Friday 30 June 2017

We Don't Go Back #51: Requiem for a Village (1975)

One of the real pleasures of this project has been how the broad theme of "folk horror" encompasses a whole spectrum of films that wouldn't otherwise go together at all,so you end up teasing out common threads between shoestring indie films, exploitation horror, artsy genre films, thoughtful TV plays, children's shows, "serious" films that win awards, and full-on art film. I've found a sort of sliding scale, a continuum, and yet you can see in the the "highest" and the "lowest" those same tropes and themes.

David Gladwell's 1975 film Requiem for a Village, released not so very long ago as part of the excellent BFI Flipside series, is not long (just over an hour), but it's tremendously dense, and it took me two watches really before I felt I had got to grips with it. And yes, it's most definitely on the art end of the spectrum.

(This is a content warning, though: mention is made of a rape scene, and as usual, if discussion of such distresses you, please don't read on.)
A snatch of conversation between two men implies that the village is threatened by a housing development, an estate. A sort of fanfare rings out across the housing estate, the road, the bricks, the fields, the village, as if the land itself is singing, which then takes on a discordant, minor note as the bulldozers roll across a field. A choir strikes up, and an old man (Vic Smith) rides to his work, groundskeeper at a graveyard.
Vicar: I'm a comparative newcomer, of course. I've only been here about twenty years.
The tiny noises of objects drown out the voices of people; a meeting about the fate of the village is in progress; the Colonel, a man who's asserted that if you've been here long enough, you're related to pretty much everyone else in England except maybe the Queen, suggests writing to MPs, writing to councillors, and then marching on Whitehall (a note that nails the village mindset perfectly).

And then the dead rise from the grave, and troop into the church.
The old man, Mr Simmons, follows; as he walks into the church, he becomes a young man. He walks up the aisle, and relives his wedding.

He trims the grass. the film diverges. Mr Simmons, lost in a reverie, exists in two worlds. He talks about people long dead to an unseen interlocutor. There's one very affecting scene where he's talking about the tragic death of his mother, and he calls whoever he's speaking to "David", and you think that maybe he might be talking to David the filmmaker, but then a brief close-up of the gravestone he's tending shows that he's talking to the tenant of the grave.

We see the life of an old village, in all of its complexities, going back for generations. A smithy. A wheelwright. A harvest. Mr Simmons, as a boy, hangs a toad up until it dies, and harvests the toadbone as a charm to give him power over horses.
We see the first night of Mr Simmons' honeymoon (such as it is), and the birth of the daughter, who, grown up, has him living in her house. 

You need to pay close attention to Requiem for a Village to draw from it the narrative threads, connect children to adults, young people to old. They merge and fade into one another. But time marches on. A wheel that we see being made rots away decades later in a yard. But ee see a modern shopping precinct, already showing the first signs of decay.

It's not straightforward. The easiest thing in the world would be to equate old with good and new with bad, but Gladwell's film is brutally realistic.
In a complex, difficult sequence, we see old Simmons watching some bikers fooling around, two young men and a woman, and it's genuinely hard to tell if she's enjoying what they're doing – are those squeals from high spirits or distress? – and it doesn't matter because it's what Mr Simmons sees. We shift back to Simmons' own recollections of himself as a boy watching his mother raped by his father, this is intercut with another, older happening, another part of the old man's history, where a young woman (Mr Simmons' mother? His grandmother?) is raped behind the sheaves at harvest. We return to the boy: his mother sees him watching and calmly tells him to go to sleep, even as her husband ruts on her. And the sequence ends.

There's no sugar coating to this, no titillation. It is what it is, grotesque, and painful, and awful.

The sound design of Requiem for a Village is really fascinating. Conversation, never wholly complete, always completely naturalistic, fades beneath the sounds of grass being cut, engines, the crackle of sweet papers, the clatter of things on tables; the slightly odd, choral score by David Fanshawe gives the whole thing a sombre, somehow churchy feeling.

The visuals, too fade, one into another. Associations between a boy, a young man, and an old man, or between a baby and a grown woman, are achieved by skilful cuts. 

Mundane animals – horses, cows – gain a dignity, a kind of awe thanks to slow motion close ups of tails, thighs, the sides of faces.
Mr Simmons stops on the way to work and walks around a dormant earth mover. Then he hurls a clod of earth at it. It's futile. In the battle between people and time, time always wins. But people are the land. They rise from the land, they descend to it. At Simmons's wedding breakfast, the father of the bride tells a joke about a little boy who is told by his mother that we come from dust and go back to it, and goes upstairs and looks under the bed, and then runs back down and tells his mum they're due a whole bunch of babies. And it's so naturalistic that it's almost incidental, but it cleaves hard to what I think Gladwell's thesis is, that we – the ordinary folk – and the land are one, that our voices are no more and crucially no less than the objects, trees, animals that speak around us. The countryside is going to be churned up; the forest will be cut down.

Memories of a horse and cart contrast with the huge yellow earth movers; young men on motorbikes, with an old man on a bicycle.

And, as the final scenes of the film – which segue from a road accident to a vision that calls back nothing more or less than the Last Judgement – suggest, so will we. But, cut down, we return to the land, to time. Memory fades, but we are part of the weave of life in all its beauty and horror.

The ghosts rising from the grave, they're not what makes Requiem for a Village part of my folk horror canon. No, partly it's the hidden pain, the cruelty, and the superstition. But also, it's about how it treats history. 
The big battle grounds of the present depend upon how we see history. We are ruled by those who would tell us that the future is settled, that history is over. But it isn't. The past rests beneath our feet and rises to remind us when we are least prepared.

With all the miserable, brutal things going on in the world, sometimes it seems pointless to write about film and TV. But of course, that's wrong. It's more important than ever, because our culture, in all its imperfection and difficulty, is here for us as a lens through which we understand our society, our context, and our world. It matters to keep on doing this, and I think it's valuable and even moral to examine culture the way I (and many other people) do. Because we can look at the stories these artefacts tell and draw from them fragments of the way we can look at the world around us, and respond to it. Culture is one of the things that keep us alive.

At the time of posting, the We Don't Go Back Kickstarter campaign has been running for almost exactly a day now, and has achieved 64% of its target. If you're a regular reader of this blog, please consider supporting the campaign.