I spent my third year of college studying abroad at Lancaster University in Northwest England. From there, one of my earliest trips was to Dublin with two of my friends. We rode the ferry from Holyhead in North Wales to Ireland’s capital city. I have very fond memories of that weekend, such as my first (half-)pint of Guinness stout, the friendliness of the people, and the sight of the Ha’penny Bridge lit up at night. And although I didn’t see it until after I came home, months after it was released in U.S. theaters, the intimate musical romance Once (John Carney, 2006) reminded me of the place I have come to think of as “my Dublin.”
I had seen countless films set in Dublin before, everything from The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991) and The General (John Boorman, 1998) to InterMission (John Crowley, 2003) and Rory O’Shea Was Here (Damien O’Donnell, 2004). But by virtue of being about a musician who busks on Grafton Street for pocket change from tourists, Once invariably represents a Dublin that I, as a tourist, came into contact with. Many of the scenes in the film take place on that pedestrian thoroughfare, Dublin’s high street or main shopping district. This was where, after nearly two months in the British Isles, I spotted the first Starbucks, an occasion so momentous—even though I didn’t drink the stuff—that I snapped a photo of it from the cobblestone street (the major coffeehouse chain over there is Costa Coffee).
Once was produced on a shoestring budget, and it has a very improvisational quality to it. From what I understand, it wasn’t so much scripted as it was outlined, and nowhere is this on-the-fly, gritty documentary feel more pronounced than in the scenes on Grafton Street, where the unnamed guitarist (played by The Frames’ bandleader, Glen Hansard) meets the young Eastern European pianist (Markéta Irglová), before they embark on their pseudo-romance and journey toward self-discovery while they collaborate on a few original songs. From what I can remember, director John Carney and his tiny crew shot the unprofessional actors unobtrusively, allowing real passersby to walk in front of the camera. This explains why some of the protagonists’ exchanges aren’t clearly audible. When I was on Grafton Street, I remember feeling claustrophobic, trapped among seeming multitudes of people and their bulky shopping bags, as everyone walked in different directions. The busyness of the area represented on-screen in Once reminded me of my brisk walk down the street. I didn’t know where I was headed, my friend chasing after me in the crowd, but eventually I wound up at the northwest entrance to a city park, St. Stephen’s Green. Similarly, in one scene, Hansard’s character runs after Irglová’s, too, and they take the exact same route as my friend and I had done. Strange how someone else’s art imitates your life. (I should note that Lance Daly’s black-and-white 2008 film-story about a pair of runaways from abusive homes, Kisses, is also partially set in this corner of the city, rendering it even more menacing, full of real terror for children.)
When I watched Once for the first time in late 2007, I recognized straightaway a particular landscape beyond Grafton Street. Since my sojourn in the city, I have associated Dublin with rows and rows of brick townhouses that have brightly colored front doors, alternating among blue, yellow, green, and red. The movie Once merely reinforced this picture of the city for me. Although we see such dwellings throughout the film, I still can’t shake the image of the woman standing outside one of these houses—or poking her head out of her second-story window, I can’t be sure—and gazing up at the sky because she knows her songwriting partner should be in the air, on his way to London. This scene speaks volumes to me, as I would love to return to Ireland someday and spend more time in the city.
But don’t fret; I did much more than feel stifled on Grafton Street and admire the lushly painted doors on houses. Like any well-informed tourist, I frequented Temple Bar, the trendy arts district lined with restaurants and galleries, visited the National Gallery of Ireland for an exhibit on native son Francis Bacon, and stopped by Dublin Castle (which was, to my surprise, a mishmash of architectural styles) and Trinity College. I regret I was too cheap to pay the admittance fee to see the Book of Kells up-close while at the university, especially since an inventive animated movie inspired by the illuminated manuscript, The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, 2009), would come out of nowhere years later and earn an Oscar nomination. When I stop to think about it, I realize that much of my Dublin jaunt has movie-related anecdotes.
For one thing, the weekend I was in Dublin was the weekend that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (remember TomKat?) were wed in Italy. I remember seeing photos of the actress’s demented smile, as she nuzzled her cheek into Tom’s at the altar, splashed across the front pages of the tabloids while walking from the hostel to downtown Dublin.
Furthermore, I can’t think of the film Little Children (Todd Field, 2006) without being reminded of Dublin, because that is where I saw it—with one of my companions, Denise. I’ll never forget the morning—November 18th, it was—that we were walking along O’Connell Street (the Champs-Élysées of Dublin), near the “Stiffy by the River Liffey,” and came across a multiplex that advertised that it was screening the American indie picture about two suburban stay-at-home parents having a hot summer fling. Talk about making playdates.
Later that night, after dinner and during the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd this movie-going experience was at the time. Here I am in Dublin, with my German friend, and we’re watching an American indie movie set in a resolutely American milieu and ennui at a giant multiplex on O’Connell Street. I bet I’m the only American sitting in this theater, I said to myself, as if mentally detached enough from the goings-on in the auditorium and up on the screen that I could see myself sitting in the back row. For all I know, the Cineworld in Dublin may have been the closest theater to where I lived (in Lancaster, England!) that was playing the film. Ever since having this “out-of-body, out-of-mind” experience while watching a movie in another country, I have sought to replicate it everywhere I go.
Stay tuned for a similar episode in a future edition of Movie Travel Diary. But in the meantime, tell me about your movie-related experiences in Dublin. Which film(s) best exemplifies the Dublin you have visited?