Make it New John: The American Dream in West Belfast

In trying to tackle the issue with having more research ideas than time or opportunities to publish them all, I figured I'd fire up the old blog to post up almost verbatim versions of papers and embryonic ideas to build an archive and show that I'm still active even though I'm still in that lovely early-career-and-may-not-have-a-job-in-a-few-months stage. This is one I gave in the Literature seminar series in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, on 25 February 2015, and again at a workshop at University of Aberdeen. This paper builds on a case study from my monograph, looking at it alone instead of in comparison to another film by the same artist.
This paper deals with issues of class in the civil conflict in Northern Ireland colloquially referred to as the Troubles. The conflict officially began in 1969 following months of upheaval stimulated by civil rights protests beginning in august 1968 and the British government’s attempts regain order. The situation is more complex and nuanced than this, but essentially after the partition of Ireland in the early 1920s, Catholic nationalists in the newly formed UK region of Northern Ireland increasingly felt economically excluded and socially marginalized. Inspired by civil rights movements in USA and europe, organizations such as the People’s Democracy were formed – although their members were not exclusively Irish nationalists. The 'Troubles' began as a civil conflict, not a religious war as it became painted in mass media. It is that tension between forgotten realities and mediated perceptions of the past that serves as the backdrop to my analysis of Duncan Campbell’s film Make it New John.

To begin I’ll set up a few key thoughts to help form a discussion framework centring on ideas around making myths out of appropriated collections of archival materials. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes asserts that ‘myth is speech stolen and restored. Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place’. Paul Ricoeur asserts that archives are collections of gathered documents selectively conserved at the behest of institutions. Although referring more to literary adaptation into film, Julie Sanders gives a pithy definition of appropriation as a process involving a removal away from the source material in which select parts are de-/re-contextualized. The result is a new cultural product involving interplay between a range of texts within the new texts. To round things off it’s useful to consult Julie Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality where the text is a site in which the sum parts intersect with one another and we should understand it as a transformation of a range of other textual structures. These are all good grounding when critically engaging with the film/video work of current Turner Prize holder Duncan Campbell, specifically in his archive-based biographical films such as Bernadette (2008) and Make It New John (2009). In re-mythifying certain personae by using the very media artefacts that produced the earlier myths about them in their immediate contexts, Campbell shows how contemporary media myths and legends are created and can be sustained in memory through their reworking. 

Significantly, Campbell’s appropriation of archival material is only part of an intricate network of materials he draws upon and reconstitutes in order to retell hi/stories. His influences range from films by Dziga Vertov, Len Lye, and Chris Marker to modernist writers like Joyce and Beckett. In particular I’ll focus on the Beckettian influences in Make It New John as well as the appropriated archival footage to retell the story of the DeLorean Motor Company factory that was situated in West Belfast. It's often a little-known fact that the DMC-12 of Back to the Future fame was built in Belfast - just like me... 

This photograph taken from my family archive was taken in the late 1980s, possibly 1988, in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The plant in Belfast closed in 1982, and this shows how quickly this supercar became an archival material, a museumified artefact. As the voiceover narration in Chris Marker's Grin Without A Cat states, 'You never can tell what you might be filming.' Under its shiny stainless steel surface, for Northern Ireland the DMC-12 is the product of attempts by successive British governments to get the Northern Ireland conflict under control. The Dunmurry branch of the DMC was initially subsidized by the Labour government in 1978 as an economic response to the civil conflict. There are of course colonial implications here, which as Richard Kirkland points out stem from the exchange of commerce intended to assist Ireland in 'catching up' with modernity. Unemployment in NI was significant and the paramilitaries played on the issues arising from this in their recruitment strategies. The region, particularly the city of Belfast, is post-industrial. It had a globally-renowned shipyard, and factories and mills for a wide range of products and materials, including cigarettes, linen, flour, and ropeworks. The working classes, most notably the younger men who would have entered into their fathers’ professions, suddenly had no work or prospects and faced the indignity and stigma of the dole queues, as well as the emasculating effects of not being able to provide for young families, or take pride that they were contributing to their communities. This in part led to many young people, often teenagers, becoming embroiled in the conflict; it certainly was a war between working class factions more than the perceived idea of it being predominantly religious across all social classes. At this point in the 1970s the city was still largely integrated; Belfast is more segregated along sectarian lines today than it was 40 years ago. But class segregation was very much an issue. 

This image and text was common graffiti during the 1970s and 80s, and was appropriated as the title of an earlier video installation by Duncan Campbell entitled Falls Burns Malone Fiddles (2004).

The Falls Road is a working class area in west Belfast, a predominantly Catholic area, and south Belfast is largely populated with more middle and upper class folk. While many pockets in east, west, north and central Belfast were experiencing riots, bombings and shootings on a regular basis, many in the middle class areas – largely south Belfast – could easily ignore the violence or catch up with it through news media, hence the phrase while the Falls Road burns the Malone Road fiddles, encompassing that tension between experiences of the conflict according to class.

Make It New John develops over 4 sections, almost like chapters. It begins with an abstract fictionalized account of DeLorean’s childhood, and then his adolescence steeped in 1940s/1950s Californian culture – cars, girls, beaches and surfing. 

This is followed by DeLorean’s introduction to the car manufacturing industry coinciding with economic crises and fuel shortages to the summery tones of The Daytonas singing 'Little GTO' (the Pontiac GTO was designed by DeLorean when he worked for General Motors). 

The film moves on to DeLorean’s prosperous beginnings in Belfast, the subsequent contentions with the British government notably after Thatcher was elected PM in 1979, and finally in DeLorean’s absence, a fictionalized depiction of the staff protests upon the demise of the Dunmurry factory when it went into receivership in 1982. There is a useful clip here which demonstrates the quite seamless mix of archival and contemporarily filmed footage.

The third chapter of the film largely relays the Californian car manufacturer’s rather incredible intersection with British politics. By the time the Tories came to power it emerged that the company was floundering with the livelihoods of around 2000 staff at stake. Also, given the almost constant presence of news crews when DeLorean was in town, the factory site became the backdrop of numerous protests in the early 1980s concerning the republican hunger strikes.

I’ll now consider the aesthetic effects of using archival material, in this case largely televisual, when it is re-presented in this kind of way, that is, placed within fictionalizations of history as bookends to this quite incredible story which struggles to be retained in cultural memory from the local perspective. The title Make it New John of course refers to Ezra Pound’s modernist clarion call to make it new by making the old anew. Not only is this what’s happening with the old televisual footage, the DMC-12 car itself was essentially a bricolage of many different kinds of supercars, i.e. Levi-Strauss’s understanding of a collection as a group of disparate elements placed together which fail to connect as a coherent whole. DeLorean the man, brand and product were amalgamations of different elements picked up along the way. For example, he’d had a lot of facial plastic surgery, so himself is a re/construction using enhanced parts, similar to the car. He took his knowledge gained through years employed as a designer with GM to create the DMC, which was funded by investment bankers. The film highlights these constructions while mirroring them in reflexive formal devices which draw attention to its construction of disparate elements. This is largely in the opening minutes with the appearance of Beckettian-esque doodles and yells and whoops on the soundtrack over the live action abstracted narrative of DeLorean’s childhood. 

This film explores the extreme contrast between the branded charismatic persona of DeLorean and his workforce. DeLorean’s charm starts to wear off as the company’s financial failings escalate and the Tory government retract their subsidies. He becomes increasingly vulnerable and isolated; his performances to cameras and journalists are less breezy and suave and more restrained and closed as time moves on. At the final decision announced by Tory MP James Prior that the government’s arms reach support is ending, DeLorean disappears from the film altogether – he becomes merely a topic for discussion and protest. As the clip linked above shows, the archival footage of the workers’ sit-in protest over the loss of their jobs leads in to a fictionalized interview between an unseen journalist and 5 of the men. The sequence occurs in a long take with the camera roving among them and zooming in and out on the participants. The debates they have reflect the range of responses of the workers at the time, ranging from empathy with DeLorean and blaming Thatcher – in almost a precursor to the miners’ strikes 2 years later – and blaming DeLorean and believing the report of his alleged unscrupulous activities that were thought to have to have been an attempt to save the failing company. The dialogue is quite Beckettian – the influence of Waiting for Godot is strong with the men waiting hopelessly for a mythical figure who may never return and their arguments circling back on themselves repetitively. They also disappear one by one, leaving only the quiet and passive John (Ian McElhinney).

There is a direct relationship/opposition/reflection between the larger than life persona of DeLorean and John who is pressed by the journalist for his thoughts. What we learn, or at least his what his body language and sparse answers indicate, is that he is a lonely, isolated figure largely due to mistakes he made in his younger days. In his older age he has retracted into himself and become a trace of a person, mirroring DeLorean who in the film and in life became the absent presence of a myth. Their lives become internal in response to the failures of their external lives. This too reflects the writing of Beckett’s later life. There are uncanny resemblances between the Johns in Make It New John and the closed space of the solitary character in Beckett’s novella Company published in 1979. This person is lying on his back in a dark room while a voice tells him about the past, present and occasionally the future. The ending is particularly similar to the final moments of Make It New John which ends on a fixed medium close-up of John who wants to wait for the others to return. The journalist asks him what he’s waiting for and he says ‘I’ll hang on’ and the film cuts off abruptly with a brief flash of analogue 16mm leader before entering blackness.

To compare, the final passage in Company is as follows:
‘But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable. Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.

The DeLorean story is essentially a story of failure. The DMC-12 had severe design flaws, frequent recalls, poor sales, and was built by hardworking but inadequately trained operatives, yet it is immortalized in popular film culture. The DeLorean project failed due to the government’s misguided faith in DeLorean and its misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict, yet there remains a nostalgia among many of the workers proud of their involvement in the legend(s). DeLorean was arrested for involvement in drug smuggling but acquitted as the case was found to be an FBI sting operation. He was still wanted on fraud charges in the UK when he died in 2005, and is immortalized as a cult figure among aficionados of the car and film franchise alike. The reanimated archives in Campbell's film significantly intersect with a wider-spread resistance to the suppression of memories and the marginalization of parts of history. In retelling, and in a sense re-archivizing, the effects on the workers, the archival footage shown in conjunction with the fictionalized account of the workers' protests reflect a failure of 'official' state-organized amnesia among those who will persist in remembering.

In summary, the DeLorean character in Make It New John embodies a site of oppositions: past and present, history and fiction, the public and private all slip across and through one another. His spectral presence continues to drift in and out of cultural memory, from many different perspectives across the western world. Although the media followed DeLorean almost constantly his story was overshadowed by more newsworthy events of the time. DeLorean’s brief years in Belfast coincided with the republican hunger strikes of 1980-81 and the much publicized death of Bobby Sands in the Maze/Long Kesh prison. Additionally, the DMC’s closure in 1982 was secondary, even in local news coverage, to reportage of the Falklands War and the Pope’s visit to Britain. The company’s only firm link to widespread cultural memory is the use of the DMC-12 in the Back to the Future franchise – that is, mainstream populist Hollywood film culture. It generally remains a little-known fact that the car was ever manufactured in NI and its effects on the workers is rarely acknowledged beyond statistics; Campbell's film personalizes them and gives them a voice. In continually shifting from presence to absence in cultural memory, the John DeLorean persona becomes notional. He’s represents ghostly traces of a past, or indeed plural pasts, which struggle to be remembered while at the same time stored away in archives. When the man, factory and car are remembered, usually at fashionable times such as the anniversary of the car’s release, and much more likely, the big anniversaries of the film such as the 30th coming up later this year – a new documentary from Hollywood is in post-production right now – those memories are selective and decidedly mediated. Like so much of Northern Ireland’s contemporary visual culture, DeLorean is there but not really there. The intertextuality of the film mirrors the intersectionality of the politics, cultures, class structures, economics and the internal and external contexts – the bricolage of disparate elements – that factor into history/storytelling. The film suggests that the ability to go forward might be facilitated by first going back. It represents a refusal to forget, a refusal for certain communities and stories to be marginalized and written out of official histories. 


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