Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Alcohol Years (2000)

It's hard to look the person you once were in the eye. Being reminded of how naive and reckless you were as a younger person, when you were still struggling to find and claim your own identity, can be an embarrassing and painful experience. Like finding old photographs of yourself or guilty, long abandoned items in your wardrobe, you're confronted with the cringe-inducing realisation that you were once someone very different. Someone that you might not like or be able to tolerate if you met them now.

"There was this story about Alan Wise...(how he) used to like you weeing on him"

In The Alcohol Years, Carol Morley dares to confront her 16-21 year old self; a complex and complicated figure who stalked the hinterland of a post-industrial Manchester that was awaiting something to happen to it; a new dawn which ultimately turned out to be the second summer of love at the end of the decade  - a summer of love that was effectively the cities first, the previous one having been robbed by the pall of the infamous Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hyndley. 

Morley was a legendary figure, her reputation proceeding her in a manner which belied her youth as she drank and caroused her way through clubs like the Hacienda and The Boardwalk and into the bedrooms of several men and women, and sometimes for a price. The film therefore makes it clear through its interviewed participants and its striking collage of imagery that to know Carol Morley meant that you had an opinion of Carol Morley, good or bad. A night out with Carol Morley was a promise of drama, and an experience that was anything but boring. It is that mythologised status that Morley chooses to explore here, along with the mythology of Manchester itself. Electing to stay behind the camera, she develops a character that is rather ethereal, like the spectre at the feast, whilst her friends and contemporaries reminiscence about her and deliver their prized anecdotes about her behaviour either fondly or in contemptible, withering terms - behaviour that she herself can no longer recall, thanks to the effects of alcohol. In relying on these talking heads, the film creates a composite character of who Carol Morley was, whilst understanding that any story that relies on memory is understandably one of an unreliable narration as each interviewee tells their own truth.

The Alcohol Years is a film about sexual identity and the inequality at the heart of how our society perceives gender. Morley was clearly a very sexually provocative and promiscuous young woman, but she argues in the accompanying commentary that she felt the need to fulfill a sexual fantasy at a time when women were objectified on sexual terms but were perversely expected to be passive in their own sexuality. Some of the contributors refer to her as a sexual predator, with a very masculine approach to sex, and the age-old issue of sexual promiscuity being rewarded in men yet condemned in women once again raises its ugly head. Psychologically, it's interesting to consider Morley's behaviour as a direct result of her father's suicide - were these series of one night stands a way of seeking love and affection from men like Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley and promoter Alan Wise who could be considered father figures? - and the recollection that Morley would often go to clubs dressed as a little girl playing with toys such as train sets (a potent sexual symbol in itself) or a toy duck on a wheel whilst at the same time offering the contradictory agenda - seemingly subconsciously -  of being sexually provocative, is also an intriguing one to analyse. 

Equally intriguing is the notion of lines of behaviour that should not be crossed; it's clear that Morley lost or offended several female friends as a direct result of her wild behaviour, her bisexuality, and her prostitution of herself to the likes of Alan Wise, (who paid both her and her fellow bandmate, Debby Turner, £50 to sleep with him, which they later bought a meal with - a much anticipated but unedifying introduction to Chinese cuisine) and to the strangers she picked up for paid sex in London whilst visiting New Order in the recording studio (and was Bizarre Love Triangle written about her and Debby?). These are all discussed as part of her legend, whilst some wonder if she was 'sexually ill' at this stage in her life, arguing such acts were of transgression rather than free will, an in built desire and need to be liked played out in the most unsuitable and dangerous of manners. 

But equally The Alcohol Years is a film that is as much about Manchester and the people who happily participated with the film as it is about Morley herself. Mancunian pop cultural icons such as the aforementioned Wise (now sadly no longer with us having died of a broken heart last year following his young daughter's suicide) who gleefully and cheekily produces his cock for the camera, Tony Wilson, Vini Reilly, Bruce Mitchell and Dave Haslam to name but a few all appear, with the latter commenting on how you could bump into like-minded people in the city one week and the next they'd be on Top of the Pops. The implication is that it is this very generation, through their talents and boisterous antics, helped bring about what Manchester was unconsciously waiting for. But that to do so would always ultimately conclude with the betrayal of leaving the north for a new life and a career in the south, leaving only the mythology behind. Morley's story ends with her own betrayal, departing for London the day after a tenth anniversary celebration of punk put on by Factory Records at the G-MEX in mysterious circumstances. Realising that the myth is key, Morley refuses to elaborate on the reasons for the self-imposed exile that brought about the death of her old self and the birth of the new, allowing the film to end in a very effective way as various summaries of her character ring in her ears and run her out of town in a dark and impressionistic sequence that suggest Morley was worryingly close to the edge. 

It can be argued that this is a somewhat egotistical venture, a filmmaker making a film about herself. But Morley wisely elects to remain behind the camera and to include the most scathing of criticisms about her past behaviour in the final cut. "Why don't you just have therapy?" one of the more persistently critical contributors argues at one point, but the fact remains that the ghost has been laid to rest and has in the process left behind a remarkable film from which there lies a clear line to Dreams of a Life.  

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