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Morvern Callar (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Morvern Callar Soundtrack

Morvern Callar (2002)

After naming You Were Never Really Here as my favourite film of 2018, I thought I’d start 2019 taking a look at another Lynne Ramsay film, her second feature film Morvern Callar, in particular, the music utilised in the course of its 93 minutes run time.

Already known for her use of professional and non-professional actors, this was the first time Ramsay had worked with someone with a marketable reputation, Samantha Morton having recently worked with Woody Allen on Sweet and Lowdown and with Steven Spielberg on Minority Report.

In Scotland at least, some critics did criticise the fact that Morton was English and spoke with an English accent – one of a number of changes from the novel by Alan Warner – although Morvern Callar had been brought up as a foster child (as had Morton).

And talking of the 1995 novel, a buzz had been building up about it before it had even been published. Warner had a number of connections with Irvine Welsh. Occasional drinking buddies, they’d shared the stage at many readings and the pages of the many of the same litzines. Both had been featured in the Rebel Inc. anthology Children of Albion Rovers and Sceptre’s Disco Biscuits in 1997. And both their debut novels were made into movies by up-and-coming filmmakers.

Some in the media even began touting Ramsay’s film along the lines of the next Trainspotting, or the female Trainspotting. I’m not sure if any of the folk responsible for this hype had ever read Warner’s novel.

They were very different books, and they would be very different kinds of film. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting begins with a frenetic chase down Edinburgh’s Princes Street with Iggy Pop’s visceral Lust for Life accompanying the action together with Mark Renton’s Choose Life monologue. Morvern Callar starts with a near static female lying on a floor and caressing the back, bloodied wrist and hand of a man who we will soon discover is her dead boyfriend. Lights from a Christmas tree blink on and off, her face in darkness every few seconds. The only noise a whirring hum from the CPU fan of her computer, which displays a READ ME message on its screen.

Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar

This film is nowhere near as plot-heavy as Boyle’s film although, despite claims to the contrary, there is a storyline to Morvern Callar, albeit it is more of what Ramsay has called a ‘psychological journey’.

As Warner warned The List just before its premiere: ‘The first twenty minutes of the film are brutal; the seats’ll be snapping up at Cannes, I tell you. I really don’t see it doing a Billy Elliot; it’s too good a film.’

Morvern Callar is the story of a young Oban – although that town is never named in either the novel or film – supermarket worker who prints off a manuscript of her dead partner’s novel and sends it off to a publishing firm. But not before she deletes his name and adds her own.

She also empties his bank account and blows a chunk of the cash on visiting a tacky resort on the south coast of Spain with her best pal Lanna. But Morvern infuriates live for the moment Lanna with her distinct lack of any ‘mad for it’ hedonism once there. Indeed, it’s not too long before she decides that exploring the hinterlands of Almeria might be a more rewarding way to spend her time than with young lager-lager-lager Brits on tour.

Morton does a fantastic job portraying Morvern’s interior conflict throughout all this. The fact that she reveals so little only encourages viewers to concentrate harder in attempting to read her thoughts. Is she grief stricken and vulnerable? Or an amoral chancer? Or a bit of both?

I’ll go for the latter, but it’s hard to be sure. Ramsay has never been a director to offer everything up on a plate to audiences. Morvern Callar is a memorable character, but she’s far too inward, too elusive to ever dent the consciousness of a generation in the way Mark Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy managed to.

Music did play a big part in both films, though. Trainspotting featured a mainly indie and dance music soundtrack with a lot of big names like Blur, New Order and Underworld, while Morvern Callar, favours more generally left-field sounds, drawing heavily on the catalogue of the Warp label’s catalogue (Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Broadcast) along with German experimentalists Can and their bassist Holger Czukay – who Warner had dedicated his novel to – in a couple of solo outings. These are among the acts collected in the mix-tape cassette labelled ‘Music For You’ that her partner has left for her.

We’re also treated to the skewed pop sensibility of Stereolab, some Ween (the one track that fails to work for me) and even a dash of Gamelan drumming.

Some older acts, who the hipsters of the day would have approved of, are additionally thrown into the mix. The Velvet Underground’s perky oddity I’m Sticking With You is used to audacious effect (I won’t spoil it for you but just mention that the song’s title isn’t literally appropriate for the action). Reggae pioneer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry makes an appearance as does my favourite ever duet, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s Some Velvet Morning, which masterfully soundtracks Morvern in slow-motion, as she makes her way to the fruit and veg counter where she’s about to start a shift.

I’ve featured this one on here before, where I described it as ‘a hypnotic and surreal masterpiece that’s even a little disorientating and also to my mind a lot more psychedelic than anything the likes of The Grateful Dead ever recorded.’

The ending of the film, not surprisingly, is open ended with Morvern, seemingly alone in a noisy club.

Has she returned to Spain? Or is she still in Scotland? Could this even be a flashback? Again, Ramsay lets the viewer work this out for themselves.

In an echo of the opening scene, strobe lights flash across her face. Instead of any dance music, though, we hear the sun-drenched harmonies of The Mama and Papas’ Dedicated to the One I Love, which she listens to on her Walkman. Why? I have no idea but since it’s one of those songs that always make me feel happy I sense it likely suggests some kind of optimistic future for the character.

Sadly this track isn’t part of the soundtrack album issued by Warp and sadly too, the sync on the video below is slightly out here but the song is so glorious that I couldn’t resist including it here:

Quentin Tarantino has spoken recently of limiting himself to only ever directing ten movies. He’s currently working on his ninth.

Ramsay has made four full length features, her first Ratcatcher, in 1999. I would dearly love if she was more prolific but her oeuvre is so exceptionally consistent that I can’t complain. Quality over quantity and all that.

Hopefully, she’ll make more than ten films eventually although to do so she might require a similar kind of career longevity to Agnès Varda, who’s been making films since the mid-1950s and still going strong.

If you want to find out more about Alan Warner’s book Can’s Tago Mago, click here.

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Shopping in Space & The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

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This week I started re-reading Shopping in Space, a book written jointly by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, that takes a look at a number of writers who found themselves being lumped together during the 1980s and early 90s and tentatively categorised as ‘Downtown’, ‘New Narrative’ or ‘Post-Punk’ but whose writing Young and Caveney opted to term ‘Blank Generation’ fiction, after Richard Hell’s most famous song, to give them ‘the necessary link with punk’ and to convey ‘something of the flat, stunned quality of much of the writing’.

At the point when I first read Shopping In Space shortly after its publication in 1992, I was spending more time reading than I was listening to music. Certainly there was still plenty of great new singles and albums coming out by acts like – off the top of my head – My Bloody Valentine, The Breeders, Slowdive and Teenage Fanclub but new literature struck me as much more dynamic at this time when grunge largely ruled the planet. Admittedly when Nirvana were at the top of their game with tracks like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Heart Shaped Box, grunge might have seemed like a truly great idea but Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and co? No thanks.

The writing discussed in the Shopping in Space was typical of the kind of thing I was reading back then: Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Gaitskill, Joel Rose and Jay McInerney, whose Story Of My Life was a particular favourite. Additionally, I was also very keen on Raymond Carver and the so-called ‘dirty realists’ along with the curiously named Breece D’J Pancake, who like Kurt Cobain died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the three Glaswegian authors, whose work had been collected together in the 1985 anthology of short stories, Lean Tales: James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens.

Shopping in Spce (1992)  Rebel Inc. Issue 1

What excited me even more though was my discovery of a whole new wave of younger Scottish writers that included Gordon Legge, Duncan McLean and Irvine Welsh. Finding an extract of what later would become the second chapter of Trainspotting in a yearly anthology called New Writing Scotland was almost like discovering The Damned or The Sex Pistols on John Peel.*

Or maybe I should say that reading the Edinburgh based litzine Rebel Inc. was like listening to the Peel show and its pages would introduce me to Laura Hird, Alan Warner, Sandie Craigie, Paul Reekie and many other new voices ‘from Embra and other bits of Scotland like Falkirk’.

Before long I was dabbling myself, trying my hand at writing very short stories that were sometimes only about a page long. Soon I began sending these off to small press publication; some were accepted though mostly I would receive a bog standard rejection letter.

One time, when I was trying to enter a story for some competition organised by Glasgow Uni, my typewriter ribbon – remember this is 1992ish – began growing ever more faded to the point of illegibility and with a deadline looming and zero money to buy a new ribbon I hit on the only solution I could think of that would make my submission even reasonably presentable: I used Letraset for the last couple of paragraphs before rushing out and delivering the final piece by hand.

It didn’t win the competition but did make the shortlist which was selected by Janice Galloway (I was a big admirer of her debut novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing) and I was invited along to read my piece at an event in a hall somewhere deep in the bowels of the uni.

It was the first time I’d ever set foot inside a university. Well, barring when I got signed in for concerts.

All these years later, I’ve started writing some fiction again after enrolling for a part time course at a local university that isn’t Glasgow and this is taking up more time than I’d imagined. Therefore, for the next six or seven weeks, posts on here might be a wee bit shorter than usual and possibly a bit more spread out too.

Next up on the reading list is Joel Rose’s Kill Kill Faster Faster (my copy is on Canongate’s old Rebel Inc. imprint), a novel that’s discussed in Shopping in Space and which Irvine Welsh proclaimed ‘A Modern Urban Masterpiece’ and ‘The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’, which Irvine Welsh actually wrote and which the Independent has called ‘a return to top form for the Trainspotting author’.

Joel Rose Kill Kill Faster Faster  Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (Irvine Welsh)

*If Irvine Welsh was The Damned or The Sex Pistols then, applying the punk analogy to myself, I was probably in a band that once supported Eater.

Coming Soon: An A to Z of Scottish Fanzines

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Contrary to what many folk believe, fanzines existed before Mark Perry sat down with a children’s typewriter, some felt pens, scissors and glue (which hopefully he didn’t sniff) to produce early copies of Sniffin’ Glue. For example, in 1974, from his home in East Lothian, Brian Hogg began publishing and distributing Bam Balam, which Perry has often acknowledged as a big influence on his own fanzine. As he explained to Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming: ‘It showed you could do a magazine and you didn’t have to be glossy.’

Indeed, even further back, Macabre, a sci-fi carbon zine (meaning its pages are typed carbon-copies) was produced by a Scottish teenager in the early months of World War II and this debatably might be seen as the birth of the fanzine movement in this country.

Scottish Fanzines Collage

An A to Z of Scottish Fanzines will be a new occasional feature in For Malcontents Only that will celebrate Scottish music fanzines, football fanzines, litzines, webzines and e-Fanzines from Bam Balam through the punk era of Ripped & Torn, The Next Big Thing and Hanging Around to the explosion of DIY activity in the 1980s that produced Juniper Ber-Beri and Alternatives to Valium as well as the debut of the football fanzine with the likes of The Absolute Game and smaller circulation zines dedicated to a single club like St. Mirren’s wonderfully named There’s a Store where the Creatures Meet (think the ground where that team played until recently) and Mass Hibsteria, which a young Hibee from Leith named Irvine Welsh regularly contributed to before his writing began circulating more widely in pamphlets from Duncan MacLean’s Clocktower Press and in Kevin Williamson’s brilliant and controversial litzine Rebel Inc. in the first half of the 1990s.

Again contrary to many folk’s beliefs, fanzines haven’t died out – killed off by the internet and most specifically blogs although many have migrated in that direction; admittedly the golden era might have passed but many are still being produced on the fringes of the mainstream and often in different media and so newer publications like Runnin’ Feart and Scotzine (which exists online and in paper form) will also be examined to bring the story up to date although the main focus will be on punk and independent music fanzines, primarily from the 1970s and 1980s.

Feel free to send suggestions for any title that you think deserves a mention as the list that I would come up with on my own would, I’m sure, be far from definitive.