Harmony in the South West: Blue Juice (1995)
Blue Juice (Carl Prechezer, 1995) is set in Cornwall in the South West of England, and though it follows a group of surfers, the characters and the action are not located in an exclusive insider culture, as Karen Lury (2000: 101) has suggested. Rather, that subculture is open to outsiders who are capable of recognising its value, and is located within the United Kingdom. The narrative follows local hero, JC, who is about travel around the world with his girlfriend Chloe, but finds his life disrupted by the arrival of his childhood friends from London. The Londoners abuse and resist the regional culture of the South West, but are eventually won round and, along with JC, find their lives changed by their experience of the region. The focus of the film is on the characters, and it is through looking at their development that I argue that Blue Juice makes a case for the protection of regional subcultures in the UK.
In Blue Juice, the South West is represented as an organic and natural place, with an emphasis on the landscape, the coast, and the sea. The film divides sequences through shots of the waves breaking or of the landscape and at numerous points the surfers comment on the build of the swell out to sea, so that the environment is a constant presence in the film. The local community demonstrates an intimate awareness of the environment – for example, JC is able to perfectly predict Terry’s route along the coast; and the environment is also represented as being the guarantor of authenticity, as is evident in the sequence where JC and Chloe at the blowhole, which ‘knows’ when they are lying. Though the film is set in the South West of England some of the surfing sequences were filmed in Lanzarote, and as a consequence of this there is a break in the continuity between the overcast climate of Cornwall and the bright sunshine of the wave sequences. This break in continuity has an impact on how we perceive the region: JC’s description of the swell at the Boneyard shows him and his friends against the dark cliffs and grey skies of England, but as he looks out to sea the point of view shot associated with him shows the waves in bright sunshine giving the surf an aura of fantasy. The unreal nature of the sea is also evident in JC’s nightmares of being dashed against the rocks. The South West is not simply an objective and material space – it is also a state of mind. In contrast to Cornwall, London is an urban jumble that is marked by the static skyscrapers and congested roads that lack the energy and fantasy of the surf. The capital is first shown in a shot of the Thames, but unlike the open waters of Cornwall, the river is hemmed in on either side by the city, and represents the attitudes of Londoners to the South West, which are shown to be narrow-minded and stereotypical. Cornwall is represented as being far from London: the phones are unreliable and Terry is unable to call his fiancée, while the trains only run on certain days out of the tourist season. However, this does not mean that Cornwall is cut off from the rest of the nation, and though there is a vocal Cornish nationalist movement, the film clearly places the South West within the UK. At a number of points in the film the local radio station, Smuggler FM, breaks up the action with the strong Cornish accents of its presenters who point out that though the county is on the edge of the UK, far from being the last county in England it is, in fact, the first. The relationship between Cornwall and London is thus a matter of perspective. For example, the radio presenters counter the claim that the climate of the South West is ‘bleak’ by arguing that it is ‘fresh.’ The attitude of those from the capital is that the South West is of peripheral significance to the nation, but the film shows that in experiencing the regional the Londoners are able to adjust their perspectives on life.
The South West has a transformative effect on those from outside the region, in this case JC’s three friends from London – Terry, Josh, and Dean. Terry is a neurotic pub landlord, who spends the first third of the film complaining about his sinuses and migraines. He is so reserved that in order to get him out of the capital it is necessary for Dean and Josh to drug and kidnap him. He is resistant to anything that might force him to experience something new telling his friends that, ‘You can’t make me enjoy myself.’ He is engaged but lacks anything in common with his fiancée, Sarah, beyond watching television and videos, and is content to lead his uninteresting life in London having never experienced any of the alternatives. Terry’s new experiences come via his first attempt at surfing and Ecstasy, and he leaves behind his boring persona to act out his fantasies. At the rave he appears as the Silver Surfer, with his body sprayed in silver paint, and, having bumped into an actress who played Guinevere in a television show from his childhood, he arrives at a country hotel dressed as a knight and tries to carry her off. Finally he is reunited with Sarah but no longer wants to return to his life in London, and at the end of the film we see Terry and Sarah sitting on an Australian beach waiting for the sun to rise before a days surfing. Though the South West is distant from London, it is thus not the surfer community of Cornwall who are portrayed as being provincial but those from the capital who have lost contact with the rest of the country, and by going beyond the limits of London Terry is able to overcome his closed and neurotic personality to explore the world.
As a top London record producer, Josh is too ‘cool’ to get involved in life in Cornwall. His refusal to participate is evident in his manner of dress, and his hats and sunglasses allow him to remain removed within the group, and his overriding concern for his image is evident when he states that he does not want to look like an ‘agricultural worker.’ Somewhat incongruously for a film set in the South West, Blue Juice features a Northern Soul night at a local hall, and it is here that Josh is confronted over his appropriation of a Northern Soul record, Ossie Sands’ ‘The Price of Pain,’ and his abuse of the song in remixing it as a dance track. In his defence he claims that he was only servicing the market, but the point is made that the London culture is parasitical in its relationship to the other regions, and that regional subcultures serve as the source for commercial exploitation in the capital. Earlier Josh has made a point of establishing his presence at the home of the Northern Soul scene, the Wigan Casino, in order to impress Junior, a female DJ, and he is happy to draw on the cultural cachet this gives him even if he does not respect the scene itself. It is later revealed that Junior is Ossie Sands’ daughter. At the Soul night he is able to rediscover the joys of the scene, and sheds his cool persona to dance awkwardly with the others. At the end of the film, Josh is shown producing a record for Ossie indicating his return to authenticity, but alongside him sits Junior who prompts him to do a remix because they ‘gotta pay the bills.’ The film does not argue that contemporary culture is inherently inferior to older cultural forms, or that regional subcultures should be regarded as pure, untouchable, and closed to other cultural forms, but that the appropriation of a subculture by the mainstream without respect needs to be countered.
The quality of economic activity to the region is also a significant element of the film, and is manifested in Dean’s attempts to find a career for himself. The environment of the South West sustains the local community – economic activity is related to the environment with the land is used for farming, and the sea for fishing and surfing; while London, lacking any natural resources, exists as a cultural parasite exploiting the regions. Dean is, in his own words, a ‘professional fuck up,’ and in contrast to the supportive community of the surfers, the Londoners are constantly sniping at and trying to undermine others: he sells fake drugs to the locals while claming to live in the area, sells out Josh to a tabloid newspaper, and is prepared to sacrifice JC on the rocks of the Boneyard in order to secure a job for himself. Mike, the newspaper editor from London, tries to manipulate the surfing of the Boneyard for his own ends, adding to the damning view the film projects of London as exploiting the regions. Mike provokes a dramatic reaction from Shaper, who gives up twenty years of non-violence to punch him in the face. Though he adopts the style of a surfer and attempts to ingratiate himself into the subculture by using the slang of the surfers, Dean is disrespectful to others around him and when he goes surfing crashes through other surfers in the sea. Style has been identified as a key element of subcultures (Hebdige 1979), but in Blue Juice membership of a particular subculture requires more than the adoption of the surface elements of style – it demands commitment and respect. Though he pretends to be a surfer, Dean learns this lesson the hard way when he knocks himself unconscious whilst trying to surf the deadly Boneyard. Terry, by contrast, does acquire the style of a surfer (or at least he gets a tan and grows a goatee), but only once he has made a conscious decision to broaden his experience. At the film’s end, Dean has discovered his place in the world and chooses to remain in the South West working as a surfboard maker apprenticed to Shaper. (This choice recalls Renton’s decision in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) to choose life, and Ewan McGregor plays both roles). As Dean’s example demonstrates, economic activity is related to the everyday life of the surfers and affords them the opportunity to work in the production of their leisure time.
This focus on economic activity that is appropriate to the lives of the surfers is also a feature Chloe’s determination to buy the local café that is the hangout for the surfers. If the metonymic image of banal regionalism is the ‘flag hanging unnoticed on the public building,’ in Blue Juice this is literally the case as in one shot a flag depicting an ice cream with the word ‘Cornish’ emblazoned upon it hangs limply on the local café. Chloe seeks to preserve the café from being taken over by an outsider and turned into a ‘Captain Ahab’s theme bar,’ and her efforts to buy the lease are a form of resistance to the homogenisation of culture that threatens to erode the distinctiveness of regional cultures. In order to raise the money to buy the lease, she organises a rave on a local beach, again emphasising the close relationship between the community and the landscape: the cliffs prove a natural amphitheatre and the beach functions as a dance floor. As JC has to surf the Boneyard in order to rescue Dean he is unable to get Chloe the money she needs to buy the café. To make up for this he purchases a broken down shack that he and the other surfers renovate, abandoning the old place because it no longer represents the authenticity of South West.
JC, the local hero who surfed the Boneyard, is approaching his thirtieth birthday has decided to travel round the world surfing and is trying to persuade his girlfriend Chloe to join him. His decision to move on is articulated by his fear that in settling down in one place he will end up like Terry – boring, neurotic, and miserable. Though he has been in Cornwall for a number of years, JC is caught between his friends from London and his life in the South West, and tries to please everyone all the time but ends up pleasing no one, and this is derived from the fact that he has yet to resolve for himself which regional identity (London or South West) he should choose. His exasperation with his friends from London shows that JC has moved beyond their provincialism and exploitation of the regions, while his willingness to leave the South West indicates that he has not fully accepted his own place within the community. As a consequence of this he finds himself placeless, an outsider in both regions. This is represented spatially when Chloe kicks him out of their home, and he is forced to share with his friends in a run down caravan that is removed from the town. His failure to commit leaves him increasingly marginalised from the surfers (one even asks if he can date Chloe once JC has left), but does not reconcile him to his London friends who cause him nothing but trouble. Ironically it is Dean who resolves this conflict of identities for him: recalling the first time they came to Cornwall fresh out of school, Dean remembers that JC stood up on his first attempt at surfing and that he was a ‘natural.’ Unlike Dean, JC’s regional identity is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of destiny: though he is a Londoner by birth he his decision to support Chloe and remain in the region reflects his own recognition that he has found his natural place in the world.
Ben Thompson argues that: ‘For all its multiple happy-endings, Blue Juice’s final message is that the search for cultural validation and meaningful career development in post-industrial Britain is by no means an easy one’ (1995: 44). Though it may prove to be difficult, Blue Juice’s final message is that such cultural validation is possible: the ageing hippie surfer, Shaper, wonders whether he will be able to levitate if all things were in harmony, and at the close of the film he does indeed rise above the ground because the problems of the surfers and the Londoners are resolved by establishing a harmony between the region and the capital. As Lury writes, the ‘representation of a particular community by the film is therefore designed to construct a somewhat idealised local culture as a place outwith, and literally distant from, the commercial taint and inauthenticity represented by London’ (2000: 101); but this idealised community is located within the nation and makes the claim for the importance of regional subcultures to the life of the nation. It is the distance of the community from London, the very fact that it is ‘outwith,’ which gives the South West its uniqueness and establishes its relevance within the UK.
Lury, K. (2000) Here and then: space, place, and nostalgia in British youth cinema of the 1990s, in R. Murphy (ed.) British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI: 100-108.
Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
Thompson, B. (1995) Blue Juice, Sight and Sound 5 (9): 44.