Continuing the theme of Thatcher’s legacy, Paul Duane revisits Contact, Alan Clarke’s 1985 drama about the British army in Northern Ireland.
Margaret Thatcher’s reign coincided with my Peak Cinema Attendance years, 1979-90 – roughly speaking from Alien to Thelma & Louise.
It was the era of Video Nasties, Merchant-Ivory, Palace Pictures, it was peak Puttnam and the beginning of the end for Lindsay Anderson & Nic Roeg.
But for me none of these filmmakers sum up how it felt to live through that time. Nor does the overripe cheese of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners, the overstuffed turducken of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or the chipolata sausage of Alan Parker’s entire cinematic oeuvre.
For me, it’s all about Alan Clarke.
Of course, Clarke was barely visible at the time. His greatest work was broadcast on TV during a time when I rarely watched TV, except maybe when The Tube was on. I looked at the ads for Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985) in the NME and thought, what the fuck is that?, but it never got a cinema release outside one London venue. His only film to reach Ireland was the seedy, brilliantly ugly romp Rita, Sue and Bob, Too (1987), which to my eternal shame, I shunned at the time, though I somehow found the time to see Sammy & Rosie Get Laid or Chicago Joe and the Showgirl at the cinema instead.
Clarke epitomised the 1980s, those long years of utter misery punctuated by explosions of extraordinary resistance. He did it so well that he remained practically invisible until after his death.
He was a jumped-up working-class provocateur who was often unwelcome at the BBC – that much, at least, he and Margaret Thatcher had in common. Outside of that, they differed greatly.
His world was one of losers, victims, the desperate, the psychotic and the damned. At the time he was making his films, this world was one united by a common enemy – the Conservative Party, and one powerful ally – public service broadcasting. In the hands of Alan Clarke, licence-fee-funded TV drama became something transcendent.
His films are in a direct line from Robert Bresson and look forward to filmmakers as different as the Dardennes Brothers, Gaspar Noe and (in a debased form) the Darren Aronofsky who made The Wrestler (I’d love to see an Alan Clarkified version of Noah, featuring his great discovery Ray Winstone…) Paul Greengrass has self-confessedly tried to carry on Clarke’s work, but lacks his minimalist verve. Clarke’s style is genuinely inimitable.
In order to write this piece I’d intended to re-watch three of his greatest films, the army drama Contact, the northern English, end-of-tether unemployment story Road, and The Firm, where London estate agent Gary Oldman turns football hooligan. But I ran out of time and only watched Contact. However there’s enough in this one film to encapsulate a certain strand of the Thatcher years, at least as far as it concerns Ireland.
Contact is only available for viewing on a smeary, Nth generation YouTube copy, but even in this form I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the best film anyone made about the Troubles, bar none. It’s an astonishing piece of work that looks as pertinent now as it did in 1985 when British squaddies could only safely traverse some parts of Ireland via heavily defended chopper.
The story, based on a book by a former Platoon Commander with the Paras in NI, AFN Clarke, is pared down to the bare bones. Young squaddies patrol the roads and fields around Crossmaglen. The predominantly young soldiers are led by an older, possibly better educated commander (Sean Chapman). They stop cars, shoot people in the head, spy on the seemingly innocent activities of the locals, occasionally get blown up by IEDs, and never, ever drop their guard.
A truly minimalist film, its greatness lies in what’s left out. Humour, for one thing, is almost entirely absent, with good reason. In one scene the platoon hides in a ditch while an Irish farmer, oblivious to their presence, urinates against a tree a few feet away. We see them watch him, their faces both blank and tense at the same time. No soldierly banter here, no camaraderie or jokes – just a group of men who have to be constantly aware that their enemy is all around them.
In Contact, the Irish are always presented like this – unknowable ciphers, either Provos or civilians, but never to be empathised with. Two scenes where Chapman stands over a prisoner and presses the barrel of his automatic weapon between the man’s lips bookend the film. In neither case are we asked to identify with the victim – that would be too easy. We see the world through Chapman’s eyes, a world where innocent objects on the ground can harbour destruction, where children are just baby Provos, where green fields are booby trapped with deadly force.
In eerie, green-hued night vision sequences, the soldiers patrol their territory like aliens, with an eerie similarity to the Predator’s-eye-view shots in John McTiernan’s later masterpiece of warriors turned prey. And make no mistake, this is a story about alienation.
It’s difficult now to recall the utter contempt with which the Irish were viewed in the British mass media during the Troubles. Writer Julie Burchill was able to say, in the rarefied pages of The Face, that she hated the Irish and thought them “appalling” (though Kevin Rowland, at the height of his ’80s commercial success, was apparently able to take her on in the same magazine’s pages – if anyone has scans of this, I’d love to read it).
But that contempt wasn’t realistically reflected in films about the Troubles – there was always a ‘good Irishman/woman’ to root for, a demonstration of the much-prized sense of British fair play.
Contact brilliantly sidesteps that rhetorical necessity by portraying the Irish as they seemed to the occupying forces – distant, silent, treacherous, possibly verminous, and potentially deadly.
The film’s killer punch, though, is in its portrayal of the cost this exacts on the soldiers themselves.
In a scene that’s still nerve-wracking, the Platoon Commander overrides all rules and insists on checking out a possible car-bomb by himself. He opens and then slams each of the car’s doors, before turning the ignition key. Nothing happens. His final, hopeless, raging kick at the vehicle, before his contemptuous, nerve-shredded shout of “Ran out of fucking petrol!”, is the action of a man desperately hoping to be blown to smithereens.
This was the toll taken on these men by their role as defenders of the British crown, walking around in a country that was called their own but which felt foreign and unknowable. You can’t live like that for long before you self-destruct.
AFN Clarke himself left the Army in a state of poor health, suffering internal bleeding due to stress. Contact makes that stress visible, the stress of living and working in bad faith with the world.
If you can track down Clarke’s other Troubles films – Psy-Warrior, about dirty tricks, psychological torture & espionage, or the revered Elephant, as much video art as movie, you’ll have a complete picture of a terrible time in British and Irish history, seen by a true master of cinema (even if he was working in TV).
Paul Duane is a filmmaker whose documentary Very Extremely Dangerous goes on worldwide release via Fat Possum on November 25 2014.