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Jarvis Cocker's Melt Down: Martin Wallace Talks About The Big Melt
Adam Bychawski , April 2nd, 2014 06:28

Adam Bychawski talks to director Martin Wallace about his collaboration with Jarvis Cocker on the unconventional documentary The Big Melt

It's 1901, a line of young men are being filmed as they wait to collect their wages outside of Parkgate Iron and Steelworks in Rotherham. For most it's the first time they've seen a film camera. Some wave, others jostle to get into the frame, another dashes in and out of the queue, it all seems jovial, quaint even. Then one lad looks straight into the camera and flicks a V right at us. A defining moment in film history, the first person to give two fingers on film. It's silent, of course, but you can almost hear him telling you to piss off as if he's somehow aware of us watching over a century later.

That small act of adolescent rebellion seems to have struck a chord with Jarvis Cocker who stumbled upon the clip in the BFI's archives while searching for footage for The Big Melt, a feature length exploration of Sheffield's steelmaking past made together with director Martin Wallace. For Cocker it was enough to dispel any lingering reservations with the project prompting a realisation, in his own words, that "my love of films and characters with that contrary, insolent attitude had everything to do with steel". That bloodymindedness, that hardness, seems to have been forged through the experiences of those living and working in industrial towns at the turn of the century. Both Cocker and Wallace recognise something of that attitude in their own experiences with their respective home towns. Only with age has a resistance to being defined by regional identity softened into an appreciation and perhaps even grudging pride. The Big Melt, in part, attempts to make amends for that youthful indifference. At the centre of the film is this very same tension between mythologising the past and treating it with irreverence, serving both as a celebration of the men and women who toiled in Sheffield's steelworks as well as a reminder of how truly punishing it was.

The project was commissioned as part of the annual Sheffield documentary film festival but to describe The Big Melt as a documentary would be something of a misnomer. Conceived of as a one off audiovisual live performance and recorded on the festival's opening night, the resulting film tries to recapture the spectacle. From the outset, Wallace and Cocker thought of The Big Melt primarily as a live experience. In an interview accompanying the DVD, Cocker describes his ambition to "melt the faces" of the audience. To give them a small taste of what it might have been like to work in such close proximities to earsplittingly loud machinery and insufferable temperatures. At one stage the pair half-jokingly contemplated using portable heaters, instead settling for more abstract means of hotting things up. 

True to his word, Cocker's musical accompaniment does an admirable job of giving an impression of the extreme working environment of the steel mill. Among the collaborators are The Forgemasters, Richard Hawley, the City of Sheffield Brass Band, and, of course, members of Pulp. Tribute is paid to one of Sheffield's greatest pop exports, The Human League, in the form of a string rendition of 'Being Boiled' but also to acid house (A Guy Called Gerald's 'Voodoo Ray' is the backing to one of the segments) drawing on the hardcore continuum between working class culture and dance music.    

In part, because of the unusually ephemeral nature of the project, both Wallace and Cocker had more freedom to experiment with the documentary format. Although the film takes in over 80 years of footage, there is no chronology as such, with the footage linked by visual associations and through the lived experience of the steelworkers across the decades. Hellish, Promethean imagery of furnaces are followed by utopian modernist animations of steel flying out of factories to form homes and cars. The result is not quite the realism of social history but a stream of consciousness that is at once playful and elegiac with its subject.

I spoke to Wallace as he was traveling back from London to Liverpool just before The Big Melt's DVD release. He told me about the process of piecing together a film from archive footage, melting audiences, and the continued legacy of Sheffield's steel past.  

When Jarvis approached you how much of the music was in place at that point?

Martin Wallace: He had ideas about some the things he wanted to do from the word go. So for example, using The Human League's 'Being Boiled' because of the surface level connection of the title and the fact that The Human League were from Sheffield. Then he had the idea to use music from Kes. One of the striking images from the film is the kid who puts two fingers up to the camera. That has a visual echo in Kes, which is also about a kid who bucks the expectations of his community in terms of spending his lifetime in the pit. That was Jarvis's attitude towards the steel industry - not that he was being encouraged to work there as a young man - but it was this idea that this was your future, or that could have been your future, so he had an interest in that image. A lot we just built up as we went along. We found this whole host of rave songs that were recorded for brass band, from which we chose A Guy Called Gerald's 'Voodoo Ray'. That seemed like a good opportunity to do something with the Sheffield Brass Band. 

So did the music shape the editing process to a certain extent?

MW: In the end I think it was about 50-50. We gathered material in crude way and then thought about what music would work well. The themes that came out were that firstly young people were important and then this idea of industry as a Faustian bargain. A town having this dominant industry creates problems, but then if it doesn't exist you no longer have the luxury of being able to choose whether you go and work in the industry or not.

Sometimes there would be an idea that you'd think could work quite well but that sonically didn't really fit. So a lot of it was playfully done in a very free flowing way and in a way that was full of experimentation. It wasn't conceptualised in print and then executed and refined it was more like 'let's throw some shit around and see what sticks'. We followed what worked well and let fall to the wayside what didn't. It was a unique way of making something of that duration because normally you can't be that experimental with it, but we knew from the start that we wanted to make something that was formally quite abstract and built around associations rather than built around a narrative or a strong concept or theme.

Was that partially a reaction to the formalist nature of the archive footage you were working with?

MW: The concept of what an archive film is dictates a certain position to you as a viewer. What we needed to do was subvert that typical mode that archive film puts you into, which is that you have to be very reverent towards it because it's constructed with authority and it's got historical and social significance. We wanted to mess that up quite early on in order to say to people 'you can't just sit back and watch this and let it comfortably tell you what to think because it's going to ruffle your feathers a bit and you're going to have to figure out what you think yourself'. It's almost like there is this gravity that archive films have and if you're not careful it sucks you in and you become a bit passive. So although there are sections where we do stick with extended segments of film that are from the same era or from the same film, by the time we do that we've already established an approach that says you can't rest on that as a viewer, you've got to be ready because this thing is a bit slippery and you're going to have to play an active role in figuring out what it means.

A lot of this footage offers a top down perspective of the steel industry. Were you also trying to subvert that by using it to give a bottom up perspective?

MW: Yeah there was an element of that. Initially Jarvis resisted even doing the whole project, but in the end I think he did sort of face up to the responsibility of moulding it in a way that he felt was valid and worthy of other people taking a look at. Even though there were some didactic and boring films about steel - they might have had some good footage but they were terrible films - there were also some really poetic films. At that time there were some great film makers making films on the subject of industry for public utilities or for the war effort, and as often as they were heavy handed there were also sometimes very lyrical, and beautiful. You've got talented cinematographers like Jack Cardiff filming some of the stuff, and you've got Dylan Thomas writing some of the voice-overs for the two guys who talk about Smokesdale [a fictional town in an educational film that closely resembles Sheffield]. 

So even if some of them are a bit crass there were actually a lot of films that were very well made with a lot of love and respect for the workers and the industry. That was quite interesting to watch because now we tend to see industry through the prism of disputes or we don't tend to take the time to consider the more lyrical aspects of how we make stuff. In part because we don't make too much stuff anymore and when we do it tends to be with a computer and a button rather than guys rolling their sleeves up and getting dangerous and dirty in the process.

Jarvis talks about wanting to "melt" the faces of his audience in the DVD interview. Did you want the film to be a demanding experience?

MW: It's worth remembering that originally all our efforts were geared towards that live performance in Sheffield's Crucible which put particular importance on the experience of the audience. Just as when you're in a band you build a setlist because you don't want to put two slow songs back to back, you want to give people some variety and a set of geared changes. That approach was always foremost in our minds because we were building up to this big live performance where we knew there was going to be a lot of people watching and a lot of people playing. That meant that we could do things that you can't really do in films. The reason why I mention that is because when Jarvis said he wanted to "melt people's faces" it was in the context of the volume of the music for the end segment, when the big hot bolt comes out of the furnaces, which was incredibly loud in the live performance. So the volume was intended to represent the heat. At one stage, we even talked about trying to make it hotter in the auditorium but it was just never going to work that way. The performance was all geared around the experience of the audience and trying to give them a version of what it might be like to work in such close quarters to such high temperatures.

There's definitely a sense of futurism and even utopian hope that you get from watching some of the footage. Which is odd from a contemporary perspective in which we view industry primarily as exploitative or damaging to the environment. Did that feeling of possibility come across from the archives?

MW: Yeah definitely, especially with the footage from the Festival of Britain. There was a lot of hope implicit in this new material that was going to help us travel really fast or go to the moon. But it wasn't long before then that the material had been used primarily to kill people in their millions. I think that also added to that sense of hope, because at a later stage people think "okay we've done some dumb things with this but if we think hard enough we can do some amazing things with it". The whole film is a little bit romantically inclined and tries to celebrate and recognise the dignity of what went into these things without suggesting that it wasn't hard and that it wasn't a tough life and that people weren't dying prematurely because there was not much health and safety.

That futurity seems particularly poignant now given the subsequent death of the Sheffield steel industry.

MW: We did have footage from the late 80s and some of the hardware in the place looks exactly the same but the control mechanisms have all been automated. It's good in one way because people aren't falling into fiery vats every year and having terrible injuries, but it is also the inevitable conclusion of those sort of technological advances - they push people out of the equation. So you do have communities who for several generations have taken great pride in working in the mills left without a trade. There isn't much of a future for broad segments of that population anymore. 

Like I say it's inevitable but I also think there is a sense of loss in there. Just to hark back to the way that Jarvis felt about it, it's one thing to buck the trend of what your community expects from you, but then equally if there aren't jobs for young people in the steel industry then that isn't a luxury the next generation are going to have. There's a conflict between it being a prescribed future but then in the modern era, where it doesn't exist, things are maybe more segregated and meaningless in that your doing one thing but your neighbour is doing another. So there is a loss that you've got to acknowledge.

I think you put it best in your foreword when you described steel as both a gift and a blight. Was it important to have those conflicting elements represented in the film?

MW: I just wanted there to be something that wasn't true in the film. As I began to mess about with it it became obvious that we were moving beyond social history by treating the subject with a certain irreverence. I felt that we had to go that one stage further and fabricate something that actually didn't happen, which was that steel was some kind of gift from aliens that brought us into to the future but that we didn't read the small print which was that we had to pay a price for that. That came out through the footage of people working on some kind of tinning process that looked like something out of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which we then set to BBC Radiophonic Workshop music. It felt like there was a conspiracy afoot in some of the footage that was almost asking for us to invent this myth around steel. It gave the film another dimension by encouraging you to think in a non-literal way about what we did with our industries.

The other piece of footage that seems central to the film is the young man who who flicks a V at the camera. What is it about that clip that resonated with you and Jarvis?

MW: I think it's because normally in those turn of the century films people are a bit in awe of the camera or don't really know what it is. Most people behave themselves or look a bit confused. Not many people have got an aggressive attitude like that young fella seems to have. It felt very modern because of that - you know that if you were to point a camera at a town centre now it's the kind of response you'd get. Because it was so different to the typical kind of response that we're used to seeing it does leap out at you and jump across the 100 years that are in between. When Jarvis originally saw that clip it struck a chord with him. I think he felt that some of that 'fuck you' attitude which had made him arrogant about the value of steelmaking in the first place and how it wasn't going to be something that defined him... he kind of recognised it in that kid.

Obviously this project has a lot of personal significance to Jarvis but did you find any parallels with your own experiences?

MW: Yeah definitely, I've known Jarvis for a long time and when he first ever voiced his attitude to Sheffield and steel it immediately made sense to me because in Liverpool where I grew up it was the same with The Beatles. I used to hate The Beatles even though I had never really heard them other than the awful chirpy songs. I was probably about twenty years of age before I'd ever listened to an album and then was forced to concede that actually it was pretty good. So Jarvis's attitude to everything in Sheffield being given a steel-this-steel-that subtitle made perfect sense to me. But I think everybody who grows up in a place has that feeling if the place has some kind of identity. Particularly if you are sort of a similar age to Jarvis or myself where a lot of those identities were used to plug a gap of economic activity, so people start harping on about the past in a way that is pretty limiting for young people and slightly deluded. We were both force fed some of that and we both spat it out, so it wasn't hard for me to know where he was coming from.

The Big Melt is out on DVD now via the BFI