Arcadia compiles footage from the British Film Institute‘s sprawling national archive to create an impressionistic collage film about rural Britain, with a specially-written score by Portishead‘s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory. It’s a similar project to Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond, which added music by British Sea Power to archive footage of British coastal life, and also recalls venerable British essay films by directors such as Patrick Keiller and Adam Curtis.
Arcadia is director Paul Wright‘s second full-length film. His debut feature was an unconventional narrative that occasionally hinted at the collage methods that would be used in Arcadia. For Those In Peril (2012) deals with a Scottish community traumatized by the loss of several men in a fishing accident, the community’s ostracization of the boy apparently responsible, and his subsequent succumbing to an oceanic sublime.
Wright is obviously interested in eerie landscapes, tight-knit communities, and trauma, and as such, the film is primed to be received in the context of two related phenomena: Hauntology and Folk Horror. Both represent new ways of thinking about our relationship to time and place, and of finding the sinister within the everyday, the former by emphasizing repressed pasts and failed futures, the latter by emphasizing sinister textures and themes lurking below the surface of Britian’s rural communities. However, it may be equally if not more helpful to think of
Arcadia as a sculpture done in paracinema: countless hours of public service announcements, promotional and instructional videos, and amateur-shot footage, are here given an unruly second lease of life.
The framing motif, a girl who seems to be not of our earth or not of our time, who has to “understand the whole truth of this land”, the truth found in the soil, doesn’t really help the film to hang together in the way that, for example, Patrick Keiller’s character Robinson guides the viewer’s journey through early ’90s London. However, Wright’s extraterrestrial device, though referred to occasionally throughout the film, is easily ignored: it soon gives way to a dizzying assemblage of bucolic, folkloric footage; maypole dancing and sundry village festivities that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wicker Man, harvesting crops, hunting, bucolic landscapes. Occasionally footage from a well-known narrative film, such as an unmistakable glimpse of Helen Mirren from Herostratus, is thrown into the mix.
Intertitles such as “Amnesia” and “The Turning” divide the film, but seem evocative rather than prescriptive, and one feels as if portents of the final “Oblivion” section were already present in the earlier chapters. After all, the title can’t help but call to mind the phrase Et in Ardadia ego, used to imply that even in a place that feels like paradise, death cannot be escaped. The film doesn’t present the archive footage chronologically, which means that a variety of formats, from badly damaged silent-era film to pristine 35mm, to home formats such as VHS and Super 8, all brush up against each other to dizzying, sometimes foreboding effect.
The film works by associating, linking things in a montage chain that, in one example, goes from the pageantry of traditional village celebrations such as Morris dancing and ‘Obby ‘Oss festivals, to the ’60s counterculture, exemplified by a patronizingly interviewed hippy who says he celebrates love “by doing psychedelic freakouts every now and again” to more recent times, through images of the kind of barnyard raves beloved by the ’80s/’90s rave generation, as the soundtrack works itself up into a relentless pulse. Viewers clued in to these various cultural phenomena will feel their minds racing at this point. It would be over-schematic to argue that raves are a modern maypole dance (One thinks of Nigel Kneale’s pitch black The Quatermass Conclusion, where countercultural activity and rituals of the ancient stone circles are linked as examples of thoughtless, instinctual behaviour), but the film merely suggests the connection through juxtaposition.
At one point, the voice of Alan Whicker (unmistakable to British audiences from decades of TV documentaries) refers to fox hunting as “a golden thread running through the countryside”, and one of the hunting party he’s interviewing goes on to opine on the natural, instinctual, universal nature of hunting. Later, a reporter asks a man if he’s worried about the disappearance of animals from the countryside, resulting in a “bare countryside with no wildlife in it at all.” “Wouldn’t bother me” is his chilling reply. Dredging up clips like these brings out the sinister undertones in the everyday and makes the recent past seem like a foreign country. This feeling seems to increase in frequency as the film goes on.
The eclectic score, at times evoking Debussy, at other times sounding like ’90s lounge music revival (not surprising given its composers), and at one point breaking out into an ominously-tinged ’70s bovver rock stomp, is worthy of serious standalone consideration. However, at times it can overwhelm, and it’s a relief when field recordings seem to break through: a church congregation singing “Jerusalem”, celebrants belting out a May day song.
The DVD extras, in addition to a lengthy interview with Wright and Utley, allow nine of the film’s mined for their footage to be seen in their original forms, which bring with them the slowly dawning realization that many of the rituals and pageants seen in Arcadia aren’t unbroken circles of tradition but recreations and pastiches created by folklorists and Utopians such as H.G. Wells and John Hargrave. In addition, watching them unadulterated gives a new appreciation for Wright’s task – not only scouring hours of archive footage to find arresting images, but juxtaposing and recontextualizing them in ways that create vivid associations.
Circles are used as a recurring motif throughout the film, whether circles of standing stones, young women dancing like woodland nymphs, children, hands joined, dancing in a circle. Towards the end of the film, things become more apocalyptic: fast cutting between machinery, protracted screaming, and a disembodied voice talking about rural poverty, “a real threat”, says the voice, to those who think about the countryside in terms of merrie olde England. The dancing children fall down.
Arcadia is a frequently fascinating, often unsettling look at traditions and places that can often feel like they are vanishing before our eyes. Thanks to the efforts of the BFI national archive, and of artists such as Paul Wright, we can glimpse them in surprising and unsettling new contexts for a while longer.