“If everything we’d ever ruined fell from the sky at once the world would be covered with darkness” – words to live yer life by from bozo boozehound Frankie.
You know, instead of being at this screening I was supposed to be in the small audience for a BBC 4 television arts show, but the times clashed and I chose this film. What a mistake. The TV show had sent me a copy of a new Sam Spiegel biography to read so that I could ask questions of the author, who was gonna be a guest. It woulda been a much cooler experience than this pish. Oh well. At least I managed to sell the bio for a fiver to Richard at Main Point Books so it wasn’t a dead loss.
This film is written and directed by an ex-punk-band member (The Skids for trivia’s sake) and pretentious film critic called Richard Jobson. It’s apparently based partly on his own experiences and those of his now-deceased brother. So it’s obviously very deeply personal to him, but that still doesn’t make it a good film. There are a lot of beautifully composed images in the running time, but the script is flat and flabby and really just isn’t engaging at all.
I chose this film over the TV show because I wanted to see if Jobson could nail the Scottish working class drinking man’s mentality. It’s a subject close to my own heart (or liver) and I’ve never seen a film fully do it justice yet. Woulda been interesting to see if Jobson had any penetrating insights about our alcohol problem as a country (it’s used to keep us dumb and drunk and unthinking like it is with aborigines and Native American Indians and blacks in south Central Los Angeles) but he just had no real clue.
16 Years of Alcohol is set over three drink-drenched decades in the life of a right hard Edinburgh bastard named Frankie. Or, at least, that’s what it says in the catalogue, cos it’s virtually impossible (apart from a changed haircut) to distinguish the youngest Frankie from the eldest. Frankie, played by my old close drinking buddy Kevin McKidd, never once looks as if he could be a teenager. He always looks to be at least as old as he is in real life – in his late 20s or so.
Another thing. Kevin McKidd has absolutely no acting presence whatsoever. He’s merely in the film, like a pint glass or knife or bottle, but there is absolutely no depth to his performance (in any film he’s ever in) and he’s never particularly convincing as the tortured, misunderstood violent-drunk-with-the-heart-of-an-actor-deep-down(!) he is meant to be in the film.
But the worst thing, the biggest insult of all, is the terrible poetry (yes, poetry) that Frankie recites in voice-over to let you know what a sensitive soul he is underneath all the “Clockwork Orange” (referenced several times, in case you missed the gangland analogy) ultraviolence moves he pulls during his life. The character is just never presented as articulate or sensitive enough to quote reams of mongrel doggerel about the drink-drowned world round about him that he does. Then again, seeing as how this poetry is so cringe-makingly bad (I knew I was onto a loser when Frankie said “Angels watch over you while stormclouds gather” only a scant coupla minutes into the film) that you could say it fits the sullen, dense character perfectly.
Actually, now that I think about it, getting an audience to come along to screenings and quote the purple pensmanship like “There’s something inside you that just wants to come out and say hello to the world” could start off a new Rocky Horror Picture Show-like craze. If that happens, remember you heard it here first. Cos Beat Poets wasn’t a literary movement, it’s a direct physical order…
McKidd looks facially quite like Jobson (who has a cameo here singing in a pub, and he’s terrible – it’s like watching your drunk uncle howling at a party when there is no karaoke) so this one can only be chalked up to a vanity project gone horribly wrong. In the press junket Jobson says he will “never apologize for the poetry.” But I think he should. I think he should come right down to this site and apologize profusely for it. That way we might be a bit better predisposed to his next project, a Scottish martial arts movie(!). Robert the Bruce Lee? The mind fucking boggles…
Another McKidd film, another flat performance. But he’s not truly important here. Who is important is Paula Sage, the young lassie with Down’s Syndrome I mentioned meeting at that party a wee bit earlier on she’s the raw joyous beating heart of this film, and she’s utterly incredible.
McKidd plays Kenny, an upwardly mobile journalist whose career is just about to take off in a big way after he gets a prestigious job offer from New York. But there are no angels watching over him as stormclouds gather this time. His mother gets terminal cancer and she wants him to stay in Scotland to look after his Down’s Syndrome sister Roberta. He’s torn by this and doesn’t want to do it, which forces his mother to do something drastic.
Now. This isn’t a particularly bad film, but it’s not particularly good either. It’s basically held together by Paula Sage’s performance as Roberta. It was a total revelation. I found myself watching her and forgetting that she was disabled, she was such a natural performer, until something she said or did snapped me back into the reality of her true condition.
I’d never seen a performance like hers; the only other kids with Down’s Syndrome I’d ever seen in a film were in Santa Sangre. And, seeing as how it was an Alexandro Jodorowsky film and they were snorting coke before visiting a hooker, it wasn’t quite the same thing. Without sounding condescending, it really humanized the condition for me. And everybody I talked to who’d seen the film thought the exact same thing.
I had one major problem with this film though plot-wise. This is gonna contain a spoiler, so be warned. When Roberta’s mother decides that she doesn’t want to leave Roberta to be looked after by Kenny when she dies, deciding that she loves her too much and Roberta will only hold Kenny back, she decides to kill herself and her daughter.
But Roberta feigns death (pretending to drink hot chocolate with painkillers in it to overdose) and is saved by Kenny after their mother has killed herself. I couldn’t believe that a disabled, trusting, loving girl wouldn’t do what her mother wanted her to do, ie drink the hot chocolate that would kill her. But maybe that’s nitpicking. While a bit melodramatic, this is definitely worth watching, if only for Sage’s performance. You will never see another one like it again. I can guarantee you that.

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Posted on August 29, 2003 in Festivals by

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