Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Soil music… Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright with music from Adrian Utley and Will Gregory

“She was told, the truth is in the soil…”

This is a painstaking work of cinematic horticulture that plants seeds from many dozens of different source films, ploughs it good and deep and then carefully tends the starting mix of rustic wonders that grow forth. It takes uncanny directorial vision to make such a coherent narrative from this many disparate parts – separated in time and style – and Paul Wright is to be congratulated on the alchemy of his editing and his ability to juggle meanings so adeptly.

Underpinning it all is a score that binds and extrapolates; making the most of the source materials and being fully attuned with their director’s vision: a tremendous act of collaboration given the huge compilation with which all began. You could argue that Mr Utley has had practice with musical sampling in Portishead, Gregory too with Goldfrapp, but, as they have already shown with their magnificent score for Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, they understand the subtleties and responsibility of film music.

There’s also an element of taste and whilst I generally agree with their musical direction I was almost leaping out of my seat when Anne Briggs’ voice suddenly cut through as her song, The Time Has Come, was featured. Briggs is a genuine folk legend, she was there with Davey Graham and, especially Bert Jansch at the start of the folk revival in the early sixties and sings with a voice so clear and true it is very much English soul music. She features on two other songs, My Bonny Boy and Lowlands and it’s a thrill to hear her in this context: for me the star!

Uttey and Gregory work their music around her, paying as much respect as to the other primary sources. The fact that Annie follows on from techno artiste du jour Daniel Avery’s Drone Logic, says it all about the complimentary collage created by the two; as with the film, there’s a timelessness in everything and the answer is in our ears and beneath our feet.

Arcadia feels initially like period folk horror, that rich seem of unsettling pastoral tales from The Wicker Man to Children of the Stones that took the ghosts of our rural past and used them to frighten our urbanised present. We’re, literally, rootless and need to find our feet again, standing on the soil. This era holds an enduring fascination for many, not least the likes of the League of Gentlemen and the Ghost Box record label which specialises in a kind of “folk-tronica” – part Blood on Satan’s Claw and part Tomorrow’s World.

In Paul Wright’s narrative – and in the source materials - the suggestion is that we have lost something in the transition sparked by industrialisation “…from a time when we were connected to the land and to each other…” to a world of isolation. This is probably even more the case now than in 1948, 1965 or 1975 and if you don’t believe me, look again at that device you’re reading these words on.

It's not as simple as black and white

It’s a passionate programme of delicious slices of English whimsy but not without a dark side – a child (Jenny Agutter) crying out “mummy, mummy!” in terror,  miners being attacked by policemen, urban isolation and dark deeds abound: there’s something unsettling in the country but its natural balances are undermined by explosive urbanisation…

Starting with the microscopic worlds of Frank Percy Smith we see the almost unseen life beneath, moss and lichen growing, tadpoles gestating… then switch to the macro world of ploughing fields and sowing seeds.

There’s country dancing, May poles and May Queens, Morris dancing and nudists too – all connected to the grass and the mud. And did those feet…? Jerusalem emerges with added themes and Blake’s meaning, yet, curiouser and curiouser, none of the images can be taken at face value any more. This alchemy is signalled by section headings like INTO THE WILD, FOLK, UTOPIA, AMNESIA, THE TURNING and IN A DARK WOOD… as if Syd Barrett has written the mood board.

Fans of Daniel Avery syncopate
BLOOD IN THE SOIL is perhaps the key and the connections are made elegantly again and again shifting the feeling forward by association, image and music. I heard Becky Unthank, a young 'un with some of Briggs’ breathy purity; musical proof of the countryside continuum.

Ultimately Arcadia is a tone poem for us to interpret as we will in spite of the specifics of word, action and song. It’s an intimate multi-media dialogue with some very talented and careful individuals who have produced something far greater than the sum of its parts: Arcadia, the feeling won’t go away and it could be the grounds on which we take our last stand?

Arcadia opens on 21st June at the BFI on Mid-Summer’s day, the Summer Solstice ensuring the right combination of magic and marketing. It is one of the very best compilations I’ve seen from the BFI and if, for example, you enjoyed From the Land to the Sea Beyond with British Sea Power and Public Service Broadcasting’s work then you’ll love this.

Highly recommended and also fascinating for the sheer range of archive material it includes. Many of these are available – free to view – on the BFI’s iPlayer and those that are not are worth paying for like the brilliantly unsettling Herostratus starring Michael Goatherd and from which a snippet of young Shakespearean Helen Mirren is included.

There’s plenty more and I know what I’ll be doing this weekend… BFI Player link here.

To book tickets for Arcadia visit the BFI website which also lists previews on 19th across the country. Don't miss it!!

There will also be a digital release on 20th August as well as a soundtrack album, details on the Common Ground site.

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