When I hear the phrase “ordinary madness,” I think of Charles Bukowski, who had a tendency to write about people that society considered to be a little downtrodden, who struggled to make ends meet and weren’t all shining examples of, in the case of Bukowski, the American Dream. Much like Bukowski, in Late at Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness, Xiaolu Guo looks at (mostly) the working class in the east end of London as they live in their own corners of the sprawling metropolis.
The first noticeable thing about Voices of Ordinary Madness is the objectivity and non-judgemental gaze through which the people in it are considered. While that’s expected in documentaries, it’s difficult not to think that most people would raise an eyebrow when they’re told that a man strangled their psychiatrist. These are exactly the kinds of things that are hear almost as horror stories in places like London, but Guo looks at these people as if they are no different from anyone else, that their madness is indeed ordinary. That’s when the film is at its strongest, when the kaleidoscope of people interviewed – immigrants, fishmongers, men with criminal pasts – all divulge how their world functions, and even though they are disconnected from one and other, a portrait of a place is shown with intimacy and honesty.
While this, the backbone of the film is consistently effective, as each chapter in the lives of these people is revealed, the film cuts away to a Warhol-esque newsreader; anywhere between one and screens of the same person reading the same news story (all of the stories are real), which range from the utterly trivial – the announcement that a celebrity couple have had a child – to the harrowing – a woman who is asking for the death penalty to be reinstated – with a philosophical or political quote superimposed across the screen, with the sources ranging from Orwell to James Joyce to Emmanuel Kant. The question I asked myself whenever this happened, was “why?” Occasionally it works as a counterpoint to these people – whose lives are often considered by the media to be full of problems, and even in need of saving – and the gradually increasing horrors of what are shown by the media; none of which seem to impact the lives or location of the people interviewed. However, it often seems that Voices of Ordinary Madness seems to have political or philosophical delusions of grandeur; the weaving together of these people is effective enough that the film doesn’t need to frame it in this grander scope. In terms of the film’s visual style, these sequences are effective, there’s a kind of grittiness to them (helped greatly by the music used in the background of these news sequences) that adds to the realism of the film, it just feels as if it’s grasping at thematic straws every now and then.
Voices of Ordinary Madness is a very strong documentary, it looks at people that are often left in the cold, doing so with empathy and honest, the dark sides of their lives are never deliberately demonised, and perhaps the more tragic side – a cafe that is essentially out of business, which then implicitly hints at the destitution of those that work there – is never made forcefully emotive. It doesn’t always succeed in delivering its message; it’s philosophy sometimes feels shoehorned in, but at its best, it offers an earnest look at a group of people who’s stories go unheard too often.