CITY LIFE 25 OCT, 2000
Carol Morley The Alcohol Years
February, and the shadows of Cornerhouse’s Cinema 3. A hushed audience watches a private screening of The Alcohol Years. The atmosphere is tense. Many of the assembled audience – musicians, promoters, DJs and staff predominantly connected with The Hacienda and the Manchester music scene of the mid 1980s – are featured in the film, each in turn giving their own account of the precipitous lifestyle of the young Carol Morley.
As one interviewee lets slip a tawdry tidbit regarding Morley and the sexual proclivities of elephantine gig promoter Alan Wise, the atmosphere conspicuously cools.
“That was Wilson!” calls Wise from somewhere near the back of the auditorium, in respect of the former Factory Records honcho. There’s nervous laughter.
Of all the memoirs and myth-maps that have been generated by Manchester’s music scene, few could be as wretchedly poignant as The Alcohol Years. Caught in the undertow of the city’s emergent club scene, the film depicts Morley’s teenage years in the post-punk/pre-E mid-’80s as a blur of alcohol and promiscuity. In the early years of The Hac, she was the party girl who could be relied upon make a spectacle of herself wherever she went. She was the girl who would not – could not – go home alone.
Born in Reddish in 1965, the younger sister of NME journalist Paul, she endured a childhood dominated by her father’s battle with depression. He would disappear for days on end and return as if nothing had happened. When she was eleven – on a day when he was due to begin a new job as a Singer sewing machine salesman – he disappeared for the final tune. He was found a week later in his car, having gassed himself. For Morley, the loss of her father is an almost unspoken subtext to the film.
As one interviewee puts it, “I think everything you did was just a form of going over the same question: Why did my father leave me? Why did he kill himself?”
“In Manchester in the mid ’80s you were either on the dole or you were going to be a star.” she says. “There was nothing in between. There was no getting a job or going to college. It was just sleeping all day and then going out to be seen and noticed. No-one had any money. You’d shag people who bought you drinks just to get pissed. It was desperately wanting to be looked after at the same time as fucking people over.”
The film is a poetic retrieval of those blackout years. In February 1998, having never returned to the city she’d fled the decade before, the London-based filmmaker took out a classified ad in this magazine. It read, simply: ‘Carol Morley, Film project. Please contact me if you knew me between 1982-1987.’ From the unflinchingly candid, straight-to-camera accounts from those who did; from her restlessly wandering city-scape camerawork, plus playful cinematic references to movies such as Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, Morley paints a stark self-portrait of herself in time.
By turns sordid (spiralling waywardness sees her toy with semi-prostitution), tender (a besotted Pete Shelley confesses to once lighting a candle for her in Notre Dame Cathedral), riotous (Morley and a partner-in-crime track down New Order to a London recording studio, only to become part of the after-hours ‘entertainment’) and plain awful (Wise repeatedly articulates his ’empathy’ with reference to size of her breasts), the testimonies paint an unprecedented portrait of the city’s music scene – crucially not through the usual filter of those influential in it, but through the eyes of one who was completely lost in it.
“I really don’t think that the film is a documentary, ” she states. “Documentaries tend to follow a narrative that is really just an account of the director’s views. His version of events. I didn’t want there to be an authorial voice. There are lots of contradictions. There are no captions telling you who someone is, what authority they have. She cites one former lover and Hacienda stalwart who repeatedly takes Morley to task for her self-glorifying film project. “He was brilliant because he obviously resented what I was doing. He was really bitter about it and of course that’s perfectly valid. He’s so important to the film because he puts the other point of view.”
What’s particularly compelling is the fact that Morley herself almost never appears in front of camera. In the absence of a visible protagonist, as the viewer you’re left with little option but to interpose yourself. As talking head after talking head articulates what they used to think of her, recalls the things she did when she was drunk and what people used to say about hero the effect is extremely unsettling – rather than a prurient sniffing of someone else’s dirty laundry, it’s more like being treated to a whiff of your own. Unlike the work of other confession-mavens currently in vogue Morley’s film is marked by its warmth, character-led narrative and expansive multi-dimensionality. Indeed, Morley herself is hardly your stereotypical art-harridan of the contemporary zeitgeist.
“I think confession itself is quite boring,” she says. “You know, a woman goes on TV and says she slept with twenty-eight men. Who’s interested? I’m more concerned with the means of confession. Anais Nin said the beauty of writing was that it gave you the chance to live your life again. To me, film allows you to look back and do that. To try and sort out what you did, and why.”
It took her a few years to get back on her feet, she says. After first drifting, she eventually signed up for A-Levels, studied Fine Art and Film at St Martins College, and now teaches herself, in between making her own films. Having scrutinised the past to the extent she has in making The Alcohol Years, she stresses that it’s still the indefinable subtleties rather than the major events that change lives. Morley’s personal spiral plunged further downwards once she reached the capital.
“When I moved to London I ended up staying with people I didn’t really know for a while. And then I stayed with Pete Shelley, which was terrible. And I remember one day I came home and he’d changed the locks. He used to live near Kings Cross. So I was sitting on this kerb by Kings Cross and this guy walked past and said, “Do you want to go for a Coffee?” And to be honest that was the point where everything changed, because I nearly went. But for some reason, and I don’t know why, I didn’t.”