Against Belonging: The Follies Of Arcadia

Tim Cooke explores the dangerous territory of cinema's bucolic idealism

Joe Kennedy, in his new book Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness, describes how aspects of the increasingly popular new nature writing genre quietly campaign “for a patriotic traditionalism”. In writing of the mass-production of a “cookie-cutter poetics of belonging and self care (or self-indulgence)”, he calls out, among other things, the genre’s tendency to promote a flawed ideal of bucolic Englishness. Whilst doing so, he warns of a possible descent towards a kind of tribal nationalism dressed up as “progressive patriotism”.

He’s not alone in his concerns. Others, including Richard Smyth and Gary Budden, have drawn attention to issues of class, gender and ethnicity – not to mention a rising threat of fascism – in our clumsily nostalgic representations of the rural sphere. Such representations seem fairly ubiquitous in popular culture, the more you look out for them, and are often widely celebrated as poetic engagements with nature as a means of preserving it. Confronting this recently, Smyth eloquently evoked the image of “a snake in our Eden”, capable of opening the door on a new dystopia “as we fumble for a way back into paradise”.

It’s important to note that plenty of writers on nature do actively challenge such slippery idealism and exercise democratic, inclusive approaches to place. Some contribute effectively – and some not so – to what academic Kate Oakley describes as a kind of arts activism, an imaginative engagement with place that captures the value of quotidian landscapes, as well as the more typically ‘natural’, and promotes greater environmental justice. It’s encouraging, too, that a recent Kickstarter campaign for The Willowherb Review, billed as “an online journal dedicated to diversity in nature writing”, saw it fully funded in just three days. Points such as these emphasise the complexity of the current conversation.

Understanding any utopian impression of our countryside to be a fantasy is nothing new. The work of Romantic ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare, for example, details the oppression of labouring communities frustrated by the enclosure acts of his time. Richard Jefferies’ oeuvre is full of contradictions regarding the back-breaking realities of country life versus the sublime rural idyll. More recently, the British landscape films of the late-sixties and seventies, now generally grouped together under the moniker ‘folk horror’, explore the violence rumbling at the heart of our rural environments. They deal with brutal power struggles, cruel and regressive social hierarchies, and the land’s capacity for chaos and destruction. This vein of filmmaking has experienced a timely revival in recent years, what with Trump and Brexit.

Some of the more influential of the original films, which include Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Requiem for a Village – stories of isolated, provincial communities, of folkloric and counter-culture rituals, of challenge, sex, violence, the weird and the eerie – tend to be ambiguous and open to interpretation. While the power to subvert and debunk the great myths of Albion is what stands out most prominently to me, others praise and decry, in almost equal measure, portrayals of country life that connect people intimately, intrinsically and even spiritually to place – often embracing the dark side.

In his fascinating book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Adam Scovell, an insightful authority on the subject of folk horror, articulates well the multifariousness of the genre’s relationship with landscape:

”Folk Horror has its own idiosyncratic relationships with topography and landscape, channelling a sense of the uncanny through subverting our pre-existing relationships with such recognisable types of place. An unmappable shadow-landscape, fluctuating to the point where only a searching alchemical topographer would dare to attempt a plotting of its many ley lines.”

During precarious political times such as ours, it’s more important than ever to be vigilant in how we construct and interpret the various media available to us. Being aware of the exclusionary potential of reactionary traits in new nature writing, and thinking hard about how we engage with representations of the British landscape in film and literature, should help steer us towards a more progressive artistic engagement with place. Perhaps, then, Paul Wright’s Arcadia, an overtly self-reflexive documentary on the subject of countryside and national identity, will enrich the debate.

The film, built entirely from archive footage, is almost an ode to the subjectivity touched on above. It opens with a nightmarish, hallucinatory descent into the soil, from which emerges a stereotypical, sepia vision of England: idyllic villages, sheep-strewn fields, thatched cottages, dogs loping alongside smartly-dressed farmers, and country folk milling about on horseback – all accompanied by a gorgeous, rousing score. “This is the Britain we have… inherited,” we are told, “a land of incomparable beauty.” It evokes in the viewer a false sense of nostalgia for an unreal time; from a distance, it feels like satire.

Just as in the aforementioned folk horror staples, this bucolic set-up is imbued with a deep sense of dread; we know that something will soon arise to disrupt the calm. As the end of the first section nears, a scythe slashes violently through corn and a disquieting sequence follows, with images already used rehashed to deliver a more uncertain tone: a young boy frolicking in the hay is upended by a rogue bale; a couple gaze eerily out from the door of a local butcher’s shop, as if appraising some new arrival; a spooky child beckons to us from the top of a steep slope, a strange chimney smoking behind. The soundtrack has by now taken on a darker, less melodic character.

As the film slides through the seasons – with chapters entitled ‘Amnesia’, ‘Into the Wild’, ‘Blood in the Soil’ and ‘Oblivion’, among others – it contorts into an ecstatic poem, lurching between various facets of the myth, elevating and shattering with accomplished dexterity. We delve into our pagan past and its modern bastardisations. We are told of a “return to a time we were connected to the land”, but the grainy, broken images, the nervy musical accompaniment, suggest otherwise. Images of nudists at play are juxtaposed by shots of an obedient post-war urban flow of people – of dry capitalist homogeneity. Words and images are constantly regurgitated, warped to suit whatever line Wright is interrogating.

Working something like a case study, the film serves to lay our many versions of the countryside splayed open on the grass, their confusions and hypocrisies, revelations and profundities, coiled and twisting into the loam, crying out to be untangled. But the mess resists any simple, straightforward comprehension. Amid powerful examinations of fox hunting, nightmares of encroaching industrialization, and an ultimately hopeful glance towards an unwritten future, I was particularly affected by the various presentations of people and communities in the landscape.

There are the children who seem to find solace and freedom in the privacy their countryside affords. There is nothing magical or whimsically historical in this relationship – it is practical and convenient, and therein lies great potential. The voiceover assures us: “The earth shall be made a common treasury of the whole of mankind…both rich and poor.” I found myself thinking of the extraordinary lines in Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen: “I am nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!”

Then there are the smiling coalminers with faces covered in black sediment, evoking, for me, Ron Berry’s majestic Flame and Slag – the land provides and destroys indiscriminately, regardless of any inherited sense of belonging. Perhaps most significant here, though, are the sweeping panoramas at the end of the section entitled ‘Utopia’ – images so often characterized by an absence of people. “A glimpse of heaven, but this was only part of the story. To find her salvation, she had to understand the whole truth of this land.”

In the context of a calculated debunking, such epic vistas call to mind China Miéville’s notion of ‘urbaphobic utopianism’ implicit in the value and denigration variously issued to landscapes according to their conformity to an accepted model of the sublime. Attached to the proliferation of these images of vast empty space can be hints of misanthropy: the people of the places concerned, if they do not adhere to, or in some way jeopardise, that model, are simply erased. Of course, simultaneously, these images inspire awe and demand a respect and reverie that might help us preserve our nature – which is all well and good, as long as we reject the potentially regressive associated politics.

It’s ironic that a film I read to be in stark contrast to the concerns surrounding new nature writing has been directly linked with a piece that tipped the discussion towards apotheosis. Questions might be asked about why a controversial article written by Paul Kingsnorth in response to Arcadia was published on the film’s website. But, as Budden and Smyth note, when engaging with work about our connection to the land, it’s worryingly easy to let your guard down. I’m loath to admit that when I first read Kingsnorth’s piece, I saw little amiss. Until a friend prompted me to look again and be wary of the implications of the language used, I was regrettably neglectful of its recklessness.

If the fallout that followed taught me anything, it’s that it’s still too easy to over-romanticise and misrepresent our historic relationships with nature, and there can be serious consequences to this: as soon as we start celebrating spurious notions of belonging and ownership over inclusion, we enter dangerous territory. It’s here that the satire in folk horror is lost and we risk justifying the violence. The violence should never be anything but a damning rebuke, an opposition to the myth. Folk horror, in this respect, is the bloody foil to new nature writing’s bucolic idealism; it draws attention to how challenging and complex our countryside really is.

The messages I’ve taken from the film, however, are not a given, and I might only have read it as quite such a sharp rebuttal in light of recent events. Arcadia, like much of the folk horror genre, will not make many clear or definite statements on how we should feel about Englishness, Britishness, place or the countryside; the ambiguity, perhaps, means we see what we want to see – for better or worse – and, in turn, opens a space for self-analysis. It’s a film that raises some significant and timely questions.

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