On 1968’s fabled concept album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Ray Davies sings a dreamy lament for an imagined past of village green and simple folk. His summoning of church, clock, steeple and a girl named Daisy knowingly conjured up a romantic portrait of English identity – one that, with the approach of the 1970s, Davies realised was fast slipping into the preserve of fantasy. His notional village, in fact, is so achingly nice that you can’t help but sense disquieting undertones. And so to Paul Wright’s Arcadia, where similar buttons are pressed via lashings of bucolic imagery and an ever-present though largely imperceptible menace. Wright’s examination of England’s heart – and here, as in the Robinson films of Patrick Keiller, this is strongly coupled with the countryside – has emerged in times of exacting scrutiny. Everything these days, it seems, is fair game for carrying some kind of portentous message, but thankfully, if there are ideological signposts in Arcadia at all, they are non-intrusive: viewers can decide whether there are political threads to be followed. Some will simply watch, enthralled as a century’s disparate footage docks into place, forming a progressively hypnotic whole. However one interprets the film, Arcadia is a centring reflection.
As a cinematic journey it can feel deceptively undemanding. We’re led gently by the hand for the most part, and the thematic and visual content can be fairly easily guessed at up front: that the countryside —rather like its depiction in Barry Hines’s 1970s novel The Gamekeeper— does not exist solely to provide a charming composition of wheat fields, hedgerows, spires and cottages. Yet picture-book amiability sounds as if it might have been the film’s first remit, a simplistic paean to, in the director’s own words, “how lovely the countryside is.” Paul Wright, already a BAFTA-winning director by this point (2013’s For Those in Peril), developed a different approach and a new take was ultimately agreed. “I do have a real passion,” he says, “in exploring how we connect with the land around us and with each other, alongside some of Britain’s more hidden histories, be it rural myths, folk rituals, our pagan past, subcultures, the occult.” The result is a collage comprising BFI archive footage, television, private collections and revered, cultish films like 1976’s Winstanley and 1975’s Requiem for a Village. Although they are not included, The Wicker Man and Penda’s Fen are here in spirit.
While a feature-length, set-to-music collection of rare and unusual clips is not exactly breaking new conceptual ground (Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon from 2012 did the same thing, albeit somewhat manically; also, the BFI have released a lot of folklore in various forms), Arcadia has a real trump card in the form of a bespoke score, put together by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory (from Portishead and Goldfrapp, respectively), and featuring the folk music of Anne Briggs. The soundscape of Arcadia can ultimately coax viewers into a fugue state of receptiveness. Green Man and Merrie Englande vibes woozily recur; pagan rites, unsettling and effortful, have us sleepwalking to the edge of nightmare. You sometimes wonder, watching this, if these ostensibly quaint regional traditions aren’t simply barking mad. Men dressed normally, in clothes that they will probably put on for work on Monday, fight viciously in the streets to claim possession of a ball; masses of youths hurl themselves down a vertiginous hill, with no thought for possibly disastrous personal outcomes. Paganism, pentagrams and antler-clad dancers remain as disquieting as ever: quaint village by day, hotbed of the occult by night. With weird hats. And here are the generic City bankers, their marching, robotic hordes pulled in for contrast, along with the glue-sniffing malcontents of punk. Evicted travellers and a young girl’s eulogy to MDMA are set in opposition to the net-curtain brigade and their complaints about the Youth of Today. This is selective footage, of course, but even so, fox hunting hasn’t aged well. We see a typical hunt and its eccentricities, footage probably once played for levity now looking rather dark, as though the undercurrents and implications of the whole thing have been laid bare. Also unnerving is a clip from the 1970s about a woman’s devotion to her beloved —now stuffed— poodle.
In keeping with the Arcadia of Greek mythology, the film often presents us with an agreeably pastoral, harmonious idyll, and indeed there is undoubtedly an appealing, cosy, even slightly twee side to rural England (as mined voraciously by the smash hit television show The Great British Bake Off), but Arcadia counter-weights this with fair coverage of the darker aspects. Meanwhile, Utley and Gregory’s motifs resurface and mutate, harmonising mood and content. Primal sounds of nature vie with agricultural noise. We go on, and the feel seems purposefully ragged and dreamlike. What began as a cut-and-paste show reel has morphed into a living entity, to be contemplated as one would look upon the countryside from the prow of a hill, musing on what has gone before and is yet to come. Things change. Even in the fictional village of Ray Davies’ imagination, the houses have become prized, historically interesting survivals, and the village green itself is a sentimentalised drop-off point for American tourists.
Arcadia shares territory with Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, in which we can find a similarly impassive documentation of the countryside, but even more so the same suggestion that mainstream society has all but broken its connection with the land —on a meaningful level at least— and that the bonds would be best renewed. Andrew Kötting’s work comes to mind too: his way of divining tales in a folkloric haze, a willingness to afford human truths the space to breathe. Arcadia, by its very nature as a collage film, does not impart quite the same heft, but comparison across genres is probably unfair. Cinematic collage is inescapably formulaic in construction, with no real characters and no traditional narrative lines. That Arcadia remains enthralling to the final frame, then, must be testament to Paul Wright’s abilities, and his determination to make something substantial of what sounds like an originally bland commission. --Neil Jackson