Friday, 13 July 2018

On Arcadia

Hotfoot from viewing new documentary film Arcadia, some initial thoughts on what seems quite a zeitgeist-y piece of work for those in the landscape/ place bubble.

Directed by Paul Wright, the film is constructed from digitised footage in the BFI National Archive inter-cut with fictional excerpts from cinema and television.* An 'old-weird-Britain mash-up' of imagery swirling around the last hundred years that hangs on the directors wish to explore 'how we connect with the land around us and with each other'. Adrian Utley of Portishead and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory provide the soundtrack, pulsing audio-cue's amongst the visual montage, recalling British Sea Power's work for From the Sea to the Land Beyond. Here and there the spectral folk voice of Anne Briggs melts and distorts into the mix.

The narrative, such as it is, rests on a journey through the seasons; but this is a loose story, and all the better for it. A lack of intruding commentary also gives the footage space to tell a story, gifting the watcher's imagination permission to roam. Paul Wright has explained how atmospheres, ideas and themes for each 'season' underscored the search through the deep and rich archive sources, though the aim was often to seek out material 'that you wouldn't expect to be in a film about the British countryside.' This cut-up approach reflects the director's desire to create sensory experiences through image and sound rather than a straight-forward linear narrative progression. As such, comparisons have been made with Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi films scored by Philip Glass. Common ground can also be found with the Robinson films of Patrick Keiller. Political or politicised questions of society's relationship with the land and nature, of identity, of class are surfaced but this is no polemic, it is left to the viewer to piece together their own interpretation. A point to return to.

Arcadia has been positioned as a 'folk horror' artifact, part of a fecund wyrd Britain arcania that has come out of the long shadows to be part of the contemporary landscape vibe. Although the film has deliberately avoided using some of the more obvious and over-exposed reference points such as The Wicker Man, the folk horror genre is certainly well-represented through haunting imagery of bodies rising from the grave in Requiem for a Village and the like. Also present are snatches of the frankly strange folk rituals on display in a highly-recommended previous BFI crate-digging exercise, Here's a Health to the Barley Mow  

As for my own feelings on viewing the film, an initial reaction was that it was following a rather hackneyed trope of contrasting modern dystopian imagery with a seemingly idyllic past, but as the temporal contrasts progressed and mingled a more nuanced and muddied picture emerged. All to the good. This is what history shows us. Processes and patterns of change - in life, society, the landscape - are complex, contradictory and unexpected, hard to pin down, especially when you are in the moment. Humanity may well be experiencing a long fall, unable now to stop a self-inflicted wrecking ball from wiping out civilisations and eco-systems. This may be already happening; we know we can do better. But we can't really know what the future holds: what great and terrible prospects and unforeseen technologies and events will come to pass. 

Many of the visions of sunlit unchanging rurality that front-load the film are pure mid-twentieth century propaganda. Much of it would surely have looked archaic (though perhaps reassuring) to contemporary viewers. Yes, those children playing cricket on the village green look innocently happy, but kids were still dying of TB and suffering from rickets; the coming welfare state desperately needed. The countryside looks ravishing and immutable, but it always does in sun-bleached black and white. Captured on these early reels was a receding world. The farm labourers were already a dying breed and, in truth, their forebears had suffered untold ructions and dislocations over centuries past. Things had been so stable and orderly in the Victorian English village that many could not wait to defect to the foul, teeming rising cities of wages and freedom or endure harsh journeys to the unknown potential of the colonies (or had no other choice).   

The juxtapose of old and new tempts another thought: that folk rituals, hippy happenings, raves, music festivals and other raged communions with nature all share a common wealth through the ages; psychic (or psychedelic) portals out of normality. Echoes of a Merrie England always on the margins, dangerous and under threat. The past may be gone but it can punch through time, revived or repurposed into something new but familiar, even if we don't realise it. That's how history rolls. Same old wyrd magic, same old shite.  

Many a paradox here, but then the English vision of arcadia was always conflicted. As Adam Nicholson has chronicled, Renaissance England 'dreamed of a lost world, an ideal and unapproachable realm of bliss and beauty'; a seeking of 'the perfect interfolding of the human and the natural' as perceived in Classical pastorals. Nicholson characterises this movement as at once a search for the simpler Golden Age of ancient Sicily and Greek Arcadia - a longing underpinning many subsequent counter-cultures - whilst also being inherently conservative and elitist, raging against the forces of modernity: 'a dream of nature' though one exclusive to a rich squirarchy, heavily mediated and manipulated. A forgotten idealism which flowered but was then crushed by a brutal civil war. 

The visceral sonic and visual representations crackling through this film aptly show how the search for Arcadia has always been mixed-up, conflicted and probably doomed. 

An afterword on the recent Twitter squall on the Paul Kingsnorth's essay written to accompany the release of Arcadia. The piece, criticised for pandering to re-emerging 'blood and soil' nationalism, seems to have disappeared from the web, but a couple of Twitter responses to it and the author's 'open letter' reply posted on his website can be seen below. My own initial take was that, having previously admired Paul's non-conformism (and writing), these are dangerous Brexit-cult times in which to express sentiments that could be interpreted as mystical English exceptionalism. This may be a bit alarmist (Hell, Gareth Southgate may even come riding over the hill to show us a new more-inclusive path to Eden!). Anyway, have a read of both sides of the story and see what you think ...

 * The archive films which are utilised are listed on the Arcadia website.  

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