Made in Britain (Alan Clarke, 1983)

Filmspeak
The Films – Alan Clarke Retrospective
The Films – Main Programme

This year’s 2000 (as opposed to “47th”, according to most flyers, programmes, etc.) Sydney Film Festival took place between June 9-23. I attended from Melbourne, catching eight days (June 13-20) of the event. I’ve experienced the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) on only one other occasion, in 1990 (and for only several days), so I’m in a reasonable position to offer an outside perspective of it, and to compare it to the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

It seemed to be a very calm and orderly event, with simply the two cinemas operating at once (as opposed to Melbourne’s four). The ticketing was slightly complicated, however. You could buy a subscription for Day or Evening or One Week Evening sessions at the State Theatre, and then a 10-session or 4-session pass for the Dendy Opera Quays, but no ticket to cover both cinemas (i.e. for all sessions). (You would need a combination of tickets to achieve such, at around $350-400 I’d say, compared to Melbourne’s $250ish.) Still, the 10, 4 and single-session passes this year were a welcome addition to the ticketing structure. (Some people were grumbling though about the changes to the other tickets, changes which meant less flexibility in alternating between the two cinemas.)

There was clearly a divide between the two venues – it almost seemed like two different festivals were occurring. I haven’t checked properly, but I think no films were repeated at the alternate venue. The audience and programming at the State Theatre were middle-brow and conventional; those at the Dendy youngish and alternative-leaning. The stalls at the State seemed to be perpetually habitated by cardigan-wearing soup-sipping over-50s, quite likely film knowledgeable (to a certain extent), but also somewhat arrogant and fixed in their ways (from my observations). The crowd at the Dendy were black-wearing under-35s (Sydney is undoubtedly more pleasing aesthetically in Winter than in Summer) who were more callow (obviously) but also maybe more intellectual and eclectic (in their tastes) than their State counterparts.

Whatever the case, both audiences seemed to be quite placid and not that passionately involved with the films they were watching. Just as Sydney’s streets are fuller, richer and more chaotic than Melbourne’s, Melbourne’s festival foyers are likewise richer, edgier, more adventurous than the foyers I was in at SFF. Obviously there are committed and intelligent cinephiles, critics and filmmakers in Sydney, and I conversed with a number of them, but as a whole the MIFF audience seems more vital and engaged than the SFF one.

The same applies to the programming I think. Clearly MIFF’s 2000 programme is superior to Sydney’s, but I’m not sure if this was the case in other years. Maybe Sydney handles the retrospectives better – the Rossellini one a few years back was excellent, and this year’s Alan Clarke was quite substantial (10 films). (Whereas MIFF simply throws 4 or 5 titles together in a somewhat random manner.)

MIFF has more talks/forums than SFF this year. One area Sydney is better: the projection quality at SFF this year was excellent (unlike the atrocious display by 1999 MIFF projectionists, where 25% of everything I saw was marred by soft-focus). The downside was that several prints failed to arrive, including Beau Travail, causing me to walk out on its video projection and thus miss the film (typically, the audience at the State cosily sat there, not caring in the slightest – only a handful of people from over a thousand walked out).

But some words now on what I did see, eh?

* * *

Filmspeak

Firstly, though, some words on what I heard, at several talk sessions. Overall, there were various forums under the “Filmspeak” title, and there was also the 20th Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture, which I didn’t manage to catch. This year’s lecture was titled “The End of Cinema? The Return of Cinema?”, and was given by Professor Tom O’Regan.

As part of the Filmspeak sessions, there were forums on script development, moral rights, digital technologies, Australian film culture, censorship and the marketplace. There were also “Meet the Filmmaker” sessions, involving Julien Temple, Corin Campbell Hill, Christopher Doyle, Maria Peters, Sonja Herman Dolz. I managed to catch three sessions in this series:

Meet the filmmaker: Corin Campbell Hill

Corin was here representing the Alan Clarke films. She worked on his later films in the production/ADing departments, and was a close friend of his leading up to his death (in 1990). She is also the director of Director: Alan Clarke (a documentary that alas did not screen at SFF). She proved herself a very down-to-earth person and speaker, managing to override the difficult conditions of the venue (the noisy bar at the Dendy Martin Place). (She was also a presence at the festival screenings themselves, passionately introducing the Clarke films, but also seeing other films – she is obviously a bit of a film lover herself, as well as a director.)

This was quite a revealing session, with Corin talking about Alan the man as well as Alan the filmmaker. (Ironically, it helps that he’s dead.) She explained that he was a very lively, funny, compassionate and somewhat Dionysian man, but that he could also be intensely private and driven (which obviously explains the nature of some of his work). He had a few people he worked with closely, managing to direct dozens of TV productions (and three features) with little recognition before dying young at 54. He never referenced other directors or films (although he occasionally mentioned Antonioni and Kurosawa, of all people), preferring to focus on each project at hand, to discover the project’s particular essence or truth. He would occasionally commission a script only to pare it down at the shooting and editing stages. Politically, his leftism was not on his sleeve, but in his gut. Overall, Corin gave a great insight into this still-unrecognised director.

Meet the filmmaker: Christopher Doyle

It’s always fascinating to encounter a filmmaker “in the flesh” as it were, to check the difference between the person (or the “perceived person”) and the filmmaker. I’ve never seen Doyle before, interviewed or otherwise. He is a character, a larrikin if you will, impish, constantly drinking beer (and loving it), and quite down-to-earth and outrageous. He seemed very tired and emotional (in the drunk sense, but also in the normal sense) at his first appearance (at the premiere of Orientations, the doco on him), but was more relaxed and jovial at subsequent appearances.

This session was actually a radio interview, conducted by Julie Rigg, with Rick Farquharson and Karena Slaninka (the director and producer respectively of Orientations) joining Doyle, and incorporating questions from the floor.

The same basic terrain as in Orientations was retreaded. Doyle spoke of his method of working, which privileges the instinctual. He spoke of how he lets each location dictate to him how the actors should move through it and how it should be lit. He believes in playing with light, colors, textures. (And this of course is obvious in his cinematography for Wong Kar-wai.) He also spoke briefly about his work in Hollywood, for directors such as Barry Levinson and Gus Van Sant (but not about his work for other Asian directors), but not really disclosing much (he was also unforthcoming about Wong’s latest film, where he only shares the DOP credit). He was disingenuous at times, simply saying things like “Just do it”, without much analysis to go with it. An anti-film-school remark almost caused a scene. And his remarks about Cahiers du Cinéma (i.e. the act of treating films as a sophisticated art) were also somewhat crude. Farquharson and Slaninka chipped in with some pro-Hong Kong/Asian thoughts.

Forum: A Utopian Vision for Film Culture in Australia – Is there a New Role for the National Film and Sound Archive?

This forum was a late addition to the festival’s programme. Basically, the Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive is a newly formed advocacy group, seeking to facilitate a greater appreciation of screen culture in Australia, by restructuring the Archive so it can undertake various activities. Andrew Pike (Ronin Films) and Glenys Rowe (film producer) spoke on behalf of the Friends, and a number of other people participated in the discussion: Anne Bayliss (Archive), Sabina Wynn (AFC), Gary Doust (Popcorn Taxi). Commentary and questions from the floor were intelligent and passionate, including from Barrett Hodsdon and Barrie Patterson.

The Friends believe that a new division should be created within the Archive (they don’t like its new name of ScreenSound Australia): Public Programmes. This division would be pro-active in organising screenings of Australian work (including retrospectives and touring programmes of course) and then encouraging comment and debate on it (through publications, conferences, etc.).

Everyone seemed to agree on this in principle, but there was a frisson in the air about the actual forms it would all take. David Barda (IF magazine) called for a “fresh approach”, but there were others in the audience for whom IF/Popcorn Taxi represent a dumbing-down of film culture.

This forum was a good introduction to what the Friends are about, and they now hope to create some discussion about these issues before then pushing seriously for something. For anyone interested in this, contact either Andrew Pike or Glenys Rowe.

* * *

The Films – Alan Clarke Retrospective

(MY RATINGS SYSTEM:   0 = Bottom Ten of all time;  1 = Abysmal;  2 = Very Poor;  3 = Poor;  4 = Below Average;  5 = Average;  6 = Good;  7 = Very Good;  8 = Great;  9 = Masterpiece;  10 = Top Ten of all time.)

This was undoubtedly the highlight of this year’s SFF, especially for a cinematic realist like myself.

Alan Clarke was born in Liverpool in 1935 and became involved in British television in the ’60s, becoming a director by the end of that decade. He only made three feature films – Scum (1979), Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985) and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986) – before dying in 1990, but Corin Campbell Hill (who accompanied his films) said that there are 65 productions he directed, a number of them erased. The SFF catalogue lists most of these. The early ones are simply episodes of established drama (and other) shows, but increasingly in the ’70s and ’80s the TV shows he made were independent entities, stories chosen and developed by himself in association with certain writers such as David Leland and Jim Cartwright.

10 films were presented in this retrospective:

Scum (1979, 97 mins, 35mm)

This was screened before I arrived at the festival, and there was no preview tape, so I missed it. I saw it on its Australian theatrical release in the early ’80s, however, and I remember it as a hard-hitting, incisive prison drama. It’s probably a great introduction to anyone chasing up Clarke’s work.

Beloved Enemy (1981, 75 mins, 16mm)

And this one I missed because I didn’t read my program correctly! (Silly me….) It concerns the collusion of science, technology and money, the plot involving Soviet scientists in London of all things. Probably not a good introduction to Clarke.

Psy-Warriors (1981, 73 mins, video)

SYNOPSIS:  A trio of ambitious young soldiers volunteer for a British army experiment in psychological warfare.

IMPRESSION:    Okay, this is the one I ended up seeing first, and it’s pretty tough-going. It’s a filmed play, as a number of Clarke’s films were, and as such it’s verbose and over-acted, even for a video production. The script is somewhat implausible too, not letting us in on the situation (that these prisoners are not in fact suspected terrorists). It’s then unconvincing the way it proceeds. Still, this is an incredible insight into psychological testing and the way certain methods are employed in warfare.      (5)

Made in Britain (1983, 78 mins, 16mm)

The life of a 16-year-old fascist skinhead.

When I saw this film, I knew Alan Clarke was a filmmaker. The performances (internal but whole), the editing (sharp and stunning), the compositions (alive, brilliantly-framed). With The Exploited on the soundtrack, there is pure violent energy here. And yet I still feel the characterisation of the skinhead isn’t quite right – that he’s too soft at times, too romantic (the scenes involving families for example). A wonderful film.       (7)

Contact (1985, 64 mins, 16mm)

A platoon of English soldiers patrol the border between Northern and Southern Ireland.

Okay, this is the other side of Alan Clarke, the side that clinches him as a great filmmaker. This is Clarke the minimalist and experimenter. Stillness, slow walking, cut to infra red shots (which are pure green), cut to an unexpected explosion, cut to the Commander “getting involved” (emotionally, existentially). The same type of war footage as in Rossellini’s Anno Uno (1974): fighting that is sparse, crude, deadly cold. These men – no, boys of course – are quiet and confused.       (8)

Christine (1987, 50 mins, 16mm)

A 13-year-old girl delivers heroin to some friends of hers in a leafy suburb, as a daily ritual.

A minimalist masterpiece. Not minimalist in terms of characters or story though: there are characters here, and a story (but not much of a “plot”). A sad story? Yes, certainly. Christine (Vicky Murdock) walks and walks (Clarke loves filming walking), from estate to estate, loungeroom to loungeroom, shooting up and dealing so other 13-year-olds can shoot up (and what a steely gaze she has as she looks at them doing so!). Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975)? Some weird twisted suburban satire? The masterstroke of the script is the sub-plot about organising a party. Of course the kids can’t get that right – what day is it? which records? And Christine slumps on a sofa, watches a cartoon, something about birds now being marmalade eaters. Yes, things have become very strange ….       (9)

Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986, 93 mins, 35mm)

Two working-class teenage girls engage in an ongoing menage-a-trois with an older man.

This is incredible. Is this the same filmmaker? A riotous sex comedy? And yet he makes it work – it’s still genuine, truthful, gritty even, yet also light, exuberant, and much fun. Just the ending rings false. Clarke sets up a certain rhythm and energy at the start and then maintains it (the sign of a great filmmaker) – to my surprise I was constantly engaged by this film.         (7)

Road (1987, 62 mins, 16mm)

Portrait of a rundown Northern English industrial town decimated by unemployment, and its desperate inhabitants.

Some of these Clarke TV films were screened in 16mm. versions (the format they were shot on), which meant muddy optical sound. I could barely hear parts of this one. A very theatrical origin, with those ridiculous lengthy monologues that playwrights sometimes indulge in included, but otherwise an absolutely fascinating piece of cinema from Clarke. The richest and most eclectic of all the films screened. It’s a social realist musical practically, with much grimness (in the locations, the characters’ feelings, etc.). It’s about Thatcher’s England, of course, but also about loneliness, terror, sex, hope.          (8)

Elephant (1989, 37 mins, 16mm)

A succession of murders, filmed one after the other, in silence.

This is ostensibly about sectarian killings in Northern Ireland, but there’s only incidental information (locations, a voice’s accent) to suggest such. And the title isn’t explained. Instead, it runs like an experimental narrative film (again Akerman come to mind, something like her 1982 Toute une nuit). About 20 murders (by gun) are presented, one after the other. With each one, we follow the killer walking to the murder scene (and we follow him usually from behind). He (sometimes there are two, or two victims, and I think all the killers – different people each time – are men) locates his victim, and quickly executes him. Each murder takes up about two minutes of screen time, to give you an idea. And no words are spoken. One killer even plays soccer with his victim for a kick or three before taking the gun out of his pocket and killing him. Most of the (cinematic, not gun) shots are very wide.          (9)

The Firm (1989, 67 mins, 16mm)

Two rival soccer “firms” (groups of violent men/boys supporting their team) fight it out.

For his last film, there is a return to the style of Made in Britain – a social study, sure, but a visceral, energetic narrative, fully in the world of its violent characters. (And yes, there’s some horrible moments in this – the BBC banned it.) Fast cuts, great compositions, charged acting. TV dramas like this one and Made in Britain could easily have been released as theatrical films.          (7)

* * *

The Films – Main Programme

I was a bit surprised by the overall programme for this year’s SFF. I thought that there would be more films, and some other kinds of titles (that I’ve been reading about). But I guess we can’t expect many (or even any) of the Cannes 2000 films. At least MIFF has the new films by Kiarostami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Ozon, Sofia Coppola. But my wishlist includes the latest films from Wong Kar-wai, Gatlif, Angelopoulos, Tarr, Oshima, Tanner, Garrel, the list could go on – films we may not get to see for awhile yet in Australia. (Or maybe ever, unfortunately.)

The Sydney programme this year had a “Holland Focus”, an impressive package of eight features and some shorts. I missed all these, and a number of other things that might’ve been worthwhile: the Errol Morris films, Berlin: Cinema, the Ichikawa, Throne of Death, the Ophüls retro (apart from one of them), and other lower profile things.

But here’s what I did catch (in the order I saw them in):

Buñuel’s Prisoners (directed by Ramón Gieling, 1999)

SYNOPSIS:    In 1999, Ramón Gieling travelled to Las Hurdes, Spain, to show the inhabitants Buñuel’s 1932 film of their area.

IMPRESSION:     Was Las Hurdes a lie? And are the makers of this documentary provocateurs? They go back to the land without bread with a bust of Buñuel, surreptitiously testing it out in various spots. The last scene vindicates them, and the whole film gradually reveals Buñuel to have been a humanist, if also an extremist. He liked to shock. And he was a poet. That said, Buñuel’s Prisoners is an okay doco, nothing too imaginative.        (6)

Crane World (Pablo Trapero, 1999)

A 50-year-old washed-up bass guitarist tries to get a job as a crane driver.

High grain B & W realist sketch. A commendable script, unafraid to be low-key and episodic. It’s such a delight seeing fat bellies on the screen – even the younger man’s seems to be emulating the father’s. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to build on its form – it settles at a certain level, never reaching any great heights.        (6)

Cosy Dens (Jan Hrebejk, 1999)

The story of two families living in the same block, set in Prague in 1968.

This starts as a teen passage film, and then grooves into a family kaleidoscope film, with a typically Eastern European dry black humour to it. It’s a comedy alright, but a pretty sly one: its deeper brief is to show the fragile connections between people, way beyond any notions of political sides or human incompatibilities.        (5)

Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Glasgow, 1973. A young boy is involved in the accidental death of his friend in a canal.

It’s always tough to paint a portrait of a 12-year-old kid. And this kid has to endure poverty, death and first love in a tumultuous few weeks. We’ve seen it all before, in Kes, in Germany, Year Zero, but it’s done with some skill here. The sound design is especially atmospheric, and the acting is wonderful. It’s as bleak as all hell, of course, and some magical “dream” moments don’t really help that.           (7)

The Shakedown (William Wyler, 1928)

A young orphan and a waitress reform a crooked boxer involved with a shakedown ring.

Wonderful live piano accompaniment by Jan Preston. Great to see a film from the ’20s up on the big screen at a festival. Its take on morality and honesty is a simple one, but this is compensated by some good acting and the arresting deep focus compositions.          (6)

Human Resources (Laurent Cantet, 1999)

A business school graduate returns home to take a traineeship position at a metalwork plant where his father works.

A very straightforward film. Its pace is steady, its mood calm. It does heat up and break up towards the end, as it develops its class drama. It reminded me of Guediguian’s work at times, but a muted version of such. The main actor Jalil Lespert is quite compelling. A mildly engaging film.          (5)

Monday (Sabu, 1999)

A man awakes in a hotel room on a Monday morning, not sure how he got there.

Slow-moving black genre-bender about The Devil (i.e. drink). Dollops of satire in there too (especially of siege scenes). But the broad visual and aural style makes it all really clunky and uninspired.         (3)

City Loop (Belinda Chayko, 2000)

One long night at a pizza delivery store, following the fortunes of its various workers.

I was looking forward to this one, thinking that here might be a gritty, insightful, neon-suffused Australian film, made by a director with some indie film credibility. But this is just another shallow Australian (blackish) comedy about several 20-nothings, wending their way to … nowhere. The film’s attempts at seriousness are embarrassing. And the jigsaw-time structure is pointless. Clearly a commercial and critical failure.         (2)

Orientations: Christopher Doyle: Stirred Not Shaken (Rick Farquharson, 2000)

Portrait of the cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

What is it with most documentaries these days? Can’t they take a risk or two with their form? This one is no different – talking heads, vérité shots, a respectful “capturing” of the subject. No investigation. No depth. But at least the subject here, Chris Doyle, is expressive. I’m glad this doco exists, giving us glimpses into the life (and method) of this exquisite cinematographer. His philosophy is “beer is life”. Funny how I can still love his films sober.        (5)

Away With Words (Christopher Doyle, 1998)

A young Japanese man finds peace in a bar in Hong Kong.

Seeing this for the second time, but this time on the big screen, didn’t really alter my perception of it. It’s a film of enjoyable bits and pieces that don’t add up to much. (See my comments in the last issue of Senses.) But this screening was graced (disgraced?) by the presence of the director and his sidekick Christa, who appears in the film. She sang us a (per)version of “My Favourite Things” that was shot for the film but journeyed to the cutting room floor. She’s a good burper too (you had to be there).            (6)

Bloody Angels (Karin Julsrud, 1999)

A senior detective from Oslo is sent to a small town to investigate two murders.

Surely better films than this could be programmed? This is a murder-in-a-small-town thriller that is barely distinguished by anything. I was starting to enjoy the psychological tussle between the city cop and the town hooligans, but even that didn’t amount to much. The film has a pale/bleached patina (and it’s set in Norwinter too), and that’s the end effect too: a bit pale, lifeless.              (4)

Seventeen Years (Zhang Yuan, 1998)

An argument over a missing five yuan note has tragic consequences.

It starts off as a well-observed family drama, then shifts modes several times: tragedy, personal journey, then back to family drama. It’s uneven formally too – both in its overall structure (which is unbalanced) and in the way it generates meaning and emotion (sometimes directly, sometimes cumulatively, etc.). But it’s an impressive film nonetheless. The opening scenes are engaging, and the closing sequences, of the family reuniting, are rich and moving.         (7)

Madame De … (Max Ophüls, 1953)

A pair of earrings get passed from owner to owner.

Ornate and sensual, but also controlled and distanced, this is quite clearly the work of a master tragedian. It’s interesting to see how Ophüls stumbles on the more static shots (like shot/reverse shots). This break in the marvellous fluidity wasn’t helped either by the fact that this print was struck from a poorly constructed negative, causing the film to jiggle just before each cut. I was also sleepy alas, so I didn’t get as much out of this screening as I possibly could have.      (7)

Farewell Home Sweet Home (Otar Iosseliani, 1999)

The exploits of an unusual bourgeois family.

Iosseliani does it again: a free-flowing, non-narrative assortment of people and incidents. This has an anarchic, sweet, wry quality that instantly evokes the cinema of Tati and Renoir. This is cinema for those who like sitting in the front rows: wonderful wide shots abound. The down side of this form of course: too muted emotionally, too casual dramatically. A delightful film nonetheless.            (7)

Clouds of May (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 1999)

A filmmaker visits his parents with the intention of making a film with them in it.

A Turkish Through the Olive Trees practically, and quite daring in the way it shows the filmmaker to be manipulative and insensitive. But the film is not about this filmmaker, and this is what gives it its humanism: the focus is on the cares and problems of his parents, his friend, his nephew. Meandering in parts, and somewhat emotionless overall, but a fascinating meditation on village life (and an artist’s connection to it) nonetheless.        (7)

Innocence (Paul Cox, 2000)

A couple reignite their love affair after nearly 50 years of separation.

A small film, chamber work, 1.33 ratio, lovely music, beautiful performances, simple story of the emotions – there’s a lot to like about this film. Or maybe “potentially like”. It starts off well enough, but the script becomes over-written (in the sense of no subtext) and under-written (there’s missed opportunities to make the story deeper, sharper). Paul Cox is clearly one of Australia’s most interesting and valuable filmmakers, but a certain “artistic” conceit in him does his cause harm (for example, the clunky guest appearances by himself and Chris Haywood in this film disrupt the film’s mood and story).         (5)

A Pornographic Affair (Frédéric Fonteyne, 1999)

A couple of strangers act out a mutual sexual fantasy, but then fall in love.

I find this film quite problematic. I find it artificial and coy. The two main characters lack maturity and depth (and I can only blame this on the screenwriter’s life experience). The film doesn’t reveal the nature of the “pornographic fantasy”, and it then clumsily goes down the road of love. And the script has a couple of other problems too. Overall, it just lacks detail, it simply skims over things. The direction isn’t that much better either.         (3)

About The Author

Bill Mousoulis is the founding editor of Senses of Cinema. He is an Australian independent filmmaker now based in Europe.