I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. […]

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways.

It is a crisis of confidence.

It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.


We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.[1]

People rarely respond with a specific year when you ask them about their music taste. And yet, that’s precisely what happened when a colleague and I fell into the discussion as we were closing up the replica house at Skara Brae.

He proceeded to show me a hardback volume of Ian Curtis’s collected notebooks and as the conversation slid into literature at the mention of my degree title, the Joy Division frontman’s status as enigmatic “lost boy” was conflated with my penchant for the not-quite myth of the murky middle ages.

Many of my sentences on the perimeter path of Western Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic Village are prefaced with the words “it is speculated that” or “there are several theories about x”. This far back it seems there is what we can deduce and there is what has been entirely lost to time. The former is ever encroaching on the latter, but there are aspects that shall remain forever irretrievable. Orkney as Britain’s ancient capital? Why not? The problem isn’t really with evidence to the contrary – it’s about what’s difficult to prove positively. And in archaeology, as with science in general, facts have a half-life.

As the quick-witted among you may have gathered, I recently started working for Historic Environment Scotland as a seasonal “steward”. Prehistoric Scotland might be a more accurate term here – as in before writing and recorded history. For me, things begin to get interesting when people put pen to paper/quill to parchment/chisel to headstone etc. etc. Stories are what I’m interested in because they can tell you how a culture conceives itself. So no, there is no particular stone age affinity, although it is hard not to be affected in some way by the objects and monuments where we have no clue as to their purpose but which we must assume had a religious or ritual significance. At Skara Brae, domestic life is represented, yet there is something fatefully poetic about its discovery by the storm and its inevitable swallowing by the sea.

1979. They were able to carbon date by then and fix some uncertainties. Unknown Pleasures was released to the world that summer alongside The Clash’s London Calling and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Punk was in decline and something new was being born. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins wrote about the year in retrospect on Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, making no direct historical references but somehow capturing a fond sense of loss for a world on the cusp of 80s hedonism. Talking Heads too released Fear of Music, which soundtracks the film 20th Century Women shown on BBC 2 last night, the previous listing also sharing a 40-year anniversary link to the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, the protagonist of Viceroy’s House about the partition of India.

Politically, 1979 was something of a turning point. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was elected and the first referendum on Scottish devolution was held (the outcome was a vote in favour, which was disqualified due to low turnout). Democrat Jimmy Carter was on his way out in America to make way for Ronald Reagan in the following year. In 20th Century Women, the former’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech serves as punctuation in the final act as the main characters gather in the living room to watch the televised address. It’s a special moment in a thoughtful, slow-paced film.

At the then president’s conclusion, the first reaction is a muffled guffaw, which seems more nervous laughter than anything; an expression of unease at the brazen sincerity and lack of irony. The second is something like, “He’s really lost it this time”. This is as if the only explanation for such stark lucidity is madness. The third and final response is from the film’s protagonist, Jamie’s mother, who is repeatedly referred to as having been “raised in the Depression” (born 1929), is, “I thought that was quite beautiful.”

20th Century Women is largely about the female experience at this particular historical moment and the generational differences that make modern life difficult to comprehend at times. It’s also about a teenage boy developing his consciousness and trying to understand the opposite sex and what it means to be a man in the midst of feminism’s third wave.

The film often has an underwater, out-of-body quality kind of like a BBC 4 documentary comprised of archival footage, and the narrative is occasionally interrupted by specific dates and voiceovers from the main character projecting the future and speaking to the Zeitgeist. Its use of colour is impeccable and there are so many eye-popping interior shots. More than that though, the film’s power lies in its story and how it never really takes sides in its quest to navigate the world. It seems to acknowledge with resigned acceptance that the rules of the game are about to change irrevocably and will continue to do so in countless unforeseeable ways from now until the flood, so that any conclusions drawn from 1979 can only hold for the briefest of historical moments.

I was reminded somewhat of HyperNormalisation – a BBC documentary of the same year as 20th Century Women (2016) – which describes how at the end of the 70s trust in the government plummeted and became the new normal. As misinformation became the standard and banks held more sway over policy than the electorate, governments were given a free pass to construct whichever narratives they pleased against a citizenry too apathetic and disengaged to contradict them. It makes for depressing viewing, but in its broad strokes and welcome lucidity, it is somehow cleansing and empowering too.

This leads me to my final thought on the film. The plot of 20th Century Women reminds me of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and partially the other novels in the family saga trilogy, for its nuanced portrayal of frustrated love and the complex relationship between mother and son. I think the film is noble in its desire to find answers and to understand aspects of a world impossible to stabilise in its entirety, more than it is for the handfuls of truth it dredges up in the process.

[1] Jimmy Carter speaking in 1979 regarding the energy crisis. Although the speech also elaborates on concrete policy decisions, I have quoted only the broader statements, which make their way into the film. He talks about Christianity and a lack of faith here, but the sentiment can be applied to a measurable phenomenon in changing attitudes towards trust in politics. The psychological shift is not a freak anomaly. It is instead a result of a ground shift in the “deep state” where finance controls policy and not the other way around. Carter also rightly sites neoliberal ideological transformation away from collective purpose towards individual gain and personal wealth.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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