Just Like Those Mind-Forged Manacles Blues
A desire for revenge is a normal response to crime. Ask anyone who has just had his house burgled or car stolen. But there are less predictable reactions. In murder cases, angry demands for retribution — especially from those most deeply affected — are sometimes noticeable by their absence. I’m not suggesting that there’s a law of inverse proportion here. Even so, whether the murderers are pure-minded terrorists or impure teenagers carrying guns, knives, or just too much alcohol — it seems that some bereaved relatives can’t join the chorus of outrage, however loudly voiced by the rest of us.
Of course, not every person left to mourn will be as forgiving as that father in Omagh, Northern Ireland, whose grown-up daughter died beside him under the rubble left by an IRA bomb. Trying to think of feature films that deal with equally dignified responses, except by stretching into religious territory — the still strikingly powerful King of Kings, (DeMille, U.S., 1927), for example — one looks in vain for an established genre. In fairness to filmmakers, this apparent gap in storytelling traditions already existed long before the era of cinema. As for society’s blind wish for revenge, movies do a much better job, often, for example, suggesting the pointlessness and cruelty of capital punishment. Here I’d immediately single out Pierrepoint (Adrian Shergold, Channel 4, UK, 2005) and Let Him Have It (Peter Medak, France/UK, 1991). Both screenplays are based on closely observed social and family backgrounds; and, far from excusing violence, this only deepens the experience of the audience by bringing things more precisely back home.
Not usually identified with such serious projects, writers Jeff Pope and Bob Mills offer a dramatic and faithful adaptation of the autobiography of Britain’s chief hangman, Albert Pierrepoint; and in Let Him Have It, though now better known for their Bond movies, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade deliver a highly effective screenplay based on one of the most disturbing miscarriages of justice of any era. Those of us who were boys in the early 1950s remember with special vividness an eighteen-year-old working-class Londoner, Derek Bentley, being executed because the law forbade the hanging of the actual killer — his friend, sixteen-year-old Christopher Craig. That Bentley had what we’d now call “learning difficulties” only added to the shock felt right across British society. Meanwhile, Craig himself was so affected by all this that — as we learn from the end-titles to the film — after seeing out his gaol term, he has spent the rest of his life desisting from crime.
Craig possibly felt even more guilt over the death of his friend than that of the police constable Sidney George Miles. Nevertheless, the growing lobby for so-called Restorative Justice can only have derived sustenance from such causes celebres: the deliberate encouragement of emotional connections between culprit and victim aims to produce exactly the kind of lasting self-reform that occurs so spontaneously here.
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Could it really be, though, that world audiences are mostly given to escapist Bonderamas on the one hand or highbrow Revenge Tragedy on the other? Is it just an inescapable fact that we’re always more interested in and convinced by stories that reveal — and sometimes revel in — a seemingly inexhaustible human capacity for violence? If so, the best that art and entertainment can ever do is to mirror our worst traits in the hope that — without too much prodding — we’ll eventually get the message.
In 1901, at the very start of film history, we find Histoire d’un Crime from Pathé Frères. Borrowing heavily from a contemporary exhibition of waxwork tableaux, its “higher” purpose was to shock Parisian audiences with the dire consequences of crime: a murder is committed; the murderer is caught and forced to identify his victim in the morgue; then, despite dreams of escaping from gaol that only intensify his anguish, he finally faces the guillotine.
Apart from the dream sequence, there’s nothing in this short film that merits special attention — certainly nothing that points the way forward. One can’t, therefore, claim Histoire d’un Crime as a lost jewel. To ascribe it any sort of carat-rating we need to bear in mind another odd piece of history. Having, in 1893, shown the world (an audience of thirty-three people!) the very first overhead-projected film, by 1901 the Lumière brothers had ceased filmmaking altogether. After their great success with a giant screen at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, they concentrated instead on producing equipment for the new industry. Not lacking prescience, the Lumières were simply exploiting their own engineering talents. But behind their sideways move some have noticed an early sign of inhibition about film’s innate ability to stir unwanted controversy. Even by 1901 there were those who saw in the miscellaneous presentations from Pathé Frères — not to mention the fantasias of Méliès — a money-grubbing wish to titivate the mob and all under the guise of moral rectitude!
Despite an already perceived corrosive potential — not helped by the dangerously underregulated screening venues of the time — by World War I it was clear that, in whatever guise, the new medium was here to stay. More than that, for filmmakers with a touch of the philosophe, cinema already provided another arena — indeed, the biggest yet — in which to fight out some very stubborn and very ancient concerns. I’m thinking especially of D. W. Griffith and his idealistic epic Intolerance, (1916), surely still the only blockbuster with academic footnotes, here used to elucidate scenes (disgustingly immoral? fascinatingly informative?) of Ancient Babylon.
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Having decided to do a piece on youth crime, I happen to be writing at the end of a terrible British summer, one in which urban gangs of teenage boys and girls seem determined to beat record-busting rainfall with even greater torrents of their own murderous violence. If this sounds exaggerated, it accurately reflects a real public anxiety and not, for once, something whipped up by the media. Exactly how deep the crisis goes is hard to say; but reaching for assistance from film history I find some guides for the perplexed, albeit not — by their very nature — particularly comforting ones.
Starting inevitably with A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK, 1971), what seems interesting to me now about this notorious and much-discussed adaptation of an Anthony Burgess novel is not its violent content per se, or the bad effect this might have on immature minds. More revealing for me is the effect it came to have, after release, on its famous director. Kubrick, of course, remains an icon of imaginative independence matched only by such luminaries as Orson Welles and Ken Russell. If we go deeper into the dark side of creative freedom we also come to, say, Roman Polanski. Now imagine, if you will, Polanski’s Clockwork Orange. Less violent it would not have been; but, whatever the public response, the Polish director would surely never have pulled his work from circulation. Yet this is precisely what Kubrick eventually felt he had to do. Without commenting on the rights and wrongs of his decision, I’m suggesting that this unique occurrence makes it clear how deep our worries go vis-à-vis young people and crime.
Having mentioned Griffith’s fascination with Babylon, I’m also reminded of how far back we can go in cultural history when tracing such fears. The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from c. 2,100 BCE, is literally the Ur-text of world literature. Unfortunately, its allure is still largely felt only by specialist students of Ancient Mesopotamia (Ancient Iraq). But if nothing else of benefit emerges from the mess in modern Iraq, the present focus on the region might just increase awareness of the world’s first great dramatic poem.
The relevance of Gilgamesh to youth crime is discoverable in its opening lines, available to readers in several paperback translations. Obviously I’m going for one in English, less obviously the one by Andrew George (Penguin Classics, 1999). The precise age of Uruk’s king Gilgamesh is not given; but we know from his contemporaries in the story that he is young. We also know from the overall structure that his is a journey from ignorance and insensitivity to greater awareness and responsibility: the Getting of Wisdom, indeed. So we are immediately introduced to a “powerful, pre-eminent” youth. But where is this restless, if much-valued young man going? Lesser gods complain to Anu, the Father God: “A savage wild bull you have bred in Uruk . . .” Then follow serious charges concerning Gilgamesh’s treatment of his fellow citizens, male and female, whom “he harries without warrant.” Sons are prevented from seeing their own fathers, daughters kept from their mothers; and, to cap it all, he lets “no girl go free to her bridegroom.”
There’s a recognisable anguish here that comes from a sense of having nurtured a new generation only to find that, in return, it offers more threat than promise. In ancient Iraq the remedy was to find an effective distraction for a young man bent on trouble. This counterbalance, specially created for the occasion by Anu’s wife, Aruru, would take the form of a real wild man, “offspring of silence” who “knows not a people, nor even a country — the as-yet untamed force of nature, Enkidu.
“Let him be a match for the storm of his heart,
let them vie with each other, so Uruk may be rested!”
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If these archetypal roustabouts seem better placed in the earthly hierarchy than your average modern tearaway, The Godless Girl (DeMille, U.S., 1929) provides an interesting echo with its own account of middle-class delinquency. I had the luck to see this in a broadcast on British TV earlier this year; but, in Europe anyway, it remains hard to find. Frustrating as this is, I can only endorse its importance for film buffs and criminologists alike, not least because of its significance in the history of gender politics. But be warned: the plot of this old “silent” doesn’t so much creak as bellow like a ferry in a force 10 storm.
Females and atheism in 1929? Wasn’t that the zenith of the Jazz Age, with its follies and flappers, flat chests and Charleston? Yet, as the barely-contained panic of the title reminds us, this was also a breakthrough era for women’s rights. Not that working-class men had fared much better, but by 1920, with few exceptions, Americans over 21 years of age, irrespective of class and gender, finally had the vote. The upshot of all this libertarianism was a breed of educated young person capable of thinking and, worse still, speaking in disturbing new ways.
DeMille’s film opens with a mixed-gender college debate between Believers and Atheists that quickly descends into a riot. The “inevitability” of this reflects common fears of the time. Turning down his daughter Irene, who wanted to go to college like the rest of her friends, the great movie mogul Louis B. Mayer explained: “They have to go because they haven’t had your advantages” (!) (from The Whole Equation, David Thomson, 2005).
In The Godless Girl the rioters seem determined to bear out Mayer’s suspicions by causing the death of a female student, listed in the credits as The Victim. For their involvement, god-fearing hero and godless heroine face a spell in Reformatory — a place catering separately to both sexes. As we might have guessed, especially those of us brought up on Dickens and/or Charlotte Bronte, conditions for the inmates are characterised by strict regimentation: meals, ablutions, even prayers all move to the beat of the gong. Any infractions are not looked on kindly by the guards; and, again unsurprisingly, the Chief Guard is soon shaping up as the most sadistic enforcer.
Then comes a title with the calming news that most such institutions are actually “humane and progressive, helping Delinquent Youth to become good citizens.” Like a piece of smooth porcelain suddenly frosting over with cracks, this is a moment not of truth, but of starkly revealed white lies. Now we know, where previously we were only guessing, that there are some deeply confused and, at the same time, intensely felt concerns fomenting here. The wish to scare young people into being good conflicts impossibly with a wish to retain a view of the fair and just society; and if DeMille is unsure how to play this, I take no joy in noticing his clumsiness. Indeed, it’s a trick that — expressed in the above terms, anyway — we may never pull off.
Meanwhile, The Boy (Bob) and The Girl (Judy) escape and go on the run together. The point established here is that True Love tends to settle people down — especially godless girls who, when free to gaze around at an idyllic Nature, soulfully reflect that: “Someone’s running this.” The Argument for Design may be no stronger in this case than anywhere else; but, at one level, DeMille is hitting the criminological nail right on the head: something very like True Love is, indeed, often responsible for the huge statistical downturn in the re-offending rate, as isolated teenagers go on to become partners in a couple.
To correct the impression of a leisurely seminar on the theme of spiritual progress, I quickly add that The Godless Girl is all-action throughout — a mode still favoured in scenarios on youth crime. The runaways having been recaptured, they are barely back in custody when a fire is started in the girls’ quarters. The Other Girl (Mame) yells something manic that the titles translate as: “Let her sizzle!”
At this moment — and also raising the temperature — as punishment for escaping, Judy finds herself handcuffed to a bunk by an upstretched arm. But here’s another instance — low camera angles of flailing female legs in the riot scene was the first — where viewers may feel themselves rapidly turning into voyeurs. Having let DeMille off the hook vis-à-vis answers to difficult social questions, in the context of such “incidental” frissons I can’t be so generous. For me, anyway, there are elements in these scenes that feel uncomfortable precisely because we’re asked to believe that they’re not there at all.
Nevertheless, in The Godless Girl such problems don’t so distract us that we lose sight of a now-quite-clear message. The Chief Guard, provoked by the escapees and especially, perhaps, by Love’s Young Dream, has raised the punitive stakes even higher. In this he has erred. Too much free-thinking by over-educated young women is one thing; but if you treat essentially decent youngsters too severely, they will end up doing who knows what? Burning down reformatories? Starting a Russian-style revolution? In an increasingly contrived series of plot switches, we now see Noah Beery’s Chief Guard really living up to his role as The Brute. When he tries to save himself from the blaze — though it would have been just as easy to rescue Judy — we’re fully primed for his comeuppance as he manages to electrocute himself on the cell bars. (This is a direct reference to one of his own previous acts of sadism against The Boy.) But does Bob leave him to die in the flames? No, he does not. The Brute is fatally hurt but, seeing the true nature of The Boy, his own last gesture is also honourable: calling for The Inspector, who immediately arrives, he declares, “This bunch [The Boy, The Girl and Mame] risked their lives to save me. I recommend release.” If I haven’t spoiled things too much already, I leave you to discover exactly how the film ends.
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It’s no great crime to be amused by obsolete styles of filmmaking. Nor, perhaps, should pride in social progress threaten our hopes to be taken seriously. Without smugness, then, I’m happy to live in a time when, for example, the present governor of Cardiff Gaol is a woman; and the best of it is we no longer have to speak of such developments as though dealing with something so exceptional as to be freakish. Even so, were we to imagine that, in the West at any rate, irrational fears have completely lost their hold on the popular imagination we’d be wrong.
Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille, as members of my own great-grandparents’ generation, have been dead a while, but their deep-rooted terror of female emancipation lives on, nourished, sad to say, by more than one great world religion. When, in David Chase’s The Sopranos, I see Big Tony “looking out for” his daughter, Meadow, despite a hundred and one nuances of era difference, I see an action replay of Louis Mayer and Irene. I also recall Harold Pinter’s screenplay of Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, U.S., 1976), which deals with the same personae and the same issues.
My first thought is that cinema itself, for all its “corrosive” potential, has taught us to suspect the role of underexamined sexual attitudes in shaping our private and public worlds. But, beyond this important neo-Freudian contribution, something bigger still has been happening. Underlying the worldwide human rights movement over the last century or so, some analysts now emphasize the unexpectedly positive impacts of two world wars. These are especially relevant to the development of women’s rights; but, in the wake of progress here, all underprivileged groups have stood to gain.
Immediately after World War II, for example, the young Ingmar Bergman (rest his gloomy old soul) seized his moment to expose an especially cruel form of sexual hypocrisy in Western culture: the criminalisation of pregnancy in unmarried teenage girls. Like DeMille’s godless girl, these young women also faced a spell in Reformatory — unless, of course, their young men happened to do the right thing. The lucky ones would then not only be spared a very public form of humiliation, they’d no longer risk physical abuse from men who saw them as “mere” prostitutes.
Of several Bergman pictures on this theme, the one that stands out for me is Summer with Monika (1953). Retitled The Story of a Bad Girl for the U.S. market, this is a self-implicating hymn to sexual infatuation. It comes at a point when, having repeatedly stressed the unjust victimisation of unmarried mothers, Bergman now shows the heroine (played by his lover at the time, the incredibly beautiful Harriet Andersson) not as Victim, but — implicitly just like the rest of us — as an independent, hit-and-miss moral agent. In the end, she even goes so far as to abandon her child to the care of its more parentally minded young father. The serious point being made is that even people given to a particularly feral kind of hedonism are not, de facto, criminals.
This was and still is a tricky message to convey without exciting negative reactions from progressives and conservatives alike. As Philip Strick notes, the “badness” of Monika struck particular fear into the heart of the Swedish Tourist Board; and, at the end of the film, presumably to prevent travellers from switching their holidays to “safer” destinations, Bergman permits a tiny bit of extraneous dialogue: for one honest working man, the sight of dear old Stockholm, as he returns again by train, never fails to inspire a happy glow in his heart!
This was enough to appease the sort of unofficial censorship that can affect any film; and I, for one, wouldn’t have noticed the intrusion without Strick’s help. Far from it: especially in Bergman’s early films what I notice is the wonderfully wide and convincing social panoramas. Even more relevantly, the very hallmark of all his work is a striking degree of personal honesty. In fact, Bergman’s attempts to free audiences from mindless and heartless prejudices, which he himself implicitly admits to sharing,is something many directors since have tried to achieve. As I’ll soon try to show, some of the results have been, to say the least, mixed.
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Before coming to that late lamented doyen of social awareness, Alan Clarke, I must mention another, earlier British director whose name is not always spoken of in this context. David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (above, 1948) stand comparison, I think, with the best of cinema from any time or place. The relevance of the later film to youth crime is obvious enough; but what Lean has done with both is to add a dash not just of Expressionism — an artiness well suited to any Dickens treatment — but also an unexpectedly large slice of Realism.
I’m not claiming that in his approach to social justice Dickens is any more logical than Cecil B. DeMille: an over-reliance on rich benefactors hardly meets present tests of credibility. But Dickens was nevertheless very much a “modern,” first and foremost in his approach to childhood and adolescence. He was also, of course, a social reformer; indeed, the great novelist’s view of mass trials and mass public hangings, both of which Lean illustrates in the earlier of his adaptations, helped change the law of the land.
Interestingly, Dickens based his opposition to public executions on the belief that they encouraged too much sympathy for the condemned, detracting from sympathies due to the victim’s family. Again, therefore, we’re reminded of inherent conflicts of interest within the justice system; and we’re right to suspect that there’s still no easy way around these. On the other hand, demonstrating the win-win possibilities of restorative justice, an entry at Venice this year, Cargo, (Leo Woodhead, NZ) takes all of twelve minutes to show someone, still a teenager himself, learning to connect emotionally with the children he’s been trafficking as part of the European sex trade.
Via Lean’s sharply observed world of the Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist makes its own powerful connection with darker aspects of modernity. The large prosthetic nose worn by Alec Guinness’s Fagin has traditionally distracted some; but for me it’s less of an issue than Marlon Brando’s cheek pouches in The Godfather. As for Crime Incorporated, there’s a clear line taken by Dickens and Lean: “No violence, Bill!” With a sickening force of its own, Fagin’s forlorn injunction precedes Nancy’s murder. In perhaps his most brilliant masterstroke, Lean shows the awfulness of that crime, not in crudely graphic detail, but by the frantic scrabblings of Sykes’s dog, Bullseye, as it tries to escape the scene under a firmly closed door.
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To insist on judging any director by the standards of Bergman and Lean would plumb new depths of unfairness. Aware of this, I still hope to do justice to Clarke. Even so I’ve probably done enough to indicate why this will sometimes be an uphill climb. To make my job easier, I think of the huge number of quite appalling films purporting to deal realistically with crime and its causes. My own prize for the worst in this category goes unhesitatingly to Murder in the First (Marc Rocco, U.S., 1995).
At first glance this seems an entirely justified celebration of a landmark victory for human rights. Based on a real case in the 1940s, it shows an ambitious defence lawyer persuading the court that the Prison System itself is a co-conspirator in crimes against humanity. An inmate of Alcatraz returns to the prison population after several years in the Hole; he then takes the first opportunity to kill the fellow prisoner who put him there. The defence “evidence” in the ensuing trial wins a verdict of involuntary manslaughter But it turns out that, apart from the killing itself, all the “facts” here — repeated and further distorted in the film — are a tissue of unscrupulously manipulative lies.
Ironically, these are made more plausible by that early-established film cliché that shows prisoners being routinely brutalised by their guards. Fine acting from Kevin Bacon in the role of Henry Young gets us well down the road to believing that, given enough torture, homo sapiens will, indeed, descend to the level of the beast — a truly wild beast at that. Meanwhile, the fact that Young had already murdered someone at the very outset of his career is something the film flatly denies, offering instead an orphaned big brother who stole five dollars to help feed his starving little sister. We might wonder how such a literally minor felon made it as far as Alcatraz; but, once there, Young receives special treatment from Assistant Governor Milton Glenn — another of Gary Oldman’s scarily credible fiends.
Actual evidence about the Hole from ex-inmates and guards shows that this was another phantasm built entirely from fictional sources. Even “solitary” did not mean a spell in an isolated dungeon. What it did mean was time — sometimes amounting to months — on a segregation block, usually with neighbours on either side. Equally hard to portray as brutalisation, what nearly all ex-prisoners reported as the most oppressive aspect of their spell on the Rock were rules enforcing periods of complete silence.
Another key defence argument insisted that the Governor was frequently absent from the island prison, taking little interest in his work even when he was there. In reality, the tenure of James A Johnston seems to have suffered an undeservedly bad press from the start. Presumably, the notion of a corrupt and brutal regime sold more papers than one that was strict but — at least by the standards of the day — fair. Sadly, this media hoopla fed into the original trial and, much less inevitably, into Rocco’s film. Despite all this, we can now see how an appetite at the end of the war for perceived improvements in human rights led to an all-too real travesty of justice.
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Definitely not as casually misleading as Rocco’s meagre excuse for a film, Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979) and Made in Britain (1982) are, nevertheless, surprisingly vacant about the social backgrounds of their bad lads. In this respect they compare poorly with, say, Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, U.S., 1991); and what first strikes me is that British society in the early 1980s was still so riven by a thoroughly mutual class ignorance that, for the virginally middle-class, Clarke was their best idea — after John Lennon, perhaps — of a working-class hero. Having got that off my chest, I still see his work not just as a counterblast to the confrontational style of Margaret Thatcher’s first government, but as a vivid mirror to complex developments a generation ago in a long and still unfinished class war.
Considering British antecedents to Clarke’s work, one thinks first ofBrighton Rock (Roy Boulting, 1947). Pinky, Richard Attenborough’s baby-faced killer, is the centrepiece of an extraordinary cinematic achievement, bleak by any standards; but — separating it from the near-fatal production problems of Scum — it was saved from too much damning publicity by the sheer artiness of the project. Those “production problems,” by the way, deserve a bigger analysis than I can offer here, as do the links between TV and film worlds that, in this case, came to work so positively. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the blame for pulling Scum from the schedule can be shared fairly equally between government ministers and BBC management.
Less well known than Brighton Rock — and still not available on DVD — a truer comparison with Clarke’s politically daring, low-budget approach to youth crime is Cosh Boy (Lewis Gilbert, UK, 1953). Gilbert’s adaptation of a stage play does at least locate its wayward teenagers in their social world; and this so heightens the impact of the manipulative young villain, Roy Walsh, that — as played by James Kenney in a reprise of his stage performance — he remains “one of the most thoroughly unpleasant characters ever to appear on screen” (Fandango.com).
Gilbert’s “realism” included direct allusions to the Craig/Bentley case; and, after watching a 1950s villain run rings around his own dull-witted partner-in-crime, we can fast-forward to Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, with Trevor’s skinhead dominating the much gentler black kid, Leroy. At least Leroy is not likely to wind up facing the most serious of charges. Meanwhile, the seriousness of the crimes depicted in Boulting’s film are, as I’ve suggested, emotionally distanced by the gloss of noir; and this more than anything made Pinky less worryingly real for audiences than Walsh. Such nuances should help us understand where the late Alan Clarke — and the still-thriving Ken Loach — would come to pitch their own tents.
The fact that Cosh Boy also happens to be the first ever X-rated British film reminds us that Britain lagged some way behind America in the development of the crime genre. Growing up after WW II, even if they couldn’t point to their locations on a map, many ten-year-old British males understood — at least as intimately as one modern American director — the imaginative significance of Alcatraz, Sing-Sing, and San Quentin.
As I now recall, our late childhood games had to do with emulating the grittiness of men who, quite unfairly and day after day, faced the harshest of harsh regimes. Our playacting was about being tough enough to survive, not about coshing or killing anyone — unless, of course, they happened to be guards! What we didn’t realise at the time was that, if you stranded us on a desert island, the absence of adult supervision would soon lead to our becoming cannibalistic savages. Thus Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, UK, 1963).
In Scum, Alan Clarke rightly ignores the genetic tendencies of his Borstal boys. Instead he tries very hard to show that — surprise, surprise — systems designed to “cure” brutality with brutality only succeed in making matters worse. By contrast,Made in Britain risks undercutting its own thesis by presenting us with a more preternatural viciousness. Indeed, for implacable, coiled-up malevolence, it’s hard to choose between Pinky, as played by Attenborough, and Tim Roth’s neo-Nazi teenager, Trevor. More crucially in critical terms, Made in Britain shares with Brighton Rock the ability to take its foot, at least occasionally, off the propaganda pedal. Without automatically damning Alan Minton’s script, I think David Leland was writing for a director who had stopped trying too hard and was now more confidently focused on making a powerfully honest and open-ended film.
For all I know, Clarke was drinking equally heavily during the making of both features; and it isn’t this well-documented aspect of his behaviour I’m alluding to. Drunk or sober, with Made in Britain he appears to me to plumb greater depths in every department of the filmmaker’s art than with Scum. As the key to this positive difference, I think we need look no further than the personae of the two films. In Scum We’re presented with a mix of class-based characters, from “posh” Governor down, who seldom go beyond stereotype. We also meet at least one character, Archer, who is a literally incredible cipher for the film’s writer and director. The film company that, in the mid 1980s, eventually brought Scum to public screens uses Archer more simply for comic relief; and, showing what a bizarrely complex business filmmaking can be, this does little harm to Clarke’s anti-Hollywood credentials. Nevertheless, in any production striving for gritty realism, Archer remains one sore thumb too many for me. By contrast, all the characters in Made in Britain are not only closely observed and authentically played but come from the naturally interlinked lower-middle and working class. Less, in this case, is definitely more.
In its final scene, Made in Britain shows two police officers with Trevor in a station cell. Remembering that Trevor’s ceaselessly prowling passion for petty crime has by now exhausted the patience even of his own social worker, we see one of the officers quietly berating him for the undoubted nuisance that he is. Without overt anger and — as they say in sporting circles — any backswing, the officer suddenly delivers a single blow of his truncheon to Trevor’s head. Clarke holds the camera on Roth as the actor conveys a predictable degree of shock. Could this be the moment when Trevor finally sees the light? Or, as the moment extends, should we be thinking, less wishfully, about the possibility of his having suffered brain damage? Then, very gradually, Trevor’s more usual expression of manic defiance returns, not just to his staring eyes but to his entire body; and this is the image with which the film ends.
More than any number of dry tomes on the subject of free will versus conditioning, this one scene takes the viewer through an entire spectrum of anguished inner debate. With it, Clarke gets us as close to empathy with a hoodlum in-the-making — and arouses as deep a curiosity about that hoodlum’s previous circumstances — as we’re ever likely to feel. On these grounds alone, it remains for me one of the most telling climaxes in low-budget filmmaking.
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Following Trevor off-screen in these concluding thoughts, I wonder exactly what happens to a “hoodlum-in-the-making’? It doesn’t seem likely that he will meet a Miss (Now God-Fearing) Right and settle down like the nice middle-class young couple of DeMille’s Godless Girl. Indeed, his near-total social isolation — his own fault? ours? — makes it hard to see any future for him at all. Certainly not in line to become a Made Man like Tony’s nephew, Christopher, in The Sopranos, Trevor is not even imbued with the much more common, ethnically based culture of teenage gangs. So there’s no role in West Side Story for him either.
In the context of teenage gang war, I reluctantly recall the series of fatal stabbings and shootings that have plagued Britain’s big cities this summer; and I suddenly realise that Trevor’s own wanton destructiveness, terrifyingly unrestrained and mindless as it is, always targets other people’s property and not other people. This, of course — if we are convinced by Clarke — is what will come next; and, sad to say, I’m sure this work of fiction is telling no lies.
But, having gone to pains to point out how far back society’s worries go about criminality and young people, I hope I have not left anyone with the impression that the next generation is nothing but bad news. My own feeling is that youngsters who go wrong should not automatically forfeit all chance of living more creative and productive lives. Common sense dictates that the younger the offender the more scope there is to hope realistically for complete rehabilitation. But to mean anything, this hope must apply even to very dreadful offences, like the killing several years ago in Britain of two-year-old James Bolger by a couple of ten-year-old boys. It seems to me that despite public protests — led almost exclusively by the tabloid press — it was absolutely right, after a period of closely supervised detention, to provide new identities for these boys and allow them the chance to become fully contributing citizens.
Looking at well-tested examples from Scandinavian society, more and more of us see that we have a lot to gain, morally and in the context of the so-called tax burden, by raising the age of criminal responsibility. With a steadiness of care that some youngsters have never known — and without implying that sentimentality is ever a substitute for hard work — gains based on this kind of approach are, in fact, already being made.
As I said at the start, the cutting edge of progress here attempts to bring victims and culprits together, encouraging emotional connections that can lead offenders toward self-reform — the only kind of reform, by the way, that’s likely to stick. As I also mentioned, restorative justice of this kind is the subject of this year’s Venice Festival short, Cargo (above). Even shorter items on the same theme are beginning to pop up in TV slots. But, before a full-length feature appears — whether as cinema or TV, or something jointly funded — reform in this area could well be pushed aside by other priorities. In the meantime, “modern” life for many young people worldwide will remain instantly recognisable to Charles Dickens, should his own ghost ever drop by again.