Alan Clarke’s powerful indictment of the British juvenile penal system is a virtuouso cinematic achievement, ugly and beautiful at the same time, influential to the modern works of Steve McQueen, Gus Van Sant and others. Scum, like Clarke’s mostly television work in the 70’s and 80’s represents some of the best films ever shot for television.
Scum (1979) dir. Alan Clarke
Starring: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth
By Alan Bacchus
Scum began as a television project in 1977, airing to great acclaim, much attention, and much controversy, and thus rendered too violent for continued airplay. Two years later, Clarke reshot portions of the film for a theatrical release, even tougher and more violent.
Carlin (a remarkably young Ray Winstone) and Angel and Davis are the three newest prisoners at a Borstal prison – a British term for juvenile prison. It’s a typically brutal place, as one would expect from Britain in the late 70’s, class superiority exhibited by the guards and adminstrators continually punish the inmates, rampant racism has divided much of the prison, and of course, an internal hierarchy exists topped by the ‘Big Daddy’, Banks.
Carlin’s reputation precedes him, a violent prisoner who once assaulted a guard, but who desires simply to blend in and do his time in peace. His friendship with the oddball Archer who claims to be a Vegan simply to fuck with the prison routines creates a light affable tone early. Though it doesn’t take long for Banks and is cronies to test Carlin and his new mates. Eventually Carlin can’t take it anymore and unleashes an impressive assault on Banks, usurping his title as Big Daddy.
Even as Big Daddy Carlin can’t escape the brutal punishment and control by the guards, resulting in a number of severe acts of mutilation and rape pushing Carlin and his other prisoners to the limit, a bubbling cauldron of working class rage with boils over into a remarkable riot sequence.
Scum exemplifies the unique social realist aesthetic of the British films of the era, including Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. The term Kitchen Sink represented the earthy gritty visual qualities of the Loach/Leigh films, and yet Clarke’s films stand out for its supreme visual compositions and technically proficient camera movements. Most famously Gus Van Sant paid homage to Clarke, borrowing both the title and fluid steadycam methodology for his version of Elephant. Scum is no exception either. Clarke freely moves his camera through the bowels of the prison with elegance, admirable beautifying what is inherantly ugly and disturbing. And we can’t help but think of Clarke’s Scum as a strong influence on Steve McQueen’s equally lauded and stylistically similar Hunger.
Thankfully Kino Lorber has remastered and released Scum as a pristine Blu-Ray in North America, hopefully the beginning of a new era of appreciation for the work of Alan Clarke.