Arcadia – “She Was Told the Truth Lay in the Soil” – Views from a Not so Always Arcadian Idyll: Wanderings, Explorations and Signposts 26/52
Arcadia was something of a treat to arrive through the old digital letterbox a while ago.
It is a film directed by Paul Wright which was created from a collage of found images, with a soundtrack by Adrian Utley from Portishead and Will Gregory from Goldfrapp, alongside music by Anne Briggs amongst others:
“Using a mixture of film and TV footage from the BFI National Archive and regional archives around the UK, director Paul Wright creates a mosaic of contrasting images, sounds and moods, taking in folk carnivals and masked parades, hunting and harvesting, communes and raves, mechanisation, environmental issues, fires, floods, storms and much more.” (From the film’s accompanying promotional text.)
At times and particularly earlier in the film it can seem like a pastoral reverie but as it progresses the overall atmosphere and impression it leaves is far from a twee rural idyll and is at times deeply, quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) unsettling.
At A Year In The Country I have previously talked about particular television series etc being a form of “Albion in the overgrowth”, in the sense that they may contain glimpses of what could be loosely called an otherly, undercurrents or flipside of pastoral related culture; due to the institutional funding via the BFI, the “known” performers of its soundtracks and its still independent/arthouse but wider scale cinematic and upcoming home release, Arcadia seems like a time when the underground goes overground – a more publicly prominent expression of a contemporary interest in what could also be called “wyrd” pastoral and folk culture.
“The BFI invited Mordant Music to re-score a series of 70s and 80s public information films, resulting in a startling and ingenious audiovisual mash-up.” (From the DVD’s promotional text.)
Arcadia even shares the use of similar archival public information film footage, although due to its focusing on PIFs, MisinforMation can be seen as being more strictly hauntological than Arcadia, as such films are something of an ongoing mainstay and reference point for hauntological orientated ideas and work.
Paul Wright’s film seems to explore and exist in the undefined but still recognisable territory where the hauntological, spectrally imprinted layers of history and culture intertwine with that aforementioned sense of an otherly pastoralism and the further reaches of folk culture.
Well, I say further reaches but actually much of for example the more folk ritual orientated footage that can be found in Arcadia would once and in a different context be considered to be fairly normal day-to-day archival footage of local activities and celebrations; within Arcadia they seem to gain another meaning as the film builds to become far more than the sum of its parts and reveals a sense of hidden layers and the stories to be found running beneath and throughout the land.
Although in large part being created from what appears to be archival documentary footage, Arcadia does not purely draw from such film but also includes sections of Brownlow and Morro’s film Winstanley and its recreation of the 17th century diggers and their radical communal ways of living – although in a way that film seems almost nearer to documentary footage than a work of biographical fiction and so seems to fit particularly well in amongst Arcadia’s use of found footage.
Elsewhere as mentioned earlier there are glimpses of public information films, what appear to be rurally set performance art and artist’s films and also the likes of David Gladwell’s experimental/exploratory film Requiem for a Village:
“The idyllic, rural past of a Suffolk village comes to life through the memories of an old man who tends a country graveyard.” (From the DVD’s promotional text.)
At points Arcadia’s soundtrack brings to mind Ghost Box Records-esque electronica and possibly also Boards of Canada’s hauntological progenitorial work; connected to which and some of the atmospheres Boards of Canada’s work creates, the images on the screen in Arcadia are often pastoral in nature but the soundtrack at times appears to conjure a sense of a foreboding dystopic future.
At other points Arcadia’s soundtrack becomes a pounding, acid rave beat and images of the abandonment that is sometimes found in folk rituals and games are interspliced with footage of rave/club scenes, which historically could still be seen to have a rural connection as the unlicensed side of raves at one time often took place in country settings, in say deserted rural warehouses and open fields, although it is not made overly clear in Arcadia if this is the case with the footage which is used.
Elsewhere the escapism of participants in psychedelic/hippy probably 1960s or earlier 1970s rural festival footage appears in the film, which is is somewhat contrasted by the use of other footage which depicts the harsher form of escapism and youthful expression of urban punk gigs.
Some of the images in Arcadia could be seen as being accidental forebears to Henry Bourne’s portraits of contemporary folk costume wearers in his book Arcadia Britannica: A Modern British Folklore Portrait. In fact Arcadia as a whole seems almost as if it could somehow have fallen both backwards and forwards through time and to somewhow be both an influence on and reflection on spectral pastoral work.
Adding to that sense of time slip, the version I watched was a compressed, lossy, timecoded preview version, which along with some of the degraded/multi-generational nature of sections of the source footage lend Arcadia a sense that it could well be a semi-lost film that you might stumble upon on the likes of Youtube.
Sections of Arcadia appear to be taken from previous era’s witchcraft/occult pseudo-documentaries and in a further falling backwards-and-forwards through time manner, some of the related footage in the film shares a similar aesthetic with some of the imagery and work created/collaborated on by the band Broadcast and its core members James Cargill and Trish Keenan, who released a collaborative album called Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio age.
That album also used found sounds from similar pseudo-documentaries, while part of Broadcast’s avant-pop aesthetic seemed to draw from and/or channel a form of psychedelic occultism.
There appears to be a utopian/progressive undercurrent to Arcadia, related to which, at times the use and juxtaposition of images – for example the idyllic pastoral and the voracious actions of industry – can veer towards a more overtly polemic direction and possibly intention; it seems stronger as a piece of work when those elements are less stridently and more space is left for the viewer to travel with the film and I expect still be subtly signposted towards a particular conclusion and point of view.
The film ends with George Auric and Isla Cameron’s haunting performance of the song O Willow Waly, a version of which was used in Jack Clayton’s unsettling pastoral supernatural 1961 film The Innocents and which was also released on seven-inch by often archival release orientated record label Finders Keepers. Due to that supernatural/pastoral connection, its use here seems somewhat appropriate and something of a rounding of the circle back to earlier work which also explored the undercurrents and hidden, layered stories of the land and rural areas.
In reflection of the collaged, layered nature of the film, I thought I would continue and finish off with a few examples of the voiceover found in Arcadia, which I assume are also largely taken from archival footage:
“She was told the truth lay in the soil.”
“For a thousand years these valleys have had a secret which no one else has shared.”
“A secret past. A hidden history.”
“A land of great magic. A land of great mystery.”
“All over Britain many still take part in these otherworldly rituals… return to a time when we were connected to the land. A time when we were connected to each other.”
“Does your mam know what you get up to when you come down here?” – “She will do now with you lot showing this on the telly.”
“None knew that a shadow had fallen on the land.”
“For those with an image of the countryside as being somehow related to ‘Merrie England’, the presence of those who are impoverished and underpriveliged is a real threat.”
“If I wanted to I could fill this little room with ghosts.”
“The past is gone, the future is unwritten.”
- Arcadia’s website
- Arcadia at the BFI / it’s nationwide cinematic release
- The Arcadia film collection at the BFI Player
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
- Day #29/365: Alison Goldfrapp – Performer As Curator and a wander through crumbling textures
- Day #146/365: Glimpses of Albion in the overgrowth
- Day #143/365: Central Office Of Information + Mordant Music = MisinforMation
- Day #78/365: Winstanley – Another Field In England
- Day #143/365: Central Office Of Information + Mordant Music = MisinforMation
- Wanderings #13/52a: Boards Of Canada – Tomorrows Harvest; Stuck At The Starting Post / Tumbled From A Future Phase IV?
- Ether Signposts #5/52a: Homer Sykes Once A Year And A Lineage Of Folk Custom Wanderings
- Day #242/365: The return of old souls; fleeting glances of Anne Briggs
- Day #106/365: The whisperings of Willow O Waly
- Broadcast – Recalibration, Constellation and Exploratory Pop: Chapter 8 Book Images