Friday, January 15, 2010

Sweet and Tender Hooligans

What's interesting about Awaydays - the film based on Kevin Sampson's book about football hooliganism in the late 1970's - isn't the supposedly shocking violence, or the sub-Trainspotting scenes of heroin taking, but its depiction of a very particular British sub-culture.

The film does this with the obsessive eye for period detail of a Jane Austen adaptation. Only, in Awaydays, it is old school trainers and Adidas wind cheaters that are fetishised rather than Easter Bonnets and Empire line dresses. The storytelling is straightforward and the fight scenes are wholly unconvincing (I've seen scarier episodes of The Bill) but it gets the clothes and the haircuts right.

Set in the Liverpool suburb of Birkenhead in 1979, Awaydays follows the attempts of Carty - a lower middle class lad - to join The Pack, a fearsome group of Tranmere Rovers fans. The Pack's fashion sense is precisely rendered: a fusion of mod (Fred Perry T-shirts, parkas) casual (box-fresh trainers) and soul boy (white jeans) that looks startlingly modern against the backdrop of brown suits, donkey jackets and flared jeans worn by the supporting characters.

The film is only ever partly about football hooliganism. It is also about male bonding and the way that men tend to measure friendships through the obsessive documentation of their interests: clothes, records and drinking in this case. There are no significant female characters in Awaydays, with the sole exception of Carty's sister. Significantly, his mother is dead and the film begins with a visit to her grave, an event from which Carty flees to begin his initiation into The Pack. The only other women to feature are brief objects of either lust or derision, treated as casually by the film as the men in it.

Despite this there is a lot of unrequited love about: between Carty and his sister - who idolises her brother to the point of incestuousness - between Carty and the lads on the terraces who are suspicious of his middle class manners and ultimately reject him, and between him and Elvis, the film's real hero. Awaydays is in love with Elvis, a Scouse bohemian with a floppy fringe and an immaculate wardrobe. Elvis in turn is infatuated with both a doomy rock'n'roll mythology and Saturday afternoon violence. And while Carty earns the begrudging respect of the pack, Elvis begins to drift away, lost in his flat chasing the dragon to a soundtrack supplied by Echo and The Bunnymen and Joy Division. In this, Elvis predicts the supposed end of the organised gang violence of The Pack, the period a decade later when the Ecstasy culture of the Happy Mondays and Technique-era New Order nullified the culture of the terraces.

Elvis is an art school reject, a rebellious, effortlessly cool bohemian. He mixes the Mod/Casual chic of The Pack with military overcoats and foppish scarves and lives in a cavern-like flat, the walls of which are completely covered with pop art posters and occult objects. Elvis is the encapsulation of every Liverpudlian working class rock'n'roll hero and gobby popstar ever: a composite of Lennon, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie, Mick Head, Lee Mavers and countless other wannabees. In a way, the film is actually about Liverpool. Elvis likes to stand on the banks of the Mersey uttering profundities, in love with the city's grandiose self-image and cultishness. It is a cultishness that, for all their mutual antagonism, Liverpool shares with Manchester.

Like football hooliganism this antagonism is mostly for effect. Revealingly, the soundtrack of Awaydays veers between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, four cities caught up during the '70's (and beyond) in vicious football rivalry. As well as the Bunnymen and Joy Division, there's Magazine, OMD, The Mekons, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League.

I watched Awaydays partly out of an interest in the territoriality of football hooliganism, the way it carved areas of the country up into warring factions. Like Orwell's continuous war in 1984 football hooliganism was never about winning. The fights were literally pointless. Neither total defeat or total victory was seriously on the cards nor was it particularly desirable. The enemy was always needed as a convenient hate figure.

In one sense Awaydays is true to this pointlessness. There are fights and retributions, but no progress or forward motion. No one wins. The crude plotting sets up a series of antagonistic face offs, a sense that one kicking always demands another. But, of course, it can't afford to be that bleak. So the end scenes have Carty walking away from The Pack, damaged but not defeated.

The films suggests that there are perhaps only two escapes from the mindless violence of The Pack: the middle class pull of career that Carty is intent on resisting and the romantic dreams of Elvis. At the end only one of them appears to be viable.

1 comment:

faceless said...

I saw your blog as I have a 'football hooligan' google alert, so it was great to see that I'd missed this movie.

Grabbing it now, so cheers.