Over the past week or so I’ve managed to catch two films which are similar for a surprising number of reasons.
The first is the way I watched them. Upstream Color was at Edinburgh International Film Festival this year. However, that wasn’t where I caught it. Due to constraints on my time during the busy festival, I decided instead to catch it on Netflix US.
“Netflix US?!” I hear you cry. Aren’t you in the UK? Is that even possible? Well yes, and it’s really quite simple. Via an extension for Chrome called Media Hint, you can access Netflix US and all its glorious content, so long as you are already a Netflix subscriber. (It also allows you to access US only content like The Daily Show).
Anyway, I caught this film on Netflix US, only a few months after its limited cinema release there, as part of self-distributing strategy by its director Shane Carruth.
A Field in England was released in the cinemas about a week ago. But that wasn’t how I caught that either. Instead as part of a “multi-platform distribution strategy” it was shown on Film 4 the same night.
Is this the future of distribution? Well certainly not for blockbusters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something like this more and more frequently for independent films. It gets people talking about films in ways that a more traditional distribution strategy does not. However, it will only become the norm if it can be proven that ‘chatter’ turns into increased profits for independent filmmakers.
Upstream Color comes courtesy of Shane Carruth, whose previous film Primer I was a big admirer of. Primer took an idea like time travel and made it feel fresh, original, low-key and laborious. It was a film about obsession and friendship, with a freeform narrative that I always felt behind, and yet at the same time I always knew just enough to stay with the film.
Upstream Color takes a similar approach to its narrative structure. It shows us parts of the story without ever connecting all the dots. It begins with the kidnapping and drugging of a young woman, leading to her being completely controlled by her captor. While kept in her home, she is at first asked to do a number of menial tasks, followed by getting her to give all of her assets over to her captor. The rest of the movie sees her try and move on from these events which still permeate her life from time to time.
If Primer‘s themes were obsession and friendship, Upstream Color‘s are memory and moving on. How do we recover from events we will never fully comprehend?
Unlike Primer, I found it much more difficult to keep up with what was going on in front of me. Especially as the film moved into its latter stages. There is certainly artistry at work here. The film looks beautiful in a very muted way, and the words are spoken without having any real meaning. The meaning comes from the images put before us on the screen. It is a film that speaks more in poetry than it does prose.
Upstream Color‘s main problem for me is that I never fully ‘got’ what the film was about. At the start of any Shakespeare play there is that moment of panic (for me anyway) as I realize I have no clue what anyone is saying and that it might be this way for the next two/three hours. Thankfully after the first few scenes the words start to come to life and even though you don’t understand every word there is enough context for you to go along with the story and enjoy it.
There are a lot of films that are confusing, or that I do not get straight away (cf. David Lynch or A Field in England). However, it does not take long before that does not matter and we enjoy the ride on which they are taking us. Like in our dreams, we do not need to know every plot point or have endless exposition to be completely entranced by what is happening before us.
However, this was not the case with Upstream Color. I was left burned out by its narrative style and unable to get to grips with its true theme. For me, it felt too much like a magic trick; impressive for the sake of being so, rather than something more transcendent.
A Field in England
A Field in England is a film set during England’s civil war. It sees a bunch of guys taking a break from the brutality of war with the promise of a pint and a good meal in a nearby pub. However, things soon start to get weird when it turns not everyone is exactly who they seem, made all the worse when we realise the mushroom soup they’ve been enjoying may have had hallucinogenic properties.
Perfectly suited to black and white, we quickly get the impression of being transported to another world in A Field in England. A world where magic becomes all too real a possibility. How else would one explain the properties of mind-alerting drugs?
Unlike Upstream Color there is a strange enjoyment in sharing the experience of being drugged. The characters laugh together, get paranoid together and have a camaraderie that is simply enjoyable to be around. Like Lynch, director Ben Wheatley seems to understand that humour and the surreal are never far apart. So even though we never quite know what exactly is going on, its always a joy to be there, lost with these characters.
The field itself always looks beautiful. The wind strikes through its grass, making it look at times like the ocean. We could just as easily be watching sailors lost in the open expanse, suffering from cabin fever. However, because it is ‘just a field’ the whole thing feels as English as a cup of tea on a rainy day.
A Field in England is an experimental, but in a good way. Like a chemistry genius playing around with various powders and potions just to see what happens. It that way it feels a lot less sanitised and calculating than Upstream Color. Like the difference between a trip to Glastonbury and a trip to a museum.