Thomas Clay • Director
The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael
- Just a history of violence?
Anyone who has seen Thomas Clay’s debut feature film The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael is unlikely to forget. Most will talk about its explicit violence (Variety noted that it makes “A clockwork orange look like a Britney Spears video”) but there is much more to be uncovered in this provocative and visually arresting first film. Clay studied 16 mm production at the CFU in London and collaborated with co-writer and producer Joseph Lang on several short films before making what would become the talk of the town in Cannes last year, where it had its world premiere. The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael will also be shown in Rotterdam this year as part of European Film Promotion’s Passion and Promises.
Cineuropa: The film has a very distinct and original visual style, something quite uncommon in debut films. How was this conceived and how much is this your personal vision and/or a collaboration with the rest of the crew?
Thomas Clay: I believe that a firm grasp of mise-en-scène is integral to expressing yourself effectively within this medium. I am always seeking to expand my knowledge of cinema history and from that I draw inspiration and form my own ideas. In making Carmichael, I was very particular about the shot selection, framing and choreography. The lighting is where my cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis could really express himself, having discussed the film together at length. I wanted the production and costume design to have a realist flavour, in contrast to the other aspects of the visual design; exceptions are the sets for the dealer's flat and the chef's living-room, which have a more theatrical quality and were planned around the framing requirements of those scenes.
Those who have seen the film talk mostly about the violence of the last twenty minutes whilst mostly ignoring the build-up that might be said to be what this film is really about. Would you agree that the bloody catharsis is only necessary to drive the point home of what has gone before?
The majority of modern films seek to reassure an audience and reinforce a belief in their own essential goodness. Other times, violence is depicted in such an abstract context as to be meaningless. What I believe can make people uncomfortable in Carmichael is the implication of the violence: to accept that Robert, a previously sympathetic character and a young man that we might see walking down our own street, would commit this act – this forces the viewer to address all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Yet this is precisely why it is essential to end the film in that way. Of course, his actions are informed by what has come before. The ending would be meaningless out of context. Robert acts, perhaps metaphorically, upon the lessons that have been taught throughout the film.
The Great Ecstasy is not a particularly happy film for the viewers and in the film, art (in this case music) seems to leave Robert indifferent. Do you think one of art's functions (and more particularly film) is to move or shock people and to provide insight or attract attention to certain subjects?
I'm not sure you can rationalise the human need for art, though if anyone draws sustenance from a film you could say that it is serving a function. In Carmichael, Robert is not moved by the music he plays and this is part of his emptiness as a human being. Personally, I can walk away optimistic from even the most pessimistic of films, as long as the work is honest, inventive and unblinkered.
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