Sunday, January 26, 2020

In No Man's Land

George MacKay in 1917 (2019)

Only the dead were always present—present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air.

--The Night Patrol, Arthur Graeme West

The art of film editing is the manipulation of time and space. The eye of the movie camera can travel millions of years and millions of miles in the blink of an eye. Think of that famous cut at the end of the "Dawn of Man" sequence in 2001 for an extravagant example. I do not believe, as the makers of films like Birdman or Russian Ark seem to believe, that editing distances the viewer from the experiential elements of film, so I am suspicious of long-take filmmaking, particularly of feature-film-as-a-single-take filmmaking. I mostly think it's a technical stunt, one designed for film students who are over-awed by the opening shot of Touch of Evil or the action sequences in Children of Men. Of course, both of those films knew when and where to cut. So I find myself surprised that I liked Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019) as much as I did. I was expecting the equivalent of a videogame run-through, and in some respects that's what I got: a sequence of first person shooter set-pieces interspersed with cut scenes to advance the story. That's a glib description even if it's one that I used myself to disparage the film before I had actually seen it. 1917 is a more disciplined film than that, and that discipline is on full display when the filmmakers actually choose to cut, to use the power of the cut to manipulate time, and to hell with the purity of their project. There's purity and there's effectiveness. This film favors effectiveness.

The story here follows two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who have been tasked by the British high command to deliver orders to an advanced brigade to call off a scheduled attack. The attack, they have discovered, will be a massacre set up by a German strategic withdrawal. Sixteen hundred men will be chewed up. If that weren't enough, Blake's brother is a lieutenant with the doomed brigade. Off they trudge through no-man's land, dodging craters filled with water and corpses, and abandoned German trenches, finding peril at every turn. As a plot, this is simple to the point of minimalism. The plot isn't the point. The pending attack isn't the point, either--it's a Maguffin intended to motivate its characters. The act of following these two characters through the battlefield functions more as a ghastly travelogue, in which the horrors of the Great War to End All Wars are laid bare for the audience. The landscape Blake and Schofield travel is littered with bodies, some half submerged in mud, some hanging in coils of barbed wire, some floating in water. This isn't a particularly violent movie, but its depiction of the aftermath of violence is often stomach churning. One particular passage finds the camera moving through a cloud of flies buzzing around the corpse of a horse. In another, Schofield puts his hand through the chest of a corpse as he scrambles to avoid falling into a crater. In still another, Schofield must scramble over a raft of corpses to pull himself out of a raging river. The first half of the film sidesteps the thrills war films sometimes offer by simply avoiding action sequences all together. Instead, it substitutes a nightmarish landscape and an oppressive ambience of dread. It plays like a haunted house on a grand scale, a horror show stitched from the memories laid down by the war poets.

George MacKay in 1917 (2019)

The film ultimately does engage the enemy, but even here it refrains from taking pleasure in the deaths it puts on screen. There's a sniper duel in this film that offers no real catharsis at its conclusion, and the brutality of a close-quarters fight with a German solder who's just eating his dinner is brutal. Even so, the film does tend to code the Germans as shadowy figures half-glimpsed in the firelight, including one shot of a German soldier backlit by a fire that is down right demonic. This is an unfortunate inheritance from a century of films about war. It seems almost propagandist. I find the British need to paint themselves as the good guys fighting against the Hun a hundred years later to be questionable at best. In these scenes, the film tends to stand revealed as a movie, with all of the artifice that suggests. At least it doesn't make its Germans into cartoon Nazis.

George MacKay in 1917 (2019)

When the film is in motion it works startlingly well. It does, unfortunately, break the spell occasionally when it stops to engage in exposition. These scenes are populated by well-known actors (Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch) and they tend to break the spell. They tend to slide the film back into a comparison with videogames. These are cut scenes featuring guest stars dispensing plot and they might have done better to cast less-familiar faces in them. The two central performances by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, by contrast, have a keen authenticity to them. Both of them are convincingly terrified by their mission and utterly worn out from the war. As an aside, my film-going partner suggested that Chapman, after playing Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones and Prince Thomas in The King is angling for a career like Sean Bean's, but that's a spoiler so forget I said anything about it.

Roger Deakins is probably going to be showered with awards for this film given the technical difficulties of producing what's on screen. It's one thing to actually block this kind of stunt so that it actually works as a coherent narrative--kudos to Mendes for managing that--it's quite another to light and compose the shots as masterfully as Deakins does here. The camera doesn't just follow the characters so much as it moves from composition to composition which the characters inhabit, which is ideally how long-takes should work. The shot compositions in this film are usually spot on. The filmmakers also manage the kind of kinetic energy that one usually associates with hand-held photography when chaos erupts in the path of our heroes in the second half of the film. There are also a surprising number of moods encompassed by this film's traveling camera, more than one might expect from long steadicam shots and crane shots. Such shots are often dreamy and elegant, floating through space without a bump (a flaw in the opening one-take shot of Mendes's second James Bond film, as it so happens). This film provides bumps.

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917 (2019)

The film builds a surprising emotional resonance, too. The ordeal through which it drags its characters reveals their inner lives, particularly in the early part of the film when the danger is more theoretical than immanent. It takes care to fit the character parts together, too. When Schofield finds a bucket of milk at the dairy farm behind the German trenches, the film puts that to use later in a way that reveals his inherent decency. The same can be said of their efforts to drag a burning enemy pilot from his plane. The panic of trying to halt the doomed attack as it's happening is all the more desperate for the care the film has taken to illuminate its characters' inner lives. The scene at the end between MacKay and Richard Madden, finally, is a punch to the gut. It's beautifully acted.

My main reservation with this film is that it's going to fail to communicate its central thesis. Movies about World War I are useful in communicating to future generations the absolute calamity and moral abyss that war actually is, because there never was a more pointless or horrifying war fought in all of human history. In my brighter moments, I hope that some seventeen year old kid will see it and choose not to join the military or that some Department of Defense adviser will see it and it will give him pause as his administration beats the drums of some war or another. My fear, though, is that the method of its making will render 1917 into a ride movie, the equivalent of a Disneyland attraction in which the viewer is conducted through a series of tableaux before coming out into the sunshine at the end. I don't know if that's this film. I hope not. But, as this film tells us, "Hope is a dangerous thing."

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