The Poetry of Pain
Julien Allen on Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors
A favorite debate is often an irresolvable one. Questions surrounding the dichotomy between television and film and its implications for cinema rage as loud as ever now that the whole theatrical experience seems to be facing an existential threat. And they have resurfaced, time and again, as in the shrill discourse accompanying the third season of the television series Twin Peaks (2017) a work which—apparently plumbed by some sort of insecurity—film advocates were desirous of officially reclaiming as cinema. Les Cahiers du Cinéma had made up their minds in April 1961 with an edition entirely devoted to television and have even been including television series on their year-end top ten lists since the turn of the century, including the torture-promoting Kiefer Sutherland–starring U.S. series 24 in 2002 (tied for 10th with Gus Van Sant’s Gerry). Reverse Shot itself, you will recall, opened this whole question up somewhat more thoughtfully in 2014, by scrutinizing in detail the current “golden age” of television.
To a British auteur in the 1980s—the majority of whom were principally occupied with seeking funding to make their films and an audience to watch them—this dichotomy, like so many questions which are the preserve of the privileged, is largely illusory. Since the decline of the major British studios after WWII, British cinema has had neither the luxury of, nor the appetite for, such high-minded debates. The biggest question in 1981 was this: is there money available for the best filmmakers to make the films they want to make? The answer, for the most part was that there was, and it came from the television networks: the BBC, ITV and later, Channel 4. Alan Clarke, a Liverpudlian who fell into the profession after enrolling at the Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto and who worked primarily in television, was probably one of the most important and least self-important filmmakers that Britain has ever produced. He shot his films, in large part, on film. Some of them were feature-length, some of them were shorts. His films were occasionally released in theaters, but more often they were not. The greatest of them—the mutilating, crepuscular one-two punch of Christine (1987) and Elephant (1989)—were not. So what? Stephen Frears, who used TV money for My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), once remarked of British cinema that the difference between a theatrical and a TV release was that the latter would reach a much larger audience. He also referred to Clarke as “the best of us.” Clarke’s influence on the likes of Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant is a matter of record. In 1981, Alan Clarke made two highly politicized films for the BBC: Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors, both written by Clarke’s frequent collaborator David Leland. Watching these films again in 2022 reveals a poignant congruence with the deficiencies of today's world and prompts a deeper set of questions about humanity’s ability to govern itself.
It is sensible when writing about Alan Clarke to try to self-embargo certain words and expressions that always seem to impose themselves, such as “raw,” “gritty,” “state-of-the-nation,” “Thatcher,” and “verité,” for fear of reductive cliché. Any Reverse Shot reader even slightly familiar with Clarke’s work will recognize that his aesthetics and his sensibilities plug directly into the very type of British cinema which had something valuable to say to—and about—Britain and its people. He leads us back to a now sacrosanct era when films like Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961), and Richard Lester’s The Knack . . . and How to Get It (1965) finally introduced British audiences to…themselves. But, for a period starting in the mid-1960s—the era of Ken Loach’s coruscating, law-changing single drama Cathy Come Home (1966)—British television was a both a populist medium and a radical engine of democracy, giving artists the freedom to express ideas which film studios simply would not. Clarke’s filmography was a perfect fit for television, precisely because it got him and his audience closer to real people, but he was far from constrained to any stripped back idea of Britishness, categorically speaking. His works do include classical kitchen-sink drama (the incest story Diane  and the astonishingly scabrous Rita Sue and Bob, Too , based on an autobiographical script by Yorkshire-born child prodigy Andrea Dunbar) but also such diverse genre platforms as historical courtroom drama (1978’s Danton’s Death), figurative theatre (an adaptation of Brecht’s Baal, starring David Bowie, in 1982) rural fantasy horror (Penda’s Fen in 1974), a series of politically bullish anti-violence homilies (1979’s Scum, 1982’s Made in Britain, and 1989’s The Firm—the latter two launching the careers of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, respectively), and even musical-fantasy-comedy-sports-horror (1987’s Billy The Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, despite its title, by far Clarke’s least interesting film).
Two key elements of Clarke’s personality perforate this eclectic tapestry. The first is his deceptive but well-documented fascination with cinematic technique. On first viewing his films can appear cheap, unconstructed, and crude. He uses no musical score, no immediately noticeable lighting effects, no filters nor polished, DP-led composition—he might even have seemed like a perfect guerrilla filmmaker for the digital age, had he survived to see it. Yet to the surprise of his early television collaborators, it was remarked that while most directors talked only about shots (medium, wide, etc.), Clarke was obsessed with lenses, which endeared him to the technicians. A deeper dive into his films unearths before too long formal patterns and ideas which hold a vital secret to his work’s undeniable power. His numerous horizontal tracking shots—what the French call “traveling” when executed with a dolly, but for which Clarke used handheld or Steadicam—focus on single actors moving through landscape. These operate as delicate illustrations of location, preserving psychological intimacy in a manner that recalls Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). Clarke made a paradigmatic feature of “walking” scenes, often including behind-the-shoulder handheld sequences—present in all his 1980s output but most especially Road (1987) and Christine—a whole decade before the Dardennes espoused the same approach in The Promise.
There is a subversive, humanist quality to the preservation of action that would traditionally be cut (walking from one scene into another), but which in Clarke’s hands becomes about fixating on the subject’s whole existence, not just those highlights that advance the action for the audience. As a result, the effect of these behind-the-shoulder walking shots, focusing on troubled, often dangerous characters, is not only a matter of complicity or espionage but also can provoke more complex, vulnerable audience impulses, like identification, distancing, questioning, and, occasionally, pitying. Clarke’s avoidance of non-diegetic music allows him to privilege sound design in sometimes disarming ways, such as the first sound we hear in Beloved Enemy, an almost deafening crackle of premium-grade gravel under the wheels of a company boss’s Rolls Royce Silver Spirit as he leaves his enormous home counties estate for his office in London. The brief sequences of sectarian murder in Elephant use an editing technique based on the relationship between image and sound, most strikingly attributable to Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), whereby a shot seems delayed because it only ends when the footsteps of the person who has long since left the frame—in this case, the killer—have faded out of earshot. Meanwhile Elephant’s inspired, gonzo use of Steadicam is to The Shining what Godard’s Goodbye to Language’s use of 3D is to Dial M for Murder. Never once are these techniques remotely self-serving or demonstrative: nothing about the look or sound of Clarke’s films is ever “cool,” only cold.
The second fundamental structural component of Clarke’s output was his unswerving deploration of injustice and corruption of any available description. Clarke’s storytelling choices were fueled by an uncommon moral tenacity laced throughout most of his later work with a fortified dose of righteous anger, which he sought to defray onto his audience as much as possible. This anger was not focused in one specific area, like his contemporary (and cheerleader) Loach, who made films principally to enlighten the public about the plight of Britain’s working class. Clarke believed in the power of filmmaking to expose, provoke, and disturb, whatever the malfeasance and whoever was perpetrating it: the British government, the military-industrial complex, the IRA, Reaganism, football hooligans, neglectful parents, Class A drugs. His own anger was intensified by what he felt were wounding, establishment-pacifying cuts to his work (principally Scum, which was banned, and The Firm) which fed his anxiety that necessary truths, exposed in good faith, were being suppressed.
Further, it was a certain political insecurity that forbade him from compromising. When the spotlight-avoiding Clarke opened up in interviews, he spoke of his fear that anyone watching his films might imagine that his depictions of violence, brutality, and degradation were somehow being shown in a positive, enjoyable light, or worse, that the violence might appeal to the audience’s basest sensibilities. This led to a determination to render his screen violence as banal and squalid as possible. Far from a metaphorical baseball bat–wielding ideologue like Oliver Stone, the genial, quietly spoken, flat-cap-wearing Clarke’s approach to cinematic politics was more apologetic than indulgent, as if he were saying: “This is hurting me more than it is hurting you.” This fruitful marriage of process and passion bore a vivid, compelling body of work, with each element of the marriage symbiotically making up for the deficiencies of the other: when Clarke doubted that his films were moving the political dial, he took refuge in the process that he adored; if budgetary or time constraints meant he had to do more with less, he made his anger go further and his films scream louder.
Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors exemplified this duality. Beloved Enemy depicts a commercial transaction—based on the then fashionable capitalist concept of détente—between a British tire company and the Soviet government, ostensibly for a factory to be set up in Russia under joint ownership and with a local workforce. It becomes clear during the film that the deal, despite being supported by the British government, also includes the covert sharing by the British company of weapons grade laser technology which will enable the Soviets to develop their own nuclear defense system. Psy-Warriors concerns the submission of three British-born terrorists to unspeakably cruel and degrading psychological torture in prison. It emerges midway through the film that the prisoners are not in fact terrorists, but British army volunteers, taking part in a state-sanctioned experiment to create super-soldiers, fluent in psychological warfare and equipped—to paraphrase Orwell—to endure the unendurable. And inflict it.
Both films were so direct and unapologetic in their dramatization of absurd and outlandish acts that they were accused by establishment critics (i.e., British broadsheet newspapers terrified of anything potentially approaching inconvenient truth) of peddling conspiracy theory, science-fiction, and fantasy. Yet both films were based on documented fact. Psy-Warriors explicitly refers to instances of the long-documented U.S. concept of “PsyOps,” developed enthusiastically during the Vietnam War but whose influence exploded during the second Gulf War, twenty years after Clarke’s death. Beloved Enemy was adapted from Vodka-Cola, the account by the Canadian social economist Charles Levinson of the deal Richard Nixon did with the USSR to permit them to produce American soft drinks in Russia (allegedly to repay his campaign backers, PepsiCo), which was paid for in Stolichnaya vodka, given that roubles were worthless to the West. The Observer’s Australian TV critic Clive James —a figure of absolute reverence in British literary circles—poured scorn on Beloved Enemy for its crackpot central idea: a satellite-based nuclear defence system wherein laser technology positioned in space could destroy ICBMs in flight. Unlike Leland, James hadn’t bothered to do his research: the technology to underpin this very concept had been commissioned by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and four years later the Strategic Defence Initiative—nicknamed the “Star Wars program”—was announced as a counter-concept to the nuclear doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” After decades of delays and controversy, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2019, under which research into space-based interceptor technology was resumed.
Not only were Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors dealing with very real issues at the time—one could persuasively argue that their relevance to real world politics is considerably greater today than it was in 1981. Psy-Warriors—principally basing its account of shock techniques on Northern Ireland terrorist internment—will make most modern audience-members think of one thing only: Abu Ghraib. By the same token, Beloved Enemy absolutely reeks of Donald Trump’s commercial relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the surface of which—given its potential influence on both U.S. presidential elections and Europe’s current land war—has, even after a U.S. Special Counsel investigation, barely been scratched.
The first script of Beloved Enemy was returned to Clarke by the BBC’s commissioning editor on the pretext that it was simply a protracted dramatization of the transaction, negotiated by men in suits in boardrooms, dining rooms, country house gardens, and—for the back-channel work—bathrooms. The suits wanted fewer suits, so a “human impact” subplot (involving a new character: the company CEO’s daughter trying to challenge her father’s conscience) was written in so the treatment could be passed for production. Then Clarke simply binned those additions and reverted, without telling any of his paymasters, to Leland’s original draft. He could see that the whole story resided in the way the deal itself was conducted and in the characters of the people who conducted it. Aesthetically, the film alternates between reportage-style exterior “spy” camerawork complete with long lenses and occasional, almost impressionistic compositions of men—a murder of fixers, ministers, executives, and flunkies—posturing in dowdy, garishly upholstered rooms. Realpolitik abounds: the Soviets accept a big lunch invite but leave the Brits hanging in a grandly adorned but empty dining room, using the time instead to speak with their competitors, the Japanese; the Russian attaché (Stephen Berkoff) says at one point, “Only fools fight to lose, comrade, leave that to the workers.”
Meanwhile, the grim reality of politics (including the paradox that strikes and workers rights in the UK were far more of a nuisance to corporate interests in 1981 than they were under the jackboot of Soviet Russia) seeps through Leland’s text. When the CEO tells the minister, “People must work for us on our terms, otherwise they won’t work at all,” he is referring to the bought politician he is speaking to, as much as he is to the factory workforce. As the tension builds and the terrible truth comes to light—that the sharing of laser technology is not a mistake but a known strategic play, to embrace the “beloved enemy” which keeps the gravy train running—the dialogue scenes culminate with shots of two men by the side of a private swimming pool, walking (of course) back and forth, literally twenty yards in one direction and twenty yards back again. The sparseness of the blocking underlines the deadline-fueled immediacy of the negotiation.
By contrast, the studio-bound, TV-play feel of Psy-Warriors serves firstly to alienate us from the surroundings of the characters. This prison has wipe-clean white walls and surfaces, the prisoners are in white cages, quite unlike in any prison drama familiar to a British audience. The location seems out of kilter with reality—not modern enough to be futuristic, not dirty enough to be conventional. The feel of the action and dialogue evokes Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange right down to the plummy theatrical accents, but the candor of the prisoners’ mistreatment is truly shocking even by today’s standards. The prison guards, some of whom are sadistic, are revealed not to be guards at all, but qualified physicians—military psychologists. A darkly humorous sequence halfway through the film shows the most unhinged of them (A Clockwork Orange’s Warren Clarke) turning on the academic charm when the government minister who is holding the purse strings comes to call. He describes with eloquence to the minister his recent, highly fruitful U.S. fact-finding tour to the covert west coast “PsyOps” sites, but there seems little question that his real persona is that of the vicious barrack-room bully. The scene also observes how pathetically, obsessively, and indiscriminately the British copy the Americans in everything. In this, Clarke shared a similar anxiety to his political opposite, Michael Powell, whose depiction of Heaven in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) warned against Britain’s impending postwar inheritance of American socialism.
When Alan Clarke films the interrogation sequences in the cages in Psy-Warriors, he doesn’t do what most directors would and pull focus so that the characters can be clearly seen through the bars, he shoots in deep focus, so that the bars and the characters are both in sharp relief: a psychological choice, not an aesthetic one, but an artistic choice, nonetheless. As with Beloved Enemy the squalor of man’s complicity with his own destruction is gradually unveiled. What begins as an apparently Manichean spectacle quickly morphs into complex and even confusing philosophical dynamics, leaving us unsure of the extent to which the victims of torture are colluding in their own mistreatment. Even in the supposed name of progress, what emerges is only corruption, deceit, and horrifying delusion.
Psychological warfare and torture were of course not new in 1981, but they were generally associated with repressive, eschatological regimes. Sleep deprivation was employed by the NKVD in Stalin’s Russia and sensory deprivation was used by the Chinese on American POWs in Korea. Dick Cheney’s preferred technique, dunking, or “water-boarding,” was employed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s and its application against American soldiers in WWII had earned one Japanese officer a sentence of fifteen years’ hard labor. Yet since the turn of the century, all these techniques have been practiced routinely by the U.S. government without sanction. The English philosopher John Gray wrote in 2007, “By any internationally accepted standard of what constitutes torture, the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime has committed itself to the practice as a matter of national policy.”
So, if what materializes from contemporary viewings of Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors is a powerfully dispiriting prescience, it also constitutes an opportunity for us to ask ourselves, 40 years on, why so little has evolved and why such warnings have gone completely unheeded. How has the wretched utopia of a New World Order, characterized by the West attempting to impose liberal democracy by force on nation states from Guatemala to Vietnam to Iraq, resulted in images which were treated in 1981 as horrifying Shakespearian grotesqueries becoming normalized, merely regrettable necessities in the theater of world politics? Unlike Clarke’s more celebrated films, neither Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors can muster any credible visual depiction of the real victims, because the scale of the damage is too great. So it elides the victims completely, preferring to unveil the absurdist behavior of the perpetrators and leave us to imagine the scale of the damage and the plight of those who will suffer most, which is all of us. Both Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors end without resolution and feature chilling, silent, end credits sequences: the first over a freeze frame, the second after a fade to black. It recalls Euripides’s view of silence as “true wisdom’s best reply.” When you’re trying to tell the truth as Alan Clarke did, how can there ever be a happy ending?