REVIEW — Melody (1971)

Bit late uploading this but FilmJuice have my review of Waris Hussein’s thoroughly excellent and recently re-released British drama Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K.)

Set in 1970s East London, Melody begins by introducing the resolutely introverted and middle-class Danny to a working-class community that his shit-munching parents are hoping to gentrify. Initially alienated from his class-mates, Danny soon manages to establish a friendship with a local lad whose home life is so horrifying that you never actually see it on screen. Made in the great tradition of British post-War social realism, Melody explores not only the dynamics of gentrification and middle-class ‘concern’ for the lower orders but also the ways in which proximity and cooperation can work to establish solidarity between people from ostensibly very different backgrounds. Filled with these lovely scenes in which the camera runs and runs as kids go about their normal daily lives, the film soon transitions into an utterly charming and genuinely moving love story between Danny and a little girl called Melody:


Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”


Interestingly, the weakest element of this film is probably the soundtrack that inspired its makings. Dominated by profoundly not-famous tunes by the BeeGees, it feels way too folky and blandly up-beat for a film with the urban setting and realistic tone of a film like Melody. This being said, Melody is a thoroughly excellent film from an era when the British film industry was still interested in making films that spoke directly to the experiences of British people.

The Yellow Sea (2010) – A Rising Tide of Gonzo

TYSWhile people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.

Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.

Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.

The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.

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Neds (2010) – Don’t Let You Get the Best of You

David Simon has a lot to answer for.

There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when big institutions had their day in the sun: In foreign affairs, people began to look to the United Nations as a venue for resolving political conflicts while independent NGOs were seen not only as fonts of specialised knowledge but as self-less agents for change and charity.  In domestic affairs, the backlash against the Thatcherite era of cuts and privatisations gained political substance as people began to demand proper investment in schools and hospitals.  In the UK at least, this unexpected belief in the power of institutions to change the world swept the Labour party into power with a mandate for an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and massive investment in public services.  For a while, people believed.  People felt the institutional sun on their up-turned faces.

But then, as these things inevitably do, the wheel began to turn.

It is hard to tell when precisely it was that the rot began to creep into cultural representations of social institutions but it was pretty obvious when the roof fell in.  Over the course of five short series, David Simon’s HBO series The Wire took a crowbar to the knees of pretty much every large social institution in America: The police, organised labour, politics, the media, schools and even criminal gangs.  Nobody escaped Simon’s forensic wrath.  According to The Wire, no institution could be trusted to deliver social change because institutions rely upon human agents who are invariably both too self-serving and too short sighted to act in the interests of society as a whole.

Change, we were told, simply could not come from above.

If The Wire’s brutal analysis constituted the crest of a wave of disillusionment then Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was undeniably a distant but powerful off shore surge that contributed to the bathymetric sway.  The film focuses upon Ireland’s infamous Magdalene asylums, institutions run by the Catholic Church with parental consent that effectively pressed young women into slavery in order to ‘protect’ them and others from their fallen morality. Over the course of 119 minutes, The Magdalene Sisters wages a viciously effective assault on the notion that charitable institutions could ever be anything other than venues for misguided authoritarianism and the psychological and physical abuse of vulnerable people.

But what of the individual in all of this?

If it is unacceptable to suggest that the poor are simply lazy and that the vulnerable are simply weak, then surely it is just as unpalatable to suggest that the poor and vulnerable are nothing but the passive victims of misguided social institutions?  If may well be reductive and simplistic to place all of one’s faith for social renewal in large institutions but it is just as simplistic to paint these institutions as nothing more than part of an unjust and exploitative system.  People are individuals.  People have choice.  People have agency.  A more sophisticated representation of the ills of our society would allow for this.  It would acknowledge the responsibilities that we have to ourselves.

Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds (Non-educated Delinquents) attempts to examine both sides of the coin.  Set in 1970s Scotland, the film depicts a social landscape bristling with institutions that are quick to open their arms to working class children but just as quick to turn their backs on these same children if they fail to follow the (largely unwritten) rules.  However, while Mullan does a brilliant job of depicting the fickle and irrational nature of big institutions, his film’s real power comes from a willingness to recognise that we play a large part in our own downfall and salvation.

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