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Scum

Scum(1979)

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Home Video Reviews

The British tradition of "lad films" - celebrating boyish machismo and bravado often in an unsympathetic society - really took hold in the 1960s and was responsible for the careers of actors like Michael Caine. Lad traditions have become so familiar that even postmodern versions (e.g., the entire career of Guy Ritchie) are often unable to separate themselves from the real thing. Offering his own darker, socially conscious perspective on the lad fixation, television director Alan Clarke used a stable of high-voltage talent to pick apart society's ills, often stemming from the ingrained behavior of men who really should know better but somehow don't.

Still the most notorious project in his native country, Clarke's Scum began life as a 1977 BBC film starring a young Ray Winstone as Carlin, a boy shipped off to a youth prison where the warden and his lackeys show no interest in reforming their charges. The brutal borstal contains its own youth hierarchy (including Winstone's future Quadrophenia co-star, Phil Daniels) which Carlin must learn to navigate; unfortunately some of his peers fall afoul of the social system, leading to a beatings, a brutal rape, a bloody suicide, and a vicious revolt. Quickly ascending to the role of "Daddy" or top dog, the increasingly violent Carlin finds his voice but not at a small price.

Violent and unsparing in its depiction of a system completely collapsing in on itself, Scum concludes with a venomous speech outside the jail that offers little hope of societal contribution for anyone involved; with its poisoned authority figures, the film eerily prefigures the height of Thatcher's barbarous reign that led to deep class rifts and untold social havoc. Not surprisingly, the BBC balked at the film and, despite an investment of 120,000 pounds, refused to air it for well over a decade; thus Clarke and screenwriter Roy Minton took their project to the big screen for another version released two years later.

The big screen Scum features a slightly older Winstone reprising his role and follows the same general structure, though the rough and gritty texture has been exchanged for a somewhat lighter, slicker visual look. Some aspects were toned down (the casual homosexual aspects and frontal nudity being the most obvious casualties) while the centerpiece of the film, a greenhouse sexual assault, was made more unsparing and the profanity was ramped up considerably. The effectiveness of one over the other is a difficult call, but the preservation of both allows curious viewers to weigh each one back to back. In either form, Scum is one of the strongest "youth in prison" films and would make a solid co-feature with the earlier Born Innocent and the later Bad Boys, to cite just two obvious examples.

Four years later, Clarke signed on for the series Tales Out of School and tackled the theme of skinheads with the caustic Made in Britain, in which a young Tim Roth essays the role of Trevor, a temperamental neo-Nazi thrown back into the penal system after smashing open a shop window. His social worker tries to get through to the angry lad, who has retreated so deeply into his own sense of hatred that he seems impossible to reach. Easily provoked and prone to screaming and irrational behavior, Trevor comes to represent a truly terrifying vision of things to come.

Continuing Clarke's study of boyhood gone bad, Made in Britain - essentially a hellish twist on the afterschool special and precursor for the likes of Romper Stomper and American History X - is especially fascinating as the director's first experiment with Steadicam photography. Often suffused with natural and fluorescent light, the lens seems to glide and probe even through the most mundane scenes; at its most effective, the camera glides along with Trevor as he breaks down in the middle of a highway tunnel at night, a scene not easily forgotten. Already excellent, Roth shines in a difficult role (his first, believe it or not) conceived by writer David Leland, who went on to write the acclaimed Mona Lisa and Wish You Were Here.

The Firm, Clarke's last narrative TV project before his untimely death from cancer, pushes the theme of perverted manhood into adult territory with a complex performance from Gary Oldman as Bex, the head of the football firm (group of fans) ICC who proposes a union with two other local firms, positing himself as the leader. A family man earning a decent living as an estate agent, he devotes his spare time to the sport and his fellow hooligans; when his proposal falls on deaf ears, his baser tendencies rise to the surface against his better judgment.

Barely over an hour long, The Firm has just enough time to offer a deeply uncomfortable critique of its subject; though his argument against hooligan behavior seems to have fallen on deaf ears given the escalating tragedies at football matches in subsequent years, its message remains potent and Oldman's quicksilver performance has lost none of its power. Again shot with a Steadicam, this is the most visually accomplished outing of the set and shows that Clarke had become a strong stylist over the years.

An odd coda on the same disc is Elephant, a half-hour study of violence in Ireland as anonymous gunmen mow down their victims with cold-blooded precision. Almost experimental with its mobile camerawork and spare, detached atmosphere, this film (whose title most likely bears some symbolic affinity with the later Gus Van Sant feature of the same name) is only an "issue story" by implication.

All four television projects are presented in their full frame aspect ratios and look as good as possible given the original material; the original Scum looks ragged around the edges with grungy black levels, but it's wholly appropriate. The theatrical Scum fares best of them all with an anamorphic transfer (framed at 1.66:1) and an optional 5.1 remix; all titles also feature optional English subtitles, a godsend when the English slang starts flying fast and furious.

The supplemental features appropriately focus more on Clarke's directorial technique than any other subject. The BBC Scum features commentary with Daniels, actor David Threlfall, and producer Margaret Matheson, as well as a separate discussion with Winstone, covering the technical and creative genesis of the film as well as the complex fate it encountered with the BBC. Winstone then offers the sole commentary for the theatrical version in which he explains Clarke's instructions (essentially to give the exact same performance) and points out some differences between the two versions. Minton and producer Clive Parson also turn up for short video interviews, supplemented with the theatrical trailer and poster and stills galleries. For Made in Britain, Roth commands an excellent commentary track and video interview in which he goes into extreme depth about how he approached his first lead role, how he got the part, and how the film was received. Anyone interested in the acting trade will find this one especially rewarding. Video interviews with Matheson and Leland are also included, along with a gallery of stills and promo art. The last disc pairing The Firm and Elephant only contains still galleries for the former film, a shame considering the history behind it must be a fascinating one; Elephant gets a commentary track with admirer and protégée Danny Boyle, while the short featurette "Memories of Elephant" features Oldman, David Hare and Molly Clarke offering a few succinct memories and observations about the project.

Any unanswered questions after this retrospective are surely addressed with the fourth disc, "Director: Alan Clarke," a 54-minute 1991 documentary commissioned after the director's death for a television retrospective marking the premiere of the BBC's Scum. Extremely comprehensive and packed with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, the film covers Clarke's career from start to finish including the BBC fracas, his biggest commercial hit (Rita, Sue and Bob, Too), his family story, and some startling clips of his other work; most striking of these is 1974's "Penda's Fen," a story about paganism filled with demons, angels, and a sequence in which young children happily line up to have their hands gorily chopped off with a cleaver. Blue Underground, please do a second Alan Clarke set and get this thing released!

For more information about The Alan Clarke Collection, visit Blue Underground. To order The Alan Clarke Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson