In film, as in most other fields, "amateur" is a dirty word. But what it really denotes is people enthusiastic enough to stick their neck out and commit themselves to activities not strictly covered by their job description. We could certainly use a few more passionate amateurs in British cinema, which has always suffered from a stifling preponderance of dogged, by-the-book professionals.
Even in the Seventies, when he was singer with Scottish punk-with-pretensions band The Skids, the music press fondly used to dismiss Richard Jobson as a jumped-up dilettante. Since then, he's tried out various roles - poet, actor, film producer, presenter of some energetic, clued-up TV film programmes. It seemed inevitable that he'd get round to directing, and that the result would be idiosyncratic and pumped full of his cinephile obsessions.
16 Years of Alcohol is indeed intensely personal, in the way that breathlessly confessional first novels can be. If the film is in any way "amateur", that is only because of its thoroughgoing unselfconsciousness: a seasoned pro would no doubt have script-developed Jobson's passionate excesses out of court. The film's poetic earnestness might make you wince at times, but it comes from the heart - and from a debut director's rapturous excitement at getting to grips with the possibilities of screen language. This is not the work of a media flâneur turned film-maker, but of a film-maker full stop.
What it isn't, not quite, is original: Jobson is too much the devotee not to have an eye on the films that inspired him, hence the overt references to Kubrick and Bruce Lee. You could see 16 Years of Alcohol as a hipper, heterosexual (indeed, macho) version of Terence Davies's memoir films The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives. Partly autobiographical, partly inspired by an older brother who died, the film follows the career of Edinburgh hard man Frankie Mac (Kevin McKidd), whose violence and alcoholism seem inscribed in his destiny from the start. We first meet Frankie as an adult, as his past catches up with him: beaten up to the accompaniment of Keith Atack's desolately pretty piano music, Frankie looks back in voice-over. Immediately, we're in an Edinburgh counterpart to Davies's world of smoky, song-filled saloon bars: Frankie's charismatic Dad (Lewis Macleod) holds court with a Jim Reeves number, then steps out to cheat on his wife, causing the first crack in little Frankie's golden vision of life.
Later, a teenage Frankie (a somewhat overgrown McKidd, but you'll have to apply poetic licence) and his Crombie-coated gang prance around to "Skinhead Moonstomp" in a concrete-and-piss underpass, lit to recall A Clockwork Orange. As a hard man, Frankie is meaner and smarter than his attendant droogs: a particularly chilling scene has him laying on the soft-spoken charm for a terrified publican, as prelude to a headbutt.
Deep down, Frankie is wounded, sensitive and open to redemption, twice over: once with a waif-like art student (Laura Fraser), later with a woman from his AA group (Susan Lynch, muscular, worldly-wise and sensual).
Since we know how Frankie's story must end, his progress has a ring of tragedy, and McKidd is an actor who can genuinely give that tragedy its due weight, imparting terse dignity to a character who could have come across as just a self-pitying tough. McKidd strides imperiously through the film with a battered athlete's face, like a Roman statue that's suffered a few slips of the chisel. Even when Frankie seems likely to edge into hysteria, McKidd commandingly holds back: when Frankie turns on a snooty couple in an art gallery, McKidd's understatement gives an edge to what could have come across as clichéd punk railing.
At times, the film does cast subtlety to the winds. There are some extremely awkward moments, such as McKidd and the sweetly insipid Fraser doing a Greek-gods routine on Edinburgh's National Monument, or the scene where Frankie intervenes to stop some boys terrorising a ragged boozer, only to realise it's his old Dad: it could have been lifted from out a Victorian tract on the perils of drink. The poetic voice-over too can take some swallowing, with its strange hard-boiled aphorisms: "Hope is a strange thing - a currency for people who know they are losing." Still, it's a change from the chatty mundaneness we usually expect from British realism.
So what if Jobson can't resist making the clunk of a whisky glass on a bar resound like the crack of doom? In the main, his intoxication with dramatic effect is contagious. The film takes visual and rhetorical risks motivated by a real sense of adventure. It was shot on High Definition digital video, apparently for £420,000, and its sheer textural richness marks something of a breakthrough for British low-budget film-making. Not only does the HD format look as textured as film, but John Rhodes's widescreen photography is strikingly composed, atmospheric and sculpted in practically every scene - from the heroic close-up framings of Frankie, to the fug of bars with their haze of cask-matured daylight and the rainy Gothic darkness of Edinburgh's 19th-century mean streets.
There's dramatic subtlety, too, in those moments where Jobson trusts us to see things for ourselves. When young Frankie (the very engaging Iain de Caestecker) witnesses his father's indiscretion, we don't see the traumatic scene itself at first: we just glimpse a young woman slipping back into the pub with Dad's coat draped over her shoulders. There's also some affecting sound design: early on, the young Frankie walks into an empty sitting room dominated by the amplified rasp of a gramophone needle. (You realise what a great poetic device was lost to film when they phased out vinyl.)
Many viewers may find Jobson's film hard to take, with its sometimes overcooked tough-man sentimentality, and it might be argued that it embodies some well-worn clichés associated with stories about British working-class men trying to break out of a social straitjacket.
There's no doubt that 16 Years of Alcohol is uneven and requires a certain leap of faith, but the faith and brio of the film itself more than go halfway to meet the viewer. It looks as if Jobson has found his true forte.
Woody Allen's Anything Else has been received by some critics as a modest comeback, but "throwback" is more accurate. It certainly comes closer to the classic strain of Allen moral comedies than such recent feeble farces as Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and the truly catastrophic Hollywood Ending, which remains mercifully unreleased in Britain. Even so, Anything Else has the musty whiff of a bottom-drawer leftover dusted down and tarted up with subplots and wiseacre aperçus.
It's essentially a slight, Neil Simon-ish romantic comedy with Jason Biggs, of American Pie, in what would once have been the Allen role. He plays an up-and-coming comedy writer recalling - sometimes straight to camera - his painful romance with Amanda (Christina Ricci), a dizzy ingenue whose mercurial whims and arty airs suggest she could be Annie Hall's granddaughter. Their story is recounted in a stiltedly theatrical version of the old familiar Allen table-talk style, and Amanda's unfathomable neurosis gives the relationship a sour "Dames, who can figure 'em?" spin that's bound to hamstring a romantic comedy from the outset.
Allen himself makes every effort to steal the show as Dobel, an eccentric schoolteacher turned gag writer, who becomes Jerry's confidant and mentor. Sitting in Central Park dispensing wisdom like a bagel-bar Polonius, it's as if Dobel is trying to give Jerry masterclasses in impersonating Woody Allen. I'm not sure which is more uncomfortable to watch: Biggs's spirited but too respectful attempt to master Allen's trademark rhythms, or Allen's debilitated self-parody, the hand signals becoming a random Tourette-ish flapping, the vaudevillean's timing gone, leaving his one-liners floating adrift in dead air.
Leaden as the film's gags are, a particular problem is that Dobel's lines come from the mouth of a character whom Allen clearly conceived of as being fascinatingly disturbed and unlikeable. Dobel isn't Allen's usual charming nebbish, but a pontificating anti-intellectual in a fast car, a survivalist gun nut driven by a paranoid obsession with anti-Semitism. It would take much sharper character definition that Allen provides here to make anything remotely amusing of Dobel's line about encountering someone who "obliquely implied Auschwitz was just a theme park". The Dobel part of the film makes it feel as if the romantic comedy is uneasy host to a darker, more solemn piece about American Jewishness that Allen couldn't get off the ground in its own right. His very biting Deconstructing Harry (1997) raised suspicions that Allen envied Philip Roth's taking the laurels as America's high-culture Jewish sage, and Anything Else often feels like a half-baked attempt to pull off the filmic equivalent of a Roth novel.
The one interesting aspect of the film is the casting of Biggs and Ricci - both actors who've been young, fresh new things, here playing parts that embody the agonies of becoming adults. Both actors clearly show some uneasiness at entering the Woody Allen fictional world, the great comic currency of which is bitterness, failure and emotional fatigue.
Anything Else has nothing new to say, which once would have been unthinkable of an Allen film. (Now, Crimes and Misdemeanors I could write a book on.) The title refers to a cab driver's observation about life being "full of unspeakable mystery", but it might as well be Anything Else as in, I'd rather watch anything else.Reuse content