Oh, the reckless, passionate, desperate, urgent, folly of youth, of attempting to forge your own disparate identity, of friendships which seemed destined to last forever, and of youthful, first love. Oh, that youthful period when we’re blissfully ignorant and unaware of the fact that life, dear reader, will inevitably break your heart many times over with its bitter ironies, compromises, complications and heartaches. Remember those thoughts for a few moments as we get to a little business.
The folks at Vice in a partnership with Intel founded The Creator’s Project back in 2009 as a global platform to feature the works of visionary artists across multiple disciplines, who are using technology to push the boundaries of creative expression. It includes daily video and editorial content and an official YouTube Channel, original artwork commissions and global events. And to date, there are more than 600 Creators around the world including Karen O, Daft Punk, Spike Jonze, M83, Animal Collective, the xx, Florence and the Machine, United Visual Artists, David Bowie, Sticky Monster Lab and many others.
The latest installment in The Creators Project is a short film, by Irish filmmaker Aoife McArdle, Every Breaking Wave based partially and loosely around two songs from U2’s last album Songs of Innocence, “Every Breaking Wave” and “The Troubles,” the real life stories of the members of U2, the filmmaker’s own life and of the tumultuous generations-long conflict between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. With that in mind, picture this: it’s sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s and Northern Ireland is split at the seams by a generations-long war between the Protestant Unionists, who wanted to remain with the United Kingdom and the Catholic Nationalists, who wanted independence and a united Ireland. Armed soldiers of both sides are on the streets, helicopters are constantly flying overhead and bombs going off are a constant and (often) a daily experience. And it seems both inescapable and unceasing.
The film starts with a group of teenagers comprised of knuckleheaded skinhead punks and their friends, who chain smoke, roughhouse and needle each other, fuck around and cause trouble, go to punk shows and eventually begin to pick up instruments and write songs themselves. And the opening chords of “Every Breaking Wave” imbue the film’s opening segments with a powerful, nostalgia of youth. Despite the gritty and gruesome horrors of war that were constantly in these teens backyards and daily life, they prove to be resoundingly resilient, living life with a passionate fullness – but with a subconscious realization that all is but dreams and vapor, to dissipate into the ether and be forgotten in due time. And yet kids fall hopelessly, desperately in love even in wartime. Adding to the vital passion here is the fact that the two young lovers at the center of the film are of opposing sects – Sean is Catholic, while Sandra is Protestant. Yes, it parallels the tragic love story in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and it does so to prove a point – that “It’s mad enough to be a teenager, but imagine being a teenager with that kind of inescapable [violence] on your doorstep,” McArdle explains in the film’s press notes.
Now, I’ll be honest here and admit that I find the new U2 album to be both horrible and boring; however, McArdle’s film gives the two aforementioned songs an undeniable and powerfully empathetic context that may be unfamiliar to countless others. But it helps that Every Breaking Wave is set in a rather gritty realism. McArdle casted the film with local kids and others she came across on the street, and the film was shot on the streets of Belfast. And as the press notes mention, McArdle searched for someone who looked tough but could show a glimmer of vulnerability for her male lead. “I was walking down the street and I spotted these two boys just hanging out, smoking cigarettes outside the town hall in Belfast. And I just thought one of them had the most arresting eyes and an interesting face,” she says. She persuaded him to audition and cast him as the lead. In particular, you see it in a brief sequence in which Sean is with his father, and his nervously shifting as he’s loading a gun; perhaps with the realization that someone in that room could die or that he could soon be a killer. You also see it in a brief flash when Sandra unexpectedly comes by the house and he’s both happy and terrified of her finding out what he’s about to do.
All of these actors, despite their lack of training pulled from their own experiences and the stories they’ve grown with and it gives the film an emotional heft and realism that’s heart aching. Adding to that sense of realism, McArdle pulled from a rather immense and diverse array of influences from Derek Ridgers and Gavin Watson’s photos of punk rockers in the 70s and 80s; cityscapes of Belfast and of wartime images during The Troubles shot by Gilles Peress and Peter Marlow; the work of gothic American writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and others; and filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch, Wim Wenders and Terrence Malick.
I’m not a film guy but what I can say for the film is that it’s gorgeously shot and McArdle and she uses a variety of camera angels to create omniscient high angle shots for epic sequences and zooms up for the visceral, emotional close encounters. In other words, “moving from the intimate to the epic in a moment” as she described. And she shows an uncanny ability to know when dialogue is absolutely necessary and when the music needs to pull the story forward. As a film, it’s just urgent, powerful storytelling that’s visceral – and strangely it manages to give some of U2’s weakest material a cinematic punch that it hadn’t had. Imagine if the film was based around say, The Joshua Tree, War, October or even Boy.
I’m not going to spoil it but the last 5 minutes or so of the film are achingly devastating. If it doesn’t move you or doesn’t remind you of your youth and of your first love, then you a cold, fucked up soul.