1917

1917 ★★★

Part 1: Come and See (Starring Roger Deakins as You)

My school of thought raised me up on a ton of different principles, some a little conflicting, but ultimately gearing toward cinematic cardinal sins and strict rules to abide by. Both had their exceptions, and often those who made those exceptions became legends in their own right. For as much as this "school" had its admitted biases, some opinions were more strongly stated than others. These rules would, in theory, force filmmakers to consider classic cinematic techniques and styles first and foremost. If you are to break tradition, you better have a reason. The Welles' and the Fords worked well within it. Why are you so special?

One big one, which I mentioned in my review of The Turin Horse, is the importance of editing. As a result, long takes were more often discouraged. Editing allows better timing, a unique order-of-sequence, and always the best shot you can get. Long takes might not always be at that peak. Consistent editing should keep your visual technique at its brightest and best point. This rule seems to warn of films like Sam Mendes' 1917... but you might argue the same about The Turin Horse. Or The Hunters. Or Mirror. Slow cinema is the biggest exception to my education, even if it wasn't always in the spirit of those philosophies.

The other idea that I will note is that film had to justify its own medium. Why should your film, or any film for that matter, be a film rather than a novel, a painting, a poem, or anything else? Film is a visual medium, and one that moves more often than not. Make that count for something. The rule is really vague, but if a film can't bring with it that visual aspect to have it enhanced by its own medium, it isn't doing its job very well. Premise be damned, the visuals are your first priority. This idea is one I've more often stuck by, though like I said, there are ehhhhxceptions. It isn't something to stick to 100% just because you feel like you should. I believe in it, so I know when to set it aside.

That being said, Sam Mendes' 1917. Mendes isn't necessarily a prolific director, but he has the experience to be trusted with a film of this caliber. Jarhead had its war, Revolutionary Road its historical setpiece, American Beauty its critical acclaim, and that's not to mention his other forays into violence (Road to Perdition, Skyfall, Spectre.) But still, even for Mendes, this seems pretty well out there. An action-heavy war film consisting of just two lengthy long-takes? Granted, they aren't real long-takes, but the rare edits are subtle and don't remove the effect such a style provides. The one edit that is clear-cut is used like a point of emphasis. The whole process is incredibly precise in concept and in execution. 1917 might not be the first of its kind, but it might be one of the most difficult to take on such a challenge.

So much of this film's acclaim from audiences might be related to "having never seen anything like it." There is an awe to a film like 1917, especially because its individual components have almost never been combined in such a sprawling and expensive fashion before. It is one-of-a-kind in a way. And yet, all I can find are comparisons.

Firstly, I'll start gentle. Long-takes in a war setting often draw parallels to Stanley Kubrick, specifically Paths of Glory. My school of thought was never big on Kubrick, especially his early war work like Dr. Strangelove or... well, Paths of Glory. So instead, let's go to a more recent example of war without edits, that being Joe Wright's Atonement. Coming it at a brisk five minutes, the whole scene gives a wealth of visual information without feeling lacking in better shots that might otherwise have been captured by editing. It rolls by easily because there are no moments where the pacing or the cinematography is thrown off, in which the next edit would be expected to clean things up. Atonement is very good at hiding its own long-take, because its intentions are seemingly less to impress, more to create an effect.

Granted, 1917 does indeed create an effect with its techniques: the film is consistently immersive and in-the-moment, with its lack of edits meaning that situations can't just go away. Mendes is not alone in his apprehension to easy cinematic escape: Andrei Tarkovsky wasn't so fond of edits, constructing scenes and situations with very few, if any. There is also John Cassavetes, who did use editing much more often, but never let a scene of conflict just leave without a second thought. Keeping to the moments you create is pretty admirable, and does allow for a more intimate experience. László Nemes' Son of Saul is similar in its intimacy, though I personally found that film's framing much MORE intimate than 1917's, with its sparser score and the camera acting more like a secondary character always in the shadow of its lead, quivering and terrified. 1917 is smoother, less anxious, more like a guided tour than anything, just with a few guys leading the way.

There is another director who, for a short while, veered off the path of cinematic escape, especially by means of editing: Gus Van Sant. Mr. Van Sant (Mr. Sant? Gus? Is Gus short for Gussel?) had this quick trilogy in the early 00's with death on his mind for all three. The shock of those works can earn their comparisons to the likes of Harmony Korine, but Van Sant was at least capable of not being... that... all the time. He knew the mainstream, and he knew tamer forms of oddballery that made him a bit of money already. That trilogy of films: Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, were his strangest venture, and all were absolutely immersive in their environments, hypnotic in their effects, and insanely divisive, critically and otherwise. People hate Gerry. And people love Gerry! People hate Elephant. And people love Elephant! And some people even watched Last Days! (I remember liking it, actually.) The influences for his deathly brand of slow cinema included the likes of Bela Tarr, as well as real world events that his films would closely resemble. But one of his most unique inspirations for those films came in the form of another medium entirely: video games.




Part 2: 1917 IS A VIDEO GAME AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Okay.

Okay.

Give me a minute.

Alright.

Battlefield 3 is a 2011 first-person shooter released for Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on October 25, 2011. It might just be the only first-person shooter that I have ever owned and played extensively. It was also one of the few video games I was ever good at when playing online. Having to abandon it in the console shift from PlayStation 3 to 4 was my life's greatest tragedy (losing PlayStation Home being a close second), but considering the series' increasingly mixed reception, I didn't play any Battlefield game since. The campaign of that game acted as a kind of cinematic experience, in which you often took control of a soldier following other soldiers into battle, with varying goals and locations and outcomes. You even play as another character for a specific mission in which, regardless of how well you do, the level ends the same way: you getting captured, and eventually executed to be seen by your other playable character in a graphic viral video. Games, in their limitations of what you physically CAN see, as well as what developers WANT you to see, have to find a balance between control and cinematics. If they lean toward the former, the latter won't work as well. If they lean toward the latter, the former is lessened. Battlefield 3's campaign is very compelling in a cinematic sense, but there aren't many decisions you can make, or outcomes you can affect.

1917 resembles a game like Battlefield 3, kind of like how Elephant resembles a game like Tomb Raider in its camerawork. But in a film like Elephant, that effect is furthered by an eventual hypnotic effect, one of inescapability and inevitability. 1917 is inescapable in an editing sense, but its ugliness or disturbance is rare, and its effect is not aided by being a film as opposed to, say, a video game. There were points in which conflicts would arise at the perfect time, only adding to the artificiality of what would otherwise be an immersive and engrossing. At least Battlefield 3 had the courtesy of letting you look around during cutscenes. 1917 doesn't give you such luxury, and it rarely feels like the direction the camera is looking is as mindful or as meaningful as it might have been with more edits in place. The story might be on automatic, but the camera is free to circle the cart aimlessly. Not a lot of variety, and very little justifying its technique. The flares lighting up the night is stunning, but that is only two minutes past the explicit edit. The whole film being like this doesn't fit the story in an especially meaningful way, it doesn't benefit the film on a technical level besides the initial surprise of its ambition (fading away too quickly, unfortunately), and it ultimately holds back creativity in areas that I find more interesting than the creativity seen here in choreographing actors and keeping everything in check. At that point, the whole thing feels like a machine, one that uses war for means of aesthetic rather than philosophical, moral, or personal questions.

1917 lacks the edge and the grace to be justified as a film. And as much as I might see some Tarr, some Wright, some Nemes, and some Van Sant here and there, all of their films are certain of their medium. They use it to their advantage. 1917, on the other hand, didn't need to be a movie. Not in this puffin's tried-and-tested school of thought. It does act more as a victory lap for already accepted members of film canon like Mendes himself (with his Best Picture Oscar), and Roger Deakins (one of the best known cinematographers in the world), with any bit of beauty, humanity, and honesty being either mitigated by arrogance, or happening purely by accident. There might be exceptions to the rules I have set out, of editing as strategy or justification of medium, but those are reserved for masters of their craft. Mendes, technically proficient as he is, isn't that kind of director. And that's a shame.

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