I’ve long been meaning to write a few words on Alan Clarke, a director whose work I have formerly and shamefully overlooked with the odd exception of a long-distant, early-hours viewing of Scum. I attended the recent BFI season with high expectations that were duly met, thus encouraging me to snap up more tickets than originally bargained for and put me out of pocket for the following month’s repertoire. It was quite worth it. To disappear down the rabbit hole of a filmmaker’s oeuvre for which you instantly develop an affinity is a rich reward, and to view several offerings in such quick succession helps to paint an immediately rich tapestry of the filmmaker, his collaborators, and the era and context in which each work is situated.
1989’s Road, about a night out in Lancashire for an assortment of colourful characters, has endured the most for me. It was originally singled out for effusive praise during one evening’s post-film Q&A, particularly for the extensive Steadicam sequences courtesy of frequent Clarke cinematographer John Walker, who also worked with the likes of Kubrick and Besson. Whereas Ward’s Steadicam usage in The Firm situates us within and keeps pace with the titular mob, its function in Road is more expansive and exploratory of the milieu in which events occur. It hovers around moments of uncomfortable intimacy without seeming voyeuristic. It traces characters around the streets, following them to and from their houses, charting where they come from, where they go to – the film’s centrepiece dancehall, mostly – and to where they return. The buildings on the periphery, long blocks of brown terraced houses stretching long into the distance, are vital backdrops to the action.
Road is an adaptation of a stage play by Jim Cartwright, and this literary influence becomes especially apparent during a dialogue-thick climactic scene in which two suited chancers take two girls back to a derelict house to get lucky, only to find they lack the requisite social skills to get anything started. The awkward posturing quickly accelerates into a verbal sparring match, facilitated by the sound of Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’; the song’s majesty sends all four individuals into a meditative stupor before they each take turns to let loose with their hopes and fears. Art has revealed them.
Clarke’s interest lies in stripping away stony, defensive or machismo surfaces to examine the vulnerable humans underneath. Partnered with Road was a screening of Christine, an hour-long accompaniment of a fictional young girl moving between various houses to inject heroine with various acquaintances. It’s all rather banal; there is no manufactured drama, nor any inciting traumas or incidents that would suggest the activity has a definitive root cause. There is only a silently observational air, as if what we see is not for the filmmaker to unpack and sermonise with, but given to us unfurnished and open to imprint. In an age where television docs and print media are caught between perpetuating and subverting stereotypes – and overwhelmingly opting for the latter – it seems hard to envision something as slow-burning and non-judgemental as Christine being commissioned for modern-day broadcast.
Indeed, Clarke’s compassionate mode of filmmaking seems at odds with the cynical opportunism run rife in today’s mass media. Primed with our hot takes and thin patience, we fools can rush to judgement. That’s why David Leland was asked, during a Q&A session for Made in Britain (also attended by Tim Roth, the film’s star, via Skype) if there was any danger of Roth’s neo-nazi Trevor being glorified and celebrated. Leland seemed perturbed by the suggestion, and equally so at the compere’s echoing of its sentiments. He had never once held qualms as to whether people would be repulsed or entranced by Trevor, and he trusted the intelligence of the audience to discern that, yes, Trevor has repellent views and his actions are destructive, but his rage is not something that has generated of its own accord. The clue is in the title.
Besides Trevor himself, one of the most invigorating presences in the film belongs to Geoffrey Hutching’s Superintendent, who drops in for a blisteringly brief, blunt performance aided by a chalk, a blackboard and many arrows and underlines, detailing the vicious cycle in which Trevor is mired and all the chances he’s received and blown in equal measure. If Clarke has done his job right (which he has), one’s response to this is far greater than an elementary hand-wave at the downward spiral down which Trevor seems to willingly slide. One would bemoan the stifling systems in place around him, the gulf of human experience that detaches one’s empathy and, most of all, the sheer waste of human potential. Trevor is an intelligent, charismatic and potentially endearing specimen, but it’s all gone to pot.
‘Waste’ is a word adequately prescribed to Gary Oldman’s band of football hooligans in The Firm, the slick-haired buffoons who unleash their collective masculine id at the end of the working week, channelling pent-up energies into arbitrary, meaningless tribalism that can and will only end in bloodshed. Clarke wisely went for the less obvious culprits with this one: instead of treading on working class football fans as was typical Thatcherite de rigueur, Clarke recognised that all this pent-up rage was a return of the masculine repressed, and the juxtaposition was no more evident than in the apparently upstanding white-collar workers who presented one face in the week and another on the weekend, all the while drawing young affectless souls into their petty war games. Clarke allegedly ‘hated’ these people, which seems odd for a director I have only just termed as compassionate, though his hatred could been seen again as frustration at scuppered potential, at diseased minds sabotaging theirs and their family’s wellbeing by stomping down a one-way street toward a dead-end. As with Made in Britain, the inattentive viewer may well wrongfully stump for their preconceived prejudices and view it all in black-and-white, condemning humanity wholesale or holding the lads up as screen legends. But a shake of the head will suffice, and is as much as Phil Davis’ Yeti – at once ludicrous and chilling with his bleach-blond hair, sunglasses and wide, devilish grin – probably deserves.
The subject of conflating a director wrongfully with his subject happened upon me again when leaving a recent screening of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee. The lead in the film is an oafish young man who punches well below his age limit, cowardly veering from an assertive young woman so that he can yield to his superficial attraction towards Claire and, specifically, her knee. His final touching of her knee, he claims, is to free himself of his desire and thus relinquish Claire from the chains of his desire. A dubious justification for a perverse action, but some viewers were clearly too eager to take it literally: upon exiting the screening, I was followed by two male patrons who were disgusted that Rohmer would write such a reprehensible character, as if the man were somehow a surrogate for Rohmer himself.
All of this kneejerk finger-pointing is to appropriate the rush of judgement necessitated by internet reactions and Twitter consensuses, and deny the nuances of human behaviour that may drive irrational or irresponsible behaviour. Rohmer is not so much interested in condemning, nor, god forbid, praising his lead character as he is exploring the mechanics of desire and how these can be manipulated to achieve one’s own ends. In his own way, Alan Clarke would show the fury (Made in Britain, The Firm) and the quiet agony (Road, Christine) and trust that we would parse through the portrayals, alternately loud and muted, and understand these individuals for who they were and, crucially, where they were.