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Alan Parker: “There Is an Identity to My Films”

Alan Parker directs Diane Keaton and three young actors in Shoot the Moon (1982)

Nearly every remembrance of British filmmaker Alan Parker, who died last Friday at the age of seventy-six, emphasizes the eclectic range of the fourteen features he made over the course of twenty-eight years. The oeuvre that ultimately garnered ten Oscars, ten Golden Globes, and nineteen BAFTA awards encompasses sprightly musicals, wrenching family dramas, and gripping political thrillers. What binds them all, though, are Parker’s plain-as-day moral convictions, stories driven hard by characters with clear-cut goals, and a penchant for sleek, dynamic compositions rooted in Parker’s years as a director of hundreds of television commercials.

Seven years ago, when he received a BAFTA fellowship, the lifetime achievement award presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Parker was putting the finishing touches on what turned out to be a pretty impressive website. There, he writes about growing up “in a block of flats in a working class part of Islington, North London, where the German bombs had flattened many of the cinemas during the Second World War. Curiously, this devastation was quite wonderful for a small boy growing up amongst the post-war debris,” and “the burned out, crumbling churches, houses, and factories became our own private Disneyland.”

In the early 1960s, he landed a job as an office boy in an advertising agency, and within a few years, he was writing copy. By the late ’60s, he’d met David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, who would later produce several of his films, and along with Ridley and Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, and Adrian Lyne, he’d become one of the directors who were making the British advertising industry one of the hottest in the world. Parker “shared a number of defining visual traits with his British-advert brethren, like a love of fog, diffuse light, and artfully shot grime,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. As the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw points out, advertising is “a no-nonsense world where there was no navel-gazing about art: if the product didn’t sell then your ideas were lacking, your craftsmanship was at fault, and you hadn’t done your job.” Parker “made no apologies for carrying over that spirit into his films, which were made for moviegoers, not critics.”

In 1973, Parker mortgaged his house to finance his first feature, No Hard Feelings, a love story set in London during the war, and the BBC not only picked it up but also hired him to direct another WWII story, The Evacuees (1975). Parker’s first theatrical feature headed straight for the competition in Cannes. Bugsy Malone (1976), a playful ode to the American cinema of the 1930s, combines gangster warfare, song and dance numbers, and slapstick pie fights, and of course, the entire cast, led by Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, is made up exclusively of child actors. Talking to the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver in 2013, Parker freely admitted that Bugsy was an attempt to “do something American. I’d written several scripts, but everything came back with a rubber stamp saying ‘too parochial.’ I’d done a ton of commercials with kids, so I knew I was good with them. It’s a ludicrous idea that really ought not to work. It’s the sort of thing you would never do later in your career because you would realize how hard it was. We were so naive. But it’s lasted the test of time; it looks very modern.”

Parker returned to the musical more often than to any other genre. When we think of Fame (1980), the first scene to come to mind is the boisterous dance sequence that has a diverse cast of High School of Performing Arts students spilling out into the streets of New York, but the film also has its dark shades of adolescent drama. Parker rarely let pass an opportunity to note that making Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) was “one of the most miserable experiences of my creative life,” but he had an absolute blast making The Commitments (1991), an adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel about an ad hoc group of working-class Dubliners who bring soul music to the Irish capital.

Parker’s most conventional—and expensive—musical was Evita (1996), based on the concept album and musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and starring Madonna as Eva Perón. “She really worked hard on that film,” Parker told Michael Parkinson in 2003, “and whatever people think about her as an actor—it’s very easy to be snidey, as the British are, of course—but she’s pretty great in the movie . . . If you ask the make-up, and the hair, and the first assistant directors, they might have a few other things to say about her. But she was very nice to me.”

Parker cowrote the screenplay for Evita with Oliver Stone, with whom he’d first worked on Midnight Express (1978). After Bugsy Malone, Parker was looking for something with a little more bite in it, and Stone’s screenplay, based on Billy Hayes’s account of being arrested in Turkey for trying to smuggle hash out of the country and then spending five hellish years in prison fit the bill. But even Hayes thought that Stone and Parker’s depiction of the Turkish authorities and wardens as evil and corrupt sadists was over the top, and some audiences found the gory violence difficult to stomach. In 2012, Jeffrey Ressner asked Parker to break down a fight sequence for DGA Quarterly. “When I saw this scene for the first time with a paying audience, I remember a woman ran out and vomited in the lobby because she was so appalled,” Parker recalled. “What flickers up there on a screen for us as filmmakers is an illusion, a thousand shots with fifty thousand Scotch tape joins. The effect on audiences is something else—to them, it’s real.”

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