Bait Mark Jenkin (UK 2018) Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Sam Shepherd.
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 9th Sept 2019; Ticket: £10.75
Using digital RAW formats to shoot movies often delivers a film look that has the invariant quality of a chocolate box. These sort of films tend to look the same, drawn out of the same stylistic gloss as the adverts that precede them in the programme. In a sense whatever the content of the story we gaze on a world that is captured in the visual halo of perfection: RAW 20:20 vision. Film stock seems to be a better medium for reproducing images on screen, images that are able to suggest worlds with other qualities, worlds that induce us into realms of emotional imbalances, psychic bias, imperfection and obscured sight.
16mm film makers in particular have long been aware of the psychic charge of this medium with its very particular qualities of replication. But very often people working with this format have been happy to flatter themselves with demonstrations of its capacities but have failed to exploit its potential as a means by which content might be grounded. To exploit 16mm as an artistic vanity rather than as an affect of context. As if grain and the mechanico-accidental features of flare scratch hair abrasion shutter waver and development inconsistences were in themselves enough to justify cranking film through the gate and in themselves were evidence of a creative competence.
Mark Jenkins ‘Bait’ is remarkable because it incorporates the technical qualities and characteristics of 16mm film into a context in which the medium itself becomes a key element in the narrative. In Jenkin’s film the use of the 16mm stock is utilised both as a primary expressive device and as a kind of coded language.
Every story is told in a particular language. Most film theorists, including Pasolini and Eisenstein have understood film language as being connected to the manner and style in which a film is shot and edited: they point to the expressive interpretative potential of: montage, the framing of shots, the duration of shots and positioning of the camera, point of view. Most theorists seem to have ignored the potential of the film stock in itself to ‘speak’ and to be part of the language of cinema. ‘Bait’ works because Jenkin tells its story in the language of ‘The Occupied’. Through the utilisation of 16mm film Jenkin represents the world as lived through the experience of the occupied, not through the eyes of the occupiers. The narrative posits a situation of opposition. The native people, the occupied, with their way of life and way of seeing the world; and the new colonialists, the incomers, the occupiers with their way of seeing the world, and their agenda to transform the substance of their conquest whilst paying a superficial homage to the surface of appearances in order to reference what has gone before but is now vanished.
16mm format is Jenkin’s chosen medium to realise in filmic code the language of the occupied. Filmed in RAW digital system, the world of the small Cornish village would look perhaps picturesque colourful charming. The world the occupiers want to see. Filmed through Jenkin’s camera we see a world of scratch, flair, unevenness, imperfection, obscurity, yet visually arresting and drawing the viewer into another reality. To see in this way is to see through the façade of life the occupying forces have created, and to experience the feeling of being invaded. It is a language of resistance.
Most important in Jenkin’s use of 16mm is that this format reveals itself for what it is. As you watch you are conscious all the time that you are watching artifice: the grain the scratching the flare etc. communicate. It is not a hidden language. With its imperfections, it constantly announces and reminds that it is in business of replication. ‘Bait’ pushes into our faces that it is a film. We cannot see it otherwise. It is not pretending to be something that it is not. This obvously has philisophical implications in relation to what Jenkin wants to do. Most films that we view want to be seen as something that they are not; most movies want the viewers to take the images they present as something real. As in the adverts most Hollywood films are in the business of selling images. Like Godard and some other filmmakers, Jenkin calls attention through the medium of the film to the nature of what we are watching. ‘Bait’ is not trying to pass itself as real image: symbolic perhaps, but not real. This also complements the character of Martin. Martin is who he is. He makes no attempt to conceal his identity. This of course, is in opposition to the occupiers whose concern is to conceal who they are, what what are doing and their purposes.
The use of 16mm allows Jenkin’s film to be about texture not surface. The incomers present surface, but through the film we see texture of things and beings. Martin the displaced fisher, occupies a world of texture. His beard, like an Assyrian King’s relief on the walls of Nineveh, the fish he nets, the net itself and creel, the money he gets are all what they are. Martin and his relations are real not plastic, he protrudes into the world, does not lie on its surface.
16mm film is grainy, and by using it the clarity of the formulaic digital film systems are replaced witha a tactile obtrusion. The fake clarity of the real estate sales pitch or the property bond prospectus is replaced by a world delivered in grain; a world of fuzzy objects where uncertainties are certain. This idea is played up by Jenkin in sequences where he intercuts between his antagonists. This opposition climaxes in the dinner sequence where Sandra, wife of the developer eats a lobster with her husband. As she eats she becomes increasingly overpowered and terrified of the actuality of this creature; it is not an image. She is overwhelmed, defeated by the lobster’s presence, its tactility in her hand: its reality. She crumples.
In most movies there is an important decision made in the scenario between what is to be seen by the viewer and what is not to be seen. What is to be seen is ‘lit’. What is not to be seen, is ‘unlit’. To some extent you might say: this is what film is: ‘the lighting’. But life as a template also offers other stimulae to our senses: the obscured, the glimpsed, the hardly seen, and Jenkin uses the characteristic quality of his medium, its graininess to create images that exist in a state of being true to themselves: images that have some of the characteristics of rubbings or impressions. These grainy images are the phenomenological representations of things that Martin knows in his work and life; the immediate things that connect him to who he is, what he touches and what he does; tools nets wood door handles wood fish other people’s faces, hands. They are physical rather than clear optical pictures. What they look like is of a lesser quality than how they are known.
The texture of the representation and the indistinct nature of objects filmed allows Jenkin to build up a series of symbolic allusions throughout Bait, but without the symbols becoming over dramatised heavy handed devices. The mystery endemic in the indistinct allows them to reference thoughts ideas allusions so that they suggest immanence rather than crudely pointing. Jenkin’s objects often seem to find themselves in a half way house between the symbol and the actual, suggesting an experience of when man and nature are more closely bound together; an originatory world where the symbolic and actual are in interchangeable relationships. Again a world of depth not surface.
Some might comment that the use of 16mm footage traps the lives of those depicted in the past, in a vanished world of faded old black and white film. I don’t think this idea has any validity. As argued above Jenkin exploits his chosen film film format to create a language for showing a particular world of oppositions and to suggest different sorts of relations. ‘Bait’ replicates the world where work activity, where the body is the mediating agent between people and life. A world that is not characterised by long durational shots short sharp cuts; a world where prolonged eye contact is alien, a world approximated in the editing by: the glance and the glimpse; the flick of the eye not the turn of the head.
In this replication Jenkin’s use of sound and slightly off kilter dialogue reinforce the implication in the film that there are things to think about here in Brexitland and also in the wider global picture.
So who/what is ‘BAIT’? Us the viewers? Or do we ‘take’it?