing us to see reality with fresh eyes, renewing us thanks to this encounter with the alien angel that takes us out of our fixed selves and in the process reminds us precisely that we are not fixed, but always changing. In this sense, an encounter with an angel is to experience time, to be in what Alan in the film describes as the now – rather than perceiving reality only in terms of what we want to get out of it (projecting the future on to the present) or in terms of how we have seen it in the past (projecting the past on to the present). To be in the presence of angels is to feel presence.

These hidden dimensions, then, are not hidden from the world; they are simply hidden from us owing to the limitations of our vision, limitations that are not just biological but also shaped by culture. These dimensions are, like the character of Nothing in Boris ‘s In Praise of Nothing (Serbia/Croatia/France, 2017), which also is in cinemas at present and which makes for an interesting companion to Island, around us at all times.

Death itself, then, is also an alien and mysterious other that we typically do not see, and yet which is perhaps always only ever with us. Indeed, if time is change, or becoming, then that which is at any given moment in time must die, and that which was not comes into existence, or is born. Death is everywhere and everywhen – and Island helps us to understand that.

For, humanity may fetishise the dry land of life, but it is only an island surrounded by death. But more than this, as the road leads directly into the sea without a clear cut-off point between the two, so does life lead into death and vice versa.

Indeed, as John Donne famously said, no man is an island. Humans are all porous, consistently excreting liquids and gases via their major orifices and through their very skin. Humans try to close themselves off in many ways – including via the way in which they cocoon themselves away from death. And yet they never succeed, since humans are always being opened up.

To become an island, to separate life from death, to shut oneself off from others is to be closed. To be open, though, is to have open eyes, an open mouth, to cry, to scream, in short to feel and thus to live, to be alive. To be alive is to be open to death. And to live is to be open to others in terms of both giving and receiving, to be an angel to all those around us just as all those around us can be angels to us.

The Greeks described the highest form of love as ἀγάπη, or ‘agape,’ and which consisted of charity: to be open to or to be an angel to others in the form of giving. As Alan dies, his mouth also lies agape; he is open, including being open to death.

More than this. As Alan dies we hear director Steven Eastwood begin to snore as he has fallen asleep in the room with Alan. It is oddly as if as Alan lies agape and breathes his last, Eastwood’s mouth itself falls open and he begins to receive Alan’s breath – as if the latter were an angel opening up Eastwood and the viewer of Island to new dimensions, to seeing that death is normal and everywhere and not a strange, alien object that we relegate to another dimension.

Remarkably, as Alan dies a nurse enters the room and stands in front of the camera, thereby making the film’s frame turn black. Alan’s open mouth has already been a black hole, a void, an impenetrable presence within the film’s frame – and now the whole frame goes black.

The nurse says that Alan is dead – before curiously saying that another breath may yet be drawn. The boundary between life and death is perhaps, like the human, itself porous. And darkness is not what lies beyond the frame or which cinema destroys by shining a light on to it; rather, darkness is within the frame.

Even if only by chance, then Island allows us to see the darkness that is not just there at night (and which through electric lighting we try to relegate and banish from our world, meaning that we cannot see the stars), but which perhaps also is always with us, like the void that is Alan’s open mouth.

That Eastwood sleeps – and perhaps dreams at this moment – also suggests the presence of an alien presence – not just in the sense that we might all be dreaming our lives away, but in the sense that sleep allows the brain unconsciously to store memories and so on, with dream perhaps consciously registering some of this process. As humans who bodies run more or less entirely unconsciously, we have hidden dimensions within ourselves that we do not know, which are alien to us, and yet which dream – in all of dreams’ senselessness – can reveal to us (notably Alan also discusses dreams in the film).

Owls appear at various points in the film. Steven Eastwood suggested that they have no metaphorical function within the film. But not only are they quite literally winged creatures within the film, but they also bear other qualities that bespeak a kind of natural affinity with death which means that humans will perhaps ‘naturally’ become curious about them as death becomes us.

It is not simply that owls are supposedly wise creatures. But owls also are associated with the night and seeing (in) the dark. More than this, the owl in various languages is considered to have an onomatopoeic root (‘owl’ is supposed to be not far from the bird’s call), with that root being a kind of harder ‘boo’ sound in various languages (Greek βύᾱς, Latin būbō, Spanish buhó, French hibou). In other words, as per the idea of shouting ‘boo!’ at someone or the concept of a sonic boom, the owl signals the sudden irruption of a hidden dimension within the world – with owls belonging to the order of strigiformes, with this term itself being derived from στρίγξ, or ‘strinx,’ meaning a screecher (as well as from the Latin strix, meaning a furrow, a channel or a groove, as if the owl clawed out new dimensions in old dimensions). As the Giant (Carel Struycken) says to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in Twin Peaks (David Lynch, USA, 1990), ‘the owls are not what they seem.’

In some senses, Island is a film about more or less unseen women preparing men for death. That is, the primarily women nurses on the Isle of Wight are angels helping men.

In this way, these angels who are open to death help to make men open to death – since it is the world of men that is the world most often closed off from death. The world of closure – man as separate from nature, man as separate from each other, man as wanting to expel darkness and death from existence in order to preserve itself forever rather than to become or to change – is thus also the world of patriarchy and capitalism. The nurses represent a different world, an open and caring world (that nonetheless increasingly in the UK is under attack as healthcare becomes increasingly privatised).

The film ends with shots of a television screen in which a documentary shows soil pushing forward fresh flowers, before the film cuts to Mary, before then ending.

Without necessarily even wanting to, then, Island suggests that with death comes rebirth and that this process is a female one. That openness to becoming is thus a more female process than it is a masculine one, even if men in death are helped by women to become open to what faces them.

(Notably, Mary had not died by the time that filming for Island had stopped.)

Thinking back to the owl, then, Island strictly (strix-ly) channels the reality that surrounds it. In this groove, we see a world in which the boundary between life and death becomes blurred, and in which a female perspective might help us to see through the patriarchal world of division and closure.

A couple of further thoughts remain.

Firstly, cotton plays a key role in the film as we see pyjamas, sheets and various other articles made of cotton covering much of the frame at various points.

What is more, we might reflect upon how if openness is in some senses a more ethical way of being with the world (being open to it, rather than shutting oneself off from it), then the film frame is always closed – a rectangular boundary separating what is in the frame from what is not in it. The frame of the cinematic image in some senses means that film only ever deals with metaphor.

Unless, that is, one breaks the frame – for example when Eastwood shares a cigarette with Alan, his hands coming into frame to hold it for him, or when we hear his voice. And of course when other figures come into frame, and when the participants in Eastwood’s documentary (perhaps including the owls) look directly at the camera and/or acknowledge the presence of their microphones.

What is more, the sheer duration of a good number of the shots – long, slow takes, with the film having only 140 or so shots in its 90-minute running time – also suggests a kind of out of the frame. Or at least an attempt to allow events to unfold at their own pace and not at that of the filmmaker. That is, reality determines the film rather than the film attempting to determine reality. By being open to this, the film does not simply offer us metaphors, but it allows the world to reveal itself and for us in some senses better to understand that world, since we see new and yet real dimensions within it, and thus come better to understand our relationship with it. If this is one of the major powers of cinema, then cinema can only do this by trying to get over or around the natural limit that is its frame – and to get us to think beyond the frame, just as Island wants us to see not just what is behind the fog, but the fog itself, and as it wants us to see not what the darkness conceals, but the darkness itself. A film that does this must be self-reflective or self-conscious, and this is truly the case with Island.

A final two thoughts.

Firstly, Isla is the name of Jamie’s daughter, whom we see singing songs from Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, USA, 2013). One wonders whether Isla, as a female representative of the future, is also a key aspect of the demonstrating that no man is an island, even if men try to make rocks and islands of themselves (as per ‘I Am A Rock’ by Simon and Garfunkel).

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Steven Eastwood (centre, with his name projected on to his head), talks with Island producer Elhum Shakerifar (left) and Chris Harris of Picturehouse Central (right) as Jamie Gunnell looks back from the screen at a preview showing of Island on 10 September 2018.

Secondly, in response to a question at a Q&A screening of Island at the Picturehouse Central on Monday 10 September 2018 and in which a viewer asked why the film did not give intertitles during or at the end explaining to audiences not just who the people in the film are, but what happened to them , Eastwood remarked  that he did not consider markers regarding names, dates and so on as being important to his project. Indeed, dates do not, it would seem, help us to understand a life.

And yet, there is a set of dates that is given in the film right at the end of its credits – those of the late filmmaker Stuart Croft to whom Island is dedicated. Not in the film, one wonders nonetheless to what extent dates are an attempt for us to make sense of the alien nature of death when we have not had a chance to confront it (let us say, to grieve). When we are open to and live through death (when in some senses we expect it), then we can reach a state of presence and of time wherein we do not need dates at all. We can escape from death as a sudden and terrifying boom, instead looking it in the eye, normalising it and finding that mere numbers do no justice to death nor to the life with which it is entangled.

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