midlife, screen, words

Bait Me

Cornish holiday, Bait and human sacrifice, Succession on the TV, Left Populism, Kill the Rich

Beginning at the end of the summer…

 

As they cross into Devon heading west, looking through the car window the shape of the land changes under a spoiled sky. By the time they hit Cornwall, the weak afternoon sun’s given way, with the rain landing in dumps and waves as the view turns dismal. 

 

In a hillside village divided by a fast stream bordered with tall grass, they pull in at a convenience store and it is agreed that it will be him who gets out the car and rushes through the rain, clutching his balled-up re-useable bag, aiming, but not too hopeful, for some last minute shopping – two litres of organic milk, Greek yogurt, some unsalted butter. 

 

In the store, he encounters Locals stood either side of the counter. The one in a yellow rain jacket looks him over as he shakes off the rain. He expects a sceptical expression, him being an Incomer, but all he gets is a blank face as he turns to patrol the aisles for yogurt. A text comes in from the car, Herbal Tea. Then a follow-up, Green Tea. He mutters, I don’t think so. And yet, look, see, here they all are. The organic milk, the unsalted butter, the unsweetened Greek yogurt, a box of individually wrapped herbal teabags, even green tea. He balloons the shopping bag to fill. He brought cash with him, assuming analogue, but they’re taking Apple Pay. He thinks, that went well, as he returns to the car, and they continue down the Roseland Peninsula to a village on the eastern flank for the start of their week by the sea. 

The Roseland - History of a Cornish Peninsula by Laurence O'Toole
the definitive guide

The car is stuffed with luggage and supplies to cover the first two days of the holiday. They brought food from London: wine, beer, oranges for morning juicing –  Natoora oranges, a bag of Costa Rican Strictly Hard Bean Swiss Water Decaf from the Decadent Decaff Company, organic eggs, organic bananas, organic leeks, a specialty loaf of bread from Gail’s, the za’atar herb mix he bought at a Palestinian fund raiser, sumac for a yogurt dressing, organic extra virgin olive oil, organic garlic, and his own garlic press, decaff breakfast tea, shiitake mushrooms… He didn’t think, not for one moment how all this out-of-county shopping might be controversial. He lives in a thoughtless bubble. 

 

The AirBnB is the last in a row of converted Victorian workers cottages. The silver gate leads to a whitewashed exterior and a porch door taking you inside and an interior mixing international Airspace – the ubiquitous contemporary vanilla of tasteful and  clean lines – with a large twist of local – fisherfolk trimmings, floats and fishing nets pinned on the wall, a pointless porthole, mini lighthouses for salt and pepper, dining plates with nautical stripes, a bathmat stitched with a yacht, a painting of the sea over the fireplace, a blue oyster catcher tossed in a storm.

 

The galley kitchen has limited cupboard space but there is a large fridge concealed behind the seagreen door. He shifts the perishables from the Ocado shopping bags to the spotless fridge. According to Mark Jenkin’s film Bait, it’s the first thing the out of towners do on arrival in Cornwall. The second thing is complain to fellow  Incomers about the drive down from London: ‘Seven Hours!’  

The Incomers, the tourists, the second home owners, the AirBnBrs, watch them decant the Prosecco and soft fruits from car to fridge. Bait’s camera lingers on a plastic punnet of blueberries in close-up. Blueberries as social commentary. The blueberry class wars. Later on in the movie, fuming at the Incomers with ninety nine reasons, the native hero denounces a posh couple as sponges on the local economy for keeping most of their wealth back in Chelsea, or Islington, or Barnes, for not even buying their groceries locally. He sees the film the week he gets back from Cornwall, he sits in a central London cinema, hears the accusation, and squirms.

The Hidden Hut, Porthcurnick Beach, Cornwall
a man walks up to a coffee hut

In the morning, they drive across the village, from one hill to another, to a car park on a blustery outcrop overlooking the sea. They ditch the car and walk along a short coastal path leading on to a grassy field shaped like a shell. They follow the path up and down and along the edge of the field all the way over to the storied hidden coffee hut listed in all the tourist guides. There is much to go see and do on the peninsular and yet this hut is surprisingly high on their list. The rated eaterie sits above a small cove and has been reviewed and written up in all the national broadsheets and even has its own glossy cookbook on sale. He charges forward to be sure he’s to the front of the queue and quickly puts in an order for second breakfast. Handing the barista his silicon fold-out re-useable coffee cup for his decaff flat white, his gaze falls upon a loaf of orange polenta cake. 

 

He sips his coffee and tries the cake, which, of course, is sweet and tastes lovely. He thinks he should be happy now in this peak moment of landscape, family, and pleasure, but a small fleet of wasps keep dive bombing the table. Once again he is reminded of how blessed one is to be living in London, a city with a low wasp count and proper pavements. Coastal life can’t be easy with all these insects and sand in your sandwiches and so much weather. Right now the sky is blue, but look further and there are big clumps of grey heading for his table. 

They decide it’s probably coastal rain as they set off inland for a walk in the woods leading them across the peninsular and down the long creek. The hike up and over the ridge brings them to a welcome mid-morning pit stop at another storied hut – this time specialising in widely-reviewed sausage rolls. He selects something veggie while the other members of the party chew on tubes of pastry overflowing with outdoor reared pig. The high-end savouries sustain them during their long, bumpy descent in and out of the woods, following the eastern side of the creek down to the sea. They pass several boats stranded in low tide, tipped to one side like drunks in the mudflats, where a dog is chasing a stick across the shore towards the foot of a broad garden leading to a large stately mansion on the hill. There’s a boat house beneath the garden and a private dock with portable speakers playing Elton John’s Rocket Man loudly, but not a soul to be seen.

 

digital finger sketch done on iPad mini - not by author, but his son
up the creek

The air is warm and and it hasn’t rained as they said it wouldn’t. They locate the ramp for the dinky ferry to take them across the mouth of the estuary, over to a mini coastal town where he has built himself high hopes of a fresh crab sandwich and a local beer for a late lunch. The ferry is due but isn’t where it is supposed to be. He assumes the worst, that there has been a mistake and they may even be stranded. It is one thirty five, and thinking with his tummy he immediately phones the ferry company, asking if the one thirty ferry’s still on. The man sounds grumpy. He replies that the service is running to schedule and the one thirty is heading his way. And here it is now, a small grey motorboat with blue trim, sending a  modest swell across the placid water.  

 

The ferry is named after the English king of many wives and charges plenty of coins for the crossing – this way feeding revenue into the local economy. The ferryman is slender and small and quick in and around the boat, but doesn’t smile much as he steers a way through flotillas of small craft, bringing them to a stone harbour with slippery steps leading up to the town’s front row. 

 

The crab hut he read about online is perched at the heart of the front row with a great seaview but is flat out of crab, or any kind of tack. They walk on to a hotel with a restaurant terrace and eat snacks on loungers under canopies that snap in the stiff breeze, where he manages to spill oil from his burrata and rocket salad. He spatters the front of his Agnes B zip up hoodie. The oil will stain. He knows it straight away. The day isn’t a write off. But the stain is a definite black mark. 

Roseland Peninsula, Cornwall

 

After lunch they walk along the front, visit the castle, spend some time browsing hoodies in Fat Face, then climb aboard the local bus taking them back to the village and their Air BnB for some downtime. They enjoy the country bus ride and talk about the bus information panels written in Cornish (Kernowek) as well as English. The street signage is also in Kernowek. He makes a guess at how many locals speak their native tongue; but when he looks on Wikipedia his five thousand proves wildly optimistic, as it’s actually only three thousand who can hold a conversation, and about three hundred who speak Kernowek regularly. 

 

On the evening of day two they go to the village pub, which is well reviewed in tourist guides and visitor review sites and has also been name-checked in national broadsheet travel sections. They are going for a drink and maybe also for food. See them now winding down the hill to the centre of the pretty coastal village, admiring the cheerful bunting hitched to the lampposts up and down the pavement. The sky blue sky is large and cleared of any rain clouds and with striking crescents of pink on the horizon. This lovely view is keenly observed and commented upon by one of their party. Observed again, and commented upon a second time round. 

 

The pub is on the main street and facing away from the sea. It was built in the seventeenth century, meaning two members of the party of three are required to stoop going through the low-beamed entrance. But the older of the two misjudges his duck and bangs his head anyway. Still reeling, they decide on fish for dinner, something caught off the coast of here. But first he orders drinks. 

 

There are several men stood round the bar, all of them apparently stalwart locals who seem to know each other as a group and are shouting more than talking – but then a lot of conversations feel this way heard through his listening devices. He patiently waits his turn and just as he puts in his order, a long thin man with tattoos up and down the bare ropes of his muscley arms, moves in close on his left flank and shouts loudly. He bellows bang next to his rubbish ear – Timmmmm…Buuurrr! Bellows it to a friend who returns the greeting but not so loud or long, just a short, slightly sheepish Tim…Burr! 

The muscle man, or Tim Burr, is youngish, still stuck in his thirties, and has the weathered face you expect from working outdoors for a living. He smiles at Tim Burr, who smiles in return, and jabs him in the ribs getting change out of his pocket, but doesn’t realise; while he in turn gets his pints confused and sips Tim Burr’s cider, mistaking it for the pale ale he just paid for. Tim looks at him and once more he smiles. But differently this time, a crooked grin revealing parts of his front teeth are missing. 

Are you stealing my drink?

Dreams, Martin Creed, Hauser & Wirth (2019)
in dreams I come to you

In the night, the giant defenceless night, curled up in his wood-framed king double, Tim Burr walks out from the pub and into his dream. Scattering cake crumbs in a zig zag, Tim leads him down on to the carpet and over towards the picture window on the other side of the room, where he wakes, down on his hands and knees, between the window and the wardrobe, close to where he’s started a small pile of dirty laundry. 

It’s a little after five am but he doesn’t go back to bed, starting his day early with a session of hip physio, looking out the window as the sun takes shape. He thinks about his laundry doing fifteen reverse lunges and wonders if he has enough clean underpants to see him through. No way he’s doing handwashing on holiday. He’ll recycle if necessary; although recycling pants isn’t what he’d hoped for from life by his age. He sighs, dismisses all thoughts of laundry, and focuses on enjoying the view from his room. He has the best bedroom in the cottage. He got the master with the kingsize and excellent aspect through being the only member of the party with a tendency to chuck himself out the bed at night. He said I need clearance space where I sleep. They said, We know. 

 

His room looks out on the ancient village church across the road. The ancient church was built in the thirteenth century and then added to in the fifteenth century and then completely rebuilt in the the mid nineteenth century, and so is it still ancient?  In the shadow of the square church tower lie tombstones dating back centuries. There’s an argument he should be in the churchyard now, rather than standing there murdering some hip squats – reporting from first light, conveying an enthusiastic dedication, scanning the headstones for local names, the long gone husbands and beloved wives, adding local colour and deep background to his piece. But here he is flexing his glutes and letting his eyes wander as he pulls his gaze away from the churchyard towards the estate wagon parked right out front, directly below the window. 

Gerrans Church, Gerrans, Cornwall

 

The wagon is old and scrappy with an equipment trailer hooked to the rear. A working truck. A Local’s working truck with resident parking rights, meaning they as the Incomers must stay in the council car park fifty metres down the road.  

He finishes up with his physio and leans closer to the window as he waits and he wills a Local to come walking down the street. Ideally, the Local would be the owner of the station wagon. He’d come along and get in the driver’s seat. But fleetingly glance up here first, get a glimpse of him in the window before driving off. To know that he has been observed, his early start to the day witnessed. Best of all, the early-day Local would be Tim Burr, nursing a sore head from the pub last night. 

That would be a film. But in reality, the street remains implacably silent – no Locals to be seen, not anyone at all, as he turns to leave the bedroom heading downstairs to make coffee. 

Bait (2019) Film Poster
 
Parking rights are an early point of disagreement in Bait, a Cornish film drama about Locals versus Incomers. Martin is a fisherman in a small coastal community whose long-standing family home has recently been sold to a family of wealthy Incomers. As part of the sale the family parking space has transferred to the new owners. But Martin continues to leave his truck in the space, citing his family’s historical access to the village harbour and disregarding the protests of the Incomers, who have just arrived from London for a long vacation. The owner Incomers are very posh. The husband is weedling and imploring but also insistent that he wants his space back. ‘I’m going to have to ask you again, not to leave your truck outside.’ Martin refuses to yield, says he needs it for his business. The disagreement becomes an argument and voices are raised. The posh wife says ‘You didn’t have to sell us this house.’ Martin shoots back, ‘Didn’t we?’

 

The camera zooms in on Martin’s fist, which is large and squeezed tight. Martin is ruggedly physically powerful but economically weak. You expect him to punch the rich bloke – for many reasons, for simply being posh perhaps. But Martin only simmers while taking the opportunity to review the fancy refurb of his childhood home, the place he grew up in with his older brother, his fisherman father and his adored mother. The camera silently tracks across the parlour of the former workers’ cottage, observing through Martin’s eyes a decor of fisherfolk stylings, nets and lines and floats pinned to the whitewashed walls –  the tools of labour refigured as tat: ‘Like ropes and chains,’ reports Martin to his brother in disgust. ‘Like a sex dungeon.’

trailer, watch it later


tale of summer strife in a fishing village in turmoil, Bait was shot in Charlestown, south Cornwall and released in August 2019 – becoming an unexpected sleeper hit over the following weeks and months. As the village Locals find their traditional way of life under threat, resentment festers and flares concerning the maligned ‘Incomers’, the gentrifying outsiders, with their money, their Chablis, their entitlement, and their wetsuits. The two tribes battle to get along. This struggle to love each other or die has gripped the director Mark Jenkin since he was a kid, growing up in his native Cornwall and witnessing the tensions which rise up annually during high season, becoming a ‘sort of a civil war.’ 

 

Bait covers a few days of peak civil war that climax with a tragic incident. The film stars Edward Rowe in the role of Martin, the disaffected cantankerous fisherman struggling to keep his life afloat. A lifelong resident of the village, Martin feels out of place in his own universe. Determined to see the old ways survive, he scrabbles for income while saving to buy a new boat, seething all the while at the way the Incomers’ wealth distorts the local economy, and how their alien ways dilute the village’s longstanding traditions. Martin is specially at odds with Tim (Simon Shepard) and Sandra (Mary Woodvine), the bourgie couple set-up in his childhood home, partly renting it out to visiting tourists, while also holidaying there with their teenage children Katie (Georgia Ellery) and Hugo (Jowan Jacobs). 

Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepard, Bait (2019)
meet the Other (not the otter)

There are several spikes to Martin’s dysphoria. Not only grievous about his lost home and current lack of a boat, he’s fuming at the local pub for breaking with tradition by shuttering through the winter, and furious and barely speaking to older brother Steven (Giles King), for quitting fishing to ferry ‘trippers’ and boozed-up stag parties around the bay. Martin scorns Steven’s new business project as abject capitulation and refuses to join him on board, ‘I’ve got bloody principles’. 

 

Haunted by the past and what has been lost, Martin receives the occasional visit from the ghost of his father when out walking – seen fleetingly in the middle distance, down an alley, just passing by and barely there, but vivid enough to be asking after Martin and the weight of his catch, Getting many? Not enough, replies Martin. We assume the ghostly dad is in Martin’s head. But nothing is for certain. The haunting by a lost figure, the sense of death just around the corner, often finds the subject retreating inside a larger group identity, seeking to connect to something bigger than the solitary self, an object that outlasts us to contain our feelings. This form of attachment can become sentimental, stubborn, resentful of new things and new folk. With Martin increasingly at odds with the world as he finds it – he looms as a relic set to sink, or fit to burst. 

 

The dispute over the precious parking space drags on as Martin continues to leave his truck in defiance of Tim’s heated requests. From small squabbles grow big fights. Tim’s objections become demands, but Martin’s not listening. The wrangling reaches a climax late one night with Tim being decked on his doorstep, headbutted by a Local young woman tanked up on resentment and booze. Tim hits the pavement in a heap and the young woman is taken in by the police. The first wave of tension has crashed, but more trouble is rising. 

The Locals and the Incomers may be in a state of conflict but their storylines are as tangled as fisherman’s nets. Martin’s handsome nephew Neil (Isaac Woodvine) hopes to become a proper fisherman one day like his uncle, and rails against the gentrifying Incomers, but is also sleeping with one – bedding down in the store room with posh Katie, Tim and Sandra’s daughter. Neil and Katie’s coupling is not welcomed by bargirl Wenna (Chloe Endean). ‘How’s she gunna suck his dick with that plum in her mouth?’ moans Wenna. ‘Can’t understand a bloody word she says.’  

 

Ill-communication is a repeating theme in a drama of two tribes sharing the same language yet unable to relate. ‘I honestly thought he was speaking German,’ says Wenna, observing one of the younger Incomers, another posh boy she can’t see the point of. She’s speaking of Hugo, Katie’s dipstick brother, who is, to be fair, supremely annoying. Each morning, Hugo goes fishing in the harbour in his own special way, waddling off the side of the dock in duotone wet suit with extra-large flippers, snorkel and harpoon gun – the cartoon embodiment of the clueless fish out of water. ‘Make sure you leave some fish for the rest of us,’ calls out Martin. 

It’s a joke, but nobody’s laughing, as Hugo’s potentially stepping on the locals’ business. After a few mornings with no luck and nothing to show for his endeavours, feeling he’s entitled to better than this, the young squire helps himself to a lobster from one of Martin’s traps. Hugo’s theft is gobbled up by his mother and father with a nice Pinot Grigio and home-made mayo. But they know the crustacea’s hooky, and while dad marvels at his son’s entrepreneurial extraction of another person’s labour, the mother finds the feast sticks in her throat. Feeling guilty she secretly sneaks into Martin’s home, donating a wedge of tenners to his boat fund. 


The mother’s restitution doesn’t save Hugo from justice. Fingered for the stolen catch, he is confronted and made to pay. But not by violent means, as we are led to fear, instead Hugo’s forced to mend Martin’s fishing nets. This agreeable peaceable brand of restorative justice only registers as a pause in the inevitable tussling by the sea. 

Bait (2019) Film Still

Jenkin first conceived of Bait twenty years ago in 1999, during the lead up to the new millennium, as tens of thousands of Incomers flocked to Cornwall for the big new year. The heaving influx left the local community frayed and vexed. The idea of a story about tribal wrangling on the Cornish frontline lived in Jenkin’s brain, he carried it inside for years as he searched for the right dramatic vehicle. Having explored and discarded various ingenious scenarios, eventually he settled on a simple tale of people at odds. But Bait is far from straight realism. Jenkin has made a experimental movie with a complex story structure blending linear and chopped up time. A gripping story of class, identity and the politics of place, Bait is also a many-layered engagement with questions of form, process and technique. Bait was shot in black-and-white on a hand-cranked 16mm camera, using a basic tripod and only natural or practical lighting. The film has no live sound. All the dialogue (and ambient sound) was added in post production, with the original cast re-recording their lines hoping to synchronise their words with how their lips move on screen. 


There is an eerie disconnect between sound and image as the characters’ speech reverberates like lines leaked from an unexplained source. Bait’s uncanny atmosphere blends a haunting of the ghosts of the past with a premonitory unease concerning bad things to come. The sounds effects and sound cuts and their audible jumps are distant but also pronounced, ardent like sound with the italics on. The seagull’s squawk screeches in his ears at the cinema. The waves breaking, the hum of the fridge, the truck door slamming, the bang of a fist on a table, the final fatal splash in the water… all of the sound arrives via his hearing devices with a jolt, going off like mini sound bombs.

Bait (2019) Promotional Still
the sea, the sea

 

The other-worldly spirit running through Bait as a film out of time is amplified by its styling as a contemporary silent movie. The visuals are emphatic like early cinema. There are several cutaways to inserts in close-up – a plastic basin with Martin’s fresh catch of fish; lobster traps in detail; Martin’s hand placing his cash earnings in an old biscuit tin called ‘Boat’. The stark image of a fisherman bent over, mending his nets features in the film’s promo materials. The beauty of this shot feels almost legendary, carved out of history: like the landscape imagery of Ansel Adams,

Ansel Adams, Wilderness


the social realism of Dorothea Lange,

Dorothea Lange, Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, CA, 1935

 Edith Tudor Hart,
Edith Tudor Hart, Untitled, Miners Tyneside (1937)

Salgado.
Gold mine of Serra Pelada, state of Pará, Brazil, 1986. © Sebastião Salgado

Or, closer to home, Don McCullin’s documentary portraits of London’s East End in the seventies.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1970 Tate (c) Don McCullin



The bold monochrome beauty of Bait packs historic weight, drawing from public information films of the 1950s, or Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic ‘documentary’ Man of Aran from the thirties. Or rewind further, into the twenties of revolutionary Russian cinema, or right back to Griffith and the starter years of narrative cinema. In this way, this contemporary fable, a film that feels as if it was made a few weeks ago, also resembles a lost ancient artefact recently rediscovered.

 

Bait’s aesthetic is the product of a small budget but also the director’s devotion to a distinctive way of filming and editing, as well as a fixation with the  material feel of film itself. Jenkin personally hand-processed the stock for Bait, every single foot of film, using a non-toxic formula the director devised himself.  ‘Like life, hand-processed film is full of inconsistencies,’ reports Jenkin – and we’re really going to have to take his word for it. ‘The grain, the flicker, bring a content and form that no matter how hard you try, cannot be separated.’ 

Edward Rowe, Chloe Endean (Bait 2019)
I honestly thought he was speaking German

Bait is profoundly analogue. The images on the screen are smudged, they have glitches, and they spit and flare. Jenkin speaks of developing a strong connection to the footage he’s paid for, meticulously planned, shot, and processed himself. Bait’s elaborate non-linear structure, layered with flashbacks and flash forwards, reflects the influence of film-makers such as Nicholas Roeg and Godard, but is also the product of a dislike of waste and a ‘hatred of the cutting room floor.’ 

Feeling ‘very attached to all my footage,’ if a shot doesn’t work in a scene, Jenkin relocates it somewhere else, banking any anomalies as extra layers. The headbutt scene opens with a shot of Wenna in handcuffs as a flash forward to her eventual arrest after she commits the frontal assault. The handcuffs in close-up dissolve to Wenna lobbing a ball at the Incomers, a heated drunk argument, and then headbutt, before closing with a medium shot of the handcuffs behind her back. Opening with the handcuffs suggests a fated quality to what happens next. That Wenna’s lack of capital, making her mainly powerless under capitalism, leaves little wriggle room other than to lash out in frustration. ‘Meaning comes in the edit,’ suggest Jenkin in an interview with Mark Kermode, ‘it gets worked into the collage. (Or is that too much interpretation?)

 

Edward Rowe, Isaac Woodvine, Bait (2019)

 

Carted away from the scene of the crime, Wenna spends a night in a police cell in a town many miles away. She returns to the village by cab. The cab ride costs one hundred pounds, which Wenna doesn’t have. She asks Martin to cover her. He draws from his Boat tin. He did the same the night before for the pub. It feels as if Martin can’t get ahead. He works and saves and always pays. But Martin is not the only Local counting the cost. Spolier alert, the last act is tragic, as young Neil pays for his short fuse early one morning when tensions suddenly flare up dramatically. 

Giles King, Bait (2019)

 

Neil’s demise has after ripples. The posh family’s home gets trashed, but also Martin acquires a boat as he finally reclaims his old livelihood. Martin and his brother are reconciled on the water as they resume with making a go of the family fishing business. Joining them on board as they head out to sea is Wenna – looking to turn her life around. There is the hint of a suggestion hanging over this final scene that Neil’s death isn’t just tragic but also generative, a sacrifice that enables the beaten-down family to rise again. In this way, Bait closes with a sense of hope as the screen fades to black. 

 

The titles start to rise. He stands and gathers his things while waiting for the woman next seat along to find her umbrella in the dark. Then shuffling up the aisle and out the screen he goes onwards to the bathroom thinking about human sacrifice. Is this what’s actually insinuated at the movie’s end – an appeasement, an offering to fate – or is it just some screwy idea he added on himself? 

It is the week after he got back from Cornwall and the vacation is still live in the head. In the bathroom of the Bloomsbury cinema he fills the hand basin and plunges his hands in the warm water up to the wrist. Staring into the basin he wonders what he’s missed as he remembers all the stories and rumours about Georges Bataille; how the interwar writer and intellectual, infamous for his various transgressive tendencies, might have got carried away. 

In France in the mid 1930s, Bataille left the Surrealists and created his own secret society of intellectuals called Acéphale; which among other intellectual pursuits took a strong interest in human sacrifice. Members of Acéphale included the philosophers Jean Wahl, Roger Caillois, Pierre Klossowski, as well as film maker Jean Rollin and the artist André Masson. The group published a quarterly journal exploring radical ideas encouraging society to transform itself. But away from the scholarly, Acéphale regularly held get-togethers in a woods near Paris. They met at night under an oak tree struck by lightning to explore cultish rituals. 

Acéphale, Secret Society, Georges Bataille & Co

 

As it was a secret society, little is known of what actually took place on Acéphale’s moonlit jaunts in country. Acéphale means headless and it is known that the society celebrated the decapitation of Louis XVI – as an act insurgency, but also a symbol of a decayed social order upended into a world without hierarchies. There were also returning discussions around the productive potential of human sacrifice. Plans were put in place, but there is no proof any actual slaughter took place. 

Succession, Opening Titles Sequence
Succession (Sky Atlantic)

His recollections of Acéphale and headless humans send his thoughts sideways, leading him to the corner of his brain currently occupied by the TV drama Succession. (Epic segue.) Through the ten episodes of series two, Succession’s key narrative strand of boardroom decapitation lurks under the surface – before recrudescing in extreme at the season finale. 

A slick, glossy, sweary tale of dynastic power and abuse that is addictive as sweets, Succession details the battle to replace Logan Roy – the ruthless reactionary owner of global media beast Waystar Royco. As the vulgar septugenarian Roy dithers over who should finally supersede him at the helm, his variously ill-suited dysfunctional offspring, incubated in this ‘terrible rat’s nest of a family’, connive relentlessly to remove their conscienceless bullying father from power. Plots are hatched and coups botched in attempts to take off the tyrant’s head. Greater than a hostile takeover, this is full-blown regicide slash parricide. Or would be, if only the next generation, these well groomed tyros, knew how to shoot straight. 

 

Succession is a tightly plotted family saga that glows with seductive surfaces, sharp acting, and glossy camera work featuring the most opulent New York settings. Each episode is decked with the trappings of the billionaire’s lifestyle. In series one, episode six, spineless Tom, egregious doofus fiancee to Logan’s only daughter, instructs bumbling low-ranking country cousin Greg to join him for an evening on the town. ‘I’ll take you out to dinner. Show you how to be rich.’ Tom and Greg aren’t native New Yorkers and haven’t experienced a whole lifetime steeped in 24-carat opulence. Their view on things is the Nick Carraway perspective for another kind of Gatsby narrative during this current gilded age of extreme inequality. 

For Logan Roy’s offspring, fledgling masters of the universe, the billionaire trappings are simply the air that they breathe. Succession’s non-stop sibling rivalry, the corporate intrigue and skulduggery, plays out against the backdrop of a series of set-piece events – society wedding, charity ball and fund raiser, roasts, networking events, luxury away days, extravagant corporate huddles in far flung locations, plaque unveiling ceremonies, summer getaways on the Med. The set-pieces slide past with sufficient space to drool over the smart suits and jaw-dropping apartments, the corner offices on the fiftieth floor with infinity views, gargantuan yachts, coke storms, glittery cocktail parties, long flights in private jets followed by sweeping black limo convoys to extraordinary gatherings, where the abyssal amorality of the media-finance nexus is toasted with champagne and drenched with clever chatter. 

 

Such clever chatter. Succession’s actors must get their scripts and salivate at the word hoard, so many lines. Endless but also largely implausible chatter. In Dallas or Dynasty they didn’t plot using tongue twisting dialogue. In Succession these incurably garrulous characters trade barbs and explore their motives in speeches flecked with high powered business talk spiced with all kinds of cultural allusion from Shakespeare to Puff Daddy (Diddy?). The words keep flying with well-honed ensemble showpieces of florid swearing and epic put downs. Devised in the shadow of Murdoch, the hacking scandal, and wicked Weinstein, did Succession complete due research to discover that media tycoons swear the whole fucking day and long into the fucking night? Logan Roy is forever barking ‘fuck off’ at anyone in earshot. Born in Scotland, but raised in Canada, Roy says fuck off in Transatlantic – fack orf, feck arff, fuuuck owf. And then his daughter and three sons start doing it too. Show runner Jesse Armstrong used to contribute to The Thick of It and can’t quite flush the cussing out of his system: Logan Roy = Malcolm Tucker. 

And there is so much energy and exuberance about all this colourful dialogue. Until the dazzling effusions start to sound like the same undifferentiated voice. When the largely witless Tom, who normally struggles to tie his shoe laces, coughs up a glorious peroration with showstopping words pouring from his lips, dense with cute metaphors and vile verbal brilliance, but only because the plot requires it – you blink and wonder what happened to the real Tom and where did all that brilliance from? In this way the lead characters sound like ventriloquist dummies, which undercuts the hope that Succession might develop overtime into an insightful drama concerning family abuse.

Succession, Opening Titles Sequence
Succession opening credits
Félix Vallotton, Dinner by Lamplight (1899)
Dinner by Lamplight, Félix Vallotton

The long shadow of Logan’s cruel dominion renders his squabbling kids emotionally without the nerve to decisively seize control of their father’s teetering, ’empire of shit’. But they keep thinking about it. Lead son Kendall claims ‘business is my fucking’, when actually his real business is trying to fuck his dad – as revenge for his dad fucking with him all the years of his life. For his dad humiliating him daily. For his dad shouting fack orf all the time, in his face, in a crowded meeting. For his dad sitting Kendall in a dog cage as a young boy and making him fight his kid brother over a chocolate cake. 

The two brothers’ joint realisation of the implications of the cake story and their shared childhood trauma, unexpectedly descends upon them at a steamy underground nightclub. Specifically in a warehouse elevator. The sort of old-style industrial elevator with mesh metal walls that feels rather like, you know, a cage. This internal rhyme of cage on cage is either clever, or not subtle at all, but either way it undercuts the poignancy of their moment of clarity. Kendall wants to love his dad and be loved in return. Kendall also wants to kill his father. He wants to chop off his dad’s head. How ironic therefore, yet strongly felt, that the ever so watchable Succession feels headless.

 

Succession, screengrab with subs
future leader of the free world

Succession is a brilliant product of the writers’ room. A triumph of  multiple brains pitching in – a raft of writers, a dozen executive producers, caravans of co-producers, many of them listed in the show’s gorgeous, artfully confected opening title sequence – a swarm of creatives confirming how much Succession is thoroughly peer reviewed and pre-tasted. This immaculately burnished award-winning series feels like TV designed by committee and its credits confirms that’s because it is. (Like a Beyonce record feels like crafted songs written by committee.)** 

 

In the golden age of TV, this digital megalopolis of ceaseless (relentless?) ‘blue chip’ content, one identifiable scarcity is the sound of a creator’s voice, or the visible hand of the auteur, with her, his, their special heartfelt personal vision. All the things that make Succession shine, the peppy collegiate energy – so redolent of West Wing to Veep – also leave it haunted by the absence of an authorial vision, and because of this, the show feels vaporous compared to Bait’s mass.

Bait (2019) Film Soundtrack Poster

Bait is steeped in authorship. Jenkin is British cinema’s one-man band. Busking for his life, he is director and screenwriter, but also the director of photography, editor, and composer. While he acknowledges his cinematic influences, and name checks his mentors, his crew, actors, producers, the funding bodies and finance packagers; speaking warmly of the close knit collaborative effort of film production – Jenkin also explains in interviews the many years of planning that went into making his film. Of the years leading up spent largely by himself, re-working and re-shaping, revising the concept, the script, the shot list. And then, to top it all, he speaks of three months in a dark room, hand processing every piece of filmstock himself, before piecing it all together. Bait is Jenkin’s film, it literally has the director’s fingerprints all over it. At the North American premiere, on a large screen at New York’s Lincoln Centre, Jenkin spotted ghost strands in the background of a scene, and realised the strands were wool fibres from the jumper he was wearing in the lab the day he processed the footage. ‘I love the craft element of hand processing film,’ he says in a BFI interview, ‘creating something with your hands. Humans need that. I’m increasingly realising I need that… I feel directly connected, through my hands, to all those people who have been processing movies in the same way for over a hundred years.’ 

 

This is artisanal film-making. First there was sourdough, both craft beer and micro fromagerie, and now it’s home baked movies. It’s not for every filmmaker. It certainly isn’t Marvel. Such dedication leans towards a kind of craft fetishism. Listening to Jenkin evangelise for handmade cinema he sounds like the unreconstructed hipster he’s not. The real and the simulacra blur – is it Shoreditch, or is it real? – as Bait’s dirty realist aesthetic overlaps with the ‘authentic’  imagery of fashion catalogues, the lookbooks of cold water clothing brands Fat Face and specially Finisterre, with their base layers and waders, rugged denims and ocean-ready beanies, worn by moody guys staring out to sea. 

Tom Kay, Finisterre Founder
Jerry’s quiet tonight

Bait reclaims the appropriated inside a narrative with an uptick ending that suggests some kind of hope. Palpably a political work, with plenty to say about gentrification and much else, Bait situates an identifiable enemy in the frame. While Succession proffers a glamorous, scabrous dig around the pathologies of the Few, Bait is a gut cry for economic justice for the Many. In Succession’s Logan Roy, his snob children, and his grotesque right-wing global media empire, viewers encounter a fictional version of the real-life oligarchy urgently in need of taking down. 

Joker (2019) Clown Protestors on Subway
clowns do the funniest things

During this election season, both sides of the Atlantic, it’s the Roys of this world that left populism – from Bernie to Jeremy to Elizabeth – has in its sightline as the deeply unpleasant enemy ‘Other’ long overdue a proper fixing. (See Joker’s anti-billionaire movement. See Michael Winterbottom’s Greed – as Steve Coogan laughs it up as a  caricature version of disgraced fashion mogul Philip Green). Maybe it’s been in the culture for years, but lately, suddenly, billionaires have been fingered as a big problem, with major questions being asked – like should they even exist. (They shouldn’t. We could shoot them all?) 

Steve Coogan, Greed (2019)
24 Hour Party Fiddler

Cornwall’s civil war should be looked at from both sides, declares Jenkin in interviews, suggesting no easy answers are available. While wealthy incomers buy up all the homes, pricing locals out of the market, Bait shows that community solidarity can also curdle into small-town suspicion. The film’s moral scheme is a tangled grey that doesn’t presume that everything that came before is better than what happens next. But at a primal brute level, Bait is an outburst and argument, a timeless film with a blunt politics for now. There’s a sketch-like quality to cartoon nobs out of sorts with grisly Locals – from the micro aggressions of parking, or pool etiquette, to broader issues of inequality and the asymmetries of power. 

There’s a fury in Bait’s emotive editing, deploying a style of montage taken from revolutionary 1920s Soviet cinema, specifically the work of Eisenstein. The director of Strike and Battleship Potemkin considered film editing the life force of cinema. Greater than an expository technique, Eisenstein called for montage as a ‘collision’ of shots, editing to manipulate the feelings of the film audience.* In the celebrated Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein creates meaning from collage by splicing together independent images. 

Potemkin tells the story of the popular uprising in Russia of June 1905 against the oppressive Czarist regime, focussing on the mutiny of sailors on a navy battleship. As the town’s citizenry gather on the steep Odessa steps leading down to the waterfront in a show of support for the sailors, armed government soldiers suddenly march into view and start firing at the crowd. Eisenstein films the panic and slaughter of young and old from various positions and angles, cross-cutting between images of soldiers’ boots marching in unison and defenceless people running, losing their balance, tripping, and falling. A sick child is shot by the soldiers. The child’s distraught mother is next. The cross cutting continues to a climax featuring the gripping assembly of images of a baby carriage rolling down the steps interspersed with reaction shots and more jackboots. 

Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Odessa Steps Sequence

 

This potent style of intense cross editing is memorably deployed at the climax of Coppola’s The Godfather. At the church christening, as Michael stands as godfather to his sister’s baby, speaking calmly by the baptismal font, denying Satan and all Satan’s work, the montage alternates with visceral images of Corleone’s henchmen executing Michael’s mob rivals in a brutal day of reckoning. 

Al Pacino, The Godfather

 

Mo Green, The Godfather
bada bing!

There is a bracing slice of cross editing midway through Bait as two arguments take place simultaneously at the village pub. The edit switches between the disputes, building tension from the splice. Over there in one room, Martin’s arguing with the landlady about family, politics, the financial fix he’s in; while across the way, in the games room, a row is kicking up about who’s on next at pool. Young teenage Locals versus a Mumford of posh Incomers bickering about house rules – is it winner stays on, or coins on the table? The edit switches jaggedly between arguments using a staccato rhythm and rising soundtrack to pile on the menace. The pool argument is loud and bristling with danger, due to possessing adolescent rage in buckets, plus the fat end of pool cues if it gets physical. But it also feels hot and dangerous because of Martin’s anger next door – a large, livid man raging at this invidious Life, exhibiting a vivid sense of powerlessness, with two clenched fists needing an outlet. 


The way Jenkin edits this scene is sharp and subtle but also blatant. In total, Bait is a thoughtful, intricate movie that is bold in a way we’re not used to. So bold, he wonders if he knows any longer what kind of film he likes. He thinks he prefers complex movies with open endings sending subtle messages to be carefully, sensitively interpreted. But Bait relays its message loudly and leaves him moved as he exists the cinema and drifts off into a sunny Bloomsbury afternoon. 

 

A string of emotions pull on his brain stems, how exciting is Bait, how shaming, how inspiring. The film creates an unease that has a long tail. Not simply middle class guilt at the recent memory of his Cornish Airbnb, the decorative fish nets, all those groceries he shipped in from London. But a broader disquiet about the film’s emotionalism. His usual detachment at the pictures has deserted him. What does it mean, being bashed over the head at the cinema – and loving it? Bait is emphatically social commentary from the left. He imagines Jeremy Corbyn giving Bait a standing ovation. He pictures Ken Loach stood next to Corbyn doing the same. He remembers a short film released by Momentum after the 2017 election, the sly, infamous clip lampooning middle class Boomers for sneering at students saddled with debt. Bait offers a righteous reduction of the grey maze of our current moment, with a boiled down message that’s both a handy strapline and a call to arms: bait the rich, kill the rich, eat the rich.

Folk Clothing Store, London

He finds this message appeals at a gut level as he stops for a coffee on Lamb Conduit Street. He hears his voice ordering his drink, he sounds metropolitan and dry. He looks out the window of the indy coffee shop, across to the fashion store Folk the others side of the street. He thinks maybe he could go browse a little, check out the nice autumn clothes with extravagant price tags, think about the unequal distribution of desirable things, of Bait, left populism and the ideas of Chantal Mouffe.

Chantal Mouffe
I caught a fish, this big

A Belgian academic and theorist long based in the UK, Chantal Mouffe advocates for a group politics based around dispute rather than consensus. ‘To have a real purchase on people’s desires and fantasies,’ writes Mouffe, ‘democratic politics must have a partisan character.’ 

A healthy democracy requires ‘opposed camps with whom people can identify in order to be able to mobilise passions.’ During an election season, what we see more clearly than usual is that politics concerns competing stories about who we are, what matters to us, how we arrived here, and where we’re going next. Mouffe characterises ‘the political’ as a battle for economic, cultural and physical capital; and that, ‘The diminishing ability of capitalism to provide a good life for the majority means that competition for resources will remain fierce.’ 

 

Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism


Under conditions of scarcity, according to Mouffe, the left must either locate or bring into existence an enemy Other to fight against – as a way for ‘Us’ to forge a collective will for progressive change. ‘The whole question,’ according to Mouffe ‘is how you construct the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.’ The current driver for Left populism in the UK is the formation of a collective will of the ‘People’ lined up against the so-called ‘Oligarchy’ in the role of the enemy: the super-wealthy; the One Per Cent; the very Few who benefit so handsomely from a globalised neoliberal order that hurts the very Many; the vampires of our contemporary gothic imagination.***

 

The enemy other is bold not complex. There is no balance beam in Bait. The other is there for all to see. The other drives a Range Rover; the other is a wine-sucking, lobster-gobbling rentier. The other doesn’t care to defer to the locals, or back down ever; the other expects their wealth will buy all things. The other is the Roy family in Succession, whose cruise division views the loss of a worker overboard, or the death of a waiter at a wedding, as a mess to be cleared away in secret, as poor people don’t matter – NRPI the firm calls it: No Real Person Involved.

 

Until 2008 and the banking crisis, for thirty years conventional wisdom said neo-liberal capitalism was the only game in town. Antonio Gramsci writes about ‘common sense’ ideas so ingrained they come to be viewed as the order of things, as a force of nature, like the weather, rather than concepts that have been culturally constructed. For a long time, all the years since he was a late teen and Thatcher seized the throne, he’s railed at being told the only way is unfettered capitalism. But all this time he also settled comfortably into his own common sense idea, that the best art is complex and nuanced, sophisticated and multilayered, intricately coded – waiting to being unpacked by him. What if this isn’t so. What if sometimes all you need is art shaped like a hammer?  

In an golden era of daring British film-makers – Andrea Arnold, Peter Strickland, Lynne Ramsay, Jonathan Glazer, Ben Wheatley, Joanna Hogg. In a year of striking British arthouse releases – The Souvenir, In Fabric – Bait lingers longest as a work of bracing singularity, a movie for the decades. Jenkin’s film came out of nowhere, vaulting to the top of the pile, a blatant art film that hit him with a hammer and almost took his head off. 

Headless, he staggered, then mooched on down the road. And no more typing…

Park Bench, Lincoln's Inn Fields, historically a meeting place for the homeless
park bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, historically a gathering point for the homeless

* Eisenstein’s contemporary Lev Kuleshov made a short film demonstrating the Kuleshov Effect and the power of montage. The Kuleshov Effect switches between an unchanging shot of an actor’s face intercut with a series of different images – of food, mother, child, enemy, coffin. Each time the viewer reads the actor’s emotions differently depending on the object his face is linked to and it is suggested he is gazing upon, transforming the unchanging expression into a series of strong emotions, sad, lustful, scared, hungry, loving. Montage makes us interpret images differently.

** Hold Up from Lemonade, is credited as written by Diplo, Ezra Koenig, Beyoncé, Emile Haynie, Josh Tillman, MNEK and MeLo-X. Hold Up  contains a sample of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; an interpolation of ‘Maps’, performed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and written by Brian Chase, Karen O and Nick Zinner; ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ performed by Andy Williams; and an interpolation of ‘Turn My Swag On’, written by Soulja Boy, Antonio Randolph and Kevin McConnell. 
This is a lot of contributors and not a atypical of Lemonade, where each track took a large crammed SUV of input. Wisdom of crowds or groupthink? (Some of the inspiration for Hold Up derived from a Tweet sent several years ago by Ezra Koenig – he of Vampire Weekend –  rephrasing a popular line from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, a rephrasing riffed on by Koenig for the Beyonce song.) 

*** How left populism works inside increasingly multi-party democracies is less clear. What happens to the Other if minority governments struggle to form coalitions, and every fringe party’s got red lines they cannot/will not cross? 

 

  

Butterfly Mandala (detail), Damien Hirst (2019)

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *