16 Years of Alcohol Review
16 Years of Alcohol is based on a book-length poem written by director, journalist and former rock star Richard Jobson, based on his own experiences and those of his brother whose untimely death was, it appears, the result of the kind of violent lifestyle depicted in this film – Jobson’s first as a film director. Rather than tackle the subject in the hard-hitting, realistic manner that British films traditionally handle this sort of material, Jobson’s film is poetic, stylised and lyrical, which is a brave attempt at breaking from tradition, but in the end it fails to effectively represent the material in an appropriate manner.
Frankie Mac (Kevin McKidd) has had a difficult childhood, one of disillusionment with the adulterous activities of his barfly father that has led him from an early age to swallow the bitter amber liquid that is always ready to hand. As a young man, Frankie is one of a group of violent skinhead thugs, but then he meets Helen (Laura Fraser) in a record store and although he likes Desmond Dekker and she likes Bryan Ferry, he is prepared to make changes to be with her. Unfortunately he can’t escape his violent past and is still the hard-man, capable of exploding at the slightest provocation. Trying everything possible to come to terms with his nature, he attends AA meetings and takes up amateur dramatics, but once again his past catches up with him.
The storyline of 16 Years of Alcohol really is as commonplace, banal and predictable as the description suggests. Jobson does do his best, through a spoken narration, to bring another level of poetry and lyricism over and above the banal, ordinary, everyday dialogue, but it fails to convey any further meaning or emotional depth to the characters’ inability to express their condition and circumstances. The flowery tone of the narration is matched by the visuals, which look beautiful, but they also fail to suit the nature of the subject. Try to imagine Wong Kar-Wai doing a remake of Trainspotting in the style of In The Mood For Love and you have an approximation of how incongruous the style of 16 Years of Alcohol is to its subject. There is nothing inherently wrong for trying to make break away from the standard depictions of on-screen violence, but the style employed here actually distances the viewer from the reality, which seems to miss the point. An attempt at doing something different in visual terms would also be more credible if a large section of the film wasn’t an extended homage to A Clockwork Orange. Certainly, allusion to the film would be acceptable, since its appearance around this time could be seen to have influenced the behaviour of Frankie Mac and his gang of Rude Boy droogs (and this would justify Kubrick’s decision to withdraw the film from public viewing in the UK), but the lengths that the director goes to, filming the four youths in a brightly backlit underpass and taking them into a record store where Frankie meets Helen, underlining it all with a close-up of a Clockwork Orange poster on Frankie’s bedroom wall, is unnecessary and adds nothing to the film, diminishing rather its own identity. Furthermore, with its stylised poetical lyricism and visual beauty, the violence in 16 Years of Alcohol, while never being completely romanticised, has none of the visceral impact of A Clockwork Orange, which again makes you question why it is referenced at all.
As well as there being no visual consistency, the film doesn’t have a narrative flow. The story is full of holes – not so much plot holes as emotional black-holes. It lurches from one stage to the next, never fully developing character motivations, emotional connections or even allowing one situation to flow into another. Twice, as the beginnings of Frankie’s relationships with two women, the film uses a sequence of close-up stills, shortcutting any real sense of interaction or connection between the characters – their emotional relationship, how it started, what it is based on, how it develops, cannot be contained within a few flash MTV-style images. “There will be no more drinking from this day forward. The years of alcohol abuse are over”, Frankie thunders to Helen in another scene impersonating a Greek God - suitably appropriate and overblown, since most of the dialogue is similarly ponderous and declamatory. However, the dialogue takes on even less meaning since we haven’t even seen the violent skinhead incarnation of Frankie so much as lift a glass to his lips. Not that the film has to live up to its title, but it would at least help define the connection between alcohol and his violent temperament. Faced with this weak scripting the actors don’t really stand a chance, struggling to make anything of the contrived situations and poor, stilted-sounding dialogue.
Listening to Jobson’s thoughts on the film, you can see what he is trying to do here and the film ought to be able to work on a poetic, mythological level. The contrivance of Frankie’s nemesis Miller turning up like a bad penny at the most inopportune times could be seen purely as a symbol of the resurfacing of Frankie’s demons, but even that reading isn’t dealt with entirely satisfactorily. There’s also the possibility, since it opens with Frankie being beaten to death in a dark alley, of viewing the film as a flashback of the mind, filtering out details and the non-flowing structure of the film into the lyrical meanderings of the mind. But the first person perspective interpretation fails with one key scene at the end that the viewer witnesses the truth of, but Frankie doesn’t actually learn the answer to himself, so we can’t be seeing it though his eyes. There is nothing necessarily wrong either with using a narrator as a cinematic device, it’s the actual content of the narration that is at fault here – a portentous, pretentious and ultimately banal meditation on the themes of hope and love.
16 Years of Alcohol is released in the UK by Tartan. The disc is not region coded. The film was shot on High Definition Digital Video which, if it were a direct digital transfer, might account for the DVD’s running time being identical to the theatrical time. However considering some of the artefacts on the DVD transfer, I’d be inclined to think this is another NTSC to PAL transfer from Tartan. It’s hard to believe though that a UK distributor couldn’t get a PAL master of a recent UK film.
This is a terrific looking film, it has to be said – prettily photographed and it doesn’t have any of the normally sterile look of films made on DV. It looks reasonably good here, but there are lots of problems. Macro-blocking compression artefacts make the image flicker throughout. It is certainly worse in some scenes than others, but it’s never particularly stable at all. Contrast is also too bright, shadow detail is not great and minor edge-enhancement can be seen throughout. Colours are rich and oversaturated. I haven’t seen the film projected theatrically, but interviews with Jobson refer to the colour scheme being muted and desaturated, so this is far from the correct colour balance. Movement artefacts – a blurring of the image whenever characters move across the screen or when there are camera pans – also detract from the sharpness and detail of the image. Most of the problems described – colour saturation, movement blur, edge enhancement – can be seen in the screen capture below. I noticed one slight freeze and jump in the image around the 1.19.55 mark on my check disc of the DVD.
The film comes with a selection of audio tracks, Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. I only listened to the DTS track, which is good, but it doesn’t sparkle. It’s clear and reasonably strong with good separation, tone and a nice level of reverb on the scenes of the AA meetings, but it is never in any way exceptional.
English Hard of Hearing subtitles can be selected from the menu, but not toggled on and off during the film. They show the music cues and include the song lyrics, which are relevant and not just background soundtrack music. None of the extra features are subtitled.
As a journalist and film critic himself, Jobson is not at a loss for words to describe the filmmaking techniques or references employed in the making of the film. Not just explanatory, he talks about the characters, why the actors are chosen and what they bring to the film. Some of the autobiographical information he gives is interesting, but I don’t think they have been done justice to in the film. His claim to being influenced by Peckinpah, Scorcese and Coppola for visceral violence is laughable. Nevertheless this is an interesting commentary just to compare what the director hoped to achieve and what he actually made.
How It Began – The Film in Storyboards
Presented as an alternative angle, the storyboards can be selected at any stage while watching the film. Most of the storyboards are very rough sketches, but do reflect the filming choices. Scenes where there are no storyboards are shown as black and white stills from the film.
Behind The Scenes (26:05)
Jobson talks about the film’s origins (although his claims of his book being “re-discovered” by Wong Kar-Wai are a little exaggerated, since he actually gave the great Hong Kong director a copy to read), and the documentary shows how the film was made with some interviews from the cast on why they were attracted to the script.
I had heard mixed reports about 16 Years of Alcohol, but Sight and Sound had been charitable about its shortcomings in features and reviews, so I was prepared to accept what might have been a personal and poetic – even experimental – meditation on a subject that I usually find stale and hidebound in cliché. Unfortunately, the Guinness-ad aesthetic of 16 Years of Alcohol, filmed in quaint little pubs along the cobbled streets, steps and inclines of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile doesn’t have the requisite emotional depth or lyricism to make its subject matter work and the potential power of the autobiographical elements are romanticised beyond any recognisable reality that would involve the viewer. As those more charitable critics have suggested, it is indeed possible that with the right material, a better script and a less derivative filming style, the director could achieve something better, but I suspect with a larger budget, his style would be even more excessively overblown. As it stands however, 16 Years of Alcohol is just not a good film. Tartan’s DVD, while it has a decent selection of relevant extra features, presents a visually strong film with a comparatively poor video transfer which, if it is indeed an NTSC to PAL transfer, is only further evidence of Tartan’s failure to live up to their commitment to the highest quality of DVD presentation.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:24:09