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See Alan Clarke's Powerhouse Dramas at Anthology Film Archives

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 7 August 2017
Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan’s East Village is hosting a season of television dramas and theatrical features made by the late British director Alan Clarke—now generally regarded as a a master. All except two of them are free of charge. Here are the highlights.

From August 4 through August 20, Anthology is showing the cream of Clarke’s films. Many of them are raw, abrasive studies of socially and economically challenged British youth; most of them are kinetic masterworks.

Anyone new to Clarke will realize on seeing them that his Steadicam-assisted camera frequently sang propulsive songs of cinema—not melodic songs, mind you, but charged, hectic dirges and threnodies. They consist of single takes that seem to go on forever, hammering home the anger, boredom, anxiety, despair, and sexual energy of England’s lost kids as they hurtle through the filthy English streets of the 1970s and ’80s.

In Christine (1987), the 14- or 15-year-old title character endlessly strides pell-mell through suburban tracts of houses, delivering bags of heroin to her clients. pausing only to bind her arm and shoot up matter-of-factly.

Christine screens with Elephant (1989), which silently depicts, in 18 Steadicam shots, a series of decontexualized sectarian killings on the streets of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. (August 4, 15)

Almost as spare and bleak is Contact (1985), which follows a British Army unit wordlessly patrolling the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. (August 4, 19)

Janine Duvitski and Paul Copley in Diane
Janine Duvitski and Paul Copley in Diane | © BBC

Writer Roy Minton’s Scum (1977), which was notoriously banned by the BBC for 14 years, is a numbing depiction of ruthless intimidation in a reform school (borstal) that makes the equivalent experience in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) seem like a vicar’s tea party. (August 9, 14)

In the theatrical movie Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)—along with the big-screen version of Scum (August 9, 16), the only Anthology screening requiring paid admission—two teenage hoydens do the cramped walk (arms folded over chests, jaws tucked under) that rowdy working-class girls on a mission always do, at least in England. The script was written by the late Andrea Dunbar.

The particular quest of these two (Michelle Holmes and future Downton Abbey below-stairs termagent Siobhan Finneran) is to bed, individually, the husband (George Costigan) of the couple for which they’re babysitting. What else are they going to do—train falcons or take ballet lessons? The question is rhetorical. Holmes, Costigan, and Finneran are pictured at top. (August 6, 15)

The morose teenage girl played by Janine Duvitski in Diane (1975) is also having sex—not with the kind young man she walks out with, but, against her wishes, with her needy widowed dad. Clarke wasn’t an ideologue as much as a humanist, but this poignant, tragic film exemplifies his career-long assault on brutalizing institutions, in this case, the family and the blinkered authorities. (August 7, 13)

Spencer Banks in Penda’s Fen
Spencer Banks in Penda’s Fen | © BBC

On the face of it, Penda’s Fen (1974) is an atypical Clarke film—literary, folkloric, and surrealistic. Yet David Rudkin’s formidable script about a priggish 18-year-old boy growing to reject conformism, and to embrace his queerness and his mixed blood, via a series of Fuselian and Blakeian visions, was perfect grist for the director’s mill of subversion. It’s an un-English masterpiece of Englishness. (Aug 5, 12)

David Bowie starred for Clarke as the eponymous hero of Bertolt Brecht‘s first play Baal (1982): a womanizing troubadour with a mouth full of rotting teeth and scabrous broadsides. The film, which Clarke shot in deep studio space, is Brechtian to the core in its theatrical telegraphing of Baal’s anti-bourgeois takedowns. (August 8, 14)

The other Alan Clarke films in the Anthology series are:

Sovereign’s Company (August 5)

The Hallelujah Handshake (August 6)

To Encourage the Others (August 6)

Funny Farm (August 7)

Road (August 10, 20)

The Firm (August 10, 16)

Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003.