Like a lot of people — not least perhaps the director and many of those who worked on this film — I’m not from London originally, but have rather fallen in love with it over the ten years I’ve lived there. It is constantly being rebuilt and renewed, and its skyline is constantly changing, but if anything How We Used to Live shows what’s still the same: the commuting, the work, the concerns about the cost of living, the self-consciousness, and to a certain extent, the rebuilding as well. It’s like an anti-nostalgia nostalgic film in the way it comes across (plus ça change and all that).
The chief thing to note is that, visually, it’s entirely constructed from archive footage sourced from the British Film Institute (BFI). These clips have been carefully chosen and co-ordinated, drawn from colour footage spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, cut together with archival sound clips — plummy-voiced narrators whose words have been repurposed (sometimes to hilarious effect) to match images for which they were never intended. Yet it’s not simple montage, for there’s also a narrator (voiced by Ian McShane) — a character who comes across at times opaquely epigrammatic like Jean-Luc Godard, at times like the fictional and quixotic “Robinson” in Patrick Keiller’s films — and there’s Pete Wiggs’s musical score. Wiggs, together with one of the film’s writers, Bob Stanley, is a founder member of the pop group Saint Etienne and there’s a suitably downbeat gloriousness to the melodies, nicely-matched to the faded colours of the film’s footage.
If London provides all the material (and some may seem familiar to viewers of other BFI archival releases like Roll Out the Barrel or some of the BFI Flipside titles like London in the Raw), the finished film is more about the textures and experiences of living in a city. There are workers and commuters, musicians and artists, skateboarders and punks, kids and tourists, and all manner of expression. These disparate images are grouped into a vague chronology and thematic unity, while allowing for little poetic flourishes in the editing.
What results is an heady impressionistic rush of sounds and images, giving as much a hint of London’s wonder as of the enduring naffness of some of its busiest shopping streets and squares (like the rather too ubiquitous Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus). And I imagine that for most lovers of London, this will be a welcome view of the UK’s capital city.
Director Paul Kelly; Writers Travis Elborough and Bob Stanley; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 14 October 2013.