A Brexit-era portrait, rooted in the local culture and community of the southwestern United Kingdom, shows how marginalized places are facing up to a changing world in this hand-crafted, monochrome expression of a life under threat. British filmmaker Mark Jenkin made Bait, his surprising 2018 breakthrough experimental drama, entirely with a hand-cranked Bolex camera on 16mm, black-and-white film that he processed by hand. In advance of the film’s November 1–2 Walker screenings, Graeme Stout writes on Jenkin’s portrayal of the often romanticized Cornwall and the struggle of a community facing an oppressive economy.
The image of Cornwall in literature, film, and television is one shot through with surly locals, smugglers, pirates, and scoundrels. From the novels of Daphne du Maurier to the recent adaptation of Poldark for the BBC, Cornwall’s rugged landscape has long served as a romantic backdrop to a larger imaginary of the British Isles. Here, the roughness of the land and people have too often served as a foil to the middle-class reserve of the British, offering an escape from the legacy of Victorian moralism. As with the other parts of the “Celtic fringe”—the west of Ireland, Brittany, and the Hebrides—Cornwall has drawn the attention of writers and filmmakers looking for a primitive exoticism within reach of European metropoles. From Alberto Cavalcanti’s The Saving of Bill Blewitt to Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, cinema in particular has utilized the desolate beauty of the fringes of the British Isles to present an image of economic and social backwardness alongside the allure of primal and uncomplicated people and places. Mark Jenkin’s Bait meets this condescending image head on and with clenched fists, offering a stunning work of cinema that weaves the contemporary with the past.
Bait centers around the struggles of Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) as he struggles to save enough money to buy a fishing boat. We see in Martin a man who moves between humor, hope, and anger as he navigates the conflicts between his fellow locals, who used to make their living though fishing, and the seasonal migration of holiday makers from London. In the central harbor of an unnamed village, the Leighs have purchased most of the original houses, including Martin’s family home, converting them into cottages where the posh and leisured can spend their holidays sunning, swimming, and taking scenic tours of the rugged Cornish coastline. As the locals are pushed out of their homes, pubs, and streets, tensions boil over; this is the energy that propels Bait forward and makes it a prescient social allegory.
The beauty of Jenkin’s film is the way that its small scale serves as a reflection for much larger economic realities that go well beyond Cornwall. The plight of Martin and those around him reflect much larger struggles to maintain thriving and sustainable communities in the face of capital moving in and pricing the working classes out of their own homes. Everyday economics favors those with capital and without attachment, punishing those who value intangible bounds.
Early in the film, Martin sees what the Leighs have done to his family home: they have filled it with nautical kitsch which they purchased online in order to give it an air of regional authenticity. He jokes with his brother Steven (Giles King) that they have filled the house with ropes and chains and that it looks like a sex dungeon. Martin uses humor to deflect from the pain caused by the bourgeois effacement of his family home by the Leighs. Later in the film humor turns to anger when Martin’s brother also sees what has become of the kitchen where their mother’s pantry has been replaced by a decorative porthole: the once thriving heart of a household has been turned into a parody of local identity and economy.
Despite the obvious bad behavior and taste of the Leighs, Jenkin’s does not offer a one-sided narrative as Martin’s rage—as well as that of local bartender Wenna (Chloe Endean)—leads to unproductive, if not self-destructive, ends. Here it is not only the plot that propels this complex reading but the form of the film itself. Shot entirely on a 16mm Bolex camera with nonsynchronous sound and hand-processed and edited by Jenkin, Bait initially suggests—in both its formal and social qualities—a return to the realism of British film in the 1960s. If we make this assumption based on the foregrounding of black-and-white film and the theme of social inequality, Jenkin’s film utilizes an aesthetic structure that owes more to experimental film than social realism.
The use of flash forward and flash backward follow a structure quite different from what we normally see in narrative film. These movements through time are often unannounced and follow an arbitrary pacing and rhythm all their own. In a similar fashion, the pronounced use of closeups goes well beyond the highlighting of the emotional life of the characters. Here the closeup of a knot or external masonry focuses our attention not on a central image or device in the narrative but Jenkin’s dedication to 16mm filmmaking. As he has described in numerous interviews, his use of the Bolex camera constrained him in terms of shot length and forced him to strictly plan out shooting. With a 100-foot reel, he had approximately 2.5 minutes of footage depending on the camera’s interaction with the environment (mechanical cameras from the 1970s are susceptible to the elements), and with a maximum of 30 seconds per take Jenkin found that he often had sections of film left over that were too short for scenes of extended narrative. Refusing to waste this “excess” film, he used it to record studies of the various objects that populated the setting of his film. By interspersing these studies within the film, Jenkin destabilizes the narrative pull of his own film, forcing us to focus on the materiality of the life in the fishing village. This use of techniques of editing and cinematography borrowed from experimental cinema does not undermine the social and political impact of the film. What Jenkin manages to do in Bait is to create an experience in which the audience is confronted with a larger psychological drama that goes beyond individual characters and focuses our attention on communities who are confronted by an economic system over which they have no power. This is not to suggest that Bait is a grim film, for it is shot through with humor and hope. It is not, however, one that offers us answers or simplistic world views. In that we find its beauty.
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