Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Field In England

A Field In England is showing at the Black Swan in York on Friday 7th February 2014 in an absolutely cracking double bill with Blood on Satan's Claw, once more showing the immaculate taste of the good people behind Fiendish Thingee. It all starts at 7pm, and you'll leave with the smell of loamy (and bloodsoaked) English soil in your nostrils. These really are wonderful films, both boasting extraordinary soundtracks, and it's a privilege to be able to see them screened together. Here's some notes for A Field In England, which I've fallen for utterly on a second viewing. More on Blood on Satan's Claw to come, hopefully. You might want to note the presence of SPOILERS below.

A Field In England is the fourth feature made by Ben Wheatley, one of the most exciting new British directors of recent years. It is also the third film on which he has collaborated with his other half Amy Jump, who wrote the script and co-edited the footage. It’s a difficult film to define or safely corral within familiar genre boundaries. As such, it continues in the line of his previous films, which have tended to meld various generic elements into a seamless whole. His debut, Down Terrace, was a tale of small time gangsters which felt more like a Mike Leigh film. Kill List also inhabited geezerish gangster territory, but the macho conventions were subject to critical scrutiny and transformed by the emergence of a horrific occult conspiracy plot which also laid bare the roots of power and spiritual corruption. Sightseers was a comedy drama which once more brought Mike Leigh to mind, but which also showed a keen poetic eye for the English landscape and a sharp awareness of cultural and class divisions in the country. A Field In England harks back to Down Terrace in terms of its delimited location, and its ingenuity within a limited budget. But we’re a long way from modern day Brighton here. Wheatley and Jump take us back instead to rural Monmouthsire in the mid-17th century, at the height of the English Civil War.

As soon as you start trying to place the film, you come adrift, however. The very mutability and lack of fixed form has led to a certain amount of confusion in its reception. The first word that has sprung to mind for most people that I know when summing it up is ‘weird’, usually preceded by an emphatic ‘very’. It’s set in a specific historical period, with authentic costumes (previously used in the excellent TV Civil War drama series The Devil’s Whore). But it’s certainly not a costume drama, and has little interest in the specificities of historical event. It also has some affinity with the Jodorowsky-esque head films which were so prevalent in the late 60s and early 70s, but it would be doing it (and Jump’s carefully through-composed script in particular) a huge disservice to reductively label it a trip movie (hallucinatory history, a 17th century trip, five go off their heads in a field etc.) with the concomitant assumption that it’s all just incoherent and self-indulgent weirdness for its own sake. The gorgeous black and white photography, elliptical narrative and measured pace lend it a classical European arthouse sensibility, too. The ghosts of Ingmar Bergman and the Tarkovsky of Andrei Rublev and Stalker are definitely hovering somewhere. The filmmakers have also cited Japanese writer and director Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 film Onibaba, which takes place entirely within a landscape of tall lakeside reeds, another peripheral zone just beyond a world upturned by savage internecine war. It shares Field’s mixture of the poetic and the earthy, and is also charged with an atmosphere of myth, magic and the supernatural. Peter Watkins’ 1964 BBC drama Culloden is another influence invoked by the Field team. It’s semi-documentary approach to depicting the progress and context of the 1764 battle (drawing on John Prebble’s revisionist history) takes an entirely different approach to history, making it specific and real through attention to detail and a concentration on the experience of the ordinary soldier. The actors in Culloden were drawn from historical re-enactment societies, and Wheatley’s initial inspiration for A Field In England came from a desire to document the activities of the Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment society. They are an invisible presence at the start of the film, providing the authentic sounds of battle beyond the hedgerow.

At the same time, however, there is a blokey vein of cheerfully and unashamedly coarse humour running throughout the film. This serves to ground the arthouse elements and stop things from getting too rarefied and high-minded. There’s even a touch of the Carry On historical romp at times, with much dwelling upon bodily parts and functions. Whitehead’s analysis of Jacob’s penile problems is particularly amusing, the look on his face as he inspects the infected member through a magnifying glass held at arms length priceless. The two fingers and ripe raspberries of Sid James and the gang have here been replaced by a more direct vulgarity, with the full range of Anglo-Saxon slang regularly employed. The violence sometimes verges on the slapstick as well, with characters clocked on the head by shovels only to stagger up with little more than a groan.

Extra-cinematic influences also come into play. There’s a shared sensibility with the absurdist theatre of the post-war period (which also fed into European cinema of the 50s and 60s). In the plays of Beckett, Pinter and Pirandello, characters were generally confined to some netherworld, often with no fixed sense of place or time, leaving them disconnected from the real or the tangible. These worlds were simple and stark, and the dramas which unfolded within them were stripped down, and filled with elliptical or gnomic dialogue. The interrelationships of the characters were condensed and reduced to their essentials within this minimal framework, and the fundamental structures of power and influence were laid bare. The pit dug in A Field In England is an archetypal absurdist locale. It supposedly contains a treasure the nature of which nobody seems certain, but effectively becomes a communal, self-excavated grave. With its props and ladders, and the schisms in status which the division of labour in its digging and maintenance reveals, it could also almost anticipate the trenches of the First World War. And, as with all pits, it has myriad symbolic associations. It becomes a place dislocated from specific geography and time. The skull discovered in its depths could come from any era, past or future.

Tableau poses - the living woodcut
Field is also that most unfashionable of things in an age of realism and naturalistic drama: an allegory. This makes its period setting particularly apposite. It was, after all, the age of John Bunyan (who fought in the Civil War), and a time in which revolutionary sentiments were often couched in such terms, the political inextricably intertwined with the spiritual. The phrase ‘the world turned upside down’ (which was also the title of a contemporary ballad) is a phrase often used to sum up the spirit of the age; the possibility of fundamental and permanent transformation which lay behind the political, social and religious upheavals spreading through the land. The phrase is uttered by the alchemist O’Neill in Field, who adds the cynical addendum ‘and so is its pockets’, the philosophy of the ruthlessly opportunistic materialist who would seek to exploit and thereby undermine the idealistic spirit. We are offered a giddily literal visualisation of the phrase towards the end of the film, when the field becomes an airy sky, and the sky a grassy heaven. The religious element is central to the film (as it was in a more tacit fashion to Kill List), which again makes it boldly unfashionable. There are several still tableaux staged throughout the film, which are intended to capture the flattened perspective of the woodcut illustrations of the period, but which also lend a further air of sacred ritual to the proceedings.

We begin the film by crossing a threshold, pushing blindly through a thick and high hedgerow, fern and thorn parting before the panicked point of view which we share. The hedgerow is a barricade which separates us and the four characters we come across from the war, which proceeds loudly but invisibly beyond. This barrier immediately cuts us off from the world of historical event and the kind of film which attempts to give it colour and life. The brevity of the cameo appearance by Julian Barratt (Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh), abruptly truncated by a pike through the guts, also assures us that surreal comedy won’t be the primary mode of the film, although it will be present throughout. This is essentially a film to be taken seriously, even if its bawdiness and rough demotic, blending period fustian with up to date swearing, ensure that it is also eminently approachable and entertaining.

The three characters who stumble across each other in the field beyond the war are an ignoble trio. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), dressed in Puritan black with the lacily collared and cuffed shirt of a bookish man (he later confesses to have been ‘mainly amongst books’) is the first we come across. He flees the conflict and his enraged commander (a mercenary called Trower – the Barratt character – as we later discover) in abject terror. Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) is a hard-headed, individualistic and anti-authoritarian soldier whom we discover robbing the corpse of Whitehouse’s commander, unbooting it and hacking off the finger to get to the ring. He uses the third character, a bumpkin from rural Essex in a peasant’s headcap (played by Wheatley regular Richard Glover), who we later learn is a cooper, as a pillow to rest on, assuming that this is another corpse. It is only after he gets up that this daydreamer, a sleepy fool who wanders through life in a blissful daze, wakes from his deathly doze. These three are definite and distinct types, differentiated from each other through the divisions and variances of class, intelligence, piety and manner of speech. They are joined by a fourth, a shifty type called Cutler (Ryan Pope), who promises them a share of the food he is cooking just over the field’s brow. After this, he promises, he will show them the way to an ale house which lies a short way beyond. He is a false prophet, offering them a straight path to a phantom paradise (the ale house as heaven), an illusory Land of Cockayne in which their appetites will be forever sated and no-one need be sober again. Once they begin to follow him, the sounds of the war grow suddenly silent. They have crossed some kind of boundary, passed through into a space separate from the world.

Power dressing - O'Neill dons the mantle of absolute authority
Jacob and the cooper are soon dancing to Cutler’s tune, having eagerly wolfed down his mushroom-doped stew. They are enslaved by their appetites, which they are unable to control. Whitehouse refuses Cutler’s entreaties to eat, however, and more direct and brutal means of persuasion must be used to force him into the labour which they have all been enticed here to perform. He indicates his pistol, holstered around his groin, which remains an embarrassingly obvious phallic symbol throughout, the source of his cocky power. It as it this point, some 30 meandering minutes in, that the film’s antagonist, the alchemist O’Neill (Michael Smiley, another member of Wheatley’s regular repertory company), enters the field and the story, dragged in by the three reluctant recruits in the face of an apparently crushing weight of gravity, or against an immensely powerful counterforce. It’s as if another invisible presence is trying to prevent O’Neill from leaving whatever otherplace he currently inhabits (down below, perhaps). Having given his assistant a round kicking, as if he were a recalcitrant dog or a despised, bungling lackey, he dons his clothes whilst standing beneath a tree, the hallway in which he prepares to go out into this world. He finishes it all off with a billowing cloak, his symbolic mantle of authority, and stops to admire himself in the black glass of his scrying mirror. He turns this world in miniature upside down and lets everyone know in no uncertain terms that they are now under his power, and that he has brought them here to do his bidding (‘I conjured you’). They will seek buried treasure which his arts have divined is hidden somewhere in the field. We discover at this juncture that O’Neill is the alchemist whom Whitehead has been charged with tracking down and arresting for the theft of his master’s documents, manuscripts filled with formulae for magical transformations. He attempts an arrest, but is brushed aside with contemptuous scorn. The balance of power is wholly and humiliatingly against him.

So much for the basic plot, which proceeds from this point as an initially hopelessly unbalanced struggle between the divided trio of Whitehead, the cooper and Jacob on the one hand, and O’Neill and Cutler, the devil’s right hand man, on the other. This struggle obviously resonates beyond the surface narrative plane, however. It can be interpreted in any number of ways, not all of which have to mutually exclusive. Separate versions can be superimposed or positioned side by side, alternate realities to be contemplated at one and the same time.

Dead Man - William Blake guided by Nobody
The field could be a kind of purgatory, a no-place interzone where sins can be purged, allowing the soul to move on. Or it could be a curiously English version of the Tibetan Buddhist bardo, the space beyond death which the soul must navigate, either consciously attaining Nirvana or, assailed by the demonic shadows attaching to wrong actions in previous lifetimes, being cast back into the world in some guise or another. In this sense, Field would bear some resemblance to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, a film which is also shot in rich monochrome. Johnny Depp’s character, who is called William Blake but has no knowledge of his namesake, is the dead man, shot in the gut early on, who is guided through a Western version of the bardo by a Native American called Nobody. He is pursued by demonic, cannibalistic bounty hunters, but becomes transformed into a figure of death himself as he journeys on. O’Neill and Cutler are two more demonic figures, relishing the cruelties they deal out, and there is a hint that the meat and bones in the stew they serve up is in fact human flesh. References to God watching in judgement, Cutler’s remark that ‘you are as good as dead this side of the hedgerow’, the uncanny impression that ‘we’re only shadows here’, and Whitehouse’s reflection that ‘whilst we live in fear of Hell, we have it’ all support such readings.

Another religious interpretation could see this as a confrontation between the Devil and a curious and unlikely incarnation of the Trinity. The cooper is a holy fool whose simple, vacant utterances occasionally express unalloyed and penetrating truths. It is he who identifies O’Neill’s true aspect, mildly observing ‘it does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman, although I would’ve thought a little taller’ (probably my favourite line in the film). He also reflects, apropos of nothing, ‘I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for – everything!’ They have taken on the sins of the world. Whitehead undergoes his own Passion, driven by O’Neill across the field like a vacant puppet to divine the position of the treasure. Later, he crams his gullet full of mushrooms, a sacrament of sorts (he has already drunk the drugged wine) and cries out ‘I shall consume all the ill future which you are set to unleash’. He is the innocent lamb who takes on the sins of the world, absorbing the infections of devils like O’Neill. Towards the end, he lies down in the grass and holds his hands together in prayer. When he folds them outwards in an open gesture which embraces the world, they are filled with blood, as if stigmata had manifested.

The Divided self - O'Neill recumbent

The divided self - Whitehouse recumbent
Moving away from such religious interpretations, this could also be seen as an allegory of the divided self. O’Neill and Whitehouse are opposing polarities of a singular being (something visually represented by filming their initial dialogue through isolated, intercut profile close-ups), intellectuals and seekers of knowledge with differing aims and pleasures. O’Neill is vain and materialistic, seeing in bookish wisdom a route to power in the world. He is wholly and violently male. Whitehouse is more feminine, having developed a liking for lacemaking, and is not brave or powerful in a physical sense. O’Neill imposes his superior male physicality on the splintered aspect of his dual self (a duality which he acknowledges later on by shouting that they are ‘two halves of the same man’) by raping Whitehouse in his tent. This subjugation represents what he intends to do to the entire world. Whitehouse is effectively the only representative of the female spirit in the film, something acknowledged by the very male Jacob’s mordant remark that ‘what this party lacks is the civilising influence of women’ (a line of dialogue that is possibly also a wry comment from its female writer).

Body over mind - Jacob as the embodiment of the purely physical
Jacob himself is a representative of the basic physical self, and Cutler is his opposite. He is obsessed with bodily functions, constantly uses sexual swearwords (to really swear at the time you would blaspheme), and suffers terribly in the region of his arse and his cock. If Whitehouse looks up at the stars to effect his divinations, living in the celestial realm of the intellect, then Jacob is firmly rooted to the ground (to which he effortfully adds his own earth at one point). The holy fool, meanwhile, is on his own. He has no dual self. He is, in his own way, whole, if insubstantial. In their trinity, he is the holy spirit, sometimes hardly there at all. This insubstantiality lends him a certain immortality, and he rises from the dead on several occasions (‘you’ve risen more times than fucking Lazarus’, an exasperated Jacob exclaims). He can’t even grasp the notion of the celestial bodies which Whitehouse tries to explain to him. But when he sings his song, the old Scottish lullaby Baloo My Boy, it is like a hymn, pure and true.

Spade head - the depersonalisation of forced labour
The divided self can also be seen as a symbolic reflection of the division of the general populace against itself. Whitehouse, Jacob and the cooper are reduced to slavery by O’Neill, and yet initially they do nothing to help each other. The inebreiated duo cavort behind Whitehouse as he is brutally driven through the field, and Jacob initially mocks his book learning. He comes to be thankful for it later, however, recognising its worth as a soothing balm is applied to his burning member. The servitude and individual erasure of forced labour is represented by still shots in which heads are eclipsed by the spatulate flat of a shovel’s business end, and the shovel is also used as a weapon to turn against the serf who dares to defy orders and put it down. Jacob and the fool fight each other in the pit they dig and are effectively cast into, a political dispute over the latter’s refusal to recognise his servile state (‘I’ll be a better slave than you’, he boasts). It is only when they join together, unite in action, that they are able to confront O’Neill and Cutler. Thus the story can also be seen as a political fable about the need for a common purpose and fixed resolve to raise the commonality from their servitude. ‘I am my own master’, Whitehouse determines as he rises above the humiliations of his subjugation.

Embracing the world
So what is the field, then? It is the world in miniature, the nation encompassed within the boundaries of a hedgerow. If the period in question saw the world turned upside down, then this is the world inverted, the great contained within the small. There is some wonderful early morning photography which captures the details of the miniature world made immense: dandelion seedheads eclipsing the sun, a spider’s web framing O’Neill, a caterpillar bending a blade of grass. During his final holy delirium, as they are crawling through the grass, Whitehouse tells Jacob that he proposes writing a book and calling it ‘A Field in England, or the Myriad Particulars of the Common Weevil’. They have been reduced to the scale of scurrying insects. The giant black sun which Whitehouse sees swelling above the field, its dark absence of light relentlessly spreading to swallow the world entire, is also the circular void of his pupil (and of the black circle of the scrying glass), a projection of his own expanding vision. The field is also a region of inner space, a New Worlds/Ballardian concept about which Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, whose next film is an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, are clearly well-acquainted. ‘You cannot escape the field’, O’Neill bellows at one point, because there is nothing beyond. The field is the world, and it is also an interior landscape encompassed by the walls of Whitehouse’s skull. ‘Then I shall become it’, Whitehouse responds. His exhalation becomes a gale force wind, several marks on the Beaufort scale above the divine breezes riffling the undergrowth in Tarkovksy’s Mirror, flattening the grass and sending O’Neill’s tent ballooning into the sky. An inhalation and it is over, the breath of the world drawn back in. In the end, Whitehouse returns through the hedgerow he’d first struggled through. But he doesn’t find himself in the thick of war. He’s back in the field, and Jacob and the cooper are there waiting for him. The last we see of them, they are standing in a row, proud and upright, the re-united aspects of a once divided whole.

The divided soul made whole
A final mention should be made of the film’s soundtrack. It’s a brilliant combination of ancient and modern which perfectly matches the film’s own sensibility. Jim Williams’ folkish songs and instrumentals create an ideal atmosphere for the more reflective moments of the film. He also blends a mournful chug resembling the sound of a viol consort (like a slowed down Michael Nyman) with the rising crescendo of an Ennio Morricone score, which finally bursts out in spaghetti western fuzz guitar at the climax of the film. Williams gets to sing the fool’s song, Baloo, on the credits, a demo recording which the filmmakers cheekily used against his expressed wishes. He has nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a lovely rendition. Contrasting with this aspect of the soundtrack are pieces of electronic music and sound design. Martin Pavey’s Metallic Fields is a piece of musique concrète which derives its sources from the resonances of struck gongs. It has a misty vaporousness and shimmering absence of attack reminiscent of Delia Derbyshire’s Blue Veils and Golden Sands. Chernobyl, a track taken from the debut (and thus far only) album by electronica artist Blanck Mass (aka Benjamin Power, one half of the Fuck Buttons), accompanies Whitehouse’s slow-motion emergence from O’Neill’s tent, and adds a huge emotional charge to what is already a powerful scene. The soundtrack received a limited edition vinyl release, long sold out, but will hopefully see wider distribution at a later date. It’s certainly worthy of it.

This is a film which gained a great deal from a second viewing, and it’s certainly one which I shall return to many more times. You can return to the field time and again, if indeed you ever really left it. Enjoy your trip, but perhaps it would advisable to pass on the mushroom soup when you return to the bar downstairs.

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