by Jack Hawkins
The BFI has released a mammoth 13-disc box set chronicling the life and work of Alan Clarke, the hell-raiser director/writer/producer of Scum, The Firm, Made in Britain and many TV films for the BBC.
The collection comprises two sections: Dissent, which covers 1969 – 1977, and Disruption, which covers 1978 – 1989. They can be bought as a single Blu-ray collection, which will set one back about £110, or in separate DVD box sets for £49.99 each. It’s a pity that the separate collections are only available on DVD, but the transfer of Disruption – which is the focus of this review – still looked good on my Blu-ray player.
Besides, high definition would not do much to improve the 4:3 framed grittiness of Alan Clarke’s realism. The real selling point of this collection is the remarkable scope of the material; indeed, the BFI says it is the most comprehensive package they’ve ever produced for a single filmmaker. There are 11 BBC films: Nina, Danton’s Death, Beloved Enemy, Psy-Warriors, Baal, Stars of the Roller State Disco, Contact, Christine, Road, two versions of The Firm and Elephant.
Supporting these films is a veritable wealth of introductions, commentaries, Open Air discussions and documentaries that are too numerous to be fully listed here. The special feature most worth mentioning is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a brand-new 12-part documentary that’s spread out across the six discs, providing contexts and insights that are bound to illuminate even the most venerable of Clarke’s fans.
As something of a newcomer (I’d seen only Scum and The Firm), it was the diversity of Clarke’s canon that surprised me. Like many others, I had associated him with bleak kitchen-sink fare and little else. However, Clarke has dealt with corporate drama in Beloved Enemy, revolutionary France in Danton’s Death, the Troubles in Contact and Elephant, communist defection in Nina, and governmental torture in Psy-Warriors, to name just a few.
This body of work represents a largely bygone era of creativity over commercialism among BBC commissioners, who now believe that the British public wants the likes of ‘will.i.am’ and his monstrous sartorial inelegance headlining yet another loud, flashy talent show.
One can talk at length about the last 11 years of Clarke’s career, but the brevity of this review permits just a short discussion of two obscure, interesting films: Elephant and Christine.
Elephant is Clarke at his most stripped down and perhaps most unusual. It’s not a film or even a short film; it’s an avant-garde artwork that could be projected on to a gallery wall. There is no dialogue, just 38 minutes of men walking up to other men and shooting them to death. The message, which it delivers to the point of monotony, is that the everyday murder in Belfast during the Troubles was, in the words of Bernard MacLaverty, ‘the elephant in our living room.’
The big problem with Elephant is that there are no indicators of context or setting. We briefly hear a few lines of Northern Irish-accented dialogue on a muddy football pitch, but this is easily missed. When asked about the issue during an episode of Open Air, producer Danny Boyle said that they wanted to remove the context of Northern Ireland because of how complicated the political situation was, despite himself and Clarke previously saying that Elephant was a comment on the country’s endless violence.
Also, the murders are not that disturbing. In fact, the bizarre spectacle of almost ceaseless killing – which is broken up only by Clarke’s obsessive penchant for walking shots – becomes risible. This is because the majority of the victims have quick, muted deaths. Even those who receive shots to the gut just fall to the ground or slump in their chair, which is an inaccurate recreation of an agonising injury. It’s message of bitter political violence would have much greater potency and longevity if Clarke had teamed truly ugly violence with at least a modicum of dialogue and character development.
In terms of format, Christine is something of a companion piece. It is about a teenage girl’s cyclical life of small talk, daytime TV and heroin addiction. A steady cam tracks the central character as she walks around her housing estate with a plastic bag of opiates, making her way to several friends’ houses where they will shoot up together. It’s walk, talk, drugs, repeat for 50 minutes.
Clarke’s depiction of addiction has a deeply uncomfortable banality that is a welcome departure from the glossy sheen applied to the cokey hedonism of The Wolf of Wall Street or the Britpop infused smack of Trainspotting. In regard to the latter, you know there’s a problem when posters of a film that’s supposed to be about abject degeneracy routinely adorn the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms and student accommodation.
Despite the merits of Clarke’s rarely seen short films, it’s not surprising that his work is usually whittled down to Made in Britain, The Firm and Scum, his best film. It is the theatrical release of Scum, headed by a young and angry Ray Winstone, which constitutes the quintessential Clarke film. Its character dynamics are memorable and well acted, its sociopolitical commentary fiery and resonant, and its steady cam shots fluid and exciting rather than self-indulgently overlong. It is a fully developed and accomplished work that highlights the experimental nature of Christine and Elephant, which are stripped down to a fault, and possesses the pathos and overwhelming power absent from Nina and Baal, which are stagey, televisual and ever so slightly boring.
However, it is highly commendable that the BFI has produced such an exhaustively comprehensive tribute to one of Britain’s most eclectic filmmakers, no matter what you think of him.
The films: 3.5/5
The overall collection: 4/5
Alan Clarke: Dissent and Disruption are both available now on DVD and Blu-ray