The Alcohol Years

Tuesday, September 3, 2002 by

In her documentary The Alcohol Years (first shown in 2000), Carol Morley returns to Manchester, the city of her youth, which she left in 1987 in a whirl of self-destructive excess. There she records the memories of people who knew her during that time.

Spoken clips are mixed with a collection of images – mostly from the present, occasionally the past – illustrating the stories being told; a dream sequence of bedsits, streets, faces, tower blocks, dressing tables, wallpaper, books, dolls, nightclubs and countless other details flow past. Morley herself is mostly offscreen, making only fleeting appearances, for instance walking through streets or glimpsed in home-movie footage or photos. While fragments of her self are scattered across the film, her presence, reflected in the abrasive words of others and the elegiac visual style, saturates every frame.

The result loosens the notions of documentary, memory and autobiography by drawing attention to conflicts and unreliabilities, rather than concealing them. Questions are left unanswered, stories unfinished; the director does not verify or discount anything said about her by her interviewees. The pattern suits the hazy visual collages, which evoke the years of intoxicated wandering; the edges between past and present are blurred. An atmospheric soundtrack (including music performed by Vini Reilly, one of those interviewed) completes the effect.

The film is an effective portrayal of a “predatory female”asserting her sexuality in a way which at that time was commonly thought to be restricted to men; it is also, up to a point, nostalgic for a network of youthful friendships that encircled a certain irrecoverable place and time. However, the greatest strength of the film lies in its unusual self-consciousness, specifically its readiness to deal with its own egocentrism, by displaying the tensions between Morley and those she interviews. Former partners and friends openly question her motivations and confront her with the self-centred nature of the film: “In a way this film is a kind of mythology of you and your life.”… “Really the whole thing’s about you, so why don’t you just sit in front of the camera and say what you want to say?”… “What are you trying to prove here? What bad person were you?”

The memories are impressionistic, occasionally contradictory, and often very funny, with an edge of sadness or risk. A friend remembers first seeing her sitting under a table in the Hacienda playing with a train set: “I thought you were probably retarded.” Morley spontaneously asks Pete Shelley to marry her; he agrees but then she doesn’t bother to turn up at the registry office. The film portrays an apparently compulsive sexual career, for which alcohol was the lubricant. Most of the stories, therefore, are about sex, in one way or another: the dimensions of her tongue are legendary among male acquaintances (here the director provides a close-up demonstration – her longest time on screen in the entire film); one day she opens the door to the gasman and fucks him on the cooker; while visiting London, she and a friend offer a male stranger some dubious service for money. The soundtrack voice ironically sings, “… just a girl who can’t say no”. Lost in depression, on the verge of prostitution, her life is heading for the wrong sort of climax.

The truth of these sleazy anecdotes is buried in their mythic re-telling, in the film as in daily conversation. Morley’s life itself appeared to have become a story in which she was a spectator as much as a participant. A former girlfriend remarks, “nothing was real about you, and you were just in this film about your life.” The narrative moves towards an increasingly abstract and urgent conclusion. Suicide makes an appearance as more than just a record sleeve; Morley’s father had killed himself when she was a child. Someone wonders if this event drove her to act as she did, to constantly anaesthetise herself through sex and alcohol. It is implied that this trauma constitutes the undefined horror at the heart of her Mancunian darkness; the precise cause of her sudden disappearance, however, is not revealed, but rather deliberately left to the imagination. “Dark and evil beyond possible redemption – is that what happened to you Carol?” Finally the mirror shatters, the film snaps, “something dramatic happened”. The voices break up, the imagery culminates in a shot of a graveyard, one possible destination, followed by another, a train leaving the station.

The relief of her escape is almost tangible in the lingering perspective of the gradually shrinking carriage. On the showing of this peculiarly intense and innovative work, the return journey was well worth making.


Comments are closed.