Requiem for a Village Review
In just over a fortnight’s time the next pair of BFI Flipside releases will be upon us. One of those Blu-rays will likely attract the vast majority of the attention. Recently restored and already attracting the plaudits on its nationwide theatrical tour, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End will no doubt continue to do so once it reaches the home media market (and rightly so). Yet there’s a danger that the rescuing of this particular gem from obscurity will overshadow this month’s other Flipside release. Requiem for a Village doesn’t have the existing cult fanbase of Deep End or the allure of its familiar names: Jane Asher, Diana Dors, arguably Skolimowski too considering he’s still very much active and has recently drawn further praise for his most recent feature, the Vincent Gallo-starring thriller Essential Killing. (In a fitting piece of serendipity, Essential Killing will gain its own UK Blu-ray release just a week before Deep End’s.) By way of contrast Requiem for a Village was made with an entirely non-professional cast, none of whom would act again, and written, directed and edited by one David Gladwell. If his name draws a blank then that would be perfectly understandable. He directed only two features for the cinema, his other credits in this capacity encompassing a smattering of shorts and television pieces. And yet you’ve probably seen more films with Gladwell attached than you perhaps realise…
Having started out making amateur films whilst at college on his father’s home-movie equipment, Gladwell produced a short for the BFI Experimental Film Fund in the late fifties. This led to a brief stint at the British Transport Films Film Unit and credits, as production assistant and assistant editor respectively, on two of their best-loved works: Blue Pullman from 1960 and John Schlesinger’s Terminus made the following year. It’s the latter film which is most important in Gladwell’s case as the role of editor would become his most common source of employment and where his work has been most widely seen. Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and O Lucky Man! were both cut by Gladwell, as was James Ivory’s Bombay Talkie and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing series for BBC television. He also did significant work under Derrick Knight, the documentary filmmaker, as did a number of his contemporaries: future creator of the prototypical ‘reality TV’ series The Family, Roger Graef; award-winning cinematographer, and occasional director, Chris Menges. Look up Knight’s inclusions on the BFI’s Shadows of Progress set from last year and you’ll find Gladwell serving as editor twice more, on the ‘new town’ proselytising of Faces of Harlow and on the touching National Coal Board commission A Time to Heal. Continue delving amongst documentary releases and the BFI’s online presence and you’ll also find Aberdeen by Seaside and Deeside, which Gladwell made for the Films of Scotland Committee in 1970, on a Panamint Cinema disc and Knight’s Smoking and You (another editing assignment) on the BFI’s Vimeo channel. You might also recall, if pressed, Memoirs of a Survivor, the second and last feature which Gladwell directed for the cinema, adapted from Doris Lessing’s novel, starring Julie Christie and once available (but no longer) on DVD in the US courtesy of Anchor Bay.
So there is quite a presence already out there, albeit only rarely from an auterist standpoint. This is where this new BFI release comes in as it concentrates explicitly on Gladwell as director, compiling four short films alongside the main feature and packaged with a booklet drawing on new and existing material to put forward the case for him as creator and not simply technician. Given that Gladwell’s career saw him serve as director on fourteen different occasions, this clearly isn’t a comprehensive release in that respect, but it is a carefully compiled one. Each of the four shorts feeds into and informs Requiem for a Village, serving as encapsulations of individual themes, concerns and techniques. From A Summer Discord, made in 1955 and essentially an amateur production, we can discern a taste for dual narrative concerns. The film is partly in black and white, partly in colour and entirely silent. The colour sequence serves as a bizarre dream/nightmare imagining which subverts an otherwise fairly conventional tale of a young girl who has been scorned by her mother. Miss Thompson Goes Shopping, on the other hand, demonstrates Gladwell’s expert handling of the aged in his dramas; the Miss Thompson of the title being an old woman who the camera follows into town. The film also pays an especial attention to its soundtrack, ably commanding both the gentility of its rural settings and the comparative cacophony of urban life. This element would also play a part in 1964’s remarkable An Untitled Film courtesy of its electronic score by Ernest Berk. His experimental sounds combine with footage slowed down to 250 frames per second, producing an astonishing piece of cinema that reveals Gladwell at his most poetic and aesthetically minded. There’s no narrative here, or even a demand to ‘read’ the imagery, instead it simply replays a handful of beautifully captured moments over and over during its brief nine-minute duration. The most conventional short, therefore, is The Great Steam Fair, co-directed with Derrick Knight (though as editor and commentary writer, Gladwell arguably had the greater overall input). Here the aesthetics shine through once more courtesy of the 2.35:1 Techniscope frame, but its combined with a nostalgic glow thanks to the subject matter: the titular steam fair and fairground rides as enjoyed by various patrons over the course of a single day.
The commentary to The Great Steam Fair - which appears only at the very start and during the closing stages of the film so as not to interrupt the air of curious observation - describes the old fairground attractions as “scattered remnants”. It’s a resonant phrase in terms of Gladwell’s career, summing up his filmography perfectly. With its blend of personal works, television commissions, documentary assignments and studio films - a collection that feels all the more scattered given its haphazard appearance across various media or, if not, languishing in obscurity - this isn’t so much a cohesive body of work as it is a series of intriguing oddities. For every high profile credit such as If…. there is also a complete one-off such as his 40-minute fantasy for the BBC, Earthstars, starring Max Wall. Yet “scattered remnants” is also a phrase that beautifully encapsulates the qualities of Requiem for a Village. It’s there in the manner in which the various short films offer up respective dry runs for its methods and concerns. Thus we have a feature that makes use of that dual narrative technique from A Summer Discord, the focus on the elderly from Miss Thompson Goes to Town, the expressive use of an unexpected score as seen in An Untitled Film, an eye for the purely aesthetic from the same short and The Great Steam Fair’s nostalgic yearning for the past. All remnants from earlier works which infuse Requiem for a Village with a series of ideas and approaches that cohere to a quite remarkable degree. Needless to say, such a mixture results in an unconventional brew, one where ideas of a traditional narrative become secondary.
The title Requiem for a Village, and its simple opening titles adorned with flora, suggest a quaint picture, one to compare with Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan, say, and its soft focus, sun-dappled treatment of pastoral settings. It comes as some surprise, therefore, to discover that the opening shot is not of the English countryside but the English suburb: semi-detached houses with their small gardens and a contemporary motor car parked on the kerbside. This is very much the mid-seventies and not too far removed from the world of the ‘new town’ so merrily extolled in Faces of Harlow (though the location here is the Stoke Park Estate in Ipswich). From one of the houses emerges an elderly gent and his bicycle, soon to be followed by the camera like Miss Thompson’s shopping trip in reverse. Whereas she left her quiet rural home for the trappings of a busy high street, here our old man departs modern life via a busy dual carriageway to tend the graveyard in an old village church. Gladwell chooses to film this through the details, his camera focussing on the minutiae of the environment, whether it be the corner of a wooden shed, a cloud formation or a leafy lane. The initial effect is that we are watching another of his shorts films, albeit with a natural length of 68 minutes; the pacing is easy and relaxed, accompanied by little more than birdsong occasionally interrupted by heavy traffic or the sound of an excavator. There is no rush on Gladwell’s behalf to get to ‘the story’, as it were, but rather a strong sense of atmosphere. He clearly has an affinity with these quieter areas and, much like An Untitled Film and its prolonged attention to detail via slow motion, indulges the viewer through this lack of urgency.
If indulgence suggests ill-focus then its worth pointing out that Gladwell’s work at Derek Knight and Partners involved a number of editing jobs on scientific documentaries (such as Smoking and You or Liquefied Natural Gas: Its Ignition and Burning Characteristics, made in 1967). Understandably such pieces demanded an emphasis on precision in the manner in which they were put together and it is this sense of exactitude which is retained in Requiem for a Village. Certainly, the film may appear laidback and lackadaisical in its mood and atmosphere, yet there is also a very precise structure in operation; at times it (or An Untitled Film) may more readily resemble an artist’s film, but Gladwell never forgets his background or the skills he picked up there. Indeed, documentary elements repeatedly come through. Once our elderly gent has reached the church, the soundtrack makes room for his mumbled thoughts in voice-over. Such is the balance between fiction and non-fiction (courtesy of Requiem for a Village’s casting non-professional locals in all of its parts) that it becomes impossible to discern whether this was scripted material or the actual recollections of the man in question as he talks of his job and the people buried in the graveyard. At one point he even talks to a David - should we infer that this is in reference to one of the names on a gravestone or Gladwell himself, no doubt perched just off-camera?
Mention of the soundtrack necessarily means discussion of David Fanshawe and his wonderful score. It lays silent, or at least practically invisible, during Requiem for a Village’s early scenes only to erupt all of a sudden whilst our old man tends the graveyard. Combining brass and bells, with interspersed harp, piano and male and female vocals, the result is a soundscape both epic - little bursts to interrupt the calm, eventually growing into something magnificent - and decidedly quirky. It’s this latter quality that prevents the film from seeming overwrought; put simply, it’s a little too strange for that. Furthermore, when placed atop Requiem for a Village’s most astonishing scene - the dead resurrected from their resting places as the old man looks on - it creates something altogether unique. The English landscape, so immediately recognisable thus far, takes on a different edge, one akin to those Euro-horror films shot in the UK by foreign talent: the likes of José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres. The component parts are all in place - a village church for Gladwell, a couple on a caravanning holiday for Larraz - but they feel somehow altered or rendered afresh; elements seen through a different eye so that their familiarity is entirely displaced. Requiem for a Village most definitely is not a horror film, but it retains that uncanny air. The walking dead in this instance (living, breathing “scattered remnants”) are a mere means of experiencing the past. The dual narrative begins as those the elderly man once knew come back to relive their existence during the early 20th century. A more simplistic approach would be to render these scenes as flashbacks without the bells and whistles. Yet by rendering the past as a literal resurrection it becomes all the more tangible as well as bizarre. And, needless to say, it has already become clear that Gladwell is not interesting in doing things the conventional way.
The split-narrative - the past interacting and intercut with the present - becomes the crux of Requiem for a Village. That nostalgic yearning found in The Great Steam Fair is writ large as Gladwell counterbalances the speed and volume of modern life with the simpler times of old. You sense that he didn’t think much of the ‘new town’ when constructing Faces of Harlow in the editing suite and that this film has, essentially, become his revenge. When reviewing another Flipside disc for the Digital Fix, clydefro jones noted how one of its attendant shorts, another ‘new town’ doc entitled Stevenage, was “essentially a propaganda piece commissioned by the Stevenage Development Corporation that nonetheless has a weird, almost frightening quality to anyone weary of prefab zombies and their lifestyles.” I imagine Gladwell would fully agree; he has literal zombies to counteract the metaphorical ones, and they’re a much more agreeable and interesting folk. Indeed, their activities are shot with the eye of a fascinated documentarian. Sequences in which the villagers tend to the land or make a cartwheel using ancient methods could be excised from Requiem for a Village in their entirety and serve as excellent non-fiction shorts in their own right, ones to be placed alongside Murray Martin’s 1970s docs on outmoded industrial practices such as Bowes Line (1975), Last Shift (1976) or Glassworks (1977). These moments are captured with a genuine warmth of feeling, to such a degree that we forget their fantastical underpinnings. The drama and the documentary have become blurred once more.
Understandably the tensions between past and present must come to a head as Requiem for a Village reaches for its final moments. It is here where the film, arguably, becomes a little unstuck with Gladwell occasionally veering towards the heavy-handed as his metaphors take on an air which is a little too obvious. (I won’t spoil the developments, but one sequence in particular is rather crass in its cross-cutting between two activities so that the message becomes abundantly clear.) It’s potentially unnecessary, especially in light of those films and filmmakers who have dealt with this schism between the modern and the traditional. Watch Alan Lomax’s remarkable Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953), Philip Trevelyan’s The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971), Frank Cvitanovich’s Beauty, Bonny, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton (1974) or Andrew Kötting’s Diddyköy (1992) and you’ll find a series of documentaries which all address the tensions at the centre of Requiem for a Village. In each we find dying traditions co-existing with the present day and in each that dislocation between the two is readily apparent. This subtext doesn’t require an overt spelling out and arguably this should also be true of Gladwell’s film too. Thankfully it happens on only two occasions, though I’ll admit they only affected me as much as they did owing to the sure handling elsewhere. Minor flaws in a major achievement.
And yet, despite these moments, the ending manages to be extremely moving in some wonderfully subtle ways. Once again, no spoilers, but there’s something to be said for Gladwell’s command of a simple edit or the way in which he capture a particular feeling through the simplest of means. He returns to the semi-detached houses for his final shot, bringing Requiem for a Village full circle and with it the sense that he has produced something really quite special. It’s a hard film to sum up such are its many facets and qualities, not to mention its ability to combine drama, documentary, fantasy and social commentary. Certainly, there have been many reference points throughout this review, some of which may be entirely unexpected or arguably a little obscure. (Further comparisons will no doubt abound as I continue to make my way through two of the BFI’s other July releases - their fifth COI volume, Portrait of a People, and Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow - both of which examine ‘Britishness’ through its landscape and peculiar traditions and folklore.) But ultimately Requiem for a Village is very much its own work and a unique one at that. To end, as I began, with a reference to Deep End: that film’s rediscovery may very well steal the attention and the plaudits (and maybe even a few customers), yet this reclaiming of Gladwell as one of the country’s best ‘unknown’ filmmakers is arguably the more exciting and important.
Requiem for a Village is being released by the BFI on July 18th as part of their Flipside strand, earning itself the spine number 018. As has become typical for their Flipside discs the film is presented as a ‘dual format’ edition encompassing both Blu-ray and standard DVD in a single package. In this instance all of the extras - the four short films detailed in the main bulk of this review - have also been rendered in hi-def making the disc contents identical. The Blu-ray is encoded for all regions, as is the DVD.
The main feature was transferred in High Definition from the BFI National Archive’s 16mm interpositive. Given the film stock it is worth noting that Requiem for a Village is not going to demonstrate pristine clarity and that expectations in this regard would be unfounded. What we get is a presentation which retains the original Academy ratio, is mostly free of dirt and damage, and does exactly as we should expect from such a source. In other words the image isn’t always pin-sharp but it is infused with the requisite detail when needed and some wonderfully expressive colours that look superb on the Blu-ray. Moreover, the hazy look of the film is perfectly in tune with Gladwell’s intentions - had it been crystal clear I honestly doubt it would have the same effect.
The soundtrack has also been cleaned up in order to remove signs of wear and age and similarly comes with inherent ‘flaws’. The original mono is present and correct, coping ably with Fanshawe’s distinctive score, the sundry background noises and the occasional bursts of dialogue. Note, however, that the recording of the spoken word elements does not always aim for perfection: the old man’s mumblings by the gravestones are exactly that, mumbles; other moments of dialogue are captured in a documentary vein meaning that it isn’t important, or intended, that we can hear each and every word. Of course, when it is necessary the clarity is as we would expect. Simply bear in mind when watching Requiem for a Village that these rougher edges are present and fully the result of its production, not the disc’s.
Having already discussed the short films within the main review I will simply offer a quick note with regards to their presentation quality. A Summer Discord, being an amateur production, is understandably rough and ready in its appearance, as is Miss Thompson Goes Shopping (which was loaned from Gladwell’s own collection). An Untitled Film, meanwhile, looks absolutely stunning having been filmed on black and white 35mm. An individual rating for this particular presentation would easily earn a 10/10 mark and I would go so far as to say it represents the perfect demonstration film for showing off your Blu-ray and HD set-ups. Shot at a rate of 250fps, An Untitled Film is understandably in awe of the detail - a sentiment which is surely to be translated to the viewer. It captures smoke, water, steam, dust, debris, animal fur and so on in gorgeous slow motion like a Sky HD advertisement before its time. Of course, it’s also a remarkable work in its own right and some would say fully justifying a purchase of this disc for its inclusion alone. The Great Steam Fair is equally stunning but for different reasons. Here slow motion and black and white is replaced by colour and Techniscope widescreen framing. It’s been transferred from a print as opposed to the negatives available for An Untitled Film so therefore cannot quite compare, but nonetheless still looks terrific.
Finally, the booklet. Once again a wealth of information amongst the usual collection of illustrations, credits, acknowledgements and notes on the transfers. First up is Elizabeth Sussex’s 1975 review of Requiem for a Village for Sight & Sound reprinted in full. This is followed by a new piece by Rob Young, the author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, in which he places the film in the context of William Morris, Patrick Keiller and John Betjeman amongst others. David Gladwell also discusses the film, his work and his influences, and is also the subject of a four-page biography. The booklet concludes with notes on each of the four shorts by William Fowler (on A Summer Discord, Miss Thompson Goes Shopping and An Untitled Film) and Patrick Russell (on The Great Steam Fair). Also worth noting are the three paintings by Gladwell amongst the illustrations. (Spoiler warnings are also firmly in place on the relevant article.)
For those wishing to sample more of David Gladwell the following films can be found either on disc or online. Of his directorial efforts Aberdeen by Seaside and Deeside (1970), made for the Films of Scotland Committee and typical of their travelogues, is available on Panamint Cinema’s Aberdeen: The Silver City disc or can be viewed in its entirety on the Scottish Screen Archives website (link). His only other feature besides Requiem for a Village, Memoirs of a Survivor (1981), was released onto Region 1 disc by Anchor Bay and is now out of print although copies can be purchased through the Amazon Marketplace and elsewhere. As for Gladwell’s editing credits, the following features are easily available on disc: If…., Bombay Talkie and O Lucky Man!. Two of the documentaries he edited for Derrick Knight, Faces of Harlow and A Time to Heal, can be found on the BFI’s Shadows of Progress boxed-set, whilst a third, Smoking and You, is available to view in full on their Vimeo channel (link). Another editorial assignment, on Bob Bentley’s BAFTA-winning short film Recluse, can be found on the BFI’s Flipside release, The Black Panther. His two British Transport Film contributions - production assistant on Blue Pullman, assistant editor on Terminus - can be found, respectively, on volumes one and three of the BFI’s BTF releases.