The In-Your-Face Films of Alan Clarke


Clarke was highly regarded by filmmakers and actors alike. I asked a few — Ken Loach, Paul Greengrass, Harmony Korine and Mr. Roth — to explain why. Here’s what they had to say:

Paul Greengrass, Director

Mr. Greengrass, the director of “United 93” and several Jason Bourne films, has long championed Clarke’s work, and said by phone that just because his films appeared on television, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

“That’s the laboratory from which that generation of filmmakers sprang,” he said, referring the 1970-84 anthology series “Play for Today,” which included productions by Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Mr. Loach. “It was a jewel in the crown of the BBC’s drama. It was marked by extraordinary creative freedom.”

“All those filmmakers, in their different ways,” he said, “they’re intentionally patriotic in their concerns. They defined our national character and the forces at play that create that national character.”

But there was a difference with Clarke. “You don’t think of a Loach or a Leigh or a Frears movie and think of adrenaline. Clarke had that,” he said. “It was a sense of attack.”

Photo

A scene from “Scum,” which the BBC banned.

Credit
BFI

Ken Loach, Director

Both Mr. Loach, whose “I, Daniel Blake” won the top prize at Cannes last year, and Clarke began as filmmakers in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and both would challenge the limits of British television with increasingly provocative films.

Clarke’s most controversial film was the 1977 “Scum,” starring Mr. Winstone as the marquee inmate at a prison for juvenile offenders. The film was deemed too authentic in its depiction of severe physical and psychological abuse and banned by the BBC. (Though it was remade as a theatrical film in 1979, the television version wasn’t broadcast until 1991.) “Alan wasn’t someone who would fit someone else’s formula,” said Mr. Loach (two of his films were similarly suppressed). “I think with Alan’s films I would hope that it endorsed his views,” he added by phone, referring to the banning. “It would underline what he was saying was important.”

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A scene from “Christine” (1987), featuring Alan Clarke’s signature walking shots.

Credit
BFI

Harmony Korine, Director

Mr. Korine, the “Spring Breakers” director, has been an admirer of Clarke’s since discovering his films at a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art many years ago. “You never felt like you were being preached to,” Mr. Korine said, adding, “He’s working in almost a completely different language. And even just his film grammar is so strange, the idea that half the movies are just people walking.”

The director said all of Clarke’s films could be seen as provocations, “like he was daring people to get angry,” adding, “He was a kind of a strange rebel with this extreme distrust for the system.”

Mr. Korine’s own films, including “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy,” recall Clarke’s proclivity for derelict suburban environments. “He was a huge influence on what to show and what not to show, and what’s allowable, and what’s entertaining,” Mr. Korine said, adding, “There’s no reason he shouldn’t have as much reverence as like Kubrick or Godard, he’s just as singular, he’s just as visionary as any of those guys.”

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Tim Roth as a skinhead in “Made in Britain.”

Credit
BFI

Tim Roth, Actor

In 1981 Mr. Roth showed up at an audition by coincidence and was cast as Trevor, a teenage skinhead, in Clarke’s “Made in Britain.” It was his first screen role.

“What he did was take people out of fairly dodgy circumstances and turn them into an actor or actress,” Mr. Roth said over the phone. “I just wanted a job,” he added, using a colorful adjective. “I would have walked through the background on ‘Made in Britain.’”

The film prescribes no admonishment for Trevor as he bounces in and out of juvenile detention or tosses a brick through the window of an employment agency, the camera tethered to him like a ball and chain. “I hoped that it would be controversial,” Mr. Roth said. “I really didn’t know what was coming.”

Instead, the film won an Italian award, and Mr. Roth found himself being chased by skinheads who wanted an autograph, not a fight.

Clarke’s films were political at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was in power. Mr. Roth said, “I think his work is — even of that time as it might seem now — it’s still completely relevant to what’s happening.”

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