David Bowie brings star swagger to Alan Clarke’s take on Bertolt Brecht’s dissolute poet.
Baal is a debauched poet and boozy douchebag who leaves a trail of ruined women and exploited friends behind him. He has an enthusiastic following amongst the drunken crowds in the cafes where he performs, but has nothing but contempt for bourgeois society and its measures of success. Opportunities for publication are squandered, patrons are insulted and wives and daughters are shagged, only to be abandoned when boredom or unborn children arise. His poems reveal a certain yearning tenderness for the natural world, his words and actions an utter callousness towards everything else. Finally, inevitably, he murders a man, becomes a fugitive and dies alone. But he never lied about what he was, which makes him a kind of hero, existentially.
I remember hearing, gawd knows where, that the British film industry, in its early years, had a massive inferiority complex, being seen, in the land of Shakespeare, as a vulgar novelty when set before the venerable art of theatre. The result of which was that a good chunk of UK output didn’t really trouble itself with the aesthetics of the new medium, with all that movement and montage, and the average brit-flick more resembled a night at the Lyceum with a camera plunked front and centre of the stalls, occasionally panning left and right to keep the performers in shot.* I bring this up because Alan Clarke’s treatment of Bertolt Brecht’s first play Baal most resembles that notional idea of moribund British film. Except that it all works rather well. Each scene takes place on a new set (a drawing room, a bar, a junk-strewn flat), with the actors artfully arranged therein. It’s lit, at times, like a Caravaggio painting, except when it’s not, and the sets disappear entirely. There are no edits, each scene is played through in its entirety. And the only close-ups occur in short chapter-heading sequences between scenes where we are informed what is about to occur by text on screen whilst Baal engages us directly with a little performance of his dyspeptic poetry. The result compels. What would seem natural techniques on stage acquire a distinctive strangeness on screen, appropriately enough, ‘Brechtian alienation’ and all that.
A large part of the reason it plays well in 2016 is that Baal is portrayed by David Bowie, whose death has given his screen appearances a poignant vibrancy. During his lifetime there was often a debate as to whether he was a ‘good’ actor or not. What seems obvious now is that he could be terrific used by the right director in the right way, especially if the role played up to his recurring artistic themes of alienation and reinvention. His Baal here hits all the right notes of arrogance and disdain, augmented with a healthy dose of rock god swagger. His first speech to camera, a monologue about the Ichthyosaurus refusing to board the ark and preferring to die, sets out his stall with admirable concision. All life here is miserable and wretched, he says, as he regards us with an insolent, mocking, black-toothed grin, and dares us to claim that we care.
* In this version of events it took the likes of Hitchcock and the Kordas and Powell and Pressburger to shake out the cobwebs and drag us all kicking and screaming towards the Art Of Cinema. Discuss.