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Martin Parr - Think of England (1999)

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Published on Nov 29, 2012

Celebrated photographer Martin Parr travels around England during the summer of 1998, armed with a DV camera and a mission to define 'Englishness' through the nation's subjects.

Think of England (tx. 27/4/1999), shown as part of the BBC's Modern Times series, continues Martin Parr's project, documented over thirty years as a Magnum photographer, to expose the eccentricities and casual bigotry of England's white 'moral majority'. The film's rainswept resorts, dual-carriageway picnics, and village-of-the-damned fetes are unmistakably English, but Parr's surrealistic style (ugly close-ups of a bulging bicep with blurred "Liz" tattoo, or the naked lunch of a cardiac-inducing Sunday roast) is more reminiscent of American photographers Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston, and film-maker David Lynch. For example, a day-glo red rose in Think of England, adrift in a concrete garden, echoes Blue Velvet's (US, d. Lynch, 1986) suburban nightmares, yet here the national symbol is transformed into a powerful metaphor for a falsely proud and isolated island.

Like Lynch, Parr has been accused of trading warmth for wit and turning humans into laboratory rats under microscopic inspection. Certainly, Think of England (the "lie back and..." allusion of its title is an early clue to Parr's satirical intentions) is a far cry from the so-called objectivity of the "observational style". Rather, it is a highly subjective state of the nation address, a portrait of England's white tribes as terrifyingly insular, racist (whether the working-class Wolverhamptonian who tells Parr, "Do what Enoch Powell says, send 'em all back" or the Hooray-at-Henley who bemoans the sale of his beloved Rolls Royce to BMW: "the Germans"), and full of empty jingoism. "We won two world wars and one world cup," barks a youth as if on autopilot, to which his friend replies, "All we're good at is moaning."

While Think of England touches cursorily on sexual politics and the North/South divide, Parr's subjects are ultimately of a type, united under a Union Jack and a permanently grey sky. As the film reaches its climax on Blackpool pier, biblical storms whistle up mini-skirts and candyfloss crashes to earth. "I love it. Reminds me of my childhood," insists a woman bent double by the gales. It's the kind of 'English dottiness' much beloved of British film and TV, that usually signifies heroic endurance or, at worst, lovable eccentricity; here, it's a symptom of pathological self-delusion, patriotism as the last refuge of a nation. -- Joe Sieder

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