I had many questions and I got some answers. About cinematic standing stones. Tropes of horror, folk horror, rural horror, the uncanny. The entanglement of film and megalith: tapes of stones, and stone tapes. Urban prehistory in the big screen in the city – London, Edinburgh.
Q&A. Call out and response. Panels and chairs, chairs and panels. Tapes of stones and stone tapes.
During January 2023 I had the good fortune to attend two cinematic events that presented films that all combined elements of rurality, unsettlement, and standing stones. In both cases, films were followed by Q&A and panel sessions with film makers and artists.
First up was a showing of Enys Men, directed by Mark Jenkin. This Cornwall-set movie has been branded in marketing as being folk horror and includes many of the key elements – a remote rural setting (in this case an island), a lonely protagonist, local legends turned to song, a hint of menace, and a standing stone.
The director was happy enough during the Q&A at the end to suggest that the marketing for this film perhaps over-egged the horror element, but there is no doubt that despite there being little blood shed or physical violence shown on screen, nonetheless a horror-scape was evident through a fragmented temporality and the wonderful use of sound. The recurring roar of a generator reminded me of some of the more visceral sounds one finds on Italian horror movie soundtracks.
The film was wonderful and the Q&A fascinating, with Mark Jenkin being generous both with his time and his insights into the creative process. For more of the same, here is an extended discussion about Enys Men with Mark Kermode and central actor Mary Woodvine.
But we’re here for the standing stone! Sadly my raised hand did not get my question asked on the night, and a tweet the following day remains unanswered at least by Mr Jenkin.
In fact, it is both a real – and a fake – standing stone. The actual Boswens menhir was used for some scenes.
But in an article about the film by Tanya Gold in The Spectator, she suggests that a fake standing stone was used in some scenes, and this makes sense, as it comes and goes, and is to an extent altered during the film.
Landscape has agency in Enys Men. I walk to Boswens Menhir after watching it: it’s the stone in Enys Men, though they made a replica, which I found in the rafters at the reclamation yard Shiver Me Timbers a few days later because the owner is also the prop master. It’s middle Bronze Age, about 4,000 years old, a haunted object.
The two incarnations of the standing stone – real and fake, mirror images of one another – nonetheless have a powerful agency in this film, and probably deserve second billing in the cast list. It / they fulfil(s) the role that megaliths often do in folk and rural horror, in that the standing stone acts as a focal point for our fears and anxieties, a mute and timeless observer that just might become a participant in the right set of circumstances. “Presiding over this time-slipping strangeness is a giant standing stone” (Mark Kermode) and Jenkin himself has noted that of standing stones in the Cornish landscape:
I was really haunted by the Pipers. I’d look through the gateway and I’d think they’d moved slightly. I like the idea of a sentient stone.
And this is a sentient stone with anthropomorphised traits: reviewers use phrases like ‘keeping her company’, and note that the stone seems to have the ‘power to move’, and even that it ‘moves around the island …. changing position and size’. I’ve also read phrases like ‘stands sentinel’, and ‘presiding over’ (reference perhaps also to the fact that it seems to be located in the highest point in the internal island landscape of the film).
Writing about the film, Adam Scovell (sort of the godfather of critical Folk Horror writing) is also drawn to the recurring standing stone imagery, an evocation of what might be called ‘Cornish eerieness’. This is also suggested by the other heritage landmark shown in the film, an abandoned tin mine, which reminded me of earlier Cornish horrors – Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Crucible of Terror (1971). These heritage horrors play on time depth and mystery, a vein mined with much success by MR James. Mark Kermode has suggested that Enys Men could be viewed as “the cult 70s TV frightener The Stone Tape reconfigured” – if only past lives, rites, and voices played out beside standing stones could be recovered now, but what if we were to find that blood had been spilled or the living petrified?
Enys Men is a thought-provoking megalith movie that happens to have people in it, orbiting around a standing stone, an eternal entanglement.
A couple of weeks later I was back for more, this time an event organised by The Stone Club, part of London Short Film Festival, and called Figures in the landscape – see this page. Over a couple of hours, five short films were shown followed by a panel discussion.
Stone Club traverse Britain and Ireland’s ancient landscapes via the medium of shorts. From mysterious apparitions in Cymru, sculptural monoliths on the misty moors of Kernow, and a bouncy Stonehenge travelling across the UK, Stone Club offer visions that attempt to thin the veil, inviting us to re-enchant the landscapes we inhabit on a daily basis.
The five films shown were:
Figures in the landscape is a short documentary about the artist Barbara Hepworth at work in and around St Ives, with an evocative narration and soundtrack, and featuring standing stones (of course) and artworks that perfectly align with the Cornish landscape. This included the juxtaposition of standing stones and sculpture as this selection of stills demonstrates, such as the 1938 piece Forms in Echelon.
The narration intones: Stones for dancing and stones for dying…death and rebirth, in and out
You can watch this free on the BFI player here.
This was followed by Tresor, a film directed, written and produced by the Cornish singer, composer and artist Gwenno, to accompany her recent album of the same name. Claire Marie Bailey, a Cornish-based film-maker and photographer, collaborated closely with Gwenno on videos for this album and the short film I saw in London. (Mark Jenkin worked with her on a video from a previous album, and one song by Gwenno appears on the Enys Men soundtrack.) This film is joyous and playful, and features Bryn Celli Ddu Neolithic barrow, upon which Gwenno did a DJ set in 2022. (The hat worn below by Gwenno was designed by the Stone Club’s Lally MacBeth.)
Also obligatory draping over and hugging the ubiquitous Mên-an-Tol!
Like Enys Men, Tresor includes the use of Cornish, and was made during a Covid lockdown.
Third up was Jeremy Deller’s film English Magic, made and first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The centrepiece of this work was scenes of children playing on Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge, Sacrilege (2012). Again, this was joyous and fascinating, and it was fantastic to hear at the end during the Q&A how much Deller admires the creative thinking and creativity of archaeologists.
The exhibition for the British Pavilion at Venice included this film and other pieces. Deller’s website notes,
The exhibition reflects the roots of much of Deller’s work, focusing on British society – its people, icons, myths, folklore and its cultural and political history. He weaves together high and low, popular and rarefied to create unique and thought provoking work. English Magic addresses events from the past, present and an imagined future.
Sacrilege is a famous artwork, megalithic in form, but green and plastic in execution, a playful inflatable that toured the UK during Olympic year of 2012 including a stint in Glasgow Green park.
In Deller’s film, we see bouncy Stonehenge blown up (not Transformers 5 style!), enjoyed via the process of uncontrollable bouncing, and then deflated like a giant air bed (but more dignified than National Lampoon’s European Vacation style!). I’ve been to Stonehenge a few times and I’ve never seen anyone have much fun there, so this was always a refreshing installation, and it was nice to see its use documented.
The penultimate film was HforSpirit and Nick Hadfield’s 2021 short ‘pagan rave film’ UnTyMe, “… a short fly on the wall film about a group of friends that flee the city on a rave escape to the hills”. I must confess this was less engaging and joyful than the other films. I can’t like everything! But there was some cool dancing around Castlerigg stone circle with a typical foreboding big sky. You can watch an extract here.
Finally, there was a rather depressing Irish documentary from 1974, called Stones will Speak, directed by Terrence McDonald. This was an evocative and poetic exploration of, I suppose, elements of misplaced nostalgia, for a rural way of life that was neither sustainable nor equitable. “…voices of residents of the west coast tell the stories of their lives – dispelling romantic notions of rural life with tales of immigration, loneliness and hard work….[the film] has an air of truth, bearing witness to the changeless beauty of the Irish countryside but equally the harsh reality that a man cannot live on beauty or support his family on folklore”.
You can watch the film here. I suppose it speaks of a universal human melancholy related to landscape change. “I doubt there is anything in the city to match the sunshine on the mountains”.
The evening was concluded with the panel discussion featuring artist Jeremy Deller, the Stone Club’s Lally MacBeth & Matthew Shaw, artist and archivist Victoria Jenkins, and musician and producer Richard Norris. This was a free-flowing discussion on the films that covered a lot of ground although didn’t quite bottom out the enduring fascination for stone, and standing stones, suggested across the films. There was much discussion about ‘re-enchantment’ which I confess is a concept that I am not sure how to respond to as a prehistorian. It was all, with one exception, very English.
The chance to watch these films on the big screen was too good to miss, coupled with the opportunity to hear film-makers, artists and musicians discuss them. It was also an opportunity for me to explore the increasing interest there is today in Britain with standing stones and megalithic rites, a trend that transcends Folk Horror, despite what this recent Guardian article suggests.
There is something in the wind – perhaps this was even said by a panel member in London – that has so far largely escaped archaeologists. Looking back at my notes from that evening event, perhaps a better way of putting it is that there is a ‘yearning for something’ – and this seems dripping with nostalgia which is entangled with childhood TV memories, some kind of slower paced past, and played out through a rather retro and analogue sensibility. There are dangers of course with such nostalgia, especially were recollection falls to a sort of pagan past that never was. But I get the sense that all of those who were involved in making and curating the films discussed in this blog post are well aware of these dangers, and indeed would actively work against them.
Panels and chairs, chairs and panels. Tapes of stones and stone tapes. Standing stones in the cinema.
PS I still have many questions. One of them was answered via twitter by Mark Jenkin, a belated but welcome answer to my question as set out above about the Enys Men standing stone.
Sources and acknowledgements: I’m very grateful to all of those who organised and participated in the events that are discussed in this blog post, and I’m appreciative of the creative talent involved. I paid to attend both events, this was no junket! My companions on these evenings – Bam and Jan – both helped me think through some of the issues discussed above.
Special thanks to Gwenno for correcting information on the first version of this post in terms of collaborations for Tresor videos and film, and for the kind words!
I hope I have cited all sources for images and so on correctly and clearly above, let me know if you see any problems.
My visit to London was supported by a grant from the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow.