British Universities Film & Video Council

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The Big Melt

The Big Melt. 2014. GB. DVD. BFI. 71 minutes + 90 minutes extras. £19.99

About the reviewer: Dr E. Anna Claydon, Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester, is author of The Representation of Masculinity in British Cinema of the 1960s (2005). Her other publications include: ‘National Identity, the GPO Film Unit and Their Music’, in The GPO Film Reader (BFI/Palgrave, 2011); ‘Masculinity and Deviance in British Cinema of the 1970s: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll’ in Don’t Look Now? British Cinema in the 1970s (Intellect, 2010).

First shown at the Sheffield DocFest in 2013, Wallace and Cocker’s The Big Melt is an evocative example of contemporary poetic realism which cannot help but recall the aesthetics or both Humphrey Jennings and Dziga Vertov. This is, in part, tied to the dominant footage being no earlier than the mid-sixties and mainly, it seems, from the late 1940s but, whilst reminiscent of Humphrey Jennings’ approach to structure and editing, the footage itself includes Mitchell and Kenyon archival material, and industry produced animated representations of the furnaces and factories which, as Cocker notes in the accompanying interview with himself and Wallace, are often like “propaganda”. Nevertheless, the footage from Mitchell and Kenyon, particularly of working men and boys from Rotherham, sets the tone for the film with a young man’s ‘double-fingered salute’ to the camera signifying the challenge to authority which seems to lurk beneath the film’s imagery.

Children feature a lot at the start of the film but adults predominate, especially men, although female workers are there too with secretarial and jobs which demanded dexterity. Men and women are often represented separately and then mix only when the social and the romantic is represented, echoing the shots of Albert Finney seducing Sally-Anne Field in the Nottingham-set Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1959). Cross-editing of intricate steel-work for a bridge and a young woman’s fishnet stockings produces a fascinating moment of sexualising the steel industry and the film oscillates between the industrial and the worker’s leisure throughout, recalling Jennings’ Spare Time (1939), including a sequence where the steel works’ brass band plays both on and off-screen linking footage from seventy years ago with the sounds of their grandsons and daughters’ today in Jarvis Cocker’s music for the film.

Jarvis Cocker’s music is varied in style from heavily dance-influenced tracks to folk songs and brass bands, electronics and strings. In the interview extra on the DVD, Wallace notes that he would “Shape [visual] blocks based around the music” and this is interesting because it is atypical of most film composition, emphasising the documentary as a co-composed piece of film poetry. Cocker later observes that “There was some of that Kes music in there”, referring to Loach’s eponymous film and these two aspects create considerable light in thinking about both how the film seems to sit stylistically at a meeting point between social realism and poetic realism but also how the structure of the film and its music works. For example, when the film ends and moves into musical coda, a whale song of steel girders (represented by an electric guitar strum resonating) leads into a slower string melody which balances the film’s opening (again with strings) and its end with furnaces, at the start in animated form and at the end in poetic slowed-down footage of melting and moving metal.

The music cuts out only rarely during The Big Melt and then for sounds like church bells. In this instance (about an hour into the film) before the animated industry produced footage narrator asks “A world without steel? That’s a thought”. Of course, the irony being foreshadowed is the anticipation of the later death of the industry in Sheffield. One cannot help but compare the implications of the representation against the ironic use of the Sheffield promotion film used at the opening The Full Monty (1997) but this is more poignant because steel is represented as a holy grail of modern life, without which chaos and deprivation would be abound. The music at this point is gentle, strings and harp with a flute and oboe recall the melancholic soundtracks of 1960s and 70s films with a faintly ecological tale, such as Kes (1969) noted above. Here, though, man and steel are the ecology of a community being threatened. The film then cuts suddenly back to repeat Edwardian images of the children and workers of Sheffield and thence to the First World War, silent until a tone shift to girls washing before beginning their war work.

Ultimately, as Wallace notes in the DVD interview, they wanted “to remind young people [of their history] because they’re the fodder of that industry but on the other hand when that industry’s not there what do they do?” Is this achieved? Unlike many socially-minded projects, including participants from within the Sheffield communities, the film succeeds in standing apart and within its environment. However, and this is where it felt less successful, the rootedness of the film imagery in a comparatively short period meant that much of the history of the demise of Sheffield’s steel industry was implied and that, for the young audience to which the film was ostensibly addressed, only a half-story was told and the implications of the cooling of the factories would only be seen by those who did not need to be told about the impact of strikes and Tories in the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, then, whilst the film was beautifully edited and heavily ironic, those young people who were former fodder for the industry were perhaps elided by the fact that many of the people who were working looked rather more like they were old before their time than in the flush of youth and those who were young looked like middle-age beckoned all too quickly, including the tiny boy who opened the works’ gate in his shorts, pullover and black peaked cap.

Dr E. Anna Claydon

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