Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 9, 2007

Alan Clarke in retrospect

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm


Alan Clarke 1935-1990

Very few good things came out of Great Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s rule except punk rock and some made-for-TV movies, each of which amounted to gobs of spit in the face of bourgeois triumphalism. Long after this miserable experiment in neoliberal economics is forgotten, people will still be listening to The Clash and watching Mike Leigh films. Although he died of cancer in July 1990 at the relatively early age of 55, director Alan Clarke left behind a substantial body of work that I have had a chance to look at over the past few weeks. While I have some relatively minor qualms about the politics expressed in his films (all available from Netflix), I can certainly recommend them for their unflinching power.

The 1979 “Scum” was set in a ‘borstal’–reform schools that allowed corporal punishment and emphasized blind obedience to authority. Borstals were abolished in 1982, no doubt as a result of the kind of bad publicity generated by “Scum” and earlier works such as Irish writer Brendan Behan’s “Borstal Boy” and Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

Ray Winstone as Carlin

“Scum” starred the 20 year old newcomer Ray Winstone as Carlin. As commentator Graham Barnfield notes below, Winstone had been an amateur boxer–just the right background for a film like “Scum”. Winstone went on to play many other disreputable but sympathetic Liverpoolian characters like Carlin, more recently Gal Dove, the retired burglar in “Sexy Beast.” At the beginning of the film, Carlin has just transferred in from another borstal with a reputation as being a hard case. The guards not only warn him that he will have to behave himself; they beat him up just as an advance warning. Afterwards, the dorm bully also beats him up just to remind him of his lower berth on the pecking order. Carlin takes the punishment stoically, refusing to identify his assailants to the warden or to even acknowledge that he was attacked.

Eventually, Carlin makes his move and retaliates against the bully. The minute or two of violence in this scene is Alan Clarke at his most memorable. This is not a lovingly choreographed fight scene like in a John Ford western but something much more real and anticlimactic–almost like a lion attacking and devouring an antelope. You are simultaneously repelled and fascinated.

After Carlin topples the bully, he assumes his place at the top of the food chain. Although Clarke was sympathetic to the left and of Liverpool working class origins himself, he had no pat answers for society’s problems. In some ways, his vision was Brechtian as in “Mother Courage”. His characters were unredeemable because they were subject to social and economic forces that they could not resist as individuals. Ultimately, they only are exceptional in that they stand up to authority. Evidence of that is the final scene of “Scum,” a schoolboy riot reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de conduite.”

In Alan Clarke’s 1982 “Made in Britain,” the main character is another young criminal but even harder to empathize with. Starring Tim Roth in his first screen role as Trevor the skinhead, the film confronts a liberal audience’s ability to get inside the mind of a character whose values are utterly opposite to their own, starting with the swastika tattoo on his forehead.

Clarke, who has an amazing ability to draw out malevolence from his lead actors cast in such roles, made Roth as scary as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. Before Roth became an actor, he was an art student inspired to change careers after seeing “Scum” ten times.

The film begins with Trevor in court about to be remanded to an evaluation center after he threw a brick through a Pakistani shopkeeper’s window. His social worker and officials at the evaluation center are always trying to figure out ways to reach him, but he remains committed to crime and violence no matter what. In some ways, his behavior is reminiscent of the youth gang in “A Clockwork Orange” that is motivated by a combination of boredom and inchoate yearnings for freedom. Trevor is the ultimate nihilist who breaks the law because he hates authority. It is of course the ultimate contradiction that his anti-authoritarianism is cloaked in Nazi regalia, a society that would have had no use for such criminal elements.

“Made in Britain” works much better as drama than it does as a political assault on the status quo. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of the punk rock attempt to shock through songs like “Blitzkreig Bop” or the Sex Pistols raising their hands in a faux Nazi salute. Despite the political murkiness of “Made in Britain,” it is an exhilarating 73 minute ride from beginning to end.

Clarke returns with another anti-social character in the 1988 “The Firm”, his most fully realized film dramatically and politically in my opinion. The lead character is Bex Bissell, a real estate salesman, with a wife and young child, who is addicted to football-related violence. When his wife warns him that she will leave him unless he stops taking part in vendettas directed against other football clubs, he says that he can’t and won’t. Why? He needs the “buzz”. Her answer is that he should take up bee-keeping instead.

Bex is played to a tee by Gary Oldman. In real life, Oldman was a Thatcherite and probably felt a certain kinship with his character. Despite his leanings, Oldman understood and sympathized with Clarke’s implicit critique of one Thatcherite policy:

And partly “The Firm” was a response to the moment when Thatcher wanted to make it harder for the so-called hooligan to get into football matches–there was talk at one time of making football hideously expensive, season ticket holders only. And she’d really got hold of the wrong end of the stick, because she imagined that it was fifteen- and sixteen-year old kids on the dole who had nothing better to do and thumped one another at the weekend. Whereas, of course, it was thirty-plus so-called respectable people who were holding down good jobs, with homes and cars and gold American Express cards.

Clarke made “Elephant” a year before he died. Although it is probably his most lauded film, I found it the most unsatisfying. It is a dialog-free 39 minute series of dramatized assassinations in Northern Ireland, with no attempt to explain or understand the killing. By concealing the identity of the principals, Clarke is obviously trying to depict the struggle as a senseless internecine vendetta of the kind that has taken place all across Africa over the past 20 years or so. Considering Clarke’s British origins, this should not come as a big surprise.

Pam Brighton, an Irish playwright and colleague of Clarke, was critical of “Elephant” in a book on Clarke edited by Richard Kelly:

I always hated “Elephant”, I thought it was absolute bollocks. It was Alan at his worst, with lots of feeling and passion but no analysis, which meant that he could do something like that — which just embarrasses me, the thought of it. You know, sometimes I think that his instinct was so good and so strong that it didn’t matter, he just went in where angels fear. But living in Northern Ireland like I do, I felt that his thinking about here was absolutely wrong. We’d argue, and he saw it in that very common way as a hopeless sectarian problem with too many guns. I’d say you need to have an analysis of here which includes the British state, and the nature of that power and the reaction against it. I didn’t see “Contact” (another Clarke film about the “troubles”)–again, I suspect I wouldn’t really like it. Well, I just don’t care for dramas about British soldiers. They should be here and that’s all there is to it really, you know what I mean?

(Just a postscript on “Elephant”. American film-maker Gus Van Sant paid homage to Clarke by making a film with the same name and idea, namely that murdering people is an awful thing to do. Based on the Colombine High School shootings, it is much more fixated on Clarke’s trademark Steadicam techniques. In both films, the typical scene involves people walking down long, arid, institutionalized hallways–always with the threat of violence in the background. If “Elephant” was my first Clarke film, I might not have bothered with the others. That being said, I do recommend viewing it as part of taking in the legacy of this genius of modern British cinema.)



  1. V.S. Naipaul and Harold Pinter, two Nobel Prize Winners for Literature were very productive during the so-called Thatcher years in Britain. Of course they can be dismissed for ideological reasons. It saves the bother of reading them.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 10, 2007 @ 10:24 am

  2. Good old Netflix, letting the viewer stage their own retrospective seasons when the mainstream film festivals are not interested. Louis’ account of these three TV movies is a convincing one: British men of my age group have a mixed experience of viewing Clarke. We have fond memories of watching his films for the violence and cursing in the 1980s, and then stumbling across them on late night TV in the present day. On a second viewing, some of the political themes emerge.

    That said, I must take issue with some factual aspects in this retrospective. The Clash didn’t really come out of Thatcher’s Britain; they were formed and gigging three years before she took office. And Ray Winstone would chuckle at being called a Scouser/Liverpudlian: “Ray Winstone was born in Hackney Hospital, London. He moved to Enfield aged seven, where his father and mother had a fruit and vegetable business, and he went to school at Edmonton County. He started boxing at the age of twelve at the famous Repton Amateur Boxing Club, was three times London Schoolboy Champion and fought twice for England, UK. In ten years of boxing he won over 80 medals and trophies. Ray studied acting at the Corona School before being cast by director Alan Clarke as ‘Carlin’ in the BBC Play production of ‘Scum’.” (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0935653/bio)

    Comment by Graham — February 10, 2007 @ 1:39 pm

  3. A minor bit of trivia; much of Tim Roth’s dialogue in “Made in Britain” was later sampled by the British hiphop artist Skinnyman, for his 2004 album “Council Estate of Mind”, somewhat of a concept album about what it’s like to grow up and live in a British ghetto (or council estate).

    Comment by Martin Wisse — February 11, 2007 @ 12:55 am

  4. Ray Winstone and Carlin are not Liverpudlian where on earth do you get that from? Are you sure abotu Oldman being a Thatcherite as well, I’d have been surprised at that given his background. Nil My Mouth isn’t exactly pro-Conservative fodder.
    Lastly British people aren’t all anti-Republican either. Many have filmed sympathetic stories of NI and been British. That’s a ridiculous assumption to make. Like saying a white person can’t do a film abotu slavery without prejudice.

    Comment by P.Edant — September 14, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

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