On Friday Jenny and I went down to Leeds to meet up with a friend and watch Arcadia Live at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room. The event was a screening of Paul Wright’s 2017 film Arcadia with a live performance of the soundtrack composed by Portishead‘s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp‘s Will Gregory. The musicians were absolutely superb, especially Lisa Knapp and Victoria Oruwari. The contemporary revival of live music performances alongside the screening of silent (or mainly silent) films just works so well, it really helps to get the films across to new audiences who may not have considered watching them before. This was the second such event I have been to, the first being The Cinematic Orchestra‘s performance of their score for Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera around 20 years ago (how can that be?) at the then shut-down and semi-derelict Odeon cinema in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle (now long since demolished), which was also excellent.
Arcadia is a montage of footage taken from dozens of British documentary films (many of which can be watched online at the British Film Institute archive) and also clips from some British TV programmes and less well-known British feature films. “So what’s it about?” is an obvious question, and one that we all puzzled over how to answer when we returned home and were inevitably asked.
The film begins with a nostalgic look at the Britain (mainly England) of the past – idyllic villages with almost car-free high streets, ploughing with shire horses, children playing in the hay and swimming in the river, cricket on the village green, produce being brought into the church for harvest festival, all accompanied by the familiar strains of Jerusalem. As the hymn fades away, the film freeze-frames oddly on a close-up of the face of a small child peering into the camera lens, and it is here that the weirdness, the underside of the conventionally pretty ‘chocolate box’ Englishness, begins. An elderly man brandishes a seemingly almost out of control dowsing rod, muttering incomprehensibly to himself, we see the familiar yet unfamiliar leaning, tumbled-down sarsens of Stonehenge before it was first rebuilt in 1901, naked campers at Spielplatz near St Albans (incidentally where Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner first met, and Philip Carr-Gomm has a chalet) cavort in the sun, a chicken is having its neck wrung as part of what looks like some kind of dark ceremony, old men wearing strange enormous hats stare into the camera, a man dressed as a bush rides on horseback through the streets and – of course – there are, briefly, Druids (although, strangely, seeming not to be at either Stonehenge or Primrose Hill).
It would have been an easy choice for director Paul Wright to have just focused on British folk customs, and had he done so he would have created a perfectly reasonable, quirky, interesting film. In Arcadia though, he goes further than this. The film moves on to juxtapose our past close connections with nature in all their forms – idyllic, peculiar, joyful, barbaric, eerie – with our rampant wholesale destruction of it throughout most of Britain in more recent years: the pollution of heavy industry, the horror of factory farming and the slaughterhouse, the miserable concrete housing estates, poverty, the alienation and hopelessness of the young who escape into raves and glue sniffing. The pace of the editing and the intensity of the soundtrack becomes dizzyingly relentless and disorientating as the film rushes towards its closing themes of climate change, catastrophic global warming, mass extinction and finally, if we do not change our present course, “the end of everything”.
We have cut ourselves off (and forcibly been cut off with historic clearances and rural poverty forcing mass movement into towns and cities) from nature, its cycles of birth and death, growth and decay, to such an extent that we are becoming increasingly isolated, lonely and desperate, soulless and deluded. For me, the clips that illustrated this most strikingly, even more than the visually more shocking ones, were those of a man on a high street somewhere in Britain telling an interviewer that it would not bother him in the slightest if all wild animals and wild birds were eradicated from the countryside, and an elderly woman being interviewed for what looked like the 1970’s evening magazine programme Nationwide tenderly grooming and petting her dead, badly-stuffed poodle on its cushion in front of the fire, insisting that “she’s still the same to me as she always was”.
After “the end of everything” the screen goes blank and for a moment it seems that all ends there. Then an image of the sky slowly appears with the sound of the wind and suddenly we are in the primordial cave. The answer we are given is the same as the one we were given at the very beginning of the film – “The truth is in the soil”. We return to the same time-lapse images of plant and animal growth. “The truth is in the soil”; not an easy answer, just like this is not an easy film to watch. We have returned back to the beginning of the cycle after the darkest night of Winter Solstice, but we are not in the same place as we were at the start. Arcadia is not advocating trying to go back to where we were at the onset of the 20th century. Its message is that what comes next must be something new, where our connection to the land and to each other is paramount but in a different way than in the past, shaped by our modern values and what we have learned through hard experience not to do next time round. Attempting to go back to exactly how things were 100 years ago would be like the woman with the stuffed poodle – pitifully deluded. Each of us needs to find our own answer, but if we seek it in connection with the land around us then we will find our truth.
Even though I’ve tried to do it here, Arcadia is a film that can’t really be explained, it can only be experienced. Its montage structure leaves it open to different interpretations and each person who sees it will take different things away from it. But I think that for anyone who describes themselves as British (and specifically English) and especially if they describe themselves as a Druid, it’s a film that needs to be watched.