Directed by: Carol Morley
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Length: 79 mins
Released: 12 April 2010
Cat No: FILM001X
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Short documentary film by Carol Morley, a habitue of the Manchester club scene in the 1980s, about her drunken and promiscuous life in the city when the musical and cultural scene was taking off. Also includes two short films by Morley, ’Everyday Something’, narrated by John Peel, and ’Stalin My Neighbour’, about a young East London girl who becomes obsessed with local history.
Everyday Something shows that reality is strange, returning to that old adage 'truth is stranger than fiction'. Based on a selection of newspaper clippings collected by the director, the film tells of strange goings on in the world of ordinary folk.. John Peel narrates, his voice lending a fantastically dry tone to this freak show of normality.
If one of the banner developments in documentary filmmaking over the past two decades has been the irresistible rise of the on-screen character auteur - Nick Broomfield bumbling across the front line, Michael Moore blowing his bugle close on behind - then Carol Morley's self-investigative featurette The Alcohol Years serves as some kind of reaction. Not that she comes across as any kind of retiring figure - “I'm sure you just thought about yourself every waking minute,” she's told up front by the film's very second interviewee, who talks of her as “this ‘Carol Morley’ kind of creation” - but she only ever appears on film half-masked by a camera, miming her former self for the film's reconstructions, or acting up in old snapshots. Recollected by old friends and play-things, the creation in question filtered through their memories of their perceptions, framed in turn by the present-day Morley's montage. The effect is like watching a cinematic back-projection beamed through a hall of mirrors.
Made the year before Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, the film occupies Manchester's wilderness years in between punk and acid house; Morley spent her wild teens there, drinking, shagging, rock 'n' rolling and just hanging on. Eventually she left, her memories apparently addled and abandoned, either through chemical abuse or perhaps convenience; like Richard Jobson's 16 Years of Alcohol, The Alcohol Years isn't a really booze movie, but treats the drink as a cypher for the breach between our ideal selves and the troubled lives we trail. Morley says she made the film to fill in the gaps in her own recollection, but she's hit on a bigger story - of female promiscuity and identity, provincial and generational prickliness and the persistence of punk.
On the DVD Morley submits her own perspective in yet another layer of interpretation on the commentary track. It certainly makes a handy cheat-sheet for the film's range of otherwise unidentified interviewees, who range from the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley and Hacienda's Dave Haslam to Morley's ex band buddy Debby Turner and Nico's former manager Alan Wise. Also on the disc are two of Morley's subsequent shorts - Everyday Something, a John Peel-narrated snapshot collage of low-lying idiosyncracy going on psychosis, and Stalin My Neighbour, following an East Londoner's twitchy local history tour as she tries to evade the director's inquiries into her own traumatised past.
Morley's brutally honest approach isn't really about pop psychology or self aggrandisement. She knows her personal downward spiral is as compelling as a car crash, but The Alcohol Years uses it to draw you into something far more expansive, guided by potent craft and a poetic, poignant heart. Recommended
Of all the memoirs and mythmaps that have been generated by Manchester’s music scene, few could be as raw as Carol Morley’s wretchedly poignant film documentary, The Alcohol Years. Morley’s film is marked by its warmth, its character-led narrative and its expansive multi-dimensionality.
Morley’s wonderfully frank and intimate film study of the person she once was.. The film pushes even the most liberated among us to confront our own boundaries of what is, and is not, acceptable behavior..We see Morley only fleetingly in The Alcohol Years and her decision to keep herself mostly absent provides a large part of the film’s power. Morley may have had the reputation, but here she is unpeeling its construction. For this is a film about attitude and myth: in presenting their perceptions of Morley as they remember her, the men and women on screen become part of a study of both the power of memory and the endurance of received morality.
The inaugural release of Film First, The Alcohol Years isn’t the most obvious of choices with which to launch a new DVD label. Though a hit at festivals, the 50 minute running time hampered the chances of Carol Morley’s documentary gaining a theatrical run though a number of Channel 4 screenings have seen it widen its audience. Yet despite its low key nature, the timing of this release couldn’t have been better panned. As Noel Megahey notes in his review of My Architect, there is a current tendency in documentary making - or at least in those which are getting media coverage - towards the personal, as can be evinced by the likes of Tarnation and Capturing the Friedmans. In many ways it’s the logical extension of the Nick Broomfield/Michael Moore approach (or, to go back a little earlier, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March) and one which applies to The Alcohol Years, except that in this case, though the focus of the film, Morley is only ever glimpsed in teasing snatches. Rather this is autobiography through the eyes of others; Morley placed an ad (one which occupies the disc’s sleeve) asking for people who remembered during the mid-eighties to get in touch and be interviewed. And they did, resulting in various faces from her past sitting in front of a camera and filling in the gaps which she can no longer remember. As the title suggests, this is no simple exercise in gentle nostalgia and The Alcohol Years, though containing a great deal of humour, continually treads into darker territory. The various interviewees are never given voice-over context or even named (though some faces will undoubtedly be familiar) and speak directly into the camera. It’s this straight-ahead approach which finds echoes in the candid nature of the speakers as well as demonstrating how the film never shies away from its difficult subjects, most notable Morley’s promiscuity during this five year period. Indeed, it’s discussed in an often unflinching manner that would be disquieting in itself, but is leant a further unease as we are constantly aware that the film’s subject herself is directly behind the vary same camera. It is this tension - the kind which you would never find in a retrospective muck-raking exercise, such as Channel 4’s occasional Secret History pieces - that makes The Alcohol Years such a fascinating prospect. On the one hand you almost feel sorry for Morley as we sense her presence mere inches away from those she is filming, yet on the other we are often so shocked or even repulsed by their recollections that we are unsure as to whether we even wish to engage with her less than savoury past. Perhaps aware of this situation, Morley allows herself a degree control by collating the various talking heads into more of a collage than a strictly chronological history. The information she wishes for us to know (for many gaps are intentionally left unplugged) is drip fed in pieces, meaning that we are tempted to build our own assumptions as the film progresses without having full access to the facts. As such, when the bigger pictures are revealed (we only learn, for example, of Morley’s age at the time during the halfway mark) any such assumptions have to be hastily reassembled. Yet if Morley shows a noteworthy level of assuredness in this regard, her filmmaking style still displays some problems. There is, perhaps, an element of mistrust on her part which has resulted the talking heads being adorned with a sketchy, impressionistic visual accompaniment whose validity is questionable. There’s a sense that Morley believes that the actual interview material in itself won’t be able to sustain the entire. It’s an unfortunate misjudgement, and one which slight damages the film, for it is here where The Alcohol Years’ true qualities lies. The Disc Being such a personal work, The Alcohol Years is understandably a low budget work as can be evinced by the 4:3 framing and basic stereo sound. Both are ably recreated on disc without any noticeable technical difficulties, meaning that the presentation here is easily the equal of, if not better than, Channel 4’s previous screenings. Where the disc most certainly betters any broadcasts, however, is in the presence of the extras, most notable Morley’s audio commentary. In accompanying a film without any form of voice-over or narration it is undoubtedly an entirely different experience to listen with the director in attendance, even if the results are not quite as expected. Certainly, Morley tells us of the various interviewees are herself, of course, but she’s strangely detached from the proceedings and never reacts to any of the material, even the more outrageous moments. Moreover, she’s often found to be referring to herself in the third person or collectively as a “woman” making the film with commentary as disquieting as it is without. Rounding of the disc are a pair of short films which Morley has completed since The Alcohol Years’ release. The first, Everyday Something, is another documentary, narrated by John Peel and constructed from various ridiculous stories that have made their way into (presumably local) British newspapers. The second, Stalin My Neighbour, sees Morley moving into fiction, albeit of a fake documentary variety, and details Anna, a young girl with obvious mental problems. The former is the better of the two, and contains a wit reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s earliest shorts even if its approach is closer to Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Times or the Arena documentary Wisconsin Death Trip. Both, however, suffer from poor pacing despite only having respective running times of 14 and 15 minutes which goes someway to belittling their intriguing ideas. Yet their inclusion is worthwhile as they allow to see how Morley is developing as a filmmaking and point out where she may be heading with future projects. As with the main feature, none of the special features come with optional subtitles.
The Alcohol Years is a frank, intimate and funny documentary of the years Carol Morley spent in Manchester and the Haçienda club in the 1980s, the era of New Order and the rise of the Manchester music scene. It makes an excellent companion piece to Control. Morley spent these years in a blur of inebriation. In her film, she never appears herself in front of the camera; instead her persona is built up through candid, forthright interviews with people who responded to her newspaper advertisement (Carol Morley. Film Project. Please contact me if you knew me between 1982-1987). Her interviewees range through friends and lovers to the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley and Nico’s former manager Alan Wise, and the portrait they paint of her is mixed, even chastening. ‘Who do you think you are?’ says one. Confronting a
portrait of yourself as a confused teenager with a taste for everything
and anyone is only a project for the bravely creative.
The disc also includes two short films from Morley, including Everyday Something, narrated by John Peel.