Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Before recommending the most audacious drug movie since Requiem for a Dream, there's something I need to say: Sometimes I wonder if I was born 15-20 years too late. You know, way before 1982. Hell, I wrote an investigative feature on midnight movie culture last year partly so I could work through that strange, unshakable feeling. (Also, it's right there in the name of this column. We could have titled it "Matt's Favorite Movies That Make His Friends and Colleagues Think He's a Sick Fuck," but Permanent Midnight has a slicker ring to it.)
I've had that feeling ever since I first read esteemed film critics J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's terrific book Midnight Movies, a deeply reported and entertaining examination of the 1960s/1970s cinematic subculture responsible for some of my favorite movies. Like, David Lynch's Eraserhead. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo. Those were wilder and freer days. Back then, adventurous movie heads would get all hopped on psychedelic drugs, venture out into the seediest parts of Manhattan, and spend up to two hours from 12 a.m. onward having their damn minds blown. With Eraserhead and El Topo, specifically, the collective sensory overload resulted from several factors: bizarre, never-seen-before visuals; off-kilter, unnerving music; performances by unknown actors that seemed less "actor-y" and more "Who are these weirdos?"; and a beguiling lack of narrative cohesion.
Seated in theaters like the Elgin and the Waverly, drug-fueled audience members of that era were ready to go on whatever crazy, next-level rides the filmmakers could, and most certainly would, take them on—any shreds of tangible plots notwithstanding. Usually, there weren't any. The experience mattered more than the story. Images and implications were seared into minds, not conflict resolutions or neatly parceled out three-act structures. When the slithery worm-baby cries for "daddy" Jack Nance in Eraserhead, or the bearded lady starts singing from the ballroom located within Nance's apartment's radiator, there was no choice but to embrace the madness. Why else would anyone have voluntarily paid money to see something called Eraserhead at such an ungodly hour? There's a certain kind of cinephile who love that sort of stuff. One either gets it or works for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Watching director Ben Wheatley's unclassifiable A Field in England, my state of mind couldn't have been too far off from those of Eraserhead and El Topo's original theatrical viewers. At no point during its 90-minute running time was I able to piece together any sort of concrete storyline. A scene staged in slow-motion, with one seemingly lobotomized character doing a zombie walk while tied to a rope, kept going on and on, with the hypnotic choir-like score lulling my brain into an obedient mush. The other musical cues, all folksy synths and reverberating bass, further disoriented me. Characters said oddball ish like, "The world is turned upside down, and so are its puppets." I felt out of my head but aware that I was in the hands of a special breed of moviemaker.
Much like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump, who wrote A Field in England, don't make weirdness for the sake of being weird. Though A Field in England's meanings and themes are tucked beneath its grandiose eccentricities, Wheatley and Jump operate on pure intelligence. And it's clear that they expect viewers to bring at least a bit of their own intelligence into all of it. A Field in England all but requires that.
It's not an easy film to recommend, but there's no denying that Wheatley's A Field in England is a major achievement. The god Martin Scorsese agrees, calling English filmmaker Wheatley's fourth feature "a most original and stunning cinematic experience." And when Marty Scorsese recommends something, kids, we all must listen.
It's encouraging to know that someone of Scorsese's caliber is now aware of Ben Wheatley, too. The most interesting and talented new director emerging from England, Wheatley has earned that distinction the world over. He's an audacious storyteller, a genre-minded cynic whose knack for pitch-black comedy and paralytic horror always complement one another. After turning the crime-family drama subgenre on its bullet-ridden head with his darkly hilarious 2009 debut, Down Terrace, Wheatley went totally humorless for Kill List (2012), a bleak hit man film that eventually veers into brilliant, mind-bending, gut-punching horror reminiscent of The Wicker Man. Last year, he and Jump merged the individual sensibilities of Down Terrace and Kill List into the funny but still shocking road trip misadventure Sightseers, completing the most impressive trifecta of features from a director in a long time.
With A Field in England, Wheatley is an already untamed beast of a filmmaker let completely bug-nuts loose. Shot in black-and-white, it has a slight Ingmar Bergman-esque air about it, as if it's some long lost foreign art-house movie from three or four decades ago. The plot, or whatever can be gleamed of one, takes place during the English Civil War and concerns a group of battlefield defectors who, on their way to find a pub and get shit-faced drunk, get caught up in occultism, hallucinations, and death after walking into a mushroom field. Which leads into the film's best sequence, a 10-minute showstopper during which one of the characters trips major balls after eating some shroom soup.
Seriously, it's out of goddamn control. A Field in England's third-act explosion of psychedelia defies explanation, but here goes nothing: Think the stroboscopic video for Jay Z and Kanye West's "Paris," except, instead of two of the world's biggest rappers and hundreds of screaming concertgoers, your brain gets bombarded by faces dripping with blood, smoke clouds lifting off massive mushrooms, men sinisterly laughing and screaming, indecipherable occult imagery, and replays of scenes you saw early in the film that suddenly feel new and more alive.
You wouldn't be incorrect describing it as the light-show sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey re-imagined by an LSD-powered Alejandro Jodorowsky. It's unlike anything you've ever seen before.
And it also demands to be seen in a theater full of like-minded movie fans, preferably after midnight and with an intoxicant or two in hand. Alas, unless you're at, say, an Alamo Drafthouse theater, that kind of recreational viewing isn't possible nowadays—bummer, dude. Movies like A Field in England aren't supposed to be paired with popcorn and flat diet sodas. They're weirder, more dangerous works of madcap art. They're modern-day love letters to those transgressive '60s and '70s kids who called Greenwich Village's Waverly Theater their second home. Kids whom movie lovers with my kind of wackadoodle tastes will forever be jealous of.
A Field in England opens in limited theaters and is available through Video On-Demand today, via Drafthouse Films.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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