Fifteen years ago, filmmaker Carol Morley returned to her native Manchester to see if she could dig up her own half-remembered party years. Caught up in the Hacienda's 80s heyday as an acid house clubbing mecca, she worked as a musician, befriended the likes of New Order and the Buzzcocks, went through a heap of lovers, and ingested a lot of booze.
Upon her return, Morley put out ads in local papers to see who had known her and was willing to share their memories of her; the result was a lean documentary feature called The Alcohol Years. In anticipation of an upcoming screening of the doc as part of the ICA's Onwards + Outwards programme, I spoke to Carol on the phone about her film work, her upcoming book, and how "young women aren't allowed to be carnal."
In The Alcohol Years, various friends and ex-lovers recount stories and observations about Morley's wild-child reputation—often revealing more about themselves than they do about the subject in question. A scalpel is taken to Morley's personality while she films silently; never interjecting or arguing back. It's a fearless conceit, and as we are told increasingly outrageous stories—mostly regarding her promiscuity and alcohol consumption—the commentary grows more vicious. People onscreen remark, "You were a second-division star fucker," and "I thought you'd end up dead in a gutter somewhere."
Asked whether she felt she was a danger to herself at that time, Morley responds that she "tends to believe it." On the subject of drinking, she tells me, "I never really thought about it in contemporary terms—what I was doing wasn't unusual in that context, but toward the end, people saw my behavior getting extreme […] I sort of abandoned Manchester to get away from it."
Nonetheless, The Alcohol Years does something much more complex than to merely offer a snapshot of her vulnerability. "I didn't want it to seem like a victim's film. That's taking away some of the energy and excitement." Instead, Morley offers a multi-faceted portrait of memory and the ways in which it is colored by time and personal perception. It's a film which also lays bare the hypocrisy and paternalism of many of its male subjects, who seem to regard Morley's past behavior as unseemly at best—or at worst, with barely-suppressed disdain.
"When you look at people in literary or film culture, or whatever, that have been made into heroes—they're often drinkers, but they're often also men," Morley says. "And for women that's seen as inappropriate and not seen as heroic." Similar double standards seemed to apply to her sex life. "The men being promiscuous was not talked about at all, because it wasn't particularly interesting—that was typical perceived male behavior. Or it was somehow seen as manly. But as a young woman, you were perceived as some kind of victim, who couldn't possibly want to have sex with different people. It was somehow that you were mentally ill."
It's no surprise that women don't have an equal stake in filmmaking, because it's very ideological and incredibly powerful.
Contradictory impressions of Morley color the film, and it seems identity is a fascinating point of contention for the filmmaker: How we construct and present ourselves to the world, how others alter and impinge on it, and pointedly, how gender plays a distinct role in that equation. Asked about this in The Alcohol Years, she tells me, "Our identities are formed by other people and they probably wouldn't really exist if it weren't for other people […] I guess when I made that film I was in my early thirties, and it sort of fascinated me how young women were perceived, especially at that time—but obviously still today. There was a particular perception of how a young woman should behave."
Part of this seems to be an expectation of malleability around female behavior—apparent from the subjects in both The Alcohol Years and Morley's follow-up documentary, 2011's Dreams of a Life, a research-heavy look into the life of Joyce Vincent. Vincent was a 38-year-old Londoner who died alone in her bedsit in 2003 and whose body was left tragically undiscovered for three years. The "often under-represented" experience of teenage girls is another interest for Carol, whose critically-acclaimed feature film The Falling delves into the psychosexual fervor of a girls' school in 1969. Carol has said in the past that she is committed to portraying the female experience, so I ask her about this—and if the British film industry is brightening up in this regard.
"There's certainly more conversation about it and the lack of representation. I was a bit alarmed the other day when I saw women referred to as a 'resource' in some document… You know, women are not a niche, they're not a resource, they're not a ghetto," she says. "But it's no surprise that women don't have an equal stake in filmmaking, because it's very ideological and incredibly powerful. What you want is people to essentially begin to make films that are looking at things that aren't asked about. The female sensibility is definitely overlooked."
She goes on to express dissatisfaction with the idea of achieving industry gender parity through government quotas. "What you'll find is they're not the powerful positions. You want women being in control of the stories."
As a writer/director, that's something Morley has always been sure to do—right up to and including the publication of her first book, an autobiographical fiction novel called Seven Miles Out. It looks to her own fraught experiences as a teen, spanning the ages of 11 to 18 in the life of a young girl who searches for answers after the suicide of her father. On her own experience of her father's death when she was eleven, she tells me, "I think for me that was probably the very extreme and particular event that sent me on this course of trying to make sense of the world—and to look at what's disappeared and what isn't visible."
About both the process of filmmaking and of writing the book, she says, "I think in a way it's almost like a kind of rescue operation. You're rescuing memories other people have—there's something out there in the world that you're trying to rescue and construct into something meaningful that people can share.' Those memories, for Morley, coalesced best when she wrote from the perspective of a teen—"Once I started writing I realized the voice I was writing in was very young […] if it's a middle aged person looking back, that would put of lot explanations and clarifications and spin on it, and I really didn't want that. I wanted to create something quite raw and intimate."
Raw and intimate seem apt descriptions for most of Morley's work; both her fiction and documentaries seem to touch on female adolescence and self-image, beset on all sides by patriarchal constraints. Bias, speculation, and contradiction are allowed plenty of room, offering a rich and ambiguous relationship to reality. Morley seems to welcome that ambiguity, saying, "I think that you do people a disservice to patronize them, to give them endings which are very whole, and refuse other ways of looking at things. For me, I love that people can bring themselves to it. They go away and have to think about it.'
The Alcohol Years is being screened at the ICA on September 1 as part of the Onwards and Outwards program, with a Q&A with Carol Morley after. Details here.