Oct 18, 2014
While the Germans have paid great tribute to their rural traditions and cultures with the once-popular but now largely ridiculed Heimatfilm genre, their Germanic brothers, the English, who have always had a larger disparity between the classes, have done very little to cinematically honor their ancestors and seem more interested in making intolerable hagiographies about banal monarchs and whatnot. Recently, I had the good fortune of happening upon an avant-garde Anglo-Saxon Heimat film that is surely a hidden gem among the seemingly bottomless pit of banality that is the British film industry. Directed by relatively unknown auteur David Gladwell—a man better known for editing Lindsay Anderson classics like If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973) than his own films—Requiem for a Village (1975) is a lucid, lyrical, operatic, and totally unclassifiable celluloid poem about a church and cemetery caretaker from an east Anglian village who feels dejected by modernity and urbanization and who prefers to reminisce over his dead friends, neighbors, and family members while cleaning their tombstones. Of course, as one can expect from an experimental work, Gladwell’s film is not merely mindlessly nostalgic sentimentalist twaddle like most Teutonic Heimat flicks, though it is by no means a pretentious masturbatory dilettante piece that was made by the director with the intent of proving how ‘avant-garde’ he is. Part living postcard, part ethnographic meta-documentary (Gladwell cast real people from the Suffolk villages where he filmed for the acting roles), part metaphysical zombie flick, part love letter to an ancient village and a dying way of life, part T.S. Eliot-esque cine-poem, and part critique of technology and the rise of the suburbs, Requiem for a Village—a split-narrative work that seamlessly connects the past and present as depicted from the perspective of an old man who literally and figuratively lives in the past and is ready to take his last gasp so as to be reunited with his deceased wife—is one of those rare films that seems almost completely original in its essence, as a film that establishes its own distinct cinematic language. Indeed, Lindsay Anderson probably said it best when he stated of the work: “David Gladwell's film is an authentic, lyrical pastoral work of absolute and obstinate originality - the work of a unique artist... Requiem for a Village is one of that handful of works which prove that the English poetic genius is fully capable - given the right, rare circumstances - of expressing itself in cinema, as it always has in literature and painting.” Not unlike Fred Halsted’s avant-garde homo hardcore flick LA Plays Itself (1972)—another film that contrasts the organic beauty and serenity of the country with noise, human nastiness, and abstract man made concrete jungles of the city—Gladwell's film depicts the bulldozer as a ruthless symbol for the destruction of pastoral perfection and history, as well as man as a pernicious god-given plague with a propensity for committing forced entry in regard to both nature and the nether-regions of other human beings (luckily, Gladwell's film does not feature any brutal fisting scenes, though it does feature a savage yet strangely beauteous rape montage that is arguably the most poetic depiction of sexual ravaging ever committed to celluloid). Somewhat of a ‘folk horror’ work in part that is more authentic in its essence than Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973) in organically depicting the ancient culture it centers around, Requiem for a Village features the unrelenting cultural pessimism of Oswald Spengler, the lyrical love of landscapes (but also people) of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), the nuanced appreciation of the Volk and Volksgeist of Edgar Reitz's magnum opus Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984), the playful acknowledgement of England's pagan roots in David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974) directed by Alan Clarke, and the sensitive yet highly sensual approach to sexuality of the best works of Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk, as a folkish filmic fever dream that demonstrates that the purest and most magical forms of pulchritude arise from the blood and soil of the peasantry, which has been more or less murdered by man himself.
Requiem for a Village centers around an elderly church caretaker who belongs to a zeitgeist long gone and who longs for death, whether he knows it or not. While now living in the suburbs like most of the surviving members of his quaint East Anglian village, the Old Man still spends most of his days working at the village, mainly in and around the old church in which he was married. Completely out of touch with the living, the Old Man only talks to himself, with most of his conversations revolving around attempting to remember the death dates of his former neighbors while looking at their ruined tombstones at the church graveyard. In fact, the Old Man spends so much time obsessing over his dead neighbors and loved ones that these individuals somehow manage to come back to life and rise from the grave, though they are not rotten. Indeed, Gladwell's film probably features the most benign and warmly welcomed ‘zombies’ in all of cinema history. After watching in astonishment as the dead rise from the grave in a most jubilant fashion and barely acknowledge him, the Old Man enters the church and magically transform into his younger self on his wedding day. From there, the film unearths fragments from the most memorable and sometimes even goofy (in one scene, a man brags how he tied a rope around a horse's testicles so it would not kick him) moments of the Old Man's life. As was not uncommon at the time, the Old Man lacked experience on his wedding night and awkwardly got to "know" his beloved in a most naive fashion, which is in stark contrast to the sexual degeneracy of today where virgin teenage boys get addicted to pornography at an early age and ruin much of the magic associated with discovering the opposite sex. The birth of the Old Man's daughter, who is now a somewhat grouchy middle-age spinster with a dyke-like haircut, is depicted in rather graphic detail, thus underscoring the traumatic and dangerous yet visceral beauty of human reproduction. The birthing scene certainly reminded me that it was not uncommon not too long ago for a mother to sacrifice her life to create more life whereas women today are pampered all the way through pregnancy and hardly have to worry about dying before bringing their children into this world.
In Requiem for a Village, a gang of young leather-clad bikers become a symbol of the rapid proliferation of technology and urbanization, as well as a symbolic representation of how the present unsympathetically kills and buries the past, especially in regard to culture, customs, art, and religion. Ultimately, the Old Man who lives in the past is killed after one of the crotch-rocket-riding whippersnappers runs him over, which proves to be a truly divine experience for the dejected geezer, who is reunited with his deceased spouse and the rest of the villagers who succumbed to fate long ago. The Old Man's death is important as with his demise comes the burying of all the customs, traditions, and memories of the village, which is scheduled to be bulldozed to make way for a new chic suburb development. Before dying, the Old Man demonstrates his disgust for the modern world in a variety of ways, which is most apparent in a montage where the old disgruntled fart flings soil at a monstrous mechanized gold dirt digger, which cuts to a flashback scene of a ploughman tending to his horse, thus reflecting the increasingly cold and abstract relationship man has to nature. In arguably the most potent segment of the film towards the end, the Old Man recalls being a young boy watching his father quasi-rape his mother in a delightfully disturbed montage which is inter-spliced with a flashback sequence of two scythe-wielding young men gang-raping a young girl, as well as a present-day sequence of the bikers raping a girl, in a darkly erotic segment highlighting the historically violent nature of regeneration and the cycle of life. Indeed, it is hinted that the Old Man was spawned from an act of such sexual savagery, thus reflecting the ironic nature of nature, as a paradoxical system that creates life out of destruction, harmony out of chaos, and beauty out of abject ugliness. After all, if Alejandro Jodorowsky's father did not rape his mother in Chile some 80+ years ago (as the auteur has claimed in various interviews), the world would be deprived of such cinematic surrealist masterpieces as El Topo (1970) and Santa Sangre (1989). Of course, if one thing is for sure, it is that the Old Man, like every human being, left this world the same way he entered it—as nothing, or as one of the characters wisely states during one of the many flashback scenes: “We all come from dust and we go back to dust.”
A fleeting glimpse of an extinct kultur from rustic rural England before the age of culturally schizophrenic phenomena like chavs and wiggers, the deluge of third worlders from the ex-colonies, the great national shame of Islamic South Asian white slavery rings, American cultural colonization, and the rise of the suburbs, among various other modern social plagues that make the once-great British empire seem like an inexplicable memory, if not absurdist fantasy, Requiem for a Village is not only a lost arthouse masterpiece of sorts, but an invaluable historical document that gives you a better feeling and understanding of a now extinct culture and way of life than any graduate degree ever could. In terms of major themes in the film, Oswald Spengler, himself a die hard critic of the British and their influence on the world, probably said it best when he wrote: “Long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.” Indeed, aside from the old church and cemetery, which are both in discernibly bad shape, the country is depicted as raped and plundered in Gladwell's film. Going back to Spengler, he once stated: “When the Englishman speaks of national wealth he means the number of millionaires in the country.” Of course, England's real wealth is depicted in Requiem for a Village, but the English do not seem to know that, hence why the film is truly one of a kind, as a rare rendering of the real English people and not effete monarchs with bad teeth, swarthy untermenschen from the third world, and chav scum. Featuring an immaculately complementary haunting choral musical score by David Fanshawe (Seven Years in Tibet, Gangs of New York), an exeedingly ethereal depiction of the Suffolk countryside, and a rare authentic expression of the Anglian Volksgeist, Gladwell's is a film that unequivocally proves that not all English people are either sniveling, pretentious, tea-drinking twats or brain dead, tattooed, and illiterate white trash scum.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 3:16 PM
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