A true star of Irish film


Michael Dwyer, the most influential Irish film critic of his generation, revelled in sharing his love of cinema, writes HUGH LINEHAN

MICHAEL DWYER was more than just a film correspondent. He was an enthusiast, an advocate, a lover of life and of movies. He was also, as many of the tributes which have flowed in since his death last Friday evening at the age of 58 have noted, a staunch friend to successive generations of young film-makers, film lovers and journalists who crossed his path. Generosity is not a word usually associated with the profession of critic, but it comes up again and again when people talk about Michael.

He was indisputably the most influential Irish film critic of his generation, a fact recognised by the French government when it awarded him the honour of Chevalier des Arts et Lettresin 2006. He chronicled the transformation of international and local film-making over the last three decades: the arrival of home video; the advent of the multiplex; the flowering of Irish film production and of new cinematic voices from around the world. But along with that he was a natural impresario, a showman with a brilliant sense of timing and a puckish sense of humour who delighted in standing up in front of a packed auditorium to introduce his latest passionate enthusiasm for some film which he had been the first to see in Cannes or Toronto.

He was never afraid to champion the difficult or esoteric, but at heart he was a populist in the best sense of the word, bringing movies of all sorts to the widest audience possible. He loved feeling the keen anticipation of a new title from one of his favourite directors, or the excitement of discovering an unheralded gem.

Life never dimmed the boyish enthusiasm he recalled from his schooldays in Tralee in an article for this newspaper: “From an early age, I engaged in an obsessive ritual whereby I felt impelled to tour around each of the three cinemas every day after school, to peruse the posters and stills and to keep informed of coming attractions. On wet days, my father Nicholas would interrupt his working routine as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler to drive me home from school – and regularly had to waste valuable time driving from cinema to cinema to track me down.”

That youthful passion inevitably led him to Tralee’s film society, which he rapidly expanded from seven screenings a year to weekly screenings every Monday night from October to March, filling all 620 seats in the Ashe Hall. At that time, film societies provided the only alternative to the often stale mainstream Hollywood fare provided by the established cinema chains and, because in theory they were private clubs, were able to avoid the worst strictures of what was still a draconian censorship regime. But, with glacial slowness, official attitudes to film in this country were changing. In Tralee, as in other parts of the country, increasing numbers of people wanted to see the best of world cinema. A new organisation, the Federation of Irish Film Societies, had been set up to co-ordinate the distribution of these films to clubs around the country. In 1978, an enthusiastic and hugely knowledgeable young Kerryman became its first employee.

At the same time, he began working as a journalist and critic, first for In Dublinmagazine, later for the Sunday Tribuneand the Sunday Press.

As Gene Kerrigan has noted, he was part of a new wave of journalists in the early 1980s who used the small magazines of the day as springboards and proving grounds. It was a very different time. He wrote a several-thousand-word article for In Dublin(unimaginable now) about the fierce controversy which erupted in the early 1980s within the tiny and fractious Irish film-making community over the new Irish Film Board’s decision to provide backing for Neil Jordan’s first feature, Angel.

Michael was always positive about the local industry and new voices in Irish film-making, but it was no secret that his tastes were more catholic and less prescriptive than was allowed for by some proponents of a pure, indigenous film industry. It wasn’t that he did not appreciate avant-garde or challenging work, but he never lost his central appreciation of cinema as an art of pleasure, of immersion in a magical, communal experience. The later successes of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, whose work he had supported from the beginning, delighted him.

For years he had been bringing word of world cinema to Ireland; now Ireland was coming to world cinema.

In particular, he forged a friendship and close working relationship with two young film-makers, Martin Mahon and Alan Gilsenan of Yellow Asylum Films, with whom he was to make Freeze Frame, a series of in-depth interviews with film-makers for RTÉ. He would continue to be a familiar presence on the airwaves up until this summer, when he provided his final contributions to the Marian Finucane Show.

While working full-time as a journalist, he became convinced the capital city needed its own film festival and, along with Myles Dungan, launched the first Dublin Film Festival in 1985. Using the many international connections he had already built up, and drawing on his impressively encyclopaedic knowledge of what was on offer from around the world, he shaped the festival in his own image, as a broad, non-competitive church for lovers of all sorts of films. He would spend months shaping the festival’s complex schedule, to ensure that Francophile fans, for example, would have just enough time to make it from one French movie to the next. And he pulled every string he could to ensure that film-makers of the highest calibre came to Dublin to discuss their work in public interviews.

This newspaper’s report on the first Dublin Film Festival in 1985 noted: “One significant feature is that despite the variety, the dead hand of the esoteric and the purely academic was nowhere in evidence in the programme, yet quality was not compromised in the choice. As a result, people turned up in droves to enjoy the range of movies on offer.” Each year’s event was meticulously planned and run, but always informal and unpretentious; unwary festival-goers would be astonished to find themselves rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as Krzysztof Kieslowski.

He stepped back from the DFF after a decade in charge, exhausted by its demands. But when the festival ran into financial difficulties and finally collapsed several years ago, he was the prime instigator of its successor, the Dublin International Film Festival, which continues to run successfully to this day.

Over the course of more than half a century as a lover of movies, Michael charted it all, met pretty much everyone and saw pretty much everything. Astonishingly, his enthusiasm never dimmed, although he could be exasperated by those who thought the life of a film correspondent was all wine and roses. Writing about his 21st consecutive trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, he wrote: “Everyone I know who hasn’t experienced Cannes imagines that covering it is the most glamorous assignment in journalism – even colleagues at The Irish Timeswho, when I call to confirm that reports have been received, respond with questions about the weather and whether I’m getting a good tan and what the parties are like. The truth is that the only people who go home from Cannes with a suntan are the ones who don’t work hard.”

Over time, the movie marketing process became more sophisticated and manipulative, offering increased access to international stars and directors, but draining much of the meaning from those encounters through the rigid and sterile controlling mechanism of the “junket”. But Michael always prized the face-to-face interview and, through a combination of meticulous preparation, empathy and innate charm usually found a way of turning what might have been a rote event into something special.

Once, preparing for an interview with Penelope Cruz, he discovered the Spanish actress was in thrall to her cats. “I know it sounds crazy,” confided Cruz. “But when I’m away I talk to them on the telephone every evening.” “So do I,” truthfully replied Michael, who was besotted by his own two cats, Fred and Ginger. It was a very Michael moment, and the ice was definitively broken.

THROUGHOUT EVERYTHING, he was supported and loved by Brian Jennings, his partner of 24 years, who nursed him through the difficult days of illness which befell him on his return from Cannes at the start of last summer. A brief respite at the end of November offered the possibility that he would return to work in the New Year and, in a piece he wrote for The Ticket on December 11th, he looked forward to writing regularly again for The Irish Timesin January. Sadly, that will now not happen.

It’s a terrible loss for Brian, for Michael’s mother Mary and sisters Anne and Maria. But it’s also a sad and untimely loss for so many people who grew up with his writing and who came to know and admire him over the years.

Michael Dwyer 1951-2010: Tributes from readers posted on Donald Clarke's blog