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Peter Lennon, 1930 - 2011

"Peter Lennon, who has died of cancer at the age of 81, was at the same time a Dubliner, an honorary Parisian and a Guardian man," writes Ian Mayes. "The honesty and integrity of his writing during two lengthy periods on the newspaper were also reflected in his one excursion into film, Rocky Road to Dublin (1968), which was both an indictment of and an impassioned plea for his native Ireland, and quickly came to be recognised as a documentary masterpiece. 'If one is a true patriot, you criticise your own country,' he later wrote when reflecting on the uproar it caused."

In 2004, Lennon looked back on the film's making and the controversy it sparked in, of course, the Guardian. In the film, "Irish society condemns itself out of its own mouth. Brainwashed school kids admit casually that their 'their intellect was darkened, their will weakened and their passions inclined them to evil'; patriotic sportsmen confirm that any member of their organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), who plays or even looks at a 'foreign' game such as soccer or cricket will be expelled; university students of the newish republic tell how they are not allowed to discuss politics on campus. We counted up the modern writers who had works banned in Ireland: Truman Capote, André Gide, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Wells. And Irish writers from Beckett to O'Casey to Shaw." He recounts the various ways Rocky Road was trashed by the press and festivals alike and notes that the "explosive power of this film was provided by Raoul Coutard, Godard's and Truffaut's 'new wave' cameraman. Coutard's famous skill and intuition (he spoke almost no English) made it possible to get to the very comical, moving and dreadful soul of my fellow countrymen. Then came a development that I still look back on with joyful disbelief. Imagine your country obliterates your first film and another country promptly decides to put on a revolution, apparently just for you. So it was that Cannes became a glorious revolutionary cradle for my poor, abused, exiled offspring."

In 2003, Lennon spoke with Victor Erice about The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), with Charles Stewart about A Complaint of Rape (1982), a documentary "that led to a major change in the way rape victims are interrogated," and — again, all these pieces were for the Guardian — he wrote about George Simenon and about meeting Jacques Tati on the set of Playtime. "He immediately roped me in as an extra — a guide who would lead a group of European businessmen out of a coach, through glass doors, sweeping M Hulot with us into a lift. But he then hired me to write the English dialogue for his film. At one point, sitting with him in my writer's caravan (flimsy desk; French typewriter; bottle of whisky with matching couch) I asked him why he had taken the risk of subjecting his delicate gags to the treacherous wastelands of the wide screen. 'Why should I,' he said 'at my age [57] and with my grey hairs, content myself with a little film in black and white about a country railway station, or something like that?'"

For more on Rocky Road to Dublin, turn to Icarus Films.

Update, 3/22: "Peter was funny, charming, and self-deprecating," writes Peter Bradshaw of his Guardian colleague. Rocky Road "was worth a dozen movies in the CV of a less distinguished man. It was such an energetic, punchy, daring film, not least in its challenge to the cronyist political establishment which infuriated the younger generation in Ireland — then as now."

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Also a great interview with Peter here: – in case you wondered if his attitude towards his native land ever mellowed, he was as reliably tough-minded towards the Celtic Tiger as he had been towards the theocracy that preceded it. A journalist to the core, but also a tremendous film talent, it’s sad for us that he never made another movie but he lived a life full of creativity in every way imaginable nonetheless.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw writes a personal reminiscence:
Rocky Road to Dublin, and The Making of Rocky Road to Dublin, are now both streaming here on Mubi (in US and Canada).

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