Review: Hail the New Puritan
This article appeared in the October 28 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Hail the New Puritan (Charles Atlas, 1986)
“The body is not an abstract thing,” the prolific Scottish choreographer Michael Clark told The Guardian in 2016. This sentiment is embedded in Hail the New Puritan, Charles Atlas’s 1986 time capsule of Clark’s dance company, which celebrates the exuberant anarchy of limbs moving through space. When pitching the film to Channel 4, the British public-service network, Atlas insisted that a straightforward documentary would fall flat and wanted instead to infuse a Technicolor musical with an avant-pop sensibility. Atlas was also inspired by Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, another portrait of youth at irreverent odds with British conservatism—although in Hail the New Puritan, the contrast between Clark’s milieu and the Thatcherite devastation around it is more urgent. The film imagines a fictional day in the choreographer’s life, shaped by artistic happenstance: Clark literally rolls out of bed and onto his studio’s dance floor.
Atlas films Clark at the height of his collaboration with Manchester post-punk group The Fall: in snippets from a performance of New Puritans, the first dance Clark choreographed to the band’s music, the troupe twists to Mark E. Smith’s caustic snarls while dressed in underground designer Leigh Bowery’s vibrant, jewel-toned leotards with cutouts on the rear. Atlas, who began making dance films as Merce Cunningham’s videographer-in-residence, focuses on the expressionist nuances of Clark’s movements. Although his tastes led him to choreograph routines to music by Glenn Branca and Wire, Clark playfully rejected the binary between contemporary and traditional styles, and mercurially incorporated his training in ballet and Scottish dance. Using a nimble handheld camera and unhurried long takes, Atlas taps into the dancers’ fluidity as they jeté through rehearsals or skip through London’s industrial outskirts.
Hail the New Puritan also organically captures the era’s queer counterculture, expanding its focus to include Clark’s circle of friends and collaborators. Club icons Bowery, Lanah P, and Trojan (Guy Barnes) all appear in extravagantly set-dressed interludes—think a Peter Greenaway film starring Adam and the Ants—that spotlight their relaxed chemistry. In these sequences, transformation and creativity constitute a pointed resistance to Thatcher-era austerity, which bleeds into the film through Atlas’s understated B-roll of London streets (at one point, we see a banner announcing that one out of five Hackney residents are out of work). Clark’s desire to be open-ended and unclassifiable also makes the music of The Fall a particularly fitting sonic backdrop; when a politely out-of-touch journalist asks Clark if he understands the band’s songs, he replies, “I have an understanding of them.” The film’s title is in fact a lyric from The Fall’s 1980 album Totale’s Turns, which churns with their foundational fury of propulsive rhythms and unkempt guitar. Smith’s words are the bedrock of this jagged sonics of rebellion, his cryptic narratives full of anti-establishment motifs. But their significance is also textural, Smith’s defiantly Northern, working-class accent flung into the face of bourgeois London slickness.
Midway through the film, Smith appears with his bandmate and wife at the time, Brix, alongside Clark in a pantomime of a Charlie Rose–style roundtable. Delivering dense monologues, the three wryly mock the elucidating potential of language: Atlas overlays the phrase “SPEAKS IN SEMANTIC CIPHERS” on the image. The desire to rationally explain Clark’s practice is too limiting; instead, Atlas encouraged Clark’s freedom of motion to speak for itself, far from an abstract thing after all.
Chloe Lizotte is the Contributing Editor at Le Cinéma Club. She writes regularly for Reverse Shot, with additional bylines in Cinema Scope, Vulture, Screen Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.