Pulp: A Film Which Upsets Guardian Writers for not Mocking Northerners


   Opinions, they say, are like arseholes. And, in reading the Guardian's early review of Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, it is clear the broadsheet newspaper has one - Henry H Barnes, in his very distorted view of the band Pulp, could easily be mistaken for a raging bodily orifice.

   It would take a slightly demented mind (one with a paucity of humanity) to see Jarvis Cocker's group as inherently vehement or outright mocking - after all, their most famous album, Different Class, begins with a tale of outsiders in "Mis-shapes" and concludes with a resigned, arm-around-the-shoulder couplet: "...it's where all the broken people go.... Let's go."

   Barnes, however, appears to take umbrage at Florian Habicht's documentary focusing on commoners and portraying them in a sympathetic or positive life - instead, the Guardian writer suggests that, perhaps, the best thing to do would be to sneer at working class Northerners for not fitting into preconceived ideas of how humans should be: "Up North - some of them don't even know what a Joffrey meme is. How primitive!"

   This film, however, was never going to have been the tale that Barnes seemed to desire - how could it possibly have ever been so? Cocker's lyrics are famous for wry, sardonic observation and a nuance which fluctuates from bafflement to empathy - one would have to really strain to find anything approaching a hint of a bad bone in Pulp's lyrics even when it presents its subjects as eccentrics or down and outs. Habicht's documentary is at its most pleasing when its tone reflects this.

   Habicht, a Berlin-born, New Zealand-raised director, attempts to tie the music of Pulp with the city of Sheffield, highlighting the bond between the two and the inspiration each provides one another. Interwove between footage of the band's homecoming performance are fragments of the lives of the common people of Steel City.

   We meet a jovial knife salesman; a newspaper vendor who likes  "We Are The Champions"; a man who fled psychiatric care to listen to Cocker's 6 Music show; a strangely profound teenager; a duo of elderly women who are convinced Jarvis' dad is Joe Cocker; all life is here, yet this is unmistakably a symphony of a very particular city.

   Indeed, Habicht's endearing film, when focusing on Sheffield, rather than the band, is when it sparkles with most verve - Pulp is almost like an Edgar Anstey documentary populated by characters from a Werner Herzog production. Or, more appropriately, with its eclectic rag-tag of wild eccentrics, and humour and joy found in the seemingly humdrum, Pulp rather fittingly shares an unmistakable tone with Pulp themselves. It is a rather fitting marriage between form and subject and makes for a refreshing change from the glut of fawning, sycophantic talking heads-style non-fiction films which are currently in vogue.

   That's not to say the documentary succeeds on all levels, however. Unlike Springsteen & I - a perfect melding of concert footage and conversation - Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, loses focus at points and plateaus around half-way through its running time. Despite an incredible selection of songs to choose from, for example, Habricht makes the bizarre decision to include "This Is Hardcore" twice (once an archival performance from the Nineties) but cuts the sublime "Bar Italia" before the first chorus has kicked in.

   The film meanders, too, with seemingly unrelated tangents and one wonders why Pulp includes snippets of stories about the band rather than full arcs - we learn Candida has arthritis without further commentary, and the film informs us that Jarvis like to perform on-stage. Perhaps this time might have been filled better with meeting more people from Sheffield or reversing the omission of Pulp's signature tunes including "Sorted for E's and Whizz", "Mis-shapes", "Do You Remember The First Time?", "Trees" or "Bad Cover Version" for example.

   These niggles are, ultimately, rather minor in the grand scheme of things. We see the melody of everyday life and how everyday life can inspire melody too. The glum, the humdrum, and the glee of Northern living are evident and all around us - particularly, if like Habicht, we look for it. There's no mocking here, despite Barnes' wishes, nor are we presented with patronising stereotypes. Instead we're presented with people and songs; that's what makes the documentary a pleasure to watch.



* It's also worth noting that Barnes' review accuses Habicht of: "reinforcing the stereotypes, while building its own". This is an ill-considered turn of phrase at best, nonsense at worse.

   Is Barnes suggesting the film makes "new stereotypes"? What are these if not prototypes or archetypes? And why do they stick in his craw so much?

   Perhaps Ken Loach was right when he suggested that critics get angry at working class people being able to discuss their lives with clarity or recite poetry - maybe Barnes would have been more comfortable sneering along with a movie which presented all Northerners as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals? If this is the case, and if (as he accuses other) he's "missed the point of Pulp", I feel truly sorry for Mr Barnes. Perhaps he should re-approach Pulp with an open heart, mind and soul and then give Habicht's documentary another view. He'd be rewarded for doing so - empathy can be enlightening.
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