I’ve been watching Alan Clarke films lately, as I’ve managed to grab hold of some of his TV work which isn’t so widely available.
I’m sure many of us know him best from things like Scum, the TV play (1977) about the brutality of the borstal system, which was banned by the Beeb, so got remade as a theatrical feature (1979 – launching Ray Winstone’s career into the bargain); or Gary Oldman as an estate agent-cum-football hooligan in The Firm (Clarke’s last film, in 1989); or Made In Britain (1983), with Tim Roth as an articulate, angry young skinhead.
But aside from these more celebrated works, ‘Clarkie’ also knocked out some pretty provocative – and sometimes very fucking weird – pieces which never really got the attention they deserved. Well, maybe I’m just a bit vanilla, because in some respects even Clarke’s lesser known stuff has been influential on film makers, but more on that in a sec.
Amongst the stuff I’ve been watching for the first time, the most disappointing was 1981’s Psy-Warriors. This has great promise – three people are kept in some kind of detention facility, where they are subjected to all manner of torture and interrogation; as the play unfolds we realise they are volunteers in a military psychological warfare experiment. But despite some excellent performances (from Derrick O’ Connor as mouthy prisoner Richards, Anthony Bate as the calmly in control commander of the unit, and Colin Blakely as the principal army psychologist), and a brilliantly realised set, all too soon you can find yourself detached from what unfolds, as it develops from strongly conceived deception into stagey clichés. Too much of the dialogue tries to hard to be meaningful and is delivered with equal amounts of leaden earnestness (especially by Rosalind Ayres as the only woman, Turner). And perhaps crucially, the structure fragments too quickly, and we find ourselves privy to too much information from the perspective of the captors rather than remaining with the confused and disorientated captives. Not only that, but the initial wonder we have at the imposing, stark, whitewashed set dissolves into frustration when the action – well, the talking – moves to a banal, over-familiar lounge set, of the sort you encounter in 70s/80s two camera French windows drama.
Despite these criticisms though, Psy-Warriors (which was broadcast as part of the often excellent Play For Today strand) is still most watchable, and stimulating with it. No doubt at the time of its production – the dirty, blanket and hunger protests coming to a crescendo in Northern Ireland, where near-panopticon Maze prison was a focus for much concern, along with allegations of a systematic campaign of torture orchestrated by the British army on suspects – this was a contentious little film. It certainly has resonance in our post-Gitmo world, with its reference to “sticks up bums, bums on blocks of ice, licking the lav bowl, nudity, humiliation… Running round in circles, pissing in the wind”, the clinical assessment of the most efficient forms of cruelty, the pragmatic expediency with which the immoral is duly reclassified as essential.
Northey’s speech about the British army’s quest for ever-more effective interrogation techniques
So whilst its moments of clunking staginess (not enough rehearsal, perhaps? Too fast a turnaround once on set?) and the curate’s egg script by David Leland (who by way of mitigation also gave us Mona Lisa, Personal Services and Wish You Were Here) let it down, overall it feels like a good attempt at the not exactly easy subject matter. Plus you get Warren Clarke (himself an Alan Clarke by birth) in a natty ‘tache as an army officer, reclining primly in a private screening room, à la A Clockwork Orange.
Clarke tackled more overtly the situation in Northern Ireland with the 1985 TV film Contact. Here the viewer is constantly on the shoulder of a platoon of British paratroopers as it patrols across the ‘bandit country’ of Crossmaglen, along Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland. This was an area where nearly two hundred members of the security forces were killed during the little war that was not a war, which we call ‘The Troubles’ in our euphemistic way.
What little dialogue there is is mostly of a purely functional nature – mission briefings, commands, acknowledgements. No plucky Tommy nattering to his mate in the foxhole here. Instead you notice the prevailing atmosphere of tension building up, that concentration in the eyes, as the men spend endless hours walking up and down hills, through woods and along hedgerows, perhaps hoping to catch some bad guys at it, definitely hoping not to get caught by the bad guys. But ‘bad guys’ maybe suggests Clarke is taking sides, which if he is – for either side – he hides pretty well. No, we’re led through the hour-long drama from the point of view of the British squaddie, but there’s no attempt to validate or invalidate any particular political argument, just to illustrate the long stretches of bag-humping and tramping around, periodically punctuated by short bursts of violent intensity, that is the life of the lowly soldier.
And the short bursts of violent intensity are most effective; I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but even though you don’t really get to know any of the soldiers (thanks to the largely wordless script), the viewer does get sucked into the trauma of the patrol. The emotional connection the viewer finds with the film seems largely down to the platoon’s officer, played with hard-eyed intensity by Sean Chapman. Because there is so little dialogue, and what little there is is entirely without self-reference (except in two small instances), the audience has no idea whether the officer is good, bad or indifferent at his job, or whether his men like or respect him particularly. This frees us up from the conventions of the war movie, and so we find ourselves reading the story in Chapman’s eyes, which say much more than his words. Clarke conspires on this front, structuring the whole play mostly around scenes of the patrol out in country, contrasted with brief, back-at-barracks moments, where Chapman retires to his tiny room, closes the door, and sits silently, staring into nothing. So it is then that out in the field, it is Chapman’s eyes, and where, at what, how he is looking, that guide the viewer. And through the film, his eyes become colder, cloudier, darker, with what he has seen and what he has not.
Aside from Chapman (whom you may remember as the greenhouse rapist from the theatrical Scum), John Blundell (another Scum graduate, Pongo Banks) is on hand as a dependable corporal. He is our second point of contact with the platoon, at a further remove from us than the officer, yet still more in focus than the squaddies, who, whilst no less rounded as characters, no less important as people, are never brought to the fore of our consciousness, except as recipients of orders of the officer – or else as targets for the IRA. This reflects the authorship of the film: it was written by AFN Clarke, based on his own experiences as an army officer in Northern Ireland. The platoon is the responsibility of the officer, and Chapman expresses this with the timbre of his voice, his physical language, with his still gaze and with his darting eyes.
The corporal’s dramatic function, by contrast, appears to be that of observer within the cast, mirroring the screen audience in his own watching of Chapman. The order-giving, order-taking hierarchical structure of the military being what it is, Blundell’s closer proximity to the men than Chapman’s is implicit throughout, heightening the sense of Chapman’s isolation, and the burden of responsibility he must carry as the toll of duty weighs ever-heavier on the men of the patrol.
Perhaps the final scene – the handheld camera dropping from above Chapman’s head to below it looking up into his face, as he sits silently on his bed in his room after the end of the patrol, arms wrapped tight around his body, hand clamped over his mouth, simultaneously comforting, protecting and silencing himself – is Clarke’s money-shot, symbolism-wise. We look again into Chapman’s eyes, to find meaning in what has passed before it, yet we cannot see anything, because his eyes are in shadow. Black screen, The end.
A powerful film, one which holds together as a whole and which demonstrates, by way of contrast with the less satisfying but wordier Psy-Warriors, that talk can be cheap.
And from the few words of Contact to the virtually silent Elephant (1989), another TV film considering ‘The Troubles’. Well, it’s not silent, but there is no audible dialogue, bar a single short moment halfway into the film. Instead the foley is whacked up to eleven, and you find your ears ringing with loud footsteps as across eighteen scenes in thirty-seven minutes, you bear witness to twenty murders, completely without context.
A man walks along a street, crosses the road, enters a municipal building. He wanders through a corridor, through doors and we see he is in the public baths. He walks around the empty swimming pool, pausing at the changing cubicles at the poolside as he passes, completing a full circuit, then leaving. He moves down a different corridor – a passage with bathrooms off it. He walks to the end, where a door is open. A older man in workclothes is mopping the bath. He turns around. He sees the man, and the gun he is pointing at him. He is shot, not a word spoken. The gun man turns around, walks back down the passageway, turns right and leaves the building. The camera turns back at the dead janitor. It is a still life, except slight tremours in the frame, and the muffled sounds from outside the baths, betray that time moves on, if not for the old man, who is dead, still dead.
And with this first murder – not explained by words, symbols, captions, just an anonymous man killing another anonymous man – Elephant begins. The killing takes place within two minutes of the title caption, yet within four minutes we will have borne witness to a second, similarly unexplained killing; within six minutes a fourth; within ten minutes, a fifth, a sixth; and so on, the cadavers piling up, and us the audience never knowing who, or why, these men are killed, or by whom.
Factories, workshops, warehouses, taxi offices, garages, car parks, even a football pitch, all are backdrops for these wordless assassinations. Each time the same thing: a man walks along, and either shoots another man, or is himself shot. The sometimes shuddering steadicam then follows the killer awhile in his calm, slow escape, before returning to linger over the corpse he has delivered, and then leaping to another locale, another man walking, another dead man still breathing.
Occasionally the pattern is broken – a double killing, three men together (which one shall die?), a team of killers prowling – but the film keeps its deadly rhythm, footsteps, footsteps, footsteps, bang-bang-you’re-dead. Until the moment the gun is drawn (a revolver, a sawn-off, an automatic pistol, a pump-action shotgun), you are not quite sure who is predator and who is prey. Instinctively your sympathies are with the victim, but still… Who is he? Why was he shot down, so coldly?
The camera is complicit in every crime, because it knows a death is in the air, it lingers after the climax, so you the viewer are guilty by association, the witness who stands by, does nothing. Or perhaps it is the guilt of helplessness; murder on murder on murder, and there is nothing you can do. Or is it a darker guilt – here you are, following, watching: did you direct these killings, are they in your name? Clarke and his writer Bernard MacLaverty give no clues in the narrative, because in essence the narrative is in the unrelenting death, no more. Motive is stripped away. Context is removed. Behind is left only the tears yet to come, tears over a cold body, farewells that came too late, and another death, somewhere else.
The last killing hints at the harvest yet to come. After a four minute walk through a large, strip-lit, empty factory complex, two men meet a third. What we have seen before leads us to believe that these are a pair of assassins and he is their target; but without a word, the man on the left gently turns his colleague around so he faces the wall, whereupon the third man steps forward and shoots him through the back of the head. There has been no panic, no coercion that we can see, no struggle, as killer is killed. Is this betrayal, or is it simply the utter acceptance that comes from seeing too much, knowing no way out? Whatever the meaning in that final finality, I’m sure Clarke and MacLaverty were not thinking of it as a happy ending, full of third act closure and lessons learned. This was 1989, twenty years since the arbitrary beginning of The Troubles. A generation of anonymous, senseless killings, and still the same grey clouds over the same redbrick houses, the same wet-roofed hangars, the same misty parks.
The film was significant enough that Hollywood auteur Gus Van Sant appropriated its name and much of its tone and style for his own meditation on senseless slaughter, 2003’s Elephant. However, whilst it retains the visual mode of Clarke’s film, with long, lingering tracking shots which follow protagonists around a real location, and whilst it too largely eschews the traditional owned or shared narrative in favour of disconnected points of view, the Van Sant film remains a far more conventional film. We are presented with clear contexts for the actions of the killers in this film, a pair of troubled teens called Alex and Eric. We see them bullied, we see their outsider status within the social hierarchies of the school, and moreover we see their victims, and to a certain degree, get to know them, before they are killed. In this way the audience is clearly invited to empathise with those killed, and with the killers. It is the token of ‘understanding’.
Consider also the structure: yes, there are long tracking shots, following predator, following prey – but these are not decontextualised, discrete moments captured, they are interconnected moments, converging and diverging and then converging again, different minutes in the same hour. Contrast this with the Clarke film, where the viewer is robbed of any sense of meaning, presented only with the cold body that comes out of the barrel of a gun. The Van Sant film instead offers the audience the opportunity of picking sides. Perhaps that girl deserved it, she is, after all, a nasty piece of work; that boy definitely got what was coming to him. The way we consider the killers too becomes a choice – either you think that this is what happens when you push people over the end, that Alex and Eric were in some way justified; or you think, what a pair of spoilt brats. The context, limited as it is, seems actually to confuse things far more than the vacuum existing in the Clarke film, where the reaction is largely a visceral one, a feeling of being numbed by the unrelenting carnage. After all, in the Clarke Elephant, we don’t know who is loyalist and who is republican, who is protestant and who is catholic. We see only the killer and the killed. But in the Van Sant Elephant, because we know who is doing the killing, whom they are killing, and (facile though the reasons may be) why they are killing, the film slots neatly into a standard three act play format, the artistic misdirection notwithstanding. It’s a well-made piece of work, but I feel Clarke achieved something in his thirty-seven minutes of screen time (his penultimate film) that Van Sant – and most other filmmakers – search for across their entire careers and never find.
Alan Clarke was born in Birkenhead on the 28th October 1935, and he died from cancer in London on the 24th July 1990.
This is a sequential montage I’ve made of the twenty men murdered in Elephant. I’ve uploaded a larger version to my main Flickr if you be wanting one.