It seems appropriate that I should be writing this review of The Alcohol Years with a slight hangover. Carol Morley’s (2000) documentary is about a hangover to beat them all. Not only did she forget some of the events of a drunken night out, the experimental film-maker managed to lose track of pretty well a whole period of her life.
The film, about her late teens/early 20s in Manchester in the 1980s, is how she reconstructed herself out of other people’s memories and accounts, 15-20 years later. Many of the people Morley interviewed (off-camera, with no indication of what she asked them) were ex-lovers. So the stories they tell on film, in a set of seemingly one-sided conversations, are infused with sexual tension, or lack of it, or jealousy, or indifference, or love, or in one or two cases possibly, with hate. As you might expect conversations with exes to be.
I first saw The Alcohol Years when it was shown late at night on channel four, not too long after it had been made. It formed a lasting impression on me, and seeing it in the cinema in 2012 brought it all flooding back. Carol Morley was at the screening I attended, and in the introductory talk she said she herself had not seen it for years. So she was remembering a film about her memories! Meta.
One or two of the ‘characters’ in the film are indeed very memorable. A man is one of the first to speak (I don’t know his name, this is not a typical ‘talking heads’ documentary. The viewer is allowed to get to know the people on film gradually, as they might a character in a fictional drama). He is (well he was in 2000) in his mid 30s I’d say. He has dark hair and wears glasses. He looks as if he has swallowed a lemon. This man is angry. He seems to be angry with Carol for daring to make the film at all. For coming back to her past, to people and places she left in a hurry, without any warning or explanation. He seems to be angry that she has dared to make a film about herself.
Why don’t you look at the world around you? he asks accusingly. Why don’t you make a film about that? Why does this have to be about you?
I remember when I first watched the documentary, taking an instant dislike to this man. I thought he was very rude, to someone who was actually doing something that seemed brave to me. Facing up to her past. Facing her exes. But he thought Carol was cowardly, by refusing to sit infront of the camera, refusing to be the one who was interrogated. I just thought she was clever. Twelve years on, I actually found him quite funny. Because in the youtube/Big Brother/facebook world we now live in, making a film about yourself is a VERY normal thing to do. In fact, one might ask somebody why they DIDN’T. So this sour-faced man ( or maybe he isn’t sourfaced anymore, let’s hope not) was placing the film very much in a specific time. He made it historical.
And The Alcohol Years is full of history. Manchester, so much to answer for, has a rich recent history, especially around the music industry and scenes. Footage shot in the Hacienda and the GMex centre, and interviews with Manchester musos such as Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks (who had been in love with Morley) and Dave Haslam the DJ, brought that history to life. Even in 2000 when the film was made, the Manchester I knew, the one that caused me to apply to go to university there in 1990, was already faded and worn. Now it seems like a distant memory. The scenes of dark alleyways and grimy clubs and pubs are part of a pre-regenerated Manchester. It is much lighter now, cleaner. And arguably less interesting. ‘Manchester Is Not Paris’ , the slogan on the postcard (above) that advertised the film when it first came out, was said on screen by Alan Wise, when he described going for breakfast with Morley to a local greasy spoon, ‘the morning after’. He was older than Carol, a kind of ‘sleazy’ not hugely attractive man, who served to suggest that the young Morley was not always the most discerning of ‘experimental’ film makers. But he had some great lines. I just wonder if nowadays, Manchester, like most Western cities, IS Paris. You can get cappuccinos on Deansgate much the same as you can on the Champs Elysees.
Dave Haslam, who is a bit of a local historian* of all things Manchester and music, made some pertinent observations in the film. He said that Manchester is a city that is very good at mythologising itself. And he added that Carol Morley was mythologising her own life, as well as making a film about Manchester. He, of all the interviewees, seemed the most self-aware, and the most aware that the film would be a permanent record of something. I got the feeling listening to him, that in his sections, Dave was talking to the future. He also seemed to be talking to a fellow artist. A lot of the people in the film treated Morley like a ‘slag’, an ‘ex’, a ‘fuck up’. But Haslam seemed to have always identified in her a fellow spirit and a quite driven, creative person. I suspect he might have been the least surprised of all the interviewees, to find out that Morley has now made her first feature-length docu-drama, Dreams Of A Life.
But the ‘slag’ reputation is also fascinating, emerging as it does from these individuals’ accounts of their memories of Carol. I distinctly remember when I first watched The Alcohol Years, wondering what it would have been like, to hear the words that these people were saying about you, to your face. Hurtful words. Years later, now I fancy myself as something of a ‘sexuality expert’, I notice a few things about their words.
One is that it wasn’t just Morley’s promiscuity that caused people some discomfort. Though one of her exes, a woman, said Carol was ‘a role model for promiscuity’ in such a damning tone that I flinched in the cinema. Her bisexuality also caused some of them problems, and especially a few of the women she spoke to.
The ‘role model’ woman asked Carol at one point how many people she’d slept with (we never got to hear the answer of course. Like I said, she’s clever). Then she corrected herself and said ‘how many men? I don’t care about the women.’ It is as if for a woman to have sex with women is ‘not really sex’. It doesn’t count. This reminded me of Mark Simpson’s work, and his comments on trysexuality. He says women are more free than men to experiment with same-sex sex. If a man does it he is labelled as ‘gay’. Simpson and I have argued about this a few times. I agree up to a point. But I think Carol Morley shows that for a woman to step out of whatever box she has been put in (whether it is ‘lesbian’ or ‘heterosexual’), it is still not accepted wholeheartedly by many. In fact, Carol Morley shows that the ‘slag’ stereotype and the ‘greedy bisexual’ stereotype are alive and well – or they were in 2000. I personally don’t think that has changed.
Has Carol Morley changed? I guess we’d have to ask her that. Though again, in the introductory talk at the screening I went to recently, she said The Alcohol Years is about how we only really exist via other people’s versions of us. So maybe I am as well placed as anyone to answer that question. My view is yes and no. On one hand of course she has changed. It is clear that she could not sustain herself in the lifestyle depicted in the film. She has grown up and moved on. But The Alcohol Years provides us with an early glimpse of what is most definitely an impressive talent. I haven’t seen Dreams of A Life yet, but all reports tell me it is excellent, and is only a continuation of and a development of the ideas and skills shown in The Alcohol Years.
So if Morley was a role model in the 80s (for promiscuity, drinking, being young) she still is one now. But a role model for honest and challenging documentary film making. Long may she continue to be so.
*thanks to Dave Haslam for the top image, which he had filed in his archives. I told you he is a historian!