Film is a visual artform, but music radically alters the tone of those flickering images. In the third edition of Scenes in Sound, we open up the cracked tape deck of Mark Jenkin’s Bait.
Seeing may be believing, but passive knowledge requires a few more senses to solidify. When you know a place—really know a place—it soaks into your subconscious, a series of sense memories that you’d never think twice about. It’s the smell of your neighbour’s hedge trimmings; the feel of uneven tarmac from a poorly bodged pothole. It’s the exact sound your front door makes as it clips against the wonky latch. You don’t process these things as significant, but, on a long enough time scale, our homes end up taking residence inside us as well.
For Mark Jenkin, Cornwall isn’t just residing in him: it’s seething restlessly beneath his skin. His debut feature, Bait (2019) is as volatile as it is despairingly comedic, layered through with potent snark, and idiosyncratic to the bone. Shot on grainy 16mm film stock that he later hand-processed in his home studio, Jenkin also filmed Bait without sound, meaning that every audio detail had to be post-synced. These may have been budgetary concerns as much as stylistic ones, but it’s fitting that a film primarily concerned with gentrification constantly feels aesthetically displaced. Through the arduous process of recreating every sound on screen, Jenkin gives us a unique rendition of Cornwall as it occupies his mind.
You sense immediately that cantankerous Cornish brothers Martin and Steven Ward (Edward Rowe and Giles King) come from a long lineage of fishermen—you don’t doubt their family tree has nautical roots that reach the very heart of their small fishing town. Now, however, Martin is left pitching fraying nets across a fruitless beach, and while Steven spends his days on their dead father’s old boat, he’s taking lager-loaded louts out on the open seas rather than trawling them. To call where they live a fishing town is a misnomer—it’s a twee tourist trap.
For Martin, the most egregious of these holiday makers (“prancing lycra cunts” as he dubs them in a particularly heated exchange) are those that have taken up residence in their old family home, the once-functional, now-kitsch Skipper’s Cottage. Except they haven’t established residence, not truly. For Tim and Sandra Leigh (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine) and their perfectly balanced family of four, this isn’t a home, it’s a postcard getaway—their little slice of heaven for two months a year. There’s a grating irony that those with the least stake in the town have snapped up the primest real estate, a discordance best illustrated audibly by the clash of the Leigh’s Received Pronunciation against Martin’s thick regional accent. Thanks to Jenkin’s dubbing, that conflict of perspective is even more pronounced.
Pitched somewhere between Sergio Leone’s famously dubbed Spaghetti Westerns and a rapidly decaying holiday commercial from the ‘50s, the sound design in Bait rarely feels settled. The initial adjustment as your brain tries to process the disconnect of the dub is jarring; the dialogue feels stilted, often delivered with an intonation that doesn’t match the on-screen expressions, while the sound effects are both uncannily repetitious and noticeably larger-than-life. In both instances they’ve been inflated slightly, misconstrued even. In that regard, we’re mainly pinned to Martin’s perspective (himself an analog for Jenkin), a gruff, albeit sensitive man who places a great onus on the sonic details of his rapidly eroding livelihood—the muffled impact of a buoy against the quay; the fleshy slap of a fish in a bucket—even as he’s increasingly out of step with his surroundings.
Jenkin first familiarises us with the aural texture of the area Martin knows and loves before the holiday-home toffs descend, predominantly using montages of close-ups scored by excessively punctuated foley work (mostly carried about by Jenkin in the same studio he processed the film in). Having said his morning pleasantries to the neighbours, and set off in his beat-up Vauxhall pick-up, Martin gets to working the beach, alternating between smoking roll-ups and hammering down fish nets against the coming tide. The small crashing waves, even in the distance, tower in the sound mix over the furtive rustling of his bag of scrambled netting, emphasising the blatant inadequacies of his boatless approach. It’s a thankless, Sisyphean task.
Part-way through Martin’s morning routine, the home counties arrive at their harbourside homes in a rumbling fleet of four-by-fours, the sea only slightly less audible in the background. As Martin firmly ties ropes, they struggle with leather bags; as he digs grounding hooks into the sand, they stare out with a misplaced pride at their surroundings. “How was the drive?” asks the Skipper’s new matriarch. “Awful, seven hours,” replies a grinning Land Rover. They’ve paid a premium price to get so close to the ocean, but all that money and all that time is worth it now—just listen to those crashing waves! By lowering the sea in the mix from an almighty roar to a gentle swell, Jenkin provides two audio impressions of the town: one as vacation, one as vocation.
While bags of Waitrose shopping are unpacked, those much sought after waves mesh with Jenkin’s ambient drone score, his soft, atmospheric tones poking through beneath the granular pull of the tides. If the diegetic sounds signal the divide between the town as perceived by tourists and by locals, the non-diegetic music is a handy barometer for Jenkin’s own emotional viewpoint. When the synth pads come fully to the fore, it’s often over quiet sequences, usually in the early hours, where you could almost mistake the quay for a sleepy, industrious town, free of parasitic tourism. There's a quiet nostalgia in the air, one you can tell is as much Martin’s as it is his creator’s.
Alternating between orchestral pulse and foghorn blare, Jenkin's compositions gradually accumulate more and more sweat and grime as the film goes on, that hopeful light giving way to cynically rumbling gutters. What should be a bounteous summer is perverted in every instance, Martin’s go-to pub reduced to a cacophony of coiffed teenagers as their parents stare wistfully at one another across sea bass and lobster caught in that very cove. Localness is fetishised but rarely respected. When the local barmaid voices a petty gripe that the pub’s long-standing “Winner Stays On” rules aren’t being honoured on the pool table, Jenkin’s score threatens to distort completely, the unhinged drones conveying a frank flash of anger. There’s a squirming sense of implicit privilege in believing that money on the table can supersede minor local tradition.
It’s not surprising that Bait ends on a bittersweet note, Martin and his brother back at the head of their father’s boat, heading out for a day’s fishing, but with a heavy loss hanging over them. This is less an active choice than a situational one, the off-season having swung back around, the town freed of its leeches but now drained of its lifeblood. Instead, all they’re left with is that same recognisable motorised hum, that same churning sea, a repeating tape deck left cycling under a montage of pots, floats and sturdy old hands. The final shot, a close-up of Martin’s eyes as he looks back to land, hangs for 10 seconds in silence. Even in the quiet still, you can tell he still hears the drag of the tide: it’s what he knows, and sometimes that’s all we have.