Wednesday 23 May 2007

Ethics of care

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007), directed by Julien Temple

Julien Temple’s impressive documentary of Clash frontman Joe Strummer sheds light not only on the life of punk rock’s most discernible voice, but also on what it means to make a movie about a man. Gathering an impressive array of historical and contemporary figures ranging from Mick Jones and Bono to Steve Buscemi and Matt Dillon, Temple pieces together the fragments of a life in rock and a life tout court. The soundtrack alone, with three previously unreleased demos, is enough to get most Clash fans into the cinema. But Temple adds value to an already precious pop cultural commodity. Highlighting the private life of Strummer, Temple shows how his public political project was tied to a personal ethics of care.

The documentary is an exploratory attempt to capture the life of Joe Strummer (born John Mellor) for those that he knew, providing a chance to pull together disparate views, missing stories and different insights into one final artefact. It appears as an insider film from the beginning, interweaving clips of Strummer’s childhood with conversational footage of unnamed – although highly recognisable – friends, acquaintances, bandmates and fans of Strummer. For those who know the story already, the lack of introduction or ‘tagging’ of people allows those viewers to exercise their own insider knowledge of the counterculture club. At first glance, this would seem to create a barrier that undermines universal understanding and enjoyment of the film. However, instead of functioning to divide the audience, this decision tends rather to emphasise a sense of inclusion within the film itself. That is to say, all the people who speak about Strummer, though their names and roles may be ‘unwritten’, are validated as experts by virtue of their relationship with Strummer and what it means to them. The viewer comes to appreciate and know each of the speakers because of their expertise. Importantly, cameos by Johnny Depp and John Cusack, both influenced by Strummer, can play the ‘insider’ role for viewers of a new generation.

Temple is a maker of music videos and, where this film acts as the video for the soundtrack to Strummer’s life, the execution is flawless. Footage of Strummer and his cronies, bands, squats, West London in the sixties, West London in the seventies, film as rites of passage such as If…. (1968) – all of it melds together against the sounds of the Clash. Excerpts of Strummer’s BBC World Service programme, London Calling, round out each song with the hard-hitting voice of Strummer himself. In this sense, Temple gave Strummer a curatorial voice in the documentary. Conversely, Temple sticks to certain conventions of a life story, portraying a person who develops, grows and changes. These transformations are represented uncritically, as social facts rather than emotional processes and economic decisions. The film consequently shows Strummer less as an active agent in his life than as a subject, infused with competing discourses, undergoing the impositions of a subculture in need of spokesmen, heroes and punks. He takes on various roles, first in art school, with the 101’ers, and later in the Clash. He plays a son, a father, a friend; he plays a host and a guest. The result is a sense that, although Strummer reaches for control, he inevitably ends up acting a role. His life has in fact been written – scripted, if you will. Hence the omnipresence of agent Bernie Rhodes as someone who can wilfully direct Strummer through the maze of the music industry and the peripeties of the press.

The sense that Strummer is an actor is further emphasised by the inclusion of clips from films which, if unfamiliar to the viewer, can become confused with footage shot by Temple in the sixties and seventies. The images mesh, blurring lines between fact and fiction, public and private, partial truths and holistic mythologies. They become part of the same story, weaving together the life of one man with the lives of many, introducing parallel histories that resonate with Strummer and his times.

No matter what metamorphoses he undergoes, Strummer is shown to remain true to an idea of freedom. This is his contribution to role management. He alerts waylaid youth and social dropouts of pressing international issues and encourages common decency among his audiences. He is a gracious host and sees hospitality, the responsibility to receive others and to respond to others, as prior to any other act of sociality. He practices, in miniature, an ethics of care. This ‘campfire’ ethos is a keystone of the film. An exercise in both DIY and inclusion, a campfire context brings people with different levels of involvement to the same circle, and binds their partial knowledges into one collective experience, producing one definite product. At the same time as their faces are semi-obscured by the leaping flames and shadows, an increasing amount of light is shed on the life of Strummer.

Temple intended to demonstrate an overall consistency in Strummer’s life, a key theme to tie together fragmented narratives of the self. The underlying premise of Strummer’s political messages, an unfettered freedom and what that means in different locations and at different times, remains unchallenged in the film. The stasis of this idea of freedom, untouched and untainted, is what Temple uses effectively to bridge the gap between the private story of one man and the public political regime of a cultural icon.


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