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Nymphs, Shepherds and Vampires - The Agrarian Myth on Film (2000 Dialectical Anthropology)

Nymphs, Shepherds and Vampires - The Agrarian Myth on Film (2000 Dialectical Anthropology)

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Published by: Patrick Pedulla on Mar 03, 2012
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01/15/2013

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 Dialectical Anthropology
25:
205–237, 2000.© 2001
Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
205
Nymphs, Shepherds, and Vampires: The Agrarian Myth on Film
TOM BRASS
Fomerly lectured in the Social and Political Sciences Faculty at the University of Cambridge(E-mail: tom@tombrass.freeserve.co.uk)
Itis, Ithink, afactthat any efficient director, when hegets downtomakinga film about the soil and the people of the soil, loses much of his tritenessand mannerism, and produces something that is related to the simplicityof the earth itself. The nearer a film draws to the fields and the hills andthe prairies, the better, as a rule, it is. (C.A. Lejeune,
Cinema
(London,1931), p. 232)In the end, he who screens the history, makes the history. (Gore Vidal,
Screening History
(London, 1992), p. 81)When in the early 1990s John Major, the last Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, extolled the virtues of ‘long shadows on country cricket grounds’,‘warm beerand ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through themorning mist’ in support of his back-to-basics campaign, he was widelyderided for adhering to outdated rural images of English national identity.Popular culture, critics pointed out, had long since moved on, and now eithercelebrated or reflected different and more accurate kinds of non-traditional,non-rural identity. Perhaps without knowing it, John Major had invoked oneof the central emplacements of conservative ideology: the pastoral variantof the agrarian myth, or a benign, a-political or politically neutral Arcadianimage associated in Britain with Ealing film comedies of the 1940s. Hiscritics, however, failed to understand two things. First, that such images arehistorically far more common, far more durable and far less benign politicallythan usually thought. And second, that the plebeian and aristocratic versionsof the agrarian myth continue to structure popular culture in general and itsmost powerful medium, the cinema, in particular, where they have been farmore dominant than is generally realized.A potent form of ruralism with roots in romantic and conservative notionsof an organic society, the agrarian myth is an essentialist ideology which inmany different historical and geographical contexts proclaims the mutuallyreinforcing aspects of landownership, farming, national identity and culture.Among other things, this populist discourse has entailed a critique of industri-alization, urbanization and modernity based on nostalgia for a vanishing way-
 
206
TOM BRASS
of-life, connected in turn with perceptions of an idyllic/harmonious/folkloricvillage existence as an unchanging/unchangeable ‘natural’ community andthus the repository of a similarly immutable national identity. Linked to thelatter is the view of the countryside generally as the locus of myths/legends,spiritual/sacred attributes, non-commercial values, and traditional virtues.
1
Film representations of the agrarian myth can be categorized in a numberof different ways. On the one hand plebeian (or ‘from below’) and aristo-cratic (or ‘from above’) versions, each of which subdivides into a pastoraland a ‘red-in-tooth-and-claw’ variant. And on the other in terms of ‘Natureunder attack’/‘the death of Nature’, in which Nature is depicted as passive(= the object of agency), and ‘Nature on the attack’/‘the revenge of Nature’,in which Nature is projected as active, and engaged in struggle to protectitself. These polarities are of course not mutually exclusive: not only can‘the death of Nature’ itself be a form of struggle, which in the end combineswith and becomes ‘the revenge of Nature’, but ‘Nature on the attack’ can betransformed into ‘Nature under attack’.The plebeian or ‘from below’ version of the agrarian myth takes ontwo forms: the peasant pastoral, and peasants ‘red-in-tooth-and-claw’. Thepeasant pastoral characterizes the three most powerful cinematic genres inthe popular culture of western capitalism: not just the Hollywood western,with its emphasis on the frontier/pioneer achievement (= resistance) of thesmall farmer defending a stereotypically idyllic rural existence (against biglandowners, railway interests, bankers and businessmen), but also – and moresurprisingly –
film noir 
and the gangster film.
2
This version of the agrarianmythincludes the 1960s filmsof Pasolini, and filmsfrom the 1980s and 1990ssuch as
Heimat 
,
City Slickers
, and
Witness
. By contrast, it can be argued thatpost-war horror and science-fiction films, as well as more recent ones suchas
Arachnophobia
, all contain a plebeian/peasant ‘red-in-tooth-and-clawtheme.Aristocratic versions of the agrarian myth, or ‘from above’ film imagesof landlordism, can be politically supportive of the latter in a number of different and seemingly contradictory ways. One is the pastoral, in which thelandlord is depicted as benign, and the countryside or peasant communitiesover which he rules as tension-free, content and harmonious. The infer-ence here is either that there is no need for struggle between rural classes,or that landlords as a class are weak, and thus unwilling and certainlyincapable ofdefending their economic position; consequently, they are unableto prevent/pre-empt their expropriation. A variant of the pastoral is theconversion of powerful landlords into weak equivalents. As in the case of plebeian or ‘from below’ versions, there is also a darker, ‘red-in-tooth-and-claw’aristocratic variant ofthe agrarian myth, inwhichlandlords aredepicted
 
THE AGRARIAN MYTH ON FILM
207as villainous/powerful/aggressive, and capable of undertaking (and willing toengage in) combat in order to defend their interests.The first category, that of landlord pastoral, is exemplified by filmssuch as
Gone With The Wind 
or
The Music Room
, while in films suchas
The Leopard 
and
1900
, landlordism is shown as passive, almost harm-less, and in an important sense ‘not worth bothering about’. The themeof social redemption, whereby a member of an hitherto powerful and/oraggressive/combative/villainous landlord class willingly elects to reformhim/herself and adapt to changed circumstances, not only becoming therebya benign character but also (and significantly) retaining his/her propertyrights, is represented by the Tamil films starring M.G. Ramachandran. Intothe second category, the ‘red-in-tooth-and-claw’ aristocratic variant of theagrarian myth, come films such as
Nosferatu
,
Dracula
, and
The Wicker Man
,all of which depict members of the landlord class as villainous, active and onthe offensive in order to defend their class interests/position.
Film, history and (the agrarian) myth
Frequently encountered claims that film is the most advanced of twentiethcentury art forms, interms of both technological prowess and representationalverisimilitude, and the most extensive form of popular culture in terms of audience, convey the impression of a medium with an innate bias towardsmodernity and political progressiveness. Such a view conflates the modernityof form with that of content, and consequently fails to comprehend the extentto which film, by its very form, is able to enhance the claims to reality of a content which in material terms is non-existent/unreal. It is for this reasonthat cinema might be described as the medium not just of popular culture butof populism in general and of the agrarian myth in particular.Although socialists have always been aware of the role of the media inthe class struggle, they have nevertheless tended to underestimate both theimportance and the extent of its negative impact in constructing/reproducing/ reinforcing/deflecting particular forms of political consciousness.
3
Hence theenthusiasm manifested among those on the left in Europe and the UnitedStates during the 1920s for cinema as a form of popular culture that wouldcontribute substantially to the political advancement/emancipation of theworking class was in many ways similar to the current postmodern obsessionwith popular culture as a medium for ‘from-below’ empowerment’.
4
Onlylater did politically progressive film criticism recognize that in a capitalistcontext the agenda of what constituted the ‘popular’ was set largely fromabove and not below.

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