Monday 20 August 2018

We Don't Go Back #88: Arcadia (2018)

One of the best things about this job has been that with increasing frequency I get to see things and talk about things I might not otherwise see, or see them in a way I might not otherwise do. Thanks to Marc Roberts, Wyrd Wonder of Cardiff, I had the opportunity to see Paul Wright’s awkward and mildly controversial visual collage Arcadia, and then to talk about what I got out of it with the audience at Chapter Arts Centre, on 9th August this year.

My notes on my first viewing of the film were lengthy and not especially coherent. The film is associative; its message is hidden in its structure, the way in which clips of film segue into others.

Even if you’ve seen parts of it – I recognised maybe half a dozen of the hundred or so snatches of film Arcadia uses – that’s beside the point. The visual essay itself depends on how these things fit together, on its order and structure.

The film fired associations, intuitive links. I can’t be linear here. I have to be associative. I have to digress. Not all of the images here appear in Arcadia, by the way. It's probably fair to tell you that.

Et in Arcadia Ego
In Nicolas Poussin’s 1637 painting The Arcadian Shepherds, four inhabitants of an idealised pastoral Golden Age have stumbled upon a bleak stone tomb, on which someone has engraved the words: ET IN ARCADIA EGO. I am even in Paradise.
It speaks to the lie of the Golden Age: all perfect worlds have to accept decay. They must accept death. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the classical Golden Age, or Eden, or Atlantis, or the Fabled Age When England Was Green and Pleasant and the EU Was But a Notion. Utopias cannot exist without decay, and with decay, what is utopia anyway?

The Truth is in the Soil
At the start of Arcadia, a shadow rises over cracked earth; a voice tells us that there was a fair maiden who was subject to a great darkness: she has a dream that tells her that the answer to her problems lies in the land around her: the truth is in the soil.

But what truth is that? We see an apparent jumble of images, mostly taken from archive film, which serve over the next 78 minutes to illuminate somehow what that truth is,framed by the girl’s face and voice.
Curiouser and curiouser.

The “fair maiden” adopts the form of an Alice, explicitly, early on, segueing at times into images from a very old filmed Alice in Wonderland. We are invited to follow her down a rabbit hole. It’s our rabbit hole.

If that sounds vague, well, it is. We’re left to draw our own conclusions. The visual collage we see brings in images and sounds from a dizzying variety of places: pastoral documentaries, public information films, historical dramas, art film, and stitches it together with folk songs, the found voices of the film’s fragments, and a powerfully arranged soundtrack by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).

Title cards for the different discrete sections of the film suggest a seasonal progression over the length of a notional year, but also frame the way we respond to the images. You can't prefix a celebratory montage of the English pastoral with a title card saying “Amnesia” without making some sort of a point.

And Did Those Feet
You must never trust a performance of Jerusalem. There’s something mendacious about the way it’s used, the way it’s treated.
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon those clouded hills?
Perversely, it’s traditional to consider the questions in the first stanza of Blake’s Prelude to Milton as rhetorical, but of course they’re really not. Did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green? Of course they didn’t. If they had, there wouldn’t have been a need for a second stanza, no need to ask for a bow of burning gold, arrows of desire or a spear; no need for the clouds to unfold and deliver a chariot of fire.

The pilot of the Chariot of Fire was Elijah (2 Kings 2:11): and Elijah, let us not forget, was the prophet who subjected his nation to drought as punishment, and who humiliated and massacred the mouthpieces of the (foreign) state religion on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 17-18). Elijah, the hoarse-mouthed preacher, is a dangerous person to invoke. Was he the faithful voice of truth who brought revolution and justice or a conservative extremist with an isolationist and bigoted agenda, whose tools were the tools of populist fascism opposed to a system of liberalisation and openness? Is Elijah a socialist liberator or a Brexit bigot?

Maybe that second stanza of Jerusalem is a right-winger’s possession after all, but in Arcadia, while we hear the first as sung by a church choir, organ rising, the second stanza is whispered by a female voice (Laura Rennie, presumably meant to be the voice of the Fair Maiden), not sung. It becomes personal, heartfelt, dangerous.

Nowhere Quite Like It
We hear a voice, the narrator of an old documentary, tell us more than once that there is nowhere quite like Britain, and of course this is rubbish. Plenty of places exist that are like Britain, lands that are like Britain lands with people in them, and yes everywhere has its national character, but let’s not kid ourselves. An island nation with an imperial history, a couple of packed population centres and a countryside that is best described as bearing the marks of thousands of years of habitation?

That’s also Japan.

Lands bearing the remains of ancient peoples, the signs of Roman conquest, a Christian heritage? That’s pretty much all of Europe.

The specialness of Britain, and especially England, is a dangerous line to take. And the fact is that the film, even though made by a Scottish director and with something of Scotland in in it (and much less of Wales and Northern Ireland), is concerned mainly with England. Which is, and I sigh as I write this, pretty much how this always plays out. The Matter of Britain – that is, the issue that we must address when talking about Britain, but also the literal physical matter of the land – is, as galling as it might feel to those of us in the provinces, often the matter of England, since England has for so long made a point of taking it for her own, literally and spiritually.

And the uniqueness of Britain then is something that must be discussed carefully. If Britain is so unique, why does Arcadia accept so many immigrant references into its collage? We hear “Polegnala E Todora”, a song by the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir; some brief sequences from Häxan. Even the title is a classical reference. They’re here to emphasise, but they’re also a denial of the uniqueness of the film’s Englishness. You can’t be pure. England cannot be pure. What does pure mean anyway?

Elysium Lost
The controversy, I suppose, needs to be addressed, such as it is. Paul Kingsnorth’s essay on the film, “Elysium Found?” (which is no longer online) approached the film as a source of left-wing patriotic fervour, and (accidentally as far as I can tell) in the process parroted several racist dogwhistles. The reaction was predictably fierce on both sides, and while I can see how Kingsnorth could get his thesis, that in short, people born to the land need to take back the land from the powers that control it, I don’t think that it’s the whole story.

I think the film resists that interpretation. I think it’s too awkward and contradictory a piece for that, and indeed the Matter of Britain is too awkward and contradictory to boil down to that. Where Kingsnorth got from Arcadia a drive to resist change, to resist mechanisation, I couldn’t help feeling that in fact the film doesn't support that. Kingsnorth, as in some ways the film does too, confuses Britain and England, and of course uses them interchangeably: and I don’t know if that’s worse or not, since patriotism means functionally different things in Wales (for example) to what it does in England. Here in Wales the national anthem is about a land where our fathers were poets and singers who stood and kept their inner selves alive while the oppressor (no prizes for guessing who that is) spilled their blood. In Wales, patriotism has its worrying nativist corners (I’m a fierce supporter of the rights of Welsh speakers, but holy crap they do not help themselves sometimes with the way they approach race and culture), but it is generally a more positive thing than the English variety, and I suppose it would be, because as the colonised province, Welsh patriotism must needs punch upwards, even as the English variety punches down.

Kingsnorth’s essay did apparently appear on the film's official site; so I suppose that there's an implicit endorsement. The fact that my take on the film is more or less the opposite of Kingsnorth’s is not, I insist – although I would insist, wouldn't I? – necessarily a sign that I'm off base, since the film refuses to be prescriptive in how it shows its images. And anyway, what a film says isn't always what its maker intended anyway. That's what readings are for, after all. In fact, I have to wonder if Kingsnorth was watching a different film to me. I squinted, but I couldn't find Brexit there. 

Blood in the Soil
Arcadia has this section titled “Blood in the Soil”, and not, thankfully, “Blood and Soil”, but it’s naÏve not to notice how similar that is to the fascist buzzword.

Folk culture has always had a troubling relationship with this stuff, truly; it doesn’t take very long to find troubling nativist currents. The lionisation of nature has always brought with it the right wing. The far right dream of unspoiled hills, white cliffs, the whitest cliffs, trickling rivers. Seductive images of tame pagan beauty serve the elements who would possess the land, and it’s not clear for everyone. George Williamson, writer of Tarka the Otter, was a convinced member of the British Union of Fascists; and as beautiful as The Wind in the Willows is, the subtext that the unwashed poor, the Weasels, are out to steal our mansions, leaves a horribly bitter taste in the mouth. Tolkien, too, gives his Orcs the characteristics of the urban poor; he industrialises them, while his hobbits are the suburban middle class, seemingly boring but with a backbone, a strength of character, and the elves the rural nobility.

Folk, a four-letter word starting with “F”, is so very often in profound danger of becoming obscene.

But after Arcadia shows us the title “Blood in the Soil”, it immediately segues to footage of hunts, and to absurd and cruel treatment of animals (“Q. What does the Englishman do with an ostrich? A. Sit on it"), all overlaid with doomy, negative sounds.

The blood we share with the soil, the film says, is the blood we spill.

A young man says he wouldn’t care if all the animals die.

Arcadia’s faces are not all white. Few non-white faces appear, true, but early on we see in an old piece of film a black girl crowned May Queen, which suggests a better sort of traditionalism, an embracing one, an accepting one.

Is that better?

I don’t know.

Dancing It All Away
The British ritual of the Saturday Night Bender, about which I’ve written before, where we go out, drink ourselves sick and free of memory and then vow to do it next week, isn’t a new thing. And it's not in itself a bad thing, although obviously a lot of people dislike it (particular the sort of Brexit fans who live on prison planets). It's a human thing, part of what and who we are.

Arcadia has this wonderful sequence where footage of psychedelic freak outs, 70s punks and acid house raves is juxtaposed with the recurring motif of the Padstow Obby Oss and folk dancing from earlier eras, which will soon become marches, confrontations with the law, unions in solidarity.

Is dancing a solution? Are we to get up and dance, and triumph by adopting the grand tradition of the weekly bender?

The priests of the New Ways danced their hearts out before Elijah mocked them and murdered them all.

Not everyone can dance, anyway. Not everyone has the will to, or the freedom to, or the physical capacity to. Are only the people fit to dance worth surviving?

I seem to be talking myself into treating this film as something mean spirited and exclusionary, but it strikes me that it isn’t the story at all. Why pick an interview with a smug, geeky young man who says that he's going to express his love for the world with psychedelic freak outs? Why, here more than anywhere else, does the digital transfer of the old ways degrade it so much further? Usually, a digital version of a film makes it shiny and new. But here, no. It’s made worse here. As if by appropriating tradition, hanging on to it like it matters makes it fall to pieces. It degrades it.

The more you treasure a thing, the less you respect it.

I Have Complete Control Over Him
The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 was a response to a growing fashion over the last decade to own exotic big cats; the act made it illegal to own a jaguar, a cheetah, a leopard, a panther or whatever unless you had a comprehensive insurance liability and paid for a full licence. The story goes that many of the owners, unable or unwilling to pay for these licences and insurance premiums, and not willing to see their sharp-toothed pets destroyed, set them free, and that ephemeral populations of dangerous cats began to live on the edges of our rural communities. They’re the source of the rumours of beasts we occasionally see, this rationalisation assumes, the mauled farm animals in our countryside.

There’s no evidence to support any of this. It’s just a rumour.

I hadn’t thought about this story for ages, but a piece of film in Arcadia – a man proudly displaying a cougar or something, saying it’s a guard animal, declaring it’s entirely under his control when clearly it’s a beast that no one will ever control – brought it to mind.

I suppose that’s part of the point of Arcadia, to arouse the memories and connections, and I suppose it's part of the danger too.

A Dream to Some, a Nightmare to Others
In John Boorman’s Excalibur, the land is healed by the healing of Arthur and his rising up and going to war, and the film’s explicit answer to the Matter of Britain is conquest, conflict, shining armour that causes flowers to bloom to the sound of Dead Viking Music; manly men united in Manliness, arms lopped off, spurting blood. Glory.

Arcadia shows some of this, but juxtaposes the marching soldiers with the scenes of the troops dispersing the Diggers from Winstanley (1975); it shows housewives engaging in futile protective rituals in the case of nuclear war. The music glowers over these scenes; it grimaces.

The Final Blast of the Horn
I was honoured to be introduced after the screening to a British folk musician with a long standing reputation (I refuse to namedrop, sorry) who remarked that the music of the film complimented the images perfectly, and supplied much of the film’s power. And again, juxtaposition is everything in Arcadia: any idiot can stitch together a bunch of archive film, but it's not about the films, necessarily, it's about the order they're in, the way they cut together. Descending gloom over men going to war, minor chords over the advance of the hunt. It's profound sonic disapproval.

We have to live together like a family. It doesn’t work and it hasn’t worked.
The failure of a commune from within, starkly put; a woman who keeps her dead poodle stuffed and treats it like it’s alive.

Nowhere like it? Really?

That’s not how it works.

Not everyone can dance. But then even if they can, should they?

The film ends with the scenes from David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village where the older inhabitants of the countryside rise from the grave. It would be easy to interpret this as the return of the old ways, the resurrection of tradition. But of course that's not it at all. It's the final trumpet blast of the angel that raises the dead. It's the apocalypse, the end of everything.

And the last words of Arcadia are simply: everything ends.

Traditions pass away. Things die. It's the way of things. So dance if you can. But everything ends, and clinging to the old things is as futile as combing the hair of a stuffed poodle, and pretending it’s still alive.

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