By the time Lynne Ramsay made her third short film, Gasman, the spotlight was already firmly cast on the 29-year-old Glaswegian. Since graduating from the UK’s National Film and Television School, Ramsay had won the short film Jury prize at Cannes for her graduating short Small Deaths (1996), and her second, Kill the Day (1996), won the Prix du Jury award for best film at France’s acclaimed Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. Ramsay’s short oeuvre announced her as a social realist filmmaker concerned with guilt, loss and the paths that lead us out of childhood – all themes that bubble beneath the surface and then seep through the fissures in Gasman.
Set in Glasgow in the 1970s, Gasman follows a young girl, Lynne (played by Ramsay’s niece and namesake Lynne Ramsay Jr.), who discovers her father’s not-so-secret infidelity at a Christmas party. Ramsay began her career as a photographer, and here shirks convention by refusing to provide an establishing shot. Instead, she introduces the family as disembodied fragments, the camera placed at the height of a child’s eyeline: Da’s (James Ramsay1) fingers balancing a cigarette; Ma’s (Denise Flannagan) arms as she irons her husband’s dress shirt; daughter Lynne clicking the heels of her mary-janes and proclaiming “There’s no place like home”; and the hands of delinquent son Steven (Martin Anderson) as he conquers his toy car by filling it with sugar. This is a collection that slowly comes together to form a whole picture, like a jigsaw puzzle of memory shards.
While her debut short Small Deaths followed three moments in a girl’s life that chipped away at her innocence, Gasman is in a sense a fourth piece of that same puzzle. Here, Ramsay distils and hones in on a single moment that will define the identity of her young protagonist, forging ripples throughout the rest of her life.
After overhearing the frustrated repartee between her weary parents, Ma stays at home as Da walks Steven and Lynne along ordinary streets and abandoned train tracks to a Christmas party at a local inn. Along the way they meet an agitated woman (Jackie Quinn) who Da knows and gives money to – despite protests that the sum is not enough. The woman leaves her two children with Da, a boy (Robert McEwan) and a girl (Lisa Taylor) of similar ages to Steven and Lynne, and Da and the brood set off. Ramsay establishes an unsettling mood, giving the adult audience hints of the connection between Da and the other woman but shielding young Lynne from the interaction.
While Lynne initially embraces her new comrade, it soon becomes evident that these new children are also familiar with Da. Over the course of the night – as the children become ratty and the adults more imbibed – it is revealed that they too also call him ‘Da’. Lynne acts out when her child’s mind can’t quite fathom this adult revelation and what it means for her place as Daddy’s little girl. Walking home, Lynne is despondent. As the other family walks away, she picks up a rock and takes aim, but reneges, resigned to accept her lot and the new extended family paradigm.
Ramsay was a cinefile from an early age, and entered the UK’s National Film and Television School in 1992 to transfer her photography skills into cinematography. Her first film shoots saw her working on documentaries, and her cinéma vérité grounding is evident in Gasman through her observational style that captures the beautiful ordinariness of life in this particular community. But while Ramsay has long been lauded for her visual storytelling skills, Gasman also displays her prowess as a screenwriter, one who favours restraint over exposition. Ramsay herself has explained her approach, noting “I think expositional dialogue is quite crass and not like real life.”2 Aside from a sly comment from Steven to his sister that the new girl “looks like you”, Ramsay’s storytelling in Gasman relies on silences and dramatic irony. The true menace comes from the audience’s inescapable adult knowledge that Lynne is about to discover something that will rock her foundations, and her very identity.
In a 2002 interview, Ramsay surmised that her early works were concerned with “telling stories of children growing up where I came from, which was sometimes quite a tough environment but there was a lot of beauty too.”3 Gasman is set against the backdrop of Glasgow at a time of great change: once a city powered by gas via the corking of coal, in 1972 the industry – and Glasgow itself – underwent a seismic shift as natural gas from the North Sea oilfields became available. Thousands were laid off and gasmen became a relic of a bygone era. If Ramsay’s Da is still gainfully employed when we meet him, his time as a gasman is running out – as is his time supporting two families.
The role that parents play in shaping the identity of their children became an enduring fascination for Ramsay, particularly in her feature films Ratcatcher (1999) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). In exploring the moment that defined young Lynne’s life in Gasman, the film was also a portent of things to come for Ramsay the filmmaker. It defined her as an original voice that would shape a new brand of filmmaking for British and global cinema.
Gasman (1998 UK 15 mins)
Prod. Co: Holy Cow Films Prod: Gavin Emerson Dir: Lynne Ramsay Scr: Lynne Ramsay Phot: Alwin H. Küchler Ed: Lucia Zucchetti Prod. Des: Jane Morton
Cast: Lynne Ramsay Jnr, Martin Anderson, James Ramsay, Denise Flannagan, Jackie Quinn, Lisa Taylor, Robert McEwan.
- James Ramsay is Lynne’s brother, who also appeared in Small Deaths and Kill the Day and would go on to appear in Ratcatcher. Several other members of the Gasman cast – Lynne Ramsay Jnr, Robert McEwan and Jackie Quinn – were Ramsay regulars or non-actors, a throwback to Ramsay’s preference for documentary-style filmmaking. ↩
- Lynne Ramsay interview with Geoff Andrew “Guardian interviews at the BFI: Lynne Ramsay” The Guardian, 29 October 2002: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/oct/28/features ↩
- Ibid. ↩