Ghost in the Machine: ‘Hole in the Head’ (2022)

by Ruairí McCann

In his book, The Total Film-Maker (1971), Jerry Lewis sums up the filmmaker’s role as an uncompromising, all-consuming force, with a statement of indelible absurdity. It’s not enough to commit all your waking life and mental energy to this pursuit. You must have a material relationship with your metier. You and it must become one, by licking and tasting the emulsion of the very film into which you’re pouring all of your heart and soul. A semblance of this cock-eyed mission statement can be found in Hole in the Head, the new feature from Dean Kavanagh* and a wonderfully labile rendition of cinematic obsession as a simultaneously profound, absurd, deracinating, and visceral experience. 

The film has been described as his first ‘narrative feature’. A description that doesn’t square with Kavanagh’s previous six features and voluminous hold of shorts, across which narrative is a key element, if not in any of its regular guises. However, a more easily legible, structured plot and scripted dialogue do play greater parts in Hole in the Head than in his previous work, but not as dominant nor homogeneous elements. Instead, the film is a combination of gothic psychodrama and, in severe want of a better phrase, ‘mockumentary’, which is then incrementally torn apart and subsumed; sparagmos for an avant-garde conception of cinema as a psychedelic rather than psychological entity. An experience that pricks one’s gut feeling and subconscious before it does conscious thought. 

The vector—both hungry god and sacrificial offering—for this play with genre, form, and effect is the unassuming but increasingly disturbing figure of Johnny Kline (John Curran). For physical and psychological reasons, Johnny is at odds with the rest of the world. An aloof personality, magnified by a muteness that’s traced back to a mysterious childhood incident, he is self-contained to an inscrutable extreme. He leads a highly isolated and mediated life. When not working as a cinema projectionist, where his booth is like a bathysphere, sealed off from the world save for periodic transmission from his walkie-talkie, he confines himself to a considerable estate out in the stony, windswept plains below the Wicklow mountains. 

Johnny’s chief preoccupation is filmmaking, and his current project is all at once ambitious, detailed, autobiographical, sketchy, and gnomic. It’s a film that will trace his twisting family tree—outlined in a strong example of the film’s dry and surreal sense of humour, jabbing at the received documentary tendency of condensing entire lives into the space of a couple images and a handy anecdote or phrase. The meat of this would-be film is the mystery of his parents. His mother, the scion of a rubber sole magnate and his father, a gentleman scientist, were a probably dysfunctional couple who up and disappeared one day without a trace, leaving behind their only child. This abandonment, along with other disturbing (potential) events, bears the trace of Johnny’s muteness and inscrutability. The chief players are James (James Devereux), an arrogant English thespian set to play John Sr., and Susan (Lynette Callaghan) a somewhat less haughty Irish stage actor, playing the mother Helen. With the crew composed solely of Paul (John Allen) who serves the thankless task of being Johnny’s (only seeming) ‘friend’, sound recordist, dogsbody, and go-between. Soon methodologies and personalities clash and the production derails, as what seems like a clear-cut case of auto-fiction, and Johnny’s supposed intentions of revealing and exorcising a traumatic past become increasingly abstract and unstable.

This fractious quartet represents a wide mix of acting styles and histories. Curran and Allen are long-time collaborators of Kavanagh, who came to acting through his work and a mode of (truly) independent, experimental filmmaking, while Callaghan is classically trained with extensive television and film experience. Devereaux has his feet in both worlds. These differences in background and approach, their potential points of contact and separation, were baked into the script, which was developed in a process not unlike the cinema of Jacques Rivette, post-Out 1 (1971). The screenplay was meticulously constructed by Kavanagh, over an extended period of time, but also took in significant contributions from the cast. 

The results are like a dramaturgical equivalent of Samuel Beckett’s geometrical performance piece Quad (1981), in that each of the four actors work out performances and personas (upon personas) that varyingly act at cross purposes or in collusion with one another. The most extreme ends are Devereux and Curran, with Devereux’s performance being flamboyant and determined—but not too loud that he upsets the balance. It’s a performance of a silver-tongued, Vincent Price-like figure, minus the grandiosity but with the same dose of sadistic bitterness. His dialogue is written and performed with a savoured acerbity and floridity. On the other hand, Curran’s performance is very minimal, on the verge of blankness, and James’ often ornate yet aggressive parlay is countered by Johnny’s silence—or his clipped, matter of fact utterances, relayed using a text-to-voice speech device. Callaghan and Allen play the two less strange and estranging individuals, though Susan finds herself in an uneasy alliance with James, as fellow actors increasingly lost in the dark of Johnny’s designs, and Paul is pressed to serve as Johnny’s intermediary, verging on factotum. Therefore, they give more naturalistic, and equally impressionable and well-executed performances; Callaghan’s classicism places her more in Devereux’s baroque territory and Allen’s naturalism has some of Curran’s minimalist mien.  

Through the cast’s and Kavanagh’s careful scripting and modulation, a sense of history (even when scrambled) that is imbued in each performance and the ‘old dark house’ setting—a staple of both horror and mystery fiction, and therefore one charged with historic meaning—this becomes more than an exercise, but a rich and complex dramaturgy. A scene early on in the production’s derailment, when all four sit down for a fraught dinner, is a perfect case in point. Shot by Kavanagh in portrait-like close-ups, emphasizing their detachment from one another, but also the detail of their performances. Their peculiarities and power games flare up and are effectively established, as well as the film’s more underlying but far-reaching exploration of gender, class, and creative tensions.

This breakdown of the filmmaking process is not only played out on a script, performance, or even visual level. It’s also expressed in the instability of the film’s very tissue. The film is a remarkable showcase for a deeply felt love and facility for the film form in all its multiplicity, for it was shot in a near-dizzying range of formats and practical tricks, as stated by Kavanagh on his blog

“All of the processes of visual disintegration and special effects were achieved manually, in an authentically analogue way either by direct chemistry, circuit bending, laser cutting or explosives! Many scenes are created on VHS, VHS-C, Video-8, Hi8 tape; super-8mm and 16mm motion picture film, as well as 35mm and 120mm still film with slide and acetate presentations- in addition to one-eighth inch and quarter-inch audiotape.”

This deep appreciation for film, not just as a vessel for words and personages, but as an entity in and of itself, is clear across the film’s design. A high degree of craft is inscribed across its filmic and sonic surfaces, from the scorched, handmade title sequence to inventive, startling sound and image combinations, such as the dream recurrence of film leader tearing to expose a great void and a howling vortex of noise. Kavanagh’s filmmaking skill and dexterity also creates some less explosive, and perhaps even more disturbing passages.  The beautiful but harsh outdoor landscapes (shot in Wicklow and Connemara) are captured in still, wide shots and lengthy takes, with subtle smears and plays with focus within the frame. The stillness and these distortions suggest a spirit of unease, radiating out from the land and chiming with Johnny’s disquietude. It chimes as well with the gothic aura stemming from the excellent production and costume design, arranged by filmmaker and visual artist Anja Mahler, who’s also co-producer on the project. The film’s blend of materials occasionally carve out formal tributaries. Brief but potent scenes that explore strange zones and textures, such as one particular dream sequence which renders the cast and the house as transfixed two-dimensional cut-outs, backed by a digital storm. A chimera of a Ruizian nightmare and an especially eerie point and click adventure game. 

In the same post, Kavanagh states his interest in using different formats, not just for the variety of texture or to signpost and spruce a narrative already being propelled at the script or performance level. Instead, changing formats can be ‘a dramaturgical act’ in and of itself. It’s a method which he has practiced across his body of work, with a notable example being a distant antecedent of this film: a series of four short films, entitled Inappropriation: The Films of Johnny Kline (2015-2017), which endeavour to generate a intense, psychosexual narrative through a new arrangement of previously unrelated archival material. In this case of the Hole in the Head, the shifting and distortion of format as an act of character and narrative progression, or wrongfooting, reaches a new, complex height for Kavanagh. 

Initially the distinction between formats, forms, past and present, reality and fiction, seem to be clear. Johnny’s present tense, day to day, is shot in high definition digital and is relatively stably intercut with ‘Johnny’s film’, which rolls out in a bricolage of still photographs and moving images shot on film. Initially, the relatively unadorned scenes with Johnny in the present depict reality as uncanny, in all its unaccountable inscrutability, tethered to Johnny’s mysterious personage. In comparison, the past, or rather the cinematic, imagined past, is a safe harbour. Densely populated and full of information. Dominated by mystery, but clearly outlined by a narrator (John Murphy). With the introduction and corralling of all four cast members, this fairly strict delineation is scrambled and then mutates. The distinction between digital as the real world and film as the film is confused with the awareness of the playing of roles, that Johnny’s film is not completed, or even in a stage of post-production and pickups, but actively being made, or rather unmade. Video is added, representing an initially ambiguous, later sinister new aspect, and the intercutting of different formats and perspectives becomes increasingly hard to pin down. Eventually, any easy definition of what is real and what is fiction, or any meaningful distinction between the two, is lost in a joint state of psychological and medial chaos. 

The history of cinema includes a detailed sub-history of movies about movies. A strata which includes many riches but also many empty and cynical exercises in big-budgeted backslapping, mainly from the upper echelons of corporate cinema. Kavanagh is no stranger to either cinema as an all-abiding love—even obsession—nor the often arduous and disillusioning nature of filmmaking. Of cinema’s bolstering, conflicting, incontrovertible nature as a medium that can be commercial and personal, highly collaborative and specific to an individual. He’s learned this firsthand, with Hole in the Head arriving after over a decade of trenchantly independent filmmaking, in a range of roles and contexts. It’s also been encountered outside of his work as a filmmaker, for Kavanagh was involved with the digital restoration of Some Say Chance (1934), the only film by the ‘amateur’ filmmaker Michael Farrell, a Wicklow native like Kavanagh. The latter also wrote an excellent overview of Roy Spence, a legendary amateur filmmaker from rural Co. Down, who spent over forty years fuelling a passion for ’50s B science fiction and horror—movies frequently dismissed as conveyor belt products—into an idiosyncratic and personal body of work. 

Hole in the Head is an expression of many of these contradictions, and of the quandary that visits, to some degree, the thoughts of anyone who spends a significant amount of time in the house of cinema. The fear, expressed chillingly with the film’s final feedback loop, that cinema could become an obsession that eats up the very life that animates it. 

*I should add, for transparency, that Dean is a friend.

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer, curator and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He has contributed to various publications, such as photogénie, Electric Ghost, aemi online, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]

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