How We Used To Live

DocoDom and I took a trip to old London Town last week, for a look back into the city's past.

As a birthday treat for the lad, I'd snagged us tickets to a screening to the latest collaboration between film-maker Paul Kelly and retro pop smart-alecks Saint Etienne. How We Used To Live marks a departure for the team, who've made four movies together. This time, rather than using fresh material, the film is built entirely from colour footage of government information shorts made betwen 1950 and 1980.

Voiced with world-weary charm by Ian McShane, How We Used To Live is a plotless piece that's all about invoking a certain mood: an air of nostalgia for a London that is overlaid by the present, but still peeks through the gaps. It's a film that, by the very nature of its central concept, is built in the edit suite. That gives Kelly and his scriptwriters, Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough, a chance to be playful, pitting archival voiceover against mismatching pictures. It's not a new technique, but one that works well when, for example, shots of parliament are intercut with crime narration. This sense of play creeps into the montage as a whole, as Kelly cheekily places shots of city traders against horse racing footage–are the markets just one big gamble?

Against it all, Pete Wiggs places that Saint Etienne sound. Analog synths burble alongside early computer footage, while the pure pop sensibilities that the band is best known for come into play as Sarah Cracknell coos over shots of swinging London.

Like I say, it's a mood piece. There's little sense of any plot or particular narrative thrust. The closest you get is a loose aggregation of theme: London at night; London at work; London at play. Ian McShane growls away over the top, offering one-liners, giving the impression that he's just having a chat in a bar. It's fine as far as it goes, but it's all a bit insubstantial.

The problem for me stems from the choice of limited source material. By only working in colour, from 1950 to 1980, there should still be a ton of film to work with. But as Kelly was only sourcing clips from the BFI library (I have the feeling he was calling in a favour or two) a sense of repetition sneaks in. Without any Pathé or Gaumont newsreel, without any BBC film, I feel that he's just skimming over the surface of what's really available. I applaud the decision to stick to colour–it's a rich, good-looking film with gorgeous poppy reds. But as yet another shot of Piccadilly Circus rolled past, I couldn't help but think that Kelly simply wasn't trying that hard. For a film that was allegedly four years in the making, it all feels a bit slight, cruising on the reputation of the creative team.

How We Used To Live isn't a bad film by any means. It's nice-looking, sweet-natured, a feel-good piece. But it brushes lightly over some themes and ideas that could have given the movie some real bite. The immigrant experience in London, for example, is dealt with in a minute flat–some shots of a dance party, a couple of rude boys are bundled into a police car and oh, look, we're back in Carnaby Street. I was excited to see some Super 8 of the early days of punk, but again it blew by in seconds, contextless, just more pretty pictures.

At 70 minutes How We Used To Live is an easy watch with some interesting and rare footage, but it's so mired in its own sense of nostalgia that it becomes, to my mind at least, the cinematic equivalent of a coffee-table book. Lovely to look at and flick through, but not something you take off the shelf very often. Expect to see it playing in the background of a Hoxton bar this summer.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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