I tried to watch 1917, the new Sam Mendes picture, and gave up about halfway through. It’s about trench warfare in WWI, and if you haven’t heard, its chief claim to fame is that it unrolls in real time – in fact, it gives every appearance of being a single, long tracking shot. This is, of course, an effect, and an extraordinary one, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Lee Smith, and director Sam Mendes. Mendes says the shortest uninterrupted shot they used was 39 seconds, and the longest 8½ minutes. I normally love this kind of technical sleight of hand, but this time around it left me cold.
The famous example of real-time is Hitchcock’s Rope. The dead guy goes into the chest, and the two killers host a cocktail party. Out beyond the windows, night settles on the city. Inside, the noose tightens. Hitch shot the picture in extended takes, from five to ten minutes apiece, ten minutes being the max a camera magazine could hold.
The question is why. Hitchcock later said it was a stunt. But he was always one for showing off. How not? The opening titles of The Lady Vanishes, the snow-covered train tracks, the village, the cars, all clearly a model. The square full of umbrellas in Foreign Correspondent, the windmill turning backwards, the plane crash at sea. (Huge pipes, from an overhead tank, smashing through the rear projection and a windscreen made of spun sugar: in other words, real water.) The astonishing crane shot in Indiscreet, when the camera swoops down from high above all the way down to the key in Bergman’s hand.
is no stranger to heightened effect. The
point being, how does it further the story?
I give you the
This is how real-time can be used to enormously sinister effect. I was a big fan of 24, but let’s admit there were some pretty contrived narrative turns. I also liked Birdman a lot, and it took me a little to catch on, but how did the convention of a single continuous shot contribute?
What narrative purpose does it serve, or is it simply a trick? I’m not convinced by Rope, any more than I am by 1917, to be honest. How does this pull you in any further? I think the technical tricks actually distance you.
a self-consciousness in any narration.
We talk about the advantages or disadvantages of First Person vs. Third,
for example. Jay McInerney used Second, Plural, in Bright Lights,
The question I’m asking, here, is how you create intimacy. An uncomfortable intimacy, perhaps. Which conventions work and which don’t?
I thought Bright Lights was terrifically entertaining, but Second Person a novelty. The way it’s used in Buffalo Soldiers is more intimate, and scary. These tricks are useful. I’ll take any arrow in the quiver, but overuse weakens the conventions. Maybe there’s a picture that’s strengthened by constant forward motion, but 1917 isn’t it.
Not by this pretense.
There’s a difference between invitation and lurking. We all probably have predatory instincts, lions waiting at the water hole. Who, though, is the prey?