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Foreplays #2: Lynne Ramsay's "Gasman"

Lynne Ramsay’s 1998 short is a film about family, and a film made with family—the director’s own brother and niece.
Cristina Álvarez López
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Lynn Ramsay's Gasman (1998) is free to watch below.
Lynne Ramsay’s Gasman is a film about family, and a film made with family—the director’s own brother and niece play, respectively, the central father and daughter in the story.
Two siblings, Lynne (Lynne Ramsay Jr.) and Steve (Martin Anderson), go to a Christmas party with their father (James Ramsay), while the mother (Denise Flannagan) remains at home. They briefly meet with a woman (Jackie Quinn) and her two kids (Lisa Taylor, Robert McEwan). The woman leaves, but her children join the party.
Gasman is the story both of a perfectly banal evening, and of an exceptional event that serves to fracture the family unit, messing up all its usual roles, and dissolving the very idea of what is familiar. Ramsay achieves this by never losing sight either of the everyday, or of the extraordinary—she finds a strange, moving equilibrium between Lynne’s devastating experience, and a world that follows its course despite it.
The mysterious title, which seems to refer to the father’s profession, could be read as a clever variation on the traditional “milkman jokes” concerning a fear of adultery and unrecognized paternity. Here, too, we find this double scale: the reference to common knowledge inscribed in the popular imagination is turned upside down when connected to the moment in which a child grasps the true origin of this vulgar joke through an ultra-personal realization.
Ramsay both writes and directs Gasman—her second short film, made one year before her stunning debut feature, Ratcatcher (1999). As a director, she makes the drama take flight through a concentration on looks and gestures, a precise orchestration of the distance and proximity between bodies, and a careful treatment of sound, movement, and visual composition.
As a writer, one of her best accomplishments is the plotting of a double narrative where, alongside the physical itineraries of the characters, she interweaves the different stages of Lynne’s acquisition of knowledge (from ignorant happiness to deep disappointment, passing through suspicion, confirmation, and anger). Together, the four scenes comprising the film’s fifteen minutes are stages of a reflective, poignant structure. On its own, each scene is a self-contained unit—a temporal, spatial, and emotional enclave presenting a precise set of relations.
Gasman begins by plunging us into domestic rituals. In We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)—a film deeply connected to the “body horror” genre—Ramsay privileged rituals related to food. In Gasman as in Ratcatcher—two films about working-class, Scottish households—hygienic and clothing rituals are at the center of her portrayal of domesticity. In the first scene, as the characters get ready to go out, the sense of intimacy is heightened by a warm, rich score of daily, domestic noises: rhythmic shoe-polishing, the muffling of a jacket’s plastic sheath, an iron’s hiss, a rain of sugar, trotting steps, screams and bits of conversation, the “smack” of a kiss, and music from the radio. This expressive use of sound indicates a visual universe defined by fragmentation, but also solicits us to enter the film with a fuller, sensory consciousness. The song we hear (“Let It Snow”) and the colors and textures of walls, fabrics, and furniture, quickly establish the setting: Christmas time, the 1970s, a working-class home.
Almost none of the thirteen shots comprising this first scene offer a conventional camera set-up. This creates a certain mystery around the human presence—the first time we clearly see a face is in the tenth shot, two and a half minutes into the scene. Usually, the camera adopts a low position, cutting off heads, showing us bits of bodies and rooms: a female arm reaching to the jacket hanging from a door; the legs of a girl sitting on a blue floor, putting on thick pistachio panties and patent-leather shoes; the hands of a boy playing with a toy car; the shoulders of a man sipping coffee and smoking next to a window…
This decentered perspective, where master shots are absent, where everything is partial and fragmented, doesn’t strictly correspond with the girl’s point-of-view, but it tries to get close (both emotionally and physiologically) to her vision and experience of the world. Ramsay’s own obsession as a filmmaker with bodies is defined by the way she frames and fragments them—not with a fetishistic drive, but with the intention of capturing the forces and energies that shape them, always in relation to their daily environments and activities. What is most wonderful about this first scene is how it is built on a perfect alignment between the protagonist’s childish perspective and Ramsay’s sculpting eye.
In this scene, Ramsay also starts to subtly sketch the family’s dynamics. The siblings are not equally fond of their father. Steve, quite withdrawn from everybody but especially from his Dad, is reluctant to go to the pub; Lynne, on the other hand, is excited about the prospect of a party, running toward the father as soon as she’s ready. For her, the father is associated with fun and leisure, while the mother—who hurries her and fusses over her appearance—is a figure of dutiful authority.
The first two shots of the next scene insist on Lynne’s affection in contrast with her brother’s indifference: father and daughter advance together and in close contact, while Steve walks alone, remote. Lynne clutches onto her Dad; first, he twirls her in the air and, later, carries her on his shoulders.
Some shots of this second scene are filmed with a wide-angle lens that slightly distorts the image, obscuring the borders of the frame, giving an unreal tone to a very realistic landscape (an old railroad with the city’s skyscrapers in the background). A crucial encounter is about to happen. The father slows down, leaves Lynne on the ground, and advances, exiting the shot. In the off-screen space, we can hear the greetings between him and a woman. Ramsay cuts to another set-up: situated behind Lynne, the camera reveals now, in the background, two groups of figures—father and woman, but also two other kids. Lynne’s confusion is enhanced by the camera’s backwards movement in slow motion. The sound is transformed into a shapeless rumbling. Two consecutive shots—a close-up on Lynne, first staring at the adults, later turning toward the new girl, and then a reverse shot of this blonde girl, shyly looking at the ground, then confronting Lynne’s inquisitive gaze—vibrate with an unspoken tension.
Ramsay eventually deploys a more conventional shot/reverse-shot volley to let us clearly hear the dialogue of the adult man and woman. Their fraught relationship is condensed in the weight of a gesture, captured in slow motion: he gently tries to touch her hair, but she steps back, bids farewell, and leaves. When the family journey continues, with two extra kids in tow, Lynne runs toward her Dad, but is unable to reach him. Now, the physical distance between them keeps reconstituting itself. She ends up joining the children and starts a conversation with the girl, whose name is Elisa. In the last shot of the scene, they walk side by side, touching their dresses, holding hands, their legs marching together. Via a fine sound match-cut, we pass from the laughter of the kids running along the railroad to the laughter of a group of men at the pub.
The third scene is the most intense and dramatic. At the party, the separation between adults and children is made clear from the start: men talk, drink, and smoke in a corner, while kids play, run, and dance on the pub’s floor. Full of frantic movement and vivid colors, the scene gives a sense of chaos and improvisation; yet it is very carefully staged. Ramsay alternates shots of different individuals or groups, but also tends to rack focus inside a single shot, concentrating on distinct zones of the image. During the scene we hear fragments of three pop songs, beginning with Middle of the Road’s 1971 hit “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” (which, ironically, tells the tale of a baby bird abandoned by its parents!). Each song signals a different stage of the party’s progressive degeneration, while also accompanying the development of the characters’ emotions.
First, Lynne and Elisa are partying together, while the boys seem out of place. With the entrance of the second musical track, Slade’s 1973 “Merry Xmas Everybody”, Lynne is shown dancing with Father Christmas. By this point, the boys have already integrated into the party. Across several shots, Ramsay directs our attention to Elisa who seems uneasy amidst the crowd, abandoned and forgotten, looking with sadness at Lynne as she swirls with Santa or plays with her father. With the third song (Wizzard’s 1973 “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday”), we reach a state of dizziness and intoxication: the floating camera, rendered in slow motion, reveals a dance floor flooded with rubbish. Santa, who is now in an advanced state of inebriation, staggers through the frame with a beer in his hand. In a wonderful visual rhyme, Elisa advances in the opposite direction, and then sits on the lap of Lynne’s father. This is the action that will set everything ablaze.
When Lynne sees that Elisa, circled by her Dad’s arm, has taken her place, she explodes with such anger and jealousy that even the sound fades. “Get off my Daddy’s knee!”, she orders. But Elisa answers: “It’s my Daddy’s knee.. Enraged, Lynne violently pulls Elisa’s hair. Despite the father’s reprimand, the rough push-and-pull between the girls is not yet over. Lynne tries to regain the place that she believes rightfully belongs to her on Daddy’s knees, but he replaces her with Elisa. It’s a heartbreaking moment that perfectly captures the emotions of the three characters: Elisa silent and frightened, but also persistent in reclaiming her position; Lynne repeating in despair and disbelief, “But she said you’re her Daddy”; the father, torn between the two children, sipping his beer and nervously looking at his empty pack of cigarettes—his gesture betraying an inner desire to acknowledge Elisa as his daughter, while his silence expresses the impossibility of openly recognizing his paternity.
The last scene begins with a group shot outside the pub—the father in the middle, boys on one side, girls on the other. This return trip is built on a series of gestures, compositions, and itineraries that function as a reversal of those we’ve seen during the previous, daytime journey. Before, Lynne and Elisa spontaneously held hands; now, they do so as compelled by their father—when the group advances toward the camera, the girls’ hands enter into close-up, Lynne’s pressing Elisa’s like an angry tiger. The father offers to carry Lynne on his chest; now, however, she has to share this privilege with the other girl. There’s a new encounter with the woman at the same spot; this time, no words are exchanged. The railroad tracks intensely reflect the artificial light as one trio moves closer to the camera and the other trio advances into the background. Suddenly, Lynne rejects her father’s hand, runs some distance away, and then takes a stone from the ground. Standing immobile in the middle of the two groups, as her father calls her, she stares at the black silhouettes of the three intruders, and drops the stone.
The structure of Gasman is defined by a truncated circularity: the party scene is bookended by two trips, but the initial scene at home has no equivalent at the end of the story. In that first scene, after Lynne has put on her shoes, she taps her heels and repeats: “There’s no place like home.” It’s a nice wink to The Wizard of Oz (1939), but only now does it resonate with its full charge. By the end, after the upsetting discovery that has blown away Lynne’s entire family framework, we can’t go home again. Because home, as we knew it, doesn’t exist anymore.


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