The Alcohol Years Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 0 release The Alcohol Years, a powerful and disquieting documentary by Carol Morley into her less than savoury past.

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 very 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 us 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.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Apr 23, 2005

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