A Construction of Locale
Watching Mark Jenkin's superb Bait you realise just how many films are plotted and crafted, well-put-together but capable of being made by anyone with a decent technical skillset and a series of cinematic assumptions. Yet occasionally there are films which are constructed and Jenkin's Bait is one of them. It returns cinema of course to some of its early preoccupations and the film is well-versed in the Soviet Montage school as it works a combination of Kuleshovian effects, Pudovkinian bricolage and Eisensteinian kino-fist. That's a lot to be getting on with but we can say a good example of the school's influence comes in using close-ups of an old man's hand to work the nets instead of the hands of the actor playing the central character. The older man was an experienced fisherman, Jenkin revealed in post-screening interviews, the main actor not but such is the freedom Jenkin gives himself in the creation of the carved up mise-en-scene that one man's hand can easily be utilised as part of the body of another. Viewing Bait with a modicum of knowledge about the Soviet school and you'll see where Jenkin is coming from. Yet the film also (like his earlier Bronco's House) shares plenty similarities with more modern constructivist directors like Bresson and Paradjanov, and more especially, in the British context, Terence Davies and Bill Douglas.
But first back to the Soviet school. A central dispute between Eisenstein and Pudovkin rested on how to film an event. Both reckoned editing was important but while Pudovkin saw that you could reconstruct filmic time according to the needs of montage rather than reality, Eisenstein saw this opportunity as more radical still. Pudovkin believed that "created by the camera, obedient to the will of the director after the cutting and joining of the separate pieces of celluloid there arises a new filmic time; not the rea- time embraced by the phenomenon as it takes place before the camera, but a new filmic time, conditioned only by the speed of perception and controlled by the number and duration of the separate elements selected for filmic representation of the action." (Film Technique) Pudovkin reckoned the important thing was that images were linked; Eisenstein insisted that linkage is only one of a number of montage operations available. Eisenstein reckoned "from my point of view, linkage is merely a possible special case. Recall what an infinite number of combinations is known in physics to be capable of arising from the impact (collision) of spheres. Depending on whether the sphere be resilient, non-resilient or mingled. Amongst all these combinations there is one in which the impact is so weak that the collision is degraded to an even movement of both in the same direction." (Film Form) Eisenstein's disagreement with Pudovkin rested on this notion: why would anyone choose the weakest linkage as Pudovkin does? Yet many films throughout the history of cinema have chosen in Eisenstein's terms the weakest linkage, the most cause and effectual of image constructions. There are various reasons why this may be so and, in drawing on the perspective of physics, Eisenstein chose to eschew more standardised ways of looking at the world.
If Eisenstein drew on physics as the important analogy of film, Andre Bazin chose chemistry as the means by which best to understand cinema, moving very far away from Eisenstein and retaining a distance from Pudovkin. Pudovkin announced the logic of film by insisting that what mattered was the coherent assemblage of images that allows us to construct the nature of the event based on giving us all the variables through editing. The director insists on concision so that extraneous material can be removed from the sequence, but the selection still gives us all the necessary elements. "These details were not the result of chance, they were selected, and, moreover, selected in such a way that from their sum, as from a sum of separate elements, the image of the whole action could be assembled." (Film Technique). Bazin, of course, saw that film was indebted to the reality out of which it came, and the chemical process which captured an event. The sort of concision Pudovkin insisted upon Bazin saw as overly manipulative, preferring an approach which found reality rather than made it. As Bazin said, "the originality of neo-realism as compared with the chief schools of realism that preceded it and with the Soviet cinema, lies in never making reality the servant of some a priori point of view." (What is Cinema?)
Out of these three positions, (Eisenstein's, Pudovkin's and Bazin's) Pudovkin's became normalised and Bazin's influential, as cinema was often seen as a combination of (plot) logic and screen space which acknowledged the importance of mise-en-scene. In Eisenstein's notion films needn't really have a mise-en-scene at all: short shots were montage cells brought into play with each other in ever more dynamic ways and from this point of view one can see how Pudovkin's insistence on bringing together the elements of a scene in a coherent manner, and Bazin's belief that editing should minimally intrude on the event it shows us, could seem from an experimental point of view to be lacking imagination. But what if Eisenstein's films aren't important chiefly because of the dynamic relationship between the shots but because the dynamism still respected a pro-filmic aspect after all? It is ironic that the most famous sequence in Eisenstein's work remains the Odessa Steps set-piece in Battleship Potemkin. Of course, Eisenstein expands time in the scene as it takes the troops forever to make their way down the steps but it is also remembered as a brilliant filmic example of a moment in history and a place in geography. Concerning the failed mutiny in 1905 at Odessa, Eisenstein may be far less interested in the logic of images than Pudovkin but he is here interested in the reality out of which those images come. Often this wasn't the case. When talking about a short story by Maupassant he acknowledges actual clocks. Maupassant "forced us to experience the sensation of midnight by making twelve o'clock strike in various places on various clocks." (Film Form) But should all the clocks go off in the same city? If a filmmaker shows us twelve clocks going off around Paris to indicate how worried someone will be that his loved one still hasn't appeared, such a montage can seem romantically exaggerated, but to show twelve clocks from around the world would be hyperbolically hilarious: from pathos to bathos. Yet Eisenstein does exactly that in October, where he acknowledges the importance of the revolution through showing the time not only in Petrograd but also London, Paris, New York, Shanghai. The event may justify such hyperbole but also indicates that Eisenstein generally had little respect for the force of coherent screen space even if his most memorable moments retain that aspect.
Now back to Bait. It would be wrong to say that Jenkin tells the story of locals and incomers in a small Cornwall fishing village. He doesn't really tell it at all; he constructs it out of fragments of montage that cumulatively very much add up to more than the sum of its parts, yet while the sum of its parts is what matters formally it is the coherence of location that matters no less if we take into account what we have been saying about Eisenstein. It is much easier we feel for Jenkin to replace without us noticing a hand of one actor with the hand of another, but we can call this creative anatomy rather than what Kuleshov famously called creative geography. In Kuleshov's formulation, a filmmaker could play with locational specifics as long as the shot could put the viewer in mind of a single place. A couple could be walking along a street and the film could show the pair of them looking off-screen at the White House, and the viewer will assume that they are in the US even if the only shot indicating such a likelihood is this one moment of the American President's residency. A Bazinian aesthetic would struggle to generate such freedom because of Bazin's belief in the fidelity to screen space: the shot and the counter shot (the couple on the street and the building they are looking at) should be part of the same spatial reality: ideally, the film wouldn't cut between them. Yet we know all the time that filmmakers even who are far removed from the Kuleshovian nevertheless play with the geography of their locations. Whether it is a comedy like Local Hero using two different Scottish coastal locations to turn into the one village in the film, or the Caribbean set Queimada using both Cartagena and Marrakesh to recreate a small island in the Caribbean, directors who ostensibly seem much closer to Bazin than to Eisenstein, play with locational specificity. Yet they do so to capture a specific sense of place that may be contrary to reality but oddly isn't contrary to spatial fidelity. The Soviet montage filmmakers wanted to show that what mattered most was the unit of storytelling, however large (Pudovkin) or small (Eisenstein) that unit ought to be. What counted were the units put together for the purposes of argument and narrative. The spatiality would be sacrificed to it and this is why Kuleshov could insist that what mattered wasn't where something was shot, or even how the location could be felt, but only what shots the viewer needed to create the US in their mind. Even in Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein saw Odessa as a place is of little consequence next to the capacity to generate a montage sequence. "it is especially interesting to me that the general construction of Potemkin (a leap into a new quality) maintained in the music everything that pierced the pathetic construction the condition of a qualitative leap which we have seen in Potemkin was inseparable from the organism of the film." The steps are just a great location, and the city where the massacre took place, as we have no sense of the city beyond the immediate needs Eisenstein demanded of it. We may see that the Odessa steps are topographically important but that didn't mean Eisenstein did.
It seems to us Bait doesn't take lightly its location no matter how much it wants to shape it according to its own ends. The film's premise came from an idea about a fisherman who realises that "he wasn't living in a fishing village anymore, he was living in a holiday destination." (Sight and Sound) In Jenkin's original conception the film was going to be a video diary, "and the camera became a catalyst for simmering resentment." When interviewer Philip Concannon reckons there is a documentary-like realism about how Jenkin shoots the fishing but also a mythic and spiritual quality we seem much closer to Bazin than to the Soviet Montage school. As Jenkin says, "that's what I find missing in a lot of stuff I watch, that spirituality...there's something intangible and that's what film can do that I don't think any other art form can do." (Sight and Sound) In this sense, the film resembles the Bill Douglas Trilogy or the Terence Davies Trilogy in its need to invoke a place and a people: Bait is nothing if not a Cornish film, as if for all its constructive use of flashforwards, flashbacks, extreme close ups of faces and hands and objects, the film is aware that its radical freedom contains its own limits, and that limit is place. Here central character Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) has sold his house to people from the city who have turned it into a viable concern while his brother now uses his fishing boat to take drunken, fun-loving tourists out for a sea-faring joy ride. But Martin is determined to catch fish in a semi-comic narrative that is both emphasised and undercut by the methods of production.
Shot on 16mm with prohibitive costs limiting Jenkin to a minimum number of takes (usually two), the film Jenkin acknowledges was 'edited' in the script and yet at the same time edited after the film's making. It meant that he had to think carefully about what he could shoot because of the limited means available, but found also in post-production that because he was montaging his film rather than telling a story in the Pudovkinian manner he could use images more than once if necessary while also giving purpose to what might seem like extraneous footage. We can see this in the wooden masthead of faces from boats Jenkin films as he cuts between them and the actors' visages, and in repeated shots of broken glass and falling lobster cages. Jenkin manages a twofold economy of means: the first in shooting a tight scrip with minimal waste; second, in a post-production innovation that means no footage need be eschewed as he finds a purpose for material that can be surprisingly utilised or reused. Almost thirty years ago, Colin McArthur wrote a very fine article in Sight and Sound, 'In Praise of Poor Cinema', that wished to see innovative British films made on the cheap. That is exactly what Jenkin has done but we shouldn't underestimate another aspect that this thus far po-faced essay has foregone, and which makes it quite distinct from many of the films thus far under discussion.
Vital to the film is a sense of humour but like many a great movie that emphasises the humorous, the sense of humour is always secondary to a sense of perspective. Martin is often a source of mirth in his pig-headed determination to remain a fisherman no matter the meagre catch, and remain aloof to the tourists no matter how pleasant they happen to be. The couple (Mary Woodvine; Simon Shepherd), who have bought the Wards' family cottage and are using it for short-term lets, are decent enough people and, from a certain perspective, Martin is more obnoxious than they are. Yet this is where Jenkin insists on form and content generating a political significance which needn't at all be evidence of a tract. Rather than seeing form and content as one that produces a message, as we find in numerous films of what can call Brexit cinema: films that implicitly, perhaps even accidentally, indicate that Britain ought to leave the European Union because we coped so well before its instigation, evident in Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour and The Imitation Game, and where Europeans were our enemies rather than our friends, as the filmmakers reckon they are just telling interesting stories, Jenkin insists not in creating a coherent whole but instead a splintered partiality that shows perspectives count. By emphasising the form he proposes that a scene can't fall into its presuppositions.
In other words, when a fight breaks out in a bar as it does here, as it does in anything from Pudovkin's Mother to Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff, the form asks to take sides, to position ourselves with the diegesis. Jenkin doesn't so much ask us to take sides as to show the sides of the form that the tension can manifest. Usually, such a sequence is based on shot/counter shot but the purpose is to give the viewer impression that the form it takes is irrelevant next to the fight itself. Jenkin reverses the priorities and so we can't help but perspectives the situation through the form that shows how sides are formed. Such an approach brings out humour as the film brings out the form, which in turn shows us that events are multifaceted not only because they are complex (most films don't even bother to suggest that) but because the shots 'multifacet' us they put us in different places even if we know where we should be at all times in terms of sympathy. In the very fine The Parallax View which generates all sorts of fresh architectural perspectives there is nevertheless a typical, if very effective, example of what we mean. Central character Frady (Warren Beatty) goes into a bar in a town he is new to and the film cuts between Frady at the counter and a cop and others in the corner seated. The waitress comes over and asks what he wants to drink as she flirts a little, and as we have a medium-long shot of the young woman serving him a drink, the film cuts back to a close up of the cop looking on jealously and, as he gets up to go to the bar, the camera holds, momentarily, on his colleague, who turns out to be the sheriff. At the bar, the film cuts between Frady and the cop in one frame to the woman looking on and looking worried. In tIme, a fight breaks out. Our point is twofold: the shots aren't exclusively from Frady's point of view but incorporate those of other characters, and the scene has several moments of humour that indicates there is a perspective willing to acknowledge that the scene contains within it the cliched. At one moment, the cop touches Frady before the fight and Frady says "only touch me if you love me"; after the fight, Frady says to the sheriff, "you have some interesting ideas about law enforcement." All the humour rests in the diegesis rather than in the form, with not only Frady but also the sheriff and the waitress offering moments of wit. In contrast, all the humour in the sequence in Bait rests on the formal combination of the shots rather than on anything the characters say. The self-consciousness in The Parallax View is one the characters are privy to as the form is conventional; the self-consciousness in Bait is one the characters aren't cognizant of but that the audience recognises in the play with form that makes us well aware we have been here many times before. Both films have a fine sense of humour and a knowing sense of the generic, but offer them quite differently. This difference is vital to the constructivist aesthetic Jenkin is working within as if he wants to find in humour and the generic, while also paying attention to the specificity of locale, a means by which to resurrect a mode of cinema that needn't exist only in the avant-garde or in silent film.
Humour and locale we might say are the two ways in which Jenkin escapes the avant-garde and mimicking silent cinema. Of course, his film has dialogue even if the post syncing hints at the distance demanded of early film and which silent cinema closed with intertitles: it is dialogue that never quite comes out the characters' mouths; it seems to exist alongside them, giving the film a humorous knowingness which needn't fall into condescension. And yet it needn't be avant-garde either, creating in this gap a fact many an experimental filmmaker in the past acknowledged that the film strip and sound recording are separate entities brought together to give the impression of a unified whole. When in the early seventies Stan Brakhage, for example, made Act of Seeing with One's Eyes without any sound at all, it brilliantly captured the horror of the morgue that he was filming as the bodies are cut up in a properly deathly silence, but it also emphasised the fact that the image even many years after silent cinema needn't be obligated to a soundtrack. In Bait it feels almost like a two for one offer; we sense the silence in the images that sound has augmented, but Jenkin provides it not with the austerity of a Brakhage but with the humour of a Woody Allen, the sort of humour Allen extracted out of the scene in Annie Hall when Alvy and Annie talk and subtitles suggest their thoughts that run contrary to their spoken words. Jenkin has made plenty films that would be seen as avant-garde before Bronco's House edged him into narrative filmmaking but though, as in Bronco's House, to say the film is about incoming tourists monopolising the economy, just as Bronco's House was about the housing problem in Cornwall, would be to miss the film's point. To say both films are very clearly films about Cornwall appears closer to the mark.
What both films do is conform and counter Soviet montage by seeing that the images are put together in a manner indicating that no image necessarily belongs to any other but at the same time insisting that no location can simply replace another. Hollywood so often insists on creative geography to show that two distinct locations can be joined together as long as the diegesis remains coherent, but it is usually much more faithful to the body of the actor. This is evident so often now when an actor insists in doing their own stunts or learns a skill which means a double needn't replace them, suggesting that the actor is paramount and location negligible, Jenkin reverses this. It seems that the actor is no more than the sum of their parts (and replaceable), while the location is irreplaceable. It suggests a Bazinian respect for geography within the montage school's disrespect for space, a realist demand for acknowledging location while acknowledging that actors, if not cattle, can be used as bit parts, no matter how important the actors here are as faces, none more so than Rove and Woodvine. Thus Bait can be seen as a fresh work not only because it indicates so readily a constructivist approach to the form, but also a surprisingly realist respect for the Cornwall the director clearly knows and loves. As Chloe Lizotte says, "Jenkin finds a muse in his home county of Cornwall" just as Liverpool proved so vital to Davies and New Craighall to Douglas. The films suggest 'Poor Cinema is often locationally very rich indeed.
© Tony McKibbin