The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

Cultural Archaeology: On How We Used To Live & The Big Melt
Phil Harrison , February 3rd, 2014 08:02

After watching new St Etienne film on London, How We Used to Live, and Jarvis Cocker & Martin Wallace's ode to the Sheffield steel industry, Phil Harrison asks what these explorations of the past have to say about present

Last summer, around the time the Royal Baby arrived in our lives, a selection of compelling photographs started ricocheting around social media. At the time, they felt only tangentially connected to Kate and William's happy news but they're increasingly starting to feel like part of an avalanche of what might be called Alternative Nostalgia – the flipside to our dominant current national mood which seems to involve taking comfort in the bunting-fluttering certainties of the past while wilfully ignoring the urgent questions posed by the present and the near future. The photos were taken by Bob Mazzer and they documented the London Underground... but not quite as we know it. This was the London Underground of the 70s and early 80s; representative of London at the crossroads and in the midst of an unusually creative identity crisis.

At this point, London hadn't yet become the recession-resistant, national population-swallowing, financial powerhouse of cards that we experience now. Back then, it was just another British city; the biggest and most symbolically significant one of course, but still stumbling along under the weight of economic uncertainty and perpetual hardscrabble anxiety. It hadn't quite yet decided to become a capitalist-realist, high finance fiefdom which would hoover up both the nation and the wider world's best and brightest, fleece them for all the rent and creative energy it could and then shit them out into zone five if they didn't manage to shin up the ladder quite fast enough.

Everywhere in Mazzer's photos, there's a delicious, palpable tension. Subcultures jostle for space, the gays freak out the straights, the whites and blacks regard each other with suspicious curiosity. People smoke and drink; oblivious to the twin approaching tragedies of the King's Cross fire and the election of a Mayor who told us we couldn't booze on public transport. London is up for grabs and as a result, the photos are beautifully evocative of time, place and mood; somehow both familiar and utterly alien.

Increasingly, these lovingly presented requiems to our lost dreams are everywhere. St Etienne and Paul Kelly's film How We Used To Live premiered last autumn at the London Film Festival and will shortly be released on DVD. As a band, St Etienne have always traded in an alluring idealisation of childhood, the 70s, all of our first times. This film probes and celebrates the fascinating period between 1950 and 1980 – from post-war rebuilding and the nascent welfare state to the dawning of the Thatcherite vision of progress which seduced enough of us shortly afterwards to set a different course leading from then to now.

The film's subjects are dwarfed by big ideas and state paternalism but they're human and defiant too – early in the film, a beehived woman wanders through a London boasting a familiar grandeur of scale and symbol but pockmarked by the proudly-worn scars of bombing, the signifiers of a recent, hard-won triumph. These people never feel like simply abstract, anonymous citizens – they're our mothers and fathers and our predecessors in every way. They're making decisions that we live with to this day. The film expertly and poetically merges overlapping eras; simultaneous beginnings and endings. A kid on a skateboard slaloms dextrously between the city gents crossing Tower Bridge on the way to work – youthful, cocky and a harbinger of another new London beginning to assert itself. As in Mazzer's photographs, London seems emptier, grubbier, wilder and more alive than the version its current residents might recognise.

Both Mazzer's photographs and St Etienne's film beautify and occultise the formerly routine. But Jarvis Cocker and Martin Wallace's The Big Melt – How Steel Made Us Hard, which had its first showing recently as part of BBC4's 'Storyville' strand, takes this process to another level entirely. In industrialised Sheffield, the vats of white hot metal bubble like witches' cauldrons, confirming that their realm contains truths that, from our current vantage point, we'll never understand. The lineage of working class potency is strong here; to work in steel was to engage in routine risk-taking – this stuff was properly dangerous and therefore, it's implied, properly character-building too. The soundtrack – including brass and classically orchestrated versions of the Human League's 'Being Boiled', A Guy Called Gerald's 'Voodoo Ray' and Cocker's own 'This Is Hardcore' hammers the point home – this was indeed hardcore and its implacable brutalism was a stimulus and an energy in itself, feeding into music, art and other strident expressions of regional identity.

As in How We Used To Live, the people here are dwarfed too, surrounded by physical forces too vast for individual human reckoning and - in the case of one silhouetted figure climbing a mountainous crane - literally hanging on for dear life. But all of these artworks imply the same question of us, right now. Are we any better off? Or are the forces looming over our lives simply so massive and so impossible to reckon with that we can't even conceive of their possible dimensions? High finance? Surveillance masquerading as empowerment, law enforcement and protection? Algorithms dictating our cultural preferences? The seemingly unanswerable and permanent fact of unregulated capitalism?

The Big Melt features a charming animation called 'World Without Steel' in which the contents of a room, then a home, then a city, then finally a country, disintegrate without Sheffield's most famous export. It asked a question of the people of industrial Yorkshire but it asks a bigger one of us now. What is the nature of our economy, our vision, our identity? What underpins our sense of forward motion, our notion of who we are? We're clearly not living in a world without steel but are we living in a world without the idea of steel? If there's a philosophical thread uniting Bob Mazzer's photographs and this pair of films (along with other recent pieces of socio-political archaeology like Ken Loach's Spirit of '45), it's a yearning for a sense of common purpose, a unifying idea of progress or maybe just a bit of wild, unmediated fun. There is, of course, a paradox at the heart of all this – finding a way through to unbroken ground may be more difficult than archiving the past, however seductive that might be. But for these yearnings to be realised, we're going to have to learn how to live in the present again.

The Big Melt is released on DVD on March 17th. How We Used To Live will be screening at Tate Late this Friday, February 7th. Info here. There will be a limited cinema run from April, and a DVD/soundtrack release later in 2014. Stay tuned to The Quietus for more info