OO AAR, OO AAR, OO AAR… I be from the countryzoide. Actually, I bain’t, I’m from Leyton, E10, via Ilford, Birmingham, Glasgow, and various other parts of North and South London…but you have to start these reviews with an eye-catching line, and, like many of my contemporaries, I do still have a hankering, at least from an observer’s perspective (I tried living outside major cities twice and failed on both occasions), for rurality and bucolic life, which is why I eagerly awaited the release of this ultra rare British film, described loosely as an “avant-folk hymnal” with baited breath (or should that be “beetroot broth”?).
Due to its rarity, I had little idea what to expect, although I had heard enough references to “the dead rising from their graves, zombie-fashion and walking through churches” to pique my interest- I am a horror fan after all- whilst simultaneously realising that the film is in no way a genre picture per se. I also knew that, with a track record like that of David Gladwell (a former maker of experimental documentary shorts and Coal Board movies, later turned editor on Lindsay Anderson’s seminal works If and O Lucky Man!, with much experience in ‘hidden’ television and still, today, at almost 80, a career on the fringes of South London’s arts scene) the film would be far from conventional. But even those preconceptions only hinted at the sheer strangeness to come.
It could be said that this DVD, released not long after several BFI compilations such as Listen To Britain and almost simultaneously with the folk-documenting Here’s A Health To The Barley Mow , is part of an ongoing initiative to restore a wider knowledge among the film-buying public of ancient English traditions, but if truth be known, such releases, brilliant though they are, are very much a case of ‘preaching to the converted’, and Gladwell’s film only partially belongs to such orthodoxies anyway. In equal parts documentary, rural folk drama, bikersploitation, horror, art film, social realism, fantasy and even porn, with minimal dialogue and the cognitive, continuous flow of a ballet, Requiem For A Village is, without doubt, the most unusual and unclassifiable film Flipside have released to date- pipping even the inscrutable Duffer and Don Levy’s cathartic Herostratus to that title, which is no small feat.
My second viewing took place, for reasons best beknownst to the inventors of Windows Media Player, with the subtitles on: I am now actually glad this occurred, as I achieved a greater understanding of the loose narrative, largely related directly in conversation with Gladwell by Vic Smith, who plays the local gravedigger, although whether or not he ever actually was one is not mentioned. Through his eyes and voice (rather like those of the lanternist in Bill Douglas’ later Comrades) we see and hear the history of the villagers, their lives, births and deaths – some by tragically ironic accident and others by more recognised causes – chronicled at first hand. While this in itself appears to act as some form of linear thread, it is interspersed regularly with shots and sequences that clearly place the film in the arena of the avant-garde, and also help it dip into the fantastic, as we see contrasts between past (anachronistically dressed villagers tilling the land in the traditional manner) and future (the square and oblong concrete constructs of a Newtown shopping centre, which we discover is to be built on the village’s ruins) appear and disappear at regular intervals with little or no regard for linearity.
But rather than constituting any form of hindrance, this is, I find, one of the film’s most fascinating aspects, and whilst Gladwell himself stems from the British arthouse school (Ian Breakwell being a vaguely near comparison) and claims disdain for the likes of Anger and Warhol, such traits actually place him closer in spirit to American experimentalists like James Broughton and Stan Brakhage, as well as Jodorowsky, all of whose rejection of practically every prior convention of filmmaking, together with their proto-psychedelic use of light and colour, created a hybrid world as yet unnamed even in 2011. To my knowledge, no other British filmmaker has captured onscreen such diverse elements as the joy of a Suffolk wedding replete with full traditional song, debates between younger generations on the pros and cons of redevelopment (I’m against it by the way), gang rape (I’m against that as well, but can fully appreciate the analogy conveyed therein) and the true graphic nature of childbirth, set to an eerie, trilling score of pianos, bells, lutes and the most demonic choral harmonies outside of Children Of The Stones (another shared reference point for those likely to buy the dual-format disc) in one film, yet somehow, the whole naturally flows and ebbs together with the grace of a cinematic snake.
In addition to which, he manages all this in only 68 minutes!! True, some moments drag more than others, there are sections where the viewer’s attention is likely to wander, and several parts seem to tread that ever-precarious fine line between art and directionlessness, but when it works, it works, as that other great bastion of folk cinema, Christopher Lee, would no doubt say, “beaauuutifuulllyyyy” What, though, is Gladwell himself trying to say? The simplistic interpretation would seem to suggest “tradition good, modernity bad”, with repeated intercuttings of the plough vs the bulldozer, the motorbike vs the bicycle, marketplace vs mall, emphasising this, and many would agree- but there seems to be more than that struggling to break out from ‘neath the avant impressionism. He states in the sleevenotes that his primary objective was to create a dream-like tribute to the paintings of Stanley Spencer and the books of George Ewart Evans, but, after two viewings, I’m still not sure what the objective, outside of sheer artistic impulse, of such an homage is, which in itself suggests that the director has only partially succeeded in his aim. Either that, or I’m a bit fick- which doesn’t appear to be the case….perhaps we are being invited to plough the landscape ourselves in search of our own subjective treasure? It’s as good a theory as any, and one the coffee-tablists will ponder for hours.
Folk is, after all, a double edged scythe these days: despite the preponderance of middle-class pseuds living in urban areas far from rural Albion but claiming to find it lurking round the back of Finsbury Park bus station, while simultaneously pretending to like Shirley Collins, The Incredible String Band, Donovan, Comus and Current 93 only a month after digging the latest asymmetrically-haired indie sensation, and the fact that the almost semi-accidental way in which the subject has once again risen to prominence (after many years of almost denial of its existence) occasionally bears overtones of a “sales pitch”, there has been a reawakening of interest in the folk idiom over the last five years, in London at any rate, which can only be a positive thing for all true lovers of the beautiful, mystical and strange. Yet slightly worrying is (yet again) Wire journalist Rob Young’s sleevenote essay in which he attempts to propose a love of all folksy subjects as a blow for socialism against the alleged fascism which sometimes espouses the rural lifestyle- inferring therefore that anyone interested in the subject must be on either side, rather than remaining impartial- plus his dismissal of ‘Broken Britain’, which frankly rankles. Try showing films of this kind to anyone on my estate for proof of why! However, he does seem to genuinely understand the film, and is full of love and admiration for both maker and content, so fair enough.
And there is much to love and admire- for example, the cast, all completely amateur, predominantly inexperienced as performers and drawn from the actual inhabitants of Suffolk communities, but all amazingly adept at everything asked of them, particularly one farmworking raconteur who would enliven even the dullest of jobs, and a joke-telling father of a bride (whose speech acts as prequel to one of the most candid depictions of marital relations ever filmed, followed by an exceedingly clever jumpcut indeed) The highest commendations, though, still go to Vic Smith’s anecdotal ramblings to camera- in a voice you could listen to and be soothed by for hours, he provides as much insight into several decades’ worth of East Anglian lives as the folksinger Harry Cox, who had been captured on vinyl and tape for the first time in the 1950s after years of singing accapella purely for fun and entertainment, ever did, and I defy anyone who has any interest in the fabric of this nation’s origins to not be interested by it. As for the cinematic angle- well, I’ve never been one to dwell on technical minutiae, but never before has the sight of a horse shaking flies from its flank been invested with so much poetry and power….
The extras (all short films of varying duration in the 1950s and 60s) made by Gladwell are incredible – OK, the ones without sound have the ability to confuse and disorientate, but Miss Thompson Goes Shopping and An Untitled Film, both of which betray the director’s interest in, whether he likes it or not, the macabre, are fine examples of how to realise experimental works without falling prey to pretension, while his collaboration with Derrick Knight, The Great Steam Fair, is simply charming, completing a fine, even if still somewhat perplexing, package. Nowhere near as perplexing, by any means, as its intended market- who, exactly, apart from devotees of the wilfully obscure, will buy this dual-format release, is a mystery to me, but then again, the BFI already owned it, so presumably it’s not like they had to pay for the rights. Sure, there’s a chance that if anything, it may turn out to be exactly the kind of film that will attract ‘cultural tourists’ from Crouch End to Partick Cross, but any true lover of cinema will ignore them anyway and appreciate that now, and once again, thanks to Flipside, they can appreciate a very rare and special film indeed. Its appearance after 36 years also presumably hints at the presence of many other hidden gems in their vaults, and I await those just as eagerly, although whether or not the beetroot broth referred to earlier will be involved is a point for the village moot.
In the meantime, savour the taste of Requiem for a Village- rich in texture, occasionally alien to the palate, but, in the long run, a meritorious dish.