Criterion Prediction #27: An Alan Clarke Collection, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Alan Clarke Collection, or The Teleplays of Alan Clarke – Panda’s Fen, Diane, Scum, Psy-Warriors, Made in Britain, Contact, Christine, Road, Elephant, The Firm
Director: Alan Clarke
Cast: Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, Ray Winstone, Janine Duvitski, Derrick O’Connor, Vicky Murdock, Neal Dudgeon, Gary Walker, Phillip Davis, David Thewlis, Terry Richards.
Synopsis: Alan Clarke’s work ranges from gritty social realism to political allegory, showing superlative skill in the medium in television and film. Since there’s a lot to cover, I’ll list a brief synopsis and critique for each title.
Panda’s Fen (1974): Reality breaks down when a pastor’s son tries to reconcile the history of paganism in England’s past while he comes to terms with his sexuality. Clarke maintains his stylistic tone while affecting genuinely unnerving scenes of nightmarish mysticism; this is something of a departure for Clarke. However, it also stands as evidence that his skill as a director was never limited. [90 Minutes]
Diane (1975): The titular character is emotionally removed from a well-meaning suitor. As we learn more about her past, it seems that she may be psychologically damaged by an incestuous relationship with her father. By 1975, his feature length Playhouse drama Diane proved to be an un-exploitative yarn that veers from any detectable aroma of sensationalism; dour material humanized by great acting and direction. [97 Minutes]
Scum (1979): Before Ray Winstone was a mainstay of British gangster films, he was a fierce Borstal inmate in (one of) Clarke’s more/most controversial film. The film was banned by the BBC due to it’s accurate (therefore inhuman and unflinching) depiction of violence and racism. Clearly Scum is not an “easy” watch, but its thoroughly fleshed out characters and moments of humanity amid the savagery of institutionalized juvenile offenders are deeply moving. [1991 Version – 98 Minutes; 1979 Version – 78 Minutes]
Psy-Warriors (1981): Prisoners are held in an in a sterile government facility, where they are interrogated and tortured while we know very little about their incarceration. Don’t be fooled by the title; Psy-Warriors is the director’s earliest example of (known) narrative digression into metaphorical dissonance regarding the bureaucratic implementation of torture and imprisonment. [73 Minutes]
Made in Britain (1983): An angry, disaffected skinhead makes an attempt at redemption with the help of a dedicated social worker. A young Tim Roth sets the screen ablaze in this more conventional (in a narrative sense) outing from Clarke. Made in Britain doesn’t moralize, aggrandize, judge, or simplify its subject. His story is compelling because of his ability to tell it with honesty and clarity. This was also one of the first films where Clarke utilized the Steadicam, a consistent tool in his arsenal. [76 Minutes]
Contact (1985): British paratroopers land in South Armagh, where they feud with adversaries unseen and unidentified. Alan Clarke moved away from staunch realism and more towards expressionistic abstraction with Contact. Practically a silent movie, the dialogue is sparse, free of exposition, heroism, and other tropes that exist in films about the military. [68 Minutes]
Christine (1987): Devoid of frills or inadvertent glamorizing of drug use, his 1987 feature Christine proves to be a startlingly convincing and unflinching look at heroin addiction. The titular character (Vicky Murdock) is captured wandering through the desolate suburbs in broad daylight with long takes that put us alongside her as she ceaselessly paces from house to house to get her fix. The endless chase of addiction is deftly realized in Christine, a lean and chilling masterpiece. [54 Minutes]
Road (1987): A day (and night) in the life of a Lancashire man and the nightlife of England during a time of Margaret Thatcher’s England. After the dissonant expressionism in Contact, Clarke’s follow up is more accessible than some of his earlier work, while retaining the tonal realism. Road feels like a lived-in and textured look at single life in 1980s. Expertly staged scenes, his use of Steadicam, and an awe-inspiring monologue by Lesley Sharpe put this one among the director’s best works. [67 Minutes]
Elephant (1989): Assassinations, murders, and shootings are carried out in Northern Ireland, the targets and shooters are unidentifiable, and neither they, nor their motives, are revealed. Like Contact, Clarke knew it would be in bad taste to dramatize the tumultuous conflict in Northern Ireland, and stripped these features of any theatrical convention. Elephant, another controversial short masterpiece from Clarke is a forty-minute feature with 18 killings taking place in Belfast; there are about three lines of dialogue and no narrative structure. There’s nothing here that indicates that these killings onscreen make sense, as the violence continues you realize that it shouldn’t continue, and yet it does. This was obviously an influence on Gus Van Sant’s film of the same name. [40 Minutes]
The Firm (1989): The Inter City Crew, a football firm lead by Clive “Bex” Bissell feud with a rival firm, and violent engagements boil over into cataclysmic proportions. Another searing performance from a young actor who would go on to become iconic, Gary Oldman plays a ruthless gang leader masquerading as a real estate agent, and his soccer firm is masquerading as nothing more than a gang of organized thugs. Like most of Clarke’s work this film has deafening social import, turning over the rock that is hooliganism, showing that it isn’t just relegated to knuckle dragging hoods. [70 Minutes]
An unsung champion of British cinema, Alan Clarke’s trenchant output has gained recognition in England. However, his name doesn’t share the same international prestige with his contemporaries who, like Clarke, cut their teeth directing teleplays for the BBC’s Play for Today and Wednesday Play series. The 1960s and ’70s were a decided stomping ground for luminaries of British films such as Mike Leigh, Alan Parker, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears. Unfortunately, Clarke’s life was cut short at the age of 54. While the range of his work as a director vaults from pagan mysticism to minimalist political allegory, he’s best known for works of social realism. However, his distillation of technique (in films like Contact and Elephant) punctures the futility of government institutions and human behavior, with a basic thesis that violence is a self-sabotaging facet of existence that must stop.
He dedicated much of his effort to exploring hot-button social issues, but his unassertive specialty is an absence of preachiness or self-importance, remarkable considering his unsympathetic point of view.
Why They Belong in the Collection? The most significant reason would be the one that I stated earlier – Clarke’s legacy is under-appreciated in North America. Unlike some previous predictions (occasionally inspired by forum gossip of the wacky drawings in Criterion’s newsletters) this prediction comes from more of a personal interest in Alan Clarke, his work and reputation, and hopefully extending it to like-minded movie fans who would appreciate discovering, or learning more about this overlooked expert of British cinema.
As I’m writing this, the BFI has announced they are releasing the complete collection of Clarke’s work on DVD and Blu-Ray later this May. Dissent & Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC will be a region B/2 Blu-Ray, DVD, and this set will also receive a limited edition release. The BBC set is ideal for completists of his work, but the depth of his filmography might be too weighty for some, and the region coding and the limited availability will likely alienate people from this culturally important filmmaker as well. These ten films could be an Eclipse set; it would seem like a fitting home for such an unvarnished filmmaker, but the maxim of his power deserves cool artwork, bonus features, and audio commentaries. I’m sure those who admire and/or collaborated with the late director; Gary Oldman, Stephen Frears Ken Loach, Paul Greengrass, and Tim Roth could contribute to the bonus features. Seeing as the longest of these ten films has a running time of 97 minutes, they’ll be economic to package, like the Robert Downey Sr. Eclipse set where you have up to three titles per disc.
While there may be ten films listed here, Criterion could merely cobble a set of The Firm, Elephant, and Made in Britain and that would be an amazing treat, but with so many great films, why not dream big? This selection isn’t counting other classics from Clarke – his Bertold Brecht adaptation of Baal starring David Bowie is a treat, his feature film comedy Rita, Sue, and Bob Too is something of a classic, and his oddball Billy the Kid & the Green Baize Vampire looks curious, to say the least. But these ten movies chart a growth and a certain throughline of Clarke’s work that is crucially vital.
Now that the BBC has restored nearly all of Clarke’s work, and the limited release from the BFI/BBC might lead me to believe that their interest in his films is in VOD, more so than home video. That might mean Criterion can acquire the rights to select films from the BBC or the BFI. Besides, I’m sure the BBC wouldn’t mind making more money.