In a field of its own

a-field-in-england

We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

Caution: steps

Thanks to Mark Cousins’ electrifying 15-part Story Of Film on More4, its sister channel Film4 is showing pivotal films from his “redrawn map” of cinema history – albeit for my money not enough of them. (One a week? Each of the three chapters of Story Of Film so far have made me want to watch about a dozen films!) It’s only when a supposedly intelligent, offbeat movie channel shows Battleship Potemkin [pictured] or Orphans On The Storm or Ordet or La Regle du Jeu that you realise how very rare it is that you see films that are this old or exotic.

It shouldn’t be a “treat” to see silent movies, or foreign-language movies on TV – not in a multi-channel, narrowcast world – but even on Film4, it is. If you look at its schedules, most of what the channel shows is in English, and in colour, for a start. Yes, you get “old” films, but very rarely something you haven’t seen before. I know, I know, it’s a commercial channel – they run ads in breaks during films, which is a necessary evil, I guess, but annoying – but since it’s the only free digital-terrestrial film channel, it has a lot of responsibility to deliver. I just wish that more corners of the cinema-loving populace were catered for by the film channels, and the non-film channels. Mark Cousins told me when I interviewed him that people who hadn’t seen a 1960s Japanese documentary or an 80s film from Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé no longer had the excuse of not being catered for by TV, as such films are “a click away on the internet.” This is true enough – Cissé’s films are on YouTube, in full and in pretty high definition, including his most celebrated, Yeelen, from 1987 (although beware, it starts with the death of a chicken which some viewers may find disturbing) – but what about those without broadband? Or those who don’t like watching entire feature films on a computer screen (which includes me)?

When I was growing up, in a three-channel world, we saw silent movies on TV, and I actually made no distinction between colour and black-and-white films, old or new, partly because we didn’t even have a colour telly when I was very young. I suspect youngsters today, spoiled as they are, would turn their noses up at a film if they felt it was old, or if it wasn’t in colour. (Some of them will assume that all films are in 3D if we’re not careful.) I watched anything that was on. I realise now how lucky I was.

It’s easy to see why modern channels might play it safe. They’re after an audience. An audience wants new. An audience wants big. An audience wants famous. An audience doesn’t want surprises. I love the way Mark Cousins expresses surprise on our behalf as he uncovers unexpected new twists in the history of cinema (“a surprise indeed”). He delights in them. As should we.

Remember when Film4, or FilmFour as I think it was branded at the time, used to have specialist offshoots: FilmFour Extreme and FilmFour World? They didn’t last long. Unless you’re happy watching films online, or have the bottomless funds to buy the abundant DVDs that are now handsomely available, exploring cinema backwards, or outwards from the English-speaking world, is not made easy. (There’s a nice, 24-hour oldies channel called MGM HD on Sky, but you have to pay extra for the movies package to access it.) When I was a bit more flush and presented Back Row every week on Radio 4 in the early noughties, I invested in a lot of foreign-language DVDs and these form a vital chunk of my existing library. But that kind of profligacy is hard to justify in a recession, especially this really shit one. (I tried hooking my laptop up to my HD TV by the way, before you suggest it, but I have a monthly limit on my wi-fi that gets eaten up by downloads, so it’s not practical, really.)

The Curzon cinema chain do an On Demand service, whereby the very arthouse movies they show at their London cinemas are available to download for £8 for brand new ones, and £4 for back catalogue, including my favourite foreign film of last year, Of Gods And Men, for instance (discounts with membership, too). It’s a fantastic service if you have the facility to run your computer through your telly, or are planning on watching a film on your own, on the laptop. There are loads of more obscure foreign titles in the tank here.

Which brings me back to Battleship Potemkin. Cousins’ section on Soviet silent cinema was enlightening in chapter three, and if you saw it, you will have been as desperate as I was to see Potemkin again, in full. And thanks to Film4, we could. Despite interruption by ads, it was amazing how easy it was to get into the 1925 silent groove. The music was stirring, too. There’s no excuse for broadcasters not showing old, foreign films like this. Stick them on in the middle of the night! We’ll record them! It’s fine! They surely can’t cost as much to buy in.

In related news, I had my annual email from BBC4’s World Cinema Awards this week. Now in its eighth year, it’s an admirable initiative from a channel that will hopefully still be able to continue to invest in foreign and arthouse movies after its budget has been mauled. They basically poll critics and assorted academics and festival directors to come up with a shortlist of six films each year from the available pool of around 200, and a jury selects the winner. It’s broadcast this year on November 20. Once again, when they send round the full list to pick from, it’s always a) amazing how many foreign movies find a release in the UK, and b) how many I haven’t seen, and that’s after a concerted effort to see as many as possible, and under a scheme of affirmative action. I won’t tell you which two I voted for, although if you’ve followed my blog, you might be able to guess. (Their Wikipedia entry has all the previous winners, if you’re interested. Jonathan Ross has previously hosted the awards, but I guess it won’t be him this year. Who will it be?)

The Story of Film is all up there on 4OD if you haven’t caught it yet. You have to love Mark Cousins’ voice – and indeed, if you don’t, it may be a barrier (I find it soothing) – but the content is king.

Sighs. I feel as if I bang the gong a lot for foreign movies. I make no apology for it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Hollywood movie; and I love it when this country shows the world how it’s done (saw the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights last night, and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur is coming soon: I cannot wait!); but you miss so much if you steer clear of subtitles. Or films with no talking in at all, like the one about the battleship. Back me up on this.