Edinburgh 98: King of the hooligan element
A major retrospective of the shocking, uncompromising work of the late Alan Clarke shows just why the reputation of this courageous director continues to grow
Think of Clarke and the images which probably spring to mind are Ray Winstone slugging Phil Daniels with a sock full of billiard balls in Scum (1977), Gary Oldman orchestrating casual football violence in The Firm (1989), or Tim Roth as a skinhead swaggering down the middle of the road, sneering at the passing traffic, in Made In Britain (1983). On the face of it, Clarke, who died in 1990, was the most macho and belligerent of film-makers. He loathed authority and it showed. Even when he was making a costume drama, the bile came out. In his 1978 adaptation of Buchner's play, Danton's Death, you half suspect that he regarded the prissy, bloodless bureaucrat Robespierre (Ian Richardson) as an 18th-century counterpart to Alasdair Milne, the BBC Director-General who had refused to allow Scum to be shown the year before.
If Robespierre is a ringer for Milne, Danton, the boisterous revolutionary, is not so very far removed from Clarke. He was not the typical TV drama director who gravitated to the Beeb via public school and Oxbridge. Instead, he was the working-class hero (or hooligan) who relished terrorising his bosses. He played the part almost to the point of self-parody. Richard Kelly's new book about him is full of stories of Clarke dancing naked on the bar in the BBC canteen; Clarke urinating out of windows or being thrown out of restaurants, or Clarke being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour. He was once even banned from using the BBC lifts, something which you cannot quite imagine happening to the sainted Ken Loach.
Of course, if Clarke had been nothing but a hooligan with an eye for a well-composed shot, he would hardly have achieved the acclaim which is belatedly coming his way. His antics might have been remembered fondly by his crews, but the films themselves would hardly have lasted. Perhaps, though, what shines through even more than his antagonism for authority is his affection for the downtrodden, nondescript characters ignored by most film-makers. Christine is a perfect example. Its heroine (Vicky Murdock) is not the archetypal addict. We do not see her sweating or suffering withdrawal symptoms like Christiane F. Nor is there any of the high jinks you find in Trainspotting. She is a plain, reserved teenager trying to ward off boredom. Clarke does not moralise about her any more than about the trainspotter in The Last Train Through The Harecastle Tunnel (1971), or the adolescent terrified he has come face to face with the devil in Penda's Fen (1973).
Such films are a corrective to the idea that Clarke was only happy showing skinheads and Borstal boys.He was one of the pioneers of in-your-face steadicam film-making. In Made In Britain, the hand-held camera reflects the violence and restlessness of the Tim Roth character in a film which almost seems fuelled by testosterone. But Clarke could show restraint and sensitivity. In Christine, the hand-held camera captures perfectly the monotony of the lead's existence. Road (1987), Clarke's adaptation of Jim Cartwright's play, marries the two styles, youngsters strutting through the streets to the accompaniment of Gene Vincent counterpointed with battered housewives and old-timers marching forlornly along, knowing they are going nowhere. When needs be, Clarke has the confidence to hold a shot for what seems like a grim eternity.
"He was the actor's dream, one of those directors who would go all the way for you," remembers writer-director David Leland, who first met Clarke on the set of a BBC Play for the Month in the 1970s and went on to write three films for him (Psy Warriors, Beloved Enemy and Made In Britain). Clarke was unpopular within the BBC, not only because of the controversial subject matter he was drawn to, but because of his working methods. He often cast unknowns and kept his writers on set throughout shooting, something which was unheard of. In other words, he refused to play the corporate game.
Eight years after his death, Clarke is being talked up as one of the great British post-war film-makers. "A poet for all those beasts who pace and measure the limits of their cages," writes David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema. "Definitely the best of all the British new wave," proclaims Harmony Korine, the young American writer-director of the clearly Clarke- influenced Gummo. Lizzie Francke, the director of the Edinburgh Film Festival who has programmed a retrospective of his work, describes him as "the Robert Bresson of British cinema" - on the face of it, an unlikely compliment for a working-class Liverpudlian and diehard Everton fan (his son is the football journalist, Gabriel Clarke) who did most of his work for television.
"Posthumous fame," the critic Hannah Arendt once wrote, "is less arbitrary and often more solid than the other sorts, since it is only seldom bestowed upon mere merchandise." In Clarke's case, Arendt's observation seems particularly apt. His films attracted minimal audiences when they were first shown, but as time passes, their quality becomes increasingly apparent. They will last.
Ray Winstone and Tim Roth are both expected in Edinburgh to talk about working with Clarke. It would be a pity, though, if Scum and Made In Britain, the two films in which they appeared, are allowed to overshadow the rest of the retrospective. Stylistically, much of Clarke's other work is equally, if not more, interesting. Watching "late Clarke", one has the impression of a technique refined to such a degree that he no longer needs to rely on the contrivances of plot and character. Two dramas, in particular, stand out: Contact (1984) and Elephant (1988). Both deal with Northern Ireland. The former, shot in semi-documentary style, follows a British army platoon on patrol in Crosmaglen. There is virtually no dialogue other than the orders the commander (Sean Chapman) bellows to his men. For most of the film, all we see is soldiers tramping across fields and elbowing through bracken. The soldiers are on edge and so are we. Snipers may be lurking over the brow of each hill. The finale, in which Chapman prowls around a car which may be booby-trapped, is excruciating. Clarke shoots it in long-shot, at microscopic pace, creating an almost unbearable tension.
Elephant, which was produced by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame, is even more extraordinary. Clarke has stripped the film of all the usual cartilage. There are no characters as such, no plot. Instead, we watch a series of cold-blooded murders. Again, Clarke heightens the tension by refusing to cut. He will show an assassin, dressed like a businessman, walking hundreds of yards, finding his target, shooting him in the head, and then walking back again. Violence encroaches everywhere. A man out for a stroll in the park is murdered. A garage attendant is murdered. A youth playing football is murdered. A man in overalls cleaning up swimming pool changing rooms is murdered. The point, Boyle has said, was to show "the ignorant mainland" the remorselessness of the violence.
Elephant is, literally, a short film about killing. It is a moot point whether or not it works - without a sense of place or a political context, it cannot help but seem a cold and abstract exercise. Nevertheless, the audacity is breathtaking. That Clarke was prepared to risk making it goes a long way to explaining why he is so revered. Nobody else would have had the courage.
The Alan Clarke retrospective runs throughout this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. Richard Kelly's book, 'Alan Clarke', is published on 24 August by Faber, pounds 12.99 paperback
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