Barbie and Oppenheimer were both playing at the cinema in the Cornish fishing town of Newlyn this week but there was a full house for a much more modest 86-minute film focusing on a lichen-clad granite rock.
A Year in a Field tells the slow but compelling story of director Christopher Morris’s unfolding relationship with the Longstone, a 4,000-year menhir that stands sentinel in a farmer’s field overlooking the sea near his west Cornwall home.
Morris was clearly thrilled to see the sold-out auditorium applauding his film when it was officially shown in the far south-west of Britain for the first time. “It’s the weirdest thing,” he said. “I’ve seen so many films here. When I saw the title of my film written on the chalkboard here and the poster, it was amazing.”
Made with a tiny budget, the film – accompanied by a Q&A with Morris – is now touring the UK. Cinemas in Bristol and Cardiff have moved it to bigger screens, such has been the interest.
And it is being shown in a range of contrasting settings, from the BFI Southbank in London to the Outer Hebrides off the north-west coast of Scotland. It has already played at a festival in Serbia and is heading to Switzerland and the US. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” said Morris.
While the film is simple, Morris called it a “quiet protest” that he hopes will raise questions about the climate crisis and the impact the relatively brief existence of human beings is having on the planet.
The project, appropriately, evolved organically. Morris came upon the stone by chance when he got lost on a coastal walk. “It was mesmeric, something about the field and the way it relates to sea.”
He spent six years taking photos of it as a creative side project while he worked in management at Falmouth University’s school of film and television.
“Then one day I went there and there was a belly feather from a buzzard caught in the lichen. I photographed it and it wasn’t good enough so I filmed it. I did another, then another and it was impossible to stop.” He filmed at sunrise, sunset, in storms. A crop of barley grows around the stone; a rainbow frames it.
Stars of the film – apart from the stone – are the creatures that live in and around it. Slugs and snails turn out to be surprisingly charismatic and there is a laugh-out-loud moment when the film dwells for three minutes on an insect on a leaf with no commentary before Morris admits in his voiceover he has no idea what the insect is.
The serious message behind the film emerged slowly. “The furthest thing from my mind was to make a film about climate change. I wanted to make a film about the stone. In the process of making it as I stood there for hour on hour, it began to shift.”
Wrapping from an Ann Summers piece of clothing blew into the field, prompting Morris to think about environmentally unfriendly materials used in some underwear. Container ships carrying such products around the world chugged by. The warships that accompanied the G7 summit in Cornwall prompted thoughts about the end of the world.
The producer, Denzil Monk, said it was not just a very Cornish film but a “very Penwith” one – Penwith is the UK’s most south-westerly district and the peninsula includes Land’s End.. “It feels like a film that is anchored here,” he said. “Something about what is held in the landscape here, the ancient places here, there’s an echo, a memory of approaching life in a different way.”
The Newlyn Filmhouse screening, in a cinema converted from a 19th-century fish cellar and smokery, was preceded by dancing on the seafront by members of The Wad, a Cornish dance troupe.
One of the dancers, the artist Lally MacBeth, who is also a founder of Stone Club, which celebrates stone circles and is an executive producer for the film, said she loved how rapt the Newlyn audience had been.
“You couldn’t hear anything. There are so many meditative moments and you often hear rustling in films in those sorts of moments. You couldn’t hear anything tonight. It was wonderful.”
Other ‘slow’ films
1. The Quince Tree Sun (1992)
The ultimate “slow” film, simultaneously a documentary and a drama. The Spanish auteur Victor Erice films the artist Antonio López García as he grapples with painting the eponymous item of vegetation: preparing the canvas, measuring his subject, combating the weather, being distracted by discussions of weighty matters by friends. It feels like it unfolds in real time, though it’s actually a bit over two hours.
2. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Recently enshrined as the greatest film of all time in the decennial Sight and Sound critics poll, the “slowness” filmed by the Belgian director Chantal Akerman has a socio-political dimension. In mid-70s Brussels, we follow Dielman through her daily routines of cooking, cleaning and paid sex. Deliberately mundane, to make a feminist point about social control, it ends somewhere thoroughly unexpected.
3. Solaris (1972)
Plenty of auteurs prefer the unhurried shot, the leisurely ambience, the extended gaze – but none perfected it like the Russian master director Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a tossup as to which of Tarkovsky’s output is the “slowest’ but it’s hard to look past this existential sci-fi epic, the absolute antithesis to the phaser-blasting Hollywood model (though to be fair, it stands comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Documenting a journey to an alien planet with mysterious, mind-altering properties, Solaris was bravely remade by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.
4. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
American cinema, outside its experimental factions, tends to swerve “slow” cinema, for understandable reasons. Some mainstream film-makers plough the lonely and difficult path: Kelly Reichardt’s wagon train western Meek’s Cutoff is a fine example. A long way from the rootin’-tootin’ films of yore, this follows the painful progress of a group of settlers attempting to traverse an Oregon desert in the 19th century. Austere and melancholy it certainly is, and brilliant, too.
5. Get Back (2021)
“Slow” is perhaps relative when it comes to Peter Jackson’s amazing reboot of the Beatles’ Let It Be documentary project – which was expanded into an eight-hour streaming show when the original single-film plan proved inadequate to contain all the material. The Beatles don’t physically do much – they sit around in studios for a month, then pop up to the roof for 40 minutes – but as we watch genius at work, every second has something to savour.