Finding Hope Amid the Madness

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Review of '16 Years of Alcohol', director Richard Jobson

There are many titles that could have provided a banner for this film - the opening narration spells out the other potential one: 'Sometimes, for some people, things don't work out the way they might hope. Hope is a strange thing. Hope is a currency for people who know they are losing. The more familiar you are with hope, the less beautiful it becomes.' So begins the narrator as he bears poetic witness to his own demise, casting his beautiful and battered gaze down into another glass of whisky as he does so.

Set in Scotland, the film has a soundtrack of slow piano, acoustic guitar and a cold wind constantly blowing. The scenery and the photography are stunning. We are told this is an exploration of hope and desire, 'a dream of an extraordinary world where angels watch over you while storm clouds gather'. This is not a dream of hopelessness.

We watch Frankie's early life as his parents' relationship falls apart. We see them sitting in their chairs, glass of whisky in hand, covered in cobwebs, a scratched record stuck at the end of a tune.

This is not the stuff that dreams are made of, he tells us. He says of his childhood that each second is another education in the art of destruction - the wonder of hate. A place where there is no heart left, 'only eyes that lie and people that charge through the day. It's no good trying to remember how it all began. All that matters is how it affects you and who you care about - that's the real world.'

Frankie begins drinking young because it's easy, 'too easy to stop'. He wants to fall in love and to make 'hope beautiful again', and he tries to be 'a better person'. He tries to shrug off his past and the violence that he wears like a badge of honour. He tries to stop protecting his world with his fists and his feet, and 'to fly with the gods'.

As he gets older he and his friends wear drainpipes, crombies, DMs and skinhead haircuts. This is a story of working class youth during the 'Ska' skinhead phase. The boys like soul music and reggae - Aretha Franklin, Desmond Dekker, Marvin Gaye. But despite this soft underbelly the gang provides little real solace and camaraderie.

Within the group we also find his nemesis, his tormentor, the unrepentant macho man - 'The unfortunate imbiber, the killer of the kidney, the destroyer of the liver, the faithless non-believer in the good' that always threatens to bring him down.

He battles the reminders of his past, but the twin spectres of addiction and violence are always around the corner. We do see life through the eyes of a drunk and brutal man, but his is a lucid vision. He knows there is the potential for change, and although he won't wake up a different person he might wake up one day and see, feel and hear things in a different way.

The film looks at our opportunities for self expression. He spurns the vacuous middle class art world into which he temporarily wanders. He challenges a smug, stupid, middle class couple who cannot express why they like a piece of art. He has more poetry and power of expression in his little finger than they have in their entire bland and stunted vision. But contrary to their view his motives are not always obvious. Frankie can't exclude the world at will. He knows that there are things that are out of our control. He battles this sense of powerlessness, and is all the more compelling as a character because he is prepared to challenge and engage with the complexities of life. Excellent stuff.