Bill Douglas Trilogy

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Director: Bill Douglas

Bill Douglas is almost a legend among British filmmakers. Google his name and you find a flash-flood of superlatives. Lindsay Anderson calls him "the poet of British cinema" while the Observer's Philip French sees his Trilogy (My Childhood, My Ain Folk, My Way Home) as "one of the heroic achievements of British cinema".

Yet I would bet serious money that most readers are now silently thinking, "Bill who?" Even if you have heard of Douglas you have probably never actually seen any of his films. Well you should, and now you can. The British Film Institute has just released this sumptuous DVD of the trilogy on which Douglas's reputation was built.

While there can be no argument that these are unique and important films, the more difficult question is whether they are any good. Certainly they are distinctive; always shown in black and white (although actually shot in colour), with defiantly untrained actors and an austere visual style - using static camera, no musical soundtrack and long, long takes.

They are also patently heartfelt. As the titles suggest the trilogy is based on Douglas's own upbringing in the Scottish mining town of Newcraighall in the years after the Second World War. It is a bleak tale of poverty and unhappiness. This would seem to place it in Angela's Ashes territory, but Douglas has ambitions beyond that form of emotional populism. As the title to his first film, My Childhood, suggests, Douglas aims to be Maxim Gorky, not Dave Seltzer.

This artistic gravitas seems to be both the strength and the weakness of these films: strength, because it gives Douglas's work both formal boldness and a (painful) intensity, but there is a serious downside, encapsulated in the very fabric of the films.

In Newcraighall, Douglas (Jamie in the film) meets only neglect and coldness. It is an extraordinarily sour image of the Scottish working class. No doubt 1940s Newcraighall was indeed a desolate place and I have to accept that this is Douglas's authentic experience. Yet it is still a very narrow, even warped view of the Scottish working class communities. To give just one counter-example, during this period the mining communities of West Fife had the class consciousness to elect the only Communist MP in parliament.

This matters because it is the obligatory cliché of the "misery memoir" narrative that the victim is redeemed. In the trilogy deliverance from working class wretchedness comes when Jamie meets the educated middle classes. In My Way Home, Glum Jamie transmogrifies into Auteur Bill when he becomes the protégé of the upper class (and therefore educated and cultivated) Robert, who introduces him to Art (with a capital A).

I find Douglas's cultural cringe towards the middle classes annoying. The problem is an aesthetic one - because what Douglas takes from his public school redeemer is a patrician notion of "high art". Cinema has always posed a quandary for this snobby aesthetic - too commercial, too energetic, and too popular to be acceptable in the academy.

So ironically Douglas's films drain away almost all of the things that make movies such an expressive art form - passion, energy, empathy, performance, spectacle, zing. In search of his bourgeois notion of art, cinema becomes reduced to a side-branch of still photography. It's called a movie.

The trilogy seems to me to try to aestheticise the experience of class and in the end Bill Douglas produced cinema's first coffee table movie.