Judge Adam Arseneau wonders why, in most places, you can vote before you can drink booze. Discuss.
"Hope is a strange thing, a currency for people who know they're losing. The more familiar you are with hope, the less beautiful it becomes."
Half autobiographical, half allegorical, Sixteen Years of Alcohol is a Scottish film told in the visual aesthetic style of East Asian cinema, a completely baffling and troubling concept that actually manages to work quite well. Teen punk rock star turned media icon, ex-Skids front man Richard Jobson takes a stab at his first motion picture. He adapts his own written material, a book of poetry written in 1987 about his own life, and that of his brother, prowling about the streets as skinhead rockers, drinking and fighting. Tackling hard-hitting social realism issues in a completely visual aesthetic style, weaving a tale of regret, sorrow, anger, and addiction in a dreamlike and poetic fashion, somehow the film manages to keep things very Scottish, which is an achievement in of itself.
Try to imagine Wong Kar-Wai if he grew up as a skinhead in Edinburgh, and you will have a good sense of—no, wait, don't imagine that. That doesn't make any sense.
Facts of the Case
Frankie (Kevin McKidd, Trainspotting) is your typical Scottish kid: married parents, a fondness for American Westerns, and a disturbingly early exposure to the interiors of Irish pubs. His feelings towards his father in particular are especially gallant, whom he idolizes beyond all other figures, but he is not quite old enough to realize the true measure of the man is slightly less than gold. When relationships between his parents turn sour and he catches his father with another woman outside the pub, his world shatters. Unable to rectify the internal struggle, he fixates on the one thing that seems to give the adults comfort: alcohol.
Flash forward a few years, and Frankie is the leader of a skinhead gang, roaming the streets, skanking to Desmond Dekker songs, getting into bar fights and trashing the occasional record store. Frankie is fueled by liquor and rage, barely contained in his own skin, having grown into a dangerous and violent man. But when his eye catches a pretty record store clerk named Laura (Laura Fraiser, Vanilla Sky), he suddenly realizes he wants more in his life than just drinking and trolling about the streets. Abandoning his mates, he changes his hair, his clothes, and his habits in an attempt to fit into her world. But he soon finds out that leaving the violence behind is harder than he could have ever imagined.
With the growing influence of world cinema, one could easily watch Sixteen Years Of Alcohol and appreciate the film for its beautiful aesthetics, its poetic nature, and its emotional impact (as well as dismiss it for being preachy, heavy-handed, and self-indulgent) but totally miss out on the significance of its cinematic oddity. Simply put, UK cinema does not handle this sort of subject matter in this fashion. There is a long-standing tradition of social realism in British cinema for handling themes of trauma, substance abuse, violence, and social oppression; social realism is as an inherently and fundamental British film genre as can exist, one which Sixteen Years of Alcohol completely and utterly ignores.
Imagine taking the subject matter of Trainspotting and approaching the material from a diametrically opposed cinematic styling, telling the tale of violence, redemption, and maturity from a totally existentialist standpoint, and you would have Sixteen Years Of Alcohol. This is not a film about "realism" in any sense or fashion. The entire film has a hallucinogenic and dreamlike quality, a disregard for coherent timelines and (quite possibly the worst of British cinematic faux pas) an omniscient and poetic narrator who waxes philosophic at the drop of a hat. To British film financiers and producers, this is nothing short of box office poison, and the fact that Sixteen Years received any sort of funding of any kind is nothing short of miraculous.
Rather than simply told in a straightforward fashion, this is a film whose tale is weaved from calculated montages and metaphors, ambiguous shadowing across the face of a character, every element painstakingly calculated and crafted. Director Jobson's style is heavily romanticized and stylized, like fond memories of a long-lost love affair that, in reality, was not nearly as picturesque as you remember it. The film has whimsical and stylized filters that capture only a specific recollection, like a distant memory, incredibly contrived and structured…in short, totally unnatural. Sixteen Years of Alcohol is obsessed with the visual aesthetic, totally at odds with the machinations of reality, choosing to capture the "feeling" of a particular sequence rather than the actual events, very much in the camp of filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-Wai.
Taking the social realism path of least resistance would have yielded dramatically different results, and Jobson deserves credit for sticking to his aesthetic guns, crafting an undeniably beautiful, melancholic, and moving film. Not a fast-moving film, mind you, but definitely moving. It certainly sets out what it achieves to do, creating a unique cinematic vision with beautiful cinematography, haunting music, and intense performances from its cast, and in that sense, succeeds as a film. Sixteen Years certainly has heart, but like a scientific laboratory has heart; in a jar, perfectly preserved for observation. The film, despite its atmospheric ethereal quality, feels oddly detached at times, almost cold. Frankie (played masterfully by Kevin McKidd) has a terribly difficult time escaping the demons in his life, and every major attempt to put the bottle down and leave the violence behind fails, for one reason or another. Jobson himself states that he had not set out to create a bleak film in any sense; he had intended the film to be reaffirming, but in execution…well, it can go either way. The film has an austere and bittersweet beauty, but this could easily be interpreted as excessive, like drowning in rivers of despair.
This is the kind of deeply personal and introspective film that cannot help but alienate viewers; its creative strength stemming from the incredible importance and self-worth to the creator, but the same isolated appeal ironically further limits the appeal and acceptance of the film to the masses. Sixteen Years Of Alcohol is the thematic and cinematic equivalent of scotch on the rocks: golden and fiery, burning the throat, but continually surrounded and chilled by giant blocks of ice…definitely not to everyone's taste. Odds are if you like the sound of the film so far, you will enjoy it, but if ambiguous mamsy-pamsy cinema makes your face twitch? Best pass over this one.
Filmed entirely on high-definition digital video, Sixteen Years Of Alcohol has one thing going for it: incredible stylishness. A testament to how good digital cinematography can look if one approaches plays to the strengths of the technology, the film is a sea of browns, yellows, and tans, as if swimming in a sea of alcohol itself. Despite the financial restraints on the production, the film looks fantastic, with crisp and richly detailed sequences, tight close-up shots, and slow pans, a tremendous job of compositional cinematography on a shoe-string budget. Colors are excellent, detail is quite clear; in poor lighting conditions the image can soften slightly, but overall, quite sumptuous. The transfer does exhibits a slight ghosting effect since the transfer is not a direct frame-for-frame transfer from the original PAL material, but the film is slow-paced enough so the effect is only noticeable if you go out looking for it.
Music definitely plays a critical role in Sixteen Years, of personal importance to both director and main character which fit the pacing, mood and tone of the film like a well-worn glove. This is the kind of music selection that transcends "soundtrack" into something more permanent, something inherently critical to the film as a whole, like a secondary character all of its own. A whopping excessive three audio modes are available; a simple stereo track, a full-out Dolby Surround 5.1 track, and a sumptuous DTS track. Overkill? Yeah, a bit. This is a quiet, introspective film, with the majority of all dialogue and environmental noises in the front channels, and Tartan has a habit of getting a bit too exited about audio options on their DVDs…but the DTS track is just so darn pleasant on the ears, transplanting the chink of glasses, the droning violins, the crowd noises, and other such details into the rear channels cleanly and crisply. Not much in the way of bass response, and dialogue at times can be slightly muffled depending on volume levels, but not near enough to fault the audio presentation.
Considering the film's relative obscurity, Tartan has been kind enough to include some rather detailed extra content. A director's commentary is included, which is tops as far as commentary tracks go. Director Jobson has the perfect blend of forthright candor, intellectual honesty, and a naturally chatty personality making for an engaging and informative experience. In addition, storyboards for the entire film can be accessed using the "angle" feature on your DVD player, comparing the shot-for-shot conceptual progression of the film. Combine this with a twenty-minute "behind-the-scenes" featurette with cast and crew, and you have an astonishingly well-rounded introspective journey into the making of Sixteen Years Of Alcohol. Very attentive to detail, this DVD is.
A minor point? The packaging (admittedly a screener copy) lists "Alan Morrison's Film Notes" as a special feature. Who Alan Morrision is, and why he has notes about this film I have no idea, but this feature was nowhere to be found on the DVD copy that I received for review. Chock this up to the reviewer's total lack of competence navigating a DVD hierarchy, or to wonky packaging on the part of Tartan…either way, I couldn't find them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With Sixteen Years Of Alcohol, Jobson is so close to his material that he holds it to his chest with the defiance of a poker player in a tournament game. His book piqued the interest of filmmakers in the past (including college Wong Kar-Wai), but Jobson refused to let his material out of his hands, opting to make the film himself. On the one hand, good for him. But on the other hand, his lack of objectivity probably works against the film rather than for it. The material is clearly personal for Jobson, both in his own life and that of his brother, and so the film gets bogged down in memories and sequences deemed important to Jobson, but not necessarily for the film as a whole. This self-indulgence leads to pacing issues, to say the least, often stuttering and ruining the pace of the film.
If you have the patience to appreciate the visual aesthetic and nothing more, then no problems here…but this is the sort of thing that separates a good film from a great film. Directors (and especially writer/directors) need to be able to separate what is important for them on a personal level, and what is important for a film as a whole.
Though not perfect, this is the kind of debut that filmmakers only wish they could have…flawed but ambitious, and most importantly, full of great promise to come.
A beautiful, compelling, if sometimes slightly boring film, Sixteen Years Of Alcohol deserves credit for choosing to defy the tradition of social realism cinema in Britain and present something purely aesthetic and poetic, but probably could have used some objectivity in distancing the director and the material. Jobson is no Wong Kar-Wai, but he gives it the old college try, and that counts for something.
Ignore the packaging: this is not a film for fans of A Clockwork Orange, nor for fans of Trainspotting. This one is for fans of The Thin Red Line and In The Mood For Love, and will feel like a long-lost friend come to visit.
Definitely good stuff, if that be your cup of tea. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Commentary Track with Director Robert Jobson
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