Armchair Cinephile

Brits and bumblers

You may not have heard the name Alan Clarke, but chances are you've enjoyed some of the careers which he supported: The English filmmaker, who died in 1990, gave Tim Roth his first role; he did the same for Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, Cold Mountain, and more great character-actor appearances than you can shake a script at); and his final movie was produced by a nobody named Danny Boyle, who was still years away from making Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.

Very little of Clarke's work has made its way to the States, but Blue Underground is fixing that with one grand sweep: The Alan Clarke Collection (hitting stores next Tuesday), a five-disc set containing the director's three most important films, a documentary about his career, and a haunting film called Elephant.

If that last title sounds familiar, it's because Gus Van Sant appropriated it for his recent fictionalized retelling of the Columbine massacre. Like the American film, Clarke's depicts senseless murders, in this case 18 slayings in Belfast. It also presents violence without any of the narrative and character-based crutches we're used to, making it seem random and thus forcing us to think harder about what violence is all about.

Violence abounds in these films, and it isn't fun: It's cruel, abrupt, and pointless, and Clarke doesn't pretend to be offering any solutions. In Made in Britain, Tim Roth plays a skinhead who has brains but no bearings; he's defiant for the sake of it, racist, and completely resistant to anyone who would like to help him.

In Scum, a very young Ray Winstone has already made his way into the correctional system, but here it's the powers-that-be that seem senselessly cruel. Watching the ritualized brutality and unprovoked harassment of Winstone's juvenile detention hall admission is enough to convince anyone that jails are little more than training grounds for meaner, tougher criminals.

Scum - made for television, like many of the films here - was such a pointed denunciation of British juvie institutions that the BBC banned it. So Clarke immediately went out and found the funding to remake it as a theatrical feature. Winstone is still young enough to register a shred of innocence and, of course, the production values are higher; many say the theatrical version is the better of the two.

The Alan Clarke Collection
(Blue Underground)

Clerks X,
Jersey Girl

The Firm stars an incredibly intense Gary Oldman - not long after Sid & Nancy - as a real estate salesman who has a nice, normal middle-class life (right down to the baby in the crib) but is also a "football hooligan." After work, he goes into a private room and collects gear such as brass knuckles and barbed wire-covered baseball bats to head out for rumbles with rival gangs. He's fairly well hated by most of his mates, his wife is going crazy, and these little feuds escalate all too quickly from a bit of scrawled graffiti into murder; but Bexie wouldn't give it up for the world, even when his lifestyle indirectly threatens his child's life. He needs "the buzz."

Like the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, these are realist and working-class oriented films that are bleak and uningratiating. They also feature some challenging accents; even attentive American viewers may have to let some bits breeze by them and hope to catch the general drift. But they're a remarkable legacy of work from a filmmaker who should be better-known here.

A quick aside while we're on the topic of movies that challenge American audiences: Kevin Smith's debut Clerks is now out in a 10th-anniversary edition from Miramax dubbed Clerks X. All the commentaries, bonus clips, and Jay & Silent Bob routines you'd expect are here, as is a disc-length, freshly shot documentary called Snowball Effect. (There's some horribly self-indulgent rambling, to boot, but few fans are likely to complain.) The neat thing about Clerks X is that, rather than separating out all the scenes that didn't make it to the theatrical release, Smith dug up the original VHS cut of the film and slaps it down, un-remastered, for all to see. This is the version that started the hype: Muddy sound, dimestore-image quality, and all, it's exactly what indie legend John Pierson saw on his TV when he decided this Kevin Smith dude was worth supporting. The rest is history, although some of us might wish that history had taken a slightly different track on occasion - which is a roundabout way of saying that Smith's recent bighearted dud Jersey Girl is also due in video stores on Tuesday. •

John DeFore on DVD


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