How We Used To Live Review | London Film Festival 2013

How We Used to Live ReviewHow We Used To Live is a dazzling, contemplative and meandering love letter to England’s capital, and indeed cities in general with all the vibrancy¬† that inhabits them. It’s compiled solely of rare footage of post-war London from the BFI national archives, from 1950-1980, from the start of the welfare state to Thatcher’s rise. The script is written by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley and author Travis Elborough, and it is endearingly narrated by Ian McShane, who never outstays his welcome. He props up with amusing anecdotes or philosophical musings on everything spanning from politics and society, to emotions and the monotony of daily life. Some utterances are sarcastic, some thought-provoking, some simply entertaining. “Who loves his fellow man on the Northern Line at 8am?” is swiftly followed by an assessment of love. Mostly though, we are just left to enjoy and ponder the moving images that speak volumes themselves. It’s a photographers dream. It’s edited so precisely and with such care and appreciation that it’s close to perfection – the swift, flowing succession of images is similar to Ridley Scott’s Life in a Day – the beautiful compilation of footage from all corners of the world on a single day that was submitted via YouTube and condensed to make one life-affirming feature. One action, one crowd, one person runs with effortless ease into the next.

At a quick glance you could be forgiven for thinking How We Used To Live is a documentary, but it is far from it. There is no bombardment of facts, or talking head interviews, the footage just speaks for itself and forms its own narrative. It’s a surreal and uncanny experience that transports the viewer back to a time entirely unrecognizable from contemporary Britain. McShane sparks up poetic thoughts and musings sometimes related to what’s on screen, and sometimes utterly unrelated. The combination of his voice, the delicate instrumental music and moving images are totally hypnotizing. It’s exhilarating too, such as when a young skateboarder swerves rapidly through the city streets and this fast cuts to skateboarders showing off their skills in a skate park. Post war London is represented in cinema and other mediums, but it feels precious to dine on 70 minutes of pure history without any interruption. It’s strange to see crowds marching, entirely absent of technology, briefcases in hand. Without being glued to Kindles, phones or Ipads they probably observe the rushing world around them. Without headphones, they are forced to listen to the buzz of fellow commuters. There are top hats, bowler hats and vintage dresses so extravagant compared to the jeans of today. Children are playing with batons, cycling and running rather than glued to screens. At one point a man is perched by the Thames singing to a group of children, who seem thoroughly entertained, no Wii in sight.

We view the city during all seasons and weathers, from young women in retro spring shift dresses to mesmerizing shots of parks with perambulators and autumn leaves tumbling by, through the rain and a sea of umbrellas. We see a high angled shot of a woman opening a vivid red one on the underground stairs, an image strikingly red. Then it’s winter, and “the air smells of damp wool and boiled cabbage”, and a snow filled London is in aerial view. It’s all a total sensory feast. It’s frequently laugh out loud funny, particularly watching a teenage musician with slicked back hair from the fifties, rocking out enthusiastically with his guitar whilst the audiences show their suave dance moves. What’s so remarkable about How We Used To Live is how uplifting it is. It dwells optimistically on the sweet side of humanity that can often be overlooked. It has respect for times gone by and of the importance of memories. At one point the narrator states of London, “I came back today, nothings changed”. It may be a euphoric celebration of post-war London, but many utterances during this film could apply to the modern day. Although times change, the fact that we are simply too wrapped up in the daily grind to really appreciate the present remains the same. We don’t dwell on the wonder of now because we frequently grumble, reflecting on past decades with nostalgia and focus on the negativity of modern developments, wrapped up in the monotony and domesticity of life. Adjectives and sentences don’t do justice to this exquisite, beautifully realized, little gem of a film. It simply must be seen to be appreciated, and I challenge the viewer not to smile. I challenge the viewer not to wander out, a little more aware of their surroundings, with many questions to ponder.

This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).

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