8 DECEMBER 1979, Page 28


Peter Ackroyd

The Outsider ('A' Gate Two, Russell Square) The Outsider is filled with photographs: not the thirty-frames-per-second variety, which create the illusion of movement and change, but old sepia prints and stylised portraits. The film deals with Ireland and its present state, and yet these mute objects provide an oblique commentary on the screen's action: photographs of old rebels, the hardened ancestors of Irish myth, decorate the mantelpieces and walls of IRA 'safe houses'; representations of the Queen and (ironically, now) Earl Mountbatten are placed strategically around Army Headquarters in Belfast. The film is transfixed by these icons, its characters so caught in some Spectator 8 December 1979 pre-fabricated version of the past that they can hardly move.

And this is The Outsider's theme: Michael Flaherty, an ordinary American child playing cops-and-robbers in the suburbs of Detroit, is presented with a gun by his Irish 'rebel' grandfather. The gun is a message. It says: shoot in order to become a man, to become me. Twenty years later, pickled in his grandfather's bile, Michael travels to Ireland in order to fight with the IRA. 'I know,' he says, 'who my enemy is'. But he doesn't.

He is the quintessential 'outsider', throwing his fate into the hands of men who will simply use him, as they put it, for 'publicity purposes'. If he can be seen to die at the hands of British soldiers, the IRA will quadruple their earnings from outraged Irish-Americans. In Ireland, he is like a Yankee at the court of King Blood — forced to murder, foisted upon a claustrophobic Belfast community which neither likes nor understands him, continually forced to plead in his own defence, a cuckoo in a nest of cuckoos. But the silent men, the men with faces of perspex, the leaders of the IRA who meet in secret session to 'tot up' the number of children killed and the amount of publicity thereby gained, are used to such people. The dead are computed like grocery, lists while the sweet Irish girls sing 'But they loved dear old Ireland, and they never feared danger'.

The Outsider is, I suppose, a political film — but not in the tradition of Z or The Deer Hunter, in which the ideological battle had been won before the script-writer opened his note-pad. Such films are the equivalent of Agitprop posters which peel and fade as soon as they are plastered on the wall. The Outsider is 'political' in a less obtrusive way; it shows what happens when 'the system — any system — takes over; it shows individuals who, blinded by myths and deafened bY rhetoric, arc scarcely alive. And it doesn't do the film a disservice to note that it owes something of its pace and atmosphere to the American horror-movie industry: the streets of Belfast, as presented here, bring back memories of Night of the Living Dead, the IRA gunmen act and speak in the same way as the humanoids in They Came Fronl Outer Space. But this is contemporary horror. It takes, the conventional cinematic myths — 43` satanic pOssession, of urban blight. 0f senseless violence — and shows that there are no easy cinematic exorcisms. TheIft,i5; men, the smilers with the knife; the br Belfast women who take Michael Flaher. y into their homes, who scream at the Brit.ls!! soldiers, who hide revolvers in their fadetels chintz sofas; the RUC who torture suspee " , e for an informative phrase or two; folicte Flaherty himself, neurotic, aggrensbe'v'er obsessed by an enemy whom he has .thout seen — all of them are presented:sicapist analysis and without any easy, are, in denouement. Most political fi comparison, victims of creeping sentimentality: ngs sentimentality: they transform P° realities into a number of private relationships in a recognisable setting. There are no 'characters' of this kind in The Outsider — only dead streets, daguerrotypes, and the complementary catchphrases of soldiers and terrorists.

Flaherty eventually returns to Detroit, disinherited of his myths. Even his grandfather, in the end, fails him. He tries to call Belfast from a telephone booth, feels himself trapped: He tears down the whole booth, and then kicks the telephone to pieces. He has seen the horror, but he has not been changed by it. The film doesn't praise or condemn him, and he is not the subject of a documentary exposé. The Outsider simply presents a man who, for reasons which he himself cannot fathom, is only half-alive. Back on the streets of Belfast, the old women are screaming 'bastards!' at the British soldiers, and someone else is being killed. I believe that The Outsider was banned from the London Film Festival on the grounds that it was too controversial.