Saturday, August 26, 2006

An Appreciation- Alan Clarke

Veteran British director Alan Clarke probably became more famous after American director Gus Van Sant pinched a few visual ideas (as well as a title) for his 2004 film “Elephant”, in which Van Sant elegantly and systematically tracks several students around the halls of Columbine high school on that fateful day. Clarke’s 1989 film, also called “Elephant” (as in the elephant in the room) concedes some of the same lofty ideas, complete with gloriously timed long tracking shots and a subject just as systematic- 16 different random acts of violence in Northern Ireland. No words, no names… just 16 vignettes of a man (or men) slowly stalking their unwitting prey through a maze of vacant buildings, alleyways, open fields and convenient stores, ending with a gunshot and a long, static take over the dead body. The idea sounds pretentious, but Clarke infuses the film with tension and such a precise sense of logistics, that “Elephant” slowly evolves into an experimental meditation on the limits of senseless violence. “Elephant” was Clarke’s last film. His first, entitled “Scum” (1979) stars a young Ray Winstone (obviously preparing for future roles that feature him as a one-man wrecking crew of fury and self-hate) as a young man sent to a reformatory. Like a few other Clarke films, the main theme here is the indoctrination of youth into a hopeless feeling of institutionalization and violent retribution, locked away from society and scrapping at the fringes of normal behavior. The story concerns Winstone and several other men as they learn to cope with life in this jail. At first, Winstone wants no trouble, but he soon learns that to be the “daddy” of this hell means life or death. Clarke strips away all pretensions, creating a sober, practical film that gives a touch of humanity to some vile people. The same cannot be said of Tim Roth as Trevor in “Made In Britain” (1982), who’s just vile. Making his screen debut, Roth plays Trevor the Skinhead with snarling, passionate conviction. Put into a half-way house for delinquents for ‘assessment’ he routinely sneaks out, continues to steal cars and break the business windows of Pakistani immigrants. Pre-dating the relentless handheld camera style of the Dardenne Brothers, Clarke’s film again delineates the line between youth and institutionalized authority. There’s a brilliant scene where a man lays out Trevor’s life on a chalkboard, rationalizing every aspect of his life. It’s probably the most honest presentation of where (and how easily) we may go wrong in life ever presented on the screen. Clarke’s penchant for long takes and lengthy steadicam shots again gets fair play in “Made in Britain” and it boasts a finale that is as nihilistic as its protagonist. Lastly, Clarke dabbled in the football genre with “The Firm”. Starring another brilliant lead performance by an actor totally in command of every nuance and spoken word, Gary Oldman plays Bex, a real estate salesman by day and violent football gang leader on weekends, prone to meeting their sporty rivals in abandoned tunnels and fighting until they pass out. The same subject was recently visited in Lexi Alexander’s “Green Street Hooligans” starring Elijah Wood, but Clarke’s version feels more lived in and authentic. All four of these films, originally made for British television (which shows the chutzpah that English TV holds for auteurs and serious stories… what do we have here- Twin Peaks is about it) are now available on DVD. Clarke made 3 more films before his death in 1990 (only 7 over a 25 year period), but the few he left behind are striking examples of a filmmaker carelessly exposing the indebted malignance of youth. See them at all cost.