The works of great artists have a way of reactivating fundamental questions about the nature and potential of an art form. In the case of filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, these questions revolve around a word that has been used routinely to describe her cinematic style: poetic. Right from the start, her films have quietly suggested that there is an underlying tension in the way we think about cinema and its possibilities. Is poetic style in cinema in opposition to narrative? Do poetry and realism occupy opposite poles?
Few filmmakers have been greeted at the beginnings of their careers with the kind of critical celebration that Ramsay was. Her short films Small Deaths (1995) and Gasman (1997) both won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival; Kill the Day (1996) was awarded the jury prize at the world’s largest festival devoted to short films, held in Clermont-Ferrand, France; and her debut feature, Ratcatcher (1999), premiered at Cannes to rapturous reviews. Struck by the thoughtful assurance of her directorial style, critics remarked on how she seemed to have arrived with a distinctive cinematic vision fully formed. At that moment, she was not yet thirty.
Born into and raised in a working-class family in Glasgow, Ramsay was initially drawn to painting and photography, influences that persist in her cinema to this day. Admitted to the prestigious National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, she started out specializing in cinematography and later switched to directing. The environment in film school was competitive, but she recalls an important moment in her development when the queer filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman visited her class and gave a piece of advice: make sure that the people you work with are friends, not enemies, because making films is hard enough as it is. And so her early short films and Ratcatcher were made with the same small core crew of cinematographer Alwin Küchler, production designer Jane Morton, and editor Lucia Zucchetti.
Ramsay has spoken of the transformative effect, in her youth, of seeing Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) in a photography class, and thus being set on a path toward a life in cinema. Deren herself is credited with putting forward an influential and evocative take on poetry and cinema. She proposed that films function on two axes. The horizontal axis is that of narrative drama unfolding over time, featuring a series of actions and incidents, one leading to the next. The poetic, by contrast, is “a ‘vertical’ investigation” that lingers on a particular moment and truly explores it, using the powers of the medium to draw out that moment’s emotions and meanings. Deren’s implication was clear: unlike narrative cinema, avant-garde or experimental films (the category to which her own work belongs), which tend to be nonnarrative, also tend to be primarily poetic.
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